The Donner Memorial State Park is dedicated to the members of the Donner Party, whom on April 16, 1846 began their emigration from Springfield, Illinois to California, were stranded in series of blizzards within the Sierras. The Donner Party took an untested shortcut through the Great Basin, which in Landsford Hastings’s book, “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California” claimed that the route to the west coast could be shortened by 400 miles. However, this shortcut lead to many unforeseen challenges in the mountains in the high Sierras. When some of the members of the party passed away, other living members cannibalized on their bodies to survive the harsh winter.
“My father, with tears in his eyes, tried to smile as one friend after another grasped his hand in a last farewell. Mama was overcome with grief. At last we were all in the wagons. The drivers cracked their whips. The oxen moved slowly forward and the long journey had begun.” — Virginia Reed, daughter of James Reed
It took four rescue parties to rescue the remaining Donner Party members stranded in the mountains. On April 1847, Louis Keseberg became the last person from the group to be recused.
In the Donner Party tragedy, two-thirds of the men in the party perished, while two-thirds of the women and children lived. Forty-one individuals died, and forty-six survived. In the end, five had died before reaching the mountains, thirty-five perished either at the mountain camps or trying to cross the mountains, and one died just after reaching the valley. Many of those who survived lost toes to frostbite.
In 1961, the former Donner Camp became a U.S. National Historical Monument.
Within the former Donner Camp is a monument decorated to the Donner Party.
The park consists of an emigrant trail museum dedicated to the Donner Park and other emigrants whom came to California from the Midwest and the east coast.