And so the George Donners, the Jacob Donners and the Reeds set out from Springfield in April, 1846. All three families hired teamsters to help drive additional wagons with food and luggage, while they also brought along trusted family servants who wanted to stay with their employers. Margaret's old mother, Sarah Keyes, went with the Reeds as well, refusing to leave her only daughter, and hoping to see her last living son along the trail. James Reed built a large wagon so he could house his mother-in-law inside, Grandma Keyes being of poor eyesight, and not able to move well.
As they reached Independence, Sarah Keyes' health worsened, and she became nearly blind and very sick.
The Donner-Reed party reached Independence on May 11th, and they and the teamsters joined the Bryant Party, which was led by Wm. Russell. At the end of May, Sarah Keyes died, near Alcove Spring. Her last day had been spent blind and unable to speak. Though she had been a burden to James Reed, she was mourned, especially by Margaret and Virginia Reed.
Along the trail, various people joined the group of the Donner Party. The Breens and Patrick Doolan were not especially friendly with the Donners or Reeds, but were helpful and unselfish and also shared the same unwelcome background as the Reed family, Irish heritage.
A Mormon "sister," the widowed Lavinah Murphy and her children were not on the best of terms with the party. With Mrs. Murphy were her two son-in-laws, Wm. Foster and Wm. Pike, who had married two of Mrs. Murphy's daughters.
The Graves were a little cold to the Donners and Reeds, as well. The Graves were poor, so poor that Franklin and Elizabeth Graves, the parents of the family, walked barefoot. The Graves despised James F. Reed and the wealthier members of the Wagon Train, but were a resourceful and courageous family, and showed their bravery along the journey. The Graves survivors later wrote of James Reed as "aristocratic" and lazy.
Nevertheless, the Eddy family shared good terms with everyone. William and Eleanor Eddy were a friendly and energetic pair, still young with only two little children. Wm. Eddy was a skilled and helpful hunter, who also had been a carriage-maker, and helped make wagon repairs. All among the party seem to have been on fairly good terms with the Eddys, though the Graves are not remembered for saying much good of Wm. Eddy, either.
Likewise can be said about Charles T. Stanton, a former businessman, who had virtually taught himself science and how to read and write. Very short, standing only at 5 foot 5 inches, he was helpful and generous; Stanton was found to be selfless and highly admired for his leadership. It is not sure when he joined the party, and whether or not Stanton was either a teamster for the Donners or if the Donners had been paid to carry Stanton's luggage is still somewhat controversial.
When the Bryant-Russell Party reached the trail junction, emigrants needed to decide to travel north, to Ft. Hall and Oregon, or Southwest, to Ft. Bridger, and travel to California.
The Reeds had long ago decided to travel to California, and the Donners decided to stay with them. The Murphys, Graves, Breens, Eddys, McCutchens, Kesebergs, Wolfingers and various teamsters and single men went along with the party.
George Donner was elected Captain of the Wagon Train. James Reed was long out of favor with most of the party and hardly anyone listened to him at this point.
At Ft. Bridger, James Bridger, a fur-trader, advised the group to take the Hastings Cut-Off, a short-cut around the south of the Great Salt Lake, instead of the long route around the north shore.
This was a poor choice, but it was not the only factor in the group's slow journey into tragedy. As the group had to journey through the Wasatch Mountains, and the Salt Lake Desert, many oxen died, the group suffered constant delays, and several deaths occurred. Luke Halloran died from tuberculosis like Sarah Keyes had. James Reed became more disliked by the Donner Party. He had threatened a German emigrant, Lewis Keseberg, after Reed had discovered Keseberg harshly beat his wife. Worse, on the 5th of October, James Snyder, the Graves' teamster, was stabbed to death by James Reed. Reed was banished from the party, and he, his servant Walter Herron and William McCutchen traveled ahead by horse to the Sacramento Valley.
William Pike, a son-in-law of Lavinah Murphy, was accidentally shot to death, and Lewis Keseberg turned the sick old Belgian emigrant, Mr. Hardkoop, out of his wagon. In the rush to reach California before winter, Hardkoop was cruelly left behind to die in the desert.
Perhaps more sinister is what follows. Several wagons had to be abandoned by the party, since nearly all of the draft animals were dead. Several families left all possessions and food behind, walking ahead with only the clothes they wore. Another emigrant, Mr. Wolfinger, decided to bury his goods, known as "caching," so that he could recover them in the following year, after he had established himself in California. His wife Doris traveled ahead with the Donners, while Wolfinger and his two associates, Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer, as well as Lewis Keseberg, remained behind to "help" Wolfinger.
Wolfinger was never seen again. It was claimed Indians came out of the mountains and killed the German, but Joseph Reinhardt later admitted to murdering him. Around Christmas time, Lewis Keseberg was seen carrying Wolfinger's gun, which had assumedly been stolen by the Indians.
Around the same time George Donner was repairing a broken wagon axle when he cut his had with a chisel, leaving a long, deep gash across him arm. Out in the wilderness, it easily became infected. The Donners could no longer travel at a pace to keep up with the rest of the party. Jacob Donner and his family remained with George and his family during the rest of 1846.
It was late October when the group was traveling through the Sierra-Nevada Mountains. Stanton and others had pushed the train to move faster, and harder. They were only several miles away from the civilization at Johnson's Ranch, the first settlement along the trail since Ft. Bridger.
However, as the Donner Party was traveling through the Truckee Route, the last part of the California Trail, the temperatures began to suddenly drop, and frost was beginning to show, as they reached a small body of water known as Truckee Lake.
It became obvious that the Donner Party was in for an early winter, and it would snow at anytime. In the mountains, without shelter and with almost no food, the party suddenly stopped all progress. The group scrambled to build themselves cabins to spend the winter in.
Their shelters were basic and crude. Using nothing but logs for walls, wagon parts for doors and leather hides for roofing, their cabins certainly were not much, but they provided shelter. They didn't even have plaster to put in between the logs, since the dusty clay on the ground had frozen over.
The snow fell, and the Donner Party was trapped. With steep slopes before them and behind them, there was no where they could go.
The Donners had done the best they could to catch up to the others, and reached Alder Creek, on seven miles away. During the winter and in the mountains that was about a day away from the camp at Truckee Lake. They built crude shelters, taking a few logs, and all of the supplies they still had with them, and built strange little huts. It was all they could manage. The Donner brothers were old men, and there were few there who had much strength left in them.
Now that the Donner-Reed party had shelter from the snow and cold, they only faced one problem. They would be trapped in the snow for anywhere between four to five months, and they only had enough food to feed them for a much shorter period of time.