Ain't No Party Like A Donner Party
Never take the short cut. If you watch enough horror movies or commute long enough, you learn that the short cut is going to either take longer or kill you. The Donner-Reed Party decided to take an untested shortcut and look what happened: they ate each other. You knew that. Let's talk about how they fucked up.
The year is 1846 and a caravan of 500 wagons began to head west to the warm, sunny Golden State, as many still do today, to live out their dreams, only to meet the cold, crushing defeat of reality. In the 1800's, this was more about Manifest Destiny, people not hating you for being Catholic, and people not hating you for being Mormon. In July 1846, several groups received letters from Lansford W. Hastings that they should all band together because the Mexican authorities were spooky-scary. He suggested they all meet him at Fort Bridger so he can guide them through his shortcut that avoids the Mexicans, a shameless self-promotion of his new road. At this point, most of the wagon train wisely decided to take the established route. The Donner, Reed, and some other families decided to trust this guy handing out pamphlets in wilderness.
Edwin Bryant, a noble soul, ventured down Hastings' route a ways and was concerned that it was too rugged for all those wagons. He left his warning at Jim Bridger's trading post, who would benefit greatly if people took the Hastings route. Jim Bridger didn't deliver the warning, obviously, because his profit would suffer if people took the established route. Instead, the families were promised by Hastings that his route would shorten their trip by 350 miles and avoid all those pesky Indians and Mexicans and that sounded pretty excellent.
Just a few days into venturing down the Hastings Cutoff, the Donner Party realized they done fucked up. The route was rugged, steep and not clearly marked like the California or Oregon Trail, which was already bad enough that they made a sweet video game about it. In fact, the only real direction the Donner Party got on this trail was a bunch of letters posted on trees. Now, for comparison purpose, the average wagon train traveled about 15 miles a day. Long haul backpackers these days tend to hike between 15 and 20 miles per day. The Donner Party was now crawling along at 1.5 miles per day, clearing brush and moving boulders so they could get their wagons through. There's something to be said for persistence. I don't know what, but something.
By mid- August, the Donner Party included 87 people and they could see the Great Salt Lake. If you've ever flown into SLC, this is a beautiful and impressive sight. The men are starting to argue over who who picked this stupid route and food supplies are running low for the poorer families. Shortly after someone died of tuberculosis, they came upon a tattered letter left by Hastings with a warning that the route ahead would be even more difficult and would not have grass or water. The note promised a 2 day, 40-mile trip. The party set off with their exhausted, hungry ox into a barren, salty desert wasteland. The party, three days into the journey and out of water, was unable to care for the ox and abandoned many still tied to their wagons. Several other ox broke free and ran off into to the desert. The trip took 6 days to cross 80 miles and finally reach a spring. The party officially lost faith in Hastings but felt they had no choice but to follow his old tracks. A small party advanced down the path and returned with the bad news that there was another 40 miles of desert ahead. Charles Stanton and William McCutchen are sent ahead to Sutter's Fort because the party knew they would be running out of supplies soon. By the end of September, the Donner Party arrived at the traditional California Trail route, one month later than it would have normally taken them had they not taken the damn shortcut. Death toll: 1/87
In October, the party banished James Reed after he stabbed a guy for beating some oxen. His family was allowed to stay with the party after some deliberation about whether to hang him. Lewis Keseberg offers his wagon as a hanging plank. Reed traveled ahead alone, but his daughter, Virginia, secretly delivered him supplies. When Reed passed the Donner family while traveling, Walter Herron decided to join him on the way to California. The remaining animals pulling the wagons were weak and grass was scarce. Everyone was instructed to walk, including an elderly man whose feet split open from swelling. The man was told by Lewis Keseberg that he was to get out of the wagon or die. The man disappeared after resting by the stream. One person pleaded for the party to look for him, but they said they would not waste resources on a 70-year-old man. Death toll: 3/87
By now, numerous encounters with the Paiute tribe had cost the Donner Party almost 100 oxen, cattle, and much of their supplies. The families were splitting up to fight for their own survival needs, distrusting the other families. One German emigrant decided to stash his wagon at the Humboldt Sink and two others stayed behind to help him. They actually killed him, but when they caught back up with the rest of the party, they said the Indians did it. Nearly a month and a half later, Charles Stanton returns with seven mules, supplies and two Miwok guides, Luis and Salvador. William McCutchen stayed behind at Sutter's Fort with illness. While the Donner Party has only managed to make it to the Truckee River leading into the Sierra Nevadas, banished James Reed is sitting pretty at Sutter's Fort. Death toll: 4/87
On October 30th (Devil's Night, Mischief Night, or Cabbage Night, if you so please), William Foster accidentally shoots and kills his brother-in-law in Truckee Canyon. Snow falls as the man is buried. On Halloween, the Donner family wagon breaks an axle and George Donner is badly injured while repairing it. This one day delay will cost many lives. The snowfall grew to several feet in depth and the road became impassable in the harsh winter storm. By November 6th, the groups decide to hunker down for the winter, only 150 miles away from Sutter's Fort, at Truckee Lake. The two Donner families were still behind the rest of the families by 6 miles at Alder Creek. Death toll: 5/87
It continues to snow throughout November. By the end of the month, most of the cattle have been eaten. By early December, the mules are gone and there is very little beef left. One man dies of malnutrition and two men leave to check on the families at Alder Creek. On December 16th, with the snow depth at 8 feet, seventeen people decide to attempt crossing the mountain on snowshoes, each supplied with 6 days of starvation rations. This group is later named the Forlorn Hope. Death toll: 6/87
Charles Burger and William Murphy can't keep up and go back to camp. The snowshoers reach Yuba Bottom on the 20th. The following day, their rations run out. Charles Stanton is too weak to continue, so he sits down in the snow and lights a pipe. Milt Elliot, one of the men who went to check on the Donners, returns to Truckee Lake with news that four more people have died at Alder Creek and the remainder look absolutely terrible. Death toll: 11/87
On Christmas Eve, a terrible blizzard stalls the snowshoers. They are freezing, weak and completely out of food. Patrick Dolan suggests they kill someone for food. The group argues over a dueling match until someone suggests they draw straws. Patrick Dolan loses, but no one is willing to kill him. After two men die of hypothermia, Patrick Dolan goes insane, strips naked and runs into the woods. He returns a while later and died. There are now twelve snowshoers remaining. They strip the flesh and muscle from the dead men on Christmas Day. Three men, Eddy, Luis and Salvador, refuse to eat the dead men and 12-year-old Lemuel Murphy dies of starvation the next day. They harvest him as well, dry the meat out and pack it so that no one has to eat someone from their own family. This site was endearingly named the Camp of Death. Death toll: 15/87
Charles Burger, one of the snowshoers who gave up and went back to the lake, dies of starvation on the 29th. Meanwhile back at the snowshoer ranch, they've run out of human meat. William Foster suggests eating the Miwoks, Luis and Salvador, but William Eddy, the other guy that wasn't okay with cannibalizing the other dead people, isn't down with that. Eddy tells Luis and Salvador of William Foster's Eat-the-Miwoks Plan and they dip out. Death toll: 16/87
It takes over a week for the snowshoers to catch up to Luis and Salvador. During that time, another person had died of starvation and is cannibalized. William Foster shoots and kills Luis and Salvador who are then also harvested for food. Three days later, on January 12th, they reach a Miwok camp who share their meager supplies. Everyone but William Eddy is too weak to continue. He is guided by a Miwok to a ranch on the outskirts of Sacramento and a search party rescues the remaining six snowshoers on January 17th. Death toll: 19/89 (Luis and Salvador weren't in the original 87 emigrant group, but they became part of the group and then died as part of the group. Sort of.)
The month of January was relatively uneventful for the families remaining in the mountains. They are subsisting off hides and what little they hunt. Near the end of the month, food begins to run out and an infant and young man die of starvation. The man is later cannibalized. Five more people die in February before the First Relief, a group of seven Californians bringing supplies, arrives on February 18th at the lake camps. Another woman dies and and three of the rescuers leave to check on the Donners, returning with six of them. The First Relief sets out on February 22nd with 23 emigrants, but two children return to the lake. Two more die of starvation a few days later. Death toll: 29/89
This entire time, banished-for-stabbing-a-guy James Reed had been fundraising a rescue effort and actually attempted one but couldn't find the families. On February 22nd, Reed's group ventured back into the mountains and came upon the First Relief group on the 28th. James Reed sees his wife and two of his children for the first time in five months. His wife collapses into the snow with joy. The First Relief continues onward and one boy sneaks into the food stores and dies from overeating. James Reed's Second Relief rescue team reaches Truckee Lake on March 1st and he reunites with his other two children. Some of the rescuers leave with 17 emigrants. Death toll: 30/89
On March 5th, a terrible storm hits and halts the Second Relief's progress for two days. The emigrants become more weakened, but Reed and couple others take three children onward. Three people die and are cannibalized. The remaining eleven are rescued five days later by the Third Relief, led by William Foster (the guy who shot and cannibalized the Miwoks) and William Eddy (the guy who refused to eat people), although Foster and Eddy split from that rescue group, determined to find their children back at Truckee Lake. Death toll: 33/89
Two rescuers left behind at Truckee Lake go to check on the Donner family at Alder Creek. When they arrived, Jean Baptiste Trudeau was carrying Jacob Donner's partially eaten leg and find the rest of Jacob Donner's body parts in a tent next to his surviving family where his children are eating his organs. In the 1849 book “Los Gringos,” Trudeau tells the author that he, “eat baby raw, stewed some of Jake, and roasted his head, not good meat, taste like sheep with the rot; but, sir, very hungry, eat anything.” Wife, Elizabeth Donner, and her sons die of starvation not long after. The two rescuers promise Tamsen Donner, for $500, that they will rescue her three children. The men take the money and leave the children at the lake before heading back to the city. She was informed several days later by Trudeau and rescuer Nicholas Clark that her children were abandoned. Death toll: 36/89
On March 14th, William Foster and William Eddy arrive at Truckee Lake. Both of their children are dead. Lewis Keseberg (the guy who kicked the old man out of the wagon) told Eddy that he cannibalized Eddy's son and Eddy swore that he would kill Keseberg if he ever saw him in California. Foster and Eddy returned to the city with Trudeau, Clark, and four children. Perhaps taking the children to Sutter's Fort spared Trudeau the public scorn endured by Lewis Keseberg. Tamsen Donner insisted on staying with her ailing husband, George, despite being told that the next relief effort might be a while. They do not make it. Tamsen Donner became a post-mortem star of the Donner Party as the pretty school teacher that married a widower 18 years her senior, who heroically and devotedly stayed with him “till death parts us!” despite his urging that she leave with the children because staying by his side was suicide. Death toll: 40/89
A month later, after two rescue groups fail to make it over the mountain to search for any remaining survivors, a group is sent to gather any belongings. When they arrive, only Lewis Keseberg is alive with suspicious stories about how the remaining Donners and Lavina Murphy died. A pot of boiled body parts are found, along with a stash of money and assorted valuables that Keseberg swears was intended as a benefit for the children. Keseberg, the last survivor, arrives at Sutter's Fort on April 29th. Final death toll: 41/89
A man of his word, William Eddy tried to find and murder Lewis Keseberg but was talked out of it. Keseberg led a life of solitude because of published accounts of his actions. He was charged with six murders and threatened with lynching. The charges were dropped, but even children would throw rocks at him in the street. He even went so far as to file a defamation suit against the other survivors and was awarded $1, but still had to pay all court costs. Granted, he had also been ran out of town and assaulted on more than one drunken occasion while bragging about eating the Donners, saying that Mrs. Donner was, “the best I ever tasted.” Most survivors remarried and the orphaned children found homes. Many, of course, were traumatized and did not wish to talk about it, their amputated limbs being enough of a daily reminder. They were treated with fear and hesitation for once being cannibals.
The Donner Memorial State Park outside Truckee is 3,293 acres with just a few miles of hiking and monuments dedicated to the emigrants. It receives over 200,000 visitors per year.