James and Margaret Reed, Donner Party members. (Credit: Public Domain)
In 1846, the Donner brothers led a wagon train of pioneers heading to California. Caught in the Sierra Mountains in one of the worst winters ever recorded, the settlers were forced to hunker down. As their food and supplies ran out, and over half of the party died, most of the survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism.
Evan Andrews and History.com present 10 Things You Should Know About the Donner Party. Here are three of my favorites…
2. They fell behind schedule after taking an untested shortcut.
After reaching Wyoming, most California-bound pioneers followed a route that swooped north through Idaho before turning south and moving across Nevada. In 1846, however, a dishonest guidebook author named Lansford Hastings was promoting a straighter and supposedly quicker path that cut through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Salt Lake Desert. There was just one problem: no one had ever traveled this “Hastings Cutoff” with wagons, not even Hastings himself. Despite the obvious risks—and against the warnings of James Clyman, an experienced mountain man—the 20 Donner Party wagons elected to break off from the usual route and gamble on Hastings’ back road. The decision proved disastrous. The emigrants were forced to blaze much of the trail themselves by cutting down trees, and they nearly died of thirst during a five-day crossing of the salt desert. Rather than saving them time, Hasting’s “shortcut” ended up adding nearly a month to the Donner Party’s journey.
7. Not all of the emigrants engaged in cannibalism.
As their supplies dwindled, the Donner emigrants stranded at Truckee Lake resorted to eating increasingly grotesque meals. They slaughtered their pack animals, cooked their dogs, gnawed on leftover bones and even boiled the animal hide roofs of their cabins into a foul paste. Several people died from malnutrition, but the rest managed to subsist on morsels of boiled leather and tree bark until rescue parties arrived in February and March 1847. Not all of the settlers were strong enough to escape, however, and those left behind were forced to cannibalize the frozen corpses of their comrades while waiting for further help. All told, roughly half of the Donner Party’s survivors eventually resorted to eating human flesh.
9. One rescuer singlehandedly led nine survivors out of the mountains.
Perhaps the most famous of the Donner Party’s saviors was John Stark, a burly California settler who took part in the third relief party. In early March 1847, he and two other rescuers stumbled upon 11 emigrants, mostly kids, who been left in the mountains by an earlier relief group. The two other rescuers each grabbed a single child and started hoofing it back down the slope, but Stark was unwilling to leave anyone behind. Instead, he rallied the weary adults, gathered the rest of the children and began guiding the group singlehandedly. Most of the kids were too weak to walk, so Stark took to carrying two of them at a time for a few yards, then setting them down in the snow and going back for others. He continued the grueling process all the way down the mountain, and eventually led all nine of his charges to safety. Speaking of the incident years later, one of the survivors credited her rescue to “nobody but God and Stark and the Virgin Mary.”