The problems for settlers travelling West

The journey westward was highly dangerous for the early pioneers - conditions were harsh, and the distance was great. The story of the Donner Party highlights the plight and severeness of such a journey.

The Donner Party

About 80 people, led by George Donner, set out from Missouri on a wagon train in May 1846, following the famous trailblazer Lansford W Hastings.

The party left Fort Bridger, at the foot of the Rockies, on 31 July, which was late in the season.

The Donner TrailThe Donner Trail

They made the tragic decision to take the Hastings Cut-off - a shortcut which they were told would save them 400 miles.

The route was too hard. They had to abandon all their cattle while crossing the Salt Lake Desert. They were attacked by Paiute warriors. Fights broke out - in one, a man was killed.

On 30 October the party reached the last mountain pass before California, where they were stopped by snow - after a journey of 2,500 miles.

They were just 150 miles from Sutter's Fort, now Sacramento, in California.

For four months the party ate first their cattle, then bark and twigs. Finally some turned to cannibalism - eating parts of people who had already died. Many died of starvation.

Rescue groups from Fort Sutter managed to rescue the others - the last one only in April 1847. Of 87 who set out, 46 survived, and 41 died.

Wagon trains

  • Weather was always a danger for the wagon trains. Sandstorms were common crossing the plains. Also thunder storms, flooding or droughts could put a party in danger.
  • Wagon trains could also be hit by disease. Cholera or typhus could strike and affected families would be left behind so as to not to spread the disease.
  • The Native Americans resented wagon trains crossing their sacred lands or hunting grounds. This could result in fatal confrontations. At night wagon trains would camp in a circle as a defensive measure against night time attacks.