This Day In History: 02/19/1847 - Donner Party Rescued

This Day In History: 02/19/1847 - Donner Party Rescued

Donnor party who resorted to cannibalism was rescued, Aaron Burr was arrested for treason after his duel with Alexander Hamilton, Jeffrey Skilling from Enron was charged in This Day in History video. The date is February 19th. The Enron scandal resulted in Arthur Andersen closing.


The Donner Party

Tragedy was no stranger to western trails, but the sad experience of this ill-fated group has come to symbolize the hardships of all.

A large, well equipped wagon train rolled toward California in 1846. It crossed the plains without difficulty, but as it neared Fort Bridger a dispute arose. They had read Lansford Hastings’ book, The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California which suggested a shorter route and advertised that Hastings would guide those interested himself. The route—which headed west from Fort Bridger through the Wasatch Mountains, around the southern end of the Great Salt Lake, across the Salt Desert and on to the Humboldt River—was untested by wagons. Still, many were inclined to take it.

The company split and the majority took the longer northern route. The smaller division, joined by several small groups and individuals, headed for Hastings’ Cutoff. They were eighty-seven men, women and children with twenty wagons led by Jacob Donner and James Reed.

At the Weber River they found a note from their guide telling them to turn south and cut a road over the mountain, in the sarcastic words of Reed’s journal, “instead of the canyon which is impassible although 60 wagons passed through.” They camped there four days while Reed rode down the Weber to find Hastings and obtain better guidance. Hastings was guiding two other trains and declined to go back. However, he gave specific instructions on the trail he had used two months earlier.

Remains of Donner-Reed wagons on the Salt Flats

It was now 10 August and the new way looked shorter and less troublesome. But instead of three days fighting over the Weber Canyon boulders, they spent twelve cutting a road through brush and timber into the Salt Lake Valley.

Moving swiftly South of the Great Salt Lake, they paused one day to take on water and grass, then plunged into the Great Salt Lake Desert on 30 August. Driving day and night, they dared not stop. But the ground was evidently softer than it had been for the preceding companies. The crossing took six days rather than the two predicted by Hastings. Four of their wagons and many of the animals were lost.

Knowing that time was now critical, they made a swift dash across Nevada, but with no rest the stock could not make the pull over the Sierras before early snows blocked the high passes in late October. Of the eighty-two, forty-seven survived the starvation and cannibalism to be rescued by parties coming east from Sutter’s Fort in February and March, 1847. Thirty-five perished in the snow and cold of the Sierra Nevadas, while five died before they reached the mountains. Two Indians also lost their lives in the rescue attempts. The Donner Party’s fate insured that the Hastings cutoff would not be used by later wagon trains. However the trail they cut through the Wasatch Mountains was the main road into Utah for a decade.

See: Charles F. McGlashan, History of the Donner Party, (1907, 1947) George R. Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger: Story of the Donner Party, (1960) and The California Trail, (1962).


This Day In NorCal History: Donner Party Rescued

By Admin on February 19, 2020

If I say the word “Donner” to you, you’d probably immediately think of Donner Lake, northwest of Lake Tahoe. But, how did Donner Lake, and Donner Pass get their names?

To answer that question, we have to go back to 1846. History writes, 󈭉 people—including 31 members of the Donner and Reed families—set out in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois. After arriving at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, the emigrants decided to avoid the usual route and try a new trail recently blazed by California promoter Lansford Hastings, the so-called “Hastings Cutoff.” After electing George Donner as their captain, the party departed Fort Bridger in mid-July.”

The Donner party would be delayed by almost three weeks on that cutoff, and would arrive in California’s Sierra in October. Winter had set in, and it was cold, but not snowing. So the party pressed on. October 28th, the group found themselves next to a large mountain lake, now Donner Lake. They set up camp and spent the night.

When they woke up the next morning, the landscape had changed completely. Winter had arrived, and without warning. Everything in sight was covered in a thick blanket of snow.

The party killed their oxen for food, and ultimately began resorting to cannibalism to stay alive.

Eventually, the remaining members of the Donner Party would be rescued on this day February 19, 1847.

The story is really twisted and you can read more of that at History.


Donner Party Tracker: Last Rescue Attempt - Mid-November 1846

One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week, the members of the Donner Party had come to the realization that they were really trapped. The active storm pattern had finally abated during the middle of November 1846, but the deep snowdrifts on Donner Pass still blocked the route to the west and safety.

Alder Creek Group
The two Donner families living at Alder Creek-five miles from Donner Lake--were unable to build cabins due to a lack of manpower and the 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.

Jean Baptiste Trudeau, a 16-year-old from New Mexico who had been hired by the Donners back on the trail at Fort Bridger (Wyoming), later described their desperate situation: "Our little band worked bravely on until we came to Alder Creek Valley, where we had to stop, it being impossible to go further. The snow came on with blinding fury and being unable to build cabins we put up brush sheds, covering them with limbs from the pine trees."

The primitive accommodations were a rude shock for the prosperous Donner families. Back in Illinois George and Jacob Donner had been wealthy, gentlemen farmers with young children. The Donners, along with their neighbor, James Reed and his family, had left comfortable homes on April 15 (1846) with bright hopes and dreams of a new life in California (still, then, part of Mexico).

Land, climate, and greater economic opportunity for his family were what inspired 60-year-old George Donner to uproot his family and head west with his wife, Tamsen (44), a teacher who planned to open a school. They brought their five young girls. The two oldest, Elitha (13) and Leanna (11), were from George's second marriage, while the three youngest, Frances (6), Georgia (4), and Eliza (3) were from his third marriage to Tamsen.

George's younger brother, Jacob "Jake" Donner, decided to join the wagon train. Jacob, in his mid-fifties, was accompanied by his wife Elizabeth "Betsy" (45) and their five children: George (9), Mary (7), Isaac (5), Samuel (4) and Lewis (3). Traveling with them were two sons from Betsy's previous marriage, Solomon (14) and William (12) Hook. To help with tending the livestock, maintenance duties, and hard physical labor during the overland migration, the Donner families hired four men: John Denton, Noah James, Hiram Miller, and Samuel Shoemaker.

Donner Lake Group
When the weather finally cleared on November 12, fifteen of the strongest men and women in the Donner Lake portion of the full Donner Party, attempted to break out. They dressed warmly and took dried beef as their only food. Charles Stanton, who had crossed Donner Pass twice and knew the route, lead them westward. Two Miwok Indian guides, Luis (19) and Salvador (28), joined the desperate effort. The two Indians had come with Stanton from Sutter's Fort to try to rescue the pioneers.

The 18 in the group were able to walk through the snow along the north shore of the lake, but once they ascended the steep slope up to the pass they encountered drifts up to 10 feet deep. They floundered helplessly in the fresh powder until they turned around in defeat, beaten by the mountain once again.

John Breen described their effort: "In a day or two the weather cleared, and some persons went to examine the road on the mountain to see if the cattle could cross. At night they returned and reported six feet of snow two miles from [lake] camp."

The photo below is the west slope of the Sierra leading up toward Donner Pass.

Sutter's Fort
On the west side of the Sierra, James Reed had arrived at Sutter's Fort shortly before the late October storm had blocked the pass. Although he had barely recovered from his own journey over the mountains, Reed was anxious to return to help his family and friends.

Despite Reed's exhaustion and a warning from Captain Sutter that it was too late to try and cross the snow-covered mountains, Reed was determined to bring food to his family as well as to those who had banished him from the company. Reed was hopeful that Charlie Stanton had reached the emigrants with provisions, but with the unexpected snow he knew they would need extra help to come back over the Sierra.

Thirty-year-old William McCutchen, who had accompanied Stanton in an earlier effort to get help, told Reed he was ready to risk his life again to save his wife Amanda (25) and infant daughter, Harriet, who he had left behind.

One More Rescue Attempt
In early November, Reed, McCutchen and two Indian guides rode east from the fort with provisions generously supplied by Sutter. Shortly after they departed the fort it began to rain in the valley with more snow falling in the upper elevations. It rained off and on for several days as the four ascended the Sierra west slope. They traveled up Bear Valley which is near present-day Nyack and the Emigrant Pass visible from Highway 80.

When they reached the head (eastern end) of Bear Valley at elevation 4,500 feet, heavier rain and sleet warned of worsening conditions in the higher terrain. They were able to secure the flour and horses they had with them, but they were unable to kindle a fire. Reed wrote, "At the lower end of the [Bear] valley, where we entered, the snow was 18 inches in depth."

After another mile or two it was 24 inches deep. The next day's march brought them to snow nearly four feet deep and the horses began to flounder, some of them almost smothered in snow. Here the Indians deserted Reed and McCutchen and returned to the fort. Without snowshoes the two men could make no headway. Frustrated and defeated, they gathered their horses together and backtracked out of the mountains and back to safety.

Editor's Note: This installment is #20 in an exclusive, weekly series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin, weather historian, who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, wrote the series for Tahoetopia.


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Donnerama is a blog maintained by Mark Donner who has worked and played in the computer industry of 20+ years. He has a wide range of interests involving gadgets (tech and otherwise), golf, shooting sports, beer, bocce and pretty much any activity as long as there is a social component. This blog hopes to present a panorama of ideas, observations, guides and product reviews from the mind of this tech-savvy baby boomer. Why the name Donnerama? Click here.


RESCUES & DEATHS: The Donner Party--February 26, 1847

One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week, the stranded members of the Donner Party were finally getting the help that they so desperately needed.

The first rescue party arrived on February 18 with a limited supply of food and provisions, but there were more rescue efforts in the pipeline.

February, 1847
On February 23 a second rescue party led by James Reed started from Johnson's Ranch for the mountains. They reached the Sierra's snow-covered west slope two days later. This rescue unit was equipped with eleven horses and mules, each lightly packed with about 80 pounds of supplies. It was hard labor for the animals in the snow and the rescuers only made about six miles the first day. They left early in the morning the next day, hoping the frozen snow pack would support the animals' weight. But after only 200 yards the men realized that pack animals were useless in the deep snow the men were forced to shoulder the heavy loads themselves.

The Struggle Toward Safety
Back at Donner Lake, the first relief party had left the cabins and shacks and was headed for the pass with twenty-three survivors in tow, including fifteen children. Among those trying to escape were John Denton, an Englishman who had been ill for weeks three of the Graves children Eliza Williams 3-year-old Naomi Pike Philippine Keseberg and her three-year-old daughter Ada two of the Breen boys 15-year-old Mary Murphy and her 11-year-old brother William and Margaret Reed and all four of her children--Virginia, Patty, James and Thomas. They had not traveled far when two of the Reed-family children were returned to the (Donner) lake encampment. Mrs. Reed and her oldest daughter, Virginia, were able to keep up, but 8-year-old Patty and 3-year-old Tommy were too weak to continue. They were carried back to the Breen family cabin.

In a couple of days, the first relief party reached the cache of provisions if had hung in a tree on their way over the mountains. Wild animals had gotten there first and eaten half of the dried meat. The next day, Denton collapsed and was left behind to die. Rhoads wrote:
"On the third day an emigrant named John Denton, exhausted by starvation and totally snow-blind, gave out. He tried to keep up a hopeful and cheerful appearance, but we knew he could not live much longer. We made a platform of saplings, built a fire on it, cut some boughs for him to sit upon and left him. This was imperatively necessary."

A Little Girl Dies
Mrs. Keseberg, who was too exhausted to carry her daughter, Ada, any longer, offered $25 and a gold watch to anyone who would bring her helpless child to safety. There were no takers. The rescuers were already loaded down with supplies or other small children, and none of the other, famished emigrants were strong enough to carry the little girl. Two days later Ada died. After losing her second child to starvation, Philippine Keseberg was inconsolable.

On February 26, Reed and his men, traveling uphill, reached the lower end of Bear Valley and the base camp of the first relief party. The men already there were waiting for the Donner party refugees to be led out of the mountains. Some of the food supplies carried in by the second relief party were left at the base camp to feed the famished emigrants who would soon arrive.

Reed Meets His Wife
Next morning, the second rescue expedition left camp early and traveled quickly on a fine hard snow. Reed's diary entry tells the story of what happened when he met with the vanguard of pioneers being led to safety by the first relief group:
"We proceeded about 4 miles when we met the poor unfortunate starved people. As I met them scattered along the snow trail, I distributed the baked sweetbreads that I had. I gave it in small quantities. Here I met Mrs. Reed and two of my children--two were still in the mountains. 'Bread, Bread, Bread,' was the begging of every child and grown person. I gave to all what I dared and left for the scene of desolation."

At the end of February, Reed wrote: "Now I am camped within 25 miles [of Donner Lake], which I hope to make by tomorrow. We had to camp soon on account of the softness of the snow."

As the men in the first relief party led the survivors west out of the mountains, the eastbound second relief camped on the Yuba River. They had reached the summit region where Reed reported the snow 30 feet deep.

Editor's Note: This installment is #34 in an exclusive, weekly series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin, a weather historian and photographer, who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, wrote the series for Tahoetopia and the Lake Tahoe Visitor Network. Copies of all the installments can be found by clicking on Donner Party.


This Day In History: 02/19/1847 - Donner Party Rescued - HISTORY

Rescuers Reach the Donner Party (February 19, 1848)

Today in Odd History, the first rescue party reached the Donner Party, the most famous group of American emigrants ever to attempt the cross country wagon journey to California.

In the summer of 1847, 89 emigrants left Springfield, Illinois and set out overland for California. They reached Fort Bridger, Wyoming on schedule, in August, but then made the fatal mistake of taking a shortcut recommended by a California promoter named Lanford Hastings.

Hastings touted his shortcut in a book called The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California. He claimed it would cut three weeks off the journey, compared to the Fort Hall route that most emigrants took. The Donner party arranged for Hastings to meet them at Fort Bridger, and guide them across the Salt Desert of Utah, but Hastings left before they did, so they pushed on without him.

Had the Donner party had any understanding of the ordeal that lay before them, they would doubtless have taken the road more travelled. Because they did not have Hastings as a guide, they got off course almost immediately, and it took them 18 days to cross the Wasatch Mountains, a distance of only 39 miles. On the other side lay the Salt Desert. It is 65 miles from the spring on the eastern side of the desert to the spring at the base of Pilot Peak, and the Salt Desert itself is a mixture of clay, salt and mud, which sucks at wagon wheels and the legs of both humans and animals. On the other side lie the Ruby Mountains, where the party followed streams which Hastings had claimed would join the Humboldt River. They did not. Instead, they flowed into Franklin Lake. This detour cost the party more precious time, and they did not reach the High Sierra until October.

On October 28, the party camped beside what is now Donner Lake, planning to make the final push over the pass in the morning. That night, however, a storm moved in. The party had no choice but to settle in, hoping that a thaw would come so that they could move on. James Reed, who had been banished from the party after a knife fight, reached Sutter's Fort at about the same time. His wife and children had stayed with the main group, and he knew that they were still in the mountains. John Sutter gave him supplies to mount a rescue attempt, but was no use. The weather was simply too bad.

In mid-December, as the party's food ran alarmingly low, 10 men and 5 women set out to cross the pass on foot, hoping to send back a rescue party. Three weeks later, the 5 women and 2 of the men made it to a Native American village. They had become lost when their guide developed snow blindness, and ate their own dead to survive, but they were able to send a dispatch to Sutter's Fort. A rescue party of 7 left the Fort on January 31. They reached the Donner Party's camp 20 days later, and found an unbroken blanket of snow and ice. They called out, and a woman's voice answered. "Are you men from California or are you from Heaven?" she asked. More survivors began to straggle out of the snow-covered shelters, gaunt with hunger, weeping and laughing.

Other rescue parties followed, and the Donner Party slowly came down the mountain to safety. 45 members had survived, eating the last scraps of their dead oxen, and finally eating each other. The rescue parties, too, resorted to cannibalism in the icy mountain passes. The last surviving member of the party was not brought down the mountain until April, a year after the party left Illinois.

More about the Donner Party:
The Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train, 1846-47, by Frank Mullen. An intimate account of the Donner Party's tragic journey.

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Some General Emigrant Advice from T.H. Jefferson, 1849

“Upon this journey the bad passions of men are apt to show themselves. Avoid all partnerships if possible.. Provide your own outfit and expect to take care of yourself….. Appoint no captain – make no by-laws. Be quiet attend to your own business make no promises.”

You will stay together only as long as you have common interests and no longer. You can stop and join another party any time (not a quote) “It is much better for the emigrants to scatter themselves along the road in small parties, a day’s journey or so apart, than to undertake to travel in a large body. Try to go in company with quiet, peaceable men – avoid braggarts …Start in April,… but not later than the first of May. Those who go ahead get the best grass and clean camp grounds.”

He explains how to get up a hill if it’s too steep, that one should test out the wagons ahead of time and be practiced with oxen.

Always be on the guard against Indians and take a few “articles of trade.” “The less you have to do with the Indians the better. That said, "Indians like Mackinaw blankets, flint lock guns, powder and ball, knives, hatchets, squaw awls, whiskey, tobacco, beads, vermillion, flints.”


The Donner Party: Journey of Sorrow. Trivia Quiz

  1. 18th February 1847: The first relief party set off on January 31st. It took 20 days, to reach Donner Lake and they found the camp completely snowbound. The pioneers were elated to see their rescuers who fed them as best they could. (They only had what food they could carry). They and began evacuating them but it took a further three rescue attempts before all 45 survivors were brought to safety.
  2. 7: The survivors of the Forlorn Hope party made it to the safety of a Miwok camp. Their journey from Truckee Lake camp had taken over a month, and they had survived by eating the flesh of their dead companions. Five women, Sarah Ann (Murphy) Foster, Sarah Graves Fosdick, Mary Ann Graves, Amanda Henderson McCutchen and Harriet Frances Murphy survived, along with two men, William McFadden Foster and William Eddy.
  3. William Eddy was the leader of the group of 17 men and woman who made the final attempt to get over the mountain pass and bring back help. Weakened by the high altitude and blinded by the snow blizzards they quickly become lost, it wasn't long before the group succumbed to frostbite. When the food ran out it was suggested they kill and eat the two Indian guides. This, however, was rejected at first but the group did eventually resort to cannibalism as members of the party died from cold or exhaustion.

  4. James Reed crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountain, just ahead of the early snows that trapped the pioneers. Reed tried to return with food supplies a few weeks later but was hampered by soft deep snow. It was March 1st when Reed finally made it through to Donner Lake with the second relief party.
  5. Truckee Lake : The Donner party were forced to make camp at Truckee Lake (now called Donner Lake) when the route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains became too treacherous for the wagons to use. They took refuge in the abandoned cabins beside the lake and also makeshift tents were quickly erected to wait out the winter.


The Donner Party Disaster The tragedy that befell the Donner Party in 1846 outranks them all .

I don’t know if anyone recorded the number of dishonest wagon masters, but in the hundreds of wagon trains heading to Oregon or California there certainly were some incompetent ones. There are many examples of bungling, bad decisions and charlatans who conned the settlers, but the tragedy that befell the Donner Party in 1846 outranks them all.

Against the warnings of noted mountain man, Jim Clyman, twenty wagons chose to follow a trail mapped out by an inept guide named Lansford Hastings, who authored, The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California. The so-called Hastings Cutoff was supposed to shave 300 miles off their journey. By the time they rejoined the California Trail, they’d gone 125 miles farther, crossing much more difficult terrain including blazing a trail through the rugged Wasatch Mountains and crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert The Donner Party spent 68 days following the cutoff while the others who chose to follow the known California Trail spent just 37 to get to the same point.

Emigrants heading west usually had a wagon master who knew the trails and had experience getting through the trials and travails of the trail safely. Pity those emigrants who didn’t go with experience. It was the wagon master’s job to maintain discipline and that was the key to surviving the trip of some 1,500 miles to Sacramento.

Following the American custom of self-government they elected a council that held court for breaches of discipline. Usually the wagon master acted as judge, but it also might be a preacher or other respected traveler. These transgressions included such things as politics, morals, family disputes, theft and of course, fighting over a women. Other things known to split parties of emigrants were speed of travel, disputes over routes and treatment of animals. The usual punishment for serious breach of discipline such as rape and murder was banishment, firing squad or hanging. It was estimated during one year of wagon travel no less than fifty murders were committed.

Hastings Cutoff, the path the Donner Party endured.

One of the most unusual stories of banishment was that of James and Margaret Reed. The trouble started when Reed took umbrage at a teamster named John Snyder for whipping an oxen. The two exchanged words then Snyder whacked Reed with his bullwhip. Reed pulled a hunting knife and killed him. A trial was held, and Reed faced hanging but was banished after his wife pleaded for leniency, and he was forced to leave his wife and four children. He agreed to ride to Sacramento and secure supplies but on his return was stranded in California by the storm.

At the California Trail they delayed again and finally arriving at Donner Pass just as an early winter storm caused them to become snowbound. Had they arrived at the pass just one day earlier the party would have been clear of the storm.

They retreated back to Truckee Lake and holed up for the winter. Many of their animals had died along the way and those that survived were eaten. Soon, members of the party began to die and they too were eaten. Only about half the group resorted to cannibalism. Of the 81 people stranded at Truckee Lake, half were under the age of eighteen and six were infants.

In the middle of December, fifteen of the strongest set out on snowshoes to get help. They struggled for a month and they too only survived by cannibalism. Only seven of the so-called “Forlorn Hope” endured. Rescue parties finally arrived in February and March 1847. Of the 81 members of the Donner Party only 45 managed to walk out alive.

James Reed was among the relief parties who rescued the stranded survivors. The Reeds were one of only two families managed to make it through the ordeal intact.

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Watch the video: The Donner Party is reached by the first group of rescuers - February 19 1847