Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part IV

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III


Within just a few days of William Pike’s death, on October 27th, 1846, Charles Stanton and his two vaqueros reached the Donner Party at Truckee Meadows.

Charles Stanton, a bachelor traveling with the Donner Party

Stanton was welcomed like a prodigal son, only it was Stanton throwing the feast. His seven mule-loads of provisions was a welcome relief for the emigrants. John Breen would later write: “We traveled up the river a few days, when we met the excellent Stanton, returning with…mules and provisions…an act for which he deserves the love of every soul of that suffering company.”

Heavy clouds and winds had been looming over the mountains for some time, but Stanton assured them that the passes were clear and that there would be no problem crossing into California.

Once Stanton had arrived with provisions, those still resting in Truckee Meadows began heading along the Truckee River, southwest toward the Nevada/California border and the final run into Sutter’s Fort.

Truckee River in winter

This trek took them deep into the mountains where the threat of snow continued to loom. The caravan was spread out over several dozen miles, each little group traveling in its own miniature caravan. Elitha Donner, daughter of George, later stated: “Father was Captain of the [company] at one time but as the teams failed on the long journey we camped apart from the rest…sometimes we would be ahead, sometimes behind.”

Elitha Donner - fourteen during the winter of 1846-47

Other accounts from survivors suggest that it was rainy and cold during this part of the journey, with snow visible on the mountain peaks.

By the 30th of the month, most of the party had reached the eastern end of Truckee Lake, which today sits just to the west of the city of Truckee, California, and is known as Donner Lake.

Truckee (now Donner) Lake

In 1846, the city was not there and it was mostly mountain wilderness. Beyond the lake lay the final series of mountain passes that would lead the Donner Party to their destination.

The main pass now known as Donner Pass, looking back on Truckee Lake to the east

They were roughly 90 miles from Sutter’s Fort – a journey of three or four days in wagons with good weather.

About this same time, James Reed finally reached Sutter’s Fort, where he procured more provisions for the caravan and made plans to return to them immediately.

Sutter's Fort

He later wrote that he asked Sutter if he would “furnish…horses and saddle to bring the women and children out of the mountains…[Sutter] at once complied with the request.” Reed also met up here with William McCutchen, the party member who had originally ridden ahead with Charles Stanton, but who had remained at Sutter’s Fort because of an illness.

William McCutchen was about thirty in 1846

Reed and McCutchen now began making plans to head back to the caravan, expecting to meet them in the Bear River Valley, which lay just west of the mountain pass the Donner Party had just reached.

Their trip, however, would be delayed. According to Reed:

The second night after my arrival at Captain Sutter’s, we had a light rain; next morning we could see snow on the mountains. The Captain stated that it was…heavy for the first fall of the season.

William Graves, with the Donner Party on the other side of the pass, wrote about that first snow as well: “On the 30th of October, 1846, we camped in a pretty little valley about five miles from [Truckee] Lake; that night it snowed about eight inches deep.”

William Graves was sixteen in 1846

Fearing more snow, some of the families ahead of the main body of the caravan attempted to forge ahead through the pass.

A famous lithograph of the Donner Party attempting to get through the pass that now bears their name

In a diary that emigrant Patrick Breen began keeping on November 20th, he wrote about their arrival at Truckee Lake and their attempt to cross the mountain: “Came to this place on the 31st [of October]…we went on to the pass – the snow [was] so deep we were unable to find the road…within 3 miles of the summit [we] turned back.”

John Breen, Patrick’s son who was a teenager at the time, later gave a more detailed and stark account of the genesis of the Donner Party tragedy:

In the morning it was very cold, with about an inch of snow on the ground. This made us hurry our cattle still more…We traveled on, and, at last, the clouds cleared, leaving the towering peaks in full view, covered as far as the eye could reach with snow…We pushed on as fast as our failing cattle could haul our almost empty wagons…Daylight came only to confirm our worst fears. The snow was falling fast on that terrible summit over which we yet had to make our way. Notwithstanding, we set out early to make an effort to cross. We traveled one or two miles…At last, [the snow] was up to the axle of the wagons. We now concluded…it was impossible to advance…So we hitched to the wagons and returned to the valley again, where we found it raining in torrents…[The rain] cleared off in the night, and this gave us hopes; we were so little acquainted with the country as to believe that the rain in the valley was rain on the mountain also, and that it would beat down the snow that we might possibly go over. In this we were fatally mistaken.

The Donner Party found the mountain passes blocked with heavy snow.

From Donner Pass, looking back at Truckee Lake

They naively believed, however, that since it was raining in the valley, it must also be raining in the mountains. This led them to believe that the rain would wash away the snow, and perhaps within a few days they could make it through. They retreated back to the eastern end of Truckee Lake were a cabin had been built several years earlier. The region was relatively flat, with plenty of timber, wildlife, and available fishing. It seemed a reasonably good place to set up a temporary encampment, and the company built two more structures next to the first one.

A lithograph of the encampment on the eastern shores of Truckee Lake

Roughly 59 people holed up into those three cabins on the eastern shores of Truckee Lake. According to later accounts, the Breen family moved into the pre-existing cabin. The Murphy and Eddy families built a cabin some 150 yards away, against a rocky precipice that formed one of the walls of the structure.

The Murphy-Eddy cabin was built against this rock

About half a mile away, the Graves family and the Reed family built a third cabin, apparently much larger than the other two. Louis Keseberg and his clan built a lean-to against the Breen cabin.

The two families who were not among those at the lakeside camp were the Donner brother families. The Donners, by this time, had been bringing up the rear of the caravan. Several days earlier, the wagon driven by George Donner had broken an axle and Donner had seriously injured his hand trying to fix it. According to one of his daughters: “[His hand] was cut across the back…it was useless to him. He got it cut while repairing the wagon.”

Because of his injury and the delay the broken axle caused, the Donner families and those traveling with them ended up camped about six miles behind the rest of the party when the snows finally hit around November 1st. They were in a region known as Alder Creek, and the blizzard struck with such suddenness that they had no time to build any sturdy structures.

According to one Donner daughter: “We had no time to build a cabin. The snow came on so suddenly that we had barely time to pitch our tent.” Instead, the Donners built lean-tos of quilts and buffalo hide. One of their hired hands, a man named Jean Trudeau, later said:

The snow came on with blinding fury, and being unable to build cabins we put up brush sheds, covering them with limbs from the pine trees. It was the 1st of November, I think, that we went into that camp of snow and suffering.

Over the next several days, the emigrants at Truckee Lake made several more abortive attempts to cross the mountain passes, each time finding them completely impassible, even without the wagons. The snow continued to fall in heavy waves. From the various accounts of those first few days, the snow was anywhere from three to four feet deep.

By the 4th or 5th of November, it became apparent that the Donner Party wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. They began to hunt game and slaughter their own cattle. From William Eddy’s recollection, as told by writer Quinn Thornton: “On [November 5th, the families] commenced killing their cattle. Mr. Eddy also killed his ox.”

Meanwhile, Reed and McCutchen, despite the snow in the mountains, attempted to return to the Donner Party. The snow grew steadily deeper as they reached the Bear River Valley and proceeded into the mountain passes. Eventually, some of their horses got stranded in the snow and they were forced to abandon them. James Reed, writing in the third person for literary purposes, would later write: “They…attempted to pursue their journey on foot, [but since they had no snow shoes, they] were obliged to abandon all hope of passing the huge barrier of snow…[G]athering their horses together, they returned to the valley.”

Facing defeat and knowing there was no hope of getting through the passes before spring, Reed and McCutchen returned to Sutter’s Fort. They consoled themselves with the assumption that the Donner Party had plenty of food to last through the worst of the winter months. Reed wrote:

I also gave [Sutter] the number of head of cattle [the Donner Party] had when I left them. He made an estimate, and stated that if the emigrants would kill the cattle, and place the meat in the snow for preservation, there was no fear of starvation until relief could reach them.

Little did they know that the vast majority of the caravan’s cattle had been lost throughout October – after Reed had left – due to exhaustion and attacks from Indian tribes.


“It snowed [for] eight days with little intermission after our arrival here.”

So said Patrick Breen in his diary, which he kept from November 20th, 1846, to March 1st, 1847.

Patrick Breen

The title page of Breen's diary

By the time he started his diary, the Donner Party had accepted that they would spend much of the winter at Truckee Lake, with the Donners at Alder Creek six miles away. While they knew that their provisions were not as robust as Reed and McCutchen – on the other side of the pass – believed them to be, the company must, at this point, have figured their chances were fairly good. They were holed up in cabins with plenty of clothes and animal hides and firewood to keep them warm. Food was scarce, but with rationing, hunting, and fishing, they must have believed they could make it through the worst of the winter until they could either leave or James Reed could lead a supply caravan to them. William Eddy seems to have been the hunter of the group, and he had some success early on in finding game, including the killing of a reported 800 pound bear around November 15th.

Throughout the remainder of the month, the company slaughtered its remaining cattle, as the animals couldn’t live in the snow-covered terrain, and although they had no salt for curing the meat, the bitterly cold temperatures kept the meat frozen until it was needed. In Patrick Breen’s first diary entry, from November 20th, he wrote: “We now have killed most part of our cattle, having to stay here until next spring and live on poor beef without bread or salt.”

The first entry in Breen's diary

During a lull in the weather, when most of the snow in the valley had apparently melted, a party of about twenty emigrants set out to see what the mountain passes looked like. They returned after finding twenty-five feet of snow in the passes and spending a night trying to keep a fire going on the crust atop the deep snow. As John Breen would later recall: “This report put an end to further effort…which made the prospect for men with families of small children gloomy in the extreme.”

Despite these setbacks, the Donner Party was not entirely discouraged. Near the end of the month, another party planned to set out to find a passage through the mountains. One of them was Milt Elliot, who had been the driver of the Reed Wagon. George Donner gave him a note, dated November 28th, 1846, to deliver at Sutter’s Fort:

This is to certify that I authorize Millford [sic] Elliott and make him my agent to purchase and buy whatever property he may deem necessary for my distress in the mountains for which on my arrival in California I will pay cash or goods or both.

The party never managed to leave. That night, another massive blizzard struck. On November 30th, Patrick Breen wrote: “Snowing fast…about 4 or 5 feet deep, no drifts. Looks…likely to continue…no living thing without wings can get about.” Then, the next day: “Difficult to get wood. No going from the house. Completely housed up.”

By December 2nd, Breen noted that the snow in the valley was six feet deep – no doubt over the doorways of the cabins. He appears to have still been in good spirits, however. On the 5th of December, he wrote: “Fine clear day. Beautiful sunshine. Thawing a little. Looks delightful after the long snow storm.”

Although they didn’t know it, the Donner Party was experiencing one of the worst and earliest winters in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Warm, moist air from the Pacific Ocean had sped across the California mainland, colliding with cold, dry air in the mountains. This led initially to a rain/snow mix, followed by drier snow that accumulated to ski-slope depths. While these sorts of weather patterns are not uncommon in the Sierra Nevada, they don’t usually happen as early as they did in 1846, or with the same intensity.

The Donner Party was literally buried under snow in the mountain wilderness. The seven mules brought by Charles Stanton from Sutter’s Fort – kept alive until now because Sutter expected them to be returned – died in the snowstorms. This, of course, was no great tragedy to the hungry emigrants of the Donner Party. The problem was that the snow was so deep they couldn’t find the carcasses to scavenge from. According to Patrick Breen, the company spent several days looking for the mules with no success. “No account of mules,” he wrote on December 6th.

As December progressed, the situation went downhill quickly. Food was running out. The emigrants had already been on strict rations for a month and were hungry and weak. The snow was so deep there was no possibility of hunting. Truckee Lake was frozen solid, and no one knew how to ice fish. Food became a commodity jealously guarded. In his diary entry of December 9th, Breen wrote: “Some having scant supply of beef. Stanton trying to [get food] for his Indians [and himself]. Not likely to get much.”

On that same day, August Spitzer, one of the teamsters of George Donner, arrived at Breen’s doorstep, having trekked several miles through the snow from the Donner family camp at Alder Creek. The Donners were apparently not willing to share their food with him any longer. The Breen family took him in, and Patrick Breen described him as “so weak [from starvation] that he cannot live without help.”

Snow continued to fall through the following days. On December 13th, Breen noted that it was now about eight feet deep on level ground.

If you look closely near the bottom, you can see the entry of December 13th, "snow 8 feet deep on the level"

Two days later, the first death occurred at the winter camp.

Baylis Williams, a hired hand for the Reed family, succumbed to the rigors of the previous few months. He and his sister, Eliza, had both worked for the Reed family for a number of years prior to the journey west. According to Virginia Reed, Baylis was in poor health even before they left Illinois. In later accounts, she asserted that Baylis died because of his pre-existing ill health: “[Baylis Williams] passed away before starvation had really set in.” In any case, Williams was buried in the snow near the Reed cabin.

Read Part V


Anonymous said...

Now do you understand why I don't like to travel. Bad things can happen out there when you dare to leave home!


Scott said...

Well, this wasn't exactly "traveling"!