The Donner Party: An Incredible Story of Struggle, Starvation, and Survival

The Donner Party: An Incredible Story of Struggle, Starvation, and Survival

Anyone who reads the story of the Donner Party for the first time would think they’re just reading a made-up story, but that’s not the case. The story about the group of pioneers who journeyed across 1800s America in a wagon train from the Midwest to California seems so incredible and hard to believe what with elements of starvation and cannibalism, but it did happen, and it’s a story that needs to be retold even centuries after it happened.

In the spring of 1846, a group of pioneers set out on a journey across the Midwest to what is now California. These pioneers came to be known as the Donner Party. Spurred by a severe cholera epidemic and a panic-inducing economic crisis, they got inspired to head west also because of the Manifest Destiny, which was the 19th century doctrine popular at the time that justified the expansion of the US throughout the rest of the American continent. 

But what was once a dream became a collective nightmare for the entire party thanks to a series of misfortunes that ended in them being snowbound in the mountains and reaching the brink of starvation that some of them had to resort to cannibalism. It’s one of the most grotesque stories of pre-modern America but yet it is also hauntingly fascinating. 

Here are some incredible, not-so widely known details about the Donner Party:

1. They started their trip dangerously late.

For emigrants heading west along the California Trail, it was crucial that they time their trips well. They needed to start their journey late enough in the spring so that their pack animals could have some grass to eat along the way, but they also needed to be early enough to be able to cross the western mountain passes before winter could set in. The perfect time for a departure was sometime in April, but somehow, the Donner Party didn’t start their journey until mid-May. This left with very little time indeed to cross over, and they couldn’t afford any errors.

2. They ultimately fell behind schedule because they took poor advice.

The misleading advice that led them to tragedy came from someone named Lansford Hastings, who had previously written a guidebook entitled The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California. In the book, he had proposed an alternative and “shorter” route that would cross the Wasatch Mountains and go on across the Salt Lake Desert. Hastings, however, forgot to mention one thing: no one had ever traveled this alternative route before, not even him. But the Donner Party took the advice—against their better judgment and against the warnings of James Clyman, an expert mountain man—and this decision ultimately led to disastrous results. Because they were the first party on the trail, they had to blaze a trail by cutting down trees themselves; and during their crossing of the Salt Lake Desert that took five days, they almost died from thirst. Ultimately, the “shorter” route that Hastings had promised them added nearly a month to their journey.

3. They would nearly have made if they weren’t late by just a few days.

The Donner Party had barely managed to reach the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains that they would have to cross and they only had a few hundred miles left in their trek, but it was at this time that the ultimate disaster struck. An early winter blizzard completely blocked their passage, and what would have been navigable mountain roads soon became icy, impassable roadblocks. This forced the party to retreat to a nearby lake called Truckee Lake and wait out the rest of the winter there in decrepit cabins and poorly set up tents. By this time, they had already consumed much of their livestock and supplies, and it wasn’t long before they began to starve. 

4. A few of the pioneers managed to make it to safety.

In December 1846, about fifteen of the strongest members decided they had had enough and tried walking out of the makeshift lakefront camp to seek help. But after several days of wandering on foot, they still hadn’t managed to find help. What was worse was that they were completely starving and near collapse. Desperate for sustenance of any kind, the party soon resorted to cannibalism after several members of their party died by roasting and eating their corpses. This gruesome food gave the survivors enough energy to continue, and they managed to make it to safety after about a month of walking when they came upon a ranch in California. It was there that they helped organize rescue efforts for the remaining members of the party who were stranded at Truckee Lake.

5. A party member murdered two natives for food.

The natives were named Salvador and Luis, and they were Indians who became part of the emigrants’ party when they joined up with them right before they became snowbound. They were also part of the fifteen-member crew who had set out to find help. When the rest of the party began to discuss cannibalism as an option, Salvador and Luis refused outright and snuck away out of fear that they would be murdered for food. Their fears became reality when the emigrants came upon them days later starving and freezing in the snow and someone shot them both in the head. They were then butchered and eaten for food by the hikers. 

6. Not all of the Donner Party engaged in cannibalism.

Those of the party who were stranded at Truckee Lake also had to resort to eating grotesque meals, but they stopped short of cannibalism. They killed and ate their pack animals and dogs and gnawed on their bones. When even that was gone, they resorted to boiling and eating the animal hide off the roofs of their cabins. They also subsisted on tree bark and pieces of boiled leather up until the first rescue team came in February 1847. Upon their rescue, however, not all of them were up to the journey going back and those that were left behind and made to wait for further help were forced to subsist on the frozen bodies of their former companions. Ultimately, around half of the survivors of the Donner’s Party ended up eating human flesh.

7. It took over two months and four rescue teams to bring the survivors to safety.

The Donner Party spent a total of five months trapped in the mountains, and half of it was after they had been found by a rescue team, the first out of four. The first relief party reached the survivors at Truckee Lake in February 1846, and it took three more teams over the course of two and a half months to rescue the entire surviving party and take them back to civilization.

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