January 1847: Donner Party in dire straits
January 1847 was a challenging month for the 81 members of the Donner Party, who were trapped in the Alder Creek Valley and at Donner Lake. Fifteen of their wagon company had snowshoed out for help in December, but no rescuers had yet arrived. In fact, the snowshoe group would trek for more than 30 days in their attempt to alert settlers in California that they were snowbound in the mountains and running out of food. The first relief party would not reach the men, women and children of the Donner Party until mid-February.One of the California-bound emigrants, Patrick Breen, kept a daily diary. His entry on Jan. 1 revealed the snowbound pioneers increasing sense of desperation. They were in a dire situation trapped in deep snow with virtually no food but ox-hides. We pray the God of mercy to deliver us, from our present Calamity if it be his Holy will Amen. Commenced snowing last night does not snow fast wind southeast. Sun peeps out at timesprovisions getting scant dug up a hide from under the snow yesterday for Milt [Elliot]. Donner Lake was now frozen over and deep snow covered the ice. Fishing or hunting for food had become virtually impossible.
The month of January 1847 exhibited the classic Sierra weather pattern of periodic storminess separated by extended intervals of fair and dry conditions. Between storms, the lack of wind, short daylight hours, low sun angle and extensive snowpack caused damp, cold air to pool in the Donner Lake and Alder Creek Valley basins. By Jan. 7, the dry weather pattern inspired nave optimism in Breen; I dont think we will have much more snow. He erroneously believed that the winter storms were over, but he also noted that the snow had not melted much or diminished in depth.
The extended period of cold, but fair weather during early January gave the 10 surviving snowshoers (five men and five women) a chance to find their way down the tortuous Sierra west slope. They followed the North Fork of the American River, a rugged canyon more than 1,000 feet deep. At a point where the river ran south, they were forced to climb up from the canyon bottom over a ridge to the west. The terrain was so steep and rocky that the emigrants had to pull themselves up by shrubs growing in the crevices. From the top of the ridge, they descended toward the Bear River Valley, but not before getting their first glimpse of the green Sacramento Valley, still many miles away.By New Years Day, the snowshoe party had been struggling through the snow-covered mountains for 17 days. Their toes were black, their feet swollen and bleeding from repeated frostbite. Their boots and moccasins were falling apart so they tied fragments of blanket around them. They were so hungry that they toasted the rotted leather thongs from their snowshoes over a fire to eat them. The members of the snowshoe party had hoped to reach the eastern rim of the Sacramento Valley in about six days and had begun their escape from the lake with just enough food to make it that far. They had been walking for three weeks now, and they were still many miles from the closest settlement. One by one they began to die.
At last, haggard survivors of the Forlorn Hope stumbled into a Miwok Indian encampment. Stirred to compassion by the pitiful appearance of the white people from the mountains, the Indians shared their acorn bread with them. A pair of strong Indian men took each victim by the arm and supported them as they all walked west. It was the Miwok tribes kind generosity and steady nurturing that kept them alive for nearly a week during this last push to safety. Finally, late in the day of Jan. 17, the members of the snowshoe reached an American settlement.It had taken the Forlorn Hope 33 days to reach civilization and the hardships that they had endured would stun the California community. Once they blurted out that starvation and death threatened to wipe out the remaining Donner party members trapped in the mountains, the news spread like wildfire.The emigrants snowbound in the high mountain camps hadnt seen green grass or flowers for months. Heavy snow developed on the evening of Jan. 10 and over the next few days, about three feet of new accumulation was quickly added to the pack at Donner Lake. On Jan. 13, Breen wrote, Snowing fast. Wind N.W. Snow higher than the shanty. Must be 13 feet deep. Dont know how to get wood this morning. It is dreadful to look at. The next day, the snowfall diminished and the sun came out which lifted Breens spirits: Very pleasant today. Sun shining brilliantlyrenovates our spirits. Praise be to God, Amen. The emigrants would have to wait for another month before help began to arrive. In the meantime, they would have to find a way to survive their ordeal.
One by one they were slipping into delirium and closer to death. Mrs. Lavina Murphy was snowblind, while 16-year-old Landrum Murphy had gone crazy with hunger. They were all becoming restless and emotionally withdrawn, physiological symptoms of mental illness and delirium. On Jan. 21, Milt Elliot arrived from the Alder Creek camp with news that the Donners were all well, meaning that everyone there was still alive but in a similarly weak condition. Shortly after dawn on Jan. 22, the strongest storm of the season roared into the region. It reached blizzard proportions that night with heavy snow and gusty winds. The next day, Breen wrote, Blew hard and snowed all night. The most severe storm we experienced this winter. Meanwhile, at Sutters Fort in the southern Sacramento Valley, an effort was underway to organize and supply relief parties to rescue those trapped in the mountains. It wasnt going to be easy. There were probably less than 20 men in the southern Sacramento Valley and quite a few of them considered the attempt to reach the emigrants a suicide mission. The region was frontier country and the few ranches and settlements were widely scattered over what was now flooded terrain. The recent storm had engorged streams and rivers and travel was exceedingly difficult. Captain Edward M. Kern, the military officer in charge of Sutters Fort (Fort Sacramento), offered $3 a day for any man willing to help in the rescue effort. Three men stepped forward to volunteer, but others would be needed to carry food provisions and contribute logistical support. Some men were skeptical that the military would pay the volunteers while others demanded an exorbitant $5 per day. Four more rescuers signed up when John Sutter promised to be personally responsible for any wages.
Sinclair and Sutter both agreed to supply food and horses. John Sutter sent his launch, the Sacramento, down-river towards San Francisco with the crew ordered to alert residents and request additional recruits and financial aid. By the end of January, the first rescue party was organized, equipped and ready to go. These seven men were heroes, ready to risk their lives to save strangers caught in the remote mountain snow. They will battle deep drifts and deadly blizzards to fulfill their promise to rescue others in dire need. Other brave men would follow. Help for the Donner party was finally on its way. Mark McLaughlin’s 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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