When I was a little girl, my family drove over Donner Pass, elevation 7,057 feet, to get to Lake Tahoe, and I clearly remember shivering at my parents’ brief mention of gruesomeness. Truly, all most people recall about the Donner Party is, well, cannibalism.
Since then, I’ve learned more about this brave group of hard-working, normal, middle-class Midwesterners faced with the unimaginable. They were not ghouls or zombies. And their stories have so touched my heart I’ve decided to share some of them with you this year.
First off, a short summary:
In mid April 1846, an Illinois businessman James Reed, 45, organized a wagon-train trek to California, consisting of 8 families. His ill wife Margret needed a warmer climate. She, her four children and her mother came along.
Farmer George Donner, 60, accompanied by his wife Tamzene and his five daughters, was named “Captain” of the journey. Along the way, they picked up other travelers until the wagon train was two miles long.
Reed claimed they’d spend four months on the trail.
Although the train left a tad late, the journey proved quite unremarkable. Until Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Despite strong warnings from knowledgeable mountain-man James Clyman, James Reed made a decision both fateful and fatal. He insisted on taking the “Hastings Cut-off”, an unproven shortcut through Utah’s Great Salt Desert that was supposed to shave 300 miles off their ETA.
At Bridger, the Donner Party–87 travelers including 45 children–separated from the main group.
Tragically, the Donner party’s short-cut proved a long-cut, adding nearly a month of misery and loss to their travels. As they finally approached the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in late October, they encountered their fiercest enemy of all.
The winter of 1846-47 had begun a month early, drenching the mountain passes and trapping the 81 pioneers at two camps, the main group at Truckee Lake. George Donner’s family group had fallen behind due to a broken wagon axle. They bivouacked six miles away in a grove at Alder Creek.
Their entrapment would last four months.
Each camp set up hasty shanties and tents, slaughtered remaining oxen, and hoarded whatever food they could. Supplies could not be replenished. During the ordeal of the “Hastings Cut-off,” many cattle had perished or run off seeking water. As snow deepened, the remaining horses, mules and cows –all possible food sources, were buried, never to be found.
Large game animals had retreated from the frigid conditions, making hunting impossible. And incredibly, the pioneers had no animal traps to obtain smaller game. Perhaps worst of all, Truckee (now called Donner) Lake had frozen too thick for fishing.
After sacrificing beloved family dogs–actually a much-needed source of warmth during brutal nights in damp clothes, the starving pioneers started in on the tough animal hides they were using for shelter. However, cannibalism upon those who had already died came to be the only solution.
Yes, there were brave, strong members who tried to trudge up through the blinding conditions on foot, to seek help from Sutter’s Fort (think Sacramento), nearly a hundred miles away. Four relief parties forged up the mountains’ west side with provisions, much of which was lost to wild animals, and helped to evacuate the strongest. By late February, 1847, all 48 survivors had reached safety in California. But these are stories for another day.
During that heartbreaking winter, 20 snowstorms, with blizzards lasting as long as 8 days, buried the Donner party in 25 feet of snow. While these hearty pioneers were well experienced with Midwestern winters, nothing had prepared them for the ferocity of Pacific storms.
Today, the museum at Donner Lake heralds these brave souls. The brick portion of the monument above shows the depths of snow that tried to defeat the Donner Party.
Now a gorgeous summer and winter resort, Donner Lake is one of those sacred places in American history not to be missed. Have any of you stopped by?
(photos courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution-Share and Frank Mullen.)
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