Trapped at an Alpine Lake

The Donner Party was a group of several families who decided to leave the main caravan of westward-bound wagons in order to follow a “short-cut” to California. They weren’t the only company that followed Lansford Hastings’ route across the blazing Great Salt Lake Desert, and the other companies made it to safety. But the Donner Party, lagging behind the rest, became trapped at a small alpine lake in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846-47. When they failed to arrive in the Sacramento Valley, it was assumed that they had camped somewhere east of the mountains, and had enough provisions to sustain them through the winter. Besides, as severe storms closed the passes, it was impossible to send out search parties. Valleyites first learned of their dire situation on January 17, 1847, when an emaciated, half-dead man stumbled into Johnson’s Ranch on the Bear River. The man’s name was William Eddy. He and fifteen others, desperate to find help, had left the lake 33 days earlier and had gotten lost. Only 7 were still alive. Rescue parties, quickly organized, successfully saved more than half of the entrapped Donner Party; the rest perished from cold and starvation. Theirs is a story of wrong choices, mishaps, suffering, villainy and heroism—and it remains the most sensational and haunting tale in the annals of westward migration.

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