The Donner Party, Ill-Fated Group of Settlers Headed to California

Settlers Stranded in Snow Turned to Cannibalism

illustration of the Donner Party in the Great Salt Lake Desert
The hardships of the Donner Party began in the Great Salt Lake Desert.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The Donner Party was a group of American settlers heading to California who became stranded in heavy snows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846. Isolated in horrific conditions, about half of the original group of nearly 90 people died of starvation or exposure. Some of the survivors turned to cannibalism in order to survive.

After those who managed to stay alive were rescued in early 1847, the story of horror in the mountains appeared in a California newspaper. The tale made its way east, circulated through newspaper articles, and became part of western lore.

Fast Facts: The Donner Party

  • About half of a group of nearly 90 settlers heading to California in 1846 starved when snowbound.
  • Disaster was caused by taking an untested route which added weeks to the journey.
  • Survivors eventually resorted to cannibalism.
  • Story circulated widely through newspaper stories and books.

Origin of the Donner Party

The Donner Party was named for two families, George Donner and his wife and children, and George’s brother Jacob and his wife and children. They were from Springfield, Illinois, as was another family traveling with them, James Reed and his wife and children. Also from Springfield were various individuals associated with the Donner and Reed families.

That original group left Illinois in April 1846 and arrived in Independence, Missouri, the following month. After securing provisions for the long trip westward, the group, along with other travelers from a variety of places, left Independence on May 12, 1846. (People would typically meet in Independence and decide to stick together for the journey westward, which is how some members of the Donner Party joined the group essentially by chance.)

The group made good progress along the trail westward, and in about a week had met up with another wagon train, which they joined. The early part of the journey passed with no major problems. The George Donner's wife had written a letter describing the early weeks of the trip which appeared in the newspaper back in Springfield. The letter also appeared in papers in the East, including the New York Herald, which published it on the front page.

After passing Fort Laramie, a major landmark on the way west, they met up with a rider who gave them a letter which claimed that troops from Mexico (which was at war with the United States) might interfere with their passage ahead. The letter advised taking a shortcut called the Hastings Cutoff.

Shortcut to Disaster

After arriving at Fort Bridger (in present day Wyoming), the Donners, the Reeds, and others debated whether to take the shortcut. They were assured, falsely it turned out, that the traveling would be easy. Through a series of miscommunications, they did not receive warnings from those who knew otherwise.

The Donner Party decided to take the shortcut, which led them into many hardships. The route, which took them on a southerly path about Great Salt Lake, was not clearly marked. And it was often very difficult passage for the group's wagon.

The shortcut required passing over the Great Salt Lake Desert. The conditions were like nothing any of the travelers had seen before, with blistering heat by day and frigid winds at night. It took five days to cross the desert, leaving the 87 members of the party, including many children, exhausted. Some of the party’s oxen had died in the brutal conditions, and it became obvious that taking the shortcut had been a colossal blunder.

Taking the promised shortcut had backfired, and put the group about three weeks behind schedule. Had they taken the more established route, they would have gotten across the final mountains before any chance of snowfall and arrived in California safely.

Tensions in the Group

With the travelers seriously behind schedule, anger flared in the group. In October the Donner families broke off to go ahead, hoping to make better time. In the main group, an argument broke out between a man named John Snyder and James Reed. Snyder struck Reed with an ox whip, and Reed responded by stabbing Snyder and killing him.

The killing of Snyder happened beyond U.S. laws, as it was then Mexican territory. In such a circumstance, it would be up to the members of a wagon train to decide how to dispense justice. With the group's leader, George Donner, at least a day’s travel ahead, the others decided to banish Reed from the group.

With high mountains still to cross, the party of settlers was in disarray and deeply distrustful of each other. They had already endured more than their share of hardships on the trails, and seemingly endless problems, including bands of Native Americans raiding at night and stealing oxen, continued to plague them.

Trapped by Snow

Arriving at the Sierra Nevada mountain range at the end of October, early snows were already making the journey difficult. When they reached the vicinity of Truckee Lake (now called Donner Lake), they discovered the mountain passes they needed to cross were already blocked by snowdrifts.

Attempts to get over the passes failed. A group of 60 travelers settled into crude cabins which had been built and abandoned two years earlier by other settlers passing by. A smaller group, including the Donners, set up a camp a few miles away.

Stranded by impassable snow, the supplies quickly dwindled. The travelers had never seen such snow conditions before, and attempts by small parties to walk onward to California to get help were thwarted by the deep snowdrifts.

Facing starvation, people ate the carcasses of their oxen. When the meat ran out, they were reduced to boiling ox hide and eating it. At times people caught mice in the cabins and ate them.

In December, a party of 17, consisting of men, women, and children, set out with snowshoes they had fashioned. The party found the traveling nearly impossible, but kept moving westward. Facing starvation, some of the party resorted to cannibalism, eating the flesh of those who had died.

At one point, two Nevada Indians who had joined the group before they headed into the mountains were shot and killed so their flesh could be eaten. (That was the only instance in the story of the Donner Party where people were killed to be eaten. The other instances of cannibalism occurred after people had died of exposure or starvation.)

One member of the party, Charles Eddy, eventually managed to wander into a village of the Miwok tribe. The Native Americans gave him food, and after he reached white settlers at a ranch, he managed to get a rescue party together. They found the six survivors of the snowshoe group.

Back at the camp by the lake, one of the travelers, Patrick Breen, had started keeping a diary. His entries were brief, at first just descriptions of the weather. But over time he began noting the increasingly desperate conditions as more and more of those stranded succumbed to starvation. Breen survived the ordeal and his diary was eventually published.

Rescue Efforts

One of the travelers who had gone ahead in October became increasingly alarmed when the Donner Party never showed up at Sutter’s Fort in California. He tried to raise the alarm and eventually was able to inspire what eventually amounted to four separate rescue missions.

What the rescuers discovered was disturbing. The survivors were emaciated. And in some of the cabins rescuers discovered bodies which had been butchered. A member of a rescue party described finding a body with the head sawed open so the brains could be extracted. The various mutilated bodies were gathered together and buried in one of the cabins, which was then burned to the ground.

Of the 87 travelers who entered the mountains on the final phase of the journey, 48 survived. Most of them stayed in California.

Legacy of the Donner Party

Stories about the Donner Party began to circulate immediately. By the summer of 1847 the story had reached the newspaper in the East. The New York Tribune published a story on August 14, 1847, which gave some grim details. The Weekly National Intelligencer, a Washington, D.C. newspaper, published a story on October 30, 1847, which described the "terrible suffering" of the Donner Party.

An editor of a local newspaper in Truckee, California, Charles McGlashan, became something of an expert on the story of the Donner Party. In the 1870s he talked to survivors and pieced together a comprehensive account of the tragedy. His book, History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra, was published in 1879 and went through many editions. The story of the Donner Party has lived on, through a number of books and films based on the tragedy.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, many settlers heading to California took what happened as a serious warning not to lose time on the trail and not to take unreliable shortcuts.

Sources:

  • "Distressing News." American Eras: Primary Sources, edited by Sara Constantakis, et al., vol. 3: Westward Expansion, 1800-1860, Gale, 2014, pp. 95-99. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Brown, Daniel James. The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party. William Morrow & Company, 2015.