The Donner Party Disaster

175 years ago this month, rescue teams from Sacramento California came to rescue survivors of the terrible disaster that occurred in 1846- 847. 

It was just 13 years before silver was discovered in Nevada when 87 pioneers on their way to California became stranded in the Donner Summit area during the terrible winter in 1846.

Every time I travel over Interstate 80 to California, I think back to that time and reflect on the hardships faced by these poor souls who suffered so much during that terrible time. A huge memorial statue of the Donner Party can be seen along the highway at Donner Lake.

George and Jacob Donner, James Reed, the Murphy family, several hired hands and a large number of family members and children totaling 87 people crossed the truckee Meaows and rested at Donner Springs near Rattlesnake Mountain. 

They had 23 covered wagons and it was already rather late to attempt crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but the party was determined to make up time after taking the Hastings Cutoff near Elko. 

The wagons made the climb up Dog Valley Road south of Verdi, then veered southwest through Alder Creek Valley toward the summit now named Donner Summit after the ill-fated leader of the Party. Being somewhat spread out, the wagons were caught in two groups by an early major snowstorm at the end of October. 

Some of them were forced to camp at Alder Creek Valley, and the larger portion were stopped by the deep drifts of snow near the shores of Donner Lake about six miles away.

The snow came so quickly and unexpectedly that the oxen could not pull the wagons any further and much of the livestock and many wagons became buried in the deep drifts. 

Unable to travel, the people quickly set about to construct crude cabins and make a semi-permanent camp until they could resume travel or relief came to rescue them. Provisions were already running exceedingly low and the people found themselves on the verge  of starvation.

 They soon found that they had to butcher their horses, oxen and even their pet dogs to cook for the hungry families.

Those in the Alder Creek camp were able to take a few deer and other smaller game to supplement what they had. 

The women soon learned that long hours of boiling could make oxen hides, leather harnesses and even old shoes somewhat edible. Cooking fires were made from burning oak wagon parts and whatever wet pine and spruce could be cut. Some of the oxen were missing and assumed to have run off. 

It was not until the snow melted in the spring that some of these were found frozen in the snow within a few feet of the crude cabins. This was after many of the group had already died from starvation.

In mid-December of 1846, fifteen of the entrapped emigrants including ten men and five women made snowshoes from parts of oxen yoke and set out for Sutter’s Fort  in Sacramento, about 100 miles away. A blizzard hit these travelers and took the lives of eight of the men. 

Two  men and all five women survived largely from cannibalizing those who had died. The survivors finally reached Sutter’s Fort on January 18, 1847.

When word reached Sacramento, a total of four rescue parties were organized to attempt to bring the unfortunate travelers in the mountains back to safety. 

Between February 22 and April 17, these four relief parties brought back a total of 43 survivors. By the time the second relief party arrived about March 1st, there were some reports of cannibalism at the two camps. The official count shows that of the original 87 pioneers. 39 died and 48 survived. Five died before reaching the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 14 died at Donner Lake Camp and 12 died while trying to escape over Donner Summit. Two American Indians who helped with the rescue effort also died, bringing the total to 41 dead.

Just two years after the Donner Party disaster, the 1849 California Gold Rush began. With the memory of the disaster fresh in the memory of most emigrants, special effort was made to keep travelers from meeting a similar fate. 

Californians funded relief teams during the gold rush and sent men and horses eastward along the trails with food and water for late-season travelers. This effort undoubtedly saved many lives.

Western transportation developed quickly following the Donner disaster. in little over 20 years the Central Pacific Railroad crossed the Sierras with massive snow sheds along the route over Donner Summit to keep snow drifts off the tracks. Today with modern snow removal equipment, travel over the Sierras is no longer an ordeal such as that of the Donner Party.

This edited article is from Dennis Cassinelli’s book, “Chronicles of the Comstock” Being in short supply, it is now available from Amazon as an e-book