Survivors in History The Donner Party Part 1

About the infamous survivors of the Donner party, history of the snowbound pioneers who were forced into cannibalism.



In March of 1847, Californians suddenly lost interest in discussing the war with Mexico as news of murder, starvation, and cannibalism came drifting down from the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains. In October, 1846, a party of immigrants, later referred to as the Donner party (after George Donner, who headed the group), had fallen weeks behind a westward train of over 300 wagons on their way to California. They had encountered one setback after another. Many oxen and other livestock had perished and provisions were running low. James Reed, who had helped to organize the group, was banished for killing a young man named John Snyder in an argument. The blundering leadership of Lansford Hastings, an explorer and wagon-train guide, was largely responsible for the party's tragic fate. In fact, later wagon trains avoided the unfortunate Hastings, preferring instead "the guidance of the devil himself."

The snows came to the Sierra Nevada a month early that year, trapping the Donner party below the summit of what is now known as Donner Pass. By the end of October, the party had no choice but to make camp at Truckee (now Donner) Lake, a few miles from the summit. Between the lake and the summit, the snow was from 20 to 60 ft. deep and impassable. Leanna Donner later wrote about their arrival at Donner Lake: "The snow came on so suddenly that we had barely time to pitch our tent, and put up a brush shed, as it were, one side of which was open. This brush shed was covered with pine boughs, and then covered with rubber coats, quilts, etc. My uncle, Jacob Donner, and family, also had a tent, and camped near us."

The livestock was slaughtered and refrigerated in the snow. The hides were used to roof abandoned hunters' cabins.

It was soon obvious that game was almost nonexistent and that provisions were far too short to sustain the group until the foul weather eased. Several small groups attempted to get over the summit to Sutter's Fort to get aid, but the deep snow turned them back.

Finally in mid-December, a group of 17 people, 12 men and 5 women, wearing improvised snow shoes and facing almost certain death, started out for help. They took only six days' rations, consisting of a piece of dried beef the size of two fingers per person for each of the six days. This group, later known as the "forlorn hope," was led by C. T. Stanton, a gifted poet and expert woodsman, who promised, "I will bring help to these famishing people or lay down my life."

By Dec. 27, 1846, several of the party remaining in camp were dead and the rest were dying and delirious from starvation and exposure. The survivors resorted to cannibalism. One account states: "With averted eyes and trembling hand, pieces of flesh were severed from the inanimate forms and laid upon the coals. It was the very refinement of torture to taste such food, yet those who tasted lived...."

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