- Historic Sites
The tragic journey of the Donner Party
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
But then at last they had some encouragement: a pack train came loping down the trail out of the west. It was Stanton, returning from Suiter’s Fort with seven pack mules loaded with food and with two of Sutler’s Indian vaqueras to guide them. Here was hope for ihe first time in weeks: food, and word that Reed had gotlen ihrough (lhough he had nearly slarved), and that McCutchen had given out on the crossing and was laid up at Sutler’s. Word, too, that the mountain passes were still open. Yes, there had been snow. They could see it on the peaks above them when the clouds gave way. But at this time of year, Stanton had been told, it would be nearly a month before the pass was blocked.
So they still had time, they told themselves. They could even afford to rest a few days in this grassy meadow before starting the push for the summit. (How long it had been since they had seen grass so tall, so green!) And having rested, they started in three small groups up the rugged canyon of the Truckee River, and reached Truckee (now Donner) Lake at the end of October. Just ahead loomed the summit: a wall of granite rising two thousand feet above the lake.
It was the worst obstacle on the whole grueling journey, not least because it came at the end, when men and animals were so worn down. Even the parties that had gone before—in good time and in fair weather—had found the effort exhausting. As many as fifteen yoke of oxen had to be used to pull a single wagon up the steep trail that led to the summit at Emigrant Gap. Every man was needed to handle the ropes and crowbars and to block the wheels. More than one wagon had gone over the side. But the job could be done, and now the first group of the Donner Party began struggling up the slope.
They found the pass already blanketed with five feet of snow—too deep for the wagons. They went back to the lake, waited out a day of rain (snow higher up), and started again, this time with their belongings packed on the backs of oxen. Stanton and one of Sutler’s Indians made it to the summit. They could have gone down the western slope, but they turned back to help the others. The others were spent. They could not go on. They camped. They would go over the summit in the morning. But that night a snowstorm blew in and they awoke to find themselves half buried, the cattle gone, the snow too deep for them to move ahead. So again they turned back. Later, when the snow stopped, they could try again. (The season was still early; the snow might still melt.) Meantime, the men set to work building huts of logs and brush and canvas from the wagon tops. The lead group set up near the lake, while the Donner brothers, their families, and their teamsters went into camp five or six miles down the trail, at Alder Creek.
It snowed almost continuously for eight days. Reed and McCutchen, leading a relief train of pack horses up the western slope, pushed through shoulder-deep snow until they could go no further and had to turn back. The Donner Party was on its own.
It numbered eighty-two people now, many of them children. And they knew the worst: winter had come early and they were trapped. They could still hope that a relief party would reach them from Sutler’s, but in the meantime they would have to survive as best they could by eating their cattle and hunting. But who among them could have imagined that snow could get so deep? They were plains people, not mountaineers. They did not know what to expect of a winter in the Sierra. There, in the high passes, thirty feet of snow has been known to fall in a month. By February it can be packed sixty feet deep.
Day by day the weather grew colder and the snow grew deeper. The people killed most of the cattle, hoping that the snow and cold would preserve the meat. William Eddy, the party’s one good shot, managed to bag a coyote with a borrowed rifle: also an owl, two ducks, a squirrel, and then a grizzly bear. But after that there was nothing. The deer and elk had descended below the snow line and the bears were staying in their dens.
Twice in November those who were most able tried to get over the divide in hopes of saving themselves and their children and of bringing relief to the others. The second time, they actually got over and started down the other side. They had been using Sutler’s mules to break a trail, however, and when the animals gave out, Stanton refused to go on without them. The mules were Captain Sutler’s property; lhey musl be relumed. The party went back, and soon afterward anolher storm broke. All lhe remaining caille and horses were losl under lhe snow, and so were Sutler’s mules. The huts, too, were buried, leaving only ' tunnels to the doorways and holes where the chimneys stood. The light was shut out.
Early in December, young Baylis Williams died—nol from slarvalion, for some food was left, but from malnulrition. A few days later, old Jacob Donner (who had dreamed of warm California) died and was buried in snow. Stanion and Uncle Billy Graves, who knew New England winters, showed the olhers how to make snowshoes. Thus equipped, a few, perhaps, could gel out and get help.
The snowshoers (the party later known as lhe Forlorn Hope) slarted for the pass in mid-December—fifteen men and women, including a boy of twelve, Stanion, Eddy, and Suiter’s iwo Indians, who knew the trail. They took with them all the food thai could be spared—two mouthfuls a day for six days—for a journey thai was Io lasl more lhan a month.