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.