The Tragedy of the Donner Party: Survivors and Cannibalism

In the mid-19th century thousands of pioneers made the journey west along the Oregon Trail to popular destinations such as the California and Oregon Territories. This journey was often treacherous and there is no better example of this than the story from the Donner Party survivors.

The Donner Party was a group of families that journeyed west to California. They were so-named after their elected leader George Donner, though in many cases the families acted independently.

The tale of the Donner Party is one of tragedy, hardship, and gruesome details. While the journey west was traditionally considered dangerous and deadly, this was especially the case for the Donner Party.

The group began the journey late in the year and attempted an untested shortcut called “Hastings Cutoff,” which proved to be anything but. By the time they rejoined the California trail they were a month behind schedule.

This delay and an early blizzard in winter left the group stranded in the Sierra Mountains after a blizzard made the narrow mountain passes uncrossable. Desperation ensued and lacking in food and supplies, some members of the Donner Party turned to cannibalism.

Relief efforts would eventually rescue just over half of the members, though not before the Donner Party was immortalized by the desperate actions some took to ensure their survival.

Why Did the Donner Party Go West?

Given the dangerous path ahead, just why did the Donner Party go west? As with most settlers prior to the 1849 California Gold Rush, the Donner Party looked to start a new life in California.

Entire family units packed up everything they had and moved west with the promise of cheap or free land. The concept of Manifest Destiny was a great force in the initial westward expansion.

Wagon train on Oregon Trail

The Donner party was no different. Most of the main groups brought large families with them. Just under half of the total members of the Donner Party were children under 16.

The journey began fairly well for the Donners and other families. They left the city of Independence, Missouri, a common starting point, on May 12, 1846. The families were one of the last groups to start the westward trek that year, as mid-May was generally considered a fairly late start.

Despite this, the Donners made great time as part of a larger existing wagon train. Most family groups did their research and were well-supplied and prepared for the long trek. They brought with them several oxen to pull their wagons as well as spare horses, cattle, and equipment.

The uneventful first leg of the trip saw them celebrate the fourth of July at Fort Laramie and then cross the Continental Divide on July 18th. With that crossing, they were just about half way to their destination.

Only one death occurred on the journey up to this point, sadly due to disease/old age. The second half of the journey would prove to be far more difficult and feature many more hardships.

The Difficult Route of Hastings Cutoff

Wasatch Mountains

Their difficulties began just after Fort Laramie. The wagon train encountered riders urging emigrants on the road to travel down to Fort Bridger and take a shortcut called the “Hastings Cutoff.” The shortcut was named after Lansford Hastings who wrote a popular book detailing the path for pioneers.

The problem was that when Hastings wrote the book, he had never taken the path himself. When he finally did cross earlier in 1846, it was in mild weather and without wagons, making the path seem much easier than it would prove to be.

The group was eager to make good time and arrive in California ahead of their fellow pioneers on the wagon train to get the best available land. Several families thus opted to heed the advice and split towards Fort Bridger on word that Hastings himself would lead them from there.

It is here that they officially became known as “The Donner Party” and George Donner was elected as leader. Upon arriving at Fort Bridger, they found that Hastings had just left a week earlier with a large group.

Map of Hastings Cutoff / Wikimedia Commons

The Donner Party was assured that Hastings would leave instructions and they could follow along easy enough. This would prove to be a critical error.

The path through the Wasatch Mountains was anything but a shortcut. The Donner Party found themselves trailblazing by cutting and slashing their way through the thick trees and brush of the mountainous forest.

Their progress slowed dramatically and the untested trail cost them precious time.

The Great Salt Lake

According to Hastings, once through the Wasatch Mountains, the Donner Party would encounter the Great Salt Lake. He warned that the dry desert would leave them about two days without food or water.

Yet again, this advice proved to be costly. The arid desert was actually double the length that Hastings advertised and took the Donner Party five days to cross.

The desert proved to be very costly. Dozens of crucial oxen, cattle, and horses either died in the crossing or ran off in search of food and water. The families themselves went without water after the third day and had to muster through extreme heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night.

As a result of the crossing, the group took several days to recover and cache belongings they could no longer carry with them. When they eventually caught back up with the original California Trail at the Humboldt River, the “shortcut” had actually been 125 miles longer, and cost them precious time.

With winter fast approaching the Donner Party made haste to get to the Sierra Mountains before they were trapped by the snow. As they approached the Sierras the group carelessly paraded on Native American lands.

The natives attacked the party, though only targeted the animals, killing and stealing the oxen and cattle that were grazing over their land. This was crucial potential food that was lost to the group.

At the end of October, the Donner Party had reached Truckee Lake (now known as Donner Lake), just shy of the narrow mountain pass to cross the Sierras. To their misfortune, an early winter storm blanketed the area in over five feet of snow, trapping them on the eastern side.

The Donner Party and Cannibalism

The Donner Party settled near Truckee Lake to try and wait out the storms until they let up enough for them to attempt another crossing. Their inexperience made them unaware that these parts of the Sierras are regularly hit with 20+ feet of snow.

This was one of those years and soon 20-25 feet of snow blanketed the pass leaving them impassable. The families hunkered down and tried to survive on their existing rations. It was soon apparent that their stores would not last them through the winter.

Illustration of the Donner Party struggles / North Wind Picture Archives

The first deaths began to occur in December 1846. Members of the Donner Party died from starvation, hypothermia, and other illnesses as their weakened states left them susceptible to the elements.

Something needed to be done, and by mid-December a group of 17 decided to try and cross the pass to get aid and relief. They left with 6 days’ rations each. It was not enough.

Later known as “the Forlorn Hope” it was on this venture that the members first turned to cannibalism for survival. The party became trapped by the winter storms and with no food, began to eat the members who succumbed to the elements and starvation.

After over a month, the seven surviving members of the Forlorn Hope finally reached a settlement. Relief efforts could finally begin though not until early February.

Meanwhile at Truckee Lake the families were doing everything they could to survive. As their provisions ran out they turned to everything they could find for sustenance. They ate bone marrow, animal hides, pine cones, and ponderosa bark. They eventually even ate the hides that formed the roofs of the cabins for food.

The starving and delirious members of the Donner Party somehow held out. The first reports of cannibalism here were not until after the first relief made it to the camp, in February and March.

The Survivors of the Donner Party

It would take the heroic efforts of four relief parties between February-April 1847 to rescue the survivors of the Donner Party. The gaunt, emaciated, starving survivors were barely recognizable and some needed to be physically carried the remainder of the way.

There are generally 90 members associated with the Donner Party, including two native Americans that joined as the group closed in on the Sierras. Six of those members died on the journey before the Sierras.

Of the 84 remaining, 48 survived while 36 perished from the ordeal. Tragically, one child died from overeating after making it across the mountains.

The Donner Party Survivors and Cannibalism chart

Though numbers are not confirmed, it is estimated that about 22 of the people who died were eventually cannibalized by surviving members. Not all the survivors turned to cannibalism, though it was a significant number.

The survivors of the Donner Party dealt with many physical and psychological disorders in the aftermath of their plight. Many lost toes and limbs due to frostbite and were pariahs of society for their roles in the episode.

The story of the Donner Party has become legend primarily due to the taboo acts of cannibalism.

Despite popular interpretations, the survivors of the Donner Party turned to cannibalism only as a last resort when there were no options left. There was only one instance where people were killed to be eaten, and the two members were virtually on the edge of death at the time.

The ultimate irony of the Donner Party is that if they had arrived at the Sierras just a week earlier their story would be lost to the annals of history. Instead, due to a long string of misfortune, the survivors of the Donner party have been immortalized as a cautionary – and gory – tale.

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