The winter entrapment of the Donner Party as they tried to reach California was caused by bad advice, late arrival, and immense and heavy snowfall. Starvation led some of them to cannibalism and subsequent notoriety. Donner State Park is located at the main site of their ordeal.
Donner Memorial State Park
12593 Donner Pass Road
Truckee, CA 96161
ph.: (530) 582-7892
Web site: www.cal-parks.ca.gov
In the nineteenth century, the Sierra Nevada were a massive barrier to anyone heading for California. Local native groups and mountain men traveled the rugged passes, though seldom in winter. In the 1830’s, few tried it; some went around the north or south end.
The first wagon train to make its way through the seven thousand-foot-high Donner Pass was the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend group in 1844. They opened the Emigrant Trail that became one of the most traveled overland trails to California. Modern Interstate 80 follows the same path through the mountains.
This wagon train consisted of the Murphy and Townsend families of Missouri and a number of single men, among them Elisha Stephens. Selected as leader, Stephens was a quiet man with years of experience in the West. Caleb Greenwood, who had been in the west for thirty years, was their guide. Isaac Hitchcock also had lived in the West and brought his family. Most of the twenty-six men and eight women were between twenty and forty years old. There were sixteen children.
Arriving in the Sierra in winter, like the later Donner Party, the Stephens group did not know which way to go. At the confluence of two streams east of Donner Lake, they split up, each following one stream. Near Donner Lake, one group left four wagons and trekked onward. To guard the wagons, Moses Shallenberger spent the winter near the lake in a small cabin built by several of the men. He survived, and all of the Stephens group made it to Sutter’s Fort. Two babies were born on the trail. The Stephens Party passage was successful but uneventful and was quickly overshadowed by the misfortunes of the Donner Party.
The Donner Party did not exist until most members had reached Fort Bridger in the Wyoming Territory; it was among the last groups on the trail that year. Most were strangers with no loyalty outside their own families. The motive for combining forces was self-preservation. Everyone knew that group travel was the safest way.
The aged George Donner of Illinois was elected leader because he had prestige, wealth, and support from fifteen members of the Donner family on the train, including his frail elder brother. They had three wagons, twelve yoke of oxen, five saddle horses, cattle, servants, and a watchdog. John Reed, also prosperous, had traveled with his family from Ohio with the Donners. In Wyoming, ten families and sixteen single men decided to go on together. Ranging in age from twenty to sixty, they were from six different states and two foreign countries.
They intended to join a wagon train at Fort Bridger led by Lansford Hastings, but they were late and he did not wait for them. He left a note telling them to follow the tracks of the Harlan Young wagon train that he was leading. That company of sixty wagons made it safely to California in 1846, as did a number of other wagon trains.
Most people in the Western world have heard what happened to the Donner Party, but why it happened is less well known. The Donner Party left Fort Bridger on July 31, 1846, one of the last trains to leave that year. They had twenty-four wagons; nearly ninety people; herds of oxen, horses, mules, and cattle; and a thousand miles to go to reach California. They knew they should arrive at the Sierra Nevada before winter set in, but they were slow and sometimes the wagons were strung out for miles. Few on the train knew how to hunt, and none had been on the trail or had wilderness survival skills.
On the advice of Lansford Hastings, they took a short cut that went south of the Great Salt Lake. It turned out to be miles longer and more difficult than the regular trail. To get their wagons through a rugged thirty-six-mile stretch of the Wasatch Mountains, they spent two weeks building a road, which made them later still. The men and animals were exhausted from the ordeal, but they slogged on. Then they came to the desert, which Hastings had said was only forty miles wide. It was eighty miles with no water. Many animals died, everyone got disoriented, and there were attacks by local natives. Four wagons were abandoned as too heavily loaded for tired animals to pull. Now they were two months late.
There was no cohesion between groups, and tension arose during the trip. Diseases and mishaps plagued them, but no more than on most wagon trains: This group was not prepared to handle them. Before they reached the Sierra Nevada, five men had died, only one from disease. At Truckee Meadows (current site of Reno, Nevada), they rested for nearly a week trying to decide whether to go ahead or wait where they were for the winter. They were out of food staples so several men walked to Sutter’s Fort in California to bring back supplies. One man and two natives came back carrying food. It was all the help they received for months.
They decided to go ahead up the rugged mountain pass along the Truckee River. They traveled in separate groups, again days apart. The first wagons made it to a small lake, now called Donner Lake, just before it began to snow. By November 6, they were unable to move forward or back, engulfed in five feet of snow. They were still a hundred miles northeast of Sutter’s Fort with no hope of reaching it before the snow melted.
The Breen family arrived at the lake first and took over the small log cabin that the men of the Stephens Party had built two years before. It was only twelve feet wide and fourteen feet long, and its roof of hides and branches was gone. The Murphy family built another cabin several hundred yards away. The Reed and Graves families built a double cabin a half mile eastward. The Donners, with the slowest moving wagons, made it only as far as Alder Creek, five or six miles northeast of the lake. There were sixty people at the lake and twenty-one at Alder Creek. A series of storms, each lasting from three to ten days, raged for three months. By February, the snow was twenty-two to twenty-five feet deep.
Fifteen of the adults tried to make it out to bring back help. Later called the “Forlorn Hope,” they were largely unsuccessful. Some reached Sutter’s Fort, a few came back with food, and only half of them survived. Other unsuccessful attempts were made to get food to the starving party.
When the final rescue party arrived in April of 1847, what they found appalled them. This incident has been repeated and discussed for 150 years. The accounts vary widely, and not all are reliable. Even firsthand reports of the survivors do not agree in details because party members were in different places and had different experiences. However, the basic facts are clear. When they had consumed all the food, mules, horses, oxen, and dogs, they boiled blankets, boots, and hides to make soup. Families that still had food would not share it with outsiders. On December 16, when the first man died of starvation, some of his companions were driven to roasting his flesh for food. There was nothing else; cannibalism was the only way to survive. At first, they waited until a man died of starvation, and all agreed that no one ought to consume a relative. Then things got worse. There are unconfirmed reports that one young man and both natives were shot just for the food that their bodies provided.
While tales have gotten more lurid and graphic over the years, they are generally true. Some writers have tried to downplay the horror, but it is clear that those who survived partook of human flesh at least part of the time. Some accounts by those who were there during the ordeal do not agree in detail, and some were eager to blunt the horror of the story.
The reasons for the tragedy are clear. Their late arrival in the mountains happened to come in a year of especially heavy snow in the Sierra. Leadership was nonexistent, no one had any knowledge of how to survive, and there was little cooperation outside family groups. Of the eighty-seven people trapped at the lake, almost half died. An interesting statistic shows that only half of the men made it through the ordeal, but nearly three-fourths of the women survived. Everyone over the age of fifty and under the age of five died of starvation. The Donner tragedy is a vivid example of the perils Western travelers of the nineteenth century faced in the rugged and formidable wilderness of California.
Reports on the fate of the Donner Party spread quickly, and many California-seekers avoided this trail because they feared being trapped like the Donner Party. When the gold rush began to bring thousands of people to California in 1849, fear faded. The passage became the Emigrant Trail, and hundreds of people used it. The first account of the Donner tragedy was sensational and horrifying. Writers then stressed the heroism and bravery of the survivors. In the 1880’s, C. F. McGlashan of Truckee wrote a book restoring essential facts of the story that had been forgotten.
Donner State Memorial Park, just east of the foot of Donner Lake, is situated on the site of the main Donner Camp. This California State Park presents dramatic reminders of the Donner Party’s tragedy as well as other pioneers’ triumphs. The Donner name abounds in the area. The most visible reminder is a monument to all pioneers who crossed the pass. Its base is twenty-two feet high, the depth of the 1846-1847 snow accumulation. It was erected in 1918 with some survivors present and stands on the site of the Shallenberger cabin. Another monument, dedicated in 1994, commemorates the first successful crossing made by the Stephens Party in 1844-1845. The Alder Creek campsite, six miles away, is operated by the United States Forest Service. Some archaeological work has been done in the area.
The visitors’ center shows a film on the Donner Party daily and runs an excellent small museum that displays artifacts of the trek, from a large covered wagon to a tiny child’s doll. There are many books and accounts of the story available, and brochures and maps list hikes and tours to various sites, as well as indigenous animals, plants, and trees. It is open all year, and a winter visit exhibits some of the problems faced by the Donner Party.
DeVoto, Bernard. Year of Decision, 1846. Boston: Little, Brown, 1943. Houghton, Eliza P. Donner. The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1911. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. King, Joseph R. Winter of Entrapment: A New Look at the Donner Party. Lafayette, Calif.: K & K, 1992. McGlashan, C. F. The History of the Donner Party. Reprint. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1940. Mullen, Frank. The Donner Party Chronicles. Reno, Nev.: Humanities Committee, 1997. Stewart, George R. The California Trail. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953. _______. Ordeal by Hunger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1936. Unruh, Jon D., Jr. The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.