The Donner Party.

In the Spring of 1846, a group of pioneers set out from the mid-west in a wagon train bound for California. The goal was simple: a better life on land there for the taking, not to mention for some in the party the prospect of finding gold. The leader of the group was George Donner, although it’s a bit unclear as to exactly what qualified him to be in charge of the little expedition. Perhaps, since apparently he was a driving force behind this little expedition, enthusiasm was sufficient.

It was slow going from the outset and there were a number of mishaps that slowed the party down.  By the time they reached  a spot where they were just inside of the  Sierras—about where the town of Truckee, California, is now located—a critical decision had to be made: to stay there in the relative safety of other people, or to take there chances on the weather, hope for a mild winter, and press on for California.

 Despite a cloudy day, passengers on Amtrak’s California Zephyr get a wonderful view as the train passes high above the south side of what’s now known as Donner Lake. The original campsite is almost directly below the spot where this photo was taken.

Locals who had been living in the area for a few years counseled George Donner against continuing on into the mountains. They advised him to wait until Spring and to resume the trek when the weather would probably be getting better, not almost certainly getting worse.  But Donner was determined and the party of 87 people headed off into the mountains. 

Of course, winter came early that year and it came hard. In November, the Donner Party became snow bound and then they ran out of food and began to starve. And then they died . . . one or two at a time. . . of bitter cold and of starvation. A few members of the party resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.

In the end, when a rescue party finally reached the site of the encampment, they found only about half of the group had survived.  And when Spring finally came and the snow melted, stark testimony of that terrible winter was revealed: the stumps of the trees the pioneers had cut down for firewood were twelve feet high.