February 19, 2015

February 19, 1847: First Rescue Group Reaches the Donner Party

James and Margaret Reed of the Donner Party.
Photo was taken sometime before 1862.
Nearly everyone has heard of the Donner Party, that group of 87 pioneers who set off for California and became trapped in the Sierra Nevadas. Their disaster was the result of following an unexplored shortcut, and the results were terrible. Madness, exposure, starvation, and cannibalism was the fate of the Donner Party.

I won't tell you the story of the entire expedition. It's easy enough to look up if you're interested. It's enough to say that due to a series of unfortunate and catastrophic events, they caught in the November snows and unable to cross the pass, just 3 miles short of the summit.

They thought perhaps a small party on foot would be able to navigate the pass and go for help. 17 souls started out, taking 6 days rations and wearing snowshoes. They camped in 12 feet of snow and fell down in hunger. One of them went mad. Some of them died. Some of them were eaten.

The party was called the "Forlorn Hope". Out of those 17 people, 2 children were turned back early, 8 died, and 7 made it to the Sacramento Valley. Now it was time to go back for the others.

Also in California was James Reed, who had been exiled from the group because he had killed a man. He was frantic to arrange a party to go and find his family and friends. He even promised to enlist in Fremont's forces to fight the Mexican-American War if only Fremont would send a party to rescue them. Reed took a small party and attempted to reach those left behind, but was stopped by the snow, only 12 miles from the summit. He had to turn back.

Reed spent his time publicizing the plight of the Donner Party, however, speaking to everyone, and creating a petition to the Navy. The newspapers got ahold of the story -- including the salacious details of cannaibalism -- and support for the rescue project grew. Another rescue party set out. On February 18th they scaled Fremont Pass.

When they reached the cabins, one of the women popped out of a hole in the snow and asked, "Are you men from California or do you come from heaven?" It was a little of both, it seemed. They doled out food -- small portions, so as not to kill the starving pioneers.

They couldn't take everyone back with them -- some of the party were too weak or sick to walk. They chose 23 to make the trek to California, leaving 17 behind. Two of the children turned out to be too weak to plow through the snow, so they were sent back. Their mother continued on, with her older children. When the youngsters got back to the camp, at first no one would take them in.

Only 3 of the rescued party died on the way back. There would be 2 more rescue parties -- in fact, they passed #2 on their way out. When they arrived at the Sutter's Fork, 12-year-old Virginia Reed, ragged and starving, was surprised and amused when one of the men at the fort proposed to her. She turned him down.

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