Donner Party Tracker: Starved Camp - Mid-March, 1847

One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week, in 1847, the alive members of the Donner Party who had not yet reached the safety of Sutter's Fort were scattered about the mountains in three separate locations.

Refugees with James Reed and the second rescue effort were caught in a blizzard at Summit Valley on the west slope of the Sierra. Members of the Donner families who had not been rescued were huddled in their primitive lean-tos at the Alder Creek site near present-day Truckee. At the Donner Lake site, Lewis Keseberg and a few other stragglers too weak to leave with Reed were hunkered down in their cabins waiting for a third and final rescue party.

The blizzard that blew in during the first week of March bore down on all three locations, but Reed and the others in the open (Summit Valley) just west of Donner Pass were hit hardest. Rescuer William McCutchen recounted his own experiences at Summit Valley, which would later be known as "Starved Camp:"

"The second night Mr. Reed became snow blind and chilled through; he had overexerted himself in securing shelter for the party. The rest of the men were disheartened and would not use any exertion; in fact they gave up all hope and in despair, some of them commenced praying. I damned them, telling them it was not time to pray but to get up, stir themselves, and get wood, for it was a matter of life and death to us in a few minutes."

Starved Camp
When the storm finally stopped, James Reed told everyone it was time to evacuate and head for Sutter's Fort. They had had no food for forty-eight hours and another day or two would find them all dead. Five-year-old Isaac Donner had died during the storm, and the other pioneers were extremely weak.

The Breen and Graves families claimed that they were too exhausted to make it down the mountains to safety and refused to leave the fire. Reed couldn't persuade them to go, so he and Hiram Miller gathered a three-day supply of firewood to hold them until more help arrived. Reed and Miller were able to carry Reed's two young children, Patty (8 years old) and little Tommy. Betsy Donner's son, Solomon Hook, stumbled along as best he could.

The Breens and Graves families along with Mary Donner remained behind at Starved Camp in Summit Valley. They had a small stack of firewood to burn, but there was no food to eat. The only sustenance available to the thirteen people there were some seeds, a bit of tea and coffee, and a one-pound lump of sugar that Mrs. Breen had saved in her pocket. They didn't know it at the time, but it would be another five days before any help would reach them.

Exhausted and without food themselves, the remnants of the second relief party and their three young survivors struggled on toward Bear Valley. It was bitterly cold and difficult and painful for them to walk. Several of the men had suffered frostbite and would lose some of their toes.

Third Relief Party
Eventually they ran into John Stark and the men of the third relief, which included William Eddy and William Foster, the only two males who had survived the snowshoe escape from the Donner Party encampments in December. They were under the command of navy Officer Woodworth who had organized the effort and provided food and blankets, but Lt. Woodworth himself was not with the party.

Death and Desertion
Time was of the essence. One by one, death was stalking the remaining Donner Party survivors still east (toward present-day) of Donner Pass since October 1846. Lewis Donner had died and his mother, Betsy, was fading fast. George Donner was also close to death. Tamsen Donner and her three young daughters were weak, but still in relatively good shape

Two men from the second relief, Charles Cady and Nicholas Clark, had remained behind with the nine survivors still at the Alder Creek site NE of Truckee. At Donner Lake, rescuer Charles Stone had also stayed to provide for the five emigrants still there. But after waiting out the early March blizzard, Cady and Stone decided to abandon the camps and head for safety. Without notifying Clark, they left the two Donner Party sites to head over the pass and down the hill to Johnson's Ranch near Sutter's Fort.

On their way west through Summit Valley, Cady and Stone walked pass the dying refugees huddled around their fire at Starved Camp; Cady and Stone had nothing to offer the emigrants so the two men kept going. Later, when they caught up with Reed and his second relief still assisting emigrants down the west slope, Cady and Stone were greeted with cold stares for their desertions.

Editor's Note: This installment is #37 in an exclusive, weekly series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin is a Tahoe Historian; he wrote the series for Tahoetopia. For the other Donner stories, click Donner Party under the main menu.

Add comment

Log in or register to post comments