Just One Day From Survival - The Donner Party
- November 1, 1846 - The Sierra-Nevada Mountains
- The Donner Party (the families of George and Jacob Donner and James Reed, et al) are trapped, in the snows, just
to the east of the pass that should have led them down into the Sacramento Valley. This wagon train will become
known as one of the most infamous of the treks of the pioneers - will become synonymous with bad luck, bad advice,
in-fighting, murder, and .... cannibalism.
- Starting their trek late in the season, they were the last major wagon train of 1846 - as much as three weeks behind
the previous travelers. At Fort Bridger, in present-day Wyoming, they received ill-founded advice that they should take
the 'Hastings Cut-off' which would supposedly save 400 miles by the time they re-joined the main trail near the Humboldt
River. The cut-off did not save them any time - instead, they were met with steep, rocky, canyons filled with almost impassable
timber and dead-falls. The party took 28 days to travel from Fort Bridger to the Salt Lake Valley, a trip that takes about
two hours by modern automobile along Interstate 80. It took them almost another month to trek across the desert to the
Humboldt River, reaching that point on September 30th.
- On October 5th, James Reed and John Snyder got into a heated argument with Reed plunging his knife into Snyder's chest.
Many of the members wanted to hang Reed for the murder, but instead it was decided to banish him from the wagon train,
although the rest of his family was allowed to remain in the party. Reed, and another man, pushed on ahead, enduring
hard-ships, but finally arriving at Sutter's Fort on October 29th. Reed immediately began organizing a party to take food to
the travelers and to bring the rest of his family through to California.
- Meanwhile, the rest of the wagon train was struggling through the mountains just east of Truckee Pass. Some of the advance
members reached the eastern side of the pass on the night of October 31st. The pass was open, but they decided to rest
for the night. That night the snow began to fall heavily, by morning there were five-foot snowdrifts ... and more snow and
freezing rain - the pass was effectively closed for the season.
- Seeing their passage blocked, the party members began constructing crude cabins to protect them from the worst of the
weather. Log cabins, oxhide and canvas tents, lean-tos, would have to suffice the eighty-one pioneers through the long winter.
- Ten men, five young women, and two young boys attempted to push through the pass to California. They endured terrible
weather, starvation, frost-bite, and resorted to eating their dead companions. On January 17th, 1847, one of the party
stumbled into a settlement in the Sacramento Valley. One other man, and the five young women, were found barely alive on the
back trail, the others had perished in the snows - some of those had provided nourishment for the survivors.
- The situation was not any better near Truckee Lake. With no provisions, no game to be found, the oxen having wandered
off, the situation was desperate. The pioneers ate their dogs, boiled the oxhides from their tents, toasted fur rugs, eating anything that
might help keep them alive.
- Starvation, and the weather, combined to kill many of the travelers. The dead were buried in shallow snow-graves, but the
wolves were digging up the bodies. Sometime around mid-February, the survivors began eating the dead.
- The first of four rescue parties arrived in the vicinity near the end of February, and began to take the survivors through to
California. By mid-April, the fourth rescue party found only one survivor left, lying beside a pot that contained the liver and
lungs of a young boy. Of the 81 travelers stopped by the snows of October 31st, only 47 survived to make it to California.
- Young Virginia Reed sent advice back home to a cousin, "Never take no cut ofs and hury along as fast as you can." [sic].
- Suggested Reading:
- Breen, Patrick
- Patrick Breen's Diary
- Farquhar, Francis P.
- History of the Sierra Nevada
- Horn, Huston
- The Pioneers (Time-Life Old West Series)
- Keithley, George
- The Donner Party
- McGlashan, C.F.
- History of the Donner Party : A Tragedy of the Sierra
- Paden, Irene D.
- Prairie Schooner Detours
- Stewart, George R.
- Ordeal by Hunger : The Story of the Donner Party