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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.


The History Channel
The history of the Donner Party
The American Experience/The Donner Party

More about the Donner Party:
coverThe 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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