It was late March, almost April but the snow was still falling as the wind kicked me in the face. I had just left Lake Tahoe and was on the way to the upper bay area to see San Fransico but I needed to make a stop at the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada. I’m not sure if they teach about what happened to the Donner-Reed party to kids outside of California but I still remember that day in school when we all sat down and learned about cannibalism. Now I am no teacher so I’m not gonna get too deep into the story, I just wanna touch upon it and then give you my 2 cents.
Yup! this story is all about cannibalism. Frozen bodies were eaten so those alive could have a fighting chance at life. I wonder what I would have done if I was in that moment, and I think like many, I would reply no. But I think that deep inside when pushed to that edge, we would do it too. We would find a way to stay alive, not only for ourselves but for our children and loved ones. This isn’t a story of travelers who knew what they were doing, who had the right means to be crossing a mountain in the middle of winter. This is a story about families, children, and people who ran headlong into a fate that was waiting for them.
The snow was getting worse as I drove River Road towards Truckee. It was cold and It was getting worse as I hit the Interstate. The Donner Memorial State Museum was not far away and slowly the snow gave way to gray skies. I had a few moments to sit in my car and think about where I was.
It was the winter of 1846-1847 and one of those gruesome tales of survival occurred on the Oregon Trail. The Donner Party took off from Missouri in the spring of 1846 and took a dumb shortcut across the Rocky Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert. They fought among themselves, lost a bunch of animals and supplies, and lost a lot of time as the Sierra-Nevada mountains were not a place you wanted to cross in the winter, let alone in late march in a car. But these fools didn’t have a car like me, instead, they showed up in November in covered wagons trying to cross over in bitterly cold weather. High in the mountains near what today is Donner lake, they became stuck and well you can see what happened next. Some in the party went out looking for help and that help didn’t come for four months, not till February of 1847 when by then, the eating of people had happened.
87 people had made up the party and 48 survived. What should have been a difficult trip was made a trip into hell, which is the kind of story that is in the back of your mind anytime you are on a mountain and the snow starts to fall. The Rocky Mountains get the glory when you talk about mountains because they cover a larger piece of land however, the Sierra Nevada is actually taller and harder to get across, especially in a wooden wagon. You leave at the right time and you crossed the mountains at the correct time to make sure you didn’t get hit by snow.
Leaving on the trail on May 12 of 1846 were the families of George Donner and James Reed. There were 32 people between the two groups. Among the group were children as young as one year old. A few other folks joined the group as they headed out on the road to California. The Murphy, Eddy, Breen, Keseberg, and Wolfingers were among the families that would join in the doomed trip.
So there was a more or less accepted route to take to California but it seems to be in our nature to always look for shortcuts in everything we do. This is where the villain of our story was a man named Lansford Hastings comes in. Hastings had looked at a map and came up with a shortcut, over which he had never himself traveled, promised travelers they could save 350 miles. Even tho they were warned about taking the shortcut, the party took it anyways. Quickly some realized that they had made a mistake.
87 people in as many as 80 wagons traveled at the speed of one and a half miles a day up and down steep mountains. On August 20 they could see the Great Salt Lake and the infighting had started to grow. Many had started to blame James Reed for the trouble as he had been one to push for the shortcut. It took six days to cross the 80 miles of the Salt Lake Desert, losing animals and time along the way. By the time they had rejoined the traditional trail, they were more than a month behind.
Maybe that does not sound like a lot of time but to anyone who has been in high mountains where the weather can change from day to day, a month is a long time. I finally got out of my car and the snow had started to call again as I walked towards the Donner Monument. The wind pushed me as I walked and the closer I got to my goal, the more I thought about how impossible it would have been to make the same wall that winter, 176 years ago.
Fighting, murder, and the splintering of the group were just warm-up acts for the winter. At one point, a 70-year-old man by the name of Hardkoop who couldn’t walk was ejected from a wagon and told to walk or die. He sat next to a river one day and was never seen alive again. James Reed was kicked out of the group when he acted in self-defense and killed another man but because Reed was so disliked it was he who was to be blamed and was banished out on his own. Animals died, members were killed by the natives and the fate of the whole party grew dark as they got to the Truckee River.
They were 7,088 feet high with the Sierra Nevada ahead of them. It was late October and snow had started to fall early. Most of the group made it as far as Truckee Lake( now known as Donner Lake) except for the Donners who were further down the mountain. The main group hunkered down in 3 cabins sheltering 60 souls. They ate anything they could from rawhide to a rug that was cooked and eaten. Between both camps, the snow just fell and people died, one by one.
On December 16 a party of 17 set out to try to find help. After days of getting lost and members of the party dying, the question of eating someone came up. When a man named Patrick Dolan died, in an attempt to stay alive, some flesh was stripped off his body and eaten. Some flesh, muscle, and organs from others who had died were dried and prepared so they could be also eaten. Soon they ran out and members kept dying. After more than 30 days they finally found a settlement and a search party was put together. It would be another month before help would be found for those left behind by the lake
The eating of human flesh had also happened at the campsites. The last of the party was finally rescued on April 10 and almost to that moment, children and adults were eaten to stay alive. News of the fate of the party spread fast, reaching as far as New York City by July 1847. Of course, cannibalism was the main draw of the story but the story was also buried in many newspapers so as to not put a damper on the westward migration.
The last survivor of the party, Isabella Breen, died in 1935.
The monument that now stands was put up in June of 1918.
I walked around the Monument and poor some pictures and rushed back to my car. The snow was falling faster and I needed to try to get past the mountains. The snow would fall and then slowly it would turn to rain, and by the time I reached the Sacramento Valley, the sun would pop back out for a few moments. Sitting in my hotel room I thought about how easy it was for me to travel more miles in one day than the whole party had traveled in a few months. I turned on the heater and warmed my bones, I tore into a pizza as quick as some had torn into flesh in cabins by the shore.