Had there been no Donner Party in 1846, there likely would not have been a Mormon entry into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. The Mormons would have likely entered the valley, but potentially weeks later, missing precious time on the remaining days of an already shortened growing season, which could have portended disastrous results for the Mormons during their first winter.
Our Pioneer Day celebrations would likely have been on a much later date in the summer, assuming the early Saints could have survived their first winter in the Great Basin after a failed late-planted crop.
The Donner Party is the name of an infamous group of 1846 pioneers headed for new lives in Alta California, as the Mexican province was called at that time. The Donner Party was a contingent of about 87 individuals traveling with some 20 wagons. They had initially traveled the standard Oregon-California trail that commenced in Independence, Missouri, followed the Platte River and eventually crossed through South Pass, Wyoming, and on to Fort Bridger, a small supply stop manned by mountain man Jim Bridger. At Fort Bridger, the Donner Party’s path diverged considerably from the established route.
In what turned out to be a disaster of a decision, the Donner Party was influenced to take the advice of Lansford Hastings, an enterprising adventurer who hoped to capitalize on leading emigrant parties on his new trail to California (the Hastings Cutoff). Hastings promised that the trail would cut the travel distance down by several hundred miles.
Several factors worked against the Donner Party. It had a late start on the emigration season and wanted to make up time, but it also did not know the full truth of what would be required to get wagons through the Wasatch Mountains. It could not foresee the significant privations it would experience in the harsh, nearly waterless regions of the inner Great Basin. Thus, the group threw its luck and hope onto Hastings' plan.
Unfortunately, strongly worded advice to avoid this route at all costs never reached the Donner party.
So the group parted from the known route to an unknown route with a guide who was often entirely absent. Hastings had left some days in advance of the Donner Party to lead another group through the Hastings Cutoff. The Donner Party did the best it could to follow the wagon tracks and to seek out notes nailed to trees along the way by Hastings giving further directions. But when the Donner Party investigated the Weber Canyon on the Weber River in the Wasatch Mountains, it realized how much peril it was in. These mountains were very difficult for wagons. There were no roads cut, and cutting fresh wagon roads down steep canyons lengthened the amount of time it took the party to progress. To avoid the difficulties of Weber Canyon, the Donner Party instead worked its way through another canyon, now called Emigration Canyon.
All in all, the Donner Party spent nearly three weeks scouting, finding and cutting a suitable wagon road out of the Wasatch Mountains, down through Emigration Canyon into the Salt Lake Valley. These many precious days meant the Donner Party would not escape the clutches of starvation, freezing and gruesome death in the eastern Sierras. Had the Donner Party saved those nearly three weeks, it just might have made it over the Sierras in time to avoid the debilitating, death-bringing early winter storms.
While ultimately tragic for the Donner Party, the time spent on the road allowed the first Mormon pioneers to enter the Salt Lake City Valley weeks earlier than they otherwise would have. Had the Donner Party chosen wisely and taken the well-known route to California, our pioneer celebrations may have been held in mid-August instead of on July 24.
Donner Party wagon ruts can still be seen in Skull Valley in west-central Utah. Follow the Donner Party’s route using Google Earth by downloading the .kmz file (must have Google Earth installed on your device). A timeline of the Donner Party is also available, along with day-to-day diaries.
Taylor Halverson, who holds doctorates in biblical studies and instructional technology, is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His website is taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.