By the time the winter came, the Donner Party was much divided and prejudice against each other. The Reeds probably did not feel very welcome at the lake, especially when their friends the Donners were camped several miles away.
Even worse, the Reeds could not construct their own cabin, with James Reed gone, so they shared a cabin with the Graves. A wall and separate doors were made, so the two families would not have to forcedly see each other, but they could probably still hear each other and had to share their time and goods. The Reeds shared their side with Charles Stanton, Luis and Salvadore, who were two Indians that had been given to Stanton to help out at the Lake, as well as the Reeds' servants, brother and sister Baylis and Eliza Williams, and their teamster Milt Elliot.
William Eddy, William Foster, and several others built a cabin, which the Eddys, Murphys, Fosters and Mrs. Pike stayed in. The cabin was built somewhat easily, as a large rock provided about half of a side for the cabin. Even better, the rock allowed Eddy to build a crude fireplace. Most of the other cabins had to build small fires in the middle of the cabins for risk of the wood catching on fire.
The Breens moved into the abandoned Schallenberger Cabin, built in 1844 by a previous group of emigrant. The Breens allowed Lewis Keseberg to build his family a lean-to on the end of the cabin.
This must have truly been terrible. Not just because they were trapped and starving, but because there was little the emigrants could do about it. They had nothing to do to occupy their time. Many virtually sat through their winter doing nothing. Nevertheless, people still chopped wood, and they tried to fish and hunt, though it helped little. There was little game in the area and the lake was frozen. Throughout the winter, their stomachs always hurt from the hunger and they always were cold.
Some refused to remain in these conditions. While the health diminished from many, the stronger of the group, primarily the more robust men and the healthier young women, tried to escape over the mountains, and send help back to the others. Among these were Charles Stanton, William Eddy, Milton Elliot, and Virginia Reed. But they also expected James Reed and William McCutchen to return with livestock and food, and attempting to climb the frozen Pass was arduous and very hard. They turned back twice.
Unfortunately, James Reed wasn't coming soon. He was stuck in California. The Mexican-American War was raging, and no one was available to help. Reed joined the ranks for a time, and prayed his family would survive without him.
Finally, a very diverse group of people, determined to the fullest, attempted Donner Pass on December 15, 1846. They were:
his daughter, Mary Graves;
another daughter, Sarah Fosdick;
Sarah's husband, Jay Fosdick;
his sister Sarah Foster;
and her husband William Foster;
Lemuel's other sister Harriet Pike;
Patrick Doolan, a friend of the Breens;
Antonio, a Mexican;
This group was nicknamed the Forlorn Hope. The group ascended the summit carrying packs with food, guns and supplies. The climb was dangerous and treacherous, and those in the Forlorn Hope had to travel in a slow, single line, as they ascended into the Sierra Nevadas.
Despite the courage and apparent strength Charles Stanton, the party's unofficial leader, showed, he became the first of these people to die. Up on the summit, he became snow-blind, a kind of temporary blindness caused by to many UV rays in the snow. In the heavy storm, he fell behind the others. Stanton gave out in the snow, and told the person ahead of him to continue ahead with the others, while he paused and rested, and said he would later catch up with the others. According to one source, this person was apparently Mary Graves, but this may have been fabricated. Stanton was, at the time, traveling behind the others, had done so several times before on the summit and Mary probably believed he would be alright and would eventually catch up to the others.
Stanton was never seen again. His death was a terrible omen, and certainly affected morale. Stanton was their leader, and in many ways their hero.
By Christmas time, the Forlorn Hope could travel no further, trapped in one of their camps. Using William Eddy's hunting knowledge, the Forlorn Hope made a tent out of blankets, based on a method used by French fur-trappers. For several days they were trapped in this shelter, and they slowly starved.
Back at Truckee Lake, grim news spread around. At Alder Creek, starvation and the lack of shelter brought five deaths. When Joseph Reinhart was at the brink of death, he confessed to Mrs. Wolfinger and the Donners that he had killed Mr. Wolfinger at Truckee Meadows. Baylis Williams, Samuel Shoemaker, James Smith, and most affecting of all, Jacob Donner, who had seven children were dead as well.
The Breens frequently prayed during this time. Despite that most of the Donner Party were Protestants, many at the camp would gather in the Breen cabin and listen to Mr. Breen read from the abandoned bible there, and recite prayers. Virginia Reed recalled they used burning twigs as candles, and she remembered their time praying together to be one of the most emotionally uplifting periods during the winter.
Mrs. Reed had suffered terribly on the journey, and spending Christmas without her husband in these conditions must have been enough to make her go mad. Nevertheless, she kept herself strong for her children. She even saved several cups of rice, grain, apples and bacon to make a soup for her children for a Christmas Dinner, which must have been an absolute luxury. They had so little food they made soups out of the animal skins on the roof and chewed twigs.
Christmas was no so kind to the Forlorn Hope. On Christmas Eve, Sarah Foster and Harriet Murphy watched as their little brother Lemuel Murphy died. On Christmas Day, Antonio, the Mexican, and Franklin W. Graves died as well. Graves was the father of seven, and his daughter Sarah Fosdick and Mary Graves were with him at the camp. December 26th, the day after, Patrick Doolan had gained a terrible fever, and ran out into the snow, soaking his clothes. His fever escalated, and he died a few hours later. This brought the number of the dead in the Forlorn Hope to 5, one third of the group.
Food was now depleted. The snow would not let up, and the Forlorn Hope was fast losing its strength. They could go no where, and terribly, the bodies of the dead were always at their side. The thought and suggestion of cannibalism had already been made, but no one was sure and looking forward to the fact that they would have to resort to it.
They had no options left.