Until 1845, pioneers going west followed the California/Oregon Trail through Wyoming and Idaho.
In that year, however, Lansford W. Hastings published the Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California, which proposed a new (but untried) cutoff on the California Trail that eliminated hundreds of miles and days of travel.
The cutoff turned southwest from Fort Bridger, Wyoming, and entered Utah and the northeastern corner of Summit County through Echo Canyon. It followed the Weber River to Salt Lake Valley, then around the south shore of the Great Salt Lake, and west into Nevada.
Three parties made the trip in July 1846, although not without much difficulty and some loss of life. The fourth group to make the attempt was the Donner Party.
The original party consisted of the families and hired hands of George Donner and James Reed from Springield, Illinois – about 33 people in nine covered wagons. They set out for California in mid-April 1846 and in May joined a large wagon train captained by William H. Russell. In this train was Thomas Rhoades with his family, 12 wagons and people in all, on a mission to scout the territory west of the Rocky Mountains.
For the next two months this bigger group followed the California/Oregon Trail until they reached the Little Sandy River, in what is now Wyoming. It was here that the Donner Party decided to leave the rest of the wagon train and take off on the Hastings Cutoff. Others joined them from the Russell train, so that the party now numbered 87 people in 23 wagons. They left Fort Bridger on July 31st 1846 and found a note from Hastings near present-day Henefer describing a route from Henefer through Emigration Canyon. Blazing a road following this route through the Wasatch Mountains cost them many days and they almost died of thirst crossing the Salt Lake Desert. One member of the party, Edwin Bryant, wrote “I am beginning to feel alarmed at the tardiness of our movements, and fearful that winter will find us in the snowy mountains of California”.
When they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains they were caught in a heavy snowstorm crossing what is now known as Donner Pass, and in early November became snowbound near Donner Lake.
On December 16th, seventeen members of the party went in search of help, hoping it would take them ten days on their improvised snowshoes to find and bring back help. After wandering for thirty-three days, some of this “Forlorn Hope” eventually reached a ranch owned by William Johnson and raised the alarm.
Meanwhile, the Rhoades family had overshot the Salt lake Valley and continued on to California. Thomas bought land in the Sacramento Valley and went to work for John Augustus Sutter.
Thomas’s son Daniel wrote:
“In the month of January 1847…news came to the fort that a party of emigrants were in the mountains “snowed in” and destitute of food.
Twenty-four of the emigrants…started without any food, in the desperate hope either of reaching the settlements (a hundred miles distant) or of encountering some relief party. Of course, many soon commenced dying from exhaustion and starvation and the survivors were compelled to subsist upon the bodies of those who perished.
“Captain Sutter made a call for volunteers to proceed to the assistance of the emigrants. A party of fourteen of which I was one was made up and at once started for Johnson’s Ranch. Provisions were then packed on mules and we started on our journey…trusting to the judgement of our leaders [including] John P. Rhoads (my brother).
“We went on making from four to six miles per day leaving a very sinuous trail by reason of the impossibility of pursuing a straight course through the dense forest and of our having to wind around the sides of hills and mountains instead of going over them. The snow increased as we proceeded until it amounted to a depth of eighteen feet as was afterward discovered by the stumps of the pine trees we burned.
“We traveled in Indian file. At each step taken by the man in front he would sink in the snow to his knees and of course had to lift his foot correspondingly high for his next step. Each succeeding man would follow in the tracks of the leader. The latter soon became tired, fell to the rear, and the second man took the head of the file…and so on each one in his turn.
“At sunset of the 16th day we crossed the Truckee Lake on the ice and came to the spot where we had been told we should find the emigrants. We looked all around but no living thing except ourselves was in sight and we thought that all must have perished. We raised a loud halloo and then we saw a woman emerge from a hole in the snow. As we approached her several others made their appearance in like manner, coming out of the snow. They were gaunt with famine and I never can forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice very much agitated and said: “are you men from California or do you come from heaven?”
John Rhoades had promised Harriet Pike, one of the members of the Forlorn Hope, that he would rescue her two children. He succeeded with one child – Naomi – who he carried on his shoulders the entire way back to safety through deep snow.
Only forty-seven of the original eighty-seven members of the Donner-Reed Party reached their destination.
Later that year – in July 1847 – Brigham Young led a vanguard company from Winter Quarters to the future site of Salt Lake City following in part the trail blazed by the Donner-Reed Party. It became the main trail for future immigration to Utah.