Donner Party: Peril at Alder Creek |

Donner Party: Peril at Alder Creek

Courtesy California State Parks / Sutter's FGeorge Donner, Jr. was the only Donner male to survive the tragic winter at Alder Creek.

TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; In early November 1846, a desperate group of California-bound emigrants was trapped by heavy snow near Donner Pass. There were 81 people in this wagon train, broken into two groups with about 56 pioneers in three cabins at the east end of Donner Lake and the two Donner families along with their teamsters huddled up in lean-tos at Alder Creek, north of present-day Truckee.

For the emigrant families trapped at the mountain encampments (about half were children under the age of 18), the severe storms that raged during the winter of 1847 were overwhelming. Deep snow made gathering wood difficult and hunting impossible. At Alder Creek, George Donner was suffering from an infected hand wound while his younger brother Jacob was ill and very weak. Their hired teamsters from Illinois were also in failing health.

The trapped emigrants at Donner Lake had decent cabins, but at Alder Creek the lean-tos leaked and their clothes were often wet. They relied on the last of their beef and then rabbits and mice for food. The rapid loss of the able-bodied men was a real blow to the survival of the company. Desperate for rescue, 15 people from the lake encampment set out on snowshoes in hope of reaching settlements in the Sacramento Valley. In many ways it was a suicide mission, but after a month of unbelievable hardship, seven of the snowshoers stumbled into the valley and raised the alarm.

By February, help was on the way. Over the next six weeks, three rescue parties reached the mountain camps with food and the muscle to escort the strongest of the emigrants to safety. The first rescue party took 23 people out, including 15 children, while the second relief led 17 people to safety, nearly all young children. Ultimately most of the youngsters would be saved, but death was stalking the remaining adult survivors. The third relief arrived in March and rescued everyone except for five people who could not, or would not leave. George Donner was dying and too weak to travel, but his wife Tamsen refused to leave him. A fourth rescue party set out in late March to get the last survivors, but a barrage of storms stymied their efforts. When a fourth relief finally reached the mountain camps in the middle of April, the men had little hope of finding anyone alive. The men found the body of George Donner, but Tamsen was not there. When the rescuers located German-born immigrant Louis Keseberg at Donner Lake, he was psychotic and delirious. Under interrogation, he admitted consuming Tamsen Donner’s body, but insisted he had not killed her or stolen any of her family’s missing money.

The two Donner families suffered greatly during the winter of 1847 and#8212; all four of the parents perished in the mountains as did several of their offspring. Their surviving children reached Sutter’s Fort as orphans, but they all found good homes. At first, Hiram Miller, a teamster from their hometown in Illinois acted as guardian for George and Tamsen’s youngest children, Frances, Georgia and Eliza. James and Margaret Reed, also from Springfield, later adopted Frances and Jacob Donner’s daughter Mary.

The citizens of San Francisco raised money to purchase town lots for Jacob’s son George Donner, Jr. and his sister Mary. Frances’ sisters, Georgia and Eliza, were raised by an elderly Swiss couple, Christian and Mary Brunner, who first lived near Sutter’s Fort and then moved to Sonoma. The remaining children were taken in by the families of their half sisters Leanna and Elitha who married young. All five of George Donner’s girls married and had 17 children between them. Nine were born to Jacob and Elizabeth’s surviving children.

and#8212; Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award winning books are available at local stores or Mark can be reached at

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