Remembering History:Donner Party

Donner Lake Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
U.S Geological Survey, 1870’s
Public Domain/Wikimedia

The mania to head west and settle land was powerful. Many people, wanting to start new lives, packed up and headed west. Some headed to California, others further north into Oregon, Washington and Idaho. The route was long but if you followed a well known path and were well provisioned, you had a good chance of arriving safely. The obstacles were many from bad weather, food getting contaminated, people getting sick, and if you wandered into unfriendly Native American territory you might be attacked. Skilled guides were essential because if you simply headed west not knowing the right trails to take, you might end up in the wrong place.

Sadly, that is what happened to the Donner Party. It comprised of 89 people total of both the Donner and Reed families that set out in a wagon train that began in Springfield, Illinois but really did not depart until May 12 in Independence, Missouri. It is not known what delayed them but, in crossings of this kind, timing is important. It was always best to leave in early spring so that grass would be plentiful along the way for your horses and livestock you brought with you. And more importantly to cross the mountain passes before winter set in. Because of the late start, it meant that there was little margin for error. They were the last west bound wagon train of the season.

They arrived in Fort Bridger, Wyoming in July. Most wagon trains would follow the established route of heading into Idaho and then turning south into Nevada to get into California. However a new route was being promoted in 1846 called the Hastings Cutoff found by guidebook author Lansford Hastings. The proposed route was shorter and straighter through the Wasatch Mountains and to Salt Lake Desert. Except no one had confirmed this route actually worked. George Donner was elected the wagon train captain. Despite warnings from an experienced mountain man–James Clyman–the Donner Party decided to try the untested Hastings Cutoff when the left in July 1846.

It proved to be a disastrous decision. They found they had to cut down trees along the way to clear a path setting them back three weeks. The five-day crossing of the salt desert resulted in many nearly dying of thirst. The shortcut ended up costing them a month in travel time and they arrived at the slopes of the Sierra Nevada in early November 1846. At this point, the best course would have been to wait until spring to proceed or use a different path that avoided the mountains. Their provisions were already strained by this time but trying to cross the mountains as winter set in was another bad decision that would cost the party dearly. An early blizzard covered the mountain passes making them impassable. They set up ramshackle cabins and tents in the nearby Truckee Lake. With provisions now getting dire, starvation began to set in and people began to die. Of the 81 people who were stranded, half were children.

Fifteen of the strongest set out for Sutter’s Fort (called the Forlorn Hope) set out in December for Sutter’s Fort. But it was not easy for them and some died on the way. With hardly any supplies, they were forced to resort to cannibalism and had to eat the bodies of those who had died. Seven made it to a Native American village. Word was quickly sent to Sutter’s Fort and a rescue party set out on January 31. Arriving in what is now called Donner Lake on 19 February 1847, they found a completely snowbound survivors of the wagon train. They were fed and then began to head back (three other rescue parties would arrive as well). But the conditions heading back were harsh and although rescued, did not get back until April. And then the full harrowing story would be revealed. In the makeshift camp they slaughtered their pack animals and dogs, gnawed on bones, and even made boiled animal hides into a foul paste. Tree bark became a source of sustinenance, such as it was but many perished of malnutrition. Eating the corpses of those who had died also became necessary as well.

Only 45 survived, many of them children. News reports reached New York City by July 1847. It was a sensational story as one might imagine. The cannibalism was played up and exaggerated beyond what happened. Lansford Hastings, whose reputation as an author and trail leader the Donner Party relied on, was never held to account for the supposed route he had never fully traveled himself. He apparently expressed regret and life went on for him. In the 1850’s, he lived with his family in Yuma, Arizona where he was postmaster and a judge. When the American Civil War broke out, he sided with the South and was a Major in the Confederate Army. Many former confederates looked to emigrate to Brazil after the war, and he helped make arrangements with the Brazilian government. He died in 1870 on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands possibly of yellow fever.