I have walked the Alder Creek meadows, and the trails around the lake and I found it difficult to conceive of the anguish and horrors that haunt those places. It was mid-May and warm and green and filled with life. Song birds flitted in the tall pines and deer cautiously peeked at me from the shadows. It was only when I paused to read the inscription at the base of the statue that it occurred to me that I had been aiming too low. The inscription explains that the snow that winter was almost as high as the stone base of that statue, 22 feet above my head. The horror at Donner Lake and The Meadows had happened twenty-eight feet in the air, on top of that snow.It began as a romantic’s quest. The Gold Rush would not begin for two years when they set out from Ohio, in April of 1846: George Donner and his brother Jacob and their families, along with the family of James Reed: including hired hands, thirty-three souls all together, with oxen and cattle and chickens, all bound for California. In mid-May, while crossing the Green Rive Basin over the Rocky Mountains, they met a misbegotten bunch who had read of a “better way west”, a shortcut called the “Hastings Cutoff”. It was the brainchild of Landsford Hastings, a better author than a trailblazer. And on Monday, 31 August, 1846, the two groups elected George Donner as their leader. They then turned their backs on the established trail at Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Their numbers had grown to 89 humans in 21 wagons.
The “Cutoff” was a disaster from the very beginning. It twisted and wound up and through and over the Wasatch Mountains. You cannot imagine the difficulties until you have walked a hundred yards up hill, straight through a dense wood. Now imagine trying to clear a path through those same woods for a Conestoga wagon, five feet wide and sixteen feet long, without springs, with iron sheathed stiffened wooden wheels, pulled by four oxen and loaded with seven tons of everything you think you might require to start your life over. At the summit they walked themselves to the very edge of a cliff with no room to turn around, and had to unload the wagons and then lower them and their cargo and their oxen on ropes to the valley below. They finally rejoined the trail on Saturday, 26 September. The shortcut of the “Cutoff” had left them three weeks behind.After the mountains, came the desert, where, at the “Humboldt Sink”, an entire river is consumed by the heat. By the first week in October the bold romantics had started to die. A sixty year old farmer from Ohio, known to them only as Mr. Hardcoop, was the first member of the Donner Party to die. His feet had swollen to bursting, and he was abandoned beneath a sage brush in the Nevada desert. Finally, on Thursday, 15 October they reached the valley of the Truckee River, and at Truckee Meadows - modern day Reno - they paused, spending six precious days gathering their strength for the hurdle that faced them; the abrupt, front wall of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.Stand on the shore of Mono Lake (to the south of the Truckee) and you see what gave these romantics pause. A sudden and steep wall of granite rises 1,500 feet straight into the air. And that is only the first step of a staircase that quickly climbs to over 12.000 feet. The “notch” or “Pass” through the mountains that the Donner party sought out stands at 7,000 feet high. And there the moist Pacific air climbing the gentle western slope of the Sierra, meets two lakes (Tahoe and Donner) and produces 415 inches of snow in an average year. In an average year winter storms produce ridge line winds of 100 miles an hour and higher, and temperatures down to -45 F. It was into this that the Donner Party began to climb the last days of October, 1846. There was already a dusting of snow in the pass. But this was not destined to be an average year in the Sierra.It started to snow heavily on Saturday, 31 October 1846 - Halloween. The party was already broken. A wagon had flipped over and snapped an axle. George Donner and his family had stopped along Alder Creek to repair it. Meanwhile the majority had pressed six miles farther on. They had actually reached the summit of the Sierras. They were at the very edge of safety. Had they been one day, maybe one hour, sooner, they might have made it. They would have all lived. But within hours of that first gentle flake floating down to melt on a human cheek, six feet of snow fell, driving the romantics back to the eastern shore of the lake where there was a cabin and level ground. And there they stayed. And there almost half of them died.
There were ten major storms that winter. A January storm formed ice in San Francisco, and in March it snowed in Monterrey. At Alder Creek, where the winter was not quite as harsh as at the summit, George Donner cut trees off at the top of the snow pack, leaving a record of what they faced. At the pass itself the snow was ten to fifteen feet higher.
The wonder is not that so many died, or that they were reduced to cannibalism, but that any at all lived. In that endless winter, 41 died and 46 survived. Out of fifty-five males, thirty-two died. Out of thirty-four women just nine died. All the single males over twenty-one years old starved to death.
On Thursday, 29 April, 1847, Louis Keseberg (above), a 32-year-old German immigrant., with $225 in stolen gold coins hidden in his waistcoat, was carried into Sutters’ Fort, at present day Sacramento, California. He was the last survivor of the Donner Party to be rescued, having survived 181 days trapped in the snowy mountains. Branded a cannibal, Louis died in 1895. Wrote a newspaperman, “He took his last breath in a hospital for the poor. The only thing in his pockets was lint. ”
And in 1935, Iabella Breen McMahon, who had been a one year old infant during that starvation winter, died at the age of 79. She was the last survivor of the Donner Party to die.If you get the chance to walk Alder Creek meadows, or the trails around the Eastern edge of Donner Lake please, say a prayer for all of those who preceded you. And for all of us who are destined to follow.
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