In the Spring of 1846, a group of intrepid pioneers set out from Independence, Missouri, to cross the Oregon Trail to seek a better life in the fertile Oregon Territory.
However, almost nothing went according to plan for this group. They got a late start, took a devastating wrong turn, and were delayed by many natural obstacles.
They ended up being stuck in the mountains during the winter in one of the more horrific episodes in the history of the American West.
Learn more about the Donner Party, what went wrong, and their horrific fate on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
To understand what happened to the Donner Party, it is necessary to understand what the Donner Party was and what they were attempting to do.
The 1840s saw an upsurge in people migrating to the Western coast of North America. There were promises of ample cheap, fertile land in California and the Oregon Territory.
This was an incredibly enticing prospect for people who otherwise had no opportunities back home. Back home, usually being the eastern United States or somewhere in Europe.
However, claiming this land was in no way easy. To get there, you had one of two choices. The first was an extremely long and expensive journey by ship, which required you to sail all the way around South America.
The only other option was an even more dangerous journey across the mountains of western North America and the Great Plains.
The route that most settlers took became known as the Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail began in Independence, Missouri, although many people would have traveled quite a distance just to get there.
In Independence, they would stock up on supplies and join a wagon train with other settlers who were going in the same direction. The pace of travel was slow, often going no more than 15 miles per day, with the total trip taking four to six months.
Along the way, they had to deal with dangerous river crossings, wild animals, the threat of starvation, storms, disease, accidents, and possibly angry native people who didn’t want them there. If you ever played the game Oregon Trail, you probably know that people died of Dysentery.
Overland travel to Oregon only began in 1839 and didn’t see widespread migration until 1843, when 1,000 people made the migration.
For the most part, the first section of the Oregon Trail was the same for most immigrants up until the continental divide, from which different routes could be taken.
However, the most difficult part of the journey for those going to California was the last 100 miles over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not only were the peaks here exceptionally high, but they also experienced some of the highest snowfalls in North America.
So, this was the situation in the spring of 1846.
In the spring, 500 wagons had assembled in Independence, Missouri, to begin the trip out west. At the tail end of the wagon train were nine wagons that belonged to the Donner and Reed families.
George Donner was 60 years old. He brought with him his wife, children, children from a previous marriage, his brother and his family, and several people in his employment.
James Reed was a 45-year-old Irish immigrant. With him were his wife, children, stepchildren, and the men he hired for the trip.
In total, the Donner and Reed families, plus the people they employed, numbered 87 people in total.
What time the wagons set out was very tricky. If you started too soon, there wouldn’t be grass for your pack animals and cattle to eat. If you start too late, you risk not getting over the mountains by the winter.
The Donner-Reed party set out on May 12, which was a relatively late start for setting out on the Oregon Trail.
For the first month and a half, things went fine.
On July 31, they made the decision to go off the main trail and try the Hastings Cuttoff.
Lansford Hasting was the author of a book titled The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. It was a handbook for settlers who were going west and also a tract designed to encourage people to migrate west.
Hastings had previously made the trip once in 1842, going from Ohio to California.
In the letter he sent to people on the wagon train, he encouraged a route which was known as the “Hastings Cutoff”.
Typically, the Oregon Trail would go north through an area known as the Snake River Plain in Idaho. It was a reasonably safe and well-known route.
Hastings proposed a more direct route, which was supposed to shorten the distance by 300 miles that would go through the Great Basin and the Great Salt Lake Desert. The route was only given a brief mention in Hasting’s book.
He said, “The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall, thence bearing west southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of St. Francisco…”
This route was completely theoretical as Hastings hadn’t actually traveled the entire route, and no one had traveled this route with wagons. He was basically just looking at the map without really understanding what one on the route he created.
Hastings only traveled the route in 1846, after the book was published, and then only from the Great Salt Lake to Wyoming, going west to east, when you didn’t have to worry about beating the winter.
The Donner and Reed parties believed Hastings, so they took his route.
The Hastings Cutoff was a horrible idea.
Going through the Wasatch Mountains was a disaster because there was no obvious route, because no one had taken it before. It was necessary to cut down trees in order to move, which took an inordinate amount of time.
When they got to the Great Salt Lake, things didn’t get any better.
The salt flats had turned to mud, and they had to throw away their possessions for oxen to pull their wagons. There was no obvious trail to follow and worst of all, there was an 80-mile stretch in the middle of the desert where there was no water to be found.
Some oxen died, and some ran away. They did finally make it through the desert, but by the time they made it to one of the more established trails, they were now a month behind schedule.
By late October 1846, the group had made it to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They only had about 100 miles or so to go, but these were to be the most difficult.
When they reached the mountains, the passes were initially clear, but just when they arrived, there was an early winter snowstorm that filled the mountain passes with snow and ice.
With their way forward blocked, they settled into Truckee Lake, where they planned to stay the winter. It was at an elevation of 7,056 feet or 2,151 meters. If they had arrived just a few days earlier, they would have been able to beat the storm.
I should note that the Sierra Nevada mountains get an enormous amount of snow due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The region averages 222 inches for 5.6 meters of snow each year.
I’ve been to some sites in the area as late as the end of May when I saw snowbanks that were 12 to 20 feet high still. So, this wasn’t a case of not wanting to trudge through some snow, but rather an amount of snow that was impossible to pass through.
By this time, their party was down to 81 people, over half of whom were children.
By this point, and the winter was already starting, they had already lost many of their animals and much of their supplies. They settled into several log cabins that had been built by an earlier party and tents that they had with them.
When they made camp at Truckee Lake, they were already low on food from their disastrous diversion through the Hastings Cutoff, and winter was just starting.
Things got even worse. There was a snowstorm that lasted for a week, which ended up killing their oxen and horses, but they were lost in the snow and could have been a source of food.
One of the men did manage to kill a bear, but that was the only food they were able to gather from the area.
Conditions in the camp were miserable. It was cramped, and there was so much snow that people would be stuck indoors for days. They quickly got to a point where they were boiling leather straps and cooking animal bones to make a type of soup.
One of the cabins had an oxhide rug that was eventually eaten piece by piece.
Eventually, party members started to die in early December.
A plan was devised where a group of the strongest party members would head out with hand-made snowshoes to try and find help. On December 16, seventeen men, women, and children set out in an attempt to get the group rescued.
Two of the members who didn’t have snowshoes had to turn back rather quickly.
After several days of walking aimlessly, most of the group was suffering from snowblindness from the sun reflecting off the snow. They were unable to properly camp in snow that was 12 feet or 3.7 meters deep.
On December 21, one of the men who set out on foot fell behind and died.
After a few more days, one of the men, Patrick Dolan, proposed that one of the party members should be sacrificed to feed the others. A duel was proposed, as was a lottery, but eventually, they decided to keep moving until the next person died.
A blizzard once again stopped their progress.
One of the men, known only as Antonio, the animal handler, died, and Franklin Graves soon followed him.
Dolan, the man who first suggested cannibalism, soon began ranting and hallucinating due to hypothermia, stripped off his clothes, and ran away, only to come back later and die with the group.
At this point, some in the group began to cut up and eat the bodies of Antonio, Dolan, Graves, and 12-year-old Lemuel Murphy.
After resting for three days, they set off again. There was now talk of killing two of the party members, Native American men known only as Louis and Salvador so that they could be eaten. The two men caught wind of the plan and left the group.
Two party members, Mary and Eddy Graves, were able to go out and hunt a deer, but when they got back to the group, they found another group member, Jay Fosdick, had died, and he had already been cut open for food.
25 days after the journey began, they came across Louis and Salvador. Both men were shot dead by William Foster, who used their bodies for food.
Several days later, the emaciated group came across a native settlement. They looked so ragged that they initially frightened the people in the camp. They gave them what little food they had, and then a man named William Eddy went on to a settlement on the edge of the Sacramento Valley. They organized a rescue party that found the remaining six survivors from the hike on January 17.
James Reed was one of the original party members who ended up separating from the main group early on. He had made it to Sutter’s Fort on the other side of the Sierra Nevada in early October and waited for his group and other family members to arrive.
He sent out a search party, but they were unable to find the group at Truckee Lake. It wasn’t until news of the group that hiked out reached Reed that they organized a full-blown rescue mission.
They set out from the Sacramento Valley on February 4 with a team of ten people and ample food. They cached their food along the way so they wouldn’t have to carry everything, and so they had food on the way back.
On February 18, the rescue party made it to Truckee Lake, where they found that 13 more people had died.
23 people were selected to go back with the rescue group, and 33 were left behind with food provisions.
During the trip out of the mountains, two of the 23 died, and another boy, Jacob Donner’s stepson, fatally gorged himself with food when he arrived at the fort. Known as refeeding syndrome, it can happen when people who are starving eat too much too quickly.
While the first rescue party was on its way, a second party was sent out as well. They arrived in Truckee Lake on March 1st. Between the arrival of the first and second rescue parties, shockingly, no one died.
The second rescue party found evidence of cannibalism at the camp.
Seventeen people were taken with the second rescue part, fourteen of which were children. Two children and one adult died on the way back to Sutter’s Fort.
A third rescue party only managed to bring five children back.
A fourth and fifth rescue party were unable to reach the camp due to the weather.
Eventually, a salvage mission was sent out on April 10 to get what supplies they could to sell to help support the orphaned children. When the salvage team arrived, they only found one person alive, Lewis Keseberg. He was found with a pot of human flesh cooking and $250 in gold coins.
He was the last member of the party to be rescued.
Of the original 87 party members who left Independence, only 45 survived.
When news of the Donner Party spread, it was covered in newspapers in totally different ways. Some papers buried the story because they didn’t want to discourage westward travel. Some played up the cannibalism angle, and others touted the Donner party as demonstrating the heroism of the pioneers.
The number of settlers moving west over the next few years began to drop as more stories about the difficulties of the journey began to spread. However, that abruptly changed after gold was discovered in 1849.
The story of the Donner Party remains one of the most famous from the entire period of westward expansion of the United States, primarily due to the cases of cannibalism. As the 20th-century historian George Stewart noted, “The cannibalism, although it might almost be called a minor episode, has become in the popular mind the chief fact to be remembered about the Donner Party. For a taboo always allures with as great strength as it repels.”