Donner Party Tracker: Rescue #2 - March 3, 1847

One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week, one by one, the members of the Donner Party were rescued. The seven men in the first relief party had pulled off a very risky rescue effort with little information about the route and minimal logistical support.

In terms of organization, manpower, supplies, and sheer physical ability, the Reed-led second relief was much better equipped. The men in the first expedition had to blaze their own route, which they marked by torching dead pine trees as they walked. For the second effort, there was strong logistical support provided by the U.S. Navy, which helped to quickly move a large amount of food, clothes, blankets, and supplies into the remote Bear Valley staging area.

Second Relief Party
James Reed, Bill McCutchen, and Hiram Miller were highly motivated to reach family and friends still trapped in the mountains. Reed's determination and fortitude was beyond question. McCutchen knew that his wife had survived with the Forlorn Hope escape group and his only daughter had died at Donner Lake, but he was dedicated to saving as many others as he could. Miller was a friend of Reed's from Springfield (IL) who had been hired as a teamster by the Donners for the journey to California.

About seven or eight other men, most of them trappers, hunters, and mountain men handpicked by Caleb Greenwood, were in the second relief. Old Greenwood himself did not make the climb into the mountains. He sent John Turner instead, a large and powerfully built mountain man. Greenwood's son Britain, a well-known, 19-year-old trail guide in his own right, was one of the ten men of the second relief who traveled up and eastward to the mountain camps.

Once he arrived at the lake encampment, James Reed was overjoyed to find his children, Patty and Tommy, still alive. In his travel notes that were published later that year in the Illinois Journal, Reed wrote that he saw the top of a cabin just peering above the silvery surface of the snow. As he approached it, Reed discovered his daughter sitting upon the corner of the Breen cabin roof. Although the snow had settled about five feet since the last storm two weeks before, it was still as high as the Breen cabin, which was about eight feet tall.

The men in the second relief found both the Donner Lake and Alder Creek camps filthy and ghoulish, littered with waste and mutilated corpses half buried in snow. The rescuers dispersed part of the food they had with them. They had cached much of it back on the trail in order to sustain everyone on the way back to Sutter's Fort.

McCutchen and Reed bathed the children and cleaned up Lewis Keseberg, who looked wretched. When Reed and some of the other men visited the Alder Creek camp, they found the Donner families in miserable conditions. They were subsisting on tallow made from the jerked beef trimmings left by the first relief plus whatever rabbit or rodent they managed to catch.

The rescue team immediately began preparing everyone for the great escape. The three oldest of Jacob and Betsy Donner's five children still at Alder Creek, Solomon, Mary, and Isaac, were chosen to go, as they were considered strong enough to follow the men out of the mountains. (Jacob Donner had been among the first of the emigrants to die in the mountains.)

Betsy Donner, who Reed described as "in a very feeble condition," remained behind with her two youngest children. Tamsen Donner had the strength to make it to Bear Valley, but she refused to leave her dying husband George, who was weak and helpless. When Reed told her that he expected another relief effort to arrive in just a few days with more provisions, Tamsen decided it was best to keep her young girls, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza, with her.

March 3, 1847
On this date Reed and the second relief departed the Donner Lake encampment (on the east end of the lake). It was two days before another major storm system moved into northern California. Seventeen people were being led to safety in this escape effort; one man, two women, and the rest children-- nearly all of them under the age of ten. They consisted of the Breen family; Mary and Isaac Donner and their half brother Solomon Hook; Elizabeth Graves and her children; as well as Patty and Tommy Reed.

The emigrants were hurried along as fast as possible over the frozen lake and westward toward Donner Pass. Due to their weak conditions, the party only made two or three miles the first day. That night they camped on the north side of Donner Lake on a small patch of bare ground near the shoreline. That same day, the eighteen surviving refugees being rescued by the first relief reached Sutter's Fort.

Editor's Note: This installment is #35 in an exclusive, weekly series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin, a weather historian and photographer, who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, wrote the series for Tahoetopia. To read all the installments, choose Donner Party under the main menu.

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