The story of the Donner Party is well known. What is not as well known is the “Mormon Connection” to this story. This section is to acquaint the reader with this interesting, but little known, information.
Much has been written about the ill-fated Donner Party. It is not the intent to go into a detailed restatement of the facts about that group. Very little is known about any “Mormon” connection to this group or event and this is the purpose for discussing it here. The nucleus of the party consisted of the families of George Donner and James Reed of Springield, Illinois. Their families and hired hands totaled about 33 people in nine covered wagons. They set out for California in mid-April 1846, arrived in Independence, Missouri, on May 10, 1846, and left two days later. On May 19, 1846, the Donners and Reeds joined a large wagon train captained by William H. Russell. Most of those who became members of the Donner Party were also in this group.
Part of this wagon train was a Mormon, Lavinia Jackson Murphy, 50, widow of Jeremiah Burns Murphy of North Carolina, who traveled with her seven children. Five were young: Landrum, 15, Mary, 13, Lemuel, 12, William, 11 and Simon, 10. The two eldest were married with children of their own: Sarah, 23, and her husband William Foster, 28, had a son George, 4. Harriet, 21, and her husband Willam Pike, 25, had two children, Naomi, 3, and Catherine, 1. The Murphys had two wagons. The town of Marysville, California (previously Johnson’s Ranch) was named after daughter, Mary, who survived the ordeal. It was Lavina’s granddaughter and Harriet Pike’s daughter, Naomi, that John Rhoads, of the rescue party, carried all the way out through snow drifts from Donner Lake to Johnson’s Ranch. Thomas Rhoads and his “Mormon” family, with 12 wagons and 38 members, was part of this larger wagon train. He had met with Brigham Young, a close friend, just prior to leaving and if is believed that he was on a scouting trip to find a possible site to locate the body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that Young was planning on moving to the West.
For the next two months the travelers followed the California/Oregon Trail until they reached the Little Sandy River, in what is now Wyoming. It was here that the Donner/Reed Party decided to leave the rest of the train and take off on the Hasting’s Cutoff. The group now numbered 87 people in 23 wagons. The endured great hardships while blazing a trail and crossing the Wasatch Mountains into the Salt Lake Valley. This was the same trail used the following year by Brigham Young and his advanced party of church members to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. The trail blazed by the Donner’s saved the saints a considerable amount of work and hardship.
The “shortcut” had taken the Donner Party many more weeks longer than the customary route. When they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the end of October, a snowstorm kept them from getting over what is now known as Donner Pass.
The group was marooned in the snow until the first rescue party could reach them in mid-February, 1847. The leader of this 7 man rescue party was Thomas Rhoad’s oldest son, John, who was also accompanied by his brother, Daniel. Harriet Pike had made it out earlier to Johnson’s Ranch and John had promised her that he would rescue her two children back in the mountains. Both children were alive when the rescue party arrived at the Donner camp, but they rested a couple of days before returning and the baby, Caroline, died before they could leave. John made sure that Naomi lived, as he carried her on his shoulders the entire way through deep snow back to Johnson’s Ranch. John was in perfect physical condition at the time he went in for the rescue, but he was so weakened from the rescue that his health was never good after that and he died at the early age of 48.
The final “Mormon Connection” to this story is that General Stephen Kearny picked a detachment of 15 Mormon Battalion members to go with him and escort John C. Fremont back to the “states” for his court martial hearing. This group came upon the scattered remains of the Donner Party near the lake in the Spring of 1847. They laid over a couple of days, so this Mormon Battalion detachment could give proper burial to the Donner remains.