THE DONNER PARTY...THE REAL STORY...STARVATION IN THE SIERRAS
By Climatologist Cliff Harris
Ever since I mentioned the ill-fated Donner Party in a column written nearly four years ago on January 25, 2005, I’ve received dozens of requests for additional information on this deadly trek in late 1846 and early 1847 by a group of farmers, headed by George Donner, from Illinois to Sacramento, California.
To make a very long story a bit shorter, this wagon train ran into severe difficulties when it left the established track of the Emigrant Trail to follow a newly-discovered ‘shortcut’ from just south of the Great Salt Lake to the Sierra Nevada Mountains bordering their California destination.
Due to the fact that the Donner Party wagons proved too heavy for the ‘mushy terrain,’ the group reached the mountains almost a month behind schedule. More than half of their cattle and horses died of thirst and starvation. Young Virginia Reed’s pony, for example, had to be abandoned in the desert because "it couldn’t keep up with the wagons."
On October 5, 1846, one of the teamsters working for Virginia’s father, rather wealthy James Reed, tried to pass a slower wagon in front of him on a very narrow road and the two teams of oxen collided fatally injuring several animals and seriously damaging both wagons "filled with the brim" with items from Illinois.
For this reason (and others), Captain Donner kicked out James Reed banishing him from the wagon train without food or arms. He was "on his own facing almost certain death," according to Virginia, the eldest child in the Reed family at 13.
Virginia’s mother, Margaret, her two brothers, five-year-old Jimmy and two-year-old Tommy, plus eight-year-old Patty and Virginia, were allowed to stay with the wagon train. But, they had to walk behind it, as their two horses were too weak to carry passengers. The younger boy, Tommy, did ride one of the horses for a while.
By the time they reached the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, snow already "lay deep" at least a month ahead of schedule in late October. The Donner Party was forced to build cabins in what is still called today, ‘Donner Lake’ along the frozen shores.
A friend of the Reed family, Charles T. Stanton and two friendly ‘Christian Indians’ took the fatherless group under their protection, helping them build a "rough log cabin" approximately 500 feet from Donner Lake. There, the family was at least partially safe from the increasingly hostile elements. But, they had VERY LIMITED SUPPLIES OF FOOD, certainly not enough to get them through a harsh winter season at a 4,500-foot elevation. Subzero temperatures and heavy snows were a ‘monstrous threat’ along with the lack of game.
Most of the food ran out for the Donner Party by Christmas 1846. All that Margaret had left was a few rotten pieces of bacon, some dried apples and a small supply of beans. By early January of 1847, the family was starving, pure and simple.
On January 4, 1847, Margaret, seeing that her children were starving, decided to try to cross the Sierras by foot. She had only some bread and a few jars of water. She did not have a compass or a map, just an abiding faith in God and her own resolve.
When the children’s feet eventually began to freeze and the meager food supply ran out, the Reed family wisely returned to the Donner Lake cabin, where they barely survived starvation until a rescue party, led by Margaret’s banished husband, James, finally reached them on March 1, 1847. All the Reeds survived plus 37 others, but 42 perished despite resorting to cannibalism, in some cases.
Out of 83 persons who were snowed in at Donner Lake that horrible Winter of 1846-47, 42 perished, including George Donner, Charles Stanton and the two Indians, whose bodies were eaten by some of the survivors. Amazingly, 41 people survived, barely, including all of the Reeds, as previously mentioned.
Ironically, James Reed’s banishment from the Donner Party actually SAVED HIS FAMILY! He was able to organize the rescue party that finally reached the starving survivors, despite being forced to make two attempts at crossing the Sierras due to ‘thirty-foot snowdrifts.’ Reed was honored greatly during the rest of this life for his heroism. "The family has prospered in the beautiful Sacramento Valley for generations until this day."
For additional information on about the ill-fated Donner Party, read "Across the Plains in the Donner Party," by Virginia Reed Murphy or, "Ordeal by Hunger, the story of the Donner Party," by George R. Stewart.