The Donner Party’s westward trek turned tragic in the snow

An ordeal like no other: the Donner Party’s westward trek turned tragic in the snow

Sean Price

In 1847, Americans were flocking westward. Th6usands of covered wagons rumbled the 2,500 miles from Missouri to the West Coast. The emigrants wanted a fresh start, a better climate, cheap land, or a new adventure. “If hell lay to the west,” went one popular saying, “Americans would cross heaven to get there.”

One wagon train, known as the Donner Party, stumbled into its own kind of hell. Led by two Illinois farmers, George Donner and James Reed, the group of 87 men, women, and children became stranded by a brutal, early winter in a high mountain pass along the California-Nevada border. Nearly half the group, 41 people, starved or froze to death, and the rest were reduced to eating the dead to survive.


“West” in the 1840s meant anything west of Independence, Missouri. From the time the Donner Party left there on May 12, 1847, it suffered from bad judgment, bad advice, and plain bad luck. Like a lot of pioneers, many of the party’s eight families overpacked. As a result, the wagon train fell behind schedule. This was serious. Everyone knew they had to be through the Sierra Nevada mountains, where peaks exceed 14,000 feet, before the snows of winter.

To make up for lost time, Donner and Reed made a tragic mistake: They listened to Lansford Hastings, a lawyer who was trying to lure emigrants to California. Hastings had touted a shortcut to California in his 1845 bestseller The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California. The book claimed the Hastings Cutoff would shorten westward trips by hundreds of miles. But when the book was published, Hastings himself had never used the shortcut. At Fort Laramie, in what is now Wyoming, Reed bumped into an old friend named James Clyman, a man who had ridden over the Hastings Cutoff. Clyman later recalled that he begged Reed to avoid it:

I told him about the great desert and the roughness of the Sierras and that a straight route [to California by the shortcut] might turn out to be impracticable. I told him to take the regular wagon track and never leave it.

But others suggested trying the shortcut, and that’s what the pioneers did. Their first obstacle was Utah’s Wasatch mountains, with elevations of over 11,000 feet. The men spent hours each day hacking a road through forests, taking 20 days to go 31 miles. Next came the Great Salt Lake Desert. Hastings had said crossing it would take two days. It took six. No one died, but several cattle went mad with thirst. Wagon after wagon had co be left behind.

Frayed nerves caused bitter squabbling. Reed killed a wagon driver in a fight and was banished from the party. For the rest of the group, turning back was impossible, but several families were low on food. Each desperate mile seemed to bring more broken wagons and hardship. At night, Indians killed or stole cattle, and sloppy herding allowed others to escape.

By late October, the Donner Party was at last approaching the final mountain pass, at an elevation of 7,000 feet, before it would reach its goal: California’s fertile Sacramento Valley. The starved, exhausted group paused to rest a few days. As they prepared to leave, five feet of snow closed the pass (now called Donner Pass). The party was trapped. They did manage to build crude cabins and huts, but things soon got worse. During an eight-day blizzard, most of the remaining cattle, horses, and mules ran off and froze to death.


It was the beginning of the worst winter on record for the Sierras. The snow eventually reached 22 feet deep. There was little to hunt. The pioneers ate bark, mice, even their shoes. By early January, there was nothing left. Reed’s 12-year-old daughter, Virginia, later described where her family turned next:

We had to kill little Cash the dog and eat him. We ate his entrails and feet and hide and everything about him…. We lived on little Cash a week.

At that same time, up in the pass, 15 party members were trying a breakout on improvised snowshoes. For food, they made a few mouthfuls of beef jerky stretch six days. After that, they began dying. The survivors, some now raving and half-insane with hunger, began eating the only thing available–the bodies of the dead.

After 31 days of blizzards, frostbite, and starvation, seven living skeletons reached safety in the Sacramento Valley. Long before this, the banished James Reed had managed to make it ahead to Sutter’s Fort in California and tried to organize a rescue of those still caught in the pass. However, most able-bodied men had been off fighting the Mexican War. Now, though, Californians began offering Reed help.


The first of four relief parties arrived at the settlers’ camp on February 19, 1848. People there had not yet resorted to cannibalism. But as one rescuer remembered:

They were gaunt with famine and I can never forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice, very much agitated, and said, `Are you men from California or … come from heaven?’

Unfortunately, the first relief party had only enough food to take out 24 of the pioneers. There was little to leave behind. Almost two weeks passed before the second relief party arrived. James Reed described what they found:

Among the cabins lay the fleshless bones and half-eaten bodies of the victims of the famine. There lay the limbs, the skulls, and the hair of the poor beings who had died from want and whose flesh preserved the lives of their surviving comrades who, shivering beneath filthy rags and surrounded by the remains of their unholy feast, looked more like demons than human beings.

It was not until April that the last of the Donner Party were rescued. News of the disaster slowed migration to California (though the 1849 Gold Rush revived it). Some accused the Donner survivors of having enjoyed the taste of human flesh. Despite such wild rumors, many became respected citizens in California, such as the families of James Reed and Patrick Breen (see diary above).


In all, 46 survived. Some families, like the Reeds, escaped without a loss. Others, like the Donners, were decimated. Three-year-old Eliza Donner lost both parents and six close relatives. After Eliza and her four sisters were rescued, they never took for granted California’s warmth. They often looked at each other and said, “How good to be here instead of up in the snow.”


* Do you think the Donner Party survivors felt guilty about the cannibalism?

* Should they have felt guilt?

* What does the episode suggest about the human instinct for survival?

* Suppose you had lived in California at the time. How would you have reacted if one or more of the survivors moved into your neighborhood?


To help students understand one of the most ghastly episodes in American history–the Donner Party disaster.


CRITICAL THINKING: Some students may assume that the Donner Party made silly mistakes. So it is important to make them understand something of the world in which these people lived.

What does the description of moving west suggest about living conditions–and the mind-set–of people living east of the Mississippi? Have a student read aloud the saying about crossing heaven to reach the West. What does the saying suggest about the settlers’ spirit? What does it suggest about the conditions that contributed to the disaster? Ask:

* Were people in the Donner Party foolish to take the risk they did?

* Why didn’t they listen to James Clyman, who warned about the dangers of the great desert and the Sierras?

* Did the settlers fully appreciate the severity of sudden weather changes in mountain passes late in the year?

Whether or not students fault the pioneers, remind them about something history students must always keep in mind. Use this quotation, from a letter written by Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, to his teenage daughter, Indira, in 1933: “To understand a person who lived long ago, you will have to understand his environment, the conditions under which he lived, the ideas that filled his mind.”

Next, note a few facts about the Donner Party and their decisions. First, Illinois farmers led the group. Is it likely that in 1847 people from the flatlands fully understood the high-mountain danger they faced?, Second, Hastings’ Guide was a best-seller in 1845. Did the book s popularity give it an air of authority ordinary people accepted? (Do people today accept the word of experts without question?)

WEB WATCH: For brief biographies of the Donners, Reeds, and other members of the group see DanMRosen/donner/members.htm.


“Thursd. 25th froze hard last night fine & sunshiny to day wind W. Mrs Murphy says the wolves are about to dig up the dead bodies at her shanty, the nights are too cold to watch them, we hear them bowl Frid 26th froze hard last night to day clear & warm … hungry times in camp, plenty hides but the folks will not eat them we eat them with a tolerable good apetite. Thanks be to Almighty God. Amen Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would Commence on Milt. & eat him. I dent that she has done so yet, it is distressing. The Donnos told the California folks that they commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know the spot or near it”

RELATED ARTICLE: Modern cases of cannibalism.

1812 Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow: Some cannibalism has been alleged. This would not be surprising given that fewer than 100,000 of the original 600,000 soldiers made it beck to France.

1819 Wreck of the Essex: An American whaler was rammed by a whale off the South American coast. Twenty were left adrift in lifeboats. Five survivors were found after three months. Herman Melville used this as the basis for Moby Dick.

1845 Franklin Expedition: A British effort to find the Northwest Passage ended in disaster for two ships. At least 30 stranded men resorted to cannibalism before dying.

1917 Russian Revolution: Famines caused by war and bad weather wracked Russia as the Bolsheviks consolidated their power. Many Instances of cannibalism were reported.

1941 Siege of Leningrad: Germany’s 900-day siege killed more than 1 million Russians. More than 300 were shot for cannibalism; others were imprisoned.

1972 Andes Plane Crash: An amateur rugby team from Uruguay crashed in the Andes In Chile. Searchers gave up after eight days. Thirty-two of the 45 people aboard had lived through the crash. But after being stranded for 72 days, Just 16 remained, having survived by eating the flesh of the dead.

1990S North Korean famine: Floods and drought devastated farms. As many as 3 million starved to death. There have been persistent but unconfirmed reports of cannibalism by survivors.

–Sean Price

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