Rescuing the Donner Party
It was February 18, 1847. The winter sun had already dropped behind the mountain peaks, and dusk was falling. A band of seven exhausted, but determined young men had finally reached the snow-covered hovels of overlanders who had been trapped at an alpine lake in the rugged Sierra Nevada since the previous October. Inside those hovels were the starving, freezing, half-demented Donner Party members who were still alive. The seven men, who had been plodding through massive snowdrifts since February 5, had risked their own lives to save the immigrants. As they approached, all seven were startled by the sight of a woman’s emaciated face rising above a hole in the snow. She said: “Are you men from California, or do you come from Heaven?” On February 22, the rescue party left the lake camps with twenty-three sufferers in tow—just those who were still strong enough to walk out, because there was no other alternative. Unable to bring draft animals through the deep snow, the seven saviors would now have to break trail, carry packs, and govern their charges over the hundred or so miles to safety. Two children were sent back that first day when it became clear to all that they wouldn’t be able to keep up. As it was, the others—rescuers and refugees alike—endured frostbite, hard winds, and extreme fatigue. Three more Donner Party members died before the party reached relief headquarters at Johnson’s Ranch, about March 1. The rescuers, those seven volunteer members of the First Relief whose names deserve to be recorded in gold letters, were: Aquilla Glover, Daniel Rhoads, John Rhoads, Septimus Moultry, Daniel Tucker, Joseph Sel, and Edward Coffeymeyer.