On today in 1847, the initial rescuers reach surviving members of the Donner Party, several California-bound emigrants stranded by snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In the summertime of 1846, amid a Western-bound fever sweeping the United States, 89 people-including 31 members of the Donner and Reed families-set out in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois. After coming to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, the emigrants made a decision to steer clear of the usual route and get one of these new trail recently blazed by California promoter Lansford Hastings, the so-called “Hastings Cutoff.” After electing George Donner as their captain, the party departed Fort Bridger in mid-July. The shortcut was nothing of the type: It set the Donner Party back nearly three weeks and cost them much-needed supplies. After suffering great hardships in the Wasatch Mountains, the Great Salt Lake Desert and across the Humboldt River, they finally reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains in early October. Despite the lateness of the growing season, the emigrants on continued to press, and on October 28 they camped at Truckee Lake, situated in the high mountains 21 kilometers northwest of Lake Tahoe. Overnight, an early on winter storm blanketed the bottom with snow, blocking the mountain pass and trapping the Donner Party.
Most of the group stayed close to the lake-now referred to as Donner Lake-while the Donner family among others made camp six miles away at Alder Creek. Building makeshift tents out of these wagons and killing their oxen for food, they wished for a thaw that came never. Fifteen of the stronger emigrants, later referred to as the Forlorn Hope, lay out west on snowshoes for Sutter’s Fort near San Francisco on December 16. Three weeks later, after harsh weather and insufficient supplies killed many of the expedition and forced others to resort to cannibalism, seven survivors reached a Native American village.
News of the stranded Donner Party traveled fast to Sutter’s Fort, and a rescue party lay out on January 31. Arriving at Donner Lake 20 days later, the camp was found by them completely snowbound and the surviving emigrants delirious with relief at their arrival. Rescuers fed the starving group along with they could and began evacuating them. Three more rescue parties arrived to greatly help, but the go back to Sutter’s Fort proved equally harrowing, and the final survivors didn’t reach safety until late April. Of the 89 original members of the Donner Party, only 45 reached California.