The Donner Party
Dr. Sharon Gill
Today, Americans are a society on the move. We fly around the world for business, we commute to work hours from our homes, and travel is common to us. The world feels a lot smaller because of today's technology and our ability to travel quickly and with ease to countries all around the world. We use telephones to stay in touch with loved ones, and we have cell phones in our pockets that go everywhere with us. The Internet keeps the world and events at our fingertips and email has become the substitute for hand writing letters. We have all the conveniences of home before us no matter where we go.
Imagine if you will, what life was like in the early 1800's. People had established homes and many generations had remained in the areas to continue the family tradition of business in those areas. Friends and families were in one location and all the people knew was where they had settled. Communication was easy as loved ones and dear friends remained in the same place and saw each other frequently. Neighbors helped neighbors; it was part of the way of life. Things started to change in the 1800's and by 1846 word had gone out that free land was available to any adventurous souls who were willing to make the trek westward.
California was considered the land of milk and honey where the sun always shined brightly and crops grew higher than a tall man's hat. California offered no more long harsh winters, only sunshine, blue skies, and rich soil like folks never seen before. It almost sounded too good to be true. An advertisement went out calling for young men of good character who could drive an ox team. The response was more than anyone anticipated as entire families signed up to head west. Now, imagine packing an entire household into a wagon, looking around at all you have known as you prepare to leave your security and dearest friends and neighbors.
It is tough to do that in this day and age, knowing you can stay in touch. Back then, goodbyes were usually permanent outside of letter writing. With everything packed in a wagon, imagine what lay ahead. Almost a continent away is the Promised Land, and for most of the journey, you will walk. The desire for a better way of life had to have been nothing less than an obsession. People from all walks of life made the decision to move West in pursuit of prosperity.
It was in 1846 that the Mexican War began and virtually all of Texas and California were added to the United States. In 1846, the Mormons set out in search of the Zion under the leadership of Brigham Young. The draw at that time was for expansion and movement westward. All dangers pushed aside and with the attitude they would never die along the trail, the American pioneers pushed west expecting only the best for their futures. At times, our dreams turn quickly into nightmares.
In the 1840's, cholera had broken out in the east which drove people to want to move westward. Before the movement west, fewer than 20,000 people lived west of the Mississippi. This count was only of the white populations and was not inclusive of the darker skinned Indians and Mexicans. Ten years after the migration from east to west, the population west of the Mississippi had grown to over half a million men, women, and children. Stories of the pioneers are found in every venue. Books and movies depict what life was like in the days when people feverishly desired promises of better lives in California and Oregon.
One story stands out from all the tales of wagon trains moving west and yet detailed facts remain obscure. We have all heard the recounted stories of the Donner Party. The first recorded even of cannibalism in America. But, what we have learned is minimal at best yet an important aspect of American history. What happened to the men, women, and children that joined with George and Jacob Donner as they headed west in 1846?
California, described as an Eden, where life was healthy and weather conditions were ideal year round. It sounded ideal for families, ideal for many reasons and a perfect place with land available for the taking. All it required was getting there, across 2,500 miles of harsh, rugged country with provisions enough to make the journey. A wagon would be necessary to carry household items, personal belongings, and food and water. Thousands of emigrants had made the journey successfully.
About the time the Donner families and the Reed's decided to join in the trek westward, a new route had opened that would save hundreds of miles of travel. The original route was four hundred miles longer that ran up to what is now Pocatello, Idaho. Lansford W. Hastings, a twenty-seven year old lawyer claimed he had discovered a shortcut that would save time and miles.
Hastings advertised that he would guide folks going to California over the new route, getting them to their destination safely. What the people did not know was that Hastings had never taken the shortcut and his promises went unfulfilled which spelled disaster for the 87 members of what would be the Donner Party. Hastings saw wonderful prospects for California. He saw a Utopia, building with the influx of emigrants moving to California where Hastings envisioned himself as the leader of the growing population there.
George and Jacob Donner were considered prosperous farmers at the time living in Springfield, Illinois. They were elderly brothers, George 60 and Jacob 56 when they decided California was where they wished to be. George, his third wife and their 5 children would make the journey. Jacob, his wife and their 7 children would travel the long, hard miles for life in a new territory. Each brother had three wagons, hired two teamsters and a friend who joined them for the trek westward. James F. Reed was also from Springfield, Illinois. He teamed up with the Donner families to migrate westward with his family.
At the time, he was 46 years old and with him were his wife, their four children and Mrs. Reed's Mother, Sarah Keyes, 75 years old. The Reed wagons were made to order. Nothing like the family wagon had crossed the plains before and from the description, it was the equivalent to a small RV today. The wagon, called the pioneer palace car, built for comfort during the journey. Sarah Keyes was an invalid, confined to her bed so the car in which she rode was geared for her comfort. There were spring seats with high backs and the small room held a sheet iron stove, the pipe running up through the canvas top. There was even a second story where the children slept and the wagon was equipped with ample storage.
The Reeds had two wagons loaded with provisions. The family pioneer palace required four yokes of oxen because of the size and excess weight. During some of the harder parts of the journey, this would become a point of contention between the party members. On April 16, 1846, the families of George and Jacob Donner and James F. Reed left their homes in Springfield, Illinois in nine brand new covered wagons. Tears filled their eyes as they bid farewell to friends and left for parts unknown.
It is said that the same day the Donners and Reeds left Springfield, Lansford Hastings prepared to head east from California to see what the shortcut was really like that he had been promoting. He had never taken the shortcut and had never done it in a wagon but his plans were to lead as many people to California as possible. The timing was essential for this journey especially going over the Sierra Nevada Mountains before the snows set in. The shortcut would minimize travel to San Francisco to four months, if it worked.
The Donner and Reed families arrived in Independence, MO by the second week in May. The rains had turned the roads to mud by that time. May 12 the two families rolled out of Missouri and a few days into the journey two riders brought mail and news that fighting had broken out between Mexico and the United States. Severe weather broke out over the wagon trains every night drenching the camps and scattering livestock. The trail had turned to mud so travel slowed to a laborious crawl.
On May 27 the wagon train was forced to stop on the on the eastern shore of the Big Blue River. The water was too high to cross without the use of rafts. The journey had been hard for Sarah Keyes and she passed away during the delay. A simple coffin was put together and her body was buried under a tree. Sarah Keyes was the first member of the party to die. It was two days after her burial that the last wagon was ferried across the Big Blue.
June 16 the party was on the Platte, two hundred miles away from Fort Laramie. June 27, and one week behind schedule the nine wagons rolled into Fort Laramie, a trading post in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. James Reed found an old friend there, James Clyman, a mountain man who had just returned from California by way of the Hastings Cutoff. Mr. Reed questioned his friend about the shortcut, eager to make some good travel time.
Clyman told him what lay ahead for them, vast desert and rugged mountains that could turn out to be an impractical route for the wagons. He recommended that Reed and the others follow the old trail and not leave it. James Clyman told Reed not to take wagons by way of the shortcut as it was dangerous and he warned them they would perish. The old route was safe and to go that way.
Stubbornly, Reed did not heed the advice given to him. Rather, he chose to risk taking the shortcut for the sake of saving time. The reasons Reed rejected the advice from Clyman can only be speculation. He must have felt the trek could be made successfully based on what Hastings had told him. He would be getting them to their destination sooner.
On July 17, the party crept slowly toward the Continental Divide. A rider approached the wagon train, delivering a letter from Lansford Hastings. In the letter, he instructed all of those in the wagon train to proceed to Fort Bridger in one group where he would meet and lead them over the new shortcut. The next day they crossed the Continental Divide, with 1,000 miles behind them to Independence, MO and 1,000 miles to go to reach their destination. The altitude and beautiful scenery was captivating.
Once the emigrants got beyond Fort Laramie, there was no turning back. Many did turn back realizing this was not what they had wanted. On July 20 the wagon train had reached the Little Sandy River. Most of the emigrants took the advice of James Clyman and turned right to follow the old route to California. The remaining twenty wagons went left toward Fort Bridger to meet their escort Lansford W. Hastings.
The next day a captain of the new party was to be elected. James Reed was the obvious choice but his wealth and manner had disagreed with many among the group. The party elected George Donner and thus, the name, the Donner Party. It was another week of travel before the Donner Party reached Fort Bridger, a trading post named after mountain man, Jim Bridger. To the disappointment of the Donner Party, Lansford Hastings was not there. He had taken another wagon train west just a week earlier.
The Donner Party rested and made repairs for the next four days. It was after that the party decided to proceed on their own. The party had hoped to make Sutter's fort in seven weeks, by way of the Hastings cutoff. Reed assured the people of water and grass, level road and a savings of about 400 miles on a better route. On July 31, the Donner Party left Fort Bridger and entered the entrance to Hastings Cutoff. The emigrants made good time for the first week, ten to twelve miles per day.
Following the wagon tracks of Hastings, they worked their way deeper into the mountains. Six days into the journey, at the bottom of Echo Canyon, they stopped. They discovered a note stuck in some sagebrush left by Hastings. It read that the trail ahead was impassable, advising them to wait until he could return to guide them along a better trail. James Reed left the wagon train to go find Hastings. It was five days of hard riding before he found him.
After finding another note from Lansford Hastings, telling the travelers to wait for his return so he could guide them a safer way, James Reed rode out to search for him. It took five days for Reed to catch up to the elusive Hastings. When he found Hastings, he refused to return with Reed to guide the party. Instead, he offered directions for what he thought would be a better route. Reed returned to his party with information that the way was strewn with boulders and pits. Many dead end canyons along the way could cause them to get lost. The route was thick with cottonwood and bushes that would require a lot of work to cut a trail. Hastings had said the shortcut would save 350 miles or a month of hard travel and walking. Imagine how saving that amount of miles and time sounded to already weary travelers. Would you have chanced the shortcut to save a month of extra travel, even if it required a bit more work to create a path?
Hundreds of emigrants heading west had taken the old trail successfully. Lansford W. Hastings was not only a lawyer but had authored a book, The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California. The book was as valuable as the Bible to those dreaming of a new, prosperous life out West. The members of the Donner Party felt torn as to what to believe and what to do. The women were against taking the new path and the men, especially James Reed, felt the new route was the way to go. The book had talked about a faster trail west and it was due to his encouragement that others chose to follow his lead. Time was of the essence now.
The next day the wagon train, guided by Reed, left the trail, and entered dense, tangled wilderness. The canyon was dark with rock walls so high only a small strip of sky was visible. To return to Fort Bridger would cost too much time and the snow would come and block the trail. Supplies were too short for spending the winter months at Fort Bridger. Everyone is feeling frustrated by now.
Delays were costing precious time. The party now found themselves on land not traveled by wagons before. They had to cut, chop, and hack a trail to get the wagons through the heavy forested land. Travel across the Wasatch was tediously slow. At best, they traveled two miles a day through forest and foliage. It took them six days to travel eight miles up Big Mountain. What should have taken them one week had ended up taking a full month and by this time, they were getting very discouraged and tired. One canyon lead to another and the men would have to work hard to clear so the wagons could continue through. When they thought they had come to the end of one canyon, they found they had only come to another.
It was August 22 when the wagon train emerged from the mountains. The weather in Utah in late summer is very hot and these poor folks had to have been hot, tired, and angry at what they had just experienced. This part of the shortcut had cost them valuable time and summer was almost gone. They still had six hundred hard miles to go before reaching their destination. Three days later on August 25, the second death in the Donner Party occurred. Luke Halloran died of consumption. The men buried Halloran in a place described as being very beautiful and peaceful.
The wagon train was back on level ground again and they hurried onward following Hastings tracks. They came to an area of clear, cool, refreshing springs only to discover another note, this one tattered and torn. One of the ladies in the party put the note pieces back together. The note told them they had two days and two nights of hard travel ahead crossing the desert, then, reaching water. This was probably the best news they had heard in a while and they felt more encouraged about going on. They gathered as much grass, water as they could carry, and headed into the range of hills.
Once across the rugged hills, before them they saw a vast expanse of glittering, white desert. They started across knowing that the livestock could not go more than one day without water. Hastings had misled them before and now all they could do was pray he was right about this being a two day journey. This area, known as the salt flats is nothing but salty white sand for a hundred miles. The salt flats are hard, white, and dead flat. Nothing grows upon the salt flats. It is an expanse of nothingness, no shade anywhere. It is not a place that people and livestock would want to be, especially in the grueling heat of summer.
The people that were part of the wagon train would not have known what lay ahead of them. They trusted Lansford Hastings advice and directions though so far nothing he had told them had worked out. The sun was hot, the white salt flats almost blinding as the party made their way across the open plain. By the third day of travel, their water was gone. Their eyes burned from the dry wind and some started to see mirages out on the horizon. The thirst was affecting everyone.
By the third night, Reed's oxen had run off into the desert, crazed with thirst. Some of the wagons had to be left behind because the animals had run off. Folks took only what they could carry with them. Mistrust of each other started to take over and each family took care of their own. The wagon train slowed to a snail's pace because of their exhaustion and thirst and now some of them had to walk. Whole families walked the last 20-30 miles across the desert at night, without water. The wagons advanced ahead of those walking.
When the Reed's caught up to the Donner wagon's they found everyone was already asleep. They spread one shawl on the ground, a second shawl over them and the dogs on top of them. The wind howled and the night was bitter cold. Nights on the high desert can turn very cold even when the temperatures during the day are searing with heat. The journey that was to take only two days, took the Donner Party five days. Eighty miles of dread and desolation, though Hastings had told them it was half the distance.
Several people almost died of thirst and thirty-six oxen were lost. Even the custom built wagons fell prey to abandonment when their oxen's were lost. The trek across the salt flats had left the emigrants in a state of despair. They cursed Hastings for his broken promises and false statements. They prayed and wept at the hardship they had endured. They could not return the way they had come to try to get back to Fort Bridger. The only thing they could do was push onward. Surely, the hardest part of the journey was behind them now, but was it?
Things were becoming tenser among the party members with each passing day. The situation was not good. They decided to take an inventory of their food provisions only to discover that what was they had was insufficient to last the rest of the journey. They camped where they were and during the night, a storm moved in. By morning, the hilltops were white with snow. The situation seemed very grim and their prayers for help went unanswered. They decided it was time to get some help so someone from the party had to ride ahead and bring relief from Sutter fort in California. It was their only hope to continue the journey.
Two men volunteered to ride for help, William McCutcheon and Charles Stanton rode out the next morning to bring relief to the weary, hungry emigrants. It was September 26 when the Donner Party reached the Humbolt River. Once again, they came to the old trail. Lansford Hastings had provided a shortcut that proved to be 125 miles longer and far more treacherous and time consuming than the old trail west.
James Clyman had been correct in his advice though it had fallen on deaf ears. With insufficient provisions, time delays and the feelings of hopelessness, the emigrants seemed doomed. The joy they had felt at going west had dissolved into exhaustion and despair. They were in strange territory still some distance from their destination, many of their most precious possessions abandoned in the desert with the wagons, and most of their livestock was gone. They knew they could not turn back; their only choice was to continue forward though the odds of them making it were getting slimmer all the time.
They had listened to a promoter who had not kept his promises who had misguided them along the way and now they paid the price. While the Donner Party had struggled to make it as far as they had, Hastings and a wagon train of 80 wagons had pulled into Sutter's fort. Almost all of the wagon trains moving westward had made it safely to California, except the Donner Party.
By the time the Donner Party reached the Humbolt River, patience was short and tempers flared easily. There had been several incidents of anger; the stress level among the people was very high. The day of October 5 was one example of frayed nerves and short tempers. The emigrants were slowly making their way up a steep, sandy incline. The wagon of one family became entangled with the Reed wagon. The driver of the other wagon angrily started beating the weary oxen with the butt of his bullwhip. Seeing what was happening, James Reed rushed over to stop the beating but the driver only became more enraged. He hit Reed on the head with his whip. In turn, Reed drew his hunting knife and as the driver raised his arm to strike again, Reed stabbed the driver in the chest. The driver stumbled up the hill and died.
Guards escorted James Reed and his family to their tent, guarded by friends while a decision as to whether the deed constituted murder or self-defense. The majority felt it was murder and the punishment should fit the crime. One man demanded Reed be hanged. Mrs. Reed pleaded for mercy for her husband. The majority decision was to banish Reed from the wagon train. The next day after the dead man was buried, Reed rode west, away from the party.
The family suffered greatly at his not being with them. The Donner Party slowly made their way down the Humbolt. The oxen were exhausted so everyone who could walk did so. They were desperate to get over the mountains to California before the winter snow blocked their passage. There had been no sign of McCutcheon or Stanton who had gone for help earlier. It felt like the party was coming apart, having lost two strong men recently.
On October 7, one of the emigrants threw an aging Belgian who had been traveling with him, out of his wagon. No one else would take the old man and being unable to walk he fell farther and farther behind the wagon train. He was last seen sitting by the side of the trail.
October 12 brought more trouble to the already distressed party of emigrants. Paiute Indians killed twenty-one oxen with poison arrows. More than 100 head of cattle had been lost by this time. The party would learn later that the old Belgian had been a victim of the Paiute's also. Above the party, out of sight but echoing through the canyon, the party could hear the Indians laughing at what they had done.
On October 16, the tired, discouraged, and battered party reached the Truckee, the gateway to the Sierra Nevada. By this time, it was easy to see that winter was coming quickly. The air was already cold and clouds hung low over the mountains. In their anxiety, many wanted to push on, but others desired rest for themselves and for the livestock.
By October 19, the food supply was depleted, but Charles Stanton rode into camp with seven mules loaded with food, from Sutter's fort. With Stanton were two Indian guides and good news. The high pass in the Sierra would not be blocked with snow for another month! The news, food, and guides were enough to give the emigrants something they had not had for a very long time. Hope.
In their relief and hopefulness, they decided to take time to rest and to rest their oxen for the final hard push over the mountains into California. They made camp fifty miles from the summit. Again, this sense of false security would seal their fate. The party started their journey once again.
On October 31, the front axle on the Donner wagon broke. George Donner went about cutting timber for the new axle and in the process, cut his hand badly. He and his family fell behind the rest of the group as they continued to hurry toward the summit. The concern and compassion these people had for one another at the onset of the wagon train was lost back on the salt flats. Now it was a matter of getting over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into California, as planned but now individually, not collectively.
Hope had returned when Stanton had crossed the mountains and returned with relief for the party. If Stanton could do it then they should be able to accomplish it also. Donner had told them they had come nearly 2,000 miles and had only 60 miles to go to get across the mountain range. They agreed that they could travel ten miles per day for the next six days, easily. Their hopes rose at the thought of finally crossing into California, everything they had worked so hard to achieve now within reach. Though the cattle were failing and the remaining wagons were almost empty, the party pushed to reach the top.
The sun was setting in the west, the skies were crystal clear, but there was a large circle around the moon that night. Everyone knows, the circle around the moon means a storm is brewing and moving in. The party made camp at the foot of the ridge near Truckee Lake, 1,000 feet beneath the dark summit. They watched, hoping the Donner family would catch up and praying the weather would hold. The Donner family did not come and during the night, up on the summit, it started to snow.
The emigrants had made camp at the foot of the ridge near Truckee Lake and during the night, snow started to fall. The next morning, the people made a desperate effort to get to the summit and through the pass before the snow deepened, and blocked their way. The snow had fallen through the night and accumulated to a depth of five feet. The wagons struggled in the snow and ice and started slipping on the steep ascent.
By now, the Donner Party was in a state of panic and they tried desperately to make some progress but the snow just got deeper until the wagons would not go. The mules were falling in the deep snow and the Indian guides finally admitted they could not find the trail. Stanton and one of the Indian guides made it to the summit but turned back. The emigrants they were leading were so exhausted they could not make it. As darkness fell, the people huddled together against the side of the mountain. The temperature dropped sharply, the winds howled bringing sleet and snow down around the Donner Party once again.
By morning, deep snow blocked the pass. The people had tried so hard for seven months to reach California only to find themselves held back by the harsh winter weather. By all accounts had they saved any time traveling, even one day, they could have made it over the summit and down the mountains to Sutter's fort. They had only 150 miles to go, to get there. Lansford Hastings promise of a shortcut had cost them the extra precious time they had needed. Realizing they were defeated, they retraced their steps to the lake and prepared a winter camp. The snow continued to fall. Weeks after leaving the Donner Party, James Reed stumbled out of the mountains into Sutter's fort.
However, in poor condition, he desperately sought help to save his family, still in the mountains. He pleaded with John Sutter for horses and supplies. Once he had them, he headed back into the mountains in hope of reaching his wife and children in time. It was raining in the valley but the rain had already turned to snow in the higher elevations. It was not long before Reed was forced to turn back, never reaching the summit.
There were not enough men at the fort to be of any help because of the war that had broken out with Mexico. Relief would have to wait until the weather broke. There were 81 members of the Donner Party now settling down to try and survive the bitter winter at Truckee Lake. There was one makeshift cabin, which the Breen family moved into while another member of the Donner Party built a lean-to for his family, up against the cabin. Four families crowded into a hastily built log cabin while another shack became home to Mrs. Reed, her four children and the Grave's family.
Meanwhile, on Alder Creek, six miles away, the families of Jacob and George Donner settled into tents to wait out the storm. Food was scarce and the cattle that remained were in a poor state, indeed. According to documents recorded at that time, the snow continued for eight days with little interruption. When there was a break between storms, the emigrants prayed and watched the summit, hoping that help would come. No help came. Two attempts to get over the pass resulted in their having to turn back.
The snowdrifts were 20 feet deep and nearly reached the tops of the trees. It was mid-November and by Thanksgiving, snow was falling once again. The snow accumulated with the passing of each stormy day and night. December 1, the horses and mules were gone and only a few cattle remained. By mid-December, fifteen of the strongest emigrants decided it was time to break out of their prison of deep snow. One member of the group set about fashioning snowshoes, which the Indians used to walk on the deep snow. They had little food to take with them but enough to last six days.
December 16, they started out, the crudely made snowshoes kept them from sinking down more than a couple of inches into the deep snow. After two days of tediously slow travel, they made it over the pass. Now the emigrants were facing a new, unexpected problem. Just as the miles of white salt flats had blinded them in the scorching sun, the bright whiteness of the snow caused snow blindness. This problem slowed their progress even more and by the sixth day, their provisions were gone. Stanton, who had been helping to guide the party was exhausted and snow blind. He urged his friends to continue without him as he sat down in the snow, smoking his pipe. Too exhausted and knowing if he went on with the others he would only slow them down, Stanton stayed behind, and no one ever saw him again.
By the ninth day, the 14 emigrants in the party knew they were lost, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and it had started to snow again. It was now Christmas Eve and they were at a loss as to what to do. They managed to get a fire lit but there had been no food for three days. Some of the people were so hungry they were delirious, yet still knew they were dying.
According to most of the accounts of the Donner Party, it was at this point someone suggested that if someone died, the others should take advantage of the opportunity and eat the body for strength to keep going. The sole purpose of such a suggestion was that those who died could provide strength for those who lived otherwise all would perish. By late night, the storm had grown in intensity, the wind, and snow dashing out the fire. They prayed that God would show them mercy and spare them certain death. They huddled together under a canopy of blankets as the snow continued to fall and the storm raged.
Several of the people died that night. By morning, the snow stopped falling and they were able to relight the fire. Those who had died became nourishment for the remainder of the starving emigrants. The two Indian guides refused to eat the food offered to them. There were ten emigrants still alive. The Indian guides, watching the feeding frenzy, slipped off into the woods. Meanwhile, back at the lake camp, one of the members of the group had just returned from the Donner camp, six miles away, with sad news. Four men had died, the rest of them were in poor shape. The snow was still falling in endless flurries.
December 31, the last day of the year and the situation had not improved for the Donner Party. They prayed to God for help, but no help came. The nights brought hard freezing, the days more storms, which meant more snow falling on the already deep snow. They had eaten boiled hide, tree bark, and what foliage they found, mixed with the tiny bits of meat they had left.
January 10, 1847, the U.S. took California from the Mexicans. It was now officially part of the United States in all but its name. The fighting was over and James Reed rushed to San Francisco to raise money and a relief party to save his family and friends. There were plans being made to rescue the Donner Party still trapped in the Sierra Nevada, though the emigrants could only pray they had not been forgotten. Just as their provisions, their hope was gone too.
On January 17, as the sun was setting in the western sky, Harriet Ritchie heard a knock on her door. Her family had a cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Harriet opened the front door and there before her, bleeding, stood the mere skeleton of a man. He was barely and in little more than a whisper, asked her for some bread. Tears filled her eyes as she helped the man into the warmth of her home. She helped him into bed, tending to his immediate needs.
Not far from the Ritchie cabin, a short way up the trail, were six surviving members of the fifteen emigrants who had tried to make it out of the mountains in mid-December. I feel certain that the people in the area had heard the story of the Donner Party stranded high in the mountains. Of the fifteen people who left the summit, only two men survived the ordeal. All five of the women survived.
After months of hardship, it is difficult to imagine the intense emotion these people must have felt when finding civilization. I am certain that Harriet Ritchie must have been the most beautiful of all the earthly angels these people had ever seen. It was only when the man who had stumbled onto Harriet Ritchie's doorstep was strong enough to speak that he talked about the hellish nightmare he and the others had been through. He talked about wandering through the snowy mountains lost and afraid.
Hunger that drove men to murder the two Indian guides whom when found in the woods, were too weak from hunger, to defend themselves. The woman, who had watched her beloved husband die then watched as parts of his body were consumed by those facing certain death without food. The seriousness of the situation that faced these people became abundantly clear and an alarm went out.
Hearing the stories that were spreading about the Donner Party, people feared what was in those mountains and volunteers to rescue those that remained alive up there, were few. There were men determined to attempt to rescue them because they realized if no one tried, they would all die. It would also be a disgrace to California and its people if no one made an effort at all.
On February 5, the first small relief party started slowly making their way into the snowy mountains from Johnson's ranch. Two days behind them, James Reed headed a second relief party. All the while, death hung near at the camp near Truckee Lake. In five days four more of the Donner Party had died. Outside of part of three hides now used for food, little else remained. In the wake of another miserable day, one lady lay awake looking up into the darkness of the night. She clasped her hands tightly and prayed to God above that if He would send relief and let her see her Father again, she vowed to become a Catholic. They were all dying and they knew it.
On February 19 the first relief party, freezing cold and exhausted, struggled over the summit, within sight of the lake. As the seven men got closer to the lake and crossed the ice, they were puzzled. Informed that this is where the people were camped, yet, they saw no one. As they scanned the area for any sign of life, one man shouted hello. Suddenly, they watched as a woman emerged from a hole in the snow. Others started to appear, also emerging from the snow. The relief party had found the survivors of the Donner Party.
As recorded, the scene before them was horrible. The first woman who emerged now spoke, her voice hollow. She asked if the men were from California or if they were from heaven. I am sure by this time, they really did not know if they were dead or alive. The rescuers described what they had found at the mountain camp. They were shocked to see twelve bodies lying on the snow, covered with quilts. Forty-eight emigrants had survived the ordeal, barely alive. Some had gone mad while others were so near death they could not be revived. The children had fared better than the adults under their Mothers care. The survivors at the lake camp had not resorted to cannibalism.
The rescue party could take only 24 of the starving survivors out of the mountains with them and time was of the essence. The Breen family chose to wait for the next rescue party. George Donner was so ill that the Donner family stayed behind as well. On February 22, the first party started back over the summit and down the mountain. With almost no food to spare, thirty-one people were left behind. The second relief party had better hurry. The ordeal was not over for them yet.
Over a period of two months, four more relief parties struggled through the severe winter in the Sierra Nevada to reach the starving emigrants. Two children died and more were barely clinging to life. The first party caught sight of the second relief party with James Reed in the lead. When Reed saw his wife and children, he hardly recognized them. The children begged for bread, as did the adults that remained in camp. It had been five months since Mrs. Reed had seen her husband and she almost fainted at the sight of him. Reed had felt certain that his family had perished. When Reed and the relief party reached the camp, it was a shambles.
Ten more people had died and this time the survivors had eaten the dead. The remains of the dead, bones, skulls and hair, lay between the cabins. The flesh of the dead had sustained the living. The survivors shivered in the bitter cold, in the filthy rags that were their clothes. The fiercest storm of winter moved in as the second party struggled over the mountains. The rescuers and emigrants huddled around a campfire and the snow had returned to cover them. It was ten more days before the third relief party found them and again, the only choice in order to survive was to eat the dead.
The third rescue party reached the lake camp to find that only seven people remained alive. The fourth rescue party was delayed for one month as the final blizzard made its way across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By the time they reached the camp, one man was alive, found in his cabin, delirious. It was April 21 when the last rescue party left the lake camp. Four days later, they reached Bear Valley and all the surviving members of the Donner Party had come out of the mountains.
It was almost one full year since the Donner families and the Reeds had left their homes in Illinois to find their dreams of life in California. The winter storms that blanketed the mountains that year were the worst ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada. Of the original 87 members of the Donner Party, 46 people survived the ordeal. The two Donner families had lost all four adults and four children, a loss greater than any other family in the party.
As with any big news, the story of the Donner Party spread across the country like wildfire. Newspapers printed stories that made those people sound like flesh eating ghouls who enjoyed feasting on their comrades. Migration westward declined sharply and the shortcut Hastings had promoted was no longer a feature to cut one month off of the travel west.
The next influx of people to California came in 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter's Creek. By the end of 1849 over 100,000 people had made their way to California. In fact, people were digging and panning for gold in the canyons and streams of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where the Donner Party had spent a grueling, tragic winter, suffering and dying. Those who survived the ordeal in the mountains made their homes in California and soon became part of the California population. Their lives went on in as normal a manner as possible. The lady, who vowed to God to become a Catholic if she survived, kept her promise, to her Father's dismay. Lansford Hastings went back into the practice of law but tired of it very quickly.
After the Civil War, he wrote, The Emigrants Guide to Brazil, still dreaming of Utopia. He died in 1870 trying to establish a colony in South America. Writing the story of the Donner Party was insightful for me. The story shows so many facets of human nature, and the fact that we are survivors, no matter what it takes. We see this in the animal kingdom all the time as the strong take over the weak to survive.
Until the time I began the research into this story, no one I spoke with knew the story nor could they recommend any books on the subject. Almost everything written is dated and out of print. The subject of the Donner Party was always met with oohs and aahs or snide remarks about cannibalism. Some folks would snicker at the thought of what took place but offered nothing in the way of knowledge on the subject. It was a strange story filled with discrepancies even down to the diaries written by those who were members of the party.
I was pleasantly surprised after Part 2 came out in the newsletter, at the response from two people who had read the story. One email was from a dear lady who took extensive Indian Culture courses in college. Her closest friend is Paiute and she kindly informed us that the facts about the Paiute Indians and the Donner Party were inaccurate. The Paiutes knew the Donner Party would die on their journey without food. The tribe had left freshly butchered Buffalo meat along the trail for the pioneers.
However, the members of the Donner Party refused the meat, thinking the Indians had poisoned it. Had they accepted the gifts of meat, they would have survived their ordeal and not starved to death. During the times that the members of the Donner Party did not trust each other, common sense dictates they would have no trust in the Native people trying to help them survive. They faced certain death because they put their trust in someone who misled them in ignorance. He offered a shortcut he had not seen, saying it was suitable for wagons, not knowing whether it was or not. Obviously, he was wrong in what he promoted and yet folks believed him because he had written a book about the trail west.
It was not long before another email came in from a lady who is a direct descendant of the Breen family and the Reeds, survivors of the Donner Party. She explained that some of the information in the article was incorrect as well. The diary written by Patrick Breen remains in the possession of her family. The pages are faded and very fragile from age, some containing what look like watermarks. It is kept under lock and key to prevent further deterioration of the diary. She has offered to provide accurate information on the Donner Party and the truth as documented by Patrick Breen himself.
Getting accurate information from both of these ladies is an exciting prospect. There have always been gaps and question marks regarding the Donner Party, even to the point of the exact location of the Donner tent site at Alder Creek. Because of the hard work and research of a professor at the University of Nevada in Reno, facts on the exact site are changing. Even with what has been learned about the site, discrepancies and disagreements have arisen. In so many areas of our history and science we are finding what was thought to be true, ain't necessarily so!
As for the facts regarding the events that took place when 87 members of a wagon train headed west and ended in tragedy indicate there are some facts that remain iffy or unknown. To the best of my knowledge the information I have shared in this article, are true, according to my limited sources.
As more information on the Donner Party comes to us, we will share that information with our readers. If we do in fact, learn more from the people of the Paiute nation, we will be getting more of an overall picture of what took place from a greater perspective. Hearing both sides of a story is always far better than hearing one side. Like the attorney who tells clients wanting a divorce, there is his side of the story, her side, and the truth. The basis of the story of human beings struggling to survive terrible odds remains true. That has not changed.
The Donner Party did everything, in their way of thinking, humanly possible to stay alive under the worst conditions and the worst winter recorded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For the members of the Donner Party, the nightmare was real.
In October 2003, the IGHS is sponsoring a seminar-tour package in Reno, Nevada. We are making every effort to arrange for those attending to be taken to the site of the tragedy in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We will be providing a bus for transportation up to Donner Lake and Alder Creek. The hands on experience investigating an area of known tragedy and ghost activity will be a landmark occasion for those participating.
This is something that has not been done before but we feel it is an important site of activity and wish to share the experience with other, serious researchers. Join us for this special event. The trip to Donner Pass will be an experience you will never forget. The information on the Reno event is on the Ghostweb. Check it out and join us.
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