A Donner Party Winter


Lake Tahoe has had record-breaking snowfall this year. Snow is falling so fast that the ski resorts have had to close some days because of the chance of avalanches. When was the last time Tahoe has seen twenty-five feet of snow in one month?

I am not a meteorologist, but one equally snowy year comes to mind. That would be 172 years ago.  In the spring of 1846 the Donner party headed to California from Illinois. The group of 89 people, led by the elder Donner brothers and their young families, included many families and many single men. The Donner party traveled with other western-bound families along the Oregon Trail but split off in September from the main group to take the Hastings cut-off. Unfortunately they didn’t find the actual cut-off and ended up carving a new road in the wilderness that slowed them down for a month.

The Donner party might have still made it except for the fact that they had to get over the Sierra Nevada mountain range before winter set in. An early October storm stopped them in their tracks. They had no choice but to turn back and set up camp in a sheltered spot for the winter.

The families with oxen were in the best shape. The animals were exhausted, and there was no more food to feed them. They were eaten one at a time.  The young children were in danger of starving to death, but the single men were the first to die. Storm after storm battered the group, which had settled in two camps.  One of the Donner brothers had gashed his hand while repairing a wagon, so the two Donner families and some single men camped away from the main group.

“Why didn’t they just go back to Reno?” someone asked me.

Uh, it was 1846.

Reno did not exist.  The closest settlement was Sutter’s Fort in what is now Sacramento, an unreachable place on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

November, December, and January brought more snow, the highest level of snow to date. You can see the monument at the Donner Summit museum.

The city folk in the party didn’t know how to hunt of even fish for food. They resorted to chewing on ox hides and boiling anything they could find.

As more and more people died, the families were desperate. Who’s to say we wouldn’t have done the same to save our children, to save ourselves?

Rescue parties finally arrived in late February on account of one man being banished from the party. James Reed made it to Sutter’s Fort and told others about the group left behind, including his wife and four children.  But the rescue party didn’t find eighty-nine people to save.  Only half of the original group made it through the winter.

A Facebook friend commented the other day that Tahoe was having a bad winter, and I made a comment that we are having a Donner Party winter. She replied that Donner Pass was clear this week.  In 1846 there was no place labeled Donner Pass, and there were no snowplows to clear it.  Finding the pass back then was impossible once it snowed.  The group was made up of the blind leading the blind.

The original wagon train the Donner Party had split off from to take the Hastings cut-off all arrived safely at Sutter’s Fort before the first snow.

The Donner Party has been made fun of in history, but the reality was tragic. Men, children and a few women lost their lives.  The Breen family with the oxen all survived. The Reed family, taken in by the Breens after James Reed was banished, all survived.

Not everyone turned cannibal, but it was less of a choice and more of a necessity for some.

The Donner brothers and their devoted wives died. The Donner children were sent on to Sutter’s Fort with the rescuers and survived.

This winter’s snowfall rivals the snows of 1846.

In Spanish, sierra nevada means snow-covered saws. It is the name of the mountain range of 500 jagged peaks, the ones that stopped the Donner party in its snowy tracks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s