After so many books, articles, movies and documentaries about the Donner Party, it seems safe to say that many, if not most, of the people who inhabit or visit the Tahoe Sierra are probably familiar with the gist of the story. A wagon train of California-bound emigrants was trapped east of Truckee’s Pass (now Donner Pass) during the winter of 1846-47, and many in the party died while some resorted to cannibalism to survive.
In the annals of epic Western migrations during the 1840s, the 1846 Donner Party event has remained relevant and a topic of conversation for nearly 175 years. Historians have also frequently focused on the 1844 Stephens-Townsend-Murphy wagon train that met Chief Truckee who showed them the way across the Forty Mile Desert to the Truckee River, the missing link that finally opened the California Trail.
William Ide’s encouraging descriptions about the feasibility of the trail and lure of fertile land and mild climate on the Pacific Coast convinced many that the five-month journey was worth it.
But even for those familiar with the Stephens and Donner groups’ accomplishments, questions about the actors and actions of the pioneers who used that new California Trail in 1845 often draw blank stares. That’s too bad because it was members of that year’s substantial migration that not only re-confirmed and proved the practicality of the Stephens route over Donner Pass, but it was in 1845 that an important alternative trail was blazed north of the Truckee River through Dog Valley that avoided the difficult, boulder-strewn Truckee River Canyon.
About 100 wagons “jumped off” from Independence, Mo., in the spring of 1845, headed for Oregon Country. Nearly one third of them were from Springfield, Ill., hometown of George and Jacob Donner, as well as James F. Reed, key leaders of the Donner Party. The man in charge of the Springfield wagons in 1845 was 49-year-old William Brown Ide, a well-respected farmer, schoolteacher and preacher at the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ Meeting House.
Ide and his family, along with other residents of Springfield, intended to reach the Oregon Country, but then they met Caleb Greenwood on the trail in present-day Idaho. The beaver trapping era was long over, so now mountain man Greenwood was working as a recruiting agent for Captain John A. Sutter, a self-styled monarch in California’s Sacramento Valley.
A Swiss émigré, Sutter owned an adobe fort and vast tracts of land in the valley and wanted emigrants to come and build the region’s economic and political strength. After listening to Greenwood’s stretched-truth stories about the benefits of California, Ide and most of the other Springfield emigrants changed their mind and hired Greenwood and his three mixed race sons to lead them to Sutter’s Fort.
Among the members of that 1845 wagon train was Robert Caden Keyes, James Reed’s 26-year-old brother-in-law. Another was William Levi Todd, nephew of attorney Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd. Reed, the Donner brothers, and other Springfield residents that were considering a move to the Pacific Coast were looking forward to receiving letters confirming first-hand that the risk was worth it. The expensive journey was long, arduous and fraught with peril for their young families. Northern California was part of Mexico, primitive, sparsely populated with no infrastructure, and 2,000 difficult miles from home.
In October 1845, James Reed received a letter from Keyes that disparaged the land in California and its residents, and announced that Keyes was heading for Oregon, his original destination. Despite the note’s discouraging tone, Reed heard other news that would lure him west, away from his impending bankruptcy and to a climate that might soothe his wife Margaret’s debilitating migraine headaches.
Ide sent letters to Springfield’s newspaper, the Sangamon Journal, where they were published for all to read. Ide’s encouraging descriptions about the feasibility of the trail and lure of fertile land and mild climate on the Pacific Coast convinced many that the five-month journey was worth it. He also advised about the type and amount of various supplies that emigrants should outfit their wagons with.
Ide spent much of his adult life moving west in small jumps. Born 1796 in Rutland, Mass., by age 23 he was a skilled carpenter and land surveyor. The following year he married Susan G. Haskell and they soon had six children. The Ide’s moved to Kentucky, then Ohio and finally Springfield, Ill., where he bought a farm. The Ide family lived a meagre existence on William’s poor salary teaching school and running the local Mormon Church. By 1845, Ide was pushing 50 years old and dissatisfied with his life. It was time to move again.
He sold the farm that spring and bought two custom-made wagons to go with the one he had. Ide had 13 in his party, including several hired-hands working for their meals and an expense-paid trip west. At Independence, Ide joined up with a company headed by John Grigsby — their captain was Joe Meek. By the time they reached Fort Hall and met Greenwood, they were known as the Grigsby-Ide Party.
By September they were at the west end of Truckee Lake, eyeing the rugged pass. The year before the Stephens Party took their wagons apart and hauled them over the mountain in sections, but Ide envisioned a better way. Ide’s 18-year-old daughter described the scene: “At night we camped at the foot of the rocky mountain—the Sierra Nevada; and were told by Caleb Greenwood that we would have to take our wagons to pieces and haul them up with ropes. But father proposed to build a bridge, or a sort of inclined railroad up the steep ascent, and over the rocks; but few of his companions would listen to any such scheme. He went to work with the men and fixed the road.”
Ultimately the “railroad” concept was abandoned, but instead of dismantling the wagons Ide identified relatively level steps on the granite cliffs upon which the cattle could gain some footing and pull the wagon up from below. Thus, the empty wagons were hauled up the steep rock face step by step. It took them two days, but finally the caravan with all its gear was safely over the pass. Their jubilation was tempered, however, when they met an eastbound pack train that told them Mexican soldiers would probably take them all prisoners as illegal immigrants as soon as they arrived in the Sacramento Valley. Tensions were high due to the increasing flow of unwanted Americans into Alta California and the impending Mexican-American War.
Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com; click on Explore Tahoe: History.