United States and American History: 1846 & the Donner Party

About the history of the United States in 1846 and the Donner Party which became snowbound and had to resort to cannibalism to survive.

July 20 The party headed by George Donner, an elderly, well-to-do Illinois farmer, and the equally wealthy James Frazier Reed decided to separate its 20 wagons from the rest of the wagon train heading over the regular route west. Lansford W. Hastings, explorer, wagon-train guide, author, and promoter, had suggested in a letter sent to emigrants at the Sweetwater encampment that they take a new route, 350 to 400 mi. shorter. Hastings assured them that he would guide them over this new trail after meeting them at Fort Bridger.

Hastings, however, upon getting together a train of 66 wagons, had left the fort before the Donner party arrived. Having missed their guide, the Donner party went on alone. Trapped in the Sierras by early snows at the end of October, the Donners, Reeds, and others in their group were forced to kill their cattle for food. Snow, freezing weather, and lack of wood for fires added to their hardships. After the hides of the cattle and oxen had been devoured, the survivors faced a decision: It was cannibalism or perish.

Lewis Keseberg, who was accused of committing 6 murders in order to feast off the flesh of his victims, discussed his cannibalism 3 decades later:

I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the 1st mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it! It has been told that I boasted of my shame--said that I enjoyed this horrid food, and that I remarked human flesh was more palatable than California beef. This is a falsehood. . . . This food was never otherwise than loathesome, insipid, and disgusting.

Keseberg claimed he had been trapped in a cabin with 5 companions who had died naturally. To survive, he was forced to carve them up, boil them, eat them. He said, "A man, before he judges me, should be placed in a similar situation."

The struggle of the Donner party ended in April, 1847, when 47 survivors of the original party of 82 finally reached California.

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