Around the Lake
with Mark McLaughlin
Sierra Sage Magazine
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T HE MEMBERS OF THE ILL-FATED DONNER PARTY DIDN’T KNOW IT AT THE TIME, BUT SEVERE WEATHER DURING THE SECOND HALF OF OCTOBER 1846 HAD BURIED THE UPPER ELEVATIONS OF THE SIERRA NEVADA MOUNTAINS AND THUS BLOCKED THE ONE PRINCIPAL MOUNTAIN PASS TO NORTHERN CALIFORNIA.
Unseasonably early winter storms that year had dumped six feet of snow on the 7,000-foot-high mountain pass the pioneers must cross to reach the safety of Sutter’s Fort in California. The deep snow effectively stranded the late-arriving emigrants east of the Sierra crest where they were snowbound for a winter without adequate provisions and shelter.
The Donner party consisted of a handful of families with many children, as well as single men hired as teamsters to maintain wagons and livestock. Other members had joined the wagon train later for safety and strength in numbers as they all now struggled west toward a better life in California. There were German, Irish and English immigrants; Protestants, Catholics and Mormons. Some were virtually penniless while others had plenty of money to buy property and build a nice home. Most were middle-class Americans, but nearly half were children under the age of eighteen.
As October 1846 drew to a close and the determined emigrants approached their final hurdle, Truckee Pass (later re-named Donner), it had to be beyond their collective imagination that they were about to spend another four to five months isolated in these mountains, pushed to the limits of human endurance, and beyond. Ultimately, 36 of the 81 people trapped in the mountains died from starvation, exposure and fatigue.
It is by far the most tragic weather event ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada. The California-bound Donner party did not arrive in the Truckee Meadows (near present-day Reno, Nevada) until October 20, 1846. After a rest of six days the vanguard of these trail-weary emigrants struggled up to Truckee Lake (Donner Lake), which they reached on October 31. . On the way Captain George Donner injured his hand repairing a wagon and was forced to encamp about five miles north of the lake. During this push west, the second heavy snowfall of the season enveloped the higher elevations.
In early November, another storm lasting eight days pounded the mountains with rain and snow. When the skies finally cleared on November 13, the snow was about ten feet deep at elevations above 7,000 feet. Although fair weather for the next two weeks incited most of the snow around Donner Lake, and settled the summit snow pack to six feet, intense arguments and well-grounded fear stymied a breakout to safety. They reluctantly realized that the ascent over Donncr Pass was just the beginning of thc journey over the Sierra Nevada hump. Another powerful series of storms at the end of November dumped about five feet of snow at Donncr Lake (even more in the high country), which sealed the fate for the luckless emigrants.
While the pioneers anxiously awaited the arrival of rescue efforts from the Sacramento Valley, powerful Pacific storm systems continued to pound the mountains. Hard as the relentless blizzards were to take, physically and mentally, the sunshine and thaws during the intervening periods of fair weather gave rise to false hopes that the deadly winter pattern would break soon.
More snow in December dimmed their expectations and increased the snow depth at the lake to seven feet, with double that amount on the summit. Mid-month, a lull in storm activity encouraged 15 of the party to attempt a desperate crossing on homemade snowshoes. Each member of the “Forlorn Hope” carried about a week’s supply of starvation rations . It took them 33 days to reach the first settlement, Johnson’s Ranch in the Sacramento Valley. Only seven of the snow-shoers survived their horrific ordeal of fatigue, starvation and cannibalism, including all five women who set out.
During a mid-February interlude of fair weather, two rescue parties from California succeeded in crossing the mountains to reach the snowbound encampment. One group of seven able-bodied men escorted 17 starving people (many of them children) out of the mountains beginning on March 3. While making their way to safety, they were blasted by a severe blizzard that lasted two days. Many members of this group, which included all nine members of the Brccn family, were too weak to go on. They built a fire and desperately waited for help. Their campfire melted the snow pack until they were huddled in a pit 24 feet deep. A rescue party found them four days later. More snow fell in March with the final major storm period lasting from March 28 to April 3. Louis Keseberg, the last remaining survivor, was rescued from Donner Lake on April 20.
Mark McLaughlin’s newest book,
The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm” is available at bookstores or on his website:
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993