Up The Road: Donner Memorial State Park

Jan 23, 2020

Donner Party historical monument, at Donner Memorial State Park near Donner Summit.
Credit Don Graham / Flickr

We continue our appreciation of California’s unique state parks, this week stopping at a spot you’ve probably passed many times on the way to and from Tahoe.

Donner Memorial State Park has its attractions. Donner Lake, for starters, fringed with private cabins—fun for summer recreation, with public lake access, beach, picnic areas, miles of hiking trails.

Even in winter you can enjoy this place—snowshoe hiking, cross-country skiing. Almost an irony, given that right here in Truckee, in heavy winter snow, a truly shocking immigrant story played out in the days before California statehood. 

There is history behind the name “Donner,” and the park exists to share it. The small lake, after all, was known by early explorers as Truckee Lake, and nearby Donner Pass was originally Fremont Pass, after John C. Fremont.

The fairly new park visitor center tells the story of the Donner Party, a small group of settlers that broke away from the main wagon train heading west on the Oregon Trail, in 1846. They decided to take the new “Hastings Cutoff” to California.

But the so-called shortcut was treacherous, forcing them through steep, almost impassable terrain and then across the Great Salt Lake Desert. Food and water evaporated, horses and oxen died, and even this smaller group splintered into factions. Worst of all, they all lost precious time—time needed to get over the Sierra Nevada before winter.

We think we know the Donner Party story, today, because we know they didn’t make it. They didn’t make it over the pass in time. Exhausted, their food and other supplies exhausted too, the immigrants were blocked by heavy snow before that last push up and over the mountains into California.

Then the final horror. Cannibalism. Men, women, and children reduced to eating others, including, in some cases, family members. Ultimately, after rescuers from Sutter’s Fort did arrive—there were three separate rescues, through the deep spring snow—just 48 of the original 87 survived.  Including the Donner children, orphans.

Yet the true story is larger, much more complicated, quite complex—layer upon layer of human aspiration as well as desperation. Beauty as well as ugliness, profoundly human. Many good books tell the tale. But none better than the impressive book-length poem, The Donner Party, by Northern California’s own George Keithley, first published in 1972. Keithley doesn’t allow us to turn away from these hapless travelers, from their humanity, from our horrified recognition of ourselves.

Here’s the end of Chapter 23, “Christmas Day,” which first describes how the Donner children caught and cooked four mice, enough for everyone to eat several small strips of meat:

 

“In the winter gloom

our girls had grown as crafty as cats.

Thin and grey.

 

“But they were fed today

so we felt content

singing old carols in the cold.

 

“although each time

the wind increased

all the walls would creak;

 

“the weight of winter

pressed upon our backs

like a field filled with rocks.

 

“Then the sun went down

and we crept out of the hole

to see the stars,

 

“a million lights

over the lifeless meadow.

We fell on our knees

 

“and crawled back

to our beds once more.

The wind had blown

 

“the whole sky clear

letting the light

of the moon fall

on the entrance like a stone.”