Donner Party in Dire Straits

William Eddy, Forlorn Hope survivor. | Courtesy Sutter’s Fort Archives

January 1847 was a challenging month for the 81 surviving members of the Donner Party trapped in the Tahoe Sierra. In mid-December, 15 intrepid volunteers from the wagon company had snowshoed out for help, but weeks passed and no rescuers arrived. This desperate snowshoe effort is known as the Forlorn Hope.

Inadequately provisioned and initially led by Eema (Luis) and Queyuen (Salvador), two Miwok Indian slaves of John Sutter on loan to guide them, the group traced the meandering North Fork of the American River, which flows into a rugged chasm with precipitous walls towering 2,000 to 4,000 feet. To cross the rain-swollen drainage they scrambled down through slushy snow into the gorge. Climbing up the steep terrain, the weak and emaciated emigrants pulled themselves up by shrubs growing in crevices. After reaching the high country, they descended toward the Bear River Valley, but not before getting their first glimpse of the winter-green Sacramento Valley — still many miles away.

The slog through snow from Donner Lake was supposed to take the snowshoe party about a week, but in fact they struggled along for 33 days in a desperate attempt to alert settlers in California.

On Jan. 11, the haggard remnants of the Forlorn Hope stumbled into a Miwok Indian encampment. Stirred to compassion by their ghastly appearance, the wary Native Americans shared acorn bread with the starving pioneers. Miwok men supported survivor William Eddy as they carried him west toward the closest American outpost of Johnson’s Ranch (now in Wheatland).

The slog through snow from Donner Lake was supposed to take the snowshoe party about a week, but in fact they struggled along for 33 days in a desperate attempt to alert settlers in California.

It was the Miwok tribe’s generosity and nurturing that kept the emigrants alive during this final push to safety. Their 90-mile journey had been horrific with only seven of the 15 surviving — including all five women who started out.

The snowshoers’ tale of suffering and cannibalism stunned California communities as did the news that starvation and death threatened to wipe out what remained of the Donner Party. Word spread like wildfire, but even so, the first relief party would not reach the fading members of the Donner Party until mid-February.

Donner Party clings to hope

One emigrant at Donner Lake, Patrick Breen, kept a daily diary. His entry on Jan. 1, 1847, revealed the snowbound pioneers’ increasing sense of desperation. They were in a dire situation — trapped in deep snow with little food. Breen wrote: “We pray the God of mercy to deliver us, from our present Calamity if it be his Holy will Amen. Commenced snowing last night… wind southeast. Sun peeps out at times…provisions getting scant… dug up a hide from under the snow yesterday for Milt [Elliot].” Other than finding the occasional mouse or chipmunk, fishing or hunting for food was virtually impossible.

January exhibited the classic Tahoe Sierra winter weather pattern of periodic storminess separated by extended intervals of fair and dry conditions.

Between storms, bone-chilling air pooled into the Donner Lake and Alder Creek Valley basins. On Jan. 7, clear skies sparked a naïve optimism in the Irish-born Breen; “I don’t think we will have much more snow.” Ignorant of the high-altitude climate, he mistakenly believed that winter had peaked and the spring thaw had arrived. However, he pragmatically noted that the snow had not melted much or diminished in depth.

The emigrants in the mountain camps had not seen green grass or flowers for months. Heavy snow developed on the evening of Jan. 10 and over the next few days 3 feet more piled onto the snowpack. On Jan. 13, Breen wrote: “Snowing fast. Wind N.W. Snow higher than the shanty. Must be 13 feet deep. Do not know how to get wood this morning. It is dreadful to look at.”

The next day the sun came out, which brightened Breen’s mood again: “Very pleasant today. Sun shining brilliantly…renovates our spirits. Praise be to God, Amen.”

The dying emigrants would suffer another grueling month before help arrived. One by one they were slipping into delirium and closer to death. Mrs. Lavina Murphy was snow-blind, while her 16-year-old son Landrum had gone “crazy with hunger.” They were all hallucinating, listless and emotionally withdrawn, classic physiological symptoms of mental illness caused by malnutrition.

On Jan. 21, Milt Elliot arrived from the Alder Creek camp with news that most of the adult males were dead or close to it. The women there were trying to hang on for their children. Shortly after dawn on Jan. 22, the strongest storm of the season roared in with intense snowfall and erratic, gusty winds.

Relief party organized

Meanwhile, at Sutter’s Fort in the southern Sacramento Valley, an effort was underway to organize and supply relief parties. It was not going to be easy. Due to the Mexican-American War, there were less than 20 men in the region and four or five of them considered any attempt to reach the emigrants suicide.


Donner Relief Expedition | A four-person team recently completed an expedition to retrace the Relief Party’s route from 1847. Read more about the expedition at TheTahoeWeekly.com and at forlornhope.org


Capt. Edward M. Kern, the military officer in charge of Sutter’s Fort (Fort Sacramento) during the conflict with Mexico, offered $3 a day for anyone willing to help in the rescue effort. Three men volunteered, but at least another dozen were required to help carry provisions and contribute logistical support. Local ranchers were skeptical that the U.S. military would pay the volunteers while others demanded an exorbitant $5 per day.

Four more men signed up when John Sutter promised to be personally responsible for any promised wages. Alcade John Sinclair, a wealthy political leader, also agreed to supply food and horses. Sutter sent his launch, “The Sacramento,” into the delta toward San Francisco Bay with the crew ordered to alert residents and request additional recruits and financial aid.

On Feb. 3 in San Francisco, Methodist minister Reverend James Dunleavy gave a rousing speech to a tightly packed crowd in the city’s best hotel-saloon. Patrons raised $800 in a matter of hours. Over the next few days, the Donner Party rescue fund reached $1,500. People also donated clothing, blankets and shoes, but the incessant storms had flooded streams and rivers. Travel across the Sacramento Valley was exceedingly difficult.

At Johnson’s Ranch, the First Relief was outfitted and ready to go. It was a ragtag group of 14, consisting of American emigrants, French and German sailors, woodsmen and some teenage boys recruited to guard the horses at camp. Several joined the rescue party because of empathy for the suffering emigrant families.

Daniel Rhoads, whose father was a Mormon elder, wrote: “They gave the alarm that the people [Donner Party] would all die without assistance. It was 2 weeks before any person would consent to go. Finally, we concluded we would go or die trying for not to make any attempt to save them would be a disgrace to us and California as long as time lasted.” Most men in the First Relief, however, were in it for the money.

Portions were excerpted from Mark McLaughlin’s award-winning book, “The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm available at thestormking.com.


Author’s Note: To acknowledge the historical significance of the Donner Party, I will occasionally write a column chronicling the progress and challenges of this cursed wagon train as it made its way to California. The columns will be available in future editions and my previous columns are available at TheTahoeWeekly.com. Click on Donner Party under the Explore Tahoe menu.