By Tom Emery
ILLINOIS — The tragic story of the Donner Party is one of the darkest tales of western American history. Few remember that the star-crossed journey originated in Springfield.
The Donner expedition took off from what is today the south side of Old Capitol Plaza in downtown Springfield on April 14, 1846. Months later, many of the travelers would perish from hunger, while others famously resorted to cannibalism for survival.
Though many in the Donner Party met a horrific end, the outset was much more optimistic. They were among tens of thousands of Americans who plunged into the frontier, seeking a better life.
Historians cite several reasons for the westward migration in Illinois and elsewhere. Writer John Faragher uses the “wanderlustful” Donner brothers as an example, as well as “the roving spirit” of Americans.
It was an apt description of the Donners, who were natives of North Carolina. Sixty-year-old George Donner, who owned a farm near Mechanicsburg, had gradually made his way to Illinois after stints in Kentucky, Indiana, and Texas.
He took along his wife, Tamsen, and their three daughters, as well as his two daughters from a previous marriage. George’s brother, Jacob, who was four years younger, also had his wife and five children in the party.
Another was 45-year-old James Reed, an Irish native who had served with Abraham Lincoln in the Black Hawk War. Among Reed’s possessions on the trek were muster rolls of the war with Lincoln’s handwriting. He had amassed a fair amount of wealth as a merchant and owner of a sawmill and a cabinet factory in Sangamon County.
Reed and his wife took their four children as well as her 70-year-old mother, Sarah, who was suffering from consumption. On the day of the departure, Sarah had to be carried to the wagon and set on a large feather bed. Her sons begged her to stay, but she apparently could not bear a separation from her only daughter. Sarah died along the trail in Kansas on May 28.
An estimated 31 to 39 people in nine wagons were in the party from Springfield, and recent historians have argued that Lincoln himself wanted to join, only to be rebuffed by his wife, Mary Todd. This assertion, however, is debatable. Lincoln’s second son, Eddie, was a sickly child born just five weeks before the departure of the Donners. In addition, Lincoln was slated to take a seat in Congress the following year.
Nonetheless, Mary Todd was one of many well-wishers who gathered near the capitol to give the party a sendoff. Reed’s daughter, Virginia, wrote in 1891 that the family “was surrounded by loved ones, and there stood all my little schoolmates who had come to kiss me goodbye. My father with tears in his eyes tried to smile as one friend after another grasped his hand in a last farewell. At last the drivers cracked their whips, the oxen moved slowly forward, and the long journey had begun.”
The Donner Party headed for Independence, Mo. to join others on the westward journey, and eventually, some eighty-nine travelers made up the wagon train. Though the trek was delayed by weather along the way, Tamsen Donner wrote a friend in Springfield that “indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started.” Virginia Reed, who was thirteen at the time, remembered herself as “perfectly happy” early in the trip.
Of course, the Donner Party met a celebrated, and gruesome, end amid the snowdrifts in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that winter. Many have charged that George and Jacob Donner made a critical error in following a trail guide penned by Lansford Hastings, which led them to ignore the more-established California Trail and took them into more treacherous territory.
Only forty-five of the travelers survived the trek to California. Among the deaths were both George and Jacob Donner, as well as their wives. Some of those who made it became leading citizens of California.