A Winter Tragedy: The Donner Party in 1846/47 (Part 4)
In a previous post, the Donner group got caught in a terrible winter storm and had gotten separated into two groups. When the winter storm hit so fiercely, the 22 members of the Donner family and servants who had lagged behind because of the injury to George Donner’s hand, had to quickly build some makeshift shelters at Alder Creek with the quilts, tents, and buffalo robes they had with them, along with some brush they found in the woods. There were many children with them and several of them survived rather well during the months stranded in the snowy mountains.
The rest of the group forged forward to the east end of what is now called Donner Lake and did reach a cabin. They quickly built two more cabins and, as the winter wore on, built a few more small cabins to house the 59 people with them. In a short amount of time, they killed the last of their oxen for food and lost many of their other animals who had wandered off, died, and got buried under the heavy snowfalls.
After evaluating the situation, a group from the cabins made snowshoes from the branches they found and started out to find rescue help for the travelers. They struggled terribly in the rain, ice, and snow as they worked their way to Sutter’s Fort and quickly ran out of food. As they died one by one from malnutrition, that group also was compelled to resort to cannibalism. The group that left to find help was originally ten men and five women. All five women survived the journey but eight men died.
About three weeks after the “snowshoe party” arrived at Sutter’s Fort, in early February, the first rescue party left to help the stranded emmigrants. The conditions were so severe they were not able to bring in pack animals or wagons (and therefore enough food) and only a few people were able to be brought out at a time. Two more relief parties followed, but more of the helpless travelers died while waiting.