Owens, Kenneth N.
M.A. (Master of Arts)
Department of History
Overland journeys to the Pacific; Donner Party
The story of the Bonner Party, one of the stock tales in frontier history, assumes its significance as a symbol of ultimate human misery and human degradation. The tragic incidents which befell this particular group of emigrants bound for California in 1846 did little to alter the course of overland migration to the Far West. In the Bonner Party's fate, however, there is a historical drama with an intense emotional impact. To generations accustomed to regard the frontier movement as a triumphant quest for an earthly Eden, here is a story of horror, of unsurpassed suffering, and the utter collapse of human dignity before the forces of a hostile nature. Any person familiar with the demands of overland travel could easily pinpoint the reasons for the collapse of the Bonner emigrant train. The lack of adequate preparation and firm leadership, the failure to gain thorough knowledge of the projected new route, the absence of understanding and cooperation between families, and the selfishness of certain individuals all added to the final disastrous results. At the outset this wagon train was no different than hundreds of others that crossed the plains and mountains during the Forties and Fifties. Yet before the Donners could reach California, their little group had been singled out and marked for their own special niche in history. To some extent the Donners' suffering on the trail was typical of that of many other groups over this sane stretch of land. Charles Kelly in his Salt Desert Trails tells of numerous wagons that met disaster of one sort or another on the Great Salt Lake Desert. The Stevens-Murphy Party of 1844, in particular, feared that they would become snowbound in the mountains and actually built a cabin near Truckee Lake which was occupied by one of their party during the winter of 1844-45.
Jacobson, Shirley H., "The Donner story : a mountain tragedy and its effect on the westward movement in American history" (1960). Graduate Research Theses & Dissertations. 5460.
iv, 107 pages
Northern Illinois University
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