Nearly 170 years ago on February 19, 1847, the first rescuers reach surviving members of the Donner Party, a group of California-bound emigrants stranded by snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In the summer of 1846, a migration fever swept our country leading pioneers to long for new cheaper settlements in the largely unsettled west. Families started to move westward in wagon trains, leaving most of their belongings and their families for the dream of better lives.
In the summer of 1846, 89 people--including 31 members of the Donner and Reed families—packed up their children and what belongings they could fit into a Conestoga type wagon and set out in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois. After arriving at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, the emigrants made what was later determined to be a fatal mistake and decided to avoid the usual route and try a new trail recently blazed by California promoter Lansford Hastings, the so-called "Hastings Cutoff." After electing George Donner as their captain, the party departed Fort Bridger in mid-July. The shortcut was nothing of the sort: It set the Donner Party back nearly three weeks and cost them much-needed supplies. After suffering great hardships in the Wasatch Mountains, the Great Salt Lake Desert and along the Humboldt River, they finally reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains in early October. Despite the lateness of the season, the emigrants continued to press on, and on October 28 they camped at Truckee Lake, located in the high mountains northwest of Lake Tahoe. Overnight, an early winter storm blanketed the ground with snow, blocking the mountain pass and trapping the “Donner Party”.
Some members of the group stayed near the lake--now known as Donner Lake--while the Donner family and others made camp six miles away at Alder Creek. Using their wagons to make shelters and killing their oxen for food, they hoped for a thaw that never came. Fifteen of the stronger emigrants, later known as the Forlorn Hope, set out west on snowshoes for Sutter's Fort near San Francisco on December 16. Three weeks later, after harsh weather and lack of supplies killed several of the expedition and forced the others to resort to cannibalism, seven survivors reached a Indian settlement from where they were able to send ahead for help.
A rescue party set out on January 31. Arriving at Donner Lake 20 days later, they found the camp completely snowbound and the surviving emigrants delirious with relief at their arrival. Rescuers fed the starving group as well as they could and then began evacuating them. Three more rescue parties arrived to help, but the return to Sutter's Fort proved equally harrowing, and the last survivors didn't reach safety until late April. Of the 89 original members of the Donner Party, only 45 realized the dream of greener lands in the west.
What is largely unknown is that a George Donner entered land in Fugit Township in Decatur County in 1821. Was that the same George Donner who 25 years later packed up his family and became the George Donner of “Donner Party” fame? There are still those who say it was.