Donner Memorial State Park, California

It was the weekend again, the time when my family and I like to go out and explore. I’ve always been intrigued by the tragic party who ventured into the frontier to head west for a better life. Their story was inspired by the horror movie, “Ravenous,” and if you have a free time, you should go and check it out. The Donner Memorial State Park is located beside the I-80 so it will be hard to miss if you are either heading East or West. We came from the western side of the freeway so the first stop we made was the Donner Lake.

You can see it at the Vista Point where you can also see the railroad on the side of the Sierra Nevada, which was mostly built by the Chinese. After walking around, taking some pictures and appreciating the view, we moved on and followed the signs and exited at the Donner Pass Road. Taking a right on the first stop, the location will be on your left. The state park consists of a campground and you have to pay to go in to explore the Donner Lake. Located at the vicinity is the museum and the trail. We parked by the museum which is $10 per vehicle but only $9 if you have a senior citizen with you.

We paid inside the visitor center where we watched a small documentary about the Donner Party. There is also an exhibit dedicated to the Donner Party and the Washoe People. But our main goal here is to learn about the history of the Donner Party and so here is where it all began:

In the 1830s, travelers who had gone west to California were talking about its wonders and opportunities. The notion of “manifest destiny” had taken hold, and may believed that America was destined to stretch “from the sea to shining sea.” By 1845 they were also drawn west by the news that it was possible to travel directly overland to California.

Donner Party.jpg-13130
Donner Party

In Illinois, farmers George and Jacob Donner and cabinetmaker James Reed packed up nine ox-drawn wagons; in April 1846, they headed west with their families. That summer, George’s wife Tamsen wrote to a friend, describing beautiful weather and a pleasant journey. When the wagon train reached a fork in the trail, the emigrants split into two groups. The Donner, Breen, Murphy, Eddy, Graves and Keseberg families chose an alternate route instead the traditional one. Recommended in “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, a book written in 1845 by Ohio attorney Lansford W. hastings, the “shortcut” was said to save 300 miles (or 30-60 days of travel).

Unfortunately, Hastings had ever taken-nor even seen-the shortcut he had touted until 1846, when he returned to California to map it. He then led one small group along his route, but he left messages that following wagons should avoid this “shorter” route. He had also underestimated the distance across the salt lake desert by 40 miles. Taking Hastings’ alternate route, the Donner wagons trundled their way down a narrow, dangerous canyon in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, clearing a 36-mile path that cost them three weeks.

Sculpture dedicated to the Donner Party

When they finally emerged, the families had to walk across 80 miles of the Great Salt Lake Desert (Lake Bonneville), where they were forced to abandon vital supplies and livestock.  Frustration and deprivation bought discord among the group. James Reed was sent away from the party for knifing a man in an argument. Traveling with one companion, Reed barely made it to Sutter’s fort in Sacramento; his family was left to press on with the rest of the group.

After exploring the exhibits and learning about the history of the party, we went to the gift store and bought some souvenirs. The workers or volunteers were so nice especially when she learn we are Filipinos. She said it, “It is a beautiful ethnicity.” After that we went out to see the monument. According to the website of Roadside America, the stone pedestal stands at 22 feet high. During the winter of 1846, it was at the same depth as the Donner Party’s snow. Here is an interesting fact  mentioned from the website:

The plaque on the front of the statue, which used to mention the human dining horror, is now a vaguely worded bromide to the “pioneer spirit.” Tourists ravenous for tales of cannibalism won’t find it here, but they can walk a half-mile along the nature trail to a ten-foot-high rock, which has the names of the survivors on one side, the names of the (possible) human entrees on the other. It’s the only true memorial to the Donner Party.

Cabins by Donner Lake (Truckee Lake back then)

First, we looked  at the marker commemorating the Schallenberger Cabin Site: “Near this spot stood a small cabin built by 18 year old Moses Schallenberger and two other men. They were members of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party of 1844, the first pioneers to take wagons over the Sierra Nevada, opening the Truckee Route of the California Trail The three men had volunteered to remain behind and guard 6 of the wagon left here by the main party.

Schallenberger Cabin Site

Dues to extreme winter weather condition and lack of food, the 3 men agreed to separate. The 2 older men rejoined the wagon party, but due to his weakened physical condition Moses remain at the cabin. The young man survived for nearly 3 months alone in the small cabin during the winter of 1844-45 before being rescued. His cabin would later provide shelter for the Breen family, members of the ill fated Donner Party, who were stranded here in 1846-47. The courage and resolution of Moses Schallenberger during his solitary winter ordeal in this cabin makes him one of the true heroes in the saga of the California Trail.”

We followed the trail down the other cabin where we were greeted by an enormous rock where the Donner Party members are listed on. Then we hiked along the stream only to turn back when we learned the lake was still far. Walking back, one can imagine the horrors that happened here during the winter of 1846-47:

In late October, the Donner group arrived in Truckee Meadows, near today’s Reno, Nevada. Here, they ran into Charles Stanton, returning to the party from a supply trip to Sacramento. Stanton told Geroge Donner that the way ahead would be extremely difficult. The exhausted group chose to rest and gather strength, a six-day delay that would prove fateful – and fatal.

James and Margaret Reed

The Donner family itself never made it to Truckee Lake; they camped about five miles shy at Alder Creek. When the other families got to the lake, snow was on the ground. Members of the group attempted three times to cross the pass, with no success. The snowbound party settled in for the winter, erecting tents and building makeshift cabins of pine logs covered with hides, dirt floors and poorly constructed flat roofs that leaked when it rained. The cabins had no windows or doors, only large holes to allow entry.Of the 60 at Truckee Lake, 19 were men over 18, 12 were women, and 29 were children, 6 of whom were toddlers or younger. Attempts to hunt and fish were not successful. Families with any provisions at all were reluctant to share what they little they had. Life at Truckee Lake was miserable. The cabins were cramped and filthy, and it snowed so much that people were unable to go outdoors for days.

Margaret and Patrick Breen

In December, 15 members of the party – including Charles Stanton – tired in desperation to reach Sutter’s fort. Historian Charles McGlashan later called this snowshoe party the “Forlorn Hope”. After the departure of the snowshoe party, two-thirds of the emigrants at Truckee Lake were children. Mrs. Graves was in charge of eight, and Levinah Murphy and Eleanor Eddy together took care of nine. Emigrants caught and ate mice that strayed into their cabins. Many of the people at Truckee Lake were soon weakened and spent most of their time in bed.

Carrying barely enough rations for six days, they left camp on crude snowshoes. Stanton became snowblind a few days out; to avoid holding up the others,  he remained behind, saying that he would follow shortly. His remains were found in that location the following year. Those who marched on could not find their way. Overtaken, the group lost seven members. After two more days without food, Patrick Dolan proposed that one of them should volunteer to die in order to feed the others.


Struggles of the Donner Party

Some suggested a duel, while another account describes an attempt to create a lottery to choose a member to sacrifice. Eddy suggested that they keep moving until someone simply fell, but a blizzard forced the group to halt. Antonio the animal handler was the first to die; Franklin Graves was the next casualty. As the blizzard progressed, Patrick Dolan began to rant deliriously, stripped off his clothes, and ran into the woods. He returned shortly afterwards and died a few hours later. Not long after, Lemuel Murphy died shortly afterwards. Eddy, Salvador, and Luis refused to eat. The next morning, the group stripped the muscle and organs from the bodies of Antonio, Dolan, Graves, and Murphy and dried it to store for the days ahead, taking care to ensure that nobody would have to eat his or her relatives.

Breen Family
Breen Family

After three days’ rest, they set off again, searching for the trail. Eddy eventually succumbed to his hunger and ate human flesh, but that was soon gone. They began to take apart their snowshoes to eat the oxhide webbing and discussed killing Luis and Salvador for food, before Eddy warned the two men and they quietly left. Jay Fosdick died during the night, leaving only seven members of the party. Eddy and Mary Graves left to hunt, but when they returned with deer meat, Fosdick’s body had already been cut apart for food. After several more days—25 since they had left Truckee Lake—they came across Salvador and Luis, who had not eaten for about nine days and were close to death. William Foster shot the pair, believing that their flesh was the group’s last hope of avoiding imminent death from starvation.

On January 12, the group stumbled into a Miwok camp looking so deteriorated that the camp’s inhabitants initially fled. The Miwoks gave them what they had to eat: acorns, grass, and pine nuts. After a few days, Eddy continued on with the help of a Miwok to a ranch in a small farming community at the edge of the Sacramento Valley. A hurriedly assembled rescue party found the other six survivors on January 17. Their journey from Truckee Lake had taken 33 days.”

Mary Murphy and Daughters

“On February 18, the seven-man rescue party scaled the pass. All the cabins were buried in snow. Sodden oxhide roofs had begun to rot and the smell was overpowering. Thirteen people at the camps were dead, and their bodies had been loosely buried in snow near the cabin roofs. Some of the emigrants seemed emotionally unstable.”

We finally got back to the Museum/Visitor Center where we came from and then Dad went to get food. While we sat at one of the picnic tables, we enjoyed our homemade sandwiches and fruits under the shades of the pine trees. It was quite nice to learn about history while enjoying a weekend with the family. After our meal, we were supposed to head to the lake but the man on the booth told us there were no parking available so we made a U-turn before heading towards our next destination.

Donner Camp Picnic Ground

We exited back to I-80 and to 89 North Highway to Sierraville. Passing 2 roundabouts, we continued to 89 until we reached the sign on the right of “Donner Party Historic Site.” Unlike the Donner Memorial State Park, this park is smaller and has fewer people. We parked and read the signs which was interesting because of the 1/3 interpretive loop. 6 signs told the story of the Donner party who were left behind here near Alder Creek. My Mom and Aunt Gie stayed behind and sat at the picnic table while, Dad, Sam and I walked the trail. It was relaxing and beautiful.

There were yellow flowers, and the grass was green and the trees swayed with the wind. On our first stop, there was a bench and Dad sat down under the shade of the gigantic tree, and with this beautiful surrounding, it was hard to imagine it was struck by tragedy. When the winter came, the other families made it as far as Truckee Lake (presently Donner Lake), 6 miles up, while the Donner family stopped at the Alder Creek Valley when an axle broke on one side of their wagon.

Tamsen Donner

With threatening weather overhead, the Donners quickly set up camp. Crowded into inadequate shelters, the hastily constructed tents house 21 people, including Mrs. Wolfinger, her child, and the Donners’ drivers: 6 men, 3 women, and 12 children in all. It began to snow again on the evening of November 4—the beginning of a storm that lasted 8 days. These desperate people watched it snow from their poorly made tents.

By December 20th, the outlook was grim, Jacob Donner and three of the teamsters had died. The cold and dampness were constant. As snow piled higher, dry firewood was harder to find. Tall tree stumps were once numerous throughout the area.

Tree Stumps

They were cut by the Donner Party during their winter long mission of gathering firewood. Stump heights, up to 12 feet, give an indication of the snow depth that winter. Food was scarce. Hunting opportunities were rare. When the meat from the oxen and horses was gone, the starving emigrants resorted to boiling hides, eating the resultant gluey mass. Crushed bones were boiled into broth.

George Donner

By January, snow was over 10 feet deep. In mid-February, rescuers reached the snow-buried cabins at the lake, finding several dead of starvation. Rescuers had already started back to safety when James Reed arrived with the second rescue party. 

At Alder Creek, Reed saw George Donner dying from an infection and noted evidence of cannibalism.The first two members of the relief party to reach it saw Trudeau carrying a human leg. When they made their presence known, he threw it into a hole in the snow that contained the mostly dismembered body of Jacob Donner. Inside the tent, Elizabeth Donner refused to eat, although her children were being nourished by the organs of their father. 

The rescuers discovered that three other bodies had already been consumed. In the other tent, Tamsen Donner was well, but George was very ill because the infection had reached his shoulder.Reed started back with several survivors, though Tamsen Donner elected to stay behind with her husband George, even though he begged Tamzene to leave him and save her own life.

Reed and his band of survivors met another group of rescuers on its way to the lake camps. This group would bring out the rest of the Donner party, except for Lewis Keseberg, unable to walk, and Tamsen Donner, who again refused to leave and eventually perished. No one at Truckee Lake had died during the interim between the departure of the first relief party and the arrival of the second relief party. Patrick Breen documented a disturbing visit in the last week of February from Mrs. Murphy, who said that her family was considering eating Milt Elliott. Reed and McCutchen found Elliott’s mutilated body.

In April 1847, one year after the 91-person Donner wagon train had started out, a salvage party brought Keseberg out. Only 45 had lived through the harrowing winter. Truckee Lake and the snowy pass were renamed Donner, after the ill-fated group’s elected leader.

The monument at Donner Memorial State Park is dedicated to all the pioneers who came overland to California. Its base stands 22 feet high – surpass the greatest depth of snow that may accumulate at the lake.”

It was nice to see the entire loop of the trail with the beautiful surroundings and you will actually see the place where the Donner Party settled and the stumps of the trees that once flourished in the area. At the end of the loop, we were back at the parking lot and taking a quick nap underneath the shade of the trees was relaxing.

Here is a memorial to the Donner Wives who sacrifced their lives for their families.

Tamsen and Elizabeth Donner – They gave unselfishly, their fortunes and their lives that their children should survive.

Near this site, in the winter of 1846, two pioneer women gave up their lives for their families. Tamsen and Elizabeth Donner feared their many children could not survive the ravages of cold and starvation when the party was caught in an early blizzard. They provided care and comfort to their families and companions throughout the snowbound winter, desperately trying to prevent the death of their loved ones. Both lost their lives. However, most of their children survived to carry their mothers’ dreams of new life and new beginnings to the valleys of California. The summit they never crossed now bears their family name.”

At the end of the trip, retracing the steps the Donner Party took in the Sierra Nevada was exciting and educating while spending quality time with the family. This was one of the tragic events in the history of the US when families dared to travel the frontier to find a new life in a new place. Others made it together, but unfortunately, others didn’t. Remembering these people is a symbol showing respect for those pioneers.

More information about the Donner Party is available to Wikipedia and the following site:


Say Cheez!

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