Terrible Experience of the Ill-Fated Donner Party

[This is a transcription of a newspaper article from The San Francisco Call, Sunday, January 23, 1898. For a larger image of the newspaper page, please visit the Library of Congress, Chronicling America project. Also, we did not correct any errors in the original -- it is transcribed as printed.]


THE attractions of California made themselves felt in the East even before the days of the Golden Era. Though no hint had as yet reached the world of the vast stores of mineral wealth concealed in her gullies and ranges, the agricultural and pastoral resources of the State were sufficient to attract many immigrants, and party after party, traveling slowly in wagons laden with all their household goods, made the tedious and dangerous journey across the desert and over the Sierras.

Many, attacked by Indians, or perishing slowly of hunger and thirst, left their bones whitening by the side of the track to mark the path for the next comer. Many, more fortunate, got through safely and prospered exceedingly in the land of promise. The story of these overland disasters has never been fully told, party after party of immigrants perished unnoticed in the desert, and no historian has written of their sufferings. But contemporaneous accounts throw a lurid light on the tragedy of Donner Lake.

In 1847 San Francisco, or Yerba Buena, as it was then called, was but a little village by the side of the bay, yet its few hundred inhabitants had energy and resource, the nobler feelings of humanity were strong within them. When the news reached the town that a party of immigrants had been snowed up in the Sierras whilst attempting to cross the Truckee Pass, the generous citizens made immediate response and a relief fund of $1500 was subscribed. Search parties were organized and with infinite trouble and danger the remnant of the miserable Donner party were brought forth from the snowy range by the side of the lake which still bears their name.

Though well equipped and furnished with all needful supplies, everything seems to have gone wrong with the Donner party from the outset. The trouble began when the immigrants, after leaving Fort Bridger, attempted to follow a new route over the mountains. The track, though largely used during later years, was then entirely unopened, and often the party had to halt for days to cut away the brush or to explore the country in front of them.

Thus they dragged their weary way along until September, when it was already getting late in the year, to attempt the passage over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After passing Twenty Wells they attempted a two days' journey from water to water. The passage took them three days, they had to abandon a number of wagons and lost half their cattle. This disaster completed the demoralization of the party. Many families were entirely ruined, but the others brutally refused aid, and savage fighting resulted.

One would think that the common dangers to which all were exposed should have developed their spirit of humanity. Under proper discipline this would undoubtedly have happened. But as it was, the fear of death only intensified each traveler's selfishness, men fought like brutes over trifles, and one old man whose feet were swollen was actually abandoned in the wilderness.

It was late in October before the straggling remnant which had escaped death from privation or at the hands of the hostile Indians reached the base of the Sierras. They found it impossible to cross the Truckee Pass, a heavy fall of snow barred the way, and they were forced to winter as best they could near the Donner Lake.

Here, lacking all proper clothing and shelter, they strove to shield themselves from the icy blasts of winter, and when their provisions were exhausted had recourse to the most terrible of all nourishment in order to preserve their miserable lives. Sixteen of the party, under the leadership of Eddy, made a gallant attempt to win their way out on snowshoes, leaving a crimson track over the spotless Sierra snows as they toiled wearily on day after da

Several relief expeditions at once started out; the first, under the leadership of Glover, reaching the camp on February 19. Fourteen of the wretched party had already perished of starvation, and the appearance of the survivors, as they crawled from the hovels where they strove to shelter themselves, their hair matted and filthy, their faces haggard, their flesh wasted to the bone, was ghastly in the extreme. Glover, himself short of provisions, was only able to bring out a portion of the party, and when the second expedition, under Reed, reached the camp a week later the condition of the survivors had passed from bad to worse.

At first a few of the sufferers had shrunk from cannibalism, but now it had become universal; the bodies of those who died were deliberately used for food, and one human monster was more than suspected of having murdered women and children in order to gratify his appetite. The relief party was horror struck at the scene which met their gaze.

Out of the eighty persons who started with the party nearly one-half, or 36, perished, and that any survived was due solely to the heroic exertion of the Californians, who spared neither life nor expense in attempting the rescue.

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