It was in the Spring of 1846, in the town of Springfield, Illinois, when George Donner placed a notice in the town’s Gazette, appealing for able bodied persons to join his wagon train for the 2000 mile journey to California, promising as much land as they wanted at no cost. Donner’s group left Springfield in mid-April, and by late July, had reached what is now Wyoming, where they camped alongside several other western bound wagon parties. It was here where emigrants were told about a shortcut to their destination, named the “Hastings Cutoff”. Electing Donner as it’s captain, a group numbering 87 people equipped with 23 wagons, broke away from the main body of overland travelers, and set out for California, intent on using the untried route.
The decision to use the “Hastings Cutoff” would set off the chain of misfortune that we now associate with the Donner Party. They would fall weeks behind schedule, and were already running short of food when they reached the Sierra Nevada in late October, where they faced the beginnings of what became the worst winter in the region’s history. Freezing temperatures, starvation, death and even cannibalism would forever be the group’s legacy. But amidst the five months of despair, there were also elements of hope, courage, and survival…46 people would live through the ordeal, and the story of the Donner Party did nothing to discourage a westward movement, which, actually, was only just beginning.