Donner Party

The Donner Party was a group of 87 American pioneers who in 1846 set off from Missouri in a wagon train headed west for California, only to find themselves trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada. The subsequent casualties resulting from starvation, exposure, disease, and trauma were extremely high, and many of the survivors resorted to cannibalism.

The wagons left in May 1846. Encouraged to try a new, faster route across Utah and Nevada, they opted to take the Hastings Cutoff proposed by Lansford Hastings, who had never taken the journey with wagons. The Cutoff required the wagons to traverse Utah's Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert, and slowed the party considerably, leading to the loss of wagons, horses, and cattle. It also forced them to engage in heavy labor by clearing the path ahead of them, and created deep divisions between members of the party. They had planned to be in California by September, but found themselves trapped in the Sierra Nevada by early November.

Most of the party took shelter in three cabins that had been constructed two years earlier at Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake), while a smaller group camped several miles away. Food stores quickly ran out, and a group of 15 men and women attempted to reach California on snowshoes in December, but became disoriented in the mountains before succumbing to starvation and cold. Only seven members of the snowshoe party survived, by eating the flesh of their dead companions. Meanwhile, the Mexican American War delayed rescue attempts from California, although family members and authorities in California tried to reach the stranded pioneers but were turned back by harsh weather.

The first rescue group reached the remaining members, who were starving and feeble, in February 1847. Weather conditions were so bad that three rescue groups were required to lead the rest to California, the last arriving in March. Most of these survivors also had resorted to cannibalism. Forty-eight members of the Donner Party survived to live in California. Although a minor incident in the record of westward migration in North America, the Donner Party became notorious for the reported claims of cannibalism. Efforts to memorialize the Donner Party were underway within a few years; historians have described the episode as one of the most spectacular tragedies in California history and in the record of western migration.

Read more about Donner Party:  Background, Families and Progress, Rescue, Legacy

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