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This Week In Illinois History: Doomed Donner Party Departs Springfield (April 15, 1846)

Flickr user Don Graham (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Almost everyone is familiar with the tragedy of the Donner Party, but few remember that their ill-fated journey began in Springfield, Illinois.

It was April 15, 1846, when brothers George and Jacob Donner, wealthy farmers who lived east of Springfield, departed that city with their families and other immigrants to seek a new life in California. George took his wife, Tamsen, their three daughters, and two daughters from a previous marriage. Jacob took his wife Elizabeth and their seven children.

They left with James and Margaret Reed and their four children. James Reed was a businessman who had served with Abraham Lincoln in the Blackhawk War. Mary Lincoln was in the crowd behind the state capital building that day to bid farewell to the 32 travelers. Many of them had deep ties to the area, and friends and family were sad to see them go.

The Donner Party followed a popular route West and picked up more families along the way. George Donner was named captain of the group, which is why this party of multiple families from multiple states carried his name.

The choice to veer off on an untested new route ultimately doomed them. Early snowstorms and impassable terrain trapped them high in the Sierra-Nevada mountains. As food and supplies dwindled, some members resorted to eating the dead. It took four months for search expeditions to extract all the survivors. Of the 87 pioneers who sought their future in California, only 48 survived.

The Donner brothers and their wives did not make it. George’s daughters lived, but only three of Jacob’s seven children survived the journey. All of the Reeds survived.

A plaque in Springfield’s Lincoln Square marks the site of the Donner Party’s departure.

Today, a bronze plaque in Springfield’s Lincoln Square marks the point where the Donner Party departed on their tragic trip.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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