November 4 – Fridays with the Donner Party
This past week the Donner Party left Truckee Meadows (Reno area) and began their travel up the Truckee River canyon into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At Truckee Lake (now called Donner Lake) they encountered rain and snow, with snow quickly deepening up the pass beyond the lake. George Donner had injured his hand while trying to repair a wagon axle, which had caused their wagon to tip and spill children and supplies. The Donners stopped about eight miles east of the lake on Alder Creek and built shelters there. The rest of the party continued on, but due to the snow, they couldn’t find the road and retreated back to the vicinity of the lake. The Breen’s found a makeshift cabin which had been erected by 18-year-old Moses Schallenberger two years prior when the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend wagon party had to leave behind some wagons due to poor weather at this same location. The accompanying photograph from the Historical Marker Database (https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=94059) is at the location of this site in the Donner Memorial State Park (GPS coordinates -120.232, 39.324). James Reed noted the snow on the mountains from Sutter’s Fort as he prepared to bring supplies back to the group.
Eliza Farnham quoted John Breen’s account in her book California, In-doors and Out https://www.google.com/books/edition/California_In_doors_and_Out/MfJl95dANcUC?hl=en&gbpv=1. “In the morning it was very cold, with about an inch of snow on the ground. This made us hurry our cattle still more, if possible, than before. We traveled on, and, at last, the clouds cleared, leaving the towering peaks in full view, covered as far as the eye could reach with snow. This sight made us almost despair of ever entering the long-sought valley of the Sacramento; but we pushed on as fast as our failing cattle could haul our almost empty wagons.… We traveled one or two miles – the snow increasing in depth all the way. At last, it was up to the axle of the wagons.… so we … returned to the valley again, where we found it raining in torrents. We took possession of a cabin and built a fire in it, but the pine boughs were a poor shelter from the rain, so we turned our cattle at large, and laid down under our wagon covers to pass the night. It cleared off in the night, and this gave us hopes; we were so little acquainted with the country as to believe that the rain in the valley was rain on the mountain also, and that it would beat down the snow that we might possibly go over. In this we were fatally mistaken.”
November 11 – Fridays with the Donner Party
During this week the story is split between events on the east side and the west side of the Sierra Nevadas. In the east, the party recognized their plight and began killing their livestock for food. They made some attempts at hunting but met with little success. They also began to build cabins to provide shelter during the winter. The Donners remained back at Alder Creek and the Breens took up residence in the remains of the Schallenberger cabin (discussed last week). The Kesebergs, Murphys, Graves, and Reeds all built shelters of their own.
Meanwhile, on the west side of the mountains, James Reed and William McCutcheon (who had left the party before Reed did to try to obtain supplies) set out with supplies to cross back over the mountains. In an article in the April 1, 1871 Pacific Rural Press (https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=PRP18710401.2.5&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1) James Reed wrote, “next morning proceeding up the valley to where we were to take the mountain, we found a tent containing a Mr. Curtis and Wife. They hailed us as angels sent for their delivery, stating that they would have perished had it not been for our arrival. Mrs. Curtis stated that they had killed their dog, and at the time of our arrival had the last piece in the Dutch oven baking. We told them not to be alarmed about anything to eat, for we had plenty, both of flour and beef; that they were welcome to all they needed. Our appetites were rather keen, not having eaten anything from the morning of the day previous. Mr. Curtis remarked that in the oven was a piece of the dog, and we could have it. Raising the lid of the oven, we found the dog well baked, and having a fine savory smell. I cut out a rib, smelling and tasting, found it to be good, and handed the rib over to Mr. McCutchen, who, after smelling it some time, tasted it and pronounced it very good dog. We Partook of Curtis’ Dog. Mrs Curtis immediately commenced making bread, and in a short time had supper for all. At the lower end of the valley, where we entered, the snow was eighteen inches in depth, and when we arrived at the tent, it was two feet.” Reed and McCutchen found that they couldn’t make it through the snow and had to turn back. The image was downloaded from https://www.countryliving.com/food-drinks/g4305/dutch-oven-camping-recipes/.
November 18 – Fridays with the Donner Party
This week a number of the members of the party set out in another attempt to cross the mountains. The attempt was unsuccessful. According to Jesse Quinn Thornton’s book (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101074865070&view=1up&seq=135&skin=2021), “Mr. Eddy, C.T. Stanton, Wm. Graves, Sen., Jay Fosdick, James Smith, Charles Burger, Wm. Foster, Antoine (a Spaniard), John Baptiste, Lewis, Salvadore, Augustus Spitzer, Mary Graves, Sarah Fosdick, and Milton Elliot, being the strongest of the party, started to cross the mountains on foot. Mr. Eddy, in narrating the afflicting story, said to me he could never forget the parting scene between himself and family; but he hoped to get in and obtain relief, and return with the means for their rescue. They started with a small piece of beef each; but they had scarcely gone within three miles of the top of the Pass, when the snow, which was soft, and about ten feet deep, compelled them again to return to the cabins, which they reached about midnight.” Quinn, shortly after that entry tells that Mr. Eddy was successful in hunting and killing an 800 pound grizzly bear for the group’s food. The illustration of that event comes from Quinn’s book.
November 25 – Fridays with the Donner Party
This was an important week in the historical record of the Donner Party in that 41-year-old Patrick Breen began keeping a diary to document their days in the winter camp. His handwritten diary can be viewed at https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/28722/bk0004b217j/?brand=oac4. For November 21 he wrote, “fine morning wind N.W. 22 or our company are about Starting across the mountain this morning.” William Graves, publishing an article in the Russian River Flag (https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=RRF18770503.2.3&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1) on May 3, 1877 wrote about this attempt to cross the mountains: “About two weeks after we stopped here, the weather was clear and pretty, the snow nearly all gone in the valley, so father proposed trying to cross on foot; about 20 started with him; when they got to the top they found the snow so deep and soft they could not go on any further and were obliged to turn back.” According to J. Quinn Thornton Mr. Eddy measured the snow at the top of the pass to be twenty-five feet deep.
The photo on the left is the 1891 painting On the Way to the Summit by William Gilbert Gaul and was downloaded from http://picturethis.museumca.org/pictures/way-summit-donner-party. It was the inspiration for the first of the three scenes in the Donner Theater at the California Trail Interpretive Center (photo on the right – taken by Trail Center staff).