Many people know at least something about The Donner Party. I’m sure if I took a survey of the general public I would hear, “ate their dead” and “cannibalism” more than a few times. I’m also pretty sure that those who respond this way probably don’t know any more than that. On the heels of the above statements, I must admit that I fell into that category until about 2 months ago. I knew that they were traveling west, got stuck in the snow, and some were forced to rely on human flesh for food at the end when there was nothing else – but beyond that I was at a loss. If you are looking for a relatively quick read about what happened to the Donners try picking up the diary style novel, Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle Burton (my review will post tomorrow).
The 87 members of the Donner Party were trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains from November 1846 to March 1847. After deciding to take a new shortcut, known as Hastings Cuttoff, the members of the Donner Party hit one obstacle after another that caused them to get to the mountains later than they expected, walking right into a snow storm. The Donner camp was approximately 5 miles from the camp of the other travelers near Truckee Lake. This was because an axel on the Donner wagon broken and George Donner was injured.
Throughout the 4 months there were as many rescue attempts. Various members of the Donner Party attempted to make it out of the mountains on foot on their own. A group created snowshoes and attempted the trek – of the 17 that left, only 7 made it to rescue. The first organized rescue was in February. 7 rescuers arrived and were able to take 23 people back with them. Several ended up turning back and several died from the cold and hunger. The second rescue arrived March 1st. These rescuers were led by two of the menfolk who had made it out of the mountains. This rescue took 17, almost all children. After this rescue there were 5 people left at the lake camps and 5 at the Donner camps. The third relief arrived on March 14th. The Donner children left during this rescue attempt but Tamsen Donner went back to stay with her dying husband, George. Out of the 87 who were stuck in the mountains, 48 made it out. The story of the Donner Party is one of being brave and trying to beat the odds in the face of adversity. It is true, some of them did resort to eating the dead, but it was a very small number and a last ditch effort.
There are some great references available on the web to learn more about the ill fated Donner Party. The PBS series, American Experience, has an episode on them. I have included a trailer below and you can watch the entire episode online if you are interested. They also provide an interactive map of the party’s trail with useful information. UC Berkley has provided the pages of Patrick Breen’s (a member of the party) diary online that you can view and read first hand what life was like.
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