Donner Party experience: Lessons learned

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The annual Donner Party Hikes draw hundreds of participants for a variety of unique and memorable hikes that explore the Donner Pass region each October. During this popular event, small groups led by knowledgeable guides will hear about the tragic Donner Party story, but the trekkers also will learn about the important Indian, pioneer, railroad and highway transportation history of the area.

Historians tally 89 members in the Donner Company (it was a fluid situation with additions and subtractions), but only 81 of them were trapped by snow at Donner Lake and Alder Creek during the harsh winter of 1846-47. Nearly half of the pioneers died before it was all over. Many aspects of this story are heart-rending, yet those who survived have helped us to understand how people cope with severe hardship and seemingly insurmountable challenges. The tragic lesson of the Donner Party was not lost on California’s pre-gold rush civilian population or on its early interim government. Two years later, in 1849, when early winter storms battered the Sierra in October and November, California’s military governor, Maj. General Persifer F. Smith, authorized $100,000 in emergency funding to finance relief teams for late arriving gold seekers struggling along the Truckee and Carson trails, as well as the Lassen cutoff to the north.

Gov. Smith was less concerned with starvation as most emigrants had sufficient provisions, but due to the unprecedented amount of people on the trail that year, some would inevitably need food and general assistance. The main focus was on the lack of forage for the oxen and cattle that pulled the wagons. If wagons had to be abandoned, it might backup the stream of pioneers trying to reach California before snow closed the pass. Teams of hired civilians and military personnel were sent eastward with water and fresh livestock to strategic locations near the mountains and in the desert near present-day Reno to assist those trying to cross the Sierra. Similar support operations were conducted in 1850 and 1852 when vast numbers of gold-seekers and inexperienced emigrants flooded west. Never again would a wagon company be stranded in the high country without food or help.

T.H. Jefferson traveled the California Trail in 1846, and in early 1849 published a detailed trail map of the route. Noted trail historian Dale Morgan considered it “one of the great American maps, an extraordinarily original production which will always have a special place in the cartography of the West.” This map of the Emigrant Road from Independence, Mo., to San Francisco, was sold in New York City for the stiff price of $3 a copy. The map, which included an Accompaniment of 11 pages, was published early enough in the year that at least one Forty-Niner, J. Goldsborough Bruff, carried a copy overland.

Included in the Accompaniment text is the following advice, no doubt inspired by the Donner party tragedy. “The most difficult portion of the whole journey is the passage of the Californian Mountains, and particularly the descent of the western side. The only serious difficulty, however, is when you arrive late in the season, with a short supply of bread stuff, and encounter snow 10 or 15 feet deep. Those who expect to cross in safety must reach the Truckey [Donner] Pass by the 1st of October. The snow does not usually begin falling till November, and remains upon the ground more or less till May. If you arrive late, however, and encounter snow, do not attempt to cross the mountain, but scatter at once into small parties and retreat to the eastern base of the mountains [Truckee Meadows], where you will find fertile valleys free from snow, which afford game, salmon, and roots, enough for small parties. You can winter there, and cross at the Truckey Pass when the snow is gone.”

The mortality rates among the members of the Donner party represent the physiological and sociological differences between men and women and the strength of family groups. In the Donner tragedy, females fared better than the males. Considering all ages, two-thirds of the males died, while two-thirds of the females survived. Out of the 41 total fatalities, 32 were male and nine were female. The pioneers made a desperate effort to reach California to secure a rescue. A snowshoe party was organized consisting of 15 people – 10 males and five females. Only two male snowshoers reached the Sacramento Valley, but all five women survived the grueling month-long trek to safety. In general, females are longer-lived than males and suffer less mortality across all age classes. Women are generally smaller than men and also have less muscle mass with a higher percentage of body fat (roughly 27 percent compared to about 15 percent in males). The fat is distributed in a larger proportion subcutaneously, which makes it an effective insulator.

According to Donner Party research conducted by archaeologist Donald Grayson of the University of Washington, females in the Donner Party survived much better than men because of greater body fat, a lower metabolic rate that processes protein more slowly and a temperament that is less prone to aggression. These characteristics make women the hardier sex when it comes to surviving cold and famine. More than 13 percent of the men died as a result of violence, but there is no convincing evidence that any female member was killed. Family groups were especially important. Of the four adult males who survived the winter entrapment all were fathers (Breen, Eddy, Foster and Keseberg). Not one of the single bachelors over the age of 21 made it out of the mountains.

One cause for the inordinate number of male deaths also is likely the result of role expectations. Almost exclusively, the men were responsible for cutting trees and breaking branches, gathering firewood, locating food, driving oxen and cattle, moving snow, repairing and sharpening large items, and building shelters, along with other typically male duties. Once they were snowbound in the mountains, these predominantly outdoor activities exposed the men to wet weather and cold temperatures, which contributed to evaporative heat loss and sapped their energy. Most of the adult men paid the ultimate price for their sacrifice to the group. It’s due to the heroic courage and perseverance of the adult members of this legendary pioneer wagon train, as well as their determined rescuers, that so many women and children in the group survived to reach California.


 

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Mark McLaughlin
Mark is an award-winning, nationally published author, historian and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.