October 1846: The Donner Partys peril | SierraSun.com

October 1846: The Donner Partys peril

Mark McLaughlinSpecial to the Sun

Courtesy of Mark McLaughlin/Sierra SunRecord snowfall on Mt. Tallac in October 2004 demonstrates how serious Old Man Winter can be before fall ends. A similar early winter greeted the Donner Party.

The weather has been fairly active so far this October, but nothing to write home about. A few shots of cold weather and snow in the upper elevations is on par for this time of year and ultimately has little bearing on what the winter of 2008 will bring to the Central Sierra. Although a wet October does not necessarily lead to a wet winter, were off to a good start. For more than 160 years, historians and schoolteachers have told the classic story of how the 81 emigrants in the Donner party became trapped east of the Sierra Nevada in 1846 by an early season snowstorm. Just a few years ago, in October 2004, between 50 to 60 inches of snow blasted the high country in the last 10 days of the month, which set a new record. We cant compare traveling on Interstate 80 in all-wheel drive vehicles with oxen-drawn wagons picking their way over the rocky trails of the Sierra, but how bad was the weather in October 1846? In early October 1846, one of the last westbound wagon trains of that years emigration to California was crossing Truckeys Pass (later re-named Donner Pass). Like hundreds of other pioneers, James Mathers had endured countless challenges during his 2,000-mile overland trek from Missouri, but the arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada was the hardest of all. Mathers tackled the storm-wracked Sierra pass on Oct. 6 and reached Summit Valley (near Sugar Bowl Ski Resort) the next day. Emigrant guidebooks had warned that it was important to cross the California Mountains as early as possible and Mathers could see why. It was only Oct. 7, but he wrote in his journal: The weather was cold and we had frequent squalls of snow A couple of days later the early season storm had cleared out, but there was still a brisk chill in the high country. James Mathers probably wondered about the safety of other people farther behind his company, which included the wagon train captained by George Donner.

A week later, bad weather once again swept in from the Pacific Ocean and the last pioneers to make it out of the mountains had disturbing news. Samuel Young, who had crossed the pass on Oct. 16, said that snow had been falling there at a fearful rate and they had lost one of their wagons when it crashed into an abyss. George Tucker, who had traveled with the Donner party until they reached Fort Bridger and then went ahead with a faster group, confirmed that conditions in the mountains were quickly deteriorating: The day after we left Bear Valley it commenced raining which I think was about the 18th of October. The next day we could see the snow on the mountains behind us. We knew the Donner Company would have trouble. (Tucker would later play a key role in the rescue operations.) The Donner party, still many miles east of the pass, had no idea that the terrible winter of 1847 was already under way. Edwin Bryant, an acquaintance of Tamsen Donner who was also writing a book about the 1846 migration, was one of the first overland pioneers to arrive in California that year. He was already safe in Sonoma, but on Oct. 17 he noted, The last two mornings have been cloudy and cool. The rainy season, it is thought by the weather-wise in this climate, will set in earlier this year than usual. The periodical rains ordinarily commence about the middle of November. It is now a month earlier, and the meteorological phenomena portend falling weather. Still back on the trail, the members of the Donner party had already endured more than their fair share of bad luck, poor decisions and organizational collapse. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. Comprised of families with young children, single men hired as teamsters to maintain wagons and livestock, and an assortment of late comers, the Donner party would endure much more suffering and death over the next four months.

The westbound emigrants did not reach the Truckee Meadows (near present-day Reno, Nev.) until about Oct. 20. The skies were cloudy and the mountains ahead were already white with the seasons first snowfall. Worst yet, another storm was brewing.Years later, John Breen recalled his memories of the weather as the Donner wagon train left the Truckee Meadows: There began to be heavy clouds on the high range of mountains to the west, and this from what we had learned from Captain Frmont was a certain sign of snow on the mountains. Over the next few days, rain developed with snowfall in the upper elevations. A much more powerful winter storm slammed into the mountains during the evening of Oct. 28. James Reed arrived at Sutters Fort just as the storm hit. Reed, who was from Springfield, Ill., like George and Jacob Donner, had stabbed to death teamster John Snyder near the Humboldt River during a fight. He was banished from the wagon train for his crime, which gave him the opportunity to ride ahead to California to acquire emergency provisions.

Two other members of the Donner party, Charles Stanton and William McCutchen, had already gone on ahead before the murder to get help at Sutters Fort (present-day Sacramento). McCutchen fell ill once they arrived at the fort, but Stanton was able to procure seven mules laden with supplies from John Sutter and borrowed two young Indian men, Lewis and Salvador, to act as guides for the struggling wagon train. Maintaining a brisk pace, Stanton, Lewis and Salvador struggled through the late October storm and made it over the pass before the snow became too deep. While descending the Sierra west slope into California, Reed had passed the eastbound Stanton and told him that he would be following close behind with more provisions. James Reed was very determined: After all, his wife and four children were still back on the trail with the others, but this third October snowstorm would stymie his valiant efforts to return to his family. At Sutters Fort the rain fell heavily and steadily for about 12 hours, with the clouds clearing out during the afternoon of Oct. 29. The rain was over in the valley, but the respite would be brief. A long rainy period would soon set in on the evening of Oct. 31.At this point, the Mexican-American War was in full swing. Onboard the United States warship, the USS Portsmouth, anchored in Monterey Bay, the morning weather observer on Oct. 29 noted in the ships deck log that the barometric pressure was falling rapidly with a southwest wind and heavy rain. The sun came out again on the 30th, but by the following day the Portsmouth was again reporting southwest winds with clouds and rain. The wet weather was also having a detrimental effect on the American militarys efforts to defeat the Mexican army. On Oct. 31, The Californian newspaper reported: Last account from General Taylor he was in Monterey with 5,000 men, intended not to advance farther south on account of the rains.In the mountains, however, weather conditions were much more serious. Snow was beginning to accumulate on the trail east of the Sierra crest as the Donner party hurried along as best they could through the Alder Creek Valley. Years later pioneer William C. Graves remembered: On the 30th of October 1846, we camped in a pretty little valley about five miles from Donner Lake; that night it snowed about eight inches deep. The vanguard of the wagon train moved out quickly on Oct. 31 and hurried through the fresh snow that was already beginning to melt in the bright sunshine. They wanted to reach the pass before another storm closed it for good, but they were already too late. The snow on Donner Pass was so deep that they could not find the road. Pioneer William Graves later wrote: We got about four miles past the lower [west] end of the lake, but could not go any further because the snow was about four feet deep. We were within one mile of the top, when some were obliged to give it up and go back to the lake. The pioneers were actually fortunate that they did not succeed in crossing the summit because an extended period of stormy weather was just about to set in and the conditions in the high country west of Donner Pass would be much worse than at Donner Lake.Californian historian Hubert H. Bancroft wrote: They reached the eastern base of the Sierra, which loomed before them high into the heavens, a white wall glistening with frosted pines. Climbing upward as far as they could go, they found the top of Truckee pass five feet under snow. For a historian, Bancroft certainly wrote with a flourish: They ascended to within three miles of the summit, where they now found ten feet of snow, each moment thickened by the clouds. It was very cold. The wind howled round the crags, and the whirling snow blinded, and every moment threatened to engulf them. They saw how impossible it was to proceed farther, so returning to the cabin, they made preparations to winter there, near what is now called Donner Lake. 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.