California gold would not be discovered for yet three more years. The Mormons were still a year away from arriving in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Mexico still claimed ownership of much of the West.
But in 1846, the mass exodus of Americans from the eastern states to places like Oregon and California was already in full swing. Thousands sold their farms and stores, stuffed their wagons with earthly belongings and set their hearts west in search of land, wealth and opportunity.Tens of thousands made the trip over the years, but perhaps no single wagon train has become so ingrained in Western folklore as the 1846 Donner-Reed Party. Many groups had preceded them, and many more would follow.
But none graphically illustrated the disastrous potential of an unforgiving land more clearly than the ill-fated group of inexperienced immigrants who left for California too late, moved too slow and became stranded in the Sierra Nevadas in the dead of winter.
As history and legend has recorded, some resorted to cannibalizing dead companions to survive.
While the sensational and oft-repeated account had its conclusion in the mountains of California, much of the tragic story occurred in Utah. The Donner-Reed Party was the first to use Emigration Canyon (to later become the primary route of Mormon pioneers).
And it was the deceptive, searing Salt Flats that sealed the party's doom. Pioneers began dumping their belongings to lighten the wagons, and wagon ruts can still be seen crossing the lonely expanse of muddy desolation.
At least four wagons and numerous oxen were lost in the mud, and another four wagons were abandoned in the desert when oxen wandered off in search of water.
"Everyone knows the ending of the story, but they often don't realize it was getting through Utah that caused that," said state archaeologist David B. Madsen. "It took them longer to cross the Salt Flats, where the wagons sunk in the mud. It took them longer to cut their way through the canyon. The real story of the Donner-Reed expedition is in Utah."
The remains of wagons and personal belongings have been sought after for years by historians and relic hunters, until most experts thought nothing but the wheel ruts remained. In 1986, when the West Desert pumping project threatened even the ruts, archaeologists set out to see if anything remained to be salvaged.
The results of their research have just been published by the University of Utah Press in "Excavation of the Donner-Reed Wagons: Historical Archaeology Along the Hastings Cutoff," by Madsen and Bruce R. Hawkins.
While many books have been written about the Donner-Reed Party, this is the first book to rely heavily upon artifacts abandoned by the ill-fated wagon train to supplement and correct the written histories.
"There are all sorts of stories about caches of gold hidden in wagon boxes," Madsen said. "There were no caches of gold. We can say that with certainty."
While researchers expected to find few remaining traces of the pioneers, the were pleasantly surprised to discover weapons and ammunition, wagon parts, ink bottles, shaving brushes, carpenter tools, kitchen items, utilitarian items, and even "shirts, pants, shoes and buckles that had been preserved by the salt."
Researchers found such a wide array of artifacts that they have been able to reconstruct an inventory of items brought by pioneers on their westward treks in 1846. They also have a pretty good idea of what items became important during a crisis and what items were quickly abandoned.
"It became a question of what they needed to survive," Madsen said, noting they found eight different kinds of abandoned firearms, but found no money or jewelry or other items that could be used to purchase tools needed to homestead in California.
The flat, lunar-type landscape of the Salt Flats makes it so that anything more than two inches high acts as a wall that traps blowing sand and sediments. These create small mounds that actually bury and preserve anything left behind.
Researchers found most artifacts in these mounds, hidden from relic hunters and preserved by Mother Nature.
"It turns out there was a lot more there than we ever expected," Madsen said.
Evidence of at least 10 expeditions who had gone in search of relics (and gold) were also found. Some relics were even retrieved for the 50th anniversary Days of '47 celebration.
Researchers say the process of meshing the historical record with the archaeological record results in a much more accurate picture of what really happened. Recorded history is often distorted by the person who writes it, but material remains - in this case, the wagons, clothing and tools left behind - offer a more objective account.
For example, numerous historical accounts talk about the immigrants caching their goods in wagon boxes to come back for them later. But archaeologists found the abandoned items had been left sitting in the open on the ground, where blowing sands buried them.
Utah researchers have been able to tie some artifacts to specific wagons or individuals. Buttons from military uniforms testify of the Howard Stansbury surveying expedition, which used abandoned Donner-Reed wagons for firewood a few years later.
While the "Excavation of the Donner-Reed Wagons" offers historical perspective, it focuses more on descriptions of what was found, where it was found and some interpretations of those artifacts.