Shedding new light on the Donner Party |

Shedding new light on the Donner Party

Artifacts tell the tragic tale of the Donner Party, and recent finds have pinpointed what archaeologists believe is the exact location of the 21-member makeshift camp. Courtesy photo

During the past two weeks an archaeological exploration of the Donner Camp site near Alder Creek has been taking place. Under the supervision of the United States Forest Service, a small team has been continuing excavations to find the exact location of the George and Jacob Donner campsites in the winter of 1846-47. This is an extension of last summer’s field research. One connection to this story is found in a new book.History books and articles tell us much about what happened in the past, but sometimes they can be missing key elements. Those key elements are found in what people thought and felt and can only be told through memoirs and diaries of the people who actually lived history. Another issue in history is that much of what is written is from a man’s point of view. History’s footstepsA new book, “Jessie’s Footsteps” by Kathie Graziano, is from a different viewpoint on the history of the west and the Donner Camp. Graziano’s great-grandmother, Jessie Calloway Hale, was a very astute writer and her memoirs are found in this book that shows us what life was like from a woman’s point of view.

Jessie Calloway Hale’s story starts with her mother, who came west on a wagon train in 1852. Jessie’s mother married William Calloway, whose own story is an interesting one that involves the Civil War. Jessie’s birth and early years were during the later portions of the California Gold Rush and are the start of a complex life that was a microcosm of what many people went through. Her life was a full of constant change. She lived in many different places, including the Truckee area.Jessie’s connection to the Truckee area takes her through such places as Cisco, Donner Lake, Meadow Lake during a long winter of 1865, early Truckee, and for 6 years at the Alder Creek Sawmill, just north of Truckee. Jessie’s mother married again after William Calloway left California, and her new stepfather was Charles Roberson. Roberson was a very skilled millwright and a machinery wizard. In 1872 he built the Alder Creek Sawmill, located about where Highway 89 crosses Alder Creek. While growing up there, Jessie explored the Alder Creek area where the George and Jacob Donner families camped during the tragic winter of 1846. Jessie’s mother showed her where the remains of a shelter were, telling her that it was from the Donner party. The story would remain with Jessie all of her life and would be a very important part of her later years.After Alder Creek, Jessie’s story takes her to Reno, and back up the mountain to Boca. As a young woman, she moves to the southern Sierra forests with her new husband and stepfather. Her moving from place to place was common for many families in that era, and this book is a classic example of that way of life. Now divorced and with children, Jessie’s story continues as she moves to the Mount Shasta area as Charles Roberson continued to follow the timber industry and build sawmills. Stays in Sacramento, Fresno and trips around the west add to the narrative of the early 20th century.Jessie’s later life is in Sacramento, where she begins history research and writes her memoirs. Her ever expanding family is a large part of the story. As with many families of that era, change was constant.

She met the Governor of California in 1949, after she acquired the flag of the California Volunteer Infantry Company for William Calloway’s service. While in Sacramento she got involved in the Donner Party history when she revisited the Alder Creek of her youth. Her contention was that the remnants that she saw as a child were at a different location than that being reported to be the site as we know it today.Documenting the pastCurrent research on the exact location of the Donner Camp is not complete, so Jessie’s story is still relevant today. The book goes into detail on this subject, as it was important to Jessie. A chapter on the author’s search for information on the Donner Camp shows how research is an ongoing search for answers, even 150 years after that event.Jessie Hale’s life story is the story of a generation of resilient pioneer woman and families. It is the story of all of our families as well. This book is not written just by Kathie Graziano, but has many contributors as well. Historians from Truckee and all over the west assisted in this interesting book.The book is available through the Truckee Donner Historical Society, which is acting as the local distributor. It is also available at The Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks and the Truckee Library as well.The story of the Donner Party is a fascination to many people in the Truckee area. Research continues to be done, as last summer and the last several weeks brief archeological explorations of the Alder Creek Donner Camp site show. For those who wish to explore more details on the Donner or Donner-Reed-Murphy Party, as some historians contend, there is an excellent website.

New Light on The Donner Party ( the most detailed of the websites that are devoted to the tragic story of the emigrants who were stranded in the Sierra Nevada in 1846-47. The site is run by Kristin Johnson, a librarian at the Salt Lake Community College in Utah. She compiled and edited “Unfortunate Emigrants: Narrative of the Donner Party.” She has done years of research on the emigrant trails of the west and on the Donner Party. The website contains a chronology, a list of the members and their rescuers, with accurate biographical and statistical information, sources of more information and other websites, myths and misconceptions, a student page, a bulletin page that contains new information and research as it becomes known. One of the links is to the archeologists that led last year’s excavation forensic testing of bone fragments found at the site at Alder Creek and their plans or more field research.The author of Jessie’s Footsteps, Kathie Graziano, would like to persuade archaeologists to explore the area that is believed to be where Jessie Hale thought that the Donner families camped. With the modern techniques that are being developed and used, new light may yet be shed on the Donner Party.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society website at The e-mail address is You may leave a message at 530-582-0893.

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