On a recent trip to Carson City, Nevada, I couldn’t help but stop and check out Donner Pass. At the Donner Pass Memorial site is a tall monument with a few members of the party on top. Top of the monument is the height of the snow the year the Donner Party stopped before venturing on to California, a very impressive site.
There is a small museum and gift shop as well as a trail that takes you to where one of the campsites was located. A large rock sits quietly showing you where the Murphy cabin was located; the rock was part of the back wall of the cabin.
The two other campsites of the wagon party was the Donner Campsite and the Graves/Reed campsite. A large cross and small plaque next to a school and shopping mall marks the Graves/Reed campsite. The Graves/Reed Campsite was close enough to walk back and forth to the Murphy cabin daily. It took the Donner family a bit longer to communicate with the other families.
The families in the wagon train called the Donner Party were for the most part well off, several brought along servants, and one even had a double-decked wagon. Over the months after leaving Wyoming, the families would go days without water, thus killing many of their oxen and horses. Without the animal power, several families’ ditched their wagons out in the desert and some even rode along with other families. This was not the worst of it. Bad directions lead them into the rugged Truckee Pass. The Donner family’s wagon broke a wheel. Stopping to repair it, they found a thick coating of snow upon waking the next morning as well as the other families who made camp several miles away.
Most people wouldn’t care about the Donner Party if it weren’t for what they would go through that winter. After being stuck in one of the worst snowstorms of the century, they ran out of food and several members on verge of starvation resorted to eating the dead. Now, most people think the Donners ate each other – in reality they did not. There are several mysteries with that family, one of which is what happened to Tamsen Donner. Tamsen is the wife of George Donner, she refused to leave her husband and go with a small group of men, women, and children to find help. She was never seen again.
The other families did what they had to survive, even if that meant eating the dead. Out of 87 members of the Donner Party only 41 survived that winter. Several men, women, and children got out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains early, going with search parties, some were rescued, some stayed till the end, and some never left.
I had heard ghost stories about the monument site, people having their clothes tugged on, others getting images in pictures. I walked all over the monument site, took a lot of pictures. The only feeling I gathered was is was a nice place, birds chirping, flowers blooming, not scary at all.
Then traveling across the interstate I came upon the Graves/Reed campsite. Located on a major road, next to a school and a strip mall, again felt nothing but sorrow for the people who suffered so long ago.
Quite a journey later, I arrived at Alder Creek, this is where the Donner family broke down, it is ironically a picnic area now. A long trail takes you to a broken tree, fallen 10 or so years ago by a storm. The tree has a plaque stating it is the Donner campsite. A new tree planted nearby is barely hanging on to its life, planted to replace the fallen tree. Off in the distance is a large lake, again a beautiful place, just not in the winter when you have run out of food.
By this time I felt sad, were the spirits speaking to me? There is no way to tell. The people that suffered that winter went through more than anyone could possibly stand today, yet they did, and many lived through it. I came home and read Ordeal by Hunger, I had to stop it was just too painful. The members of the wagon party lost children day after day, had entire families torn apart, and ate their own family members just to stay alive. One child wrote a letter after she escaped the winter telling how horrible it was to kill her pet dog for its meat, but by then they went days without eating. The children of the Donner Party stopped complaining and stopped asking for food. It is no wonder something stayed behind at these campsites.
If you venture out to Truckee and the Donner Pass, stop and see the memorial, after make sure to see the rest of the campsites, and remember to look out the people from 1846, they are hungry and desperate.