The Will to Survive
On January 17, 1847, a living skeleton stumbled into the outskirts of Johnson’s Ranch on the Bear River. His name was William Eddy. He and fourteen others, desperate to find help, had left their stranded wagon company at a wretched camp in the high Sierra thirty-three days earlier. The fifteen had gotten lost in the featureless, snow-covered landscape, suffered near-starvation, survived blizzards out in the open—and only seven of them were still alive. Eddy’s sudden appearance sent shock waves through Sacramento Valley settlers. Everyone there knew the Donner Party hadn’t arrived with the rest of the recent overland immigration, but all had assumed the straggling immigrants had camped on the safer eastern slope of the Sierra with enough provisions to last the winter. Eddy’s horrific tale told them otherwise: sixty-four people, still trapped in the mountains, were in dire circumstances. Valleyites quickly sprang into action, yet it would be almost another twenty days before all was ready for a small band of brave volunteers to set out over the pass on snowshoes, in a heroic effort to rescue the Donner Party.