On October 20, 1846, an unusually early and heavy snowstorm dumped foot after foot of cement-like snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains, trapping 81 members of the ill-fated Donner Party, more than half of whom were children . Their five-month ordeal is one of the most infamous in American history, haunted by the fact that about half of the 45 survivors resorted to cannibalism when all other food sources, including boiled bark and leather, have been exhausted.
But less well known is the story of how rescuers bravely marched through the “death camps” repeatedly to lead (and in some cases transport) starving Donner Party survivors to safety. Among those rescuers was James Reed, who had been kicked out of the Donner Party for killing a man earlier on the trek, but without whom they would all have perished on the frozen mountain.
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Voyage of the “Forlorn Hope”
The snow continued to fall for weeks, burying the makeshift Donner Party cabins. The freezing weather was relentless and the emigrants had exhausted almost everything edible: oxen and their skins, pet dogs, field mice and even leather laces. In mid-December, when it became clear that the weather was not going to break, 15 of the strongest and healthiest men and women donned rudimentary snowshoes and set out to cross the summit and find help.
The escape party became known as “Forlorn Hope”.
“They quickly realized that this was going to be an incredibly difficult task,” says Michael Wallis, author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Giving Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny. “It was horrible to climb that great divide with frozen hands and feet, weakened by hunger, out of breath. The sun reflected off the snow and ice and burned the cornea of their eyes. The pain became unbearable.
One by one, members of Forlorn Hope died of exposure, and their starving comrades became the first in the Donner Party to break the taboo of eating the dead. The vital flesh gave them the strength to carry on, but this act also inspired a far worse crime. A man named William Foster shot and killed two Miwok tribesmen who accompanied the Forlorn Hope as guides, and the survivors ate the men as if they were any other “animal”.
Ironically, it was the villagers of Miwok who made first contact with the seven surviving members of Forlorn Hope and fed and clothed them when the half-dead escape party fell into the valley below. The grueling journey from Donner Lake had taken 33 days.
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Early rescue missions, including the exiled James Reed
Word spread quickly about the starving families trapped at Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) in the Sierras. The first rescue team, known as First Relief, set out from Sutter’s Fort near present-day Sacramento. Sutter’s Fort was a mini-empire led by Swiss immigrant John Sutter, who enslaved local Miwok and Nisesan people to work his land.
There were only seven men with the first rescue team and progress was slow and dangerous.
“In some places the snow around them was 30 feet deep,” says Wallis, “and they had to abandon supplies along the way because their packs were too heavy. They needed help as much as the people they saved.
When first responders finally arrived at the Donner Party camps, they had little food left to distribute to the desperate families, but they offered to bring the strongest back up the mountain to safety. Unfortunately, many of these people did not survive the trip.
Meanwhile, James Reed was frantically trying to raise money for a second expedition to save his wife and children. Reed, an Illinois attorney, was one of the organizers of the Donner Party expedition. In a heated exchange with a teamster (someone who drives oxen) named John Snyder, Reed stabbed Snyder in the chest and killed him along the trail. While some wanted to hang Reed on the spot, the pioneers chose to banish him from the party.
Traveling alone, Reed crossed the Sierras before the snow fell and was in California when he received the terrible news of his family’s fate. Reed was temporarily diverted from the rescue effort by the outbreak of armed clashes with Mexico, which still ruled Alta California. In January 1847, Reed fought in the Battle of Santa Clara and was able to recruit fellow soldiers and gather supplies for the second mountain relief mission.
At this point, cannibalism was prevalent in the Donner Party camps as no other food was available. Reed’s rescue team was able to evacuate 17 people, including Reed’s own family and most of the Donner family.
“I can’t stress enough how important James Reed is,” Wallis said. “If it hadn’t been for Reed, the rest of the Donner Party would be dead.”
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A heroic rescue and villainous accusations
The ordeal was not over, however. Over the course of more than two months, a total of four missions sent rescuers hiking into the Sierras to evacuate everyone they could, including the sick and the young.
John Stark was part of Third Relief and dubbed a hero for his actions in March 1847, when he and two other rescuers rescued 11 people, including nine children, who had been left behind. Stark, a sturdy settler, carried the children two at a time up the mountain. It was painfully slow and difficult, but all nine children survived. One later attributed the miraculous rescue to “no one but God, Stark and the Virgin Mary”.
During the fourth and final rescue mission in mid-April 1847, rescuers found only one survivor among the gruesome remains of half-eaten corpses and severed limbs. The last man alive was Lewis Keseberg, an irascible German immigrant who was found in possession of the Donner family gold and heirlooms. Keseberg was tried for killing and eating six other survivors, including Tamsen Donner, wife of George Donner, one of the organizers of the doomed expedition. Keseberg was eventually acquitted, but was forever considered a bloodthirsty cannibal.
Only 45 of the original 81 members of the Donner Party survived, including 32 children. Most were physically scarred by frostbite and malnutrition, and psychologically disturbed by the horrors of what they experienced in the camps and what they had to do to survive. The Reed family, however, continued to prosper as one of the first settlers in San Jose, California.