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, where they made the fateful decision to take a new, more direct route over the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Desert.
Promoted by adventurer and guidebook author Lansford Hastings, the Hastings Cutoff was meant to save time by shortening the journey more than 300 miles. But the rugged terrain, lack of natural water sources, and extreme weather conditions proved disastrous for the pioneers. Delayed by three weeks, with most of their cattle stolen or killed in raids by Paiute Indians, the Donner Party finally began to climb the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in early November.
Despite a myriad of setbacks and mistakes, the group was only 90 miles from its final destination at Sutter’s Fort near present-day Sacramento, California. 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, just 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 (now Donner) Lake and in the Alder Creek Valley some seven miles to the east.
Once they consumed the few remaining oxen and horses, the snowbound travelers caught and ate mice; gnawed on tree bark, pine cones, and strips of leather. They also boiled ox hides to make a foul smelling, glue-like substance. In mid-December, 15 people–a group 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 and 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. Nearly half of the emigrants had perished during one of the most brutal winters on record, and many of those who lived admitted that some members of the party had cannibalized the dead. The gruesome specter of cannibalism has hung over the episode ever since, obscuring some of the most intriguing details - which we delve into below - 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 they reached the critical last stage of the journey. But the emigrants might have returned to the main trail if they’d received a letter left for them at mountain man Jim Bridger’s trading post in southwestern Wyoming. The letter, written by journalist Edwin Bryant and addressed to James F. Reed, warned that the Hastings Cutoff was too rough for the Donner Party’s wagons. But Fort Bridger, as the trading post would later be known, stood to profit enormously if the new route proved popular. Reed never received the letter, and both he 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. James F. Reed intervened. He was whipped for his efforts and 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.
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. The group had joined with two Miwok men, Luis and Salvador, who had refused to eat the dead party members. Still starving, the Forlorn Hope group shot and killed the two outsiders. They then ate their bodies.
Five: In April 1847, Lewis Keseberg was the last survivor to be rescued. In his cabin he had a pot full of human flesh and pistols, jewelry, and gold belonging to George Donner. Keseberg claimed that George’s wife, Tamsen, had given him the valuables for safekeeping shortly before she died, but 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 had once claimed that Tamsen Donner’s liver was the “sweetest morsel” he’d ever tasted.
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 and made it down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in late October. He organized a party to bring food and supplies to the emigrants but was turned back by deep snow. By then, most of the able-bodied men in Alta California (modern Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming) were caught up in the Mexican-American War. Reed traveled to San Jose to try to raise another relief party, but volunteers were hard to find, 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.
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 81 people trapped in the Truckee Lake and Alder Creek camps were younger than 18 years old, and six 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. Patty, age eight, 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 and all four Reed children survived. 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. 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, including higher levels of stored body fat and lower metabolism rates in the women and the men’s weakened physical conditions 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 an act of incredible sacrifice, George Donner’s wife Tamsen sent her children off with rescuers but refused to leave her dying husband’s side.
7. Nearly all of the solo travelers perished.
There were 12 families, consisting of anywhere from two to 12 members, and 21 individuals who made up the Donner Party. Only six 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 members who were a part of a family on the trail were lost, while over 70% of those on their own were killed, either by cold, starvation, or violence.
Featured photo of an encampment of tents and covered wagons on the Humboldt River in Nevada: Wikimedia Commons