In May 1846, the last wagon train of the season left Independence, Missouri for the Mexican territory of Alta California. Led by two men from Springfield, Illinois—farmer George Donner and furniture manufacturer James F. Reed—the Donner Party followed the well-established California Trail as far as the Little Sandy River in Wyoming. It’s there that they made the fateful decision to take a new, more direct route over the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Desert. The determination was made despite the warnings from accomplished mountain man James Clyman.
The Donner Party followed a path set out for them by by adventurer and guidebook author Lansford Hastings. The Hastings Cutoff was meant to save time by shortening the journey more than 300 miles. Instead, the rugged terrain, lack of natural water sources, and extreme weather conditions proved disastrous for the pioneers. The Donner Party was delayed by three weeks, all while much of their cattle was stolen or killed in raids by Paiute Indians. It wasn’t until early November that they finally began to climb the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
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Despite multiple setbacks and mistakes, the group arrived at Sutter’s Fort, only 90 miles from their final destination. If they’d made it over the pass and out of the mountains, the Donner Party might have been lost in the pages of history. They would have just been one of the hundreds of wagon trains in the first wave of westward migration. Instead, an early snowfall trapped 81 men, women, and children in makeshift tents and cabins at Truckee Lake and in the Alder Creek Valley some seven miles east.
Conditions took a grim and immediate turn. Once they ate the few remaining oxen and horses, the snowbound travelers relied on mice, tree bark, pine cones, and strips of leather for food. They also boiled ox hides to make a foul smelling, glue-like substance.
In mid-December, a group of 15 people that would later be known as the “Forlorn Hope” left the Truckee Lake camp to find help. Weak with hunger and carrying few provisions, they were caught in the open by a blizzard. They wandered lost and confused in the mountains for more than a month. Eight members of the troop died, but two men and five women eventually made it to a small farming community on the Bear River.
It took four rescue attempts to bring the last surviving member of the Donner Party to safety in April 1847. Unfortunately, nearly half of the emigrants had perished during one of the most brutal winters on record. Many of those who lived admitted that some members of the party had to resort to eating the dead, and the gruesome specter of cannibalism has hung over the episode ever since. But this morbid detail has obscured some of the most intriguing facts about this remarkable chapter in American history.
1. Abraham Lincoln was almost a member of the Donner Party.
As a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln often helped his friend James F. Reed in business matters. The two had been messmates during the Blackhawk War, and Lincoln counseled Reed through bankruptcy proceedings shortly before the latter left for California. According to one historian, Lincoln considered joining the Donner Party, but his wife Mary Todd was strongly opposed to the idea. American history might look very different if the future president and his family had made the ill-fated voyage.
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2. An intercepted letter may have sealed the Donner Party's fate.
Most historians agree that the Donner Party’s fatal mistake was taking the Hastings Cutoff. It put them almost a month behind schedule and severely depleted their resources before the critical last stage of their journey. But the emigrants might have returned to the main trail if they’d received a letter left for them at the southwestern Wyoming trading post of mountain man Jim Bridger.
The letter was written by journalist Edwin Bryant and addressed to James F. Reed. It warned that the Hastings Cutoff was too rough for the Donner Party’s wagons. But as the trading post stood to profit enormously if the new route proved popular, Reed never received the letter. Both Reed and Bryant later suspected that Bridger had concealed it in order to improve his business prospects.
3. At least four people were deliberately killed during the trip.
One: Tensions were running high well before the Donner Party was trapped. Around the time they rejoined the California Trail near modern-day Elko, Nevada, a fight broke out between two teamsters over tangled wagons. When James F. Reed intervened, he was whipped for his efforts. He pulled a knife in self-defense, killing his attacker, John Snyder.
Two: Shortly afterwards, a German immigrant named Karl Wolfinger stopped to cache one of his wagons and never rejoined the wagon train. Two men who went with him claimed that he had been killed by Paiute raiders. Months later, as one of the men was starving to death, he confessed to murdering Wolfinger for his gold.
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Three and Four: In December 1846, the members of the Forlorn Hope were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive their brutal ordeal. First, they consumed the flesh of five emigrants who had died from starvation and exposure. However, the group had joined with two Miwok men who had refused to eat the dead party members. Still starving, the Forlorn Hope group shot and killed the two outsiders before eating their bodies.
Five: In April 1847, Lewis Keseberg was the last survivor to be rescued. In his cabin he had pistols, jewelry, and gold belonging to George Donner. He also had a pot of human flesh.
Keseberg claimed that George’s wife, Tamsen, had given him the valuables for safekeeping shortly before she died. However, his rescuers accused him of murder and nearly lynched him. For the rest of his life, a cloud of suspicion hung over Keseberg. Rumors circulated that he preferred human flesh to beef, and that he had once claimed that Tamsen Donner’s liver was the “sweetest morsel” he’d ever tasted.
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4. The Mexican-American War delayed rescue efforts for the Donner Party.
After James Reed killed a man in self-defense, he was banished from the wagon train. Forced to leave his wife and four children behind, he rode ahead on horseback. He made it down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in late October and organized a party to bring food and supplies to the emigrants. Unfortunately, he was turned back by deep snow.
At this point, most of the able-bodied men in Alta California were caught up in the Mexican-American War. Reed traveled to San Jose to try to raise another rescue party, but volunteers were hard to find. Beyond that, communication lines were down and roads throughout the region were blocked. It wasn’t until February 1847 that he was able to round up enough men and provisions to head back into the mountains.
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5. Most of the snowbound emigrants were children.
One of the saddest facts of the Donner Party's story is that more than half of the 81 people trapped in the camps were younger than 18 years old. Six of them were infants. Mothers, fathers, and older siblings were forced to make terrible choices to protect their youngest family members.
In the most famous case, Margaret Reed made the agonizing decision to leave behind two of her four children when they proved too weak to make it down the mountain with the first rescue team. Eight-year-old Patty said, “Well, mother, if you never see me again, do the best you can.”
Thankfully, the second relief effort, led by Patty’s father James Reed, arrived shortly thereafter. All four Reed children were lucky enough to survive. The doll that Patty brought with her to California is currently on display at the Emigrant Trail Museum at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee.
6. One determined savior went through a grueling process to rescue children.
John Stark was a stout and sturdy settler from California who went along with the third relief party in the March of 1847. Accompanied by two other rescuers, he found a small group of emigrants who had been left behind in the mountains by the last relief effort. Two of these emigrants were adults, while the other nine had been children.
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While his fellow rescuers each grabbed a single child, Stark wasn’t going to leave anyone behind again. As the children were too weak to walk, Stark would haul up two children in his arms and trek a few yards before returning for the next pair. He travelled back and forth again and again under the weight of multiple children and his already heavy provisions. He did this heroic and exhausting task until he led the group all the way back to safety.
7. There were far more male casualties than female in the Donner Party.
Of the 35 members of the Donner Party who perished in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 25 were male and 10 were female. The discrepancy can be attributed to numerous factors. First of all, women generally have higher levels of stored body fat and lower metabolism rates. The men were also in a weakened physical condition after performing backbreaking labor during the trek along the Hastings Cutoff.
It should also be noted that the mothers and wives of the Donner Party fought ferociously to protect their families. In one particular act of incredible sacrifice, George Donner’s wife Tamsen sent her children off with rescuers while she refused to leave her dying husband’s side.
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8. Nearly all of the solo travelers perished.
The Donner Party was made up of 12 families and 21 individuals. Only six of the solo travelers—many of whom worked for the families—are known to have survived the frozen pass. Two families escaped the adventure fully unscathed, while the other 10 lost a combined 23 loved ones. Although that number is much higher, only 25% of the members who were a part of a family on the trail were lost, while over 70% of those on their own were killed by cold, starvation, or violence.
Featured photo of an encampment of tents and covered wagons on the Humboldt River in Nevada: Wikimedia Commons