There were 2,700 pioneer emigrants on the trail rolling west during the summer of 1846, with about 1,500 of them intent on reaching California. A substantial percentage of these argonauts kept diaries, wrote letters and a few published books about their experiences on the trail. One wagon company among the long caravan that year was named the Donner Party, after its elected captain George Donner. The tragedy that ensued on this group’s late attempt to cross Donner Pass in early November 1846 is an iconic drama in California’s storied history.
The migration in 1846 was a sharp reversal from the year before when a similar number traveled overland to the Pacific Coast, but only 260 took the California Trail over Donner Pass in 1845. The majority followed the Oregon Trail to start farms and sawmills in the Pacific Northwest.
Fort Bridger, Wyo., was filled with apprehensive young families and large herds of restless cattle. Jim Bridger’s trading post was a vital stop for wagons and an important place to get news and advice on the route ahead. Mountain man Joseph Walker spent part of the summer of 1846 at Fort Bridger, looking for work opportunities and giving experienced advice to the seemingly endless line of rookie pioneers heading west.
There were several reasons for the big increase in California-bound traffic in 1846. President James Polk had campaigned on westward expansion and the American concept of Manifest Destiny in 1844 and it became a rallying cry among frontier communities. Politicians and clergy encouraged migration to California. In 1845, an Ohio attorney turned California land promoter named Lansford Hastings published a popular guidebook for settlers heading west. In it he wrote about the advantages of California and mentioned a shortcut leading from Fort Bridger over the Wasatch Mountains and across the vast Utah desert south of the Great Salt Lake.
Walker did his best to steer people away from unnecessary risks on the trail. He was joined by his friend frontiersman James Clyman at Fort Bridger. Clyman was traveling east from the Sacramento Valley and along the way he also cautioned westbound emigrants about Hastings’ Cutoff. Most took the mountain men’s advice except for a few wagon trains, including the one captained by 60-year-old George Donner from Springfield, Ill. Clyman and Walker specifically warned Donner and his co-captain James Reed about the perils of the shortcut, but the two men felt compelled to take Hastings’ route to save time and distance. Several women in the party were against the decision, including George’s wife, Tamzene, but they dutifully demurred to their husbands.
Edwin Bryant, a newspaper editor from Kentucky, was on the trail that year. He later wrote the book “What I Saw in California.” Bryant befriended Tamzene Donner along the way. Both were well-educated and intent on publishing books about their journey to California. Bryant spoke with Walker at Bridger’s fort. The Donner wagons were still a few days behind. In his diary, Bryant noted that Walker advised against Hastings’ shortcut: “Captain Walker spoke discouragingly of the new route via the south end of the Salt Lake.”
Bryant had been considering going with Hastings who was guiding wagons, but instead took the mountain men at their word and decided to stick to the established route. That afternoon a cold rainstorm blew through leaving fresh snow on nearby summits. It was July. Bryant wrote, “The mountains are covered as deeply with snow as if it were the middle of winter.”
The shocking summer snowfall alarmed Bryant and caused him to change his mind again and follow Hastings. Bryant wisely sold his wagon and team of oxen and replaced them with pack animals purchased from Jim Bridger.
Bryant realized that the Donner families and others in wagons would find the route impassable. He wrote letters telling them to avoid Hastings Cutoff. In his diary he scribbled: “Although such was my new determination [to take the short cut], I wrote several letters to my friends among the emigrant parties in the rear, advising them not to take this route, but to keep to the old trail, via Fort Hall. Our situation was different than theirs. We were mounted on mules, had no families, and could afford to hazard experiment and make explorations. They could not.”
Bryant gave the packet of letters to Bridger to pass them along. Bridger promised to distribute them as the late wagons arrived, including the Donners.
Bridger never delivered the cautionary messages. In general, he was a relatively honest man but he was worried about another alternate route siphoning off traffic. The Sublette-Greenwood Cutoff first opened in 1844 and although it required crossing 50 miles of desert country, it lopped off seven days of travel time and bypassed Fort Bridger completely on the way to Fort Hall, the last trading post on the trail. Concerned that too many emigrants might circumvent his operation and put him out of business, Bridger supported Lansford Hastings and his effort to establish the new route that started at Bridger’s Fort. To encourage traffic via Hastings Cutoff, Bridger did not pass along Bryant’s letters, but instead lied to George Donner telling him that the road ahead was level with plenty of water and grass. He added that their friend, Edwin Bryant, had gone that way. By ignoring seasoned advice from men such as Clyman and Walker, and ignorant of Bryant’s explicit warnings due to Bridger’s treachery, George Donner and James Reed made a crucial decision that ultimately led to the tragic deaths of nearly half the party.
The life of a 19th-Century mountain man was exciting, but violent and usually brief. One fur-trading outfit employed about 180 men over the course of six years. Of those hired, 94 were killed by Indians. That doesn’t include the men who died from grizzly bear attacks, blizzards, hypothermia or drowning. Testament to Walker’s survival skills, the formidable mountain man lived to be nearly 78 years old.
After Walker’s death near Mount Diablo in October 1876, historian Hubert H. Bancroft wrote: “Capt. Joe Walker was one of the bravest and most skillful of the mountain men; none was better acquainted than he with the geography or native tribes of the great basin; and he was withal less boastful and pretentious than most of his class.”