While we bask in summer it won’t be long before another Wyoming winter will be upon us. Well, upon me at least. The approach of winter always seems to get me thinking about the Donner Party that spent the winter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains 174 years ago. I’ve been to Truckee and Squaw Valley so I know what 20 feet of snow on open ground looks like. It looks like….death.
I left my car in the parking lot at Squaw Valley and 3 days later the snow in the parking lot rose to the level of the windshield. My car was acting like a snow fence, piling snow on the leeward side.
The Donner Party
On July 31, 1846, the band of settlers known as the Donner Party left Fort Bridger, Wyoming, on their journey to California, electing to take a new, untried route recommended by a promoter named Lansford Hastings. “Hastings Cutoff . . . is said to be a saving of 350 or 400 miles,” wrote party member James Reed in a letter that day. It turned out to be a road to disaster.
The nucleus of the emigrant party consisted of the families of George Donner, his brother Jacob, and their friend James Reed. They had set out in April from Springfield, Illinois, with dreams of new lives in California. Others joined them, and eventually the hopeful party numbered 87 people and 23 wagons.
Within a few days of leaving Fort Bridger, they were in trouble. Hastings Cutoff proved a tortuous route. The men had to chop a trail across the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. They ran out of water crossing the deserts. Oxen began to die, and some wagons were abandoned. The emigrants were way behind schedule when they reached the Sierra Nevada. Then came snow— eventually 22 feet of it—trapping them in a mountain pass in northern California.
They set up camp, hoping to ride out the winter, but provisions were dangerously low. Fifteen of them, calling themselves the “Forlorn Hope,” set off across the mountains for help. Only seven survived the trek.
Four relief parties went after the stranded settlers. When the first rescuers reached their camp and called out, a few bony figures crawled out of holes in the snow. “Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?” one emaciated woman asked. Some of the starving settlers had been forced to eat their comrades’ dead bodies to survive.
Only 46 of the 87 Donner Party members lived through the cold and hunger. Their ordeal is a somber reminder of the fortitude of thousands who crossed the mountains and plains.
Ft. Bridger can be visited today by taking Exit 39 off I-80 in Wyoming (The exit number indicates it is 39 miles East of the WY/UT state line). Go South to Mountain View, WY and follow a road going West just before State Road 414 (the main North/South street through town) makes a large curve to the Left.
The Hastings cutoff passed either through or very near present day Evanston, WY; Salt Lake City and Tooele, UT; then followed the same track as present-day I-80 to West Wendover, then along the track of present day U.S. 93 around the South end of the Ruby Mountains in Nevada before cutting back North to join up with the California trail. Multiple delays along these desert and mountain parts of the Hastings cutoff proved to be the later undoing of the Donner party.
The deserts of middle Utah later became part of the route of the Pony Express that existed for 18 months in 1862-63. The original Lincoln highway was to follow this route but was later relocated to the North where I-80 runs today. The old road can still be driven today. It’s pretty interesting. I drove it alone about 12 years ago, prompted by a fascinating account of it in American Road by Pete Davies.
Anyone who has traveled I-80 near Truckee, California and Donner Pass in Winter has had a taste of what the Donner party endured. Anyone who has skied at Squaw Valley or Sugar Bowl Resort has seen the massive snow the Sierra Nevada Mountains are capable of producing.
Below is a table showing the mortality of the Donner party. Note the differing survival rates between male and female.
Note also that the greatest number of female deaths were children aged 1-4, a group particularly vulnerable to perishing from cold and starvation. Factoring out those deaths shows the tremendous advantage the mature female human body has over the male body when it comes to surviving depravation during harsh weather and famine. Two-thirds of males age 20-29 died (10 out of 15), but only 1 of the 7 females in that age group perished.
Of the 38 males between the ages of 5-39, nineteen of them died (50% survival). There were 19 females age 5-39, all but one survived (94.7% survival). That must be how nature (i.e., evolution) provided for the survival of the species as a priority over the survival of the individual. This conclusion rests upon the demographic fact that the number of surviving females in any generation determines the size of the next generation. [These numbers are the ones who survived the Winter on “Donner Pass” and square with the table below if you add back the male and female 6 infants (age 1-4) who survived and the 7 “Forlorn Hope” members who survived their earlier trek].
Table prepared by History Department of the University of New Mexico