Donner Party: The Great Escape | SierraSun.com

Donner Party: The Great Escape

Mark McLaughlin

Despite a late start to the season, big storms this winter have cloaked the mountains in a thick mantle of snow that has boosted the morale of skiers, boarders and other winter sports enthusiasts. At times the abundant snowfall has made traveling difficult, if not downright impossible, but no matter how bad conditions get for us, the California-bound emigrants of the Donner Party endured much worse in 1847.By early March 1847, the pioneers had been stranded near Donner Lake and to the north in the Alder Creek Valley for more than four months. Their limited food supplies had slowly given out, forcing the emigrants to boil ox hides and toast their shoelaces for sustenance. Some had resorted to consuming the flesh of the dead.The pioneers were in dire straits, but finally the first of several rescue parties reached the two mountain camps. The First Relief had arrived on February 18 with some food and strong arms to help 23 people escape, including 15 children. The seven men in the first operation had pulled off a very risky rescue effort with little information about the route, a small number of personnel involved and minimal logistical support. The Second Relief, led by James Reed, a member of the Donner Party who had succeeded in crossing the Sierra before early winter storms trapped the wagon company, was much better equipped. The men in the first expedition had to blaze their own route, which they marked by torching dead pine trees as they walked. For the second effort, there was strong logistical support provided by the U.S. Navy, which helped to quickly move a large amount of food, clothes, blankets and supplies from San Francisco into the remote Bear Valley staging area. The men in the Second Relief pushed hard over the snow and were able to reach Donner Lake on March 1. On that day, emigrant Patrick Breen made his last diary entry: Today fine andamp; pleasant. Froze hard last night10 men arrived this morning from Bear Valley with provisions. We are to start in two or three days andamp; cache our goods here. There is amongst them some old [mountaineers]. They say the snow will be here until June.Once he arrived at the lake encampment, James Reed was overjoyed to find his children, Patty and Tommy, still alive. His wife and two other children had escaped with the first rescue party. In his travel notes that were published later that year in the Illinois Journal, Reed wrote that he saw the top of a cabin just peering above the silvery surface of the snow. As he approached it, Reed discovered his daughter sitting upon the corner of the Breen cabin roof with her feet resting on the snow. Although the snow had settled about five feet since the last storm two weeks before, it was still close to eight feet deep. The men in the Second Relief found both the lake and Alder Creek camps filthy and ghoulish, littered with waste and mutilated corpses half buried in snow. The rescuers dispersed part of the food they had with them much of it they had cached on the trail to sustain everyone on the way back. When Reed and some of the other men visited Alder Creek they found the two Donner families in miserable conditions. They were subsisting on tallow made from the jerked beef trimmings left by the First Relief and whatever rabbit or rodent they managed to catch. On March 3, Reed and the other men in the Second Relief departed the lake encampment two days before another major storm system moved into northern California. There were 17 people being led to safety in this escape effort; one man, two women and the rest children, with nearly all of them under the age of ten. The emigrants were hurried along as fast as possible over frozen Donner Lake and toward the pass, but due to their weak condition the party only made two or three miles the first day. That night they camped on the north side of the lake on a small patch of bare ground near the shoreline. The emigrants were in good spirits and optimistic that their ordeal was nearly over. That same day, the eighteen surviving refugees being rescued by the First Relief reached the safety of Sutters Fort (Sacramento).Fortunately for the members of the First and Second Relief parties and the people being rescued the weather had cooperated. For more than two weeks, high pressure had held off all Pacific storms, but on March 2, the falling barometer and heavy seas reported by the USS Warren, an American warship anchored in San Francisco Bay, indicated that a severe storm was approaching the coast. By March 6, a cold and powerful Gulf of Alaska storm system had roared into the region. Within the relatively safe confines of the bay, the Warren was somewhat protected from the full impact of the tempest, but heavy rain with north squally winds indicated a major weather event. Within seventy-two hours, high temperatures had plunged from near 70 degrees to the low 40s. Onboard the Portsmouth, anchored in Monterey Bay, U.S. Naval Surgeon Dr. Duvall noted, Cold disagreeable weather a heavy swell settling into the Bay. The hail and snow along the coast were indicators of the vigorous weather systems origin in the frigid Gulf of Alaska. With significant cold air support and plenty of moisture to work with, when these dynamic storms slam into the upper elevations of the Sierra Nevada the blizzard conditions that develop can be overwhelming. James Reed and the battered people in the Second Relief found out first hand. By March 5, the party had managed to reach Summit Valley, west of Donner Pass, where they rested for the night. The First Relief had camped there and left firewood for those who would follow them. To keep the emigrants alive during the night, a large fire was built on top of a platform of cut green logs that helped to slow the blaze from melting down into the deep snowpack. Reed estimated the snow twenty feet at least in depth. Pine boughs were stacked on the snowpack to insulate the emigrants and keep them from getting wet as they lay under blankets around the fire. They were nearly out of food, so three men had been sent ahead earlier to retrieve the closest cache of dried beef that the Second Relief had left on the way in. To protect the food from foraging predators, the bags of meat were tied to the top of a pine sapling and all the branches cut off. Unfortunately, weasel-like Pine Martens had discovered the food and eaten most of it.The powerful storm caught the group exposed and vulnerable. For 48 hours, a blizzard lashed the mountains. In spite of the severe weather, the rescuers continued to chop wood to feed the fire, which kept them all alive. The fire provided some heat, but they had no food. Reed wrote, Still in camp, the last of our provisions gone. Looking anxiously for our supplies, none. Finally the storm cleared out and bitterly cold air poured into the region. Indicative as to how low the temperatures must have been in the mountains, consider that the passage of the cold front opened the door to rare winter-like conditions along the northern California coast. In San Francisco, temperatures dipped into the 30s and towering cumulonimbus clouds pelted the region with hail. Further south in Monterey Bay, the weather was just as inclement. In his journal, Dr. Duvall wrote, The last few days the [weather] has been excessively cold, and is disposed to continue so the hills near here are covered with snow, and last night, some fell in town. When it snows in Monterey on the beach, you know its bitterly cold in the High Sierra.When the storm finally broke, James Reed told everyone it was time to go. They had had no food for two days and another day or two would kill them all. Some of the pioneers were too exhausted and choose to remain by the fire and wait for the Third Relief, which was expected soon. They didn’t know it at the time, but it would be another five days before any help reached them. The Second Relief pushed on, however, and when they reached Sutters Fort, the Reed family was happily reunited. Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 andamp; 2 and Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad andamp; the Ugly are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.