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Donner Memorial State Park. A lesson in American history. A brutal Nevada winter for Margaret Reed among others.

Updated on November 13, 2012

Donner Lake

Truckee River


Donner Historic Landmark

Schallenberger Cabin Site

In the spring of 1846 George Donner, a farmer in Springfield Illinois, headed west with his third wife and five daughters. His older brother Jacob, Jacobs’s wife and seven children went with him, as did his neighbors, James and Margaret Reed, their four children, and Margaret’s mother. Patrick Breen, his wife and their five daughters, also in Springfield headed west with the group, as did Franklin Graves and his family. From Tennessee, Levinah Murphy, a widow with five teenage children, two married daughters, and their families added thirteen in all to this party of California dreamers. William Eddy, a carriage maker, would never have left Springfield had he been able to predict that he would lose both his children and his wife in the Sierra Nevada.

Also there were hired hands, mostly single men, and a substantial number of German emigrants that I am not listing here as many did not speak English and therefore records of their families unfortunately never were recorded.

The Donner Reed party, now minus James Reed, arrived via the Truckee River, in what is now Reno Nevada, on October sixteenth of 1846.

It seems James Reed had lost his temper with a member of the hired help and had murdered him. Rather than hanging Reed for the murder he was banished from the group never to be seen again. His wife, Margaret, and family did however remain with the Donner party. Margaret had now lost not only her husband but her mother as well; tuberculosis claimed her life shortly after leaving Springfield.

Even today the Sierra Nevada can be unforgiving for the poorly prepared. I have spent a lot of time hiking and taking pictures in this area. Continuing westward along the Truckee River into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the party was split up at several points prior to reaching Lake Truckee, currently Donner Lake.

The only documented history of the Donner party from November the twentieth, 1846 through March the first, 1847 is the diary of Patrick Breen. Although there are many tales about cannibalism and the Donner party, the only written reference comes from Patrick’s diary entry on Friday the sixteenth of February, 1847,

“Frid 26th froze hard last night to day clear & warm Wind S:E blowing briskly Marthas jaw swelled with the toothache: hungry times in camp, plenty hides but the folks will not eat them with a tolerable good apetite. Thanks be to Almighty God. Amen Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would Commence on Milt. & eat him. I don’t that she has done so yet, it is distressing. The Donnos told the California folks that they commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know the spot or near it, I suppose they have done so ere this time”

Donner Memorial State Park represents the forty two fatalities and forty eight survivors of the Donner party as well as all the emigrants that ever traversed the Sierra Nevada seeking a better life. This park ranks high among the most beautiful and scenic places in America. I give it my highest recommendation as a destination point.

Inside the Emigrant Museum


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    • David Warren profile image

      David Warren 6 years ago from Nevada

      Thank you! Took a long time for me to pull up stakes and move west but I've never looked back. My family moved this way when I enlisted in the army. I didn't follow until ten years ago, gave up a state job in Western New York to do it. No regrets, I love the Sierra Nevada. As I type this I can see the snow out my window to the west, covering the Sierra Nevada range. Glad to hear you have seen Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of my all time favorites.

    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 6 years ago from New Jersey

      I have never been to the Park, but it is a sad story. I have been on two cross country drives from NJ, one northern route to South Dakota and Yellowstone, the second to Estes Park, Mesa Verde, and finally to see friends in NM near Los Alamos. I saw several double rainbows that were breathtaking. I did spend some time with relatives in San Francisco and got to see it and Lake Tahoe, but time was limited, and we drove up the CA coast to visit a friend who lived in OR near Crater Lake. I'm glad it was long ago, I don't think I'd have the energy now! Everything out west is so big and beautiful, I really love it!

    • David Warren profile image

      David Warren 6 years ago from Nevada

      Thank you! Yes, it is a beautiful area. I-80 over Donner and Three Sisters in Utah were interesting in the winter, that's for sure. I hauled steel coils for a few years for Builder's Transport then again over the road for C.R. England. MANY years ago, seems like a lifetime ago now. Was a task on my neck but took those pictures at Donner yesterday, was worth it. I don't get out much.Thanks again!

    • profile image

      Ghost32 6 years ago

      I've always (for whatever reason) loved Donner Pass and often stopped at the westbound rest area on I-80 when hauling truckloads of freight through there. Fortunately, I never happened to hit that spot during a howling blizzard but usually got to enjoy bright daytime sunshine.

      Never did hike the park, though.

      Up and awesome.

    • David Warren profile image

      David Warren 6 years ago from Nevada

      Thank you for commenting! Tough times indeed, beautiful country nevertheless.

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 6 years ago from Canada

      Such a sad end for their hopes and dreams - amazing country, though.