On February 19, 1847, the first team of rescuers reached surviving members of the Donner Party. The Donner Party was a group of emigrants headed to California that lost most of its members due to starvation and extreme weather conditions.
By 1846, emigration to the American west had become the watchword and thousands of pioneers across the United States prepared to travel across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. One such group, popularly known as the Donner Party, consisting of 89 people in all, set off from Springfield in Illinois in a nine-wagon train. The Donner party included 31 members of the Donner and Reed families. The group, led by George Donner, set out on April 15, 1846, and moved from Illinois to Independence in Missouri, and then embarking on the California Trail. By June 27, the Donner Party completed the first leg of its travel coming over 650 miles to Fort Laramie in Wyoming.
In 1842, Lord Hastings, one of the earliest pioneers went over to California, and decided to promote the passage to the west. In his book “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California”, he described a route called the Hastings Cutoff. Lord Hastings, however, had made the passage through this route only in 1846, and that too without any wagons to accompany him. The route would take a pioneer across the Sierra Nevada range for over 100 miles. The trail was a tricky one and needed to be timed right for a safe passage.
After reaching Fort Bridger, Wyoming, the pioneers of Donner’s Party decided to follow the trail blazed by Lord Hastings and avoid the usual route taken by wagons. The party had received Lord Hastings’ letters advocating the route and words of encouragement from Jim Bridger a local trading post owner and decided to take the Hastings Cutoff instead of the Oregon Trail.
The journey was anything but short and smooth as anticipated. The party labored through an unknown habitat where food and water was scarce; no clear route had been chalked out and Hastings’ letters and directions were few and far removed. The inhospitable terrain made their passage slow and laborious. After a painstaking journey through the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake, the party reached the Great Salt Lake Desert in late August. The journey through the desert stripped the party of any food, and strength left.
After crossing the valley of the Ruby Mountains, the group rejoined the traditional trail along River Humboldt in late September – a month later than the other pioneers making the crossing. By the time the party reached Sutter’s Fort near San Francisco in California, it had lost most of its cattle and oxen to thirst, lack of food, and to Native Indians. The rations of many families had started to run out as well. Assured that snowfall was not likely before mid-November, the party decided to make the crossing across the Sierra Nevada in late October.
On October 28 the party decided to camp at Truckee Lake, about 10 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe. In one of the worst incidents of the Western passage, an early winter blizzard blanketed the region with snow, and trapped the Donner Party, cutting them off from the mountain pass. Most of the group built log cabins and camped near the Truckee Lake; the Donner family and a few others were stuck at Alder Creek, about six miles away. As the oxen started to die of cold or starvation, the families started to feed on them and use the hide for insulation.
A group of fifteen emigrants, later known as the Forlorn Hope, set off on December 16 to fetch rescuers from Sutter’s Fort. Within the next three weeks, the torturous weather and shortage of food killed several members of the group. With more dying and food nearly unavailable, a number of members resorted to cannibalism. Only seven survivors reached a nearby Native American village.
On January 31, 1847 a rescue party set out from Sutter’s Fort to rescue the stranded members of the Donner’s Party. On February 19, the first rescue team reached the lake started to feed the starving group. Three other rescue parties eventually made it but it was well into April by the time all the survivors were evacuated. Only 45 of the 89 members of the Donner Party reached California. The catastrophe came to be known as one of the worst in the western passage.
You may also like :
February 19 1473 – Nicolaus Copernicus is Born in Torun, Poland