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