Donner Camp at Donner Pass

The bright sunshine outside the car windows on that clear June day was deceiving. Instead of warm June air, it was 48 degrees F (8.89 C) when we stepped outside the car into the parking lot at the historical site of Donner Camp in the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California. At an elevation of 7,085 FT. (2,160 M) above sea level, the breeze was brisk and sent a chill through those without a coat. This was June. Imagine what it is and was like in the winter.

Donner Pass and Donner Camp (now located in Tahoe National Forest) is a site that every child in the American West learned about in public school, particularly California-educated children during their year of focusing on California history.

Millions of motorists drive by the site every winter on their way to the ski slopes of the Tahoe area. I don't know how many actually stop at Donner Camp. Thanks to the proddng of my mother, we did. I'm glad we did.

What follows are quotes from the signage and plaques throughout the site accompanied by the photos I took while we were there. It is a somber place yet is so beautiful and full of natural pristine beauty as well as many Sierra wildflowers. It is a striking paradox that I couldn't ignore. Read on and hopefully you'll see the paradox I did.

Westward, Ho!
For Oregon and California!

Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men, of good character, who can drive an ox team, will be accomodated by gentlemen who will leave this vicinity about the first of April. Come, boys! You can have as much land as you want without costing you anything. The government of California gives large tracts of lands to persons who have to move there. The first suitable persons to apply, will be engaged.
G. Donner and Others

[From an advertisement placed by George Donner - Springfield, Illinois - March 18, 1846 - one year, almost to the day, before he died here in Alder Creek Valley.]

"What started out as a hopeful journey toward prosperity ended tragically for the eighty-nine member Donner Party. During the winter of 1846/47, heavy snowfalls trapped twenty-five of these emigrants here in Alder Creek Valley. The others were stranded at Donner Lake.

"Nearly half of the Donner Party died in these mountains. The rest survived the ordeal with bitter memories of cold, hunger and death."

"On October 28, 1846 the six covered wagons brought West by George and Jacob Donner and their families halted here for repairs..."

"In the Fall of 1846, 25 members of The Donner Party became trapped by an early snowstorm here at Alder Creek Valley. The George and Jacob Donner families, their teamsters, and fellow travelers suffered extreme hardship and starvation. They spent the winter here cut off from the rest of their party who camped at Donner Lake..."

"By December, the outlook was grim. Jacob Donner and five of the teamsters had died. The cold and the dampness were constant. As the snow piled higher, firewood was harder to get... Tall tree stumps were once numerous throughout this area. They were cut by the Donner Party during their winter-long mission of gathering firewood. Stump heights, up to 12 feet, indicated the snow depths that winter."

"Food was scarce. Hunting opportunities were rare. When the meat from the oxen and horses was gone, the starving emigrants resorted to boiling hides, eating the resultant gluey mass. Crushed bones were boiled into broth."

"In February, 1847, the first relief party from Sutter's Fort arrived. Two more relief parties came in March. They guided 14 of the Alder Creek emigrants out across the frozen Sierra. 11 survived."

"By March of 1847 one half of the party of 22 adults and children had died of starvation and cold. They came West seeking a new life and found misery and death."

"Mother stood on the snow where she could see all go forth. They moved in single file, the leaders on snowshoes, the weak stepping in the tracks made by the strong. Leanna, the last in line, was scarcely able to keep up... I was made to understand that this was the long-hoped-for relief party." --Eliza Donner Houghton (She turned 4 year old while traveling with the third relief party.)

Those Left Behind

"Elizabeth Donner and her two youngest sons died here at Alder Creek. Only Tamsen and her dying husband remained. George had begged Tamsen to leave him and save her own life. She refused. When the fourth and final relief party arrived in April, George Donner's dead body lay in camp. Tamsen's body was never found."

"Did the Donners eventually resort to cannibalism here at Alder Creek? Many say they did. Others disagree. Would you if it was the only way to keep your loved ones alive?"

"What really happened to Tamsen Donner? Did cannibalism occur here?"

"Donner Party survivors quickly blended into California life. Some shared their tales of that tragic winter. Many of their stories were not in written form. Conflicting accounts even emerged, leaving several mysteries."

Dedicatory Plaque to Tamsen and Elizabeth Donner:

"They gave unselfishly, their fortunes and their lives that their children should survive.

"Near this site, in the winter of 1846, two pioneer women gave up their lives for their families. Tamsen and Elizabeth Donner feared their many children could not survive the ravages of cold and starvation when the party was caught in an early blizzard. They provided care and comfort to their families and companions throughout the snowbound winter, desperately trying to prevent the death of their loved ones. Both lost their lives. However, most of their children survived to carry their mothers' dreams of new life and new beginnings to the valleys of California. The summit that they never crossed now bears their family name.

"An inspiration to all who followed their footsteps across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we herein honor the memory and the sacrifices of these women. Their struggle to survive, enduring hardships we can barely imagine, remains a legacy of the pioneer spirit. On this the 150th anniversary of their tragic encampment the Chief Truckee Chapter of E. Clampus Vitus dedicates this monument to their spirit and the preservation of their memory that we not forget the sacrifices they made in opening California to its destiny."