We think of the “Donner” in Donner Summit and we think of the Donner Party: the wrong turn two times, bad luck, bad decisions made in ignorance, dietary issues, dissension, mendacity, evil, horror-filled, and unbelievable hardship. That’s a lot but there’s more. It’s also about tenacity, heroism, and the very best of the human spirit. Whereas most of the first list didn’t take place on Donner Summit, a lot of the second list did. Clearly, given that second list, Donner Summit is an elevated sort of place.
Half of the Donner Party wintered at Donner Lake. The actual Donners were seven miles away at Alder Creek. There is a connection to Donner Summit though. Half of the party either escaped Donner Lake or were rescued from Donner Lake and the way out for both was over Donner Summit. Some of the most dramatic episodes of the tragedy took place on Donner Summit: the escape of the Forlorn Hope, Starved Camp, the heroism of John Stark, and the selflessness of Charles Stanton
We’ll start with Charles Stanton who was a single man and member of the Donner Party. The party was running low on food after they’d traveled the Hastings Cutoff and crossed the desert so Stanton and another fellow went ahead and crossed the Sierra to Sutter’s Fort for help. The other fellow took sick and had to stay behind in Sacramento. Stanton, though, even though he had no family on the wagon train, rode all the way back over the Sierra with two Indians, finding the wagon train at the Truckee River. Then Stanton became part of the Forlorn Hope (next paragraph) but he fell behind. One morning he was too tired to go on and sat back against a tree and lit his pipe. He told the others to go on; he’d catch up. Charles Stanton’s grave is at Cascade Lake on Donner Summit (the sign here).
The Forlorn Hope
The Forlorn Hope left Donner Lake on December 16, 1846, 170 years ago, taking a huge risk. They made it to California and sent help back. To get to California they had to slog through the snow on Donner Summit and through Summit Valley. They risked new storms without shelter. They went without food and bore hardships unimaginable to us sitting here in the Summit Restaurant reading this. What is it like to sleep in the snow in soggy and sodden clothing? What is it like to hike through the snow, sinking into it with each step, and to do it to exhaustion with no food at the end of the exertion? What is it like to starve slowly and be forced to eat leather shoelaces, and then your companions? Seventeen people got over Donner Pass. 31 days later seven, five women and two men, made it to California. They were rescued by Native Americans and news of their arrival set rescue parties in motion.
The arrival in California of the Forlorn Hope and their pitiable condition galvanized rescue parties. Those rescuers could have stayed in California, comfortable, but instead they chose to head into the Sierra carrying heavy packs and fight snow to try to bring relief to the starving Donner Party. One of those rescuers, John Stark, particularly stands out.
Let’s set the stage. A third rescue party had gone into the mountains to see whom they could rescue. It was led by William Eddy and William Foster who had been part of the Forlorn Hope. They came across the second rescue party, led by James Reed, who had been banished by the wagon train after a knifing. He had been to California and come back to rescue his family. The Reed group had just left Starved Camp in Summit Valley and was itself without food.
The third rescue party decided to continue on to Starved Camp and see whom they could rescue. Eddy and Foster at that point paid two of the other men $50 each to accompany them to Donner Lake. They were desperate to save their children. John Stark also continued on but without pay, “I will go without any reward beyond that derived from the consciousness of doing a good act.”
The rescuers found Starved Camp somewhere in Summit Valley. Modern searchers have not been able to locate it although evidence did remain through the 19th Century and into the 20th in the form of the stumps left from cutting trees for firewood. The picture on page 1, taken by Carleton Watkins about 1874, shows the level of snow that winter of 1846. The stumps are of trees cut for firewood at snow level. At Starved Camp there were eleven people in a deep snow pit formed by the fire melting the snow down perhaps twenty feet to bare ground. Steps had been cut into the walls of the pit. There were dead bodies in the pit as well as the eleven people barely alive. The dead had been partially eaten. The survivors had been there for days and it was amazing any were alive. William Eddy, describing what they’d found said, “The picture of distress was shocking indeed.” Eddy and Foster continued on to Donner Lake to save their own children. When they arrived they discovered their children were dead and had been partly eaten.
In Summit Valley the remaining rescuers discussed what to do and took a vote to save only two of the children in Starved Camp. That might have been all they could manage. The others would have to stay behind.
John Stark, above, could not abide that. That meant that nine people, mostly children, would die on the mountain, exposed to the elements down in a very deep hole in the snow. John Stark decided he would save all nine, “Already shouldering a backpack with provisions, blankets, and an axe, he picked up one or two of the smaller children, carried them a little ways, then went back for the others. Then he repeated the whole process again and again and again. To galvanize morale, he laughed and told the youngsters they were so light from months of mouse-sized rations that he could carry them all simultaneously, if only his back were broad enough.” Once they were out of the snow he would eat and rest he said, but not before. He saved all nine. That is extraordinary and that is heroism. It was also heroism he never got contemporary credit for.
James Breen, one of those in the pit at Starved Camp later said, “To his great bodily strength, and unexcelled courage, myself and others owe our lives. There was probably no other man in California at that time, who had the intelligence, determination, and what was absolutely necessary to have in that emergency.”
Donner Party and Donner Summit
October 31, 1846 Donner Party arrives Donner Lake
November 3, 1846 The Party tries for Donner Summit
Panic and despair set in.
November 13, 1846 15 people try for Donner Summit
November 22, 1846 22 people and seven mules try for Donner
Summit. They argue and fail
December 16, 1846 The Forlorn Hope make it over Donner
Summit. 7 of the 17 will survive to reach
California in 33 days.
December 21, 1846 Charles Stanton dies near Cascade Lake.
January 5, 1847 Four people fail trying for Donner Summit.
February 18, 1847 The First Relief arrives in Summit Valley.
Snow was 30’ deep.
February 22, 1847 30 people make it to the top of the Pass.
February 26, 1847 more die on Donner Summit.
February 27, 1847 The 2nd Relief meets the 1st
relief somewhere on Donner Summit.
March 3, 1847 The 2nd Relief gets to Donner Summit from
Donner Lake – Starved Camp.
March 5, 1847 2nd Relief is camped in Summit
Valley. A storm rages.
March 6, 1847 Isaac Donner dies at Starved Camp
March 8, 1847 James Reed takes those who will go
away from Starved Camp.
March 9, 1847 More die at Starved Camp.
March 13, 1847 The 3rd Relief arrives at Starved Camp. 11 people are lying at the bottom of the deep pit.
March 14, 1847 The 3rd Relief arrives back from Donner
March 16, 1847 John Stark’s heroism