If you have been following the weather in North America you know that there are treacherous conditions in much of the continent. On the one hand, I thought of my own youth in the Midwest US and the fact that, over the course of 13 years in school the most time off we had was due to a teachers’ strike and that we attended school regardless of snowfall. Our local government had the infrastructure to handle the situation and people were rather cavalier about it all. There are exceptional situations – and this storm has proved to be one; for the first time in 12 years the city of Chicago called a snow day.
This, however, is all happening in the age of meteorlolgy and weather forecasting where decisions can be made prescriptively. In 1846-1847 things were very different. Although the Farmers Almanac existed, the information provided was based on common sense and watching the environment. The members of the Donner Party had little awareness of what they were headed into, and when heavy snowfalls stopped their trek at what is now called Donner Pass in November 1846, they were unsure as to how they should proceed.
Some of the Party chose to head off in search of assistance and they found it. News of their plight sparked a rescue party but it did not reach the Pass until February 1847. By that time most of the party had perished; the few survivors were evacuated over time and three separate missions. Rescue efforts were slowed by the Mexican-American War. Many healthy young men were off fighting, making it difficult to muster a sufficient force.
The early and deep snowfalls were probably part of what we now call the El Nino effect – a weather pattern that produces early, wet winters in the western United States. However, such patterns were not easily predicted in the 1840s, and for Americans, knowledge of the weather in that area was limited to those who had experienced it, and their advice was not always heeded by pioneers who were anxious to reach the west coast.
In 1846 the US was engaged in the Mexican-American war. California was being won away from the Mexicans and experiences in the area were limited even though large numbers of emigrants were heading west to seek land and opportunities. The temperate weather of coastal California was known and reported, but the severity of the Sierra Nevada winters was not taken seriously by members of the ill-fated Donner Party. Even today, the Sierras have some of the largest snowfalls in the United States yet in 1846 the Party was enticed by the idea of a short cut and early arrival in San Francisco.
This is an interesting story but not indicative of the movement west. Most wagon trains contended with hostile natives more than such snowfalls; emigrants continued to arrive in California and few were undeterred by the tragedy of the Donner Party.
However, this was not an apocryphal tale; it happened and showed the potential dangers of heading west. Nonetheless, many chose to take the risk for the adventure and potential prosperity that led so many to head westward ho.