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[Detail] Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, ca. 1890's

Historical Research Capability: The Donner Party

The Donner Party was a company of 87 emigrants who experienced what was arguably the worst disaster in the history of wagon train migration. Led by George Donner, the party followed the advice of Lansford Hastings in The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California by taking a short cut through the Great Salt Lake Basin. But the wagons sank into the soft, salty dirt of the trail, slowing them down considerably. Due to the delay, the party found themselves high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the middle of winter. Only 47 of the original emigrants survived.

Search on Donner Party for access to Hastings's The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California and for images of the Donner Summit and Donner Pass. Use the Author Index or Title Index to access What I Saw in California for Edwin Bryant's account of the tragedy. Read Chapter 20, in which Bryant relates the story of the Donner Party and the relief missions that rescued the survivors. The chapter begins on page 249 and also includes a lengthy excerpt from a journal kept by a member of the party beginning on page 256. (The content of this chapter may not be appropriate for all readers.)

  • What factors contributed to the tragedy of the Donner Party?
  • What does the story of the Donner Party suggest about how emigrants made their way west? To what extent did they rely on guidebooks? Upon what else did they rely for information and direction?
  • What does the story of the Donner Party reveal about the challenges and dangers of westward migration in the mid-19th century?