Although The Donner Party of 1846-1847 is the most famous of the immigrant parties to cross the Sierra Nevada along the "Truckee Route," they were not the first. Where the Stephens Party succeeded in crossing, in a very severe winter in 1844-1845, the Donner Party became stranded and met only tragedy two years later. The Stephens Party was led by experienced mountain men and included a physician among its members; the Donner Party was composed of farmers and a high proportion of women, elderly, and children. The Donner brothers, Jacob and George, along with James Reed, all from Illinois, organized the party. They set out on their journey in April of 1846 and in a reasonable amount of time had reached South Pass, a landmark on the trail west, where they inadvertently made their first fatal error. A trail guide or promoter named Lansford Hastings had produced a leaflet claiming he had found a shortcut to California.
The Donners decided to attempt to follow that cutoff through Utah into Nevada. They lost much precious time and suffered through severe desert conditions. The physical condition of both humans and animals began to deteriorate, as did their emotional stability.
A stabbing occurred and as a result James Reed was banished from the party. The party was badly demoralized before they ever reached the Sierra. Due to the short cut the party took they arrived at the Sierra late, out of provisions, and faced with an early snow. They did not have the strength to ascend through the snow to the summit and most of the party returned to winter over, at what was known as Truckee Lake. The Donner brothers and their family, were in even worse condition. They had many problems with the wagons, and George Donner injured himself trying to make the repairs. The family was forced to endure the winter in tents at Alder Creek. Apparently, none of the family or other members traveling together had the will or perhaps the skill and knowledge to hunt or fish in the harsh Sierra environment. They had lost all their stock and were essentially without food A small group of 15 from within the party elected to attempt to cross the Sierra on foot to seek help. Seven of the original 15 made it to Sutter's Fort. Meanwhile, the banished Reed had made it across on his own and then tried to recruit relief parties. Ultimately four relief parties were sent, but it was not until March that the first party reached the survivors at the Lake.
The tragic story has been pieced together from diaries and interviews of party members and told and retold, with many different interpretations over the years. The first comprehensive History of the Donner Party was researched and produced by the prominent Truckee attorney, Charles F. McGlashan in 1880. Historian George Stewart wrote Ordeal by Hunger the most popular book. Recently, another version, Winter of Entrapment was published by Joseph King. A special documentary was produced in 1993 by PBS, featuring actors reading from diaries and letters of members of the party. The McGlashan book attempts to present the facts of the journey without making moral judgement. The Stewart book presents a dramatized version, showing the weaknesses and strengths of the various members. In response to the Stewart book, Joseph King's book presents an alternative view of the supposed villains and heroes of the party.