ECHOES FROM THE PAST: Donner Party’s fate due to poor organization | SierraSun.com
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ECHOES FROM THE PAST: Donner Party’s fate due to poor organization

Guy Coates, Sierra Sun

Following the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, Donner Pass became one of two main thoroughfares for the passage of the central Sierra. In 1845 came a large company led by W. F. Swasey and W. L. Todd. They were followed by the Grgsby-Ide party.

Between May and July, 1846, more than 500 wagon trains were strung out along the great plains, headed west. Hastings had posted a widely read advertisement of a new route to Salt Lake, then through the desert, for those interested in getting to California “the easy way.”

The Craig-Stanley party came through in August with the Edwin Bryant-Richard Jacob company close behind it. Other parties came in close succession throughout September.

The ill-fated Donner party was the last wagon train to attempt to reach California in late October 1846. After crossing the Forty Mile Desert to what is now Wadsworth, the group set up camp along the banks of the Truckee River, not far from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian settlement.

In her book, “Life among the Paiutes,” Sarah Winnemucca (Chief Truckee’s granddaughter) remarked that members of this group were the least organized and not very resourceful.

According to Winnemucca, members of the Donner Party located the place where her people had stored their supplies for the long winter ahead. She writes, “They set everything we had left on fire. It was a fearful sight. It was all we had for the winter, and it was all burned during that night. They surely knew it was our food.”

By the end of October, the advance wagons reached Donner Lake while another group, which included the two Donner families, got no further than the junction of Prosser and Alder Creeks.

As heavy snow began to fall, the pioneers made several attempts to cross the pass, but were driven back to their camps at the lake. They ended up being trapped for the winter with little food and no game to hunt.

During the following months, a succession of relentless snowstorms sealed their fate.

As people died, survivors resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Several rescue parties from Sutter’s fort fought their way up the summit and by spring the last survivor was taken out of the mountains.

Of the 87-member Donner Party, 47 reached California and 42 died in the desert or in the Sierra snow.

Sarah Winnemucca later commented that it was a tragic irony that after destroying the Paiute’s winter food supply that these emigrants would later themselves endure such hardship and starvation.

“We could have saved them,” she recalled, “only my people were afraid of them. We never knew who they were or where they came from.”

“Snowbound – The Curse of the Sierra”

On Tuesday, March 27 at 7 p.m., the Truckee-Donner Historical Society will be showing The History Channel’s classic documentary, “Wrath of God: Snowbound – The Curse of the Sierra,” at its general meeting.

This is a must-see documentary which traces the history of the Donner Party followed by the story of the 1952 entrapment of the the passenger train “City of San Francisco” which became buried in heavy snows on Donner Summit; then tells of the tragic avalanche at Alpine Meadows in the early 1980s.

The showing, which is open to the public, will be held at the Historical Society’s Gateway Cabin in Meadow Park. Admission is free; however, donations are always appreciated. For information call 582-0893.

“Echoes From The Past” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He can be reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by E-mail at gcoats@telis.org.


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