The Tragic Story of the Donner Party

Donner Party

The Donner party stranded in the Sierra Nevada Range, 1847

On October 5th at Iron Point, two wagons became entangled and John Snyder, a teamster of one of the wagons began to whip his oxen. Infuriated by the teamster’s treatment of the oxen, James Reed ordered the man to stop and when he wouldn’t, Reed grabbed his knife and stabbed the teamster in the stomach, killing him. The Donner Party wasted no time in administering their own justice. Though member, Lewis Keseberg, favored hanging for James Reed, the group, instead, voted to banish him. Leaving his family, Reed was last seen riding off to the west with a man named Walter Herron.

The Donner Party continued to travel along the Humboldt River with their remaining draft animals exhausted. To spare the animals, everyone who could, walked. Two days after the Snyder killing, on October 7th, Lewis Keseberg turned out a Belgian man named Hardcoop, who had been traveling with him. The old man, who could not keep up with the rest of the party with his severely swollen feet, began to knock on other wagon doors, but no one would let him in. He was last seen sitting under a large sage brush, completely exhausted, unable to walk, worn out, and was left there to die.

The terrible ordeals of the caravan continued to mount, when on October 12th, their oxen were attacked by Piute Indians, killing 21 one of them with poison tipped arrows, further depleting their draft animals.

Continuing to encounter multiple obstacles, on October 16th, they reached the gateway to the Sierra Nevada on the Truckee River (present day Reno) almost completely depleted of food supplies. Miraculously, just three days later on October 19th, one of the men the party had sent on to Fort Sutter — Charles Stanton, returned laden with seven mules loaded with beef and flour, two Indian guides, and news of a clear, but difficult path through the Sierra Nevada. Stanton’s partner, William McCutchen had fallen ill and remained at the fort. The caravan camped for five days 50 miles from the summit, resting their oxen for the final push. This decision to delay their departure was yet one more of many that would lead to their tragedy.

October 28th, an exhausted James Reed arrived at Sutter’s Fort, where he met William McCutchen, now recovered, and the two men began preparations to go back for their families.

In the meantime, while the wagon train continued to the base of summit, George Donner’s wagon axle broke and he fell behind the rest of the party. Twenty two people, consisting of the Donner family and their hired men, stayed behind while the wagon was repaired. Unfortunately, while cutting timber for a new axle, a chisel slipped and Donner cut his hand badly, causing the group to fall further behind.

Donner Lake 1866

Donner Lake, 1866

As the rest of the party continued to what is now known as Donner’s Lake, snow began to fall. Stanton and the two Indians who were traveling ahead made it as far as the summit, but could go no further. Hopeless, they retraced their steps where five feet of new snow had already fallen.

With the Sierra pass just 12 miles beyond, the wagon train, after attempting to make the pass through the heavy snow, finally retreated to the eastern end of the lake, where level ground and timber was abundant.  At the lake stood one existing cabin and realizing they were stranded, the group built two more cabins, sheltering 59 people in hopes that the early snow would melt, allowing them to continue their travels.

The 22 people with the Donners were about six miles behind at Alder Creek. Hastily, as the snow continued, the party built three shelters from tents, quilts, buffalo robes and brush to protect themselves from the harsh conditions.

At Donner Lake, two more attempts were made to get over the pass in twenty feet of snow, until they finally realized they were snowbound for the winter. More small cabins were constructed, many of which were shared by more than one family. The weather and their hopes were not to improve. Over the next four months, the remaining men, women, and children would huddle together in cabins, make shift lean-tos, and tents.

Meanwhile, Reed and McCutchen had headed back up into the mountains attempting to rescue their stranded companions. Two days after they started out it began to rain. As the elevation increased, the rain turned to snow and twelve miles from the summit the pair could go no further. Caching their provisions in Bear Valley, they returned to Sutter’s fort hoping to recruit more men and supplies for the rescue. However, the Mexican War had drawn away the able-bodied men, forcing any further rescue attempts to wait. Not knowing how many cattle the emigrants had lost, the men believed the party would have enough meat to last them several months.   On Thanksgiving, it began to snow again, and the pioneers at Donner Lake killed the last of their oxen for food on November 29th.

The very next day, five more feet of snow fell, and they knew that any plans for a departure were dashed. Many of their animals, including Sutter’s mules, had wandered off into the storms and their bodies were lost under the snow. A few days later their last few cattle were slaughtered for food and party began eating boiled hides, twigs, bones and bark. Some of the men tried to hunt with little success.

On December 15, Balis Williams died of malnutrition and the group realized that something had to be done before they all died. The next day five men, nine women and one child departed on snowshoes for the summit, determined to travel the 100 miles to Sutter’s Fort. However, with only meager rations and already weak from hunger the group faced a challenging ordeal. On the sixth day, their food ran out and for the next three days no one ate while they traveled through grueling high winds and freezing weather. One member of the party, Charles Stanton, snow-blind and exhausted was unable to keep up with the rest of the party and told them to go on. He never rejoined the group. A few days later, the party was caught in a blizzard and had great difficulty getting and keeping a fire lit. Antonio, Patrick Dolan, Franklin Graves, and Lemuel Murphy soon died and in desperation, the others resorted to cannibalism.

Living off the bodies of those that died along the path to Sutter’s Fort, the snowshoeing survivors were reduced to seven by the time they reached safety on the western side of the mountains on January 19, 1847. Only two of the ten men survived, including William Eddy and William Foster, but all five women lived through the journey. Of the eight dead, seven had been cannibalized. Immediately messages were dispatched to neighboring settlements as area residents rallied to save the rest of the Donner Party.

The Donner Party in a storm

The Donner Party in a storm

On February 5, the first relief party of seven men left Johnson’s ranch, and the second, headed by James Reed, left two days later. On February 19th, the first party reached the lake finding what appeared to be a deserted camp until the ghostly figure of a woman appeared. Twelve of the emigrants were dead and of the forty-eight remaining, many had gone crazy or were barely clinging to life. However, the nightmare was by no means over. Not everyone could be taken out at one time and since no pack animals could be brought in, few food supplies were brought in.   The first relief party soon left with 23 refugees, but during the party’s travels back to Sutter’s Fort, two more children died. En route down the mountains the first relief party met the second relief party coming the opposite way and the Reed family was reunited after five months.

On March 1st the second relief party finally arrived at the lake, finding grisly evidence of cannibalism. The next day, they arrived at Alder Creek to find that the Donners had also resorted to cannibalism. On March 3rd, Reed left the camp with 17 of the starving emigrants but just two days later they are caught in another blizzard. When it cleared, Isaac Donner had died and most of the refugees were too weak to travel. Reed and another rescuer, Hiram Miller, took three of the refugees with them hoping to find food they had stored on the way up. The rest of the pioneers stayed at what would become known as “Starved Camp.”

On March 12th the third relief led by William Eddy and William Foster reached Starved Camp where Mrs. Graves and her son Franklin had also died. The three bodies, including that of Isaac Donner, had been cannibalized. The next day, they arrived at the lake camp to find that both of their sons had died. On March 14th they arrived at the Alder Creek camp to find George Donner was dying from an infection in the hand that he had injured months before. His wife Tamzene, though in comparatively good health, refused to leave him; sending her three little girls on without her.  The relief party soon departed with four more members of the party, leaving those who are too weak to travel. Two rescuers, Jean-Baptiste Trudeau and Nicholas Clark, are left behind to care for the Donners, but soon abandon them to catch up with the relief party.

A fourth rescue party set out in late March but were soon stranded in a blinding snow storm for several days. On April 17th, the relief party reached the camps to find only Louis Keseberg alive among the mutilated remains of his former companions. Keseberg was the last member of the Donner Party to arrive at Sutter’s Fort on April 29th. It took two months and four relief parties to rescue the entire surviving Donner Party.

In the Donner Party tragedy, two-thirds of the men in the party perished, while two-thirds of the women and children lived. Forty-one individuals died, and forty-six survived. In the end, five had died before reaching the mountains, thirty-five perished either at the mountain camps or trying to cross the mountains, and one died just after reaching the valley. Many of those who survived lost toes to frostbite.

The story of the Donner tragedy quickly spread across the country. Newspapers printed letters and diaries, and accused the travelers of bad conduct, cannibalism, and even murder. The surviving members had differing viewpoints, biases and recollections so what actually happened was never extremely clear. Some blamed the power hungry Lansford W. Hastings for the tragedy, while others blamed James Reed for not heeding Clyman’s warning about the deadly route.

After the publicity, emigration to California fell off sharply and Hastings’ cutoff was all but abandoned. Then, in January 1848, gold was discovered in at John Sutter’s Mill in Coloma and gold hungry travelers began to rush out West once again. By late 1849 more than 100,000 people had come to California in search of gold near the streams and canyons where the Donner Party had suffered.

Donner Lake, named for the party, is today a popular mountain resort near Truckee, California and the Donner Camp has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. The Donner Camp has been the site of recent archeological excavations.

Sutters Fort 1847

Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, California, 1847.

 

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June, 2017.

Also See:

Oregon Trail

California Trail

Fort Laramie

Tales and Trails of the American Frontier

Westward Expansion & Manifest Destiny

 

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