In one of the darkest tales to come out of the journeys on the Oregon Trail, the Donner Party, a group of 87 pioneers became trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California during an unusually harsh winter. For months, they fought to survive in horrific conditions, many resorting to cannibalism in an attempt to make it out alive.
While the Donner Party ran into it’s share of bad luck and unpredictable weather conditions, a series of bad decisions coupled with poor planning ultimately doomed them.
They Left Too Late
In April 1846, a group of eight families left Springfield Illinois to join the many heading west in search of a better life. This caravan was being organized by a businessman and farmer named James Reed, who would travel with his wife and four children. Among those joining him was the eponymous George Donner, who would become wagon captain, along with his wife and five daughters.
The group reached Independence Missouri, which was considered the official start of the Oregon trail, in the middle of May. Here they joined up with other caravans that would span nearly two miles long.
It was critical to leave early enough for their four month long journey so they could arrive in California safely before winter snow blanketed the mountains. March through mid April was the best time to leave and the Donner Party was already several weeks late from the start.
They Took an Untested New Route
While thousands of others had successfully completed the perilous Oregon trail, the Donner Party strayed from the main path to take a new route.
Reed was looking to make up lost time and encouraged the group to take a new path through the Sierra Nevada mountains that would cut more than 300 miles off their trip and save them weeks of travel time. This new shortcut, the Hastings Cutoff, was advertised in a book ‘The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California‘ by Landsford Hastings.
Unfortunately for Reed, Hastings did not make it clear that this shortcut was purely speculative and had never been tested.
While contemplating how to proceed, Reed ran into a friend, James Clyman, who had been travelling east and had just tried out the Hastings Cutoff. Clyman warned him not to take the shortcut. He claimed it was nearly impossible for him to get through on foot and that there was no way the wagons would be able to make it through.
In a stroke of irony, Hastings had left for his new shortcut at around the same time, and even wrote a letter to Reed advising that he would meet them at Fort Bridger and would lead them safely through the cutoff. In total, 87 members agreed to go with Reed and take the new Hastings Cutoff. The rest who stayed on the old trail reached their destination safely.
By July 1846, the large caravan had reached Fort Bridger in Wyoming. Instead of finding Hastings waiting eagerly to guide them, they found a letter he left behind. He had gone ahead with another group that was already there and encouraged the Donner Party to catch up.
The path was treacherous and in many points they had to cut down trees and forge their own trail. In the end, this shortcut would add a month and an extra 125 miles to their journey.
They Were Poorly Prepared
Hastings told them that they would have to cross the Great Salt Lake Desert, but that it would only take two days time. Five days after entering the desert, the Donner Party dragged themselves out, having abandoned several wagons, losing 32 oxen and nearly out of water.
The party took inventory before heading into the mountains and found that their supplies were not sufficient for the remaining 600 miles of the journey.
In late September, a few men were sent ahead to Sutter’s Fort to gather supplies to bring back to the rest of the caravan. It could be weeks until the men returned, and they were woefully unprepared to continue and they had a long way to go before winter.
They Turned on Each Other
By early October the group was on edge and tempers rose.
An incident occurred during this time, when a frustrated man began whipping his oxen and would not stop despite Reed’s orders. A fight started and Reed stabbed the man in the stomach and killed him. The group was divided as some voted to hang Reed for committing murder. Ultimately, he was voted to be banished from the group. Reed left his family and rode west on his own.
As the animals were exhausted, everyone was ordered to walk. Lewis Keseberg, a German emigrant had been sharing his wagon with an old Belgian man. When all began walking, he forced the man out. Desperately, the man went door to door hoping another wagon would take him in, but all refused. The man was last seen sitting under a large sage brush, left to die as the rest of the party continued on.
They Waited Too Long Before Summiting the Mountains
By the end of October, about 50 miles from the summit of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the men who were sent for supplies in late September returned. The group decided to take advantage of this and decided to spend a few days resting before pushing for the summit. When they finally attempted the mountains, an early snow had come and the only pass through was blocked with six feet of snow.
It’s since been speculated that if they had proceeded only a few days before, they likely could have made it through the pass safely.
Backtracking, the party returned to Truckee Lake, which they had passed 12 miles back. At this point, they found themselves trapped with no way to proceed or go back, and began building makeshift cabins.
The axle on the Donner family’s wagon broke and they fell behind when Donner cut his hand severely while cutting timber to fix his wagon. The Donner family and about 15 more people found themselves trapped as well and set up camp about six miles back from the main group.
The Doomed Donner Party
Fighting to Survive
Blizzards and near constant snowfall made their difficult predicament much worse. Journals from members of the party indicate that snow reached up to 20 feet. The snow grew so deep that if they cut wood for fires, the falling trees would immediately become buried in the snow. With wood soaking wet and hard to collect, fires were difficult to maintain for warmth, and many lost toes to frostbite.
Due to the intense weather, hunting and gathering were near impossible, and the party had to resort to any means necessary to survive. Oxen and dogs were killed for their meat. Once the meat was gone, they would boil animal hides, bones or tree bark into a paste that could be eaten. As they eventually ran out of resources, nearly half of the survivors admitted to resorting to cannibalism.
Reaching Out for Help
In the middle of December, a small group of 15 made makeshift snowshoes and began pushing through the blizzard, hoping to clear a path through the blocked path. This group, like many at the main camp were doing, were faced with the option of cannibalism. They considered drawing straws to determine a human sacrifice, or having two men duel to the death to leave a body for the rest of the group.
Two men in this group refused to take part in the potential cannibalism. Nervous of how desperate people were becoming and scared of becoming victims, they fled the group. They didn’t make it very far and eventually the rest of the group caught up and reportedly murdered and then ate the men.
Of these 15 that ventured out, 7 survived and reached Sutter’s Fort, about 100 miles away. They told of the rest of the Donner Party needing to be rescued. Out of the 8 of this group that died, 7 were eaten.
Unfortunately due to the intense snowstorms, rescue parties were not able to reach the Donner Party until late February 1847. By this point they had been trapped for nearly 4 months. The first rescue party saved 23 people, but it would take three more rescues to get the remaining survivors out.
In the third rescue party, a man named John Stark came upon a group of 11 children who had been left behind by a previous rescue. Two men with him were able to carry a child each. Stark, refusing to leave anyone behind, would carry two children for a few yards before setting them down. He would run back to the remaining children and carry two more forwards. Repeating this process, he ensured that all nine children in his care were rescued safely.
Of the 87 members of the Donner Party, only 45 ended up surviving the ordeal.
The Fate of the Donner Party Members
Ironically, James Reed made it through the pass before the blizzard that would eventually trap the rest of the group. For the next four months, he tried desperately to get back through the mountains with supplies to rescue the party. Eventually, Reed returned in one of the rescue parties and saved his wife and children.
George Donner eventually succumbed to the infection he received when he cut his hand while repairing his wagon. His wife Tamsen sent their children off with rescue parties but refused to leave her husband. She stayed by his side until both perished before being rescued.
A few particularly gruesome rumors came from the Donner Party about the German emigrant Keseberg. Some said that he took a boy to his bed with him one night. The next day the boy was found dead, hanging on the cabin wall, and was later eaten.
In April 1847, when the final rescue party arrived, they found only Keseberg. Supposedly he was found with a cauldron of human meat and bones. When offered other food he refused, claiming that he liked the human meat better.
Legacy of the Donner Party
After the ordeal that the Donner Party endured, eventually the survivors made it to their destination in California. The Hastings Cutoff was unsurprisingly abandoned after news of the Donner Party spread. If you visit California today, you can visit Truckee’s Lake where the party was stranded. It has been appropriately renamed Donner Lake.
More than 150 years later, the legacy of the Donner Party lives on. Many are captivated by the horrific conditions they survived through and the cannibalism they resorted to for survival. This poses the same question to us that these pioneers were faced with: how far would you go to survive?
- Andrews, E. (2020, January 30). 10 Things You Should Know About the Donner Party. History.com. Retrieved November 17, 2022, from https://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-should-know-about-the-donner-party
- Houston, J. D. (n.d.). The Bad Luck and Good Luck of James Frazier Reed. Articles of the Gold Rush. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from http://explore.museumca.org/goldrush/ar03.html
- Kuroski, J. (2021, August 28). The Tragic Story Of The Donner Party And Their Doomed Journey Westward. All That’s Interesting. Retrieved November 17, 2022, from https://allthatsinteresting.com/donner-party
- The Tragic Fate of the Donner Party, 1847. EyeWitness to History. (2009). Retrieved November 17, 2022, from http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/donnerparty.htm
- Weiser, K. (2022, April). The Tragic Story of the Donner Party. Legends of America. Retrieved November 17, 2022, from https://www.legendsofamerica.com/ca-donnerparty/
- Worrall, S. (2017, July 2). Beyond Cannibalism: The True Story of the Donner Party. National Geographic. Retrieved November 17, 2022, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/donner-party-cannibalism-nation-west
Originally published on Medium’s Illumination Publication on November 26, 2022.