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  • Nancy Herman

The rescue: February 1847

Updated: Oct 19


Virginia Reed, her mother, and her siblings were in danger of dying very soon. They had been subsisting on boiled ox hide, a thick, glue-like substance, for weeks, and they were running out of even that. Party members that still had food had long-ago stopped sharing. Each family was on its own, and many had died.


Historical illustration of the first relief party reaching lake camp.

Notice the smoke from the chimneys of snow-buried cabins.


On February 19 the first of three relief parties from Sutter’s Fort finally reached the camp at Truckee Lake as well as the camp at Alder Creek, where the Donners were still trapped. The survivors were overjoyed, but the rescuers were horrified.

Virginia later wrote, “Strong men sat down and wept. For the dead were lying about on the snow, some even unburied, since the living had not had strength to bury their dead.”

Virginia and her family started out on foot for Sutter’s Fort with the first relief party, but more heartbreak was in store. Her younger sister and brother were too weak to continue and had to be sent back.


A few days later Virginia rounded a corner on the snowy pass and saw her father, who had made it to Sutter’s Fort months earlier, leading the second relief party.


“Oh Mary,” she later wrote to her cousin, “you do not know how glad we were to see him…we thought we would never see him again.”

After a quick, tearful reunion, James Reed hurried to lake camp to rescue his left-behind children and others.


The 50-mile pass through the mountains is a series of roads and trails that don’t intersect, and I couldn’t entirely follow by automobile. So I continued on Interstate 80 along the general route the first relief party took, amazed by the unflagging determination of the weakened pioneers who walked the rugged, snow-covered mountains that surrounded me.


Eventually I crossed northwest to the little town of Wheatland, California, where Johnson’s Ranch once stood. This is where Virginia and the others rested before heading out to their final destination–Sutter’s Fort.

This monument stands at the former Johnson Ranch, where thousands of emigrants stopped on their way to Sutter’s Fort. Some of the old ranch property is now part of Beale Air Force Base near Wheatland, California.

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