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Living History: When the Donner party enters Utah, the wheels begin to come off

Published June 1, 2008 12:48 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Mormon pioneer company that entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 wasn't the first party of dusty, wagon-bound immigrants to stumble out of Emigration Canyon. For that matter, they weren't even the first Mormons.

On the north side of 1300 South, around 2000 East, is a granite marker. Set back in a leafy alcove off the sidewalk, it is easy to miss. If you hit the Top Stop, you've gone too far, but not by much.

The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers trail monument notes that the first Mormon pioneer company passed that way, as did Brigham Young's party two days later.

But it also gives credit where due: "The Donner Party Established This Route in 1846."

It's probably an oversight the words "ill-fated" don't appear before "Donner Party." It's an expression that delicately deflects attention from, but at the same time calls attention to, cannibalism in the Old West.

What makes the Donner tragedy so poignant is they came that close to making it. They'd hacked their way through the Wasatch, slogged across the salt flats, crossed the Nevada desert, strained up the steep eastern Sierra Nevada, reaching the pass that would put them on the easy path into sunny California.

Then came the snowflakes. First tiny, then bigger than silver dollars.

Their window of good weather had slammed shut.

It's one of those "what-if" moments in history that so tantalizes because a few, small decisions along the way might have made all the difference.

What if the party left its starting point in Independence, Mo., a little earlier? Hurried a little more? Made a couple more miles a day? What if . . .?

What is indisputable is that the day they entered the borders of modern-day Utah that summer, the wheels came off.

In a decision that seemed reasonable at the time, the Donner party made the mistake of listening to a real estate promoter selling dreams. Lansford Hastings was a get-rich-quick huckster whose spiritual offspring still populate the Wasatch. (He later promoted a scheme to conquer Arizona and bring California into the Confederacy during the Civil War.)

His exuberant description of a shorter (by 300 to 400 miles) and easier way to California turned the Donner oxen south of the Great Salt Lake rather than to the established route that snaked around its northern shores.

It was too good to be true.

The Donner party already had lost three weeks hacking their way through forests of the Wasatch and found itself on the brink of Parleys Canyon (then called Reed's Canyon) - a long, treacherous slog. Just in time, some outriders came back and recommended Emigration Canyon, slightly less treacherous. The men and boys hacked the way down.

At the mouth, sick to death of swinging axes through choked creek bottoms, they threw down their axes and took out ropes and chains. They would pull the wagons out.

It was 162 years ago the women of the Donner party arrived with the wagons. They looked up and felt like weeping.

Today, just to the south of This Is the Place Monument is Donner Trail Park, right above the zoo. It's a manicured green space with jungle gyms and swings rising toward the mountains. But between the park and the mountains is a scrum of apartments and condominiums visible from almost anywhere in the valley.

Armed with a 50-year-old photo and my dog, I set out to find the escarpment where the Donners hauled their wagons.

This column is a cliffhanger (an unfortunate pun), but to learn more of the Donner party's transit of Utah you'll have to wait for my next column. I've dropped hints that a) There are Mormons in the Donner Party, b) wheels come off wagons, and, c) the dog and I find something interesting.

I promise satisfaction.


* PAT BAGLEY is The Salt Lake Tribune political cartoonist and co-author with his brother, Will Bagley, of This is the Place: A Crossroads of Utah's Past.




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