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Ghosts of the Donner Party

Pam Jung
Donner Pass
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

If you are fortunate you may be one of thousands of visitors who visit Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee to actually feel the presence of Tamsen Donner of the ill-fated Donner Party.

Or should we say “unfortunate.” The trials that she and the 87 men, women, and children of that expedition endured are ghastly and unimaginable.

Just to recapitulate this well-known story: In November of 1846, the Donner Party took a shortcut on their way from Illinois to the gold mines of California. Five months or so later, in the spring of 1847, about half their number (41) had died of the cold and starvation. The winter that year had been bitter, ferocious, and brutal with record snows, reaching an unbelievable 22 feet. The ones who survived did so by subsisting on minimal provisions they had with them, animal hides, and finally on the flesh of their brethren.



“The traumatic suffering endured both by those who died and those who survived was so great,” says Barbara Smith, author of “Ghost Stories of California,” “that resonances from their experiences can still be felt in and around the area where the group wintered.”

Smith writes of one woman’s creepy experience in the spring of 1988. The woman, only identified as Elizabeth in order to preserve her privacy, started feeling sensations while driving toward Donner Summit-excited, as if she was going to be seeing dear friends whom she hadn’t seen in years. She was confused by this, as she was a practical sort, a history buff, and she didn’t have any friends she was meeting.



The closer she got to the Donner Memorial Park, the more intense the sensations got, including odors (what the campsite and the pioneers smelled like) and tears that sprang unbidden for their horrible plight.

Once at the park Elizabeth had overpowering feelings of being watched and not being alone, even though no one else was in the park at that time. But these feelings only occurred at the site where it was thought George Donner and his wife Tamsen had their tent 152 years earlier.

Could the presence Elizabeth felt be the ghost of this woman? By all accounts Mrs. Donner was an intelligent, resourceful person who first sent her children ahead to find their way to civilization, then left herself once her husband died-the last member of the Donner Party to leave the place? No one knows, but there have been others who have had odd experiences regarding this point and time in history.

A woman identified as “Joan Williams” was hypnotically regressed to a past life by paranormal researcher Dr. Michael Newton in the early 1990s, only to have Donner Party survivor Patty Reed come through. She said she was 8 years old, cold, and in the mountains.

Further she said she had been carried out of the camp by a Frenchman. When asked what was most responsible for the tragedy, her answer was Hastings (which turned out to be the name of the ill-advised shortcut the Donner Party took that ultimately stranded them). Newton discovered that the lady he regressed had no knowledge of the Donner Party in her waking state.

Patty Reed had died in 1923 at the ripe old age of 85. While not a ghostly presence in the normal sense of the word, the essence of her seemed to live on (reincarnation maybe?) in Joan Williams.

Then there’s the story of a skier who got seriously disoriented while skiing alone at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, close to where the Donner Party had their last camp. After a day of wandering about looking for help, he claims a woman skier appeared, led him to a camp of people, who asked him to do some work the next day for them, alone. When he went back to camp later that day, it wasn’t there.

There weren’t even any signs that it had ever been there. Everything and everybody had disappeared. Creepy, for sure, but at least not threatening.

Maybe you’ll have your own story to tell when you visit Donner Memorial State Park.

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The text below is the actual text written on the two pages from the diary. It is an exact copy, including spelling and grammatical errors.

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Page 1:

Friday, Nov. 20th 1846 came to this place on the 31st of 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 unsuccesful 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 :

Page 15:

Mond. 4th fine morning looks like spring thaw ing now about 12 o clock wind S:E Mrs. Reid Milt. virginia & Eliza started about 1/2 hour ago with prospect of Crossing the Mountain may God of Mercy help them left ther Children here Tom with us Pat with Keysburg & Jas with Graveses folks, it was difficult for Mrs. Reid to get away from the Children Tuesd. 5th Beautiful day thawing some in the sun wind S-E snow not settleing much we are in hopes of the rainy time ending Weds. 6th fine day clear not a cloud froze very hard last night wind S:E Eliza came back from the mountain yesterday evening not able to proceed, to day went to Graves, the others kept ahead Thursd. 7th continues fine freezing hard at night very cold this morning wind S:S-E dont think we will have much more snow snow not thawing much not much dimeinished in debph


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