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Rescuers reach Donner Party

The first rescuers from Sutter’s Fort reach the surviving remnants of the Donner emigrant party at their snowbound camp in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The events leading up to the Donner party tragedy began the summer before, when 89 emigrants from Springfield, Illinois, set out overland for California. Initially all went well, and they arrived on schedule at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, in early August. There the emigrants made the mistake of deciding to leave the usual route in favor of a supposed shortcut recently blazed by the California promoter Lansford Hastings. The so-called Hastings Cutoff proved to be anything but a shortcut, and the Donner party lost valuable time and supplies on the trip. When the emigrants finally began the difficult final push over the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains, it was early October and uncomfortably late in the season to be attempting a high mountain passage.

The Donner party almost made it. On October 28, they camped near a high mountain lake (later named Donner Lake) with plans to begin the final push over the pass the next day. Unfortunately, an early winter storm arrived in the mountains. By morning, a thick mantle of snow covered the ground and the pass was blocked. The Donner party was trapped.

The panicked emigrants constructed makeshift tents out of the canvas from their wagons, hoping a thaw might still save them. Warmer weather never came, and by mid-December their food supplies were running low. All agreed that if they did not send for help the entire party would starve to death. Fifteen of the strongest emigrants set out west for Sutter’s Fort on December 16. Three weeks later, having endured violent storms and been reduced to cannibalism to stay alive, seven survivors reached an Indian village, where news of the disaster was quickly dispatched to Sutter’s Fort near San Francisco.

On January 31, seven rescuers left Sutter’s Fort. When they arrived at Donner Lake 20 days later, the men saw nothing but tall white drifts of snow and ice. The men yelled out a hello, and a woman’s head appeared above the snow. “Are you men from California or are you from heaven?” she asked. As the other survivors emerged from their snow-covered shelters, one writer recorded that, “It was if the rescuers’ hallo had been Gabriel’s horn raising the dead from their graves. Their flesh was wasted from their bodies. They wept and laughed hysterically.”

After feeding the starving emigrants as much as they safely could, the rescuers began their evacuation. Other rescue parties arrived soon after to help. The trials of the Donner Party, however, were far from over. As the rescue parties struggled to lead the survivors back to Sutter’s Fort, they too began to succumb to the harsh winter conditions. Many among the main body of pioneers were also forced to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. The last survivors would not reach safety until late April. Of the 89 emigrants who had departed Fort Bridger the year before, only 45 survived to reach their destination in sunny California.

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