The Donner Party | Pioneers, Cannibals, Survivors

The trouble with tales such as that of The Donner Party (almost 90 people) is the unknown. In a time when the land was largely lawless, unexplored, and mother nature had the upper hand, there weren’t many with the capabilities to investigate. It could takes days or weeks to get places, meaning rescue parties are a long time coming. And in that time a lot can change.

Despite that, the California trail the Donner Party set out on in May of 1846 was well established. And they followed it as far as The Little Sandy River in Wyoming. They estimated that the journey would take them four months. At the Little Sandy River they turned onto a shortcut meant to shave 300 miles off the journey.

The Donner Party - The Donner Pass

The short cut had been written about by Lansford Hastings in his Emigrant’s Guide. But he who had never actually ridden the route himself. The pioneers weren’t ready for what was ahead of them. Few if any natural water sources, uneven terrain, and extreme weather where just three of the difficulties they faced. Indians raided and stole cattle, making the short cut not so short after all. Delaying their arrival at the pass.

Mice & Leather

It was November when, tired, and with provisions and livestock depleted they started up the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And if what they’d been through already wasn’t enough, an early snowfall trapped them in the Alder Creek Valley. 60 people huddled together against the cold in makeshift tents and rationing out their remaining supplies and livestock. Half were under the age of eighteen. Resorting to mice, pine cones, tree bark and leather. They were desperately hungry, suffering from hypothermia when fifteen headed out in an attempt to find help.

The Fifteen

Fifteen members of the Donner Party headed out. Unprepared and with few provisions, they hoped to find food, shelter and help for those who remained behind. This group became known as the Forlorn Hope. The group joined with two Miwok men, making a party of seventeen.

A blizzard disorientated them. And they wandered for over a month. Lost and alone until eventually, seven made it to a small farming community on Bear River.

To make it that far the Forlorn Hope had taken desperate measures. Eatening the bodies of those who died along the way. Except for the two outsiders who refused to participate in the cannibalism. Later the remaining group members would shoot and kill the twMiwok men. And consume their flesh, before they reached their final destination.

The Donner Party Survivors

The last surviving members of the Donner Party were finally brought to safety in four rescue trips ending in April of 1847. More than a year after they’d set out. And they had some tales to tell. One of which was the desperation that led to the cannibalisation of their dead by some members of the party. The last and only survivor of the fourth rescue trip, Lewis Keseberg, was found in his cabin. With a pot of cooked human flesh and valuables belonging to George Donner and his wife.

Want More?

Learn more in The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis. Click on the image to be taken to Amazon UK.


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