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The Wagon Train

Even the wind held its breath as the suggestion was made that were one to die, the rest might live.

Eliza Donner


One of the great modern mass migrations begins. Thousands of men, women and children, head towards a new life 3000kms away. Germans, Belgians, French, Mormons and Presbyterians, all follow the route west to Oregon and California.

Some walk 16km a day for up to six months going through ten pairs of boots on the journey. Half are children, one in five of the women are pregnant. It takes on average five years to save to join the exodus, often involving the selling of farms. Native Americans charge $10 road tolls, and $100 for river crossings. Wagon and oxen cost a minimum of $5000 (£125,000 in today’s money). These ‘life-support machines’ carry 500 kilos of supplies. Drinking water is captured on the wagon canvas. Even the oxen’s dung is fuel for fires.

20,000 Americans will die reaching the west - 10 graves for every 1.5kms


June 1846 - A wagon train heads west lead by George Donner. Half way across, his wife Tasmin, comments,

“I could never have believed that we could have travelled so far with so little difficulty, indeed if we do not experience anything worse, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started.”

But ahead lie the mountains of Sierra Nevada, with peaks reaching 4000ms. In winter, they’re impassable. As George approaches Utah, he leads a splinter group off. He’s read one of the new guidebooks, showing shortcuts, and hopes to save two weeks. It adds 160kms to their journey. Despite the terrain, and the incoming winter weather, they push on. Just 50kms away from the safety of the Californian plains, with supplies running low, a broken axel forces the families to stop and make repairs. In that one night, one and a half meters of snow falls- the drifts are soon 20m deep. The Donner party will be stranded for the next five months. In three weeks, they’ve eaten all their food. They kill and eat their pack animals. They chew on bark, even dirt. That Christmas, they eat their first human. The flesh is labelled so they don’t eat their own relatives.

Four rescue parties bring out survivors. The last finds Philippine Ludwig’s husband alone. He’s surrounded by bones, entrails and a two gallon barrel of human blood. George Donner body is found – his skull split open and brain removed.Tasmin’s body is never recovered.

The fatal pass is renamed the Donner Pass.

Did you know?

Some survivors were so far gone that when relief did arrive, they didn't follow them out. They had quite literally lost the will to live., And so very close to where the Donner Party died, below the Sierra Nevada, lay the largest seam of gold the world had, up to that point, ever seen., The present day Lincoln Highway goes through Donner Pass.