- "The Donner Party Found "
- Edward T. O'Donnell
- The Irish Echo February 14, 2001
One hundred fifty four years ago this week, on February 19, 1847,
rescuers at last reached the Donner Party. Snowbound in the foothills of
the Sierra Nevada mountains for months, nearly half the original 89
pioneers had perished from exposure or starvation. Their story remains
one of the most harrowing chapters in the history of the American West.
Two Irish families – the Breens and the Reeds – were central to the
story. Patrick Breen (born in Carlow), his wife Margaret and their seven
children lived on a farm in Iowa. In the spring of 1846 they set out for
Independence, Missouri to join a group led by George and Jacob Donner
heading west to California. Less is known about the Reeds, except that
James Frazier Reed was Irish-born and a Protestant. Reed likewise joined
the Donner Party in Independence with his wife and their 4 children.
The Donner Party began its journey in mid May 1846 and Bridgers Fort
in the southwest corner of Wyoming on July 30. It was there, however,
that the group made the first of two fateful decisions. Hoping to
shorten their journey, they decided to take a less-traveled route to the
south across Utah. Unfortunately, the map they used didn’t convey just
how slow and arduous the crossing of the Wasatch Mountains and Great
Salt Lake Desert would be.
The “shortcut” cost them time and took its toll on their emotions. In
mid-October James Reed stabbed to death another member of the group
after an argument. Despite his claim of self-defense, Reed was banished
from the party. Leaving behind his family in the care of the Breens, he
went ahead with several other men.
Pressing on, the Donner Party finally reached the site of present-day
Reno, Nevada. It was here that they made a second fateful decision -- to
rest a week before beginning the arduous crossing of the Sierra Nevada
mountains. They had no way of knowing that the snow would come early –
and heavy – that year.
They made it as far as Truckee Lake, California (now Donner Lake) in
the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas when the snow began to fall. They
tried to make the mountain pass, but were forced to return to their lake
encampment. They hunkered down as best they could in makeshift cabins
Much of what we know about the Donner Party saga comes from Patrick
Breen who kept a daily diary chronicling their struggle to survive. The
following entry is typical: "Jan. 1st 1847 we pray the God of mercy to
deliver us, from our present Calamity if it be his Holy will Amen
Commencd Snowing last night does not Snow fast wind S:E sun peeps out at
times provisions getting scant--dug up a hide from under the Snow
yesterday … "
As Breen’s words indicate, he and his family relied on their Catholic
faith to sustain them through the dark hours. They prayed daily and
exhibited such faith that 13-year-old Virginia Reed, in the care of the
Breens, made a secret vow to God to become a Catholic if she survived.
She survived and made good on her promise.
Another thing that sustained the Breens was their careful rationing
of provisions. Some survivors would later accuse them of selfishness,
but one can only imagine how they wrestled with the morality of their
decision as they struggled to save their children (and the Reeds).
Before long people began to die from starvation or exposure. The
first to go was Patrick Dolan, a friend of the Breens. More followed,
especially as January turned into February. As desperation mounted, many
resorted to cannibalism to survive. Some also tried to break through the
snowbound pass to get help.
Help, as it turned out, was already on the way. The banished James
Reed had made it through the pass just ahead of the snow and organized a
relief party. Other rescuers likewise struck out in search of the
stranded survivors. The first of them (Reed was forced to turn back)
arrived on February 19, 1847. One of the rescuers, Daniel Rhoads, later
told of the scene they encountered:
They were gaunt with famine and I never can forget the horrible,
ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice
very much agitated & said 'are your men from California or do you come
Two more relief parties arrived in the coming weeks until all the
remaining survivors – 45 of the original 89 – were taken to safety.
Miraculously, all the Breens and Reeds survived. Another Irish family,
the Murphys, suffered a more typical fate. Lavinia Murphy died along
with one son and two grandchildren. Also among the dead were George
Donner and several members of his family.
Remarkably, the Breens and Reeds went on to live prosperous lives in
California. Still one has to wonder if the horror of those months in the
mountains during the winter of 1846-47 ever truly left them. We’ll never
know, since people in those days didn’t go on Oprah or get big book
contracts to tell their story. They just picked up where they left off –
trying to make a go of it in a land full of opportunity and risk.
From "Hibernian Chronicle" a weekly history column in the Irish Echo
by Edward T. O'Donnell 154 Years Ago: