The Donner Party in Utah

Challenges and Set-Backs at Emigration Canyon

While the Donner Party traveled on the Hastings Cut-Off in 1846, they entered Utah and encountered many obstacles. In the Wasatch Mountains the Party had to excavate Emigration Canyon. This proved to be extremely difficult and the Donner Party decided instead to climb over the steep hill. This resulted in the death of many of their oxen, forcing the Party to leave many of their wagons behind.

While the Donner Party was not the first nor the last group to travel the Hastings Cut-Off, they were undoubtedly the most afflicted and grief-stricken group to ever travel this route. The Hastings Cutoff was a new route that the Donner Party followed in the summer of 1846. Taking this path was ultimately the beginning of their tragedy. The Hastings Cutoff was a branch off of the Oregon trail starting in Wyoming that went through Utah (instead of Idaho like the Oregon Trail) then through Nevada, eventually joining with the California trail. Lansford Hastings was the man who suggested the idea of the new route, claiming that it would save them 250 miles of travel, although Hastings himself had never traveled the route.

There were multiple factors that attributed to the unfortunate events experienced by the Donner Party, many of them in Utah. While traveling through Utah on the Hastings Cut-Off, the Party was negatively affected by having to clear out Emigration Canyon, cross the muddy areas of the Great Salt Lake Desert, and travel for extended amounts of time in the desert without water. While the party was going through Utah on the Hastings Cutoff route, they spent 16 days hacking out a 36-mile road through the Wasatch Mountains. Upon arriving at what would later be known as Emigration Canyon, they encountered brush and trees that were impenetrable. Instead of continuing hacking through the canyon, they attempted to climb over the hill in hopes that they would save time. Unfortunately the hill was too steep and the excursion left them more exhausted than if they had continued through the canyon. With no time to rest after climbing the hill, many of the oxen gave out and died, leaving the party to move on without them. Their trip was delayed further because of this excursion which led to the well-publicized disaster in the Sierra Mountains where about half of their party died and many of the rest turned to cannibalism. Despite this well-known disaster, Brigham Young’s party of pioneers took advantage of this path that the Donner party created in Emigration Canyon the following summer in 1847. This allowed the pioneers to save time on their own journey and plant crops in time for the next harvest. To honor the Donner Party’s legacy, the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints erected a monument in 1958 at the mouth of Emigration Canyon.