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1846: The Donner-Reed Party

historical photo

James Frazier Reed and Margaret Keyes Reed. They were fortunate in that their family survived the journey to California. They became community leaders in San Jose, California.

In short: 

In 1846 a group of people had a dream of starting a new life in California—so they headed west in wagons. Along the way, they decided to take a shortcut across the Great Salt Lake Desert. That “shortcut” was a terrible idea! It slowed them way down, so that when they got to the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, they got stuck in snow storms. They had to spend the whole winter in the mountains, and many starved or froze to death.

More of the story:

Emigrating west was not so easy!

The path west, to Oregon or California, was a very dangerous trip.  In fact, nearly one in ten emigrants on the trail died, and some people call the Oregon Trail the nation’s longest graveyard. 

If a group ran into trouble, more often than not they wouldn’t have anyone around to help them. The closest settlement might be hundreds of miles away.

Without a doubt, the most famous disaster of the pioneer era happened to the Donner-Reed party. This group tried to travel from Illinois to California in the spring and summer of 1846.

Lansford Hastings and his “great idea.”

Though they didn’t know it, their troubles began with a young lawyer from Ohio named Lansford Hastings.  Hastings had traveled the Oregon Trail, but he didn’t know much about the trails. He thought he could find a faster way to California.

At that time, the California Trail avoided Utah entirely. It sent pioneers through Wyoming, across the southern corner of Idaho, and then down through Nevada into California. 


The general route of the Hastings Cutoff, which left the main California Trail at Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Keep in mind that there were many variations on the California Trail.

Hastings devised a “cutoff” trail that came down through Utah, crossed the Wasatch Mountains, sent pioneers across the Great Salt Lake Desert, and then skirted around the Ruby Mountains in Nevada before joining up with the California Trail near Elko, Nevada. 

What was Hasting’s motive?

Some people think that Hastings wanted to become president of the Republic of California. By finding a “better” route to the territory and helping hundreds of emigrants travel it, he would guarantee himself lots of support when that time came. 

But whatever his motivation in offering to guide emigrants along the Hastings Cutoff, he underestimated very deeply the abilities of a wagon party along an unimproved route, and the often brutal weather and land conditions of the West.

Hastings wrote a book called The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California. He promised his cutoff would make the journey to the paradise of California (as he described it) easier and faster. 

It is a shorter and faster way…if you’re lucky.  Hastings had made the trip with a wagon party, and they made it safely to California, though the journey was very hard. 

Hastings promised to help guide the Donner-Reed party, but because he was guiding other parties at the same time, he just left a letter on a tree then later met with James Reed to describe the route.   

historical photo of 1936

After 90 years, the wagon tracks of the Donner Party were still visible on the Salt Flats.

The Donner-Reed party and their not-so-shortcut.

At its largest, the Donner-Reed party had 87 people and  23 wagons. The group did pretty well, time-wise, until they reached the Hastings cut-off. From there they lost valuable days and energy cutting a trail through the Wasatch Mountains and into the Great Salt Lake desert. 

historical photo of 1936

For many years, people found artifacts the Donner Party left behind on the Salt Flats, including this wagon bed.

Exhausted, they started out on the 80-mile trek across the Salt Flats. It was hot. It was dry. It was sticky. Many of the wagons became stuck in the salt-crusted mud and had to be left behind.  Many oxen pulling the wagons died, and so did many cows. 

Disaster in the Sierra Nevada.

When they finally made it out of Utah and through Nevada, weeks behind schedule, the group began to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. Near a high pass (now called Donner Pass), it started to storm hard. Trapped by deep snow, the emigrants couldn’t move forward.

The party divided into two camps, one at Donner Lake and one in Alder Creek Valley.
As the weeks passed, the food began to run out, even though they had killed the rest of their animals. 

Finally, 15 of the emigrants made snowshoes and started over the mountains to bring back help—a “Forlorn Hope” group. Buffeted by blizzards, only seven made it to California.  Along the way, desperate for food, these seven ate those who had died of exposure.

Rescue—and more tragedy.

Back at the camps, things weren’t going much better. Thanks to the Forlorn Hope group, and George Edy in particular, Californians mounted rescue efforts to save the Donner-Reed Party. The first relief group took 21 emigrants to California with them.  The second relief group, led by James Reed, took 14.  In the time between the First and Second Relief, the remaining emigrants had begun to eat the dead. 

The Third Relief rescued the rest of the children, but had to leave five people behind. 

By the time the Fourth Relief arrived, there was only one man left.  He had survived by eating the bodies of the four others, who had died.

In total, of the 87 who joined the party at various times, 48 survived and made it to California. 

What happened to the Hastings Cutoff?

After this tragedy, wagons heading to California did not use the Hastings Cutoff. But the Mormon settlers did follow the Donner route down Emigration Canyon when they came into the Salt Lake Valley just a year later.

Learn more. See the real stuff.

The Donner-Reed Museum in Grantsville, Utah, which is near where the party camped before crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert, has many artifacts that the Donner-Reed party left behind on the glaring white Salt Flats.