Gold Rush 49ers, tragedy at Donner Pass

High in the Sierra Nevada Mountains the emigrants came upon the remains of several log cabins deep in a thick grove of fir trees to the left of the trail just east of Truckee Lake. Shreds of dresses and other clothes, scraps of iron, and many bones, broken to extract every edible taste of marrow, were strewn about. Tree stumps, felled to build the cabins, towered 12 feet above the ground, the depth of the snow pack when the trees had been cut. The 49ers noted the melancholy gloominess of a place where so much human suffering had occurred, for this was a winter camp of the Donner Party, the 1846 pioneers who failed to cross the Sierra before the snow came and condemned them to spend a winter high in the mountains with little food. Rumors abounded that some had been forced to eat their dead.

Donner tree stumps

The Donners and about 80 others had separated from the larger party they had been traveling with near Fort Bridger and headed southwest along a new, unbroken trail called the Hastings cutoff that led toward the Great Salt Lake. They found the going extremely hard and very slow, and often had to cut their way through virgin forest. Then, past the lake, they entered the Great Salt Desert just as the Bartleston-Bidwell party had in 1841. When they eventually made their way to the Humboldt River the people and their animals were in desperate shape and way behind schedule. They reached the pass over the Sierra at the end of October and stayed over one night to rest before the difficult ascent. That night an early, hard snow fell and effectively closed the pass. The Donner Party was trapped.

Donner Memorial State Park in winter, by Tahoeliz

The road to the pass was a five-mile ascent from the cabins through a thick forest of cedar and fir with many trees over six feet in diameter. The trail continually climbed up and up until, at last, the emigrants reached the foot of what they called the “terrible passage on the backbone,” the spine of the Sierra Nevada, Donner Pass itself. One man said that in the half-mile to the top the road gained 2000 feet in elevation. Men would empty their wagons and pack the gear up on the animals, but even with the wagons empty it could take up to 13 oxen to pull them to the summit. The danger of a wagon toppling over the edge of the bluff was high. At the top of the pass the road they had traveled to get here could be clearly followed for miles. On all sides snow capped peaks stood thousands of feet above them. The descent into the Yuba Valley was steep, but for the Gold Rush 49ers the worst was over. They had finally arrived in California.

View of Donner Lake, Albert Bierstadt



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