Much has been written about the ill-fated Donner Party. It is not the intent to go into a detailed restatement of the facts about that group. Very little is known about any “Mormon” connection to this group or event and this is the purpose for discussing it here. The nucleus of the party consisted of the families of George Donner and James Reed of Springield, Illinois. Their families and hired hands totaled about 33 people in nine covered wagons. They set out for California in mid-April 1846, arrived in Independence, Missouri, on May 10, 1846, and left two days later. On May 19, 1846, the Donners and Reeds joined a large wagon train captained by William H. Russell. Most of those who became members of the Donner Party were also in this group.
Part of this wagon train was a Mormon, Lavinia Jackson Murphy, 50, widow of Jeremiah Burns Murphy of North Carolina, who traveled with her seven children. Five were young: Landrum, 15, Mary, 13, Lemuel, 12, William, 11 and Simon, 10. The two eldest were married with children of their own: Sarah, 23, and her husband William Foster, 28, had a son George, 4. Harriet, 21, and her husband Willam Pike, 25, had two children, Naomi, 3, and Catherine, 1. The Murphys had two wagons. The town of Marysville, California (previously Johnson’s Ranch) was named after daughter, Mary, who survived the ordeal. It was Lavina’s granddaughter and Harriet Pike’s daughter, Naomi, that John Rhoads, of the rescue party, carried all the way out through snow drifts from Donner Lake to Johnson’s Ranch.
For the next two months the travelers followed the California/Oregon Trail until they reached the Little Sandy River, in what is now Wyoming. It was here that the Donner/Reed Party decided to leave the rest of the train and take off on the Hasting’s Cutoff. The group now numbered 87 people in 23 wagons. The endured great hardships while blazing a trail and crossing the Wasatch Mountains into the Salt Lake Valley. This was the same trail used the following year by Brigham Young and his advanced party of church members to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. The trail blazed by the Donner’s saved the saints a considerable amount of work and hardship.
The “shortcut” had taken the Donner Party many more weeks longer than the customary route. When they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the end of October, a snowstorm kept them from getting over what is now known as Donner Pass.