Tragedy of the Donner Party Saves Other Lives

Wagon Camping

Wagon Camping

I decided to take a short break from the topic of Reservations after I read a story that mentioned the Relief Companies formed in California to help the pioneers arrive here safely.

According to Wikipedia, the memory of the Donner disaster prompted Californians to fund relief teams during the gold rush. They sent men eastward along the trails to take food and water to overland emigrants.  In her diary, Sarah Royce, a woman who began the journey with her husband and two-year old daughter, Mary, in 1849, credited such a Relief Party with saving the lives of herself and her family.

I think it is easy to overlook the fact that many, if not most, of the emigrants seeking their fortune in California didn’t know what they were doing.   The Royces prepared for their journey across the country by reading  the book Fremont’s Travels, and noting the often conflicting suggestions of other travelers, who, like the Royces,  were  “were utter strangers to camping life and were setting out for the ‘Golden Gate’ “.   

Pioneers set out for the west and experienced floods, food shortages, broken wagons, hostile natives, and more.  If they survived these challenges and reached Utah,  the Great Salt Lake Desert  and Sierra Nevada Mountain Range awaited them.   The Royces got as far as Salt Lake City and then found  “two small sheets of note paper, sewed together  and bearing on  the outside in writing the title, ‘Best Guide to the Gold Mines, 816 miles’, by Ira J. Willes, GSL City”  to help them the rest of the way.

The “book” was handwritten by Willes, who had been to California and back the previous year.  Royce said the description of directions, distances and good camping places seemed pretty clear until the author mentioned the  Humboldt River [not connected to Humboldt county in any way], “when poor camping and scarcity of water was mentioned with discouraging frequency.”  After that point, author Willes suggested they look for a new track the previous fall,  which “might be better.”

As life and other work calls, I will continue this  topic tomorrow…


7 Responses to Tragedy of the Donner Party Saves Other Lives

  1. Lynette
    “most, of the emigrants seeking their fortune in California didn’t know what they were doing.”
    No truer words were spoken. They had no idea what they were heading into… Until it was far too late, and there was no turning back. Then it was a struggle to survive.

    If you look far enough, I think that you will find that one of the Kelseys helped rescue the Donner Party. History takes strange turns of fate doesn’t it?

  2. lynette77 says:

    Hi Ernie,
    This diary was great that way. Royce was really very honest about how little they knew… Can you imagine any family setting across the country now with only a little guide book to follow–and no motels or gas stations to pull into to ask for directions :-)? I think we forget sometimes, how spoiled we are and how amazingly courageous some of our ancestors must have been to get our families here in the first place.

  3. “…and how amazingly courageous some of our ancestors must have been to get our families here in the first place.”
    “We all lead lives of quiet desperation.” Who was it that said that? Desperation is what lead many of the early settlers west. Most of them were un-situated where they were. They had no hope, and no future. Some were in trouble with the law, or their families.
    They saw the chance to “Go West” as a new beginning. They gritted their teeth and decided to do it. They knew that in order to make it on the frontier, they would have to end up on top of any situation that they got into. After their trip to California some were pretty hardened and bitter. The ones that didn’t harden, didn’t make it. So, we ended up with a pretty rag-tag population in California. As soon as they got here, the miners found themselves in some pretty unsanitary conditions and disease was rampant. Sacramento had a rash of horrible diseases.
    Those that worked in the fields and other jobs were abused just as bad as the Indian people. Unless you were the meanest, toughest hombre around, you did not succeed. Many took their ill health and headed to the north coast to try to cure their diseases. The conflicts did not end there, as you already know. It just became a new place to try to survive.

    • lynette77 says:

      Hi Ernie,
      I think you’re right that for some folks, this was their last chance to make it, somehow.

      Though I have read accounts (mostly from women, I’ll admit) who saw coming west as a big adventure… no matter what the outcome. I imagine it was that way for some of the men, too. Probably not all were criminals or second sons with no property holdings or prospects.
      We definitely got our share of bad guys, though. Unfortunately for everyone…

  4. […] Ah… done with the little detour about the Royce’s journey to Weaverville and the Relief Parties formed to help the emigrants get to California […]

  5. […] had looked at the hopeful homesteaders, like Sarah Royce and her family ( here and […]

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