The Donner Party
One of the biggest epic fails in American history was flawlessly executed in late fall of 1846. The story of the Donner Party is about as American pioneer as you can get. A group of middle-class farming families decides that they could do even better for themselves if they picked up stakes and headed west to California along the legendary Oregon Trail. But rather than colonizing the Golden State they ended up cannibalizing one another. Sometimes life works in mysterious ways.
The Donners made every mistake in the book. They started too late in the year, they overloaded their wagons, and the biggest bonehead move of all is that they decided on a shortcut that landed them in the history books for all of the wrong reasons.
The Donner family teamed up with the Reed family in Illinois to make their journey west to California. Leaving on April 6, 1846, which was considered late in the jumping offseason, the Donner-Reed Party was following the advice from a book called 'The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California' by Landsford W. Hastings, that guaranteed a shortcut through the mountains of the Great Basin that was supposed to shave off 300 miles from the journey.
The problem was that Hastings had never been even seen "his route". He was just totally making it up in order to sell guidebooks to gullible pioneers. When the Donners set out from Independence, Missouri, their pioneer caravan included 32 men, women, and children. But like most 19th century pioneers, they were no country hicks. Donner was a landowner back in Illinois and Reed, a wealthy businessman. While most pioneers threw all their junk in a simple wood wagon, the Reeds traveled in the Rolls Royce of covered wagons. Reed's wagon was two stories with all of the latest luxuries-- including a built-in stove, spring seating for the rough roads, and bunk beds. Reed's 12-year-old daughter dubbed it 'The Pioneer Palace Car'.
The Donners followed the typical route, following the Platte River to Fort Laramie (up in Wyoming). At the fort, the gang got a letter from none other than Landsford Hastings himself (who ironically was trying to see if his pass through the mountains was even possible). Seriously, how big of a tool could one person possibly be? Many of the other families in the party, which had now grown to 200 people, wanted to follow the normal route north. But Hasting's letters promised to personally take them through the mountains. The fateful decision was made to put their trust in Hastings and his shortcut. On July 19th, the Donner gang reached the Little Sandy River in Wyoming and most decided to part ways and continue along the safer route. Smart move. The Donners and Reeds probably thought the others were being overly cautious suckers.
On July 31st, The Donners arrived at Fort Bridger (still Wyoming) only to learn that Hastings had already taken off with another family. He instructed them to catch up with the others at the mountains. The Donners eventually caught up with Hastings near the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Ahead, loomed their first major obstacle, the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. The route was filled with debris and they barely made 2 miles a day. Next came crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert where the heavy wagons became bogged down in the soft sand. Forced to abandon a total of four wagons and a loss of 32 oxen, the nerves of the Donner Party were beginning to fray.
And the worst was yet to come. The group finally made it to the shortcut promised by Hastings but at a cost of 125 extra miles. 125 extra miles that cost them nearly all of their supplies of food and water supply. And things continued to go from bad to worse. James Reed (head of the Reed household) was banished after stabbing a man to death for abusing his ox. Then came an attack by Piute Indians who killed 21 oxen with poison arrows as revenge for trespassing on their land.
On October 19th, the Donners arrived at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, the biggest obstacle yet in crossing into California. There they met up with up with Charles Stanton-- whom they had sent ahead a month earlier to secure supplies. Stanton told them of a clear but difficult path through the Sierra Nevada. Early snow and more tragedies set them back even further. George Donner severely cuts his hand while chopping wood, and he and the Reed family hung back to recover.
The remaining 59 people had no choice but to press on through the mountain pass that would spit them out into California. But not so fast. A freak snowstorm days earlier had dumped five feet of snow, blocking their way to the pass-- which is only 12 miles away. It's like God is just messin' with them. And so, they had no choice but to throw together some crude cabins and wait it out.
Meanwhile, the Donner Party with 22 people were only 6 miles behind the rest of their caravan, but deep snows halted their journey like it had the others. The caravan was split into two. The Donner Party had no log cabins to provide shelter but instead made tents out of branches and cloth. By Thanksgiving, more than 20 inches of snow had accumulated and the Donners had eaten their last oxen.
The day after Thanksgiving a snowstorm dropped more than 15 feet of snow in the mountains. A few days after that the party buried their first dead from malnutrition. There would be more to come.
Motivated by sheer desperation half of the Donner clan set out (including one child) to walk the 100 miles to Sutter's Fort in snowshoes. After a couple of days, their food had run out. A couple days later and another member of the party died. But this time instead of burying him, they ate his corpse. Mama said not to waste food. And this act of cannibalism would not be their last.
On January 19, 1847, only 10 of the 15 Donners made it Sutter's Fort. A rescue mission was organized to bring back the others who were still trapped on the mountain.It took more than two weeks to organize a rescue party. When the first rescue team reached the cabin at Lake Donner, they found 48 people barely clinging to life, many had gone mad. However, the story doesn't end here. Only 22 people could be taken out this time. When they returned 10 days later for the rest, the rescue party found evidence of more cannibalism.It would take more than 4 rescue missions and 4 additional months before all of the survivors were brought to the safety of Sutter's Fort. Of the 86 who went up the mountain, only 47 made it out alive; many of those lost toes to frostbite. News carried stories of their harrowing rescue and the grim tale of cannibalism. Travel through the Hasting's shortcut became a pretty popular choice- to stay away from. That is until gold is discovered in 1849 not far from the cabin where so many died that winter of 1846.
I will now give you some good and friendly advice. Stay at home,—you are in a good place, where, if sick, you are not in danger of starving to death.
Mary Graves to Levi Fosdick (her sister Sarah Fosdick's father-in-law), 1847
The infamous Donner Pass
Photo of tree stumps at the Donner camp site show just how deep the snow was that winter.
Did the Donner's really become cannibals? New evidence suggests that maybe that story is more hype than history.
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