By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred fifty four years ago this week, on Feb. 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, Mo., 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 four 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, Nev. 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.
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They made it as far as Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake), Calif., 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 and tents.
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 Feb. 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 from heaven?’ "
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.
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.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Feb. 14, 1929: Six members of the "Bugs" Moran gang (but not Bugs) are killed by Al Capone’s hitmen in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.
Feb. 19, 1992: IRA fugitive Joe Doherty, held for nine years in U.S. jails with no formal charges being brought against him, is deported to a Northern Ireland prison by the Bush administration.
Feb. 20, 1942: Lt. Edward "Butch" O’Hare shoots down five Japanese bombers in a single fire fight and becomes the first U.S. Navy ace in World War II.
Feb. 14, 1882: Actor John Barrymore born in Philadelphia
Feb. 15, 1809: Inventor and manufacturer Cyrus McCormick born in Rockbridge County, Va.
Feb. 16, 1870: Reformer and labor activist Leonora O’Reilly born in New York City.
Readers can contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.