Chronicle of Events
Spring of 1846
A group of nearly 90 emigrants left Springfield, Illinois and headed west.
They were moved not by the desire for a solitary life renouncing the superfluous. They nourished ardent hopes for a better future, economically and religiously. They were trying to make their way to a state that for many in those years represented the Promised Land: California.
Under the guidance of brothers Jacob and George Donner (whom the expedition was named after), the party made an attempt to take a new—and supposedly shorter—trail in order to reach California.
A booklet had paved the way—The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California written by Lansford Hastings—a small compendium (guide) on how to reach the desired destination through the Great Basin and the Salt Lake Desert. There was only one problem: those last hundred miles (nearly 160 km) that crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A big nuisance if it started snowing.
April 16th, 1846
500 wagons from Springfield, Illinois joined together and formed a long caravan. They were large families, like the Reed’s—the undisputed leader of the expedition—which had thirty-two members.
There were also elderly people and children. They had food, supplies, chests, beds, furniture and all sorts of furnishings to start a new life in the promised land.
July 5th, 1846.
They reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming.
July 31st, 1846
The party waited for Hastings at Fort Bridger, but he was leading an earlier wagon train along his new trail. Hastings promised that he would be back soon as he was marking the new route specifically for the Donner Party.
August 4th, 1846
They made their way to Echo Canyon, Utah.
August 30th to September 3rd
They laboriously and frantically crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert, losing a large number of oxen and starting to see the certainty of reaching their destination wavering.
Hasting’s trace, now several weeks old, were difficult to follow, and considerable internal disagreements had by now begun to wear down the unity of the group, which found itself near the Truckee River at the beginning of winter, after having crossed unimaginable passes for such an expedition.
They attempted to set up a makeshift winter camp and send some members to seek help. It appeared to be the only possible decision.
November 29th, 1846
Breen, a member of The Donner Party, wrote in his journal: “Still snowing. Now about 3 feet deep. Wind W[est]. Killed my last oxen today. Will skin them tomorrow. Gave another yoke to Fosters. Hard to get wood.“
December 6th, 1846
Some members of the party began to create snowshoes out of oxbows and rawhide: they tried to depart from that terrible ordeal under the guide of Stanton, another party representative, and two Indians.
December 15th, 1846
Baylis Williams became the first victim.
As time went by, the food supplies began to run extremely low. In the middle of December, some members of the group started to move by foot through high snow in order to call for help. Some of those who remained could not help but… resort to cannibalism.
A group of rescuers coming from California attempted to reach the migrants, but the first relief party did not arrive until the middle of February 1847: sadly, four months after the wagon train had become fatally trapped in the Sierra Nevada.
Of the 87 original members of the party, only 48 survived the agony.
The episode is still considered “one of the most spectacular tragedies in California history, and in the entire record of American westward migration.”1
“The Donner Pass, in the Sierra Nevada (Northern California), is named for the Donner party. The pass now represents the most important transmontane route (rail and highway) connecting San Francisco with Reno. It lies within Tahoe National Forest, and Donner Memorial State Park is nearby.” 2
The Donner Party in Books and Movies
The ordeal of the raw but, in the very same manner, human story of the Donner Party has fascinated a lot of journalists and writers. It would be impossible to name all of them.
This ruthless history inspired artists of all kinds. Below you will find a list of books, movies, and documentaries about the Donner Party that aren’t difficult to find.
- When Winter Comes by V.A. Shannon (2018)
- Donners of the Dead by Karina Halle (2014)
- The Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-By-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train, 1846-1847 by Frank Mullen (1997)
- Adventurous Children Of the Donner Party by Holly Wilson Bennet (2016)
- Led to the Slaughter: The Donner Party Werewolves by Duncan McGeary (2014)
- Donner Dinner Party (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #3) by Nathan Hale (2013)
- The Archaeology of the Donner Party by Donald L. Hardesty (2005)
- Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick (2008)
- The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck, Michael Gellatly (Illustrator) (2015)
- Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party by George R. Stewart (1992)
- The Hunger by Alam Katsu (2018)
- The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis (2017)
- The Donner Party, 2009 – by Terrence Martin
- Donner Pass, 2011 – by Elise Robertson
- Dead of the Winter: The Donner Party, 2015 (TV movie) – by Doug Glover
The Donner Party Survivors: Between Gore and Necessity
The history of the Donner Expedition is, in some ways, a child of that time, triggered by emergency, desperation, hopes, and delusions. As mentioned, much has been analyzed, said and written on what some of them did, especially from a religious point of view.
It is necessary to underline than many of the people involved, of wealthy background, had little or no notion of survival (nor tracking) at all. They relied on their scouts and the indications provided by Hastings. At the very beginning of their journey, they had no idea of what they might have to face.
In an attempt to briefly sum up their struggle to survive, we can mark four consequential steps:
- They attempted to hunt game.
- They fed themselves with their own precious oxen.
- They fed themselves with snow and boiled leather belts.
- They eventually resorted to cannibalism.
(It is still unclear if they had pemmican with them, so well-known in polar expeditions).
What Went Wrong
No doubt they suffered a real ordeal. Some of them eventually survived, but the price to pay became extremely high and morally demanding.
So, what exactly went wrong?
The original plans went horribly wrong. They found themselves in a true weather and geographical trap, with no way out. Then, they had no Plan B, and the presence of vulnerable people to protect pushed the members to consider common safety a greater priority.
The Donner Party’s extreme epilogue has been often depicted as an act of cruelty, but, in the end, it appeared to be the very last possible thing to do.
They were, in fact, survivors, but can we consider them forerunner survivalists? They surely had knowledge of the essential survival skills. At that time, it was an ordinary part of everyone’s life, with exception of the upper class. For this reason, some historians have recently come to look at them as forerunner survivalists. They put their knowledge into action until an extreme, radical point.
“…Twenty-six, and possibly twenty-eight, out of the forty-eight survivors, are living to-day. Noah James is believed to be alive, and John Baptiste was living only a short time since, at Ukiah, Mendocino County, California. Besides these two, there are twenty-six whose residences are known. William McCutchen, who came from Jackson County, Missouri, is hale and strong, and is a highly-respected resident of San Jose, California. Mr. McCutchen is a native of Nashville, Tennessee, was about thirty years old at the time of the disaster, and has a clear, correct recollection of all that transpired. Lewis Keseberg’s history has been pretty fully outlined in his statement. He resides in Brighton, Sacramento County, California…”
– Charles Fayette McGlashan, History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierras, 2012
Far from being gruesome, this story taught us that the will to survive can go far beyond any religious belief and any skill acquired, which can sometimes be fallacious, especially if you see all your hopes and physical strength falter even more every single second.