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Sunday, March 20, 2011

California History - The Donner Party - Part 2

In the 1800s, and sometimes even today, the most difficult part of the journey into Northern California was the last 100 miles across the Sierra Nevada.  With 500 peaks over 12,000 feet high and an extremely steep eastern side facing the State of Nevada, it is no wonder the trip was treacherous.  Because of the proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range receives more snow that many of the other mountain ranges in North America.  On a clear winter day in Sacramento, California, you can see the snow capped peaks in the distance beyond the foothills of the Valley.  The mountains appear closer than they really are on clear days like that.

Taken from the Valley Floor in Sacramento County

In order for pioneers to make it across the Sierra Nevada, timing their trip was absolutely critical.  Wagon trains would leave Missouri to cross the open wilderness to Oregon or California.  The Donner Party did not have the best timing as they were delayed by several mishaps along the way. 

One of their decisions was to try a new route west through Utah Wasatch Mountains.  They also had in fighting within the group.  They were travelling with others including the Reed Family.  They lost many cattle and wagons along the way.  The journey west from Missouri usually took between four and six months but the Donner Party's journey took longer.

At the beginning of November 1846, the party had reached the Sierra Nevada.  What I almost find shocking is that they had continued on up the mountian.  This was a very naive decision.   The Donner party was trapped by early snowfall in November 1846 near Truckee, California, and the now named location of Donner Lake, California.  This is high up in the mountains at well over 6,000 feet.

When their food ran low in mid-December, some of the group set out for help.  Rescuers from California did not make it to the party until the middle of February 1847.  Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived to reach California.  For four months the Donner Party was snowbound at the now Donner Lake location.  During this time some of the party resorted to cannibalism to survive, eating those who had succumbed to starvation and sickness.  This is usually the point at which I change the channel or turn the page.  The need for food is fairly well documented in a diary that was kept by a member of the party. Historians do refer to this event as one of the most tragic stories in California history and in western migrations.

There has been much debate about the cannibalism but forensics have proven that some of it is true.  The following links take you to the Donner Party Diary that someone has placed online and to a forensic analysis of the Donner Party.

Donner Party Diary

Donner Forensics

For anyone who is a history buff, particularly of California history, the story of the Donner Party is interesting and sometimes controversial.  Living so close to the Sierra Nevada, Donner Lake, and the party's final destination in Sacramento, California, at Sutter's Fort compelled me to write about them.  Additionally, I have considered how many of my own ancestors traversed the Sierra Nevada to find their way to Napa, California.  They too passed through Donner Summit and the also named "Immigrant Gap".

Today, Highway Interstate 80 (I-80) runs through the mountain pass.  At different points there can be 3 to 4 lanes of traffic in either direction including cars and big rig trucks.  At the summit of I-80, the road is steep, maintained, paved, and watched over carefully by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the California Highway Patrol (CHP).

There are plenty of ski resorts and activities at Lake Tahoe which is at 6,000 feet and dominates the area near Truckee in the north and South Lake Tahoe to the south.  You can even visit a casino or two on the Nevada side of Tahoe.  The Tahoe part of the Sierra Nevada's is truly one of the most gorgeous places in the world.  That said, mother nature still causes havoc in the winter.  Every once in a while the road is "snowbound" and closed for a day or so.  Naive winter travelers beware...history has spoken.

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