Snowbound: November 1846 – February 1847
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
This familiar drawing of the mid-1800s shows those already trapped at the lake camp hastily building shelter to brave out more storms they know are on the way. Over the next four months these cabins will be buried by 25 feet of snow.
We now know that the Sierra winter of 1846-1847 was one of the longest and most severe on record, with about twenty storms and a snow depth of approximately twenty-five feet at the lake. Virginia Reed, along with her mother, siblings, and several other families spent the next four months struggling to survive in their snow-covered dwellings with an ever-dwindling food supply.
One by one, young and old, party members began dying from starvation, disease, and even from despair. In her memoirs Virginia wrote, “Poor little children were crying with hunger, and mothers were crying because they had so little to give their children…Death had already claimed many in our party and it seemed as though relief never would reach us.”
Today the lake camp is a park that honors those who suffered here that terrible winter, hosting thousands of visitors a year. Donner Memorial State Park offers a comprehensive museum, campgrounds, hiking trails, water sports, and in the winter, skiing. Since I live about an hour away, I’ve visited the park many times. It is hard to imagine such a beautiful setting could have been the site of so much suffering and death.
One feature of the Donner Memorial State Park is an
interpretive trail that includes Donner Party exhibits.