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How We Got Here – Donner Story

Our friend and colleague, award-winning journalist, Donner author and historian, Frank Mullen is a master at telling the Donner Party story in it’s entirety in less than 45 minutes. He keeps it entertaining, knows just what detail to include and omit and remains historically accurate. Another skilled recount of the Donner Party came from Truckee , CA journalist and author  C.F. McGlashan, who wrote the first book about the emigrants in 1880, The History of the Donner Party.

This is our humble attempt to summarize the Donner story to arrive at how we got here, as folks at Sutter’s Fort in February, 1847 begin to muster a rescue for those trapped at the Lake.

The Donner Party consisted of 87 members at it’s peak. They migrated to California in a wagon train from the Midwest. Delayed by a plethora of mishaps, they became trapped at Truckee Lake (now called Donner Lake) due to early snow and spent the winter of 1846–1847 snowbound at the foot of a Sierra Nevada mountain pass (now called Donner Pass).

Following several unsuccessful attempts to escape, a group of 17 members headed out on snowshoes (later called the “Forlorn Hope”) on December 16th, 1846 to try and breakthrough and reach help. After becoming lost and a harrowing experience where eight perished and the rest resorted to cannibalism to survive, seven reached Johnson Ranch (near Wheatland, CA) 33 days later and the alarm bell was rung as the world first learned of the horror in the Sierra Mountains.

Meanwhile back at the Lake and Alder Creek, a meadow 6 miles further east where the George and Jacob Donner members wintered in tents, conditions deteriorated rapidly as the snow storms raged, food dwindled and hope became desperation. Some resorted to cannibalism to survive, eating the bodies of those who had succumbed to starvation, sickness and extreme cold.

Rescue parties were formed in late January/early February, the initial, 1st Relief, departed Johnson Ranch February 4th, 1847 and arrived at the Lake fourteen days later on February 18th, almost four months after the wagon train became trapped. 

Three more rescue parties mustered between February and April: 2nd, 3rd and 4th Relief, and succeeded in reaching the trapped emigrants and bringing them safely to Sutter’s Fort. But others perished while waiting for relief or during the rescues.

Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived the ordeal.

In 2020 we – four endurance athletes and amateur historians -remembered and honored the Forlorn Hope with an Expedition which researched the path they followed and then reprised their journey over 5 days.  

On February 14th, 2022, the same Expedition Team will honor the members of the Relief Parties by reprising the 100 mile trail the Relief Parties took from Johnson Ranch to Truckee Lake in a selfless effort to rescue the survivors of the Donner Party.

In the coming days and weeks, we will pick up the story beginning with 1st Relief and share insight into the heroism, pathos and human spirit.

This is one of the most fascinating tales in California history and American westward migration, which was stimulated by John L. O’Sullivan’s coined phrase, “Manifest Destiny“.

We are glad to have you come along with us as we bring history to life.

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