1844 saw the first successful crossing with wagons from the East coast of America into the great, untamed west. Crossings remained relatively rare until news of the discovery of gold in California in 1848 led to the California Gold Rush and an influx of hundreds of thousands of people seeking fortune.
The pioneers left the original US towns and cities on the East coast because of bad living conditions and economic problems. They were looking for a fresh start and more land in the Western states of California and Oregon. To reach these places they had to cross the Great Plains. Conditions were awful. It was hot and windy, there was little water and few trees and the pioneers had many miles to travel. Deaths on the long journey were common as they had to face many dangers, such as diseases (cholera affected many pioneers), loss of animals, and attack from hostile Indians who were afraid of their way of life changing irrevocably. The journey would take months but for many travellers, the risks were worth taking. After their hellish experience or murder, starvation and cannibalism, the surviving members of the Donner Party may not have agreed.
An Ordinary Beginning
The usual route for wagons crossing the plains began in St Louis and took in the states of Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada and California. However, a man named Lansford W Hastings had written a new book called The Emigrant's Guide to California and Oregon in which he advised a shortcut across the Great Basin. This shortcut was called Hastings' Cut-off. Hastings had travelled the route himself, but never with a wagon.
The Donner Party - so called because they decided on George Donner, a farmer from Illinois, to lead them - had set out from Illinois and had joined up with a number of other travellers on the way – there was safety in numbers, after all. The journey that should have taken about four months lasted a year.
They had a largely uneventful journey to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, save for the death of an elderly woman, for whom the long journey was just too much. Tamsen Donner, George Donner's wife, wrote in a letter:
'I never could have believed we could have travelled so far with so little difficulty. Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started.'
Their good luck was not too last, and Tamsen Donner was to experience far worse.
On 27 June, the group met a man named James Clyman at Fort Laramie, a trading post near the Rocky Mountains. They were one week behind schedule. Clyman had travelled east, using the Hasting's Cut-off route. He advised them not to travel that way, warning them of the desert, but they did not heed his advice.
A few weeks later they met a horseman carrying an open letter from Lansford Hastings, inviting any migrants who wished to meet him at Fort Bridger, from where he would guide them on the Cut-Off. The group of which the Donner Party formed part, however, arrived too late to join him and some of the group therefore decided to take the usual, tried and tested route instead. They arrived in California safely. The remaining 87 people (9 families and sixteen individuals) decided to take the Hastings' Cut-Off anyway. It was a fatal mistake.
The Difficulties Begin
They left Fort Bridger on 31 July intending to follow Hastings, but things quickly went wrong. They found a note from Hastings on 6 August, left for anyone following him, in which he advised that the route ahead was very difficult to traverse and advised them to take another route. James Reed rode ahead to find him and ask him to show them another way. He refused, but pointed out one possibility from the top of a hill.
They took his advice, but even so, the group had a great deal of difficulty crossing the terrain. The journey to the Great Salt Lake, which they had expected to take a week, took a full month. By this time, summer (the best time to travel) was over, they were tired and had used up much of their food. Shortly afterwards, there was another death, this time of a lone traveller, an Irishman. He died of consumption and was buried in a salt bed.
The group now had to cross the Great Salt Desert, where they had extreme difficulty finding water. A number of oxen – essential to the journey, as they pulled the wagons - belonging to the Reed family ran away in search of water and could not be recovered. Mr Reed was forced to borrow oxen from other travellers to continue the journey. The Desert was twice as wide as Hastings had said it was and it took five days of struggle to cross.
At this point, the group inventoried their supplies and realised that they did not have enough to see them through to California, especially concerning given the coming winter. As a result, William McCutchen and Charles Stanton volunteered for the dangerous task of riding ahead to reach California and bring back supplies.
The travellers might have been forgiven for thinking that things could not get much worse. However, they were wrong. A few more men died before things got really bad, and might have considered themselves lucky as a result. William Pike died when a gun he was cleaning went off accidentally, one man may have been abandoned to die by Lewis Keseburg, his travelling companion1, and another man, John Snyder, was murdered.
Snyder, a hired wagon driver for the Graves family, had got angry when his oxen became entangled with those of the Reeds. He began striking them with his whip, and when James Reed tried to stop him, he was struck a vicious blow with the whip. As Snyder made to strike again, Reed stabbed him in the chest. Some of the travellers thought Reed should be hanged for murder, but his wife pleaded for mercy and he was banished instead. Reed set out for California alone, having agreed with his wife that he would bring food and meet them upon the route.
The Return of Stanton and the Coming of Winter
19 October, 1846 saw the return of Stanton from California. McCutchen had been too ill to accompany him, but Stanton brought help from John Sutter of Sutter's Fort. This consisted of two Indians, Lewis and Salvador, as guides, seven mules and as much food as they could carry. He also brought the news that they could expect the pass over the mountains to be passable for another month. That proved to be horribly incorrect, as the winter of 1846 was horrendous.
The party had by now reached the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains. At the end of October the front axle on George Donner's wagon broke and he gashed his hand trying to make a new one. The Donner families fell behind. The rest of the party camped at Truckee Lake but there was heavy snow that night and despite their best efforts, they could not force their way through the pass. The coming of winter meant forgetting any hopes of reaching California before the spring.
The Winter Camp
The group built cabins to make a winter camp at Truckee Lake, which has since been renamed Donner Lake. The Donner family themselves, still a few miles behind the main group, encamped in tents at a place called Alder Lake. They had been caught out by the snow and had no time to build cabins.
However, the party's food could not last. Realising that they would never get over the mountains with their pack animals they killed the animals for food. The snow was too severe to have any luck hunting or foraging. As time passed, they moved on to eating their dogs, and finally tried to boil the hides of their animals to make a glue-like soup. The first death from starvation, that of Baylis Williams, who at 24 should have been in his prime, came on 16 December.
Meanwhile, James Reed had reached Sutter's Fort, though in bad condition. He got supplies from John Sutter and headed back east to find the Donner Party, as he had told his wife he would. He got within 12 miles of the summit near the pass before he was forced to turn back. He would have great difficulty finding more men to help him - they were in short supply in California due to the manpower demands of the Mexican War.
The Forlorn Hope
Conditions were awful. Patrick Breen's diary makes this clear:
Monday 30th [November] Snowing fast wind W about 4 or 5 feet deep, no drifts looks as likely to continue as when it commenced no liveing thing without wings can get about.
It had been decided that the strongest of the party would set off for California to bring help, but bad weather delayed the start. They finally managed to leave on the same day as Williams' death. The group, five women and ten men, walked on homemade snowshoes, which some experimentation by the Donner Party had showed to be essential to any effort to travel through the snow. It was an exceptionally exhausting and dangerous journey and the group who set out later came to be called 'the Forlorn Hope'. Many of the group left their spouses or children in the camp, never knowing if they would see them again.
On the sixth day, Charles Stanton could not continue and remained behind to die in the snow. Three days later, in the light of the lack of food, the others discussed the fact that it may become necessary to eat the flesh of their companions. It was decided that they would only do so where someone died naturally, rather than drawing lots. This soon became necessary as another five men died in quick succession. The two Indians, who had come with the party, refused to eat human flesh and as a result, quickly neared death. William Foster proposed killing them and using them for food. This was protested by William Eddy, who also warned them. Lewis and Salvador left the group but not too long later, they were found half dead. Foster shot them anyway and they were eaten.
The group carefully cut up and labelled the meat taken from each of their dead companions so that no-one had to eat the flesh of a relative. Horrifyingly, the body of Jay Fosdick was eaten in front of his wife.
Finally, the 'Forlorn Hope' travellers came upon an Indian encampment, where they were fed. The Indians guided them. After a journey of 33 days in freezing winter conditions, seven of the group (including all of the women) reached the nearest settlement and told their terrible story. That settlement was Johnson's Ranch, consisting of only a handful of families, and one of those men went to Sutter's Fort to get help launching a rescue effort for the main party at the lake.
The First Relief Party
Help was sent from the Fort and when the relief party finally arrived at the winter camp on 19 February, more difficulties were faced. 48 of the party were still alive, but it was impossible for everyone to leave at once – there were a number of small children who could not possibly reach safety without being carried the whole way, and no-one had the strength to do so2. It was expected that further rescuers would arrive who could help bring the remaining travellers to safety. Tamsen Donner, for example, despite being urged to leave, stayed with her husband who could not travel easily due to the hand injury he had sustained fashioning the new axle for their wagon. At this point, one of those at the lake had been forced into eating human flesh.
23 survivors left with the rescuers. A baby girl died on the first day of the arduous journey to Sutter's Fort and John Denton, a gunsmith, died on the second.
The rescue party had not taken all of the food they had brought with them all the way to the camp. They were struggling to carry it through the snow and were afraid that the stranded and starving travellers would quickly eat everything they brought, leaving nothing for the return journey. However, when the enlarged party reached the place the rest of the supplies had been left, wild animals had got at them and eaten the lot. It was a terrible blow.
The Second Relief Party
The second relief party was led by James Reed. He had managed to raise money and men in San Francisco once the Mexican War ended, and set put only two days behind the first party. They found the first relief party and James Reed, now reunited with his wife and two of his children. They distributed food. After a rest and some restorative food, the first party and the people they had rescued continued towards Sutter's Fort, reaching another cache of supplies on the way. This was hidden in a tree. One boy, William Hook, climbed up and ate his fill while no-one was looking. This was too much for his system, and he died.
Meanwhile, three men of the second relief party had gone on ahead and found the camp. They handed out food before trekking the seven miles to where the Donner's were camped in tents. The following day, the main party arrived and James Reed met his children Patty and Thomas. They also gave the survivors food, which was essential as by this point the survivors were so hungry they had been forced to turn to the flesh of the dead as the only remaining source of nourishment.
Again, not everyone was strong enough to make the tiring and dangerous journey westwards to safety.
On the second day of the return journey, the group were caught in a terrible storm and were forced to make what little shelter they could in order to survive the night. Mr Reed sent three men on to find some of the food which had been stored on the journey. For those who remained, conditions were dire. Mr Reed's diary entry for March 7th reads:
At one time our fire was nearly gone, and had it not been for McCutchen's3 exertions it would have entirely disappeared. If the fire had been lost, two thirds of the camp would have been out of their misery before morning; but, as God would have it, we soon had it blazing comfortably, and the sufferings of the people became less for a time.
This came to be known as 'Starved Camp'. Stuck in the snow, two of the group died. It was decided that a number of the men would leave for the settlements to send back help to the starving pioneers. Eleven remained, mostly children.
The Third Relief Party
The men Reed had sent on to pick up the food found a third relief party led by Selim Woodworth and returned, meeting on the way those who had left Starved Camp and guiding them to Woodworth's party. The following morning, seven men left Woodworth's camp, heading for the eleven left at Starved Camp. It was agreed that three would stay with the eleven, feed them and guide them to Woodworth, while the remaining four would head to the unfortunates who still remained at the lake in the mountains.
At the encampment of the Donner family at Alder Lake, only George Donner and his wife Tamsen still lived. They were reached by the remaining four men who had set out from Woodworth's camp – the four included William Eddy and William Foster, who had survived the Forlorn Hope trek. On arrival at Truckee Lake, where the rest of the survivors were, they found all still alive except for their own children.
It has been suggested that Lewis Keseberg actually ate George Foster, but all that is known is that the child went to sleep with him and was dead in the morning.
Tamsen Donner, who had heard from the rescuers that several of her children still lived at the main camp, made her way with great difficulty over the snow to see them. The men of the third relief party begged her to return with them and her children. They knew that her husband, at the age of sixty three and suffering from his worsening hand injury, which had led to fever and ulcers, had very little time to live. She would not do it. She walked back to Alder Lake to be with him as he died. The rescuers, fearful of an approaching storm, could not delay their departure.
End Of The Ordeal
Left at the main encampment were Mrs Murphy and Lewis Keseburg. After a few days, Mrs Murphy died4 and Keseburg was ultimately forced to turn to cannibalism to survive. A few days passed, and Tamsen Donner arrived. Soon she too was dead. Keseburg, who survived, denied killing her.
Eventually, Keseburg was rescued by a fourth relief party. On arrival at Sutter's Fort, these men did not keep their accusations that Keseburg had killed Tamsen Donner to themselves. Keseburg sued them for slander and won. The story of the Donner Party became quite a sensation in the news. Those who survived had endured conditions far beyond the comparatively mild hardships encountered by most migrants.
In June 1847 a group travelled to the winter camp to bury the remains.
Of the 87 who had set out from the east in the hope of a better life, 41 died.