In 1846, a group of families, including dozens of children, spent December stranded in deep snow during one of the deadliest winters ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada.
Even there, entrapped and on the edge of despair, there were moments of joy on Christmas Day. And there was horror. This is the story of that Donner Party Christmas, 174 years ago.
First, some background.
A false shortcut
The Donner Party’s journey began with laughter and hope in the spring of 1846.
The men, women and children of the Donner Party crossed the Missouri River in May of 1846 and aimed their covered wagons west, toward the promised land of California. They expected a five-month, 2,000 mile, walk across the continent. But they took an unproven shortcut on the trail through what is now Utah and Nevada that added miles and weeks of travel to their trek.
By November, the 81 members of the party, including 41 children, were entrapped in the Sierra about 35 miles west of what is now Reno. A series of storms pinned them in place.
Stranded in two camps
Most of the pioneers stayed in three makeshift cabins near what is now Donner Lake at an altitude of 5,936 feet above sea level. The two Donner families, delayed by a wagon accident, were shivering in tents and lean-tos six miles east of the lake, at Alder Creek camp.
On Dec. 16, 1846, five women and 10 men on snowshoes left others in an attempt to break through to the American settlements they thought were 40 miles to the west. (see the RN&R’s story about a reenactment of that trek this month). They would be lost for the next 33 days. Those left behind in the high camps suffered and waited.
Christmas of entrapment
DEC. 25, 1846 –– For weeks, the Reed family and the others at the lake and Alder Creek camps have been boiling strips of ox hide and eating the gluey mess that results.
Their remaining cattle and mules have long been lost – buried, standing in the snow. Boxes and barrels that once held beans, flour and rice have been scraped. They are starving and have no hope of getting more food.
In the Reed family’s half of the Graves cabin, Margaret Reed, whose husband, James, had been banished from the group in October, has a holiday surprise for her four children. “My mother had determined weeks before that her children should have a treat on this one day,” survivor Virginia Reed will remember. “She had laid away a few dried apples, some beans, a bit of tripe and a small piece of bacon.”
On Christmas morning, the family — Margaret, 32; Virginia, 13; Patty, 9; James Jr., 5; and Thomas, 3 — had ox hide “soup” for breakfast. The brown water hardly dents their hunger.
“Christmas Eve came, no stockings to hang, no Santa Claus to come down our chimney in that cold starving camp. No Papa to come home to his children … Christmas morning came and our breakfast was a pot of glue, it was stewed ox hide, but we were pleased to have even that to eat. But as soon as we had gone through this … our mother’s face began to brighten …she had a surprise awaiting us.” — Martha “Patty” Reed, who was 8 when the journey began.
A ‘feast’ is prepared
“The delight of the little ones knew no bounds,” Virginia will remember. “The cooking was watched carefully.” To the eyes of the children, the scraps of food looked as appetizing as a sumptuous meal in a fine restaurant. “It was simply grand!” Patty will recall.
The family sits down to eat in the flickering light of a blazing pine stick as a blizzard howls outside the tiny cabin. The wind whistles through gaps in the log walls. The roof, covered in animal hides, drips water on their heads.
Those things are ignored; all eyes are on the unexpected food.
A holiday dinner
“Children, eat slowly,” Mrs. Reed says, “for this one day you can have all you wish.” The Graves children, living with the Reeds, share in the beans, rice and tripe.
In the other two hovels near the lake, the day is almost unobserved.
The cabin of the Murphy family is built around a boulder left on the mountain thousands of years before by a creeping glacier. Their hearth is against the large rock, which makes up one of the cabin’s four walls. They have a fire and little else. All are famished and weak.
“Christmas we had a meal of boiled bones and oxtail soup. After supper Mother was barely able to put the babies to bed, and later on that evening with brother William reading her favorite psalm from the Good Book, she became bedridden and seriously ill.”
— Mary Murphy, who was 14 at the time of the ordeal.
Breens have no relief
In the Breen cabin (that site is beneath the Pioneer Monument at Donner Lake Memorial State Park), Patrick and Margaret Breen and their seven children also spend the holiday in misery.
“Rained all night and still continues to rain,” Patrick Breen, 51, wrote in his diary on Christmas Eve. “Poor prospect for any kind of comfort … may God help us to spend the Christmass as we ought considering circumstances.”
It began to snow on Dec. 24 around noon. The snow fell all night and all day on Christmas, Breen noted in his diary. He’s suffering from kidney stones and can barely rise from the moldy quilts on the cabin floor.
His older sons leave the cabin to collect firewood. On Dec. 25, Breen wrote: “Offerd our prayers to God this Christmas morning the prospect is apalling but hope in God Amen.”
Donner families in worse shape
At the Alder Creek camp, six miles east of the lake, six men, three women and 12 children also were entrapped. They also have been living on thin soup, made from animal bones boiled over and over. They choke down the glue that forms on their iron pots after they boil strips of leather for hours. The few people who can still move about occasionally go outside their tents to brush accumulating snow off the canvas so that the flimsy shelters aren’t crushed.
The others inside the tents and lean-tos are wrapped in wet, wool blankets, quilts or stinking buffalo robes. They barely stir.
At Alder Creek, the holiday passes as any other day. Even those families are not in the worst circumstances among members of the Donner Party.
The ‘Forlorn Hope’
In the nine days since leaving the lake, the 15 snowshoers have been reeling from one calamity after another.
Their guide, Charles Stanton, 35, exhausted and snow blind, was left behind on Dec. 21. The others hiked westward. Two days later, another storm caught the group in the open. They hurriedly made camp. The escapees were freezing, exhausted and depleted of all energy. Some could no longer go on.
On Christmas Eve, the 11 surviving members of the Forlorn Hope party drew lots to determine who would be killed to provide meat for the others. But no one had the heart to carry out the death sentence on the loser. They huddled around their fire.
Antonio, a 23-year-old Mexican herder, was sick and thought to be dying. Patrick Dolan, 35, had gone mad with hunger. He had removed his clothes and cavorted in the snow, claiming to be too warm. Franklin Ward Graves, 57, who made the snowshoes back at the lake, also is frostbitten, starving and failing.
By Christmas morning, Antonio, Dolan and Graves are dead.
With his last breath, Franklin Graves had begged his daughters, Mary and Sarah, to use his flesh for nourishment.
The Camp of Death
In later remembrances, the place where they were stranded will be known as the Camp of Death. Two days after Christmas, the cannibalism that defines the Donner Party began at that starved camp. They ate the forbidden food. They wept. No one could meet the eyes of another.
What was left of the snowshoe party resumed its march westward when the storms abated. The group became lost in the maze of canyons along the North Fork of the American River.
They anticipated a 10-day hike. They wandered for 33 days amid the beautiful, deep and deadly snow. Others died.
By Jan. 18, the seven emaciated survivors of the 15-member Forlorn Hope group – all five women and two men – finally reached the safety of a settler’s cabin. The Americans in California soon found out that more of their countrymen were trapped in the Sierra.
A grim arithmetic
The first rescue party reached the high camps in late February 1847. The last survivor was taken off the mountain in mid-April. In those final weeks of the ordeal, some of the pioneers at the high camps also choose cannibalism as a desperate, last resort.
Of the 81 souls trapped in the mountains, 36 died and 45 survived. Most of the men died. Most of the women and school-age children survived.
The tale of the Donner’s entrapment has come down to us as a tragic icon of American history. But even in the midst of misery, the four Reed children – who along with both parents survived the ordeal — had one day when they were allowed to be happy.
A holiday to remember
Virginia and Patty Reed lived on into the 20th century and never forgot the details of their entrapment or the emotions that fueled them on that snowbound Christmas.
“So bitter was the misery relieved this one bright day, that I have never since sat down to a Christmas dinner without my thoughts going back to Donner Lake.” — Virginia Reed, who was 13 in 1846, in her memoir written 30 years later.