Mormon History

Mormons & the Donner Party - 1846

When the Donner party enters Utah, the wheels begin to come off

Pat Bagley
The Salt Lake Tribune



   The Mormon pioneer company that entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 wasn't the first party of dusty, wagon-bound immigrants to stumble out of Emigration Canyon. For that matter, they weren't even the first Mormons.

    On the north side of 1300 South, around 2000 East, is a granite marker. Set back in a leafy alcove off the sidewalk, it is easy to miss. If you hit the Top Stop, you've gone too far, but not by much.

    The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers trail monument notes that the first Mormon pioneer company passed that way, as did Brigham Young's party two days later.

    But it also gives credit where due: "The Donner Party Established This Route in 1846."

    It's probably an oversight the words "ill-fated" don't appear before "Donner Party." It's an expression that delicately deflects attention from, but at the same time calls attention to, cannibalism in the Old West.

    What makes the Donner tragedy so poignant is they came that close to making it. They'd hacked their way through the Wasatch, slogged across the salt flats, crossed the Nevada desert, strained up the steep eastern Sierra Nevada, reaching the pass that would put them on the easy path into sunny California.

    Then came the snowflakes. First tiny, then bigger than silver dollars.

    Their window of good weather had slammed shut.

    It's one of those "what-if" moments in history that so tantalizes because a few, small decisions along the way might have made all the difference.

    What if the party left its starting point in Independence, Mo., a little earlier? Hurried a little more? Made a couple more miles a day? What if . . .?

    What is indisputable is that the day they entered the borders of modern-day Utah that summer, the wheels came off.

    In a decision that seemed reasonable at the time, the Donner party made the mistake of listening to a real estate promoter selling dreams. Lansford Hastings was a get-rich-quick huckster whose spiritual offspring still populate the Wasatch. (He later promoted a scheme to conquer Arizona and bring California into the Confederacy during the Civil War.)

    His exuberant description of a shorter (by 300 to 400 miles) and easier way to California turned the Donner oxen south of the Great Salt Lake rather than to the established route that snaked around its northern shores.

    It was too good to be true.

    The Donner party already had lost three weeks hacking their way through forests of the Wasatch and found itself on the brink of Parleys Canyon (then called Reed's Canyon) - a long, treacherous slog. Just in time, some outriders came back and recommended Emigration Canyon, slightly less treacherous. The men and boys hacked the way down.

    At the mouth, sick to death of swinging axes through choked creek bottoms, they threw down their axes and took out ropes and chains. They would pull the wagons out.

    It was 162 years ago the women of the Donner party arrived with the wagons. They looked up and felt like weeping.

    Today, just to the south of This Is the Place Monument is Donner Trail Park, right above the zoo. It's a manicured green space with jungle gyms and swings rising toward the mountains. But between the park and the mountains is a scrum of apartments and condominiums visible from almost anywhere in the valley.

    Armed with a 50-year-old photo and my dog, I set out to find the escarpment where the Donners hauled their wagons.

    This column is a cliffhanger (an unfortunate pun), but to learn more of the Donner party's transit of Utah you'll have to wait for my next column. I've dropped hints that a) There are Mormons in the Donner Party, b) wheels come off wagons, and, c) the dog and I find something interesting.

    I promise satisfaction.

Old Mrs. Murphy blazed trail and tragedy with Donner party


By Pat Bagley

Salt Lake Tribune



Editor's Note:: This column is the second in Pat Bagley's two-part story of Levinah Murphy and the Donner Party.
    The doughty band of Mormon pioneers emerged, dusty and sweat-stained, from Emigration Canyon. The leader of the group viewed the panoramic Salt Lake Valley below, stretched forth a hand and said . . .

    No one knows what she said.

    Levinah Murphy led the first Mormons to the valley in 1846. But they were only passing through, attached to a larger party generally acknowledged to be under the leadership of George Donner. Their final destination lay across the Sierra Nevada in California.

    Levinah, called "Old Mrs. Murphy" though she was only 36, was the matriarch of her group, which included children, sons-in-law and hired hands.

    Widowed at 29, soon after her family's conversion to the Mormon church, Levinah was left with seven children to raise, the youngest just months old.

    She made her way to Nauvoo, where she was one of the first to do baptisms for the dead, a new doctrine in the expansive Mormon theology.

    How she ended up with the Donner party heading west a year ahead of the Saints is not entirely clear. According to a daughter reminiscing years later, Levinah heard rumors that the Mormons were removing to California. She set out early to not be a burden to the church. Eventually, she threw in her lot with the Donners and Reeds, who were richer, better equipped and seemed to know what they were doing.

    They had come this far. The Valley of the Great Salt Lake lay before them. An inviting place, but not their destination.

    The last haul had been murderous. Dozens of oxen had dragged the wagons, one by one, up the escarpment out of the canyon's choked creek bed. The animals were completely exhausted.

    With my dog, I hiked up to the luxury apartments now at the mouth of Emigration. We made our way through side streets with signs warning "Wrong Way," "Do Not Enter," and "No Admittance."

    The Donners, Reeds and Murphys could have used such helpful directions.

    The dog and I agree that the escarpment, "Donner's Hill," is just above the choke point of Emigration Canyon. It is a steep 80 yards long, and seems to fit the descriptions and a 60-year-old photo.

    That and the fact that the Salt Lake City street "Donner's Way" dead-ends there.

    The rest of the Donner party's sojourn in Utah was not a happy one. Aware, in a vague way, of the Salt Flats, they made a desperate sprint across to the base of Pilot Peak, where water and forage awaited.

    The problem wasn't the heat, which was bad enough in late summer, but the nature of the Flats themselves. Not a hard-packed salt pan, but rather a salt crust that wagon wheels broke to expose a gooey, wheel-sucking pie filling of mud and ooze.

    They would lose more wagons and suffer a broken axle before staggering, spent and disheartened, on to the border of present day Nevada.

    Despite the bad choices and miscues - not all of them self-inflicted - they still might have made it. In the end, they were defeated by the weather, which turned bad just at the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

    Seven of Levinah's party of 13 made it. "Old Mrs. Murphy" entrusted the fate of her children to strangers near Donner Lake and died.

    The Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley a year later, following the trail so painfully hacked out by the Donner party.

    But the Mormons showed scant gratitude. It was put out by some that the Donners had been involved in the Mormon persecutions and deserved their fate. And as for Levinah Murphy, that's what one gets for keeping company with gentiles.

    Later Utahns were more gracious. On the east side of the This Is The Place Monument is a relief that commemorates the Donner party and their contribution to blazing the trail into the Salt Lake Valley.