In the 1840s, waves of Americans headed west to forge a new life. Many of these stories had happy endings while some suffered great tragedy — and then there was the infamous Donner Party.
On February 18, 1847, a rescue party that was sent into the Sierra Nevada mountains came upon a frozen lake where they had been told they would find cabins full of trapped settlers. At first, all they saw were piles of snow and presumed “that all must have perished.” But when the rescuers gave a shout, an emaciated woman, barely a skeleton, emerged from a snow-covered hole to ask: “Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?”
Finally, the lost Donner Party was found.
The party had set off from Independence, Missouri on May 12, 1846. The party of 87 pioneers included men, women, and many young children. Unfortunately, the pioneers left late.
To make up for lost time and reach California before winter set in, they decided to take a shortcut. One guidebook mentioned an alternate route called the Hastings Cutoff, so the Donner Party forged ahead — and toward their doom.
It didn’t take long for the Donner Party to realize they’d made a grave mistake. They quickly found that the Hastings Cutoff wasn’t really a trail at all — which meant they had to hack one for themselves. The cutoff also took the party across the arid Great Salt Lake Desert, where many of them nearly died of thirst.
Worst of all, this so-called “shortcut” in fact added crucial days to the Donner Party’s journey, ensuring that they’d lose their race against the coming of winter. As they began their final stretch through the Sierra Nevada mountains, snowflakes began to fall.
Had the party arrived even one day earlier, they might have made it through the mountain pass. Instead, the snow had sealed their fate and they were forced to set up camp at Truckee Lake, where they hoped for the best. Soon, however, hunger set in, and they did whatever they could to survive.
First, they killed the pack animals, their loyal oxen and horses who had pulled the wagons. Then they ate the field mice that darted through their camp. Once those were gone, the Donner Party was forced to kill and eat their pet dogs.
With no animals left to consume, they started gnawing on pine cones and tree bark. But things were getting increasingly desperate. People had grown weak and sick. Many had died.
But by this point, it dawned on the survivors that they had another possible food source just below their feet: the bodies of their fellow pioneers who had already perished and been buried in the snow.
In all, at least 21 members of the Donner Party were cannibalized by the survivors. Nearly 200 years later, the party’s torturous journey — and especially their desperate turn to cannibalism — casts a haunting shadow over the history of the American frontier.
Delve deeper into the disturbing story of the Donner Party.