In mid April 1846, eight families gathered at Springfield, Il with a common goal – to find a better life beyond the Rockies. Numbering about thirty-two members that ranged in age from infants to the elderly, the expedition pointed their nine brand-new wagons west on a journey that would lead them into history.
The trek had been organized by James Reed, a businessman who hoped to prosper in California. He also sought to find a temperate climate that would alleviate his wife’s physical maladies. George Donner, a sixty-year-old farmer was chosen as the wagon train’s captain and the expedition took his name. They estimated it would take four months to accomplish their objective. As they traveled to the Mississippi River they joined other adventurers with the same goal until their caravan stretched for two miles while under way. Although tedious, their journey was uneventful until reaching the small trading post at Fort Bridger in modern-day Wyoming in mid-July. Here a fateful decision was made.
Before leaving Illinois, James Reed had heard of a newly discovered route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that promised to cut as many as 300 miles off their journey. It was at Fort Bridger that some eighty-seven members of the wagon train, including the Donner bothers and their families, decided to separate from the main body and travel this new route west. All of those who traveled the old route ended their journey safely. This was not the case with those who took the alternative path.
The culprit was snow. As the Donner Party approached the summit of the Sierra Mountains near what is now Donner Lake (known as Truckee Lake at the time) they found the pass clogged with new-fallen snow up to six feet deep. It was October 28, 1846 and the Sierra snows had started a month earlier than usual. They retreated to the lake twelve miles below where the hapless pioneers were trapped, unable to move forward or back. Shortly before, the Donner family had suffered a broken axle on one of their wagons and fallen behind. Also trapped by the snow, they set up camp at Alder Creek six miles from the main group.
Each camp erected make-shift cabins and horded their limited supply of food. The snow continued to fall, reaching a depth of as much as twenty feet. Hunting and foraging were impossible and soon they slaughtered the oxen that had brought them from the East. When this meat was consumed, they relied on the animals’ tough hides. But it was not enough. Starvation began to take its toll. With no other remedy at hand, the survivors resorted to cannibalism.
In mid-December a group of fifteen donned makeshift snowshoes and trudged through blizzard conditions in an attempt to break through the pass and into California. Seven (five women and two men) survived to alert the community at Sutter’s Fort of the Donner Party’s plight. A series of four rescue parties were launched with the first arriving at the Donner camp in late February. Between them, the rescuers were able to the lead forty-eight of the original eighty-seven members of the party to safety in California.
Patrick Breen was a member of the Donner Party and kept a diary of their ordeal during the winter of 1846-47. His description was first published as an article in a Nashville, TN newspaper in the spring of 1847 and later in a book published in 1879. We join his story about three weeks after the Donner Party arrived at the blocked pass:
Truckey’s Lake. November 20, 1846
Came to this place on the thirty-first of last month; went into the pass; the snow so deep we were unable to find the road, and when within three miles from the summit, turned back to this shanty on Truckey's Lake; Stanton came up one day after we arrived here; we again took our teams and wagons, and made another unsuccessful attempt to cross incompany with Stanton; we returned to this shanty; it continued to snow all the time. We now have killed most part of our cattle, having to remain here until next spring, and live on lean beef, without bread or salt. It snowed during the space of eight days, with little intermission, after our arrival, though now clear and pleasant, freezing at night; the snow nearly gone from the valleys.
Fine morning; wind northwest; twenty-two of our company about starting to cross the mountains this day, including Stanton and his Indians.
Same weather; wind west; the expedition cross the mountains returned after an unsuccessful attempt.
Cloudy; looks like the eve of a snow-storm; our mountaineers are to make another trial to-morrow, if fair; froze hard last night.
Still snowing; now about three feet deep; wind west; killed my last oxen to-day; gave another yoke to Foster; wood hard to begot.
Snowing fast; looks as likely to continue as when it commenced; no living thing without wings can get about.
Still snowing; wind west; snow about six or seven and a half feet deep; very difficult to get wood, and we are completely housed up; our cattle all killed but two or three, and these, with the horses and Stanton's mules, all supposed to be lost in the snow; no hopes of finding them.
Beautiful sunshine; thawing a little; looks delightful after the long storm; snow seven or eight feet deep.
The morning fine and clear; Stanton and Graves manufacturing snow-shoes for another mountain scrabble; no account of mules.
Fine weather; froze hard last night; wind south-west; hard work to find wood sufficient to keep us warm or cook our beef.
Commenced snowing about eleven o'clock; wind northwest; took in Spitzer yesterday, so weak that he cannot rise without help; caused by starvation. Some have scanty supply of beef; Stanton trying to get some for himself and Indians; not likely to get much.
Snowed fast all night, with heavy squalls of wind; continues to snow; now about seven feet in depth.
Snows faster than any previous day; Stanton and Graves, with several others, making preparations to cross the mountains on snow-shoes; snow eight feet on a level.
Fair and pleasant; froze hard last night; the company started on snow-shoes to cross the mountains; wind southeast.
Pleasant; William Murphy returned from the mountain party last evening; Baylis Williams died night before last; Milton and Noah started for Donner's eight days ago; not returned yet; think they are lost in the snow.
last night; thawing to-day; wind northwest; a little singular for a thaw.
Clear and pleasant; Mrs. Reed here; no account from Milton yet. Charles Burger started for Donner's; turned back; unable to proceed; tough times but not discouraged. Our hope is in God. Amen.
Milton got back last night from Donner's camp. Sad news; Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Rhinehart, and Smith are dead; the rest of them in a low situation; snowed all night, with a strong southwest wind.
Clear to-day; Milton took some of his meat away; all well at their camp. Began this day to read the 'Thirty Days' Prayers;' Almighty God, grant the requests of unworthy sinners!
Rained all night, and still continues; poor prospect for any kind of comfort, spiritual or temporal.
Began to snow yesterday, snowed all night, and snows yet rapidly; extremely difficult to find wood; uttered our prayers to God this Christmas morning; the prospect is appalling, but we trust in Him.
Cleared off yesterday, and continues clear; snow nine feet deep; wood growing scarce; a tree, when felled, sinks into the snow and is hard to be got at.
Last of the year. May we, with the help of God, spend the coming year better than we have the past, which we propose to do if it is the will of the Almighty to deliver us from our present dreadful situation. Amen. Morning fair, but cloudy; wind east by south; looks like another snow¬storm. Snow-storms are dreadful to us. The snow at present is very deep.
Jan 1, 1847.
We pray the God of mercy to deliver us from our present calamity, if it be His holy will. Commenced snowing last night, and snows a little yet. Provisions getting very scanty; dug up a hide from under the snow yesterday; have not commenced on it yet."
Fair during the day, freezing at night. Mrs. Reed talks of crossing the mountains with her children.
Fine morning; looks like spring. Mrs. Reed and Virginia, Milton Elliott, and Eliza Williams started a short time ago with the hope of crossing the mountains; left the children here. It was difficult for Mrs. Reed to part with them.
Eliza came back yesterday evening from the mountains, unable to proceed; the others kept ahead.
Mrs. Reed and the others came back; could not find their way on the other side of the mountains. They have nothing but hides to live on."
This eyewitness account appears in: McGlashin, C.F., History of the Donner Party (1879, republished 1918): Hough, Emerson, The Passing of the Frontier (1920); Stewart, George R., Ordeal by Hunger, the Story of the Donner Party (1936).
How To Cite This Article:
"The Tragic Fate of the Donner Party, 1847" EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2009).