By Bill Oudegeest, Donner Summit Historical Society

Life was clearly untenable at Donner Lake for the Donner Party in the winter of 1846-47.  They were trapped in the snow.  They were dispirited. They were exhausted.  They were afraid. There was not enough food. They were not working together. Mistake compounded mistake.  Three attempts by small groups to escape and get help in California had failed.  It snowed and snowed.  It was cold. They lived in filth, miserable.  In that context seventeen people decided again to head for California, this time on snowshoes.

The Forlorn Hope set out on December 16.  They left what would be called Donner Lake taking a huge risk. To get to California they would have to slog through the snow on Donner Summit and risk new storms without shelter.  They would have to go without food and bear hardships unimaginable to us sitting comfortably reading this.   What is it like to sleep in the snow in soggy and sodden clothing fearing what might come overnight, fearing what the weather might bring?  What is it like to hike through the snow, sinking into it with each step, and to do it to exhaustion with no food or warmth at the end of the exertion?  What is it like to starve slowly and be forced to eat leather shoelaces? What is it like to have a choice between death and eating human flesh? What is it like to know you have to keep going, you have to survive, not just for yourself but for the children or family members you’ve left behind at the lake and who are counting on you to get help? How can you possibly give up – as long as you live?

Setting the Stage 

Most of the party had arrived at what would be called Donner Lake on October 31 (the rest of the party, including the Donners, was at Alder Creek, seven miles away). Some members of the party tried to get over the pass right away but failed.  The snow was too much and people were exhausted both emotionally and physically. On November 3, 13, and 22 there were more attempts to escape the coming winter as people tried to get over Donner Summit, but they all failed. People were exhausted. It’s hard going uphill at altitude through the snow and everyone had to walk.  The November 3rd attempt exemplifies the problems.  Clearly there was an urgency to getting over the summit.  Winter was coming.  Some of the party were too panicked to even make the attempt to leave camp.  Some tried to get over though, perhaps wishing they’d gone over a few days earlier when there was less snow.  The animals were weak.  There was three feet of snow on the ground. The animals could not pull the wagons so the oxen were packed with wagon contents. What could be left behind? There were arguments. The children had to be carried.  They pushed through the snow but the snow was deep. Charles Stanton and two of John Sutter’s Indians, Luis and Salvador, went ahead and made it to the top.  Breaking trail in deep snow is exhausting work.  Doing it uphill, not knowing the route to take, is harder.  The snow was chest deep at the summit but they’d made it. They returned to the rest of the party to galvanize them for the assault.  Everyone was resting around a flaming dead tree.  There was a measure of warmth.  They would not leave the fire to climb the pass.  Tomorrow would be soon enough. They were exhausted. 

That night it snowed.

The Donner Party was trapped at the lake that would be named for them.  The snow was just getting deeper and the food was running out. This was beyond what they had ever experienced, ever heard of, or even ever dreamed of.

The Forlorn Hope

That sets the stage for the Forlorn Hope.  On December 16, 1846, the Forlorn Hope left Donner Lake in another escape attempt.  Seventeen members left the camp, fourteen wearing homemade snowshoes.  They hoped their food would last six days and thought it might take up to ten days to get to California. They could survive a few days without food; that would be no problem.  The youngest was 12 years old and the oldest 57 years old although most were in their teens and early twenties.   The oldest woman was 25.  Two people were a married couple. The oldest, Franklin Graves, took along two grown daughters and a son-in-law. 

The snow was deep and even though the three without snowshoes stepped in the tracks of those in front, it was too much. Two went back one they fashioned makeshift snowshoes for leaving fifteen to try to conquer the pass and get to California for help. What went through the minds of the two who turned back?  They were tired, obviously, but now they had to retrace their steps through the snow, back to the unbearable conditions at Donner Lake.

What about the ones who continued on? What were they thinking? Three (Eddy, Foster, Graves) were fathers and three were mothers.  They’d left their families behind. Franklin Graves had left behind his wife and seven other children.   Which was a better choice?  Fight snow and weather to head for California to get help and maybe never see your children again, or stay at Donner Lake to protect the children?  Could the people to whom the children were entrusted be trusted?  

How far was it to Sutter’s Fort?  They’d been living in the snow for one and a half months and had little shelter and little protection.  Now they’d be out in the open with only a few blankets. Walking the snow had been hard at the camp at Donner Lake.  Now they would have to fight the snow for miles each day for days with little rest and little food.  What about their families and friends left back at camp?  Would they live?  Would they be cared for? Could the Forlorn Hope bring back help – in time?

How does a parent make that choice to leave children behind?  How can one bear to leave children to face starvation?  How could one bear not to try to escape and get help in California?   Was there a way to survive?

Climbing Donner Pass must have been excruciating.  Walking in snow is hard. It’s exhausting, step by step.  Snowshoes make sinking less of a problem but those were amateurly made snowshoes.  They probably didn’t fit well.  As one walks in snowshoes the snowshoes pick up snow making them heavier as the wearer picks up snow with each step.  In addition, particularly at the start, the Forlorn Hope was going uphill, sometimes very steeply.  That kind of snowshoe walking is even harder.  The Forlorn Hope had to climb 1,000 feet to the pass.  They were cold and tired but tired doesn’t describe things.  Exhaustion is an easy term but does not describe things adequately. Each step must have been excruciating. They must have aimed each step to fit into the previous person’s steps so they would not waste energy compacting the snow with each step.  It’s just a bit easier but everyone’s stride is different and if you step in the previous person’s footprint you compress the snow a bit more, sinking just a bit more. Each step requires just a bit more lifting, a bit more energy. 

The Forlorn Hope were full of hope though, and it must have driven them.  How far can it be to California?  Mustn’t it be downhill?  They would save their families.

And they were worried.

Even considering all that, Mary Ann Graves remarked afterwards, remembering the climb up to Donner Pass 1000 feet above the lake as she stopped to look back, “The scenery was too grand for me to pass without notice.”  Donner Pass is grand.  Tourists admire it daily but how extraordinary it must have been to remark on that and not her tired, cold, wet, hungry, and miserable person?  Mary Ann also noted that someone else had said, “We were as near to heaven as we could get.”  That’s touching but also full of dramatic irony because we know some of the horror to come. Many were much nearer heaven. They couldn’t conceive of what was coming. 

On the 17th the Forlorn Hope got to the top of Donner Pass and they camped just west building a log fire.  The snow was twelve feet deep.  Coffee and few strips of bacon were all they had after their exhausting day.

They went only six miles the next day after traveling all day. They had gotten through Summit Valley along “Juba creek” William Eddy said in his journal. That shows how hard travel in the snow can be. They were only able to go six miles despite their urgency.  There were snow flurries and high winds but at least it wasn’t snowing – yet.  Still, the travel must have been miserable, with no hope of respite at the end of the day.

About 11 on the night of the 19th it began snowing. The wind was blowing cold and furiously.  Three days out from the lake the storm continued and “feet commenced freezing,” said Wm. Eddy.  It snowed all day. The Forlorn Hope was without shelter except for blankets.   Blankets must have become soaked as did clothing.  They made about five miles that day perhaps to about today’s Kingvale.

On December 20 they were still in the vicinity.  They struggled on through the snow.  There was only one day of food rations left.  Charles Stanton went snow blind.  They could only go four miles.  At this rate the original ten-day estimate was hopelessly wrong.  Conditions were horrible but they didn’t even have enough food to go back and if they did go back, then who would rescue the Donner Party? Who would rescue their families? 

Here a little digression is in order for a little heroism. Charles Stanton had no family in the Donner Party.  When the party was low on food somewhere in today’s Utah some weeks earlier, he’d volunteered to go ahead to Sutter’s Fort for help with another member of the party who did have family.  The other fellow, William McCutchen, became sick and remained behind in California.  Stanton, along with two Miwok Native Americans, Luis and Salvador, Sutter sent and some mules, returned to the Donner Party somewhere near today’s Reno.  His sense of responsibility must have been great as was his sense of decency and heroism. He’d given his word.  He and the two Miwoks were part of the Forlorn Hope. They had just covered the route so their leading would make getting to California less difficult.  The landmarks don’t look the same in the opposite direction, especially after snowfall, though.  A wrong turn got them into the wrong river valley. Nothing looked familiar and all the party could do was head west.  They had no maps, no compass to show a workable way.

On the fifth day out from Donner Lake the Forlorn Hope again awoke in the snow wrapped in blankets.  What is that like to sleep in the snow covered only by a blanket?  Can you even sleep or does exhaustion inure you to the cold?  As the group got ready to move on, Charles Stanton sat back against a tree and lit his pipe. It was December 21.  He was so worn out.  He said he’d be along shortly. He didn’t want to hold them up.  Charles Stanton died somewhere below Cascade Lakes on Donner Summit.  There is a marker today but it’s probably in the wrong place.  Wm. Eddy’s journal said the food was gone.

On the 21st they realized they’d made a wrong turn somewhere.  The Indians were “bewildered.”

On December 22 another storm hit the Forlorn Hope. It “snowd [sic] all last night Continued to Snow all day with Some few intermissions…” (Breen). They stayed in camp all day. What do you do all day in camp with no food, huddled under a wet blanket?

If the journey of the Forlorn Hope does not sound miserable so far, just wait.  On the 24th the “storm recommenced with greater fury; extinguished fires,” said Wm. Eddy. The storm had increased so much they could not travel.  As the storm raged around them, they sat in a circle covered by blankets. John Sinclair, Alcalde of Northern California, who interviewed members of the Forlorn Hope (and whose report is included in Edwin Bryant’s What I Saw in California) said Wm. Eddy suggested they all sit in a circle on a blanket. Their feet pointed in to the center of the circle and blankets were spread over their heads.  Snow and wood held the blankets down on the outside of the circle.  Snow fell and closed off openings.  Body heat made the cold less unbearable. The group sat that way for 36 hours while the storm raged.  Once the storm had abated one member of the party found some cotton stuffing in her cape that was still miraculously dry.  It served as tinder to start a fire.  How does one bear that kind of thing?

On Christmas Day only eleven of the 15 were still alive. Mary Ann Graves said, “Father died on Christmas night at 11 o’clock in the commencement of the snowstorm.”

December 26 Wm. Reed reported afterwards, “Could not proceed; almost frozen; no fire.”  They’d been six days without food and only a little food before that.  

December 26 the Forlorn Hope cut flesh from a dead companion’s body, “roasted it by the fire and ate it, averting their faces from each other and weeping.”  (Donner Party Chronicles pg. 238) The two Native Americans refused to eat.  Lemuel Murphy, aged 12, died.

Alcalde Sinclair captured some of the pathos, “How heart-rending must have been their situation at this time, as they gazed upon each other, shivering and shrinking from the pitiless storm! Oh! how they must have thought of those happy, happy homes which but a few short months before they had left with buoyant hopes and fond anticipations !  Where, oh where were the green and lowery plains which they had heard of, dreamt, and anticipated beholding, in the month of January, in California?  Alas! many of that little party were destined never to behold them. Already was death in the midst of them.” [sic]

January 1, 1847 the Forlorn Hope turned into the American River drainage away from a better route in the Yuba/Bear River.  There were only ten members.  They carried dried human flesh.  Their feet were bloody and frostbitten.

January 17 Wm. Eddy arrived at Bear Valley.  The seven surviving members of the Forlorn Hope, five women and two men, had been found a few days earlier by Nisesan Indians (a sect of the Maidu Tribe).  Two Native American boys helped Eddy to the nearest settler’s house where young 17-year-old Harriet Ritchie broke into tears when she saw him, a ghoulish ghostly figure of a man. He was staggering and emaciated.  A rescue party was mustered immediately from nearby Johnson’s Ranch who retraced Eddy’s bloody footprints to find the other six survivors lying in the mud.  It had taken 33 days for the Forlorn Hope to travel from Donner Lake over Donner Summit and down to Bear Valley.

News spread about the fate of the Donner Party trapped in the mountains.  Rescue parties were formed. People who could have easily stayed comfortably in California, with plenty of food, would endure the hardship of carrying heavy packs uphill through the snow.  They would endure hunger, cold, exhaustion, and the horror of seeing the camps at Donner Lake.

“The most direct path would be leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east of Fort Hall; thence bearing west-south west, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco.”