The Donner Party

Sierra snow

In the annals of western migration, the worst tragedy befell the members of the Donner Party, who were trapped in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846-1847.  Slightly more than half of them survived. They did not journey west for gold; Marshall’s discovery was almost two years in the future when the brothers George and Jacob Donner, furniture-manufacturer James Frazier Reed, and other families set out for California in covered wagons.  Theirs is a tale of wrong choices, mishaps, starvation and suffering, desperation, heroic actions, and death in crude cabins and makeshift tents near a small Alpine lake while severe storms raged through the mountains. Rescuing the survivors took four organized efforts, all at great risk to the rescuers themselves. Johnson’s Ranch in present-day Wheatland served as a command post where rescue parties were equipped and launched, as well as the sufferer’s first refuge after their deliverance. John Sutter provided longer haven for the refugees at his well-stocked fortress in the Sacramento Valley. For details about the Donner Party, visit the marvelous website utahcrossroads.org/Donner Party.

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