Reflect upon the series of incidents that amalgamated into a disaster to create the Donner Party saga. A late start, divided leadership, Hastings Cutoff, Reed’s banishment, George Donner’s injury, Stanton’s untimely death, etc… And same for the Relief Parties. The one common thread was weather. Really bad weather.

The Donner Party was the only emigrant wagon train not to successfully reach Sutter’s Fort in 1846. They were also the last. Weather was the X factor with an early and punishing snow that year (end of October). 

The last overland party to leave Missouri for California in 1845 was led by Lansford Hastings. Hastings crossed the Pass (now aptly named Donner Pass) on December 18th. No problem.

John Sutter noted in his diary,

“If they arrived one day later they would have been cut off by the immense quantity of Snow.  I kept the whole party over winter, some of them I employed.”1

Look at what we are witnessing right now. We saw one week in December with literally not a flake on the ground and a week later record breaking snowfall for December. What a difference a week or even a day makes in the Sierra!

If it were not for the early and unabating winter of 1846-47 it is plausible most if not all of the Donner Party would have successfully crossed the Pass and arrived safely at Johnson Ranch, then Sutter’s Fort.

The weather factored in compromising every aspect of the Donner Party’s daily life; shelter, warmth, food, mobility, mental health. What would it have been like if the members of the Party could have built proper shelter, hunted for food, mustered relief parties? The “Donner Party” would have likely just been another – and the last – entry on the rolls of overland emigrant trains arriving at Sutter’s Fort in 1846. 

But Ma Nature had other ideas.

As for the Relief Parties, they too were challenged by weather from the start. 1st Relief began their trek with a torrent of rain for four straight days, soaking and freezing them to the bone and significantly slowing their progress. 2nd Relief encountered one of the several mega-snow storms that winter which resulted in splitting the rescued, leaving most to fend for themselves at the head of the Yuba on the east end of Summit Valley, now know as “Starved Camp”. 3rd Relief was greeted with dreadful conditions as the footing became a mix of crusty ice, heavy “Sierra cement” and fluffy powder. Every step required triple exertion, exhausting the rescuers and rescued.

As we prepare our Donner Relief Expedition, the recent deluge from Mother Nature serves as both a reminder and a warning: don’t mess with Ma Nature! We fortunately have numerous advantages unlike the members of the Relief Parties in 1847. We’ve time to prepare, weather forecasts, technology for guiding and tracking, plenty of food, modern clothing and equipment. This is not to underestimate the challenge that lies ahead – it is still 100 miles, the latter half in likely deep Sierra snow and wintery conditions. But it focuses our thoughts on who these people were, their motives – and the tremendous risk they took to endeavor to selflessly save the lives of others, many who were strangers. As we continue to research these pioneers we have become riveted with their grit, tenacity and civility.

The story of the Donner Relief Parties is one of heroism, pathos and the human spirit.

1. The Diary of Johann August Sutter. The Grabhorn Press, San Francisco, CA,  1932, p.29.