On February 19, 1847, the first members of the Donner Party were rescued from their snowbound prison in the icy Sierra-Nevada Mountains. Their story is one of mismanagement and indecisiveness. It vividly contrasts with the story of the Shackleton Expedition and provides a dramatic lesson in leadership.
George Donner and his family were part of a wagon train of settlers headed for California. George was elected leader of that train, not because of his experience or his ability to inspire, but because he was the richest man. The settlers set out from the usual jumping-off place of Springfield, Illinois, in April, 1846. Their pace was slow because every time an important decision had to be made, George would order the wagons circled, hold a meeting and determine the wishes of the majority.
In spite of the constant delays, by that summer the emigrants reached Fort Bridger, Wyoming. While there they decided to follow the advice of a land promoter named Lansford Hastings, who assured them his newly-found “Hastings Cutoff” would get them to California days if not weeks earlier. It didn’t. The “Cutoff” set them back three weeks. They reached the Sierra-Nevada Mountains in October. On the 28th of that month they camped at Truckee Lake (now known as Donner Lake) high in the mountains. By November 4, 1846, an early snowstorm trapped them.
At Truckee Lake, the Donner Party made the last of its many fatal decisions: some remained at the lake while George Donner, his family, and others made a separate camp six miles away at Alder Creek
Most Americans know the gruesome side of the Donner Party story: how some of the settlers were forced to eat the bodies of the dead in order survive. The reality is not as well known: in fact, the settlers found three cabins at Truckee Lake. When they hunkered down they still had their wagons, some provisions, a few horses and mules, some cattle, an endless supply of trees, and a nearby lake that even today is known for its abundance of trout. In spite of their resources, when help finally arrived three months later, only 45 people from the original 89 were still alive.
The contrast with the Shackleton Expedition is amazing, where all 19 members of the expedition survived living on an ice floe and a deserted, rocky island for three times as long. Read about it in the next Lucky Bag.