It’s mid October.
Supplies are dwindling down, particularly after raids on the cattle by Paiute
Indians only a few days before. A man was sent ahead and has finally arrived
with a mule heavy laden with food. He brings along peaceful Indian guides and
good word that mountain passes should remain open for at least another month.
“The weather was
already very cold and the heavy clouds hanging over the mountains to the west
were strong indications of an approaching winter. Some wanted to stop and rest
their cattle. Others, in fear of the snow, were in favor of pushing ahead as
fast as possible,” a fellow traveler notes in his diary, as we stop in a
The Donner Party
stranded in the Sierras, 1847. Image courtesy: True Tales of the
West, (Castle Books, 1985)
With clouds darkening
the skies overhead, we decide to rest a few more days amongst the grass near the
river. Here, remaining cattle can graze and gain strength in preparation for the
steep granite ascent ahead of us. In the distant elevations, snows have already
frosted many of the peaks. These early storms are few and far between, we are
told, so I agree with the others to pause. Soon, I’m sipping from a mug of
strong dark coffee prepared in a grey spackled pot over a warming campfire.
I had been a loner
pretty much until now, only a shy and quiet observer on the trail. I didn‘t
really know anyone, so figured it was time to find out. The coffee warmed the
faint chill to my bones, but my stomach growled, so I reached in my personal
pack for a snack before mustering the courage to ask a few names and offer my
own. There were too many to remember, but the names, “Reed” and “Donner”
stood out like a frost bitten thumb.
I strangled on the
now bitter coffee as it melted the chocolate from the bite of store bought
croissant I had been savoring in my mouth. A cold wind gust blew down the
mountain pass as I recovered from the choke. The coffee pot clattered as it blew
to the ground. The campfire shuddered. Only moments later the snow flurries
began to fall from the sky, tickling my face. I had a strange inkling that the
story that I hungered after was going to be hard earned.
A hundred and many
more years pass before my very eyes and I’m suddenly safe in my office, wiping
chocolate from the next bite of croissant from my mouth. Frigid fingers struggle
over the computer keyboard as I Google the names of my pioneer traveling
companions. I sip from my Starbucks brew as a haunting tale soon reveals itself
in plenty of time for October.
Days later as I sit
at my computer pondering pioneer tails over coffee and croissant once again, a
packet arrives with copies of letters, diaries, and an author’s notes revealing
the true story.
"Monday morning, 20th
Oct., Dear Sir, Yesterday the large mule became lame with his heavy pack. I got
Mr. Rhodes, one of the emigrants, to examine him who said that his lameness was
caused by a Sweency. I have tried hard to get another horse but could not
succeed. If I find the mule will not stand the journey, I will send it back by
some of the companies and cache his load."
The party continued
up the Truckee River Canyon on this day, pretty much following the course of
present day Interstate 80 between Wadsworth and Reno.
.......To rescue these people
Stanton had coming riding like a knight upon a quest. Having once delivered his
provisions, he would have been justified, any one would think, in taking Indians
and mules, and spurring for the pass. Three days would have taken him to safety
in Bear Valley. Instead he took up Virginia Reed behind him on the mule, and
thus they came into the broad-stretching Truckee meadows.
Here the company
reassembled, and emigrants camped in the fine grassland which reached along the
river for several miles. They were really leaving the arid country behind now;
on the mountains round about the meadows pine trees were growing. This was the
best place to recruit cattle before attempting the passage of the mountains, and
so the emigrants faced another dilemma. It had come to October 20. The weather
was cloudy and threatening, and some snow had fallen on the higher mountains
around them. Prudence bade them press on with all haste. But prudence also bade
them stay, and let the oxen rest and build up their strength. To attempt the
passage of the mountains with worn-out teams was only to invite catastrophe.
Above Truckee Lake, as Stanton could tell them, the trail went right up over
broken domes of granite."
Stanton's party had
met snow crossing the summit around October 7th. However, he had also been told
at Sutter's Fort that the pass would not be snowed in until the middle of
November. Even if there was early snow, it would melt between storms, or so they
thought, thus the ill fated party took Stanton's advice. The cattle were put out
to feast on the rich grass of Truckee Meadows...
George R. Stewart
We’ll leave the
Donner party in Truckee Meadows for now. Perhaps we’ll run across them again in
another issue of Explore Historic California.