The Donner Party

Hello dear reader(s)!

I guess I should have titled this “Our Day at Donner Lake”, but I just think “The Donner Party” has a nicer ring to it.  Don’t you?  Almost as if you have heard of it before…

For those of you who do not know, or do not remember if you were taught about it, The Donner Party was a party of westward settlers…pioneers from the Eastern US who left from Missouri to head West to California when that was the “in” thing to do.  You were like, so totally popular if you headed West, and a total square if you like, decided to stay in the yucky East.  EW!

Anyway, after leaving they had about the same kind of harrowing trip that you would expect to have traveling by covered wagon train through a trail that basically consisted of nothing but wagon ruts, with not much food, not a whole lot of medicine or facilities around, and the lack of basic hygiene we so enjoy today to keep us safe on a months’ long road trip.  Everyday, they would trudge a few miles toward California, and every night they would circle said wagons and pass the fuck out from exhaustion and riding in full length clothing under a canvas cloth in the middle of Summer on a wagon with virtually no suspension.  (And you think you’re tough in your pickup.)

So, pretty much a typical story of Westward expansion.  Except one tiny little difference that would change the course of history and would end up with a state park, lake, and pass named after the leader of said party.  You see, unlike intelligent people, the leaders of the Party of Donner (which, next time you are at a restaurant with a waiting list, tell them, Donner, party of 87…always gets a good laugh), decided to buy directions from a guy named Hastings, who basically sold them on a secret shortcut.  I imagine this guy standing at a fort and whispering, “Pssst.  Hey!  Wanna buy a map to a shortcut?”

And every other party said, “Get out of hear you smelly con-artist!”

But oh not Mr. Donner, or Mr. Reed.  They said, “Well that sounds like a fine idea!  After that we can go swimming in the cement pond!”

So anyway, when it’s time to take the “shortcut”, then shit got really bad.  First they had to cross extra mountains.  Now these mountains are Utah’s Wassatch mountains and as mountains go, they aren’t the most mountainy of mountains, but still, I’d think you’d want to cross as little mountains as possible in a Conestoga Wagon.  Rather than realizing they’d been had and turning back, they proceeded and ended up going across the Great Salt Lake Desert.  There really was no trail to follow, so they are going over crappy hot, Utah rough terrain in a desert.  Something in their cut-off plans told them it would be short-lived, and they still bought it and continued.  Then, they hit Nevada’s Black Rock desert.  Now, I don’t know if you have been to the Black Rock Desert (say Burning Man), but the Playa is just one part of a vast hell that is not even fun to drive through (even where there is a road).

They reached a river, but it was the Humboldt, which is basically what people outside of the West would refer to as a crick.  Only the water is all alkaline, and as rivers go, it frankly sucks.  While traveling there, a bunch of their cattle died and many wagons broke.  The cut-off added extra months onto their journey and they finally hit Lake’s Crossing (present day Reno, NV) in the late fall.  Being that they had just traveled across an extra 2 deserts, an extra mountain range, a shitty excuse for a river, lost a ton of cattle, and over half their wagons; they decided to rest for a bit in the Truckee Meadows.  (Not at all a meadow, but at least there is a river with actual water, and a few trees by it.  Plus, there was some civilization, so they chilled for a bit.  A wise decision until you consider they would be crossing the Sierra Nevada in November.

Northern Nevada/California weather is very unpredictable, and in November, even if it is really sunny outside, it is a good idea to carry chains and snow tires when heading over the pass now named for the party.  Why was it named for the party?

Well, it started snowing.  Not regular snow, it started dumping.  The party, became bogged down in 5-10 foot snow drifts as they were climbing the East Slope of the Sierras.  They stopped and found a cabin on what was then called Truckee Lake (Can you guess the name now?) that had been built by previous pioneers to take shelter and wait out the storm.

They then tried to build other cabins, as there was still a lot of people left for one cabin.  All to wait out the storm.  The storm did not end.  Eventually, there was 22 feet that winter.  If you visit the state park, you can see some of the tree stumps cut down 20 feet high because that was ground level with all of that snow.

By mid-December they were pretty much out of food.  A small party went out to seek help, and the rest butchered their remaining animals for food.  Soon thereafter, when grandma Donner, or grandpa (insert other name here) would die from the cold, or starvation, they cooked up grandma and grandpa.  Good times.  Out of 87 people who left, 48 made it out of the Sierras after rescue in February, almost all of them had partaken in “the most dangerous game” in order to stay alive.

Anyway, long story short, a bunch of people got conned, some died along the way, more died when they got trapped in mountain snow, and now the lake, pass, state park, summit and recreation area are named after them.  And it is fabulous!!!

Here are some pictures we took from the lake today!

Donner Lake
Donner Lake
Glamorous Hannah
Glamorous Hannah
Lying down, looking up at a tree.
Lying down, looking up at a tree.
Relaxing 'Merica style (sorry for the militia looking hat, but it does work to keep the sun off!)
Relaxing ‘Merica style (sorry for the militia looking hat, but it does work to keep the sun off!)
These trees and I go way back!
These trees and I go way back!
Cropped for on-line security.  Love you Ariel and Christina.
Cropped for on-line security. Love you Ariel and Christina.

So, that was my day, and a mini-take on a disturbing event from history for your entertainment, enlightenment, and enjoyment.  How was your day?

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Author: Josh Wrenn

Cancer survivor, wanna-be artist, musician, author, and all around good guy.

12 thoughts on “The Donner Party”

  1. My family has some excellent memories of Donner. Hoping we might get up there or to Reno this summer. We are due for tubing on the Truckee, assuming there’s any water left.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An old photography friend of mine lived close by Donner Lake and I used to enjoy seeing his regular wintertime pictures of the lake with snow and ice around it. It’s a little weird to see people doing warm-weather things like paddle boarding, in it!

    I feel enlightened after your account of the Donner Party and as someone who has read far too many Stephen Ambrose books for his own good I thoroughly enjoyed your de-sanitized version of this historical event.

    Liked by 1 person

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