The Donner Party was an emigrant company composed of several families who decided to leave the main caravan of westward-bound wagons in order to take a “short-cut” to California. They weren’t the only party to travel the Hastings Cut-off, and the other companies who did so arrived safely. But the Donner Party, lagging behind the rest, became trapped at a small alpine lake in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846-47.
October-December, 1846: Everyone realized that the Donners and their trail companions hadn’t arrived in the Sacramento Valley with the rest of that year’s overland immigration, but assumed that they had camped somewhere east of the Sierra, and had enough provisions to sustain them through the winter. Besides, as severe storms closed the passes, it was impossible to send out search parties.
January 17, 1847: A half-alive man stumbled into Johnson’s Ranch on the Bear River and stunned California residents with his horrific news that—instead of having spent the winter camped in relative safety—the Donner Party was trapped at an alpine lake, starving and freezing. Valleyites quickly sprang into action, yet it would be many more days before supplies, equipment, and volunteers were all in readiness for the massive effort to rescue them.
February 5, 1847: Snowdrifts were too deep to use draft animals, so the First Relief, a group of seven volunteers, departed from Johnson’s Ranch with backpacks and snowshoes, risking their own lives to save the stranded sufferers. Their names were Aquilla Glover, Daniel Rhoads, John Rhoads, Septimus Moultry, Daniel Tucker, Joseph Sel, and Edward Coffeymeyer.
February 18 – 22, 1847: On the evening of February 18, the exhausted, but determined, seven young men of the First Relief reached the alpine lake where Donner Party members were subsisting in snow-covered hovels. 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 camp (and a second campsite farther back at Alder Creek) with twenty-three sufferers in tow—just those who were still strong enough to walk out, because there was no other alternative.
February 22 – March 1, 1847: The seven saviors had 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. On the way downhill, they met the Second Relief coming up.
March 1 – 17, 1847: The Second Relief, led by James Reed, and a smaller unit led by William Eddy and William Foster—all three men original members of the Donner Party—bring the last survivors in, despite blinding snowstorms and other perils.
March 23 – 28, 1847: Another relief expedition sets out from Johnson’s Ranch, but because of an impending major storm, fails to advance farther than Bear Valley.
April 13 – 22, 1847: A group led by mountaineer William Fallon, basically a salvage operation to retrieve anything of value, journeys to the lake where—to their great surprise—they find Lewis Keseburg still alive. They bring him back to Sutter’s Fort, a trading post where the other survivors have been taken to convalesce.