Emigrants face fateful winter | SierraSun.com

Emigrants face fateful winter

Mark McLaughlin
Weather Window

The 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 and blocked the principal mountain pass to Northern California. Unseasonably early winter storms had dumped about five feet of snow on the mountain pass the pioneers had to cross to reach the safety of Sutter’s Fort in California. The deep snowdrifts effectively stranded the late-arriving emigrants east of the Sierra crest, where they were snowbound for a winter without adequate provisions and shelter.

In the years before the California Gold Rush, most emigrants departed from the Midwest in late March or early April, usually crossing the Missouri River in early May.

The wagon trains traveled through Fort Kearny (Nebraska) and Fort Laramie (Wyoming) during late spring, averaging from 15 to 25 miles per day. The trip was timed to take advantage of the abundant grass in spring and summer, and to avoid late fall or early winter storms in the West. The first pioneers usually started arriving at Sutter’s Fort by early September, well before the approach of California’s wet winter season.

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 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 18.

It was October and many of the people in the Donner Party had been on the trail for nearly half a year. It was a tough strenuous trek through steep, rugged mountains and parched, searing deserts. The group was running behind schedule, but they were hopeful that winter weather might hold off for just a couple more weeks. The two previous winters in the Sierra Nevada had been relatively dry; the year before snow didn’t close the pass until the end of December. Unfortunately, the odds were stacked against the Donner Party; it was only a matter of time before an early winter would catch a late-arriving wagon train.

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) until Oct. 20, 1846. After a six-day rest, the vanguard of these trail-weary emigrants struggled up to Truckee Lake (Donner Lake), which they reached Oct. 31. On the way, Capt. 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.

October snow is not unusual in the Sierra (50 inches fell at the Central Sierra Snow Lab near Donner Pass during the second half of October 2004), but the coincidence of two storms heavy enough to impede traffic at this early date are rare. There were about 10 major storm periods during the winter of 1847 beginning Oct. 16, 1846, and ending in early April 1847. All of them added materially to the season’s remarkable accumulation, but it was the late October and early November snowfalls that blockaded the trans-Sierra route for the Donner party.

In early November, another storm lasting eight days pounded the mountains with rain and snow. When the skies finally cleared on Nov. 13, the snow was about 10 feet deep at elevations above 7,000 feet. Although fair weather for the next two weeks melted 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 Donner Pass was just the beginning of the journey over the Sierra Nevada hump. Another powerful series of storms at the end of November dumped about five feet of snow at Donner 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” group 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 snowshoers 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 encampments. One group of seven able-bodied men escorted 17 starving people (many of them children) out of the mountains beginning 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 Breen 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 April 20 from Donner Lake.

Mark McLaughlin’s new book, The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, is available at local bookstore’s or on his Web site, http://www.thestormking.com.