Weather Window | Donner Party: Peril at Alder Creek

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
Courtesy Mark McLaughlinAt Alder Creek the emigrants felled trees to create primitive lean-tos made of branches and wagon canvas.

TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; The Alder Creek Valley, located about five miles northeast of Donner Lake, was a hectic scene during the early days of November 1846. The two Donner families and their hired help were bogged down by snow, injury and fatigue, and separated from the main group, many of whom had reached Donner Lake by the end of October. The Donners decided to make camp in a protected grove of trees at the junction of Alder and Prosser creeks. Alder Creek Valley receives less snow than Donner Lake or the pass, but the pioneers trapped there couldn’t have been very optimistic about their prospects.

The trouble at Alder Creek started when one of Captain George Donner’s wagons crashed on a steep hill breaking an axle. Later that day George was wounded when the ax he was using to carve a piece of wood into a replacement axle glanced and gashed his hand. The wound was cleaned and bandaged, but the injury hindered George Donner’s ability to work and it eventually became seriously infected.

For the first 11 days of November, rain and snow showers fell almost every day, and up on Donner Pass the snow was piling up fast. Unlike their fellow travelers stuck at Donner Lake, the emigrants at Alder Creek were unable to build cabins due to a lack of manpower and deteriorating weather conditions. They were forced to pitch tents and hastily construct crude lean-tos using cut tree branches covered with canvas, blankets, pine boughs, and rubber raincoats.

Their primitive accommodations were a rude shock for the prosperous Donner families. George and Jacob Donner were wealthy, gentlemen farmers with young children who, along with their neighbor James Reed and his family, had left their comfortable homes in Springfield, Ill., on April 15, with bright hopes and dreams of a new life in the sparsely populated Mexican province of California. They outfitted nine wagons, three for each family, and hired a few teamsters and others to help them on the long journey.

Land, climate, and greater economic opportunity for his family were what inspired 60-year-old George Donner (some ages are disputed by historians) to uproot his family and head west with his wife Tamsen, a teacher who planned to open a school in California. They brought their five young girls, the oldest only 13-years-old. George’s younger brother Jacob and#8220;Jakeand#8221; Donner decided to join the adventure too. Jacob was only in his mid-50s but in failing health. He was accompanied by his wife Elizabeth and#8220;Betsyand#8221; and their seven children.

Like other pioneers taking the California Trail in 1846, the Donner families followed the advice of emigrant guidebooks and purchased hundreds of pounds of flour, bacon, sugar, coffee and salt for the long trip. The food supplies, along with household goods, tools and other equipment were loaded into stout farm wagons. Livestock included horses, spare oxen and milk cows. The Reeds also brought along their five dogs, including a little terrier, and#8220;Cash,and#8221; the children’s pet.

Unfortunately, the Donner Party had taken an ill-advised shortcut through the Wasatch Mountains east of the Great Salt Lake, a bad decision that added weeks to their travel time and used up precious supplies. The company lost livestock and wagons crossing the Utah desert, and then more cattle died from Indian arrows as they plodded along the Humboldt River across present-day northern Nevada.

Edwin Bryant, who had traveled with the Donners for a time, later published a book about the journey. He wrote, and#8220;The snow commenced falling on the Sierra, two or three weeks earlier in 1846 than is usual, and when this [Donner] party arrived at the foot of the pass they found it impossible to proceed from its depth.and#8221;

Stay tuned for part two.

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

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