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Mythbuster: The Donner Party

Just about everyone who has studied American History has heard of the Donner party, generally seen as a nightmarish footnote in pioneer history. The lurid and scandalous details publicized at the time and shortly after, however inaccurate they may have been, still echo in the popular imagination and are stated as facts today [1]. But what really did happen?

The general story goes something like this:

The Donner party was the last wagon train to set out for California in 1846, and they moved very slowly, encumbered by heavy wagons and excess baggage. [2] In an effort to save time they decided to take Hastings Cutoff, which was touted in Lansford Hastings’ guidebook, The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California, and crossed south of the Great Salt Lake, instead of taking the usual route to the north. They had been told that it was supposed to be a shortcut, but it ended up costing them dearly in time and supplies lost in their crossing of the Salt Desert. [3] By the time they got to Truckee Meadows they were already short on food, and after pausing shortly to regroup they decide to press on and cross the mountains. The snow began to fall. Some of them reached Donner Lake (then called Truckee Lake) and made a camp near a cabin that was already there [4], some (including the Donners themselves) camped further back by Alder Creek. They quickly become trapped [4].

Now, everyone knows that members of the Donner party committed acts of cannibalization in order to survive. There is no arguing this, although various members of the group denied, or later came to deny that they were involved in it [3]. It was well documented that the group sent out to try and find help not only ate fallen members of their group [5], but also killed and consumed Lewis and Salvador, their Indian guides sent from Ft. Sutter, who were themselves also near death [6]. While this is a horrible thing to think about, it must be remembered that the people who were in this group were not only starving, freezing, and in many cases dying, but also believed that they were the only chance that the people back at the campsites had for survival, and many of them had left their children behind. Back in the camps things were just as grim, although not quite as desperate. Party members ate everything that was available, including the hides that formed and insulated their shelters. In fact, the people in the camps did not begin eating their dead until two months after they had sent out the party to seek help – not even until after help had arrived, bringing far too little food to sustain the starving emigrants [7]. Things were not much better for those rescued – while the people who went back with the First Relief group escaped relatively unscathed (they only lost 3 people on the way back, although they did have to resort to eating rawhide for 3 days [8]), the people who went with the Second Relief party were not so fortunate. They had left a week’s worth of supplies with the people remaining at the camps, and started back, expecting to cross paths with the Third Relief party (which was starting to prepare when the Second Relief party started out) who would have food for them, but they were nowhere to be seen [9]. Most of the group was too weak to continue without food, and remained at what came to be called “Starved Camp” while a few of the healthier members pressed on to get help. Those who remained lasted as long as possible with the small quantity of tea and sugar that they had, and then began eating those who had passed away [10]. They were subsequently rescued by the delayed Third Relief, who also brought everyone but the last 6 party members out, three of whom were too weak to travel, two of whom were left to care for those staying (both of whom decided that this would be suicide, and left almost immediately to join the relief party), and one, Tamsen Donner, who chose to stay with her dying husband [11]. The fourth and final relief party arrived a month later, in mid-April to find no one left alive except Lewis Keseberg, who had been too weak to travel with the Third Relief. It is from articles in the California Star, published around this time (some but not all of which contain testimony from Fourth Relief party leader William O. Fallon), that the lasting and horrible images of the Donner party’s cannibalization as acts of wicked depravity originate [12], [13]. Keseberg’s own testimony, of course, refutes this [14], and he won a suit for slander against some of the members of the Fourth Relief [15].

Fairly recently there has been some contention that there was no cannibalization in the camps due to there being no archeological evidence found to confirm its occurrence in recent digs, however coming to this conclusion is reading more into what was found (and what was not found) than is warranted [3]. While there is ample historical testimony to the fact that members of the Donner party did cannibalize their dead (and in the case of the Lewis and Salvador, actually killed people for food), it is unfair to label them for all time as the bloodthirsty monsters characterized by their portrayal in the California Star. What the archeological evidence does show is that they did everything that was possible to survive before they were reduced to eating their dead [3]. This makes them out not to be monsters, but instead just starving people, at the end of their resources, trying desperately to survive.

Author: Emily Nelson


[1] Diamond, Jared. “Living through the Donner Party”. Discover, 3/12/1992. http://discovermagazine.com/1992/mar/livingthroughthe4

[2] Johnson, Kristin. “Some Donner Party Myths and Legends”. New light on The Donner Party. http://www.utahcrossroads.org/DonnerParty/Briefmyths.htm Accessed 11/9/09.

[3] Goodyear, Dana. “What Happened at Alder Creek?” The New Yorker, Vol. LXXXII, No. 10, 4/24/06. pp 140-151.

[4] McGlashan, Charles F. History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra. 1880. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. pp. 38-42.

[5] “Distressing News”. California Star. 2/13/1847. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist6/donner.html Accessed 11/9/09.

[6] McGlashan, Charles F. History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra. 1880. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. pp. 78-79.

[7] Breen, Patrick. Diary of Patrick Breen one of the Donner Party. 1846-7. Online archive of California. http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=tf10000759&doc.view=items&brand=oac Accessed 11/9/09.

[8] Rhoads, Daniel. “Statement of Daniel Rhoads regarding the relief of the Donner Party, 1846” Bancroft Library, 1873. Wikisource.org. Accessed 11/9/09.

[9] Reed, James. M. Second Relief Diary. new light on The Donner Party. http://www.utahcrossroads.org/DonnerParty/SecondReliefDiary.htm Accessed 11/9/09.

[10] Woodworth, S.E. “San Francisco, April 1, 1847”. Morning News, New London, CT. 10/25/1847. America’s Historical Newspapers, NewsBank.com. Accessed 11/9/09.

[11] McGlashan, Charles F. History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra. 1880. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. pp. 134-135.

[12] Leonard, A.T., Jr. “Rambles in California: A Question of Authorship”. California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 3, 9/1951.

[13] Fallon, William O. “EXTRACTS from a JOURNAL Written by a Member of the Party Latest from the California Mountains”. California Star 6/5/1847. New light on The Donner Party. Accessed 11/9/09.

[14] McGlashan, Charles F. History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra. 1880. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. pp. 170-173.

[15] Ibid. p. 179.

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