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Learn more about the Donner Party from the PBS program, "The American Experience"

A personal narrative from a member of the Donner Party

Hints for traveling by stagecoach



The Donner Party: Shortcut to Tragedy

This monument is twenty-two feet tall -- the same height as the snow that winter!
"Westward Ho! For Oregon and California! Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men, of good character, who can drive an ox team, will be accommodated by gentlemen who will leave this vicinity about the first of April. Come, boys! You can have as much land as you want without costing you anything."
--an ad placed in Springfield, Illinois on March 18, 1846

Doesn't sound like such a bad deal, huh? Not until I tell you who placed this ad: George Donner of the infamous Donner Party, almost one year to the day before his tragic death in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Many others in the party died in the mountains as well. Those who survived had to resort to cannibalism. It is this for which the Donner Party is infamous.

So what would have happened if you answered this ad? If you were a young man in the 1840s, you may have been California dreamin' -- thinking of sunshine, warm winters, and miles and miles of land for the taking. Some of your friends had probably already headed west on the California and Oregon Trails, and, as an adventure-lover, you were ready to follow suit. Once brothers George and Jacob Donner decided you were a good addition to the team, you would have joined them and their families as they left their farms with six wagons in April 1846.

The Donners were not the only members of the Donner Party. Several other families, including the Reeds, the Murphys, and the Graves, joined them. Men, women, children, rich and poor, yet with one thing in common: they were bound for California!

Up until Wyoming, it was all smooth traveling, a beautiful and pleasant journey. It was in Wyoming that they heard of a shortcut, from a letter left by a fame-seeking explorer. After much debate, they split up, and eighty-nine people, traveling in twenty wagons, decided to follow wagon master George Donner to the shortcut... and unknowingly follow him to disaster.

Me and my dad at Alder Creek
It turns out there was nothing short about the "shortcut." It put the group three weeks behind schedule and led to the loss of oxen and cattle and the abandoning of some wagons.

By the time they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they were exhausted and hungry, families were bickering, and morale was down. In order to gather strength for the difficult mountain crossing ahead, the group rested for nearly a week. Oh goodness, that was a mistake!

Winter came early that year, and although it was only October when they reached what is now Donner Lake, the snow was already too deep to pass.

To explore the area where they became trapped that fatal winter, the Farzan Party (i.e., my dad and I) heads up in our car to Donner Lake. "It's like 'Take Your Dad to Work Day,'" my father jokes as we journey up the mountain. I am happy to have my dad with me on this adventure. For the Donner Party, family was probably all they had.

The boulder the Murphys used in building a cabin
There are two sites where members of the party camped that winter. Part of the group settled in at the lake, building cabins to help them survive the cold. George and Jacob Donner and their families didn't even make it to the lake, as they became snow-bound several miles down the road at Alder Creek. The only protection they had from the cold was a teepee-style shelter they built with brush against a tall pine tree.

It was at these two camps where things started getting ugly. First off, let me tell you how deep the snow was that winter - twenty-two feet.

Twenty-two feet of snow! That is a whole lot of snow. My entire family of four would have to stand on top of each other's heads to be over twenty-two feet. The monument that is built in memorial to the Donner Party stands at twenty-two feet and towers over me. It was the worst winter ever recorded in the Sierra Nevadas.

My dad at Donner Lake... a dreary day, but at least it's not snowing!
Second, let's talk about hunger. Food was very scarce, and efforts at hunting and fishing proved to be failures in the snowy mountains. The Donner Party was starving. They were reduced to eating ox bones and ox hides. And yes, as people died from starvation, the Donner Party was reduced to eating the dead bodies as well. There is evidence of cannibalism both at the lake and at Alder Creek. They had done what was necessary to survive.

"Would you have become a cannibal?" I ask my dad. His hesitation in answering the question makes me happy that we have trail mix, crackers, and a melon (a present from my buddy, Tucker) in the car in case we get hungry. It is such a difficult topic to discuss, because we have no concept of what starvation is really like and what tragedies the Donner Party faced. We tend to joke about the idea, because it is uncomfortable to truly have to think about it.

Being faced with such severe circumstances brings out the best and worst in people. The Donner Party should not be remembered just for cannibalism, but also for the positive ways they dealt with this adversity. Families stayed together, adults sacrificed for children, those who were healthier would carry the sick and dying through the snow.

A memorial plaque
Of the eighty-nine people who made the mistake of taking that shortcut, forty-two died along the way to California. Relief parties who showed up in late February and early March rescued those who survived. Part of the reason help was so slow in coming was that the California Bear Flag War was going on (see my upcoming dispatch!), and it was hard to find men available to take food into the snowy mountains. But forty-seven people of the original party ended up surviving and settling in California as first planned.

And what happened to the wagon master, George Donner? By the time rescue parties reached his camp, George was dying from a badly infected cut on his hand. Although she was able to walk, his wife Tamsen refused to leave her beloved George and died in the mountains where so many other members of her party had perished.

I have driven by Donner Lake so many times during the winter on my way to Lake Tahoe and always thought to myself, "Yeah, those were the people who ate each other." Now that I have stopped to explore and learn more, I am glad that I will have a better understanding of this story... a story of miscalculation and misfortune, of heroic struggle and grim survival.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

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Irene - Pack 'em in and move on out West!
Kevin - The battle that begat the anthem heard 'round the world
Neda - Steamboating the Mississippi... in a floating McDonald's?
MAD - We speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues
Irene - Beware of Free Lunches, Especially When It's Offered by the Government
Irene - Extra! Extra! Hunting for Gold Leads to More Misery Than Happiness!