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Donner children say goodbye to cold, cruel mountains

Staff Reports

Donner Party 150 years ago

During the Donner Party sesquicentennial (1846-47 to 1996-97), the Sierra Sun is following the emigrants’ historic journey with the help of Gayle Green, historian and park aide at Donner Memorial State Park’s Emigrant Trail Museum.

March 13 to March 19, 1847

March 13 was one of the more memorable dates in Donner Party history. On this date there were only six survivors left when the third rescue party arrived at the lake cabins. Upon their arrival, the two fathers in this rescue party, Eddy and Foster, received the bad news that their children had died. They found the conditions deplorable in the cabin where Mrs. Murphy, her 9 year-old son, Simon, the three Donner girls and Keesberg were living. Eddy had lost his entire family here and Foster had lost his only child.

The day before the rescue party’s arrival, Tamsen Donner had left her dying husband in the care of Clark and Baptiste and journeyed to the lake. She found out earlier from Clark that her children were left behind when Cady and Stone departed to join the second rescue party.

Eddy and Foster, along with Miller and Thompson, only remained a few hours once they arrived on the 13th. They took with them Simon Murphy, Georgia, Frances and Eliza Donner. Three members remained behind; Mrs. Murphy, who was dying and could not even sit up; Keesberg, who could not walk due to a badly infected foot; and Tamsen, who chose to go back to Alder Creek and stay with her dying husband.

Also on this date, it is probable that George Donner and four year-old Samuel Donner, Jacob and Elizabeth Donner’s son, died. Tamsen did not know that when she left the girls to return to Alder Creek, George would already be dead.

It is hard to imagine what she must have felt as she left her children, uncertain if they would survive the trek over the Sierra. If only she could have known George was dead and that she could have joined her children on the third rescue party, she might have survived and we would know more about what happened to the Donner Party.

When the third rescue party reached the west end of the lake, they came upon Clark and Baptiste who had journeyed from Alder Creek. Now their rescue party embodied 10 members. In Eliza’s book, Expedition of the Donner Party, she writes about being carried by Hiram Miller in a blanket: “My position in the blanket had been so cramped that my limbs were stiff and the jostling of the march made my body ache.” The journey was especially hard on the children as well as the men who carried them on their backs.

March 16, three days after they had left the lake, they caught up with the remaining members of the second rescue party and had passed them. The next day they had reached Mule Springs and were finally out of the snow.

Eliza wrote: “There we caught the first breath of springtime, touched the warm, dry earth and saw green fields far beyond the foot of that cold, cruel mountain range,,,”


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