In 1850 John Steele crossed the country heading California and put his experiences into a book called, Across the Plains in 1850. Most of Mr. Steele’s book is about the long journey but a small part is about crossing Donner Summit.
Presumably Mr. Steele and his party were some of those emerging, he writes, “from the desert” at Pyramid Lake. “Ragged, dusty, weary, and starved they come, some with wagons, others driving their worn-out teams unharnessed or unyoked, many whose teams have perished, sunburnt and weatherbeaten, with their last morsel of provisions in knapsacks on their backs, with bruised, blistered, and bleeding feet, plodding through the hot sand, their nervous sensibilities deadened by excessive toil and pain.”
It was September and the party was headed up the Truckee. They had to cross and recross the Truckee “which we found quite dangerous, because of the swift current and deep water.” At one point the current pressed the oxen and Steele jumped in to the water to guide the animals. He couldn’t wade against the current and on either side it was “eight or ten feet deep.” The rocks were slippery. His only chance was to swim for it before going over the falls. Just at the brink he caught a rope thrown by a fellow traveler. That day they forded the river six times, “each being very dangerous.”
“There is now great suffering among the emigrants. Those who have but a morsel of food daily, find it necessary to divide that morsel with some one who has none. There are frequent ‘trading posts,’ along our road, but few have the money to pay the price of provisions, never less than three dollars a pound….Many a fine outfit [horses, oxen, wagons] has been sold for a few pounds of flour and bacon.”
“…spring and summer have gone, and the cold wind again sounds the approach of winter…” One day as they traveled they came across some Californians who set up a little trading post with goods they’d carried on mules. Travelers with Steele offered to trade a large mule for flour. They were offered six pounds of flour. The travelers refused. They needed at least 25 pounds to get to the mines in California. They were refused and went off to build a fire. A little later one of the travelers tried again and was again refused by the Californians. Shortly there was a shot and the mule was dead and “ample supper was made from its flesh….and no doubt, afforded them sufficient food for the rest of the journey.”
“…we neared the summit of the Sierra Nevada, whose snowy peaks rose in wild magnificence against the sky. Although the road was rough, and in some places steep, the air was cool, and we…[camped] near one of Captain Donner’s old cabins…”
There they found another trading post and were able to buy some flour.
“Monday, September 16. Early this morning I visited Truckee Lake, half a mile above our camp. It is about three and a half miles long and one wide. Around the margin is a belt of tall spruce, fir and pine trees, and toward the west, in sublime grandeur, rise the granite cliffs of the Sierra Nevada. So securely is it embosomed among rocks and trees, it would seem that no breeze could wake a ripple across its crystal surface.”
Before going on Steele visited the site of the Donner Party near the lake. “Most of the cabins had been burned, and their charred remains, and the whitened bones, half buried among the withered pine leaves, are sad memorials of the event. Also the tall stumps, some twenty feet high, showing where the trees were curt, gave an idea of the great depth of snow.”
“From our camp to the summit, over seven miles, the road was very steep; in places passing over large granite boulders. Consequently we climbed slowly, and at noon stopped at a large spring, half a mile from the highest point. After resting awhile, most of the oxen were attached to a single wagon, and with difficulty it was drawn up the precipitous ascent. This was repeated until all the wagons were on the mountain top.
“Having reached the height of the last mountain range, so we could look forward from its summit to the land of our dreams, toil and hope, we gave three long and loud cheers. Looking
down the steep gorge whence we had come, we bade adieu to its dark avenues, towering cliffs, sequestered shades, bright waters and melancholy scenes. We felt a great relief in bidding farewells to the mountains, valley, and deserts of the great interior, with its adventures, romance, tragedy, sorrow, suffering and death – scenes which will linger in our minds as memorials of our journey across the plains.
“A short distance north of the pass I climbed the dizzy heights of a granite peak. The view was magnificent. Perennial snow, rock, chasm, forest, lake and stream; a veritable map of one of the wildest, grandest parts of America, spread out on every side.
“By making a series of acute angles, our road down the precipitous western slope was quite easy; and from thence, following a mountain gorge about four miles, we came to a small valley, overgrown with grass and clover, and belted by a dense pine forest.
“Here we camped, and turning the oxen to feed in the fresh pasture, we built a large fire on the bank of a clear brook and although few could boast of anything for supper better than a scanty ration of bean soup, there arose through the tall woods, the merry laugh and almost forgotten song, and a more than usual cheerfulness pervaded the camp.”
Tuesday, September 17. Scarcely a blush mantled the eastern sky at the approach of morning, the rarefied breeze came whispering through the pines, and a white frost sparkled on the grass. The tents were folded, and the drowsy oxen and dusty wagons moved carelessly down the valley. In about two miles, turning into the deep pine wood on our left, we passed under the dense boughs that, like cloud piled upon cloud, shut out the sun.
“Our road was very rocky, and during the afternoon we passed five small lakes, clear, cold, of great depth, the banks generally perpendicular and of granite. At noon we stopped at the fifth lake to let the oxen feed.”