Plaza Interpretive Signs Tour

If you are pressed for time, or just want to revisit the content, this page allows you to view the text and images available on the plaza interpretive signs.

(A) Magic Dogs

(A) Change Comes to the Native Way of Life – Horses, known as “Magic Dogs” by the native people, were introduced to the Great Basin by Spanish explorers in the 1700’s.

Native American Petroglyphs Near Wolfe Ranch in Arches National Park

Some of the People accepted the horses for the mobility they provided, allowing them to travel great distances for hunting and trading bringing wealth to the People. Horses were traded for slaves and slaves traded for horses; the ownership of either was seen as a sign of influence and leadership. The capture of another’s horses brought honor and was seen as a “coup”. In many areas of the Great Basin the People rejected the horse because the limited natural resources could not sustain both horses and people.

Photo by BLM Nevada
(B) Wasatch Mountains

(B) Hitting a Wall – The Donner-Reed party hit the Wasatch Mountains in late summer of 1846. Imagine what they saw: The Wasatch Front rising up like a wall on the eastern edge of the Great Basin, with its peaks towering up to 12,000 feet, and deep, narrow canyons below. There was no road – there was not even a track. One false move and the wagons would fall and be lost forever. Using axes, shovels, and picks, the men cut through the vegetation by hand.


“After traveling eighteen days they accomplished the distance of thirty miles, with great labor and exertion, being obliged to cut the whole road through the forest of pine and aspen.” – James E. Reed report, 1847

(C) Acts of Kindness

(C) Shoshone Generosity – During the 1850s and 1860s the Shoshone people aided travelers through their territory in finding water, fording rivers and streams, and recovering stray cattle. Oral histories tell of lost emigrant children that were found by the Shoshone and adopted into their families.

Washakie, Chief of the Shoshones (Library of Congress image)

Under the influence of Chief Washakie, the Eastern Shoshone of the Salt Lake region were known for their hospitality and friendly relations with white trappers and overland travelers. One well known incident occurred when ten year old child Elijah Wilson left his home in a new settlement in the vicinity of Salt Lake to spend two years with Chief Washakie’s family.

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

"Wash-ikee, who is also known by the name of 'the white man's friend,' was many years ago in the employment of the American and Hudson's Bay Fur Companies. He was the Constant Companion of the white trappers, and his superior knowledge and accomplishments may be attributed to this fact. He is ... remarkably tall and well formed, even majestic in appearance, ... He is desirous of visiting Washington with the principal warriors of his tribe, never having been further east than Fort Laramie." - F. W. Lander, Superintendent and Special Agent to Tribes along the Route, to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Feb. 11, 1859

(D) Hastings Cutoff

(D) Deadly Short-cut – Lansford W. Hastings advocated a new route to California in 1845.

Lansford Hastings
Hasting's Emigrant Guide

In his “Emigrant Guide,” he claimed his new trail would cut 3 weeks off of the journey. He bragged that wagons would find the route much more “eligible” than the old way – even though no wagon train had ever traveled that way. The new route turned out to be deadly. The Hastings Cutoff added 130 miles to the journey, which meant that the Donner-Reed party reached the Sierra Nevada as winter approached.


“… never take no cutofs and hury along as fast as you can.” – 13-year-old Virginia Reed, 1847


“There is a nigher route, and it is of no use to take so much of a roundabout course.” – James Reed, 1846


Looking across the valley to South Fork Canyon

If you look out toward the mouth of South Fork Canyon, you’ll see the spot where the Donner party emerged in September of 1846 to rejoin the main California Trail.

(E) Ruby Mountains

(E) Another Obstacle – In the distance you can see the high peaks of the Ruby Mountains. Even though the Ruby Mountains are only ten miles wide, they were impassable to wagons. Emigrants on the Hastings Cutoff were forced to travel over one hundred miles around this rugged range.


Art by Paul Wyland

The ”rubies” were named after the garnets found there by early explorers and emigrants.


Photo by Intermountain Forest Service, USDA Region 4.

Fortunately, there were springs and creeks along the eastern bases, so as they looped around the bottom of the range, emigrants had water and grass for their livestock.


“They proceeded down this valley three days, making about fifty miles of travel.” – J.Q. Thornton, 1849

(F) Pilot Peak

(F) Beacon in the Desert – The Donner-Reed Party used this 10, 719 foot high mountain as a guide as they crossed the 85 miles of the Great Salt Lake Desert. Two years before, John C. Fremont had named it Pilot Peak because it had life-giving water and grass, and it marked the way through the Great Basin. Keeping their eyes on Pilot Peak, they made their way across the salt flats. They ran out of water along the way, and had to leave their oxen and wagons behind. After a long 10 days, they finally reached the spring at the base of Pilot Peak. They rested and drank their fill, then went back to get their animals and their wagons. In later years, it took emigrants only 2-5 days to cross the desert and reach Pilot Peak. The large spring at its base is now called Donner Spring.


Photo courtesy of Thom Watson

“We started to cross the desert traveling day and night only stopping to feed and water our teams as long as water and grass lasted. We must have made at least two-thirds of the way across when a great portion of the cattle showed signs of giving out…” – James Reed, Pacific Rural Press, 1871

(G) Ruby Mountain Passes

(G) Three Choices – If you were a traveler using the Hastings Cutoff, you would soon discover that there were three ways to get over or around the Ruby Mountains. If you were using wagons, you could only use the Overland Pass at the south end. If you were lucky enough to be using pack animals, you could choose between Secret Pass – which intersects with the Humboldt River – or Harrison Pass.


“Made 4 miles in Mineral Valley due south turned to the west 4 Miles through a flatt in the mountain” – James Reed 1846

(H) Nourishment from the Trees

(H) Pine Nuts – When the bright yellow flowers bloomed on the rabbit brush the People knew it was time to move to their mountain camps to start gathering the small brown “nuts” from the pinion cones.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Cassinnelli

Dihbah, the pine nut, was a main staple of the native people of Nevada. To survive the long winters of northern Nevada, the Nuwahnah (Shoshone) would have to gather as much as a thousand pounds of pine nuts per family from the single-seeded pinion pine found on many of Nevada’s high desert mountains. Using baskets made from the willows, families would gather pine nuts from the first frost until the snows came. After cleaning and cooking the pine nuts, they ground the roasted nuts into a powder for use in warm nutritious soups and gravies to sustain them through the cold days of winter.

(I) South Fork Canyon

(I) End of Hastings Cutoff – Southeast of the Trail Center is the opening of South Fork Canyon. Its name comes from the South Fork of the Humboldt River. The canyon opening is the western end of the Hastings Cutoff. Several emigrant groups came through this 6-mile canyon. The first was the Bidwell-Bartleson party, the first organized group of emigrants to reach California. Five years later, in 1846, the Donner-Reed wagon train emerged from the canyon and rejoined the main California Trail.

Photo courtesy of G. Thomas

“Our ignorance of the road was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge.” – John Bidwell, Echoes of the Past, 1900


“Seventeen-year-old Nancy Kelsey was the only woman in the [Bidwell-Bartleson] group, but this didn’t bother her. ‘Where my husband goes, I go.’ Nancy and her infant daughter Ann were the first white females to reach California in an overland emigrant party.” – Ginger Wadsworth in Words West, 2003

"Scarcely 200 paces from our camping place, we entered the deep gorge through which the river cut its way, and through which our road led. The mass of rock rose in several places nearly perpendicular, around which the stream twisted in several great bends ... the gorge becoming more contracted. Often we believed the way completely obstructed until we closely approached the openings. In places we advanced through dense thickets principally made up of white alder and willows. If I remember aright, the passage through this gorge was six miles long. Each moment we had to recross the stream, the water often coming nearly as high as the wagon bed. As often there was a 3-, 4-, or 5-foot drop from the bank down into the river bed, and it was just as steep going out on the opposite side. In this way we had already crossed the river to and fro 13 times when, late in the afternoon, we arrived finally at the last crossing." - Heinrich Lienhard, September 7, 1846

(J) The Humboldt River

(J) Natural Road – The Humboldt River creates a 300-mile corridor through several mountain ranges in northeastern Nevada. Between 1841 and 1869 this natural road was followed by more than 200,000 emigrants as they traveled to California. The transcontinental railroad was built along the Humboldt River corridor in 1869. Today, Interstate 80, the railroad, and the California Trail all follow the same natural corridor across Nevada to California. Millions of travelers still follow the same route annually.

The river provided vital water and forage for animals along the trail.

“The Humboldt is a singular stream; I think the longest river in the world, of so diminutive a size. Its length is three or four hundred miles, and general width about fifty feet. From here, back to where we first saw it, the quantity of water seems about the same. It rather diminishes in size as it proceeds.” – Franklin Langsworthy, 1850


“Sept. 3 … 6 a.m. we rolled on; over a good road, short rolling hills, and … entered a moist flat valley trending round to the Westward, with springs, and a grassy and willowy rivulet; -- one of the heads of the Humboldt.” – J. Goldsborough Bruff, 1849

(K) Humboldt River

(K) Loss and Hardship – As the Donner-Reed party followed the crooked 300-mile course of the Humboldt River, they were tormented by heat, dust, Indians, and lack of grass and water. Following the river was the only practical route across Nevada, but the rough conditions broke down many of their wagon trains. Travelers who followed found discarded articles, wagon parts, and dead animals lining the trail, grim evidence of this desolate trek.


“… they halted upon the place where Mr. Salle, who had been killed by the Indians, had been buried. His body had been dug up by the savages, and his bones, which had been picked by wolves, were bleaching in the sun. Here they cached another wagon…” – J.Q. Thornton, 1849


“In many places the alkali lies so thick upon the ground that it lifts up from the earth with the grass … the stock refuses to touch it.” – James A Payne, 1850 

(L) Creations from Nature

(L) Great Basin Baskets – Working with what nature provided, the Nuwahnah (Shoshone) created all that they needed. They made the necessary tools to harvest plants and seeds and for food preparation and daily living.

Bureau of Land Management Image

Using the native red willow, they made burden baskets to carry their food, seed-beaters to knock the seeds from plants, and winnowing trays to separate the seeds from the husks, leaves, and dirt. Some baskets were covered with pine pitch and used for collecting water and cooking using the limited fuel available. Stones would be heated in fires and, when red hot, dropped into water filled baskets bring the water to a boil, cooking the contents. Tightly woven willow has sometimes doubled as bowls for these stews, soups, and gravies. Cradleboards for safely transporting infants were woven from willow and other hard woods such as dogwood, cherry, or wild rose. Skirts and shirts were woven from tule, sagebrush, and cured animal skins. Some of these materials were also used to construct dwellings and to make sleeping mats.

(M) Humboldt Sink

(M) “A Slough of Despond” – After weeks of following the Humboldt River, early travelers were dismayed to discover that the river disappeared – it drained into a low-lying, foul-smelling wetland area called a “sink.”


Because they were facing a 40-mile desert the emigrants dug wells, gathered water, and cut grass for their livestock.

“This is the end of the most miserable river on the face of the earth,” wrote one traveler. “The water of the lake, as well as the last one hundred miles above, is strong with salt and alkali, and has the color and taste of dirty soap-suds.” But the water of the Humboldt Sink was the only water available.


“On arriving at the sink of the Humboldt… there was found a mud lake ten miles long and four or five miles wide, a veritable sea of slime, a slough of despond, an ocean of ooze, a bottomless bed of alkaline poison…” – Rueben Cole Shaw, 1849

(N) Forty-Mile Desert

(N) Deadly Crossing – The emigrants crossed 40 miles of desert before they reached the Sierra Nevada. Starting out, they could choose from two routes, one leading to the Truckee River and the other to the Carson River. But it didn't really matter which route they took: either way, the sun beat down on them, and they and their livestock never had enough water to drink. The wind blew sand into their sunburned faces, and the stench of dead oxen filled their nostrils.

The desperate emigrants dropped personal items behind them to lighten their loads, and broken wagons littered the route.

“… The most important effects are taken out of the wagon and placed on their backs and all hurry away, leaving behind wagons, property, and animals that, too weak to travel, lie and broil in the sun…. The owners hurry on with but one object in view, that of reaching the Carson River before the boiling sun shall reduce them to the same condition.” – Eleazar Stillman Ingalls, 1850

(O) Sierra Nevada

(O) The Last Challenge – Imagine how relieved you would be after surviving the 40-mile desert! Surely the desert was the worst part of the trip, and it was all downhill from here. But the final challenge, the Sierra, was anything but downhill. For the Donner-Reed party, these mountains were even more deadly than the desert had been. Snow came a full month earlier than normal, and on the day they began the climb, the passes were covered with two to five feet of snow. Time after time, the travelers drove their wagons up towards the summit, only to be caught in the snow. Wagons were destroyed, and livestock fell to their deaths.

The Sierra Nevada Range from satellite image.
Photo from North Wind Picture Archives.

On the Way to the Summit, illustration depicting members of the Donner party struggling in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846-47.

“Large boulders and irregular jutting cliffs would intercept the way; there, dizzy precipices, yawning chasms, and deep, irregular canyons would interpose, and anon a bold, impassable mountain of rock would rear its menacing front directly across their path. All day long the men and animals floundered through the snow, and attempted to break and trample a road.” – McGlashan’s History of the Donner Party, 1879

James Frazier Reed and Margaret Keyes Reed, survivors of the Donner party. Photo from Utah State Historical Society.
(P) Through Different Eyes

(P) Harvesting the Desert – As emigrants entered the Great Basin Desert they looked over a sea of sagebrush. To the travelers, it was desolate, dry, and daunting; a wasteland. Who would want to live here? Who could live here? The Nuwahnah (Shoshone) looked at it through different eyes. To the Shoshone people it was home; a cornucopia of good things. It had everything they needed: medicine, shelter, and material for clothes and food – if you knew where to find it.

Shoshone Woman Harvesting Rice Grass. Photo courtesy of Julian H. Steward.

Sage, willows, flowers, and rabbit brush were medicinal plants, and were also processed into dyes. Sagebrush, willows, and junipers were used for housing and clothing. Red willow was gathered, made into thread, and transformed into baskets. Pine nuts were harvested in the higher elevations. Seeds, roots, and greens were gathered. Rabbits, squirrels, marmots, deer, and antelope were harvested to provide the meat the people needed.

Sagebrush-steppe along U.S. Route 93 in central Elko County, Nevada. Photo Courtesy of Famartin.
(Q) The Hidden Observer

(Q) Oral History of a First Encounter – In the Nuwahnah (Shoshone) culture history is recorded by families through story telling. This is a story that has been passed down about a first encounter with the strange white people that traveled through northern Nevada along the Humboldt River.

Photo courtesy of Pomona Library

“After hiding his family the Nuwahnah man traveled to investigate the cloud of dust that he saw. He circled around and throughout the day and evening observed the newcomers. He was very confused by what he saw. He did not understand much of what he saw and was afraid for his family. He had many questions after viewing the strangers. What kind of animal could make tracks that looked as if two snakes were moving in perfect rhythm together? Why were these men so pale and why did they have hair all over their faces? Why did they not eat the beaver they killed or use the bones? They threw them all away except for the hides. What was that shiny stick that made a thunderous sound? How could they cook their food in a black rock over a fire? How did they make those new strange sounds by rubbing two wooden objects? After sharing his concerns with his family, they decided to move farther south away from the strange intruders.” (Oral History: Elizabeth Jackson Brady – Western Shoshone Elder)

(R) Great Basin

(R) Giant Natural Bowl – Wedged between the Sierra Nevada to the west and the Wasatch Mountains to the east is a 220,000 square-mile natural bowl. The high mountains that form the bowl block rain from coming into the Great Basin. What little rain water does come into the basin either soaks into the ground or evaporates; it rarely collects into lakes or rivers. The scarcity of water and the harsh climate of the Great Basin made it one of the most difficult parts of the journey for the overland emigrants.


Photo courtesy of Kmusser

“Crossed the creek and left it on the right, and by an easy ascent reached a summit and as gradually descended to a valley of sage and sand sloping to the South East, the streams running toward the Salt Lake and either emptying into it or losing themselves in the plain.” – Byron McKinstry diary, August 3, 1850