Day 35: Until it is tried

Truckee, CA to Vacaville, CA

Morning, Donner Lake Village, Truckee, CA
Morning, Donner Lake Village
Morning, Donner Lake Village

Went to Donner Lake Kitchen for breakfast. They offered sourdough as one of the bread choices, because I am in California! Also, coffee came with milk already added. A California thing too?

That would make a good road trip. All of California.

Over to Donner Memorial State Park.

The Donner Party was a party of emigrants headed from Illinois to California in 1846. At the time, the California wagon trail had only existed for two years. The trip typically took six months. The Donner Party was late in getting started. Later, they decided to take what was described as a shortcut (the “Hastings Cutoff”), which ended up costing them about a month extra. The Hastings Cutoff was actually longer than the main trail, and went through some difficult terrain. The party cut down trees and moved boulders out of the way crossing the Wasatch mountains in present-day Utah. They went through waterless salt flats in Utah and a forty-mile desert in Nevada.

By the end of October, when they arrived at the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada (today’s Truckee), there was already three to four feet of powdery snow on the ground. 1846-1847 was an especially early and severe winter in the Sierras. They made several attempts to cross the summit. Heavy snow forced them back each time.

They set up two camps for the winter, one at what was then Truckee Lake (today Donner Lake), and one a few miles away at Alder Creek. Their food supplies ran out and they ate their oxen, dogs, ox hides, bones, and human dead. Around December 16, six weeks after they arrived at the mountain camps, a party of fifteen went for rescue on snowshoes they had made. It took 33 days for the snowshoe party (later named “The Forlorn Hope”) to reach help in California, eight of them dying on the way. There followed several rescue missions to get the remaining trapped people out of the mountains.

Of the 81 people at the two Sierra camps, 36 died from cold and starvation. 45 survived and started new lives in California. To this day there are descendants of the surviving families.

The people of the Donner Party were only human, but like all the pioneers they had superhuman courage and fortitude.

The Donner Lake camp site is today part of Donner Memorial State Park.

The Pioneer Monument, Donner Memorial State Park, Truckee. It stands on the site of one of the Donner Party cabins.
At Donner Memorial State Park

Took a walk with Rick, a very knowledgeable docent.

Tree stump remaining from 1846. The trapped emigrants cut down trees for firewood. The height of the stump is the depth of the snow at that time.
Rock that some of the Donner Party used as a wall of one of the cabins. The plaque lists the dead and the survivors.

Visited the museum on site.

Coral necklace (upper right) belonging to Frances Donner, who survived
Donner Party relics, including (clockwise from upper left) a salt dish, a pepper dish, a watch, musket balls, and gun flints. All were found at the campsites.

After my lake visit I drove up to Alder Creek.

Where the Donner family camped at Alder Creek
Plaques commemorating two women’s heroism and the whole Alder Creek party
Site of the Donner camp at Alder Creek
Possibly an 1846 tree stump

Drove over to the mountain pass that the Donner Party, and all who took the California Trail, used, today called Donner Summit or Donner Pass. A twisty two-lane road and beautiful views.

At Donner Summit

After that I made the trip down the western side of the Sierras, some fifty miles. “Getting down from the mountains” was long and difficult in pioneer times.

To Sacramento, where to give the story some closure, I stopped at Sutter’s Fort, the destination of the California Trail and where the Donner survivors ended their journey.

Sutter’s Fort, Sacramento

Stayed overnight in Vacaville, where I will plan the end of my own cross-USA journey.

If you’d like to know more I recommend:
The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party (2009) by Daniel James Brown
Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West (2008) by Ethan Rarick


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