Many people have heard the horror story that began as the Donner Party’s trek across the western United States. A chain of unfortunate circumstances that lead to many of their 81 members perishing or resorting to cannibalism for survival. The promise of good fortune and the idea of “Manifest Destiny” inspired many Americans of the mid 1800s to make the arduous journey across the great plans, over the Rockies and Sierra Nevada’s to the west coast. While the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail that traveled from Missouri to Oregon was the most popular, the California Gold Rush inspired many settlers to take a southern route called the California Trail.
The Donner Party, named after George Donner, consisted of 20 covered wagons. George Donner was accompanied by his wife Tamsen, their five children, and family friend John Denton. There were several other families with young children in the group (most of the travelers were under the age of 18.), some solo emigrants, as well as two native American guides. Through journals, interviews, news articles, and letters to loved ones; the unimaginable nightmare the Donner Party faced has been told hundreds of times.
Setting out in late May 1846, later than recommended, some settlers worried they would be unable to reach California before the passes filled with snow. George Donner, however, was confident in his schedule. In a letter he sent to a friend on June 27th, 1846, he stated “Our provisions are in good order, and we feel satisfied with our preparations for this trip.”
His wife Tamsen appeared to have no concerns regarding the status of their travels, in a letter to her sister on June 16th, 1846, she stated, “Our journey, so far, has been pleasant…Our rout at first was rough and through a timbered country which appeared to be fertile…Never have I seen so varied a country-so suitable for cultivation. Every thing was new and pleasing.” Although they started late, the leaders of the wagon train were confident they would reach California before the snow. Their plans changed once they reached Fort Bridger, Wyoming on July 28th.
While in Fort Bridger, the group met Lansford Hastings. He was traveling with the overland wagon train on their way to Oregon, however he had claimed to have a shortcut to California that would cut 300 miles off the trip to California. On July 31st, already behind schedule, the Donner Party followed the advice of Lansford Hastings, and took the “Hastings Cutoff” through the Wasatch Mountains. Under his instruction, they traveled through Echo Canyon, which, Hastings had stated would take four days; however, they did not reach the other side for seven.
After the group reached Weber River, Charles T. Stanton and James Reed set off to find Hastings and ask him to guide the wagon train out of the mountains. He declined the invitation and drew the men a map of his newly developed route. Charles Stanton wrote a letter on August 3rd, 1846, in Independence to his brother, Sidney Stanton stating:
“I may not have another opportunity of sending you letters till I reach California. We take a new route to California, never travelled before this season; consequently our route is over a new an interesting region. We are now in the Bear river valley, in the midst of the Bear River mountains, the summits of which are covered with snow. As I am now writing, we are cheered by a warm summer’s sun, while but a few miles off, the snow covered mountains are glittering in its beams” (Stanton in Simkin 2020).
This false sense of security that they felt was fleeting. Within days, the members of the group found themselves cutting through thick vegetation and essentially building the path as they went. The detrimental delays and strenuous conditions caused by the rough terrain added nearly a month to their travel time.
Snowstorms soon trapped the group near Truckee Lake in an area now known as Donner Pass. Patrick Breen, an Irish immigrant, kept a diary at the time they were stranded:
“came to this place on the 31st of last month that it snowed we went on to the pass the snow so deep we were unable to find the road, when within 3 miles of the summit then turned back to this shanty on the Lake, Stanton came one day after we arrived here we again took our teams & wagons & made another unsuccessful attempt to cross in company with Stanton we returned to the shanty it continuing snow all the time we were here we have killed most part of our cattle having to stay here until spring & live on poor beef without bread or salt”- November 20, 1846
Because of the complicated trail to Truckee Lake, the party had abandoned much of their larger supplies and more cumbersome equipment. Including much of their oxen and livestock. They built makeshift cabins and shelters out of anything they could find. Some of their initial nutrition sources consisted of the food they had packed, pack animals, and even boiling and grinding leather into a (somewhat) edible paste. They were stuck there for five months. After depleting all their supplies, eating their horses and oxen, and even the family pets, some members were beginning to die of exposure and malnutrition.
Dividing the scarce remaining supplies, tensions grew between members of the group “Peggy very uneasy for fear we shall all perish with hunger we have but a little meat left & only part of 3 hides has to support Mrs. Reid she has nothing left but one hide…”-Patrick Breen’s journal February 5, 1847. Faced with an impossible situation, and after multiple failed attempts to exit the mountains, the members of the Donner party had no choice but to wait for conditions to improve. “The Donnos told the California folks that they commenced to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or the next in finding cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow…” Patrick Breen’s journal February 26, 1847
On December 16, 1846, fifteen of the stronger men in the group hiked out to look for help. Christmas eve 1846, the rescue group weighed their options. Over the next two nights, three people died from a combination of exposure and malnutrition. On December 26th, they dismembered and prepared the body of Patrick Dolan. Initially, three people refused; however, after months of suffering a slow starvation, the entire surviving rescue group participated in cannibalism.
Of the original fifteen individuals, seven survived. Among the dead were the only two individuals murdered out of the 81 total members. Louis and Salvador, the Native American guides, fled the group. Recognizing that they were the odd men out, they were aware their traveling companions didn’t view them as equal. Eventually, the pair was found by William Foster. Without blinking, Foster shot and killed the guides. Afterwards, they were eaten by the remaining hikers.
On January 12th, the surviving seven members of the rescue group reached a ranch in California. There, they began planning to get the rest of the party out.
Even after the group was located, their position and its surrounding terrain made it difficult to extract them. Rescue efforts took over two months and four trips. By the time rescuers reached them, some members were too weak to weather the trip and died along the way. The most famous rescuer was John Stark. His rescue party of three men reached a group of 11 children and he refused to leave any behind. He carried them, two at a time, for a few meters at a time, until they reached safety. The final man to be rescued was Lewis Keseberg, and history painted him as a madman. He was found by the final rescue group, alone, and surrounded by half-eaten bodies.
Donner Memorial State Park
Today, the route that the rescuers used to extract the settlers is known as “The Forlorn Hope”. The Donner Memorial State Park was dedicated in 1924. The Pacific Fruit Express gave 10 acres of land near Donner Lake. The monument itself is dedicated to all the pioneers who made the journey to California during the westward expansion era.
Andrews, Evan. “10 Things You Should Know About the Donner Party.” History.com, Simon & Schuster, Jan. 30, 2020, www.history.com/news/10-things-you-should-know-about-the-donner-party
California State Parks, 2014, Donner Memorial State Park, 2014 (Rev. 2017), www.parks.ca.gov/pages/503/files/DonnerMemorialSPFinalWebLayout2017.pdf
Simkin, John. “Donner Party.” spartacus-educational.com. Spartacus Educational Publishers Ltd. January 2020. https://spartacus-educational.com/WWdonnerP.htm
“The Diary of Patrick Breen.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/donner-diary-patrick-breen/.
Worrall, Simon. “Beyond Cannibalism: The True Story of the Donner Party.” nationalgeographic.com. Penguin Random House. July 2, 2017. www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/donner-party-cannibalism-nation-west