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  • Writer's pictureNancy Herman

Following the Donner Party

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

“I have not wrote you half the trouble we have had but I have wrote enough to let you know you don’t know what trouble is.” With these words, thirteen-year-old Virginia Reed ended a letter to her cousin in which she tried to describe what went wrong with her 1846 journey to California–a journey that had promised free land, year-round sunshine, and prosperity for her, her family, and the two Donner brothers and their families. Of all American pioneer stories, the Donner Party’s is the most tragic. Ordinary families dreaming of new lives in California made a series of bad decisions that resulted in their winter entrapment in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Close to half the party died. Perhaps the worst decision they made was to leave the Oregon Trail and take an untried cutoff that added several weeks to their journey, sealing their fates. In the letter to her cousin, Virginia added:

“Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.”

All We Left Behind: Virginia Reed and the Donner Party chronicles Virginia’s harrowing journey over a 12-month period in 1846-1847, beginning with her departure from her hometown of Springfield, Illinois and ending with her arrival at Sutter’s Fort in California. I duplicated Virginia’s trek165years later by rental car instead of ox-drawn wagon. Following the Donner Party along the Oregon and California trails, as well as the Hastings Cutoff, helped me understand the parallel emotional journey that transformed Virginia from an obedient daughter into an independent young woman-determined to make her own decisions, whatever the consequences.

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