November 1846

The Donner Party settled in at the Lake below the Pass, except for the Donner families who camped along a small creek about 8 miles further back on the trail (now Alder Creek).

Map of camps, lake and passes

The dated entries below are from the diary of Patrick Breen. Shortly after he moved his family into the cabin built two years earlier by the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy Party, Patrick Breen began a diary, recording in his terse fashion the events of that winter of entrapment. Upon his rescue, Breen gave his diary to George McKinstry, Sheriff and Inspector at Sutter’s Fort. McKinstry had himself traveled the Hastings Cut-off and arrived at Sutter’s Fort on October 19. McKinstry sent the diary to the California Star, which published in an abridged form on May 22, 1847. The diary has been more correctly transcribed, and published, by George Stewart in Ordeal by Hunger, Dale Morgan in Overland in 1846 and Joseph King in Winter of Entrapment. It is available online in original manuscript at the University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Sunday, November 1, 1846

Stanton arrived one day after we arrived here we again took our teams & waggons & made another unsuccessful attempt to cross in company with Stanton we returned to the shanty it continuing to snow all the time we were here

Morgan speculated that Breen’s diary indicates that Stanton did not reach the Party until after they had attempted to cross the summit. It is more likely that Breen was referring to Stanton having rejoined the lead group after traveling further down the Trail to reach the Reeds. In her letter of May 16, 1847, thirteen year old Virginia described her travels with Stanton, their arrival at the lake, and the two attempted crossings:

it was a raining then in the Vallies and snowing on the montains so we went on that way 3 or 4 days tell we came to the big mountain or the Callifornia Mountain the snow then was about 3 feet deep thare was some wagons thare thay said thay had attempted to cross and could not,

This view of Stanton’s travel with the Reeds is supported by Alcalde John Sinclair’s statement of February, 1847: On the third they [Breen, Dolan, Keseberg and Eddy] tried it again, taking with them Mrs. Reed and family, Mr. Stanton, and two Indians, who were in the employ of J. A. Sutter;

As quoted by Eliza Farnham in her 1856 book, California, In-Doors and Out, John Breen said

We set out next morning to make a last struggle, but did not advance more than two miles before the road became so completely blocked that we were compelled to retrace our steps in despair. When we reached the valley, we commenced repairing the house; we killed our cattle and covered it with their hides.

Apparently, some of the Party did not attempt the crossing, and had already decided to winter at the Lake, sending others ahead for supplies. The following note was found in the pocket of the Miller-Reed diary:

River Trucky
Nov 1 1846
I authorize Milford Elliott to purchase for me or hire four work mules and one sett Harness--and 3 yoke work Cattle for which I will be responsible on my arival in California
W M Foster

The note was written at the fork of the Truckee River now called Donner Creek. The emigrants of the 1844-46 referred to it as Trucky River, as shown by John Breen’s 1877 letter where he states that the company were now scattered along the Truckey river....

Monday, November 2, 1846

Virginia Reed’s letter continues:

well we thought we would try it so we started and thay started again with thare wagons the snow was then up to the mules side the farther we went up the deeper the snow got so the wagons could not go so thay packed thare oxens and started with us carring a child a piece and driving the oxens inn snow up to thare wast the mule Martha and the Indian was on was the best one so thay went and broak the road and that indian was the Pilot so we went on that way 2 miles and the mules kept faling down on the snow head formost and the Indian said thay he could not find the road stoped and let the Indian and man go on to hunt the road thay went on and found the road to the top of the mountain and came back and said they thought we could git over if it did not snow any more we the Weman were all so tirder caring there Children that thay could not go over that night so we made a fire and got something to eat & ma spred down a bufalo robe & we all laid down on it & spred somthing over us & we all laid down on it & it snowed one foot on top of the bed

John Breen, in his letter to Prof. Bancroft of November 19, 1877, wrote:

About the first of November 1846 we arrived at what proved to be the first of the main ridge, and camped at the foot of what is now called Donner Lake, It was raining when we stopped, but before morning their was some snow on the ground, we started at daylight, but soon found that the snow increased in depth as we advanced, and after traveling about two miles, it was so deep that the cattle could not go no further and to make matters worse another storm began, so we retraced our steps to the camp of the night before at the lake,

In 1879, Lewis Keseberg gave a statement ot C.F. McGlashan:

When we reached the lake, we lost our road, and owing to the depth of the snow on the mountains, were compelled to abandon our wagons, and pack our goods upon oxen. The cattle, unused to such burdens, caused great delay by bucking and wallowing in the snow. There was also much confusion as to what articles should be taken and what abandoned. One wanted a box of tobacco carried along; another, a bale of calico, and some one thing and some another. But for this delay we would have passed the summit and pressed forward to California. Owing to my lameness, I was placed on horseback, and my foot tied up to the saddle in a sort of sling. Near evening we were close to the top of the dividing ridge. It was cold and chilly, and everybody was tired with the severe exertions of the day. Some of the emigrants sat down to rest, and declared they could go no farther. I begged them for God’s sake to get over the ridge before halting. Some one, however, set fire to a pitchy pine tree, and the flames soon ascended to its top most branches. The women and children gathered about this fire to warm themselves. Meantime the oxen were rubbing off their packs against the trees. The weather looked very threatening, and I exhorted them to go on until the summit was reached. I foresaw the danger plainly and unmistakably. Only the strongest men, however, could go ahead and break the road, and it would have taken a determined man to induce the party to leave the fire. Had I been well, and been able to push ahead over the ridge, some, if not all, would have followed. As it was, all lay down on the snow, and from exhaustion were soon asleep. In the night, I felt something impeding my breath. A heavy weight seemed to be resting upon me. Springing up to a sitting posture, I found myself covered with freshly-fallen snow. The camp, the cattle, my companions, had all disappeared. All I could see was snow everywhere. I shouted at the top of my voice. Suddenly, here and there, all about me, heads popped up through the snow. The scene was not unlike what one might imagine at the resurrection, when people rise up out of the earth. The terror amounted to a panic. The mules were lost, the cattle strayed away, and our further progress rendered impossible.

Most likely, the party continued south from the east shore of the lake and ascended Coldstream Valley towards Roller Pass, rather than following the north shore of the lake to the more difficult Donner Pass.

Photograph of Coldstream Valley

Coldstream Valley, photographed 2022

Back on the Trail, the Donner Brothers pushed on, as recounted by Jean Baptiste Trudeau in an interview with a correspondent from the St. Louis Republic, published in the San Francisco Call on October 11, 1891:

The Reeds and Graves people were in the advance party, while the Donners, George and Jacob, and their families, were in the party left behind. Our little band worked bravely on until we came to Alder Creek Valley, where we had to stop, it being impossible to go further. The snow came on with blinding fury and being unable to build cabins we put up brush sheds, covering them with limbs from the pine trees. It was the first of November, I think, that we went into that camp of snow and suffering, ...

The Donner brothers prepared their camp at Alder Creek. Leanna Donner App, who was 12 during the winter of 1846-47, wrote in a letter to C.F. McGlashan in 1878:

We had no time to build a cabin. The snow came on so suddenly that we had barely time to pitch our tent, and put up a brush shed, as it were, one side of which was open. This brush shed was covered with pine boughs, and then covered with rubber coats, quilts, etc. My uncle, Jacob Donner, and family, also had a tent, and camped near us.

In 1911, Eliza Donner Houghton recorded this recollection from her half-sister Elitha Donner Wilder, who was 14 during the winter of 1846-47:

In a few days the snow was four feet deep. Uncle and his two men cut logs and cousins Solomon and Will hauled them. Father and I notched them and laid them four logs high, then came the snow. We camped by a tall pine tree, we cut poles and stood them up around the tree and cut brush laid around the tree to serve until we could build a house. But the snow came and that was all we had with out tents. Father could not get John to shovel snow from the tent.

Drawing of tent

Drawing of Donner Family Tent

Photograph of recreated tent

Recreation of Donner Family Brush Shed at Alder Creek, photographed 1996

A large tree just east of Hwy 89 north of Truckee has been marked with a plaque as the George Donner camp site, with the Jacob Donner camp nearby. Recent archaeological excavations found no artifacts near the tree, but many artifacts in the meadow nearby. Nevertheless, the plaque remains. The site also features a self-guided trail tour with placards that tell the barest outline of the Donners’ cross-country trip and their winter in the tents. Visitors should disregard the overly solicitous placards that question whether cannibalism actually occurred at the Donner camp. Instead they should ponder the terrible choices that confronted the Donners.

The Donner Brothers attempted to obtain relief from those who had gone ahead and were attempting to cross the pass. The following notes were found in the pocket of the Miller-Reed diary:

River Trucky
2nd Nov 1846
I authorize the bearer Milford Elliott to purchase for me six yoke work cattle and three Beeves for which I will pay the cash or Goods on my arrival in California
Jacob Donner
To Charles Berger
You will let Milford Elliott have, should he want it, the money I let you have and also the money Uncle George let you have should he want that--to purchase cattle and make such other arrangements as he may deem necessary for us
Jacob Donner

Berger was the Keseberg’s teamster. The Donners most likely had given the money to Berger some time earlier at Alder Creek, with directions to buy supplies and return. They later decided to entrust that task to Elliott, perhaps after the Party had failed to cross the summit.

Mr Eliot
Please bring me five mules to pack also four low priced active ponies suitable for women & children to ride, 200 weight flour 2 bushels beans. 2 gallons salt. 3 dollars worth sugar if it can be had on reasonable terms & a cheese. These mules & horses you may purchase if expedient if not you will hire them
Jacob Donner
These instructions are in case you return this winter if you stay till spring perhaps oxen will be better

A partially illegible note was written on the back of the note from Jacob Donner to Milford Elliott:

... but a poor orphan .... with nothing .... dians killed my father .... I will give my rifle for a pony or a mule to ride
John Trudeau

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountains, James Reed set out to return with provisions. As he wrote in his 1871 Pacific Rural Press article:

The next day I started On My Return with what horses and saddles Capt. Sutter had to spare. He furnished us all the flour needed, and a hind quarter of beef, giving us an order for more horses and saddles at Mr. Cordway’s, near where Marysville is located. In the mean time, Mr. McCutchen joined me, he being prevented from returning with Mr. Stanton, on account of sickness.

Tuesday, November 3, 1846

Thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote in her letter of May 16, 1847 of their return from the summit attempt: so we got up in the morning & the snow was so deep we could not go over & we had to go back to the cabin & build more cabins & stay thare all Winter without Pa

In 1879, Lewis Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

We returned to the lake, and prepared, as best we could, for the winter. I was unable to build a cabin, because of my lameness, and so erected a sort of brush shed against one side of the Breen’s cabin.

Wednesday, November 4, 1846

The Party began to stockpile provisions, as thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote in her letter of May 16, 1847:

Ma maid arrangements for some cattel giving 2 for 1 in california we seldom thot of bread for we had not had any since [illegible] & the cattel was so poor thay could note hadley git up when thay laid down we stoped thare the 4th of November & staid till March

Eddy began hunting, and the Party began killing their cattle, as reported by Thornton: Mr. Eddy commenced hunting on the 4th, and succeeded in killing a prairie wolf, of which supper was made in the evening for all in the cabin.

Thursday, November 5, 1846

Eddy continued hunting, as reported by Thornton: On the 5th he succeeded in killing an owl, of which supper was made. The Messrs. Graves, Donner, Dolan, and Brinn commenced killing their cattle. Mr. Eddy also killed his ox.

On the west side of the mountains, Reed and McCutchen continued their relief mission, as reported in Reed’s account in the Illinois Journal of December 9, 1847: For four days they traveled in the rain, and at the end of that time reached the head of Bear River, where they found snow eighteen inches deep.

In his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press, Reed described their travels:

Nothing happened until the evening before reaching the head of Bear Valley, when there commenced a heavy rain and sleet, continuing all night. We drove on until a late hour before halting. We secured the flour and horses, the rain preventing us from kindling a fire;

Friday, November 6, 1846

On the west side of the mountains, Reed and McCutchen continued their relief mission, as reported in Reed’s account in the Illinois Journal of December 9, 1847: The next day’s march brought them to snow thirty inches in depth. Here the Indians deserted them; and on this account, they were obliged to leave nine horses in camp.

The camp belonged to emigrants who had decided to winter at Bear Valley, as described by Reed in his 1871 article:

next morning proceeding up the valley to where we were to take the mountain, we found a tent containing a Mr. Curtis and Wife. They hailed us as angels sent for their delivery, stating that they would have perished had it not been for our arrival. Mrs. Curtis stated that they had killed their dog, and at the time of our arrival had the last piece in the Dutch oven baking. We told them not to be alarmed about anything to eat, for we had plenty, both of flour and beef; that they were welcome to all they needed. Our appetites were rather keen, not having eaten anything from the morning of the day previous. Mr. Curtis remarked that in the oven was a piece of the dog, and we could have it. Raising the lid of the oven, we found the dog well baked, and having a fine savory smell. I cut out a rib, smelling and tasting, found it to be good, and handed the rib over to Mr. McCutchen, who, after smelling it some time, tasted it and pronounced it very good dog. We Partook of Curtis’ Dog. Mrs Curtis immediately commenced making bread, and in a short time had supper for all. At the lower end of the valley, where we entered, the snow was eighteen inches in depth, and when we arrived at the tent, it was two feet. Curtis stated that his oxen had taken the back track; that he had followed them by the trail though the snow. In the morning before leaving, Mrs. Curtis got us to promise to take them into the settlement when on our return with the women and children. Before leaving, we gave them flour and beef sufficient to keep them until our return, expecting to do so in a few days. We started, following the trail made by the oxen, and camped a number of miles up the mountain. In the night, hearing some of the horses going down the trail, we went to where the Indians had lain down, and found them gone. McCutchen mounted his horse and rode down the mountain to Curtis’ camp; found that the Indians had been there, stopped and warmed themselves, and then started down the valley.

Photograph of Bear Valley

Bear Valley, photographed 2022

Saturday, November 7, 1846

Eddy again went hunting, as reported by Thornton: Mr. Eddy spent the 7th hunting, but returned at night with a sad and desponding heart, without any game.

On the west side of the mountains, as told in Reed’s 1847 account in the Illinois Journal:

Starting with seventeen horses, they proceeded to cross the mountains. As they advanced the snow became deeper; they reached the depth of four feet when the horses sank completely exhausted, and it was found impossible to proceed with them. Messrs. Reed and McCutchem determined to use every effort to reach their friends. Choosing the best horses, they urged them forward--but alas!--they were obliged to leave the poor animals completely buried in snow.

They then attempted to pursue their journey on foot, but for the want of snow shoes, were obliged to abandon all hope of passing the huge barrier of snow, which separated them from their families; and gathering their horses together, they returned to the valley, and went from their to Mr. Johnson’s, who received them in the most hospitable manner.

Reed described their efforts in his 1877 article:

Next morning we started, still on the trail of the oxen, but unfortunately, the trail turned off to the left from our direction. We proceeded on, the snow deepening rapidly, our horses struggling to get through; we pushed them on until they would rear upon their hind feet to breast the snow, and when they would alight they would sink in it until nothing was seen of them but the nose and a portion of the head. Here we found that it was utterly impossible to proceed further with the horses. Leaving them, we proceeded further on foot, thinking that we could get in to the people, but found that impossible, the snow being soft and deep. I may here state that neither of us knew anything about snow shoes, having always lived in a country where they never were used. We were here Compelled to Return,

and with sorrowful hearts, we arrived that night at the camp of Mr. Curtis, telling them to make their arrangements for leaving with us in the morning. Securing our flour in the wagon of Mr. Curtis, so that we could get it on our return, we packed one horse with articles belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Curtis, and started down the valley to where the snow was light, and where there was considerable underbrush, so that our famished animals could browse, they not having eaten anything for several days.

It is not known exactly how far Reed and McCutchen traveled past Bear Valley. The first obstacle on the regular Trail was the 700’ climb out of Bear Valley at 4,500’ up a 30 degree slope to Emigrant Gap at 5,200’. The slope, though difficult, may have shed enough snow to allow a passage. The deep snow Reed described may have been in Carpenter Valley on the east side of Emigrant Gap. Or, Reed and McCutchen may have avoided the climb to Emigrant Gap by proceeding along the base of the ridge towards Yuba Pass.

The rescue of Mr. and Mrs. Curtis is noteworthy because Curtis repaid Reed’s assistance when he was a member of the First Relief, which searched for Curtis’ wagon to find the cached provisions.

Sunday, November 8, 1846

According to Thornton, Eddy, the Graves and the Reeds began building their cabin this day: The three following days he assisted Graves in putting up a cabin for himself and family, and Mrs. Reed and her family.

Virginia Reed described the cabins in her 1891 article in Century Magazine: Three double cabins were built at Donner Lake, which were known as the Breen Cabin, the Murphy Cabin, and the Reed-Graves Cabin. ... Stanton and the Indians made their home in my mother’s cabin.

McGlashan summarized the cabins:

The Breen family moved into the Schallenberger cabin. Against the west side of this cabin, Keseberg built a sort of half shed, into which he and his family entered. The Murphys erected a cabin nearer the lake. The site of this cabin is plainly marked by a large stone about ten or twelve feet high, one side of which rises almost perpendicularly from the ground. Against this perpendicular side the Murphys erected the building which was to shelter them during the winter. It was about three hundred yards from the shore of Donner Lake, and near the wide marshy outlet. The Breen and Murphy cabins were distant from each other about one hundred and fifty yards. The Graves family built a house close by Donner Creek, and half or three quarters of a mile further down the stream. Adjoining this, forming a double cabin, the Reeds built.

In a letter to McGlashan dated April 16, 1879, Mary Graves wrote: Father built his cabin where it was most sheltered from wind and storm and wood near by regardless of company interest, I supposed.

In a letter to McGlashan dated April 15, 1879, Patty Reed wrote that Franklin Graves built away from the other members of the company because he wished to, for he, & all of his family, had minds & wills of their own.

William Graves’ map

Map of Cabin Sites, Drawn by William Graves for C.F. McGlashan, 1879

  1. Truckee’s [now Donner] Lake
  2. Schallenberger’s Cabin - Breens [site of present Donner Monument]
  3. Keseberg’s Addition to Schallenberger Cabin
  4. Big Rock [in Donner Memorial Park]
  5. Cabin built against Big Rock - Murphys and Eddys
  6. Graves’ Cabin, with Addition for Reeds, Stanton, Luis and Salvadore [on Donner Creek south of present Interstate 80 Agricultural Inspection Station. The presence of the Reeds with the Graves is another indication that Franklin Graves had agreed to be responsible for Mrs. Reed and the children in exchange for Reed’s banishment after killing the Graves’ teamster Snyder.
  7. Roads [present Hwy 89 from Alder Creek to Truckee, old Hwy 40 from Truckee to summit via north shore of Lake, and trail up Coldstream Canyon south of Lake]
  8. Branch of Truckee’s River [now Donner Creek]
  9. Donner Tent
  10. Donner Tent [It is not known exactly where these tents were, but Mrs. Wolfinger stayed with the George Donners, and the teamsters apparently built another tent nearby.]
  11. [now Alder] Creek
  12. [now Prosser] Creek

Drawing of cabins

Construction of Cabins at Donner Lake

Photograph of rock with plaque

Big Rock (Murphy’s Cabin site), Donner Memorial State Park
(The plaque lists the survivors and casualties)

On the west side of the mountains, Reed and McCutchen continued their retreat, as Reed wrote in his 1871 article:

After packing Mr. Curtis’ horse for him the next morning, we started; in a short time, Mr. and Mrs. Curtis proceeded ahead, leaving the pack-horse behind for us to drive, instead of his leading him; we having our hands full in driving the loose ones, they scattering in all directions. The pack turned on the horse. Mr. Curtis was requested to return and help repack and lead his horse, but he paid no attention to us. We stood this for some time; finally, McCutchen became angry, started after him, determined to bring him back; when he got with him he paid no attention to McCutchen’s request to return; Mc becoming more exasperated, hit him several times over the shoulders with his riatte. This brought him to his senses. He said that if Mc would not kill him, he would come back and take care of the pack animal, and he did

Monday, November 9, 1846

we now have Killed most part of our cattle having to stay here untill next Spring & live on poor beef without bread or salt it snowed during the space of eight days with little intermission, after our arrival here, --Patrick Breen diary

John Breen, in his 1877 letter to H.H. Bancroft, wrote:

each family built some kind of house, and killed all their cattle, as they could not live; the ground being covered with snow; There was no salt among the little stores of provisions now left, but the meat did not spoil as it soon got frozen and so remained until it was consumed.

Wednesday, November 11, 1846

On the west side of the mountains, James Reed and William McCutchen returned to Sutter’s Fort, as recounted in Reed’s 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press:

As soon as we arrived at Capt. Sutter’s, I made a statement of all the circumstances attending our attempt to get into the mountains. He was no way surprised at our defeat. I also gave the Captain the number of head of cattle the company had when I left them. He made an estimate, and stated that if the emigrants would kill the cattle, and place the meat in the snow for preservation, there was no fear of starvation until relief could reach them. He further stated that there were no able bodied men in that vicinity, all having gone down the country with and after Fremont, to fight the Mexicans. He advised me to proceed to Yerba Bueno, now San Francisco, and make my case known to the naval officer in command.

Thursday, November 12, 1846

Sinclair’s February, 1847 statement, based on survivors’ accounts and Eddy’s notes: On the twelfth, Mr. Graves, and two daughters, Messrs. Fosdick, Foster, Eddy, Stanton, Sheumacher, with two New Mexicans, and the two Indians, started on another trial, but met with no better success.

According to Eddy, as written by Thornton:

Mr. Eddy, C.T. Stanton, Wm. Graves, Sen., Jay Fosdick, James Smith, Charles Burger, Wm. Foster, Antoine (a Spaniard), John Baptiste, Lewis, Salvadore, Augustus Spitzer, Mary Graves, Sarah Fosdick, and Milton Elliot, being the strongest of the party, started to cross the mountains on foot. Mr. Eddy, in narrating the afflicting story, said to me he could never forget the parting scene between himself and family; but he hoped to get in and obtain relief, and return with the means for their rescue. They started with a small piece of beef each; but they had scarcely gone within three miles of the top of the Pass, when the snow, which was soft, and about ten feet deep, compelled them again to return to the cabins, which they reached about midnight.

John Breen, in his letter to Prof. Bancroft of November 19, 1877, wrote:

in a day or two the weather cleared, and some persons went to examine the road on the mountain to see if the cattle could cross, at night they returned and reported six feet of snow, two miles from camp this report put an end to the further effort, of crossing with the wagons, which, made the prospect, for men with families of small children & looking to them for relief gloomy in the extreme.

Thirteen year old Virginia Reed briefly described the effort to cross the mountains in her letter to her cousin of May 16, 1847: well thay started over a foot and had to come back

Friday, November 13, 1846

According to Thornton: Nov. 13, Mr. Eddy succeeded in killing two ducks, but no one would let him have a gun without he gave them half he killed.

Saturday, November 14, 1846

According to Thornton, describing Eddy’s hunting:

The next day, very faint from want of food, he resumed his hunting, and at length came upon an enormously large grisly-bear track. Under other circumstances, he would have preferred seeing the tracks of one to seeing the animal itself. But now, weak and faint as he was, he was eager to come up with it. .... He was not long in finding the object of his search. At the distance of about ninety yards, he saw the bear, with its head to the ground, engaged in digging roots. The beast was in a small skirt of prairie, and Mr. Eddy, taking advantage of a large fir tree near which he was at the moment, kept himself in concealment. Having put into his mouth the only bullet that was not in his gun, so that he might quickly reload in case of an emergency, he deliberately fired. The bear immediately reared upon its hind feet, and seeing the smoke from Mr. Eddy’s gun, ran fiercely toward him, with open jaws. By the time the gun was reloaded, the bear reached the tree, and, with a fierce growl, pursued Mr. Eddy round it, who, running swifter than the animal, came up with it in the rear, and disabled it by a shot in the shoulder, so that it was no longer able to pursue him. He then dispatched the bear by knocking it on the head with a club. Upon examination, he found that the first shot had pierced its heart. He then returned to Mountain Camp for assistance to bring in his prize. Graves and Eddy went out after the bear. ... They, however, finally contrived to get in the bear after dark. Mr. Eddy gave one half to Mr. Foster for the use of the gun. A part of it was likewise given to Mr. Graves and to Mrs. Reed. The bear weighed about 800 lbs.

Drawing of Eddy killing bear

Eddy Killing the Bear

Sunday, November 15, 1846

According to Thornton: Nov. 15th, Mr. Eddy killed a duck and one gray squirrel.

Friday, November 20, 1846

Patrick Breen began keeping a diary, which begins: Friday Nov. 20th 1846 came to this place on the 31st of last month that it snowed ... the remainder of time up to this day was clear & pleasant frezing at night the snow nearly gone from the valleys. This first entry included the events quoted for October 31, and November 1 and 9 which Breen recounted when he began his diary.

Copy of first page of Breen diary

First entry in Patrick Breen’s Diary

Saturday, November 21, 1846

sat 21st fine morning wind N.W. 22 or our company are about Starting across the mountain this morning including Stanton & his indians, some clouds flying thawed today wind E

Thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote in her May 16, 1847 letter to her cousin: so thay made snow shoes and started again [Other accounts, notably W.C. Graves’, and Eddy’s as reported to John Sinclair and Thornton, state that the snowshoes were made after this attempt.]

According to Thornton, based on Breen’s diary and Eddy’s recollection:

On this day, six women and sixteen men, including Stanton and the two Indians, made another effort to cross the mountain on foot. The morning was fine: the wind from the northwest. They crossed the pass on the crust of the snow. Mr. Eddy measured the snow here, and found it to be twenty-five feet deep. They encamped in a little valley on the west side of the mountain, in six feet snow. They experienced great difficulty in kindling a fire and in getting wood, in consequence of their extreme weakness.

William Graves, in his 1877 article in the Russian River Flag, wrote:

My father was a native of Vermont, near the Green mountains, and had some idea of the snow Mountains. He would not risk the snow going off, but kept trying to get over. About two weeks after we stopped here, the weather was clear and pretty, the snow nearly all gone in the valley, so father proposed trying to cross on foot; about 20 started with him;

Drawing of Donner Party on mountain

On the Way to the Summit (The Donner Party), painted by William Gilbert Gaul
(This painting adorns the front cover of the paperback edition of George Stewart’s Ordeal by Hunger, 1960, Bison Book/University of Nebraska Press)

Photograph of old road

Old Road Over Donner Pass, Photographed 1996

Photograph of Summit Valley

Summit Valley, looking east towards the Pass, Photographed 1996

Sunday, November 22, 1846

Sunday 22nd froze hard last night this a fine clear morning, wind E.S.E. no account from those on the mountains

William Graves’ 1877 account of the party crossing on foot continued: when they got to the top they found the snow so deep and soft they could not go on any further and were obliged to turn back.

Eddy gave this account, as recorded by John Sinclair in his February, 1847 statement:

Not discouraged, and impelled by the increasing scarcity of provisions at the cabins, on the twentieth they tried it again, and succeeded in crossing the divide; but found it was impossible for them to proceed for the want of a pilot, Mr. Stanton having refused to allow the Indians to accompany them on account of not being able to bring the mules out with them, which Mr. Stanton had taken there with provisions from J. A. Sutter’s, previous to the falling of the snow. Here again were their warmest hopes blighted; and they again turned with heavy hearts towards their miserable cabins. Mrs. Murphy, daughter, and two sons were of this party.

Stanton’s reluctance to leave the mules behind was apparently based on his knowledge that Sutter would hold someone accountable for the mules. Indeed, Sutter asked Reed for a list of the responsible parties in a letter found among the Reed documents.

Monday, November 23, 1846

monday 23rd same weather wind W the Expedition across the mountains returned after an unsuccessful attempt

Tuesday, November 24 1846

24th tuesday fine in the morning towards eving Cloudy & windy wind W looks like Snow freezeing hard

On the west side of the mountains, James Reed decided to temporarily abandon his relief efforts, and join the fight between the American immigrants, under the authority of the US Navy, and the Mexican California forces. This note was found in the Miller-Reed Diary:

Fort Sacramento
Nov 24 1846
Allow Mr. Reed and three Companions to pass to the Pueblo de San Jose without molestation. The persons that are with Mr. R. will either remain at the Pueblo or if possible be sent to join Lieut. Col. Fremont, they having volunteered for the service.
Edward M. Kern
Mil. Commander of the District of the Sacramento
To the Officer Commg Pueblo de San Jose

Wednesday, November 25, 1846

wendsday wind about W N W Cloudy looks like the eve of a snow storm our mountaineers intend trying to cross the Mountain tomorrow if fair froze hard last night

Thursday, November 26, 1846

Thursday the 26th began to snow yesterday in the evening now rains or sleet the mountaineers dont start today the wind about W, wet & muddy

Friday, November 27, 1846

Friday 27 Continues to snow, the ground not covered, wind W dull prospect for crossing the Mountains

Saturday, November 28, 1846

Saturday 28th Snowing fast now about 10 Oclock snow 8 or 10 inches deep soft wet snow, weather not cold wind W

The Party continued to plan for relief, as shown by this note found in the pocket of the Miller-Reed Diary:

Donners Camp
Nov 28 1846
This is to certify that I authorize Millford Elliott and make him my agent to purchase and buy whatever property he may deem necessary for my distress in the mountains for which on my arrival in in California I will pay the Cash or goods or both
George Donner

2 Gallons Salt
$3 worth Sugar
150# Flour
3 Bus Beans
50# Cake Tallow
5 pack mules and two horses - purchase or hire

Sunday, November 29, 1846

Sunday 29th still snowing now about 3 feet deep; wind W Killed my last oxen today will skin them tomorrow gave another yoke to Foster hard to get wood

Breen’s entries for this week describe a typical Sierra Nevada snowstorm. Warm, moist air from the Pacific moves in from the west, forming a front against the cold, dry mountain air. The result is initially heavy rain and wet snow, turning to much colder, drier snow that can accumulate to great depths.

Monday, November 30, 1846

Monday 30th Snowing fast wind W about 4 or 5 feet deep, no drifts, looks as likely to continue as when it commenced no liveing thing without wings can get about