Donner Party


On June 6, 2018, California State Parks celebrated the centennial anniversary of the Pioneer Monument that towers over Donner Memorial State Park. Erected after 20 years of effort in the early 1900s, this thought-provoking tribute to America’s westward pioneer families was dedicated in 1918.

Since then the monument has withstood a century of harsh Sierra winters. Year after year, the cast-bronze parents protecting their small children on top of the pedestal resolutely face west, determined to cross forbidding Donner Pass in their effort to reach California.

America’s storied yet controversial westward expansion movement in the mid-19th century is being re-written by scholars and historians focused on the cultural and environmental impacts of this historic migration. 

However, when it comes to the pioneer monument at Donner Memorial State Park, the focus on family is appropriate. A large portion of the overland emigrants traveling in wagon companies consisted of small or extended families. During the Donner Party entrapment in the winter of 1847, family units far surpassed single men in survival rates.

School teacher Charles F. McGlashan first moved to Truckee, California, in 1872 where natural curiosity led him to learn more about the Donner Party wagon train and what really happened that winter. He explored the encampment sites near Donner Lake and at Alder Creek Meadows north of Truckee. McGlashan interviewed many of the survivors and in 1879 published his book, History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra. McGlashan’s research was unprecedented at the time and his book is still considered a classic.

Charles McGlashan spoke to the California service organization Native Sons of the Golden West (NSGW) about raising the money for a monument to the Donner Party. The agreed and appointed Nevada City dentist Dr. Chester W. Chapman as chairman of their Donner Monument Committee in charge of fund raising. 

Dr. Chapman wanted to raise $30,000 or more for an appropriately-sized structure, but many, including San Francisco’s mayor James Phelan, felt that a simple engraved slab of polished granite would suffice. Chapman resisted all efforts to economize the project and his committee scheduled a ground-breaking ceremony with the placement of a cornerstone to strongly signal the forthcoming monument.

Dr. Chapman brought much-needed energy and organization skills to the endeavor, but he also asserted that it should be dedicated as the Pioneer Monument to honor all overland emigrants, not just the Donner group. Chapman’s idea to recognize all who crossed the plains spoke to the pride of those who wished to honor the memory of their forefathers, beyond just the Donner Party.

Completed in 1917, the base pedestal for the pioneer statue was constructed of rock and gravel from around Donner Lake. It was McGlashan’s measurements of tall tree stumps cut during the winter of 1847 that dictated the 22.5-foot height of the pedestal for the monument, representing the depth of snow that winter. 

An analysis by this writer of the peak snow depth at Donner Lake in 1847 suggests a maximum depth of about 17 feet but reducing the number by 5 feet or so would have made no difference to the starving emigrants. See my book The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm.