Our story begins with a lawyer
named Lansford W. Hastings
, who moved to California
later in his life. This man singlehandedly realised the wrecking of the dreams of many American settlers
in the mid-1800s. His ambition was this: to become the ruler of then-Mexican
California. And to do that, he needed people who would foment rebellion
-- yes, he needed settlers
from the US
, which at that time occupied nearly all of its present area on the continent, with the exception of the modern southwest
(which was in the hands of Mexico
) and the Oregon Territory
(jointly ruled by Britian
and the US, but not for long...).
So, what did Hastings do to rule this beautiful country, California? How did he get his American settlers? He published a book titled The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California. And the one feature of this book that resulted in the Donner Party disaster was that it mentioned a new route -- the now famous Hasting's Cutoff which was supposed to be a shorter path to California (it went around the south of the Great Salt Lake, through the Wasatch and the salt desert, crossing the Rubies). Problem was, Hastings had never even tried this route himself! Sure, it existed, but was it even passable on caravan? No one knew, but that sure wasn't going to stop Hastings.
George Donner, seeing this pamphlet, decided that he would have a shot at going to California. He was a rather well-off man who lived in Springfield, Illinois, and yet he decided to move, along with his brother Jacob Donner and James Frazier Reed, the head of the caravan. The Reed family owned a wagon, known as the 'Palace wagon' which sported a stove and was a double-decker. They had plotted a route following the advice of the Lanceford Pamphlet, and thus including Hasting's Cutoff. They set of to Independence, Missouri where their route started (as did nearly all other trails at this time) on April 16, 1846. Their plan was to go after the spring showers, but it was imperative that they reached California before the winter snows broke loose (remember that they were crossing mountains, where it actually snows, even in California). The Donner party totaled 32 pioneers. And on that day, April 16th, Hastings finally decided to go see what his cutoff was like.
They reached Independence, the last outpost of civilisation that they would see in a long time. After restocking food and asking around for advice, they rolled out on May 12th, amid heavy rains that had turned the paths to mud. The rains had swollen the Big Blue River, which the party reached by May 27th. By this time, Margaret Reed's mother, Sarah Keyes, who suffered from tuberculosis had died. (Margaret was James Reed's wife) She was buried on the eastern side of the Big Blue. On May 31st, the caravans were ferried across the river, leaving Sarah Keyes behind.
On June 27th, a little over two months since the beginning of their journey, the party reached Fort Laramie, the point of no return. Many caravans turned back at this point, but none who went past Fort Laramie ever turned back. And there, in the foothills of the Rocky mountains, Reed was advised by his friend from Illinois, John Clyman, that the Hasting's Cutoff was impassable by wagon. Clyman had just come back from California through the Cutoff, and he described how difficult it was even for a single person -- he judged that it was completely impossible to take that trail by wagon. The next day, he left, going east and Reed made a fateful decision -- he would ignore Clyman's advice. After all, if there was a shorter way, why not take it?
On July 18th, the Donner Party entered the Oregon Country, ruled jointly by the British and the US. They had recieved news that Hastings himself would be at Fort Bridger, the point where his route split from the old one, and he himself would guide the emigrants following his trail through the cutoff. Their journey was about halfway over -- they had gone for 1,000 miles out of the 2,000 mile journey from Independence to San Francisco. On July 20th, the majority of the other groups went right, towards the old route. The Donner party, with George Donner as its newly elected captain, turned towards Fort Bridger. They found that Hastings had gone ahead with some other emigrants, but had left a note inviting them to follow. They entered the cutoff on July 31st, hoping to make Sutter's Fort in California in seven weeks.
For the first week, they did well. The Cutoff was level and flat, and they made good time. However, by August 6th, they found the trail impassable. Hastings had left a note there, saying the trail was impassable, and offering to point out a new route. Reed took five days to find Hastings, who pointed out a route that might be possibly better from a high mountaintop. The party struggled through the Wasatch, making very bad time. After double-teaming the oxen, they managed to get out of the valley, and finally reached the south short of the Great Salt Lake. It had taken them four times as long as they had planned. After two days, they started crossing the salt desert, home of the Paiute Native American tribe. The last of the water was used up on the third day of desert-hiking, and to make things worse, the Reeds' oxen bolted, making them have to carry as many belongings as possible.
The next day, they completed the 80-mile desert trip, which Hasting's brochure had assured them was only 40 miles. Many cursed him for their failure. Now they were dangerously behind schedule and had lost 36 oxen. Many wagons would have to be abandoned, including the Palace Car. And at around this time, early September, Hastings rode into Sutter's Fort with the other 80 wagon trains that had followed him from Fort Bridger. The Donner Party was the only one that had not yet arrived in California.
By October 5th, tensions were running high. After a dispute when two wagons became entangled, the Graves family driver, John Snyder started whipping his oxen. Reed came out to stop him, but was whipped savagely. In response, Reed drew his hunting knife and killed Snyder. After a hurried council, the party decided to put Reed to death. However, after a plea for mercy from Margaret Reed, a sentence of banishment was decided upon. Reed took a horse and rode away from the party. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for him. On October 12th, the Paiutes attacked, killing many oxen. Finally, by the 16th, the long suffering party reached the Truckee River, entrance to the Sierra Nevada. Meanwhile, one of their group, Charles Satanton, who had gone ahead, returned with provisions and two Native American guides, Lewis and Salvador. He said that winter was still a month away. They might make it after all!
On Halloween night, the Donner family's wagon broke. The others went ahead as the Donners stopped for repairs. After waiting for days for the non-forthcoming Donners, it started snowing. The rest of the party decided to make a dash for the summit, but their wheels slipped and they were unable to reach it. They had just 150 miles to go -- they had missed the time window by one day. If they had managed to start one day earlier, they would have made it through the Sierra in time. Would have, would have...
By October, James Reed stumbled out of the Sierra, anxiously asking for news about his family. He quickly got supplies from Sutter's Fort and went back into the Sierra. However, he too did not manage to get past the summit. He turned back, hoping to get a rescue group -- but all the men had gone to help in The Mexican War. Meanwhile, the party had lost nearly all of their hope. They were eating anything, including their oxen, mixing them with twigs and stones for nourishment. On December 15th, 15 of the strongest of the party, including a boy of 12, decided to go to Sutter's Fort to fetch help. They called themselves 'The Forlorn Hope'. The party included Charles Stanton, Willilam Eddy and the two Native Americans, Lewis and Salvadore. On the 6th day, after the food ran out, Stanton told them to go on without him. He was last spotted smoking his pipe serenely by the roadside.
The party made a fire and sat down. It was decided that one would have to die to provide more food for the rest. They drew lots and an Irish Immigrant, Patrick Dolan drew the short one. No one could bring themselves to kill him, however. It turned out it wasn't necessary. First Antonio, a teamster, died. Then Franklin Graves. Then Patrick Dolan (who first went insane and then died in a coma). It was found that someone had cut chunks of meat from Patrick Dolan's corpse. The meat was roastead and eaten by everyone except Lewis and Salvadore. The ten remaining members, nourished from their human feast, cut up the other corpses and labeled them, so that no one would have to eat their relaives.
William Foster then proposed eating the Native Americans for food. However, they heard about this in advance and dashed off into the woods. They were found some distance away, lying together, dead.
By January 10th, California was in the hands of the US. James Reed went to San Francisco, to try raising a rescue party again. On January 17th, William Eddy found a cabin in the Sierra, belonging to Harriet Ritchie. He told about the Forlorn Hope, still above in the path. The rest of the survivors included all five women. Only two of the ten original men had survived. Eddy told Ritchie of their horrible journey, of Foster going insane and shooting many of the other men, of the victim's bodies being cut up for food. Finally, a rescue party led by Daniel Rhoads set out to get the rest of the Donner Party. Virginia Reed of the Donner Party prayed to God to be rescued and to see her father again. If her wish would be granted, she promised God that she would convert to Catholicism. The first rescue party found 48 survivors. However, they could only take 24 back. The Breens and the Donners stayed. Only a tiny bit of food was left for the 31 people left behind. James Reed's second rescue party soon found the party, which had now begun to eat humans, just like the Forlorn Hope. Reed was disgusted by this spectacle.
Among the cabins lay the fleshless bones and half-eaten bodies of the victims of the famine. There lay the limbs, the skulls and the hair of the poor beings who had died from want and whose flesh preserved the lives of their surviving comrades who, shivering beneath their filthy rags and surrounded by the remains of their unholy feast, looked more like demons than human beings. They had fallen from their high estate, though compelled by the fell hand of dire necessity.
The third rescue party, arriving ten days later, found a shocking spectacle. Mrs. Graves was lying, mangled and cut up, exposing the bones and skull in some places. Her young child was sitting by her side and crying for her. The third rescue party found only seven survivors, Tamsen Donner being one of them, still in perfect health. She refused to go, even at her husband's begging, as she refused to abandon George while he was sick. The winter was the worst ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada. The fourth rescue party found Lewis Keseberg, a German immigrant who had earlier called for Reed's hanging, delirious in a cabin. He confessed to having eaten Tamsen Donner.
Finally, all the surving members of the Donner party had been rescued. Instead of their planned 6 month journey, it had taken them almost exactly one year.
Of the 87 men, women and children in the Donner Party, 46 survived, 41 died: 5 women, 14 children and 22 men, counting John Sutter's Indians, Lewis and Salvadore, who had risked their lives to save the emigrants. Two thirds of the women and children made it through. Two thirds of the men perished. Of all the families, the Donners suffered the most. All four adults and four of the children died. All of the Reeds survived. So did all of the Breens.
(The American Experience: The Donner Party. Video)
What happened then? Immigration to California dropped off until the Gold Rush of '48 and '49. The places where the Donners had suffered became tourist attractions which you can still visit today. Lewis Keseberg, the only one of the party who admitted openly to having eaten corpses, was despised. However, he made a fortune during the California Gold Rush and opened a Sacramento restaurant. The orphaned children of George and Tamsen Donner were adopted by various people. The rest of the Donner Party soon became assimilated into California -- their descendants still live there today. However, their story was not forgotten. It still stands as a reminder to those who would put personal gain over safety.
Yes, I know it's a cheesy ending. The source for the information was a documentary on The Donner Party called The American Experience: The Donner Party. (for the statistics) and some general knowledge on the topic (for the basic story).