This haunting Donner party photo and the facts that go with it uncover the truth about what really led to America's most infamous case of mass cannibalism.
The “Donner Party” term has long become synonymous with one of America’s most infamous cases of cannibalism in recorded history. While most everybody has certainly heard of the harrowing tale of failed western migration or is at least familiar with the name — the details of the expedition are a little less known.
The premise is quite simple: around 90 emigrants banded together to leave Springfield, Illinois in the spring of 1846 to take an untested, and supposedly shorter route to California. Led by brothers Jacob and George Donner, the results of this endeavor were far less simple — and tested the resilience and moral standing of everyone involved.
According to History, through a combination of travel delays and insurmountable terrain, the group got stuck in the Sierra Nevada Mountains — and was quickly trapped by heavy snowfall. In the next few months, half of the party died. The surviving half, many of which ate the other, reached California the next year.
The gruesome realities of this expedition rapidly spread across the country. Before the story could die down or be forgotten entirely, it became a world-famous warning about the perils of man’s traversal of the wild — and how quickly the fabric of supposed order can give way to depths of lawlessness and inhumanity.
The Donner Party
The Donner party departed Springfield in April 1846. According to author Michael Wallis who wrote The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party In the Age Of Manifest Destiny, it had nary been a year since the term “Manifest Destiny” was coined by John L. O’Sullivan of the New York Post.
Anglo-Americans sincerely believed that they were God’s chosen people, and that it was their God-given right to expand across the continent — indigenous peoples be damned. According to National Geographic, President James Polk even concocted a baseless war against Mexico in order to conduct a land grab.
“The story line was, ‘There are no people out there, anyway, so let’s take this land!’ Of course, there were a lot of people out there, like the Mexicans, and tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Indians,” said Wallis. “What we did was gobble up nations.”
While this general sense of superiority at the time was misguided, one aspect of this continent-wide expansion was perfectly clear: emigrants traveling the California Trail absolutely needed to head west at the right time in the season in order to survive.
According to History, the opportune moment was in late spring, so that grass for their pack animals was available and so that there was enough time to cross the challenging mountain passes before winter arrived.
This was the first, arguably biggest failure of the Donner Party: they left Independence, Missouri on May 12, when the right time to do so was mid to late-April. They were the last major pioneer train of the year, and with such a substantial delay, any miscalculation en route could have dire consequences.
“I am beginning to feel alarmed at the tardiness of our movements,” one emigrant wrote, “and fearful that winter will find us in the snowy mountains of California.”
Unfortunately, they couldn’t have been more warranted in their concerns.
Hastings Cutoff — A Shortcut To Damnation
The traditional route to California had pioneers travel north through Idaho once arriving in Wyoming, and then swoop south to move through Nevada. Unfortunately for the Donner Party, a dishonest and unscrupulous guidebook author named Lansford Hastings had proffered a more direct and supposedly faster path in 1846.
The “Hastings Cutoff” proposed cutting through the Wasatch Mountains and then across the Salt Lake Desert. In a risky, irrevocable decision, the Donner Party opted for this unproven route — even though not a single soul had ever traveled it with wagons. Not even Hastings, himself.
James Clyman, an accomplished mountain man, was the only experienced member of the party who strongly advised against this. Nonetheless, all 20 wagons decided to give it a chance and gamble on the shortcut. It would be the worst, deadliest decision they ever made.
Much of the supposed trail didn’t even exist — the party was forced to cut down trees in order to make way for some of the journey. During the five-day crossing of the salt desert, the party nearly died of thirst.
This supposed cutoff wasn’t merely ineffective, but detrimental, and added nearly a month to the Donner Party’s expedition. While most of the party did reach the Sierra Nevada mountains by early November, a blizzard covered them in snow — and mountain passes that were accessible just a day earlier were now completely obstructed.
As a result, the Donner Party was forced to turn back. They set up camp at Truckee Lake (which has since been renamed “Donner Lake”) and hoped their makeshift cabins and flimsy tents would suffice to last the whole winter. By this point, a lot of the food, supplies, and livestock had been lost on the trail.
The first few members of the Donner Party starved to death soon after.
Starvation And Social Erosion
Most of the Donner Party consisted of children and adolescents. More than half of the 81 people trapped at Truckee Lake were underage, and six of them were infants. Most of the survivors were comprised of children, as well — including one-year-old Isabella Breen, who died when she was 90.
After over a month at Truckee Lake, 15 of the fittest members decided to risk everything in a last-ditch effort to get help. On Dec. 16, 1846, they fitted their feet with makeshift snowshoes and walked out of the mountains. They walked the frozen tundra-esque environment for days, to no avail.
The men were starving, exhausted, and nearing utter collapse. Everything seemed lost.
The time had come to face facts and confront their last remaining choice: sacrifice someone and eat their flesh to survive, or freeze and starve to death. While the bastion of desperate pioneers discussed drawing straws, or having two of them fight to the death — several members died naturally.
This made everything much easier, relatively speaking. The surviving members of this Donner Party offshoot were now able to cook and eat the deceased without adding a hefty sense of guilt to their already exhausting endeavor.
Reenergized and firmly removed from physical collapse, seven of the 15 members arrived at a ranch in California after a grueling month of walking. Once arrived, they informed the locals, sought help, and orchestrated the rescue efforts that would help save anyone still alive at Truckee Lake. The first of four rescue relief efforts began at this time.
This incredible hike across the frozen wilderness was later dubbed “The Forlorn Hike” by historians.
Cannibalism Within The Donner Party
It’s important to note that, as far as evidence and provable accounts go, there were only two people who were murdered for food. All other incidents saw people cannibalize the bodies of those who had already died.
“In correspondence, journals, and later, interviews, they freely admitted that when everything else was gone, they turned to cannibalism,” said Wallis. “They were suffering hypothermia and starvation; they were delirious.”
“But they knew that out in the snow banks was this great store of protein: people who had already died. They had carefully placed them in the snow banks and that’s what it came down to.”
Of course, for the two Native Americans who were killed for their flesh, this bit of information presumably isn’t assuaging in the slightest. It was just their luck that Salvador and Luis had joined the Donner Party shortly before the blizzard trapped them and forced their retreat to Truckee Lake.
They were the only two people who flatly refused to eat human flesh. It disturbed them so heavily that they eventually ran away, terrified they’d be sacrificed once the “store of protein” was depleted. To their credit, they were right.
The two men were found a few days after their escape, lying in the snow and suffering from exhaustion. Donner Party member William Foster shot them both in the head, after which they were chopped up, cooked, and consumed by the others.
Besides a few terrifying accounts which have never been substantiated in court or led to any criminal charges, this was the only incident of murder for food during this dreadful, months-long ordeal.
The other incidents, speculative as they may be, are certainly worth exploring — if only for their ghastly, disconcerting plausibility.
Parental Sacrifice, Lewis Kesenberg, And Potential Child Murder
The rescue process took more than two months, bringing the Donner Party’s total of being trapped in the mountains to five months. The first relief parties arrived in February 1846, by which point many survivors were too weak to travel. Many died while attempting to descend the mountains.
In total, four relief teams and over two months were required to bring all surviving members down. The very last member to be saved was a German immigrant named Lewis Kesenberg. Found in April 1847, he was reportedly discovered half crazy, and surrounded by the half-eaten bodies of his peers.
“Keseberg was made into the master villain of this whole tragedy, and he didn’t help his own cause,” said Wallis. “He and his wife, Philippine, came from Germany. He was a son of a Lutheran clergyman, and they decided to join this vanguard moving west.”
“He was a sharp-tempered fellow, who was sometimes abusive to his young, pregnant wife. He was also accused of plundering Indian burial sites. When the fourth rescue party reached him in April 1847, he was the only survivor.”
“He was reportedly found with a cauldron of cooked flesh and discarded bones. There were even rumors from some of the surviving children that he had taken one lad to bed with him to comfort him and the next morning the boy was dead, hung up on the wall of the cabin, like a slab of meat, and later eaten.”
“The journalists of the day feasted on all this. Sensationalized stories, often filled with outright lies, [nicknamed] Keseberg ‘The Human Cannibal.’ It was said he actually relished the taste of human flesh, and that when rescuers offered him alternative protein, he refused it, saying, ‘Oh no, I like this better.'”
“Many of those stories are suspect. So, though I don’t think Keseberg is someone to champion, I do believe he got a fairly raw deal.”
There are plenty other more substantiated and equally harrowing incidents during rescue relief efforts, namely the story of Margret Reed and the heartbreaking decision she had to make concerning her children.
In journalist Ethan Rarick’s Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West, the writer used both diaries and archaeological evidence to garner invaluable insight into the tragedy, with the Reed account convincing him the project was worth his time.
“One thing that led me to write the book is the moment when Margret Reed is walking out with her four children with the first rescue party,” he told U.S. News. “It becomes clear that Patty and Tommy [ages 8 and 3] will not be able to keep going. They’re going to have to be sent back.”
“The idea that another rescue party would get in before they would starve to death is pretty unlikely. Which means they’re probably going to die…She has to determine: Is she going to send back two of her children and try to go on? Is she going to go with them?”
“It”s like Sophie’s Choice, and she finally is convinced that she should go ahead with her two [older] children. As they say goodbye, Patty looks at her mother and says, ‘Well, Ma, if you never see me again, just do the best you can.'”
Aftermath And Legacy
For an event so well-known for its cannibalism, it’s remarkable how little is known about it, for sure. However, it’s not surprising that survivors would either remain tight-lipped or outright lie about it later — and evidence, as it were, doesn’t fare well amid 12 feet of snow.
Either way, the firsthand accounts from survivors are largely a mess of contradictions and retractions. The firsthand accounts of rescuers and witnesses, however, along with the informed, researched opinions of journalists and historians after the fact, confidently state that as many as 21 people were eaten.
For Wallis, the ghoulish aspect of cannibalism has greatly overshadowed the bravery and resilience inherent in the accounts of the Donner Party’s survivors.
“Eating human flesh was a total, last resort,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh, those cannibals, how could they do that?’ I turn it around and say, ‘What would you do if you are a mother watching your children starve and freeze to death?'”
“You’ve already eaten the horses and oxen, and boiled their hides into a horrible gelatinous concoction; you’ve eaten field mice and finally cut the throats of your beloved family dogs and eaten them, paws and all. But you know that there’s protein that will keep you alive in those snow banks.”
“It didn’t really scar the children because they were told to eat it and they knew it kept them alive. Some of them never ever spoke of it again. Some denied it, but not that many.”
For more tales of facing down nature and somehow coming out on top, check out these incredible survival stories. Then, discover more cannibalism and other similarly weird death rituals from around the world.