Donner Party Tracker: Forlorn Hope - December 16, 1846

One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week, the members of the Donner Party, now beginning to succumb to their exhaustion and hunger, were placing all their hopes on the efforts of a small group of them who would to try to reach safety and assistance in the Sacramento Valley.

The Forlorn Hope
On December 16, The Forlorn Hope--the name they had given to the small group of brave souls--got an early start after a sorrowful farewell to those they were leaving behind and hoped to, but might never see again. In their favor, the weather and snow conditions were cold but suitable for the expedition. Patrick Breen wrote, "Fair & pleasant...froze hard last night & the Company started on snow shoes to cross the mountains. Wind S.E. [and] looks pleasant."

Seventeen people started out in The Forlorn Hope, each equipped with a blanket or quilt and a ration of food that was to last for six days: a strip of stringy dried beef, and a little sugar and coffee. The group was also supplied with one rifle, a few pistols, a hatchet, and tobacco for the men. Only 14 members had snowshoes; the others tramped along behind as best they could in their leather shoes.

Their immediate destination was Johnson's Ranch, the closest settlement over the pass and down in the Sacramento Valley. They estimated that the ranch was about 40 miles away; it was actually almost twice that far.

Those of The Forlorn Hope who were fortunate enough to have snowshoes included Sarah Fosdick, Mary Graves, William Foster, Sarah Foster, Charles Stanton, William Graves, Sr., Jay Fosdick, William Murphy, Harriet Pike, Lemuel Murphy, Patrick Dolan, the Miwok Indians Luis and Salvador, Mrs. McCutchen, William Eddy, Antonio, and Karl "Dutch Charlie" Burger. Some of the snowshoers were making the journey to find help to save their families; others were leaving so there would be one less mouth to feed at the camps. When bachelor Patrick Dolan joined the snowshoers, he generously left his ration of beef behind with the Breens and Reeds, who were struggling to keep themselves alive.

Two of those without snowshoes, Dutch Charlie and young, 10-year-old, William Murphy, turned back the first day. Lemuel Murphy, who was 12 and also without snowshoes, valiantly struggled on. Within a few days, the members of The Forlorn Hope were over the pass and several miles west, down the hill at Summit Valley. The snow there was about 11 feet deep. Another strong winter storm moved into the mountains on December 18 with heavy snow and a cold, furious wind.

Exhaustion, Hunger, and Frostbite Take Toll
A few days later, on December 21, the shortest day of the year and the first day of winter, Stanton was left behind to die alone in the snow. Exhausted and snowblind, he was too weak from malnutrition to keep up and there was nothing anyone could do to help him. In the end, Charles Stanton, the brave bachelor who had risked everything to get supplies from Sutter's Fort to the Donner Party, could not save his own life.

The members of The Forlorn Hope were now in a more desperate situation than before, surrounded by deep snow with frostbite setting in and their food supplies nearly gone. Luis and Salvador, the two Indians from Sutter's Fort, did their best to lead the pioneers in the blinding snowstorm, but the Indians were effectively lost. One day William Eddy found a small portion of bear meat that his wife Eleanor had secretly hidden in his pack. Eddy always shared any wild game that he was able to hunt, but this time he kept the discovery to himself; he hoped the precious protein might give him the strength to lead the pioneers out to safety and help.

San Francisco Weather
Around San Francisco Bay the weather had remained mild through December 19, but later that day the observer on the naval ship Warren reported fresh winds from the northwest, shifting to the southwest. The wind shift and a falling barometer were a sure sign of changing weather conditions. By the morning of the 20th, it was cloudy and raining in San Francisco Bay with light southwest winds.

The precipitation didn't last, however, and the clouds cleared out by evening. By December 21, while members of the snowshoe party were fighting for their lives in a high country blizzard, temperatures had warmed up to near 70 degrees near Sausalito, with fair skies and a light wind from the west.

Editor's Note: Photos from Emigrant Trail Museum (Stanto) and author. This installment is #25 in an exclusive, weekly series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin, weather historian, who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, wrote the series for Tahoetopia.

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