This Party Went From Donner to Dinner

Jim Reed Escaped The Fate of his Leadership..but not his wife

On This Date In History:  My birthday is April 16 and on that day in 1846, 9 covered wagons left the land of Lincoln,  Springfield, Illinois to began a 2500 mile journey to California.  Initially the settlers were led by a reasonably wealthy man, James Reed.  Reed made certain that his family would not suffer any hardship on what was expected to be a 4 month journey.  He built and elaborate 2 story wagon complete with springed cushion seat.   He had read a book that said there was a quicker route to California.  But, when the group got to Ft. Laramie, an old friend saw Reed and strongly advised that he not take the route suggested by the book because it was extremely difficult to walk through and wagons would be impossible.  Undeterred, Reed dismissed the warning.  The folks from Illinois later joined up with another large group of settlers until they came to a fork in the road.  One led to the route prescribed by the book and the other was a longer, proven trail.  Part of the group took the proven trail but nearly 90 settlers  tried the short cut.  Reed was spending time riding ahead to have a planned meeting with the man who wrote the book, so the wagon train elected George Donner as their captain.  From that point on, the group became known as the Donner Party.

Hastings Looked Credible but Looks Can Deceive and so can Words

On September 19, 1846 it became apparent that the group of  men, women and children had made a huge mistake and the guide that they had used was nothing but the writings of a charlatan.   While the error was apparent, it was too late to do much about it, though they pinned the blame squarely on Reed.  A guy named Lansford Hastings had penned the book that touted a short cut to California for overland travelers. It was known to many as the Hastings’ Cut-off.  What Hastings failed to mention was that he had a vested interest in people coming to the Sacramento Valley and that tough route would deliver any traveler right into his area of prime real estate.    Though they had escaped the wrath of their fellow settlers, Jacob and George Donner had also read the book and also thought it was a good idea.  They very willingly and confidently led their band of 89 emigrants across the plains toward the Sierra Nevada in the summer of 1846.   But, I guess they didn’t read the fine print, if there was a fine print to read.  

George Donner Survived...He does look a bit thin though

While it was true that mileage wise, it was a shorter route to head through a mountain pass near Lake Tahoe, there wasn’t much of a trail to speak.   First, there was a stretch of desert to overcome and then the pass wasn’t much of a pass with huge boulders and tough terrain.  Hastings had claimed that the desert trek would take but two days.  Instead, it took 5 days.  They found the sand to be difficult to traverse and their water ran out after 48 hours.  The settlers were forced to abandon furniture, family heirlooms and livestock as the desert sand gobbled up their strength and possessions.    Reed became angry as a teamster mercilessly whipped his oxen so Gentleman Jim Reed pulled a knife and killed the brute.  Justice was swift as the members of wagon train banished their former leader.  He was last seen riding west with Walter Herron.  The settlers pressed on and, once they reached the mountains, life became even more difficult and after many days of arduous travel, they were running out of food and supplies.   So, they sent two men ahead to California who were to return with more food.   Meanwhile, the supposed “Hastings Pass” proved almost impassible, just as Reed’s friend had told them at Fort Laramie.

Looks Like A Piece of Cake

In mid October, one of the men returned with supplies and a couple of Indian guides but the Hastings short cut had taken so much time that the expedition was doomed. On October 28, they got socked in by a mammoth snowstorm and they got stuck near what is known as Donner Pass.  After that initial big snow, there was no escaping the High Sierra winter.  Donner Pass, about 9 miles west of Lake Tahoe gets over 400 inches of snow annually.  They had no hope of escape when another extreme snow in late November or early December 1846 brought any hope they had for escape to an icy end. For weeks and weeks they remained and the food ran out.  Members of the party began to die but there was no place to bury them, so their corpses remained frozen in the snow.  In an act of desperation, the starving survivors had an idea.  The dead had been preserved in the cold and so their meat wasn’t diseased or rotted.  The Donner Party turned into a dinner party.  

An Artist's Rendering

On this date in 1847, rescuers reached the settlers and found a ghostly, grisely camp filled with people in distress with some showing signs of insanity.   A few days later they began taking survivors out but it was impossible to take them all at once so 23 went in the first group.   The remaining 25 were taken in subsequent rescue missions, though not everyone made it. The final survivors reached civilization in April…5 or 6 months after they had become stranded. Nowadays, if you look at a map, you will find Donner’s Pass, Donner’s Summit and Donner’s Lake to mark the spot of the tragedy. What made this case of human struggle noteworthy was how many of the people survived. Forty-one of the eighty-seven settlers survived. Not all of the survivalists, but many, made it through their horror in the largest case of cannibalism in US history. That is why it is remembered. But, the lessons were not learned.

Southern Pacific Ignored the Lesson of the Donner Party

 The Southern Pacific Railway decided this “shortcut” was a great place for a railroad, in spite of the snow hazard. On January 13, 1952, the Southern Pacific’s “City of San Francisco” train was buried by an avalanche just west of Donner Pass in Yuba Pass. To give an idea of how deep the snow is, in the 20th century, it still took six days to get to the trapped train. Yet, the track stayed in use until 1996, when the Union Pacific took over the Southern Pacific. All traffic was rerouted about a mile south of Donner Pass to a route with a much easier grade and a 10,000 foot tunnel under the mountains. It took 150 years from the lesson of the Donner Party, but someone finally figured out that in the mountains, man is no match for the weather.

Perhaps this is the greatest example of why women should be left to the planning of a trip since men never ask for directions.

12Z NAM Has Rain by Monday Morning (pink line is freezing line...well north)

NAM critical thickness early Monday morning

Weather Bottom Line:  I told you a couple of days ago that the trend in the data had been for more of a rain event. Imagine my surprise when I heard a local tv station claim that the models were trending toward snow and we could have the biggest snow storm of the season.  My sister-in-law had called in a panic when she got back from the UL game because it was apparently the talk of all those sitting around her.  Hmmm….not sure what they were looking at because, you can clearly see that the critical thickness lines on the NAM just after midnight on Monday(sunday night) have the freezing lines of all levels well north of Louisville.  And that has been consistent on other models for several days.  Now that its gotten into the range of the NAM, it’s going along with it.  So, I’m sticking to my story.

GFS Critical Thickness (freezing line at various levels) go back south of Louisville by Mon Evening

We may get a little snow on Friday night or Saturday morning but that system looks to be getting damped out so its not that big of a deal.  Then perhaps some showers on Saturday afternoon with rain developing in a general fashion late Sunday and carrying into Monday.  Now, Monday night, the low should move by our area with wrap around cold making the precipitation turning to snow late.  After that…I suspect that we go back into a relatively prolonged period of cold air to end the month of February, which has been unusually cold.  February 2 was the warmest day when we hit 45 and I think the over all average high for February is probably about 48.  We may get close to 45 on one of the next few days but this not-so-warm up shouldn’t last too long.



5 Responses

  1. Will this help to raise my metabolism as well?

  2. i have drivin a semi-tractor trailer over donner pass about 7 or 8 times. until now i never knew the story of its name. it brought chills to my spine a few times just from remembering being snowed into a truck that had heat. i couldnt imagine how it would have been back in those days. a beautiful mountain with a nasty attitude is how i always looked at it. thanks for the story and the new found knowledge.
    do you have anything on cabbage mountain in oregon?

  3. No, but I do know about the Cabbage Patch Settlement House which was the inspiration for Cabbage Patch dolls.

  4. Under the picture of George Donner you mentioned he survived. This is untrue as he succumed to a axe injury to his hand aquired on the trip out to California. This occured when he and his brother Jacob Donner were attempting to fix a wagon wheel. The wound gradualy became septic and he died from the blood poisoning shortly before the last rescue group made it to Alder Creek where he and his wife were. Tamsin Donner then made the trip to Keseburgs Cabin where after being out all night and in the cold she too succumed. No trace of her Body was ever found although history relates that A rescue party later buried the remains of George Donner. The only survivors of the actual “Donner Family” were the daughters. Eilthia Georgia Eliza and Francis.
    ~L fron Lake Tahoe Ca

  5. Thanx for the correction. I just did a quick check and it seems that the record I found from a couple of sources is accurate, though some say it was his arm and others say it was his hand. I am scratching my head as to how I got that wrong given that I did a lot of research when I wrote that long ago, yet, in about 3 minutes found the error. I appreciate the consideration of your verbiage in correcting the error and also your taking time to stop by.

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