Washoe Indians | The People Who Lived Here 5,000 Years Ago

It is estimated that over five thousand years ago, people have crossed the Sierra Nevadas right where you'll be sleeping during the Sierra Stake Out. Long before the "discovery" of this area by Euro Americans, this pass was a travel corridor for Native Americans such as the Washoe Indians. The name of their tribe derives from the Washoe word, waashiw (wa·šiw), meaning "people from here."

The Washoe tribe were skilled basket makers and wove the baskets so closely that they could contain the smallest of seeds and hold water. Neighboring Native Indian tribes of the Washoe were the Ute, Koso, Paiute, Panamint, Pueblo, Walapi and the Shoshone tribes. They were long-time enemies of the Northern Paiute who drove them from their tribal lands in Nevada to California.

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The ability to continue to survive in their home territory was put to a severe test, especially during the mining booms of the nineteenth century that centered around the California gold rush and the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. The mining boom brought in large numbers of miners and settlers, displacing Washoe from access to traditional resources. Washoe people took jobs working as ranch hands and domestic servants, finding a new economic niche. This adaptation was not without cost: the Washoe suffered severe population loss from poverty and disease and lived under prejudicial treatment by Euro-Americans, evidenced by threats to Washoe language, religion, and culture.

Washoe have withstood the test of time and continue to live near or on their aboriginal lands. By 2007, tribal membership was approximately 1,500. Although never awarded large-acreage reservations, many Washoe inhabit small tribal acreage sites known as “colonies” to this day. 

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On April 14, 1846, George Donner and his brother Jacob packed their families into covered wagons and left Springfield, Illinois en route to a new life in California. George would later take the lead of the so-called “Donner Party,” a group of westbound emigrants who became trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during one of the most brutal winters on record. The pioneers were forced to spend five months hunkered down in makeshift tents and cabins with almost no food or supplies. By the time they were finally rescued in early 1847, nearly half of them had perished. Many of the rest—including the children—were forced to cannibalize the bodies of the dead to survive. Explore 10 key facts about one of the most gruesome episodes from the era of Westward expansion.

James F. and Margaret (Keyes) Reed, who were members of the Donner Party. (Credit: Public Domain)

James F. and Margaret (Keyes) Reed, who were members of the Donner Party. (Credit: Public Domain)

The Donner Party started its trip dangerously late in the pioneer season.

Travel on the California Trail followed a tight schedule. Emigrants needed to head west late enough in the spring for there to be grass available for their pack animals, but also early enough so they could cross the treacherous western mountain passes before winter. The sweet spot for a departure was usually sometime in mid to late-April, yet for unknown reasons, the core of what became the Donner Party didn’t leave their jumping-off point at Independence, Missouri until May 12. They were the last major pioneer train of 1846, and their late start left them with very little margin for error. “I am beginning to feel alarmed at the tardiness of our movements,” one of the emigrants wrote, “and fearful that winter will find us in the snowy mountains of California.”

They fell behind schedule after taking an untested shortcut.

After reaching Wyoming, most California-bound pioneers followed a route that swooped north through Idaho before turning south and moving across Nevada. In 1846, however, a dishonest guidebook author named Lansford Hastings was promoting a straighter and supposedly quicker path that cut through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Salt Lake Desert. There was just one problem: no one had ever traveled this “Hastings Cutoff” with wagons, not even Hastings himself. Despite the obvious risks—and against the warnings of James Clyman, an experienced mountain man—the 20 Donner Party wagons elected to break off from the usual route and gamble on Hastings’ back road. The decision proved disastrous. The emigrants were forced to blaze much of the trail themselves by cutting down trees, and they nearly died of thirst during a five-day crossing of the salt desert. Rather than saving them time, Hasting’s “shortcut” ended up adding nearly a month to the Donner Party’s journey.

The emigrants lost a race against the weather by just a few days.

Despite the Hastings Cutoff debacle, most of the Donner Party still managed to reach the slopes of the Sierra Nevada by early November 1846. Only a scant hundred miles remained in their trek, but before the pioneers had a chance to drive their wagons through the mountains, an early blizzard blanketed the Sierras in several feet of snow. Mountain passes that were navigable just a day earlier soon transformed into icy roadblocks, forcing the Donner Party to retreat to nearby Truckee Lake and wait out the winter in ramshackle tents and cabins. Much of the group’s supplies and livestock had already been lost on the trail, and it wasn’t long before the first settlers began to perish from starvation.

The majority of the Donner Party emigrants were children.

Like most pioneer trains, the Donner Party was largely made up of family wagons packed with young children and adolescents. Of the 81 people who became stranded at Truckee Lake, more than half were younger than 18 years old, and six were infants. Children also made up the vast majority of the Donner’s Party’s eventual survivors. One of them, one-year-old Isabella Breen, would go on to live until 1935.

Map showing route of the Donner Party. (Credit: Kmusser/Wikimedia Commons)

Map showing route of the Donner Party. (Credit: Kmusser/Wikimedia Commons)

A few pioneers managed to hike to safety.

On December 16, 1846, more than a month after they became snowbound, 15 of the strongest members of the Donner Party strapped on makeshift snowshoes and tried to walk out of the mountains to find help. After wandering the frozen landscape for several days, they were left starving and on the verge of collapse. The hikers resigned themselves to cannibalism and considered drawing lots for a human sacrifice or even having two of the men square off in a duel. Several members of the party soon died naturally, however, so the survivors roasted and consumed their corpses. The gruesome meat gave them the energy they required, and following a month of walking, seven of the original 15 made it to a ranch in California and helped organize rescue efforts. Historians would later dub their desperate hike “The Forlorn Hope.”

A Donner Party member murdered two people for use as food.

During the “Forlorn Hope” expedition, the hiking party included a pair of Indians named Salvador and Luis, both of whom had joined up with the Donner emigrants shortly before they became snowbound. The natives were the only members of the group who refused to engage in cannibalism, and they later ran off out of fear that they might be murdered once the others ran out of meat. When the duo was found days later, exhausted and lying in the snow, an emigrant named William Foster shot both of them in the head. The Indians were then butchered and eaten by the hikers. It was the only time during the entire winter that people were murdered for use as food.

Not all of the emigrants engaged in cannibalism.

As their supplies dwindled, the Donner emigrants stranded at Truckee Lake resorted to eating increasingly grotesque meals. They slaughtered their pack animals, cooked their dogs, gnawed on leftover bones and even boiled the animal hide roofs of their cabins into a foul paste. Several people died from malnutrition, but the rest managed to subsist on morsels of boiled leather and tree bark until rescue parties arrived in February and March 1847. Not all of the settlers were strong enough to escape, however, and those left behind were forced to cannibalize the frozen corpses of their comrades while waiting for further help. All told, roughly half of the Donner Party’s survivors eventually resorted to eating human flesh.

The rescue process took over two months.

Of the five months the Donner Party spent trapped in the mountains, nearly half of it took place after they had already been located by rescuers. The first relief parties reached the settlers in February 1846, but since pack animals were unable to navigate the deep snowdrifts, they only brought whatever food and supplies they could carry. By then, many of the emigrants were too weak to travel, and several died while trying to walk out of the mountains. Four relief teams and more than two-and-a-half months were eventually required to shepherd all the Donner Party survivors back to civilization. The last to be rescued was Lewis Keseberg, a Prussian pioneer who was found in April 1847, supposedly half-mad and surrounded by the cannibalized bodies of his former companions. Keseberg was later accused of having murdered the other emigrants for use as food, but the charges were never proven.

One rescuer singlehandedly led nine survivors out of the mountains.

Perhaps the most famous of the Donner Party’s saviors was John Stark, a burly California settler who took part in the third relief party. In early March 1847, he and two other rescuers stumbled upon 11 emigrants, mostly kids, who been left in the mountains by an earlier relief group. The two other rescuers each grabbed a single child and started hoofing it back down the slope, but Stark was unwilling to leave anyone behind. Instead, he rallied the weary adults, gathered the rest of the children and began guiding the group singlehandedly. Most of the kids were too weak to walk, so Stark took to carrying two of them at a time for a few yards, then setting them down in the snow and going back for others. He continued the grueling process all the way down the mountain, and eventually led all nine of his charges to safety. Speaking of the incident years later, one of the survivors credited her rescue to “nobody but God and Stark and the Virgin Mary.”

Only two families made it through the ordeal intact.

Of the 81 pioneers who began the Donner Party’s horrific winter in the Sierra Nevada, only 45 managed to walk out alive. The ordeal proved particularly costly for the group’s 15 solo travelers, all but two of whom died, but it also took a tragic toll on the families. George and Jacob Donner, both of their wives and four of their children all perished. Pioneer William Eddy, meanwhile, lost his wife and his two kids. Nearly a dozen families had made up Donner wagon train, but only two—the Reeds and the Breens—managed to arrive in California without suffering a single death.

APRIL 14, 2016 By Evan Andrews via History.com

History of Donner Pass | Told By the Always Accurate Wikipedia

The Donner Party (sometimes called the Donner-Reed Party) was a group of American pioneers led by George Donner and James F. Reed who set out for California in a wagon train in May 1846. They were delayed by a series of mishaps and mistakes, and spent the winter of 1846–47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada. Some of the pioneers resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The journey west usually took between four and six months, but the Donner Party was slowed by following a new route called Hastings Cutoff, which crossed Utah's Wasatch Mountains and Great Salt Lake Desert. The rugged terrain and difficulties encountered while traveling along the Humboldt River in present-day Nevada resulted in the loss of many cattle and wagons and splits within the group.

By the beginning of November 1846, the settlers had reached the Sierra Nevada where they became trapped by an early, heavy snowfall near Truckee (now Donner) Lake, high in the mountains. Their food supplies ran extremely low and, in mid-December, some of the group set out on foot to obtain help. Rescuers from California attempted to reach the settlers, but the first relief party did not arrive until the middle of February 1847, almost four months after the wagon train became trapped. Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived to reach California, many of them having eaten the dead for survival.

Historians have described the episode as one of the most bizarre and spectacular tragedies in Californian history and western-US migration