The Donner Party is one of the most riveting and horrifying stories in American western history and, of course, there were families of Irish immigrants involved. This is their story.
Eighty-nine pioneers from the East Coast, many of them Irish, set off to cross into California over the Sierra Nevada's in the height of winter. Unfamiliar with the terrain, they became snowed in.
On February 18, 1847, rescuers, at last, reached the Donner Party. They had been snowbound in the higher reaches of the Sierra Nevada mountains for months and nearly half the original 89 pioneers had perished from exposure or starvation.
Worse, they had turned to cannibalism. Their story remains one of the most disturbing chapters in the history of the American West.
Two Irish families, the Breens and the Reeds, were at the center of the story. Patrick Breen was born in Carlow, his wife Margaret and their seven children had emigrated to Iowa but were anxious to try their luck out west.
In the spring of 1846 they set out for Independence, Missouri to join a group led by George and Jacob Donner heading west to California. James Frazier Reed, Irish-born and a Protestant also joined the Donner Party in Independence with his wife and their four children.
The Donner Party began its fateful journey in mid-May 1846 and reached Bridgers Fort in the southwest corner of Wyoming on July 30. It was there, however, that the group made the first of two bad decisions.
They decided to take a little-known route to the south across Utah. Unfortunately, they were unaware of just how tough a journey it would be across the Great Salt Lake Desert.
The “shortcut” cost them valuable time, and by the time they reached Reno, Nevada they were exhausted and waited a week before attempting the crossing of the Sierras. It was a fateful decision.
They made it only as far as Truckee Lake, California in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas when the snowstorms came. Repeatedly they tried to make it over the mountain pass but failed. They prepared to wait out the winter knowing they were short of food.
Much of what happened is known only from the daily diary of Patrick Breen. (original spellings)
“Friday Nov. 20th 1846. Came to this place on the 31st of 1846 last month that it snowed we went on to the pass the snow so deep we were unable to find the road, when within 3 miles of the summit then turned back to this shanty on the Lake, Stanton came one day after we arriveed here we again took our teams & waggons & made another unsuccessful attempt to cross in company with Stanton we returned to the shanty it continueing to snow all the time we were here 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, the remainder of time up to this day was clear & pleasant frezeing at night the snow nearly gone from the valleys."
"Jan. 1st 1847 we pray the God of mercy to deliver us, from our present Calamity if it be his Holy will Amen Commenced 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
"Before long people began to die from starvation or exposure. The first to go was Patrick Dolan, an Irish friend of the Breens."
“Tuesd. 9th.(feb) Mrs. Murphy here this morning Pikes child all but dead Milt at Murphys not able to get out of bed Keyburg never gets up says he is not able. John went down to day to bury Mrs Eddy & child heard nothing from Graves for 2 or 3 days Mrs Murphy just now going to Graves fine moring wind S. E. froze hard last night begins to thaw in the sun."
More followed as the horrific weather continued. Finally many began to resort to cannibalism to survive.
It was Irishman James Reed who made it through the pass and organized a relief party. 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.’"
Forty-five of the original 89 – were taken to safety. All the Breens and Reeds survived. Another Irish family, the Murphys, was not so lucky. Lavinia Murphy died along with one son and two grandchildren. Also among the dead were George Donner, the expedition leader, and several members of his family.
Amazingly, the Breens and Reeds went on to live prosperous lives in California.
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