Donner Party Diary Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Of all the stories to come out of the American West, few have such morbid resonance as that of the Donner Party. Having set out in 1846 from Independence, Missouri, as part of the mad rush to settle the frontier, the Donner Party, a collection of several families spread out across dozens of wagons, became trapped in the snows of the Sierra Nevada after taking a shortcut through the mountain range. Faced with a brutal winter and few supplies, some of the immigrants resorted to cannibalism to survive. Nearly half the party perished, and as the details of the ordeal emerged—accounts both of heroism and moral failure—the story of the Donner Party became a cautionary tale against the hubris and folly of human greed in the face of nature. But the tragedy also touched people for another reason: beyond the lurid sensationalism, it forced Americans, fifteen years before the outbreak of the Civil War, to look in the mirror and consider how they may act when faced with impossible circumstances.

Summary Overview

Of all the stories to come out of the American West, few have such morbid resonance as that of the Donner Party. Having set out in 1846 from Independence, Missouri, as part of the mad rush to settle the frontier, the Donner Party, a collection of several families spread out across dozens of wagons, became trapped in the snows of the Sierra Nevada after taking a shortcut through the mountain range. Faced with a brutal winter and few supplies, some of the immigrants resorted to cannibalism to survive. Nearly half the party perished, and as the details of the ordeal emerged—accounts both of heroism and moral failure—the story of the Donner Party became a cautionary tale against the hubris and folly of human greed in the face of nature. But the tragedy also touched people for another reason: beyond the lurid sensationalism, it forced Americans, fifteen years before the outbreak of the Civil War, to look in the mirror and consider how they may act when faced with impossible circumstances.

Defining Moment

Beginning in the 1840s, sparked by the promise of opportunity and driven by the drumbeat of Manifest Destiny, the singular belief that God himself had bequeathed the West to Americans, millions of pioneers set off on the wagon trails toward Oregon and California. Some, like Patrick Breen, went in search of religious freedom, while others, like George Donner and James F. Reed, set off simply to follow the enduring westward dream.

Traveling by wagon train, pioneers were made up primarily of whole families, banded together into companies to pool resources and assure mutual safety. Most pioneers set off from Independence, Missouri, following the Oregon Trail for up to six months to the Great Continental Divide, the spine of mountains that separated the furthermost western states from the rest of the nation, where wagon trains had a choice of several routes to their final destination. The most perilous part of the trip into California was the last 100 miles, where wagon trains had to go up and over the Sierra Nevada, one of the most treacherous mountain ranges in North America, characterized by jagged rock and heavy snowdrifts.

In 1842, Lansford Hastings, an ambitious young lawyer, originally from Ohio, travelled to California and concocted a plan to wrest the territory from Mexico, proclaim on it an independent republic and establish himself at its ruler. To hasten his plan, he encouraged immediate settlement by writing The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California, in which he proclaimed the territory a new Eden, and advertised a shortcut through the Sierra Nevada, which he himself had never actually traveled.

With a copy of Hastings' guide in hand, the Donner Party, a wagon train of some ninety people, including several children, led by James F. Reed and George Donner, set out in the spring of 1846. Suffering delays due to weather, the Donner Party was eager to make up time when they arrived at Hastings Cutoff, the untested shortcut into California. Despite many warning signs, including the wavering of Hastings himself, whom the party met along the trail, the wagon train headed further into the cutoff, fighting for every mile, sometimes forced to veer off, losing even more time before the onset of the first snows. As things became harder, tempers flared and James F. Reed was banished from the wagon train after killing another pioneer in a scuffle. By late October 1846 the party was splintered, and as snow began to fall, the battered settlers decided to make winter camp, one at Tuckee Lake and another at Alder Creek in the high Sierras.

Within weeks of setting camp, what rations the party had were gone. Soon, they began to consume hides and whatever else was edible, but after a short while, even this too was gone. By the start of the new year, several members of the party began to consume human flesh.

Author Biography

Born in 1806 in Ireland, Patrick Breen originally settled in Iowa before joining the Donner Party along with wife Margaret and their seven children. Throughout the winter of 1846, Breen was the only member of the party to keep a diary of the events, making his the only contemporary account of the ordeal. From those who set off from Missouri the previous spring, the Breens all survived to reach safety in California. Breen's account appeared in newspapers, but often without his name. Largely ignored and forgotten by the press, Patrick Breen died in 1868. His daughter Isabella, who had only been a baby at the time of the events, lived to be the last surviving member of the Donner Party, finally passing in 1935.

Historical Document

“came to this place on the 31st of last month that it snowed we went on to the pass the snow so deep we were unable to find the road, when within 3 miles of the summit then turned back to this shanty on the Lake, Stanton came one day after we arriveed here we again took our teams & waggons & made another unsuccessful attempt to cross in company with Stanton we returned to the shanty it contiuneing to snow all the time we were here we now have killed most part of our cattle having to stay here untill next spring & live on poor beef without bread or salt”

— November 20, 1846

“still snowing now about 3 feet deep…killed my last oxen today will skin them tomorrow gave another yoke to Fosters hard to get wood”

— November 29, 1846

“… snow about 5 ½ feet or 6 deep difficult to get wood no gong from the house completely housed up looks as likely for snow as when it commenced, our cattle all killed but three or four them, the horses & Stantons mules gone & cattle suppose lost in the Snow no hopes of finding them alive”

— December 1, 1846

“… Milt. & Noah went to Donnos 8 days since not returned yet, thinks they got lost in the snow…”

— December 17, 1846

“… May we with Gods help spend the comeing year better than the past which we purpose to do if Almighty God will deliver us from our present dreadful situation…”

— December 31, 1846

“… Keyburg sent bill to get hides off his shanty & carry them home this morning, provisions scarce hides are the only article we depend on, we have a little meat yet, may God send us help”

— January 17, 1847

“… John Battice & Denton came this morning with Eliza she wont eat hides Mrs Reid sent her back to live or die on them Milt. Got his toes froze the donoghs are all well”

— January 21, 1847

“… those that went to Suitors not yet returned provisions getting very scant people getting weak liveing on short allowance of hides”

— January 26, 1847

“John & Edw went to Graves this morning the Graves Seize d on Mrs Reids goods until they would be paid also took the hides that she & family had to live on.”

— January 30, 1847

“… Peggy very uneasy for fear we shall all perish with hunger we have but a little meat left & only part of 3 hides has to support Mrs. Reid she has nothing left but one hide…”

— February 5, 1847

“… J Denton trying to borrow meat for Graves had none to give they have nothing but hides all are entirely out of meat but a little we have our hides are nearly all eat up but with Gods help spring will soon smile upon us”

— February 10, 1847

“… Mrs Graves refused to give Mrs Reid any hides put Suitors pack hides on her shanty would not let her have them says if I say it will thaw it then will not, she is a case”

— February 15, 1847

“… shot Towser today & dressed his flesh Mrs Graves came here this morning to borrow meat dog or ox they think I have meat to spare but I know to the Contrary they have plenty hides I live principally on the same”

— February 23, 1847

“… The Donnos told the California folks that they commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or the next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow…”

— February 26, 1847

“… there has 10 men arrived this morning from bear valley with provisions we are to start in two or three days & Cash our goods here there is amongst them some old they say the snow will be here untill June”

— March 1, 1847

Glossary

shanty – a small, crudely built shack

yoke – a wooden crosspiece placed over the heads of two animals and attached to the plow or cart they are to pull

Document Analysis

Patrick Breen's diary is a short, simple document, recording one man's steady loss of hope, and a group's gradual breakdown, in the face of tragic events. Beginning as a simple account of the weather and the party's dwindling food stores, Breen starts to invoke religion more and more as the weeks pass, desperate for some sort of divine intervention, to the point of pleading to God. He records the growing desperation, how some people vanished attempting to find rescue, while others turned to eating first the hides they used for their shelters and then to the flesh of those who had died.

Breen's account reveals how a community slowly disintegrates as members of the Donner Party sit in their camps, hoping against hope for salvation, and slowly weakening from starvation and malnutrition. When rations first become scarce, several people in the party refuse to eat the hides, but as hunger persists, the hides become highly desired. At one point, hides are forcibly taken from others, and people are left to starve. The choices are stark, and compassion is lacking, both in action and in Breen's account. In fact, it is a little shocking how dispassionately he writes about unfolding events.

Beyond the document, through later testimony, we know that cannibalism became widely practiced in the weeks before rescue. In at least a couple of circumstances, members of the party were killed by others so they could be eaten. Interestingly, we see little indication of murder or cannibalism in Breen's account. His only mention of cannibalism comes at the very end, and only in reference to members of the Donner family. Although the diary is scant, it does bring up questions of deliberate omissions on the part of Patrick Breen.

Eventually, thanks to the efforts of James F. Reed, more than half of the Donner Party was saved. But rather than draw the survivors together, the tragedy created long-lasting resentments between them. While the choices of some resulted in the survival of others, a few of the party had made questionable, perhaps immoral choices. Ultimately, the Breens fared as well as they did by relying on one another to get through each day and often refusing help to others. Whether this was morally right or wrong is difficult to determine in such circumstances.

Essential Themes

The story of the Donner Party, seen through the lens of Patrick Breen's diary, is the story of impossible choices. A group of pioneers, filled with the hope for riches and freedom, spurred on by the promise of Manifest Destiny, and believing in the righteousness of their endeavor, trusted the wrong booster and were taught a terrible lesson by nature. Simple kindness and human empathy were stripped away in order to survive. Choices that meant the difference between life and death were made daily. Of the many tragedies that befell settlers rushing westward throughout the nineteenth century, that of the Donner Party is relatively insignificant in terms of lives lost and historical impact. However, few other events from the era struck the public with such force. In many ways, the story of the Donner Party is a story about the loss of innocence, a rebuke concerning the promise of divine protection, and a cautionary tale to proponents of American exceptionalism. But more fundamentally, it is the story about the terrible price that sometimes must be paid for desire. At this time in the nation's history, as Native peoples were being forcefully displaced and a large segment of the population was enslaved, the tale of the Donner Party forced the nation to reexamine its collective morals. The event, which did help slow migration into California until gold was discovered in 1849, moved people to question whether the price of a new life was too high. On a deeper level, it forced Americans to look inward. What would we do in such circumstances? What line would we cross? In the increasingly connected and complicated contemporary world, in which the United States plays a pivotal role, these are questions with which we still grapple. Unfortunately, the introspection spurred by the Donner Party's misfortune was short-lived. The drive west continued, and settlement only increased. And for most, the Donner Party became only a gruesome tale of horror in the American West.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “The Donner Party.” American Experience. Dir. Ric Burns. PBS. 1992. Film.
  • McGlashan, C. F. History of the Donner Party. 1881. Palo Alto, California: Stanford UP, 1940. Print.
  • Murphy, Virginia Reed. Across the Plains in the Donner Party. Silverthorne, CO: Vistabooks, 1995. Print.
  • Rarick, Ethan. Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
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