It was October 28, 1846, and the Donner Party was in trouble. Ahead of them towered the rugged Sierra Nevadas. White snow was falling all around, and from what they could see of the mountain pass ahead, much more blocked their path.
Already worn out from a long trail, the migrants decided to retreat. They backed out 12 miles to wait out the early storm at Truckee Lake. With supplies running low, and months on the trail beginning to show its toll, the group sat tight for a break in the storm. Had they known the fate that was to befall them, it’s likely the group would have exited the mountains altogether. As it was, they were running late and the permanent snows were setting in. However, running late was nothing new to the Donner Party.
The “Donner Party” is the name given to one of the most haunting groups of Oregon Trail migrants. This group of pioneers originally came from Springfield, Ill., and were led by Jacob and George Donner, who had set their eyes west on the rich lands of California. In a time before the Gold Rush, these folks were looking for the golden soil California had to offer. In only a few short years, it would become precious metal that drove a wave of migration.
Their First Big Mistake
By the time the group had plodded down to Independence, Mo., and bought the necessary equipment, it was already May 12. This was considered exceptionally late to begin the trek west. Most of the big trains had been gone for two or three weeks at that point. In fact, the Donner Party was the last big party to leave Independence in the spring of 1846.
Traveling across the plains went well enough for the group. Golden grass would have blanketed the expansive prairie, although no doubt most of the forage close to the trail was gone. Eventually they arrived at Fort Bridger in southeast Wyoming – at which point they made a disastrous decision. Rather than take the traditional route, the Donners decided to strike straight west out of the fort. They were seeking a new route that had been dubbed “The Hastings Cutoff” – a supposed shortcut named for Lansford Hastings, the man who had written about it in a new guidebook. Little did the group know, Hastings himself had never made the trip and was only speculating on the route. Rather than a shortcut, the Donner Party ran headlong into the Wasatch Mountains. In order to make it over, the group hacked their way through the timber and painstakingly made their way through the mountains. Eventually, they would exit the other side, but the “shortcut” had cost the group an extra 18 days.
At this point, their two biggest mistakes — a late start and 18 days going through a “shortcut” — were beginning to catch up. Had they either left earlier, or taken the traditional route, the group would have missed the Oct. 28 snow. But they did hit the snow, and what happened next is one of the most narrated stories of western history.
No Way Out
As soon as the group retreated down to Truckee Lake, the real problems began. Snow fell and fell, and soon the group had no way forward. Ominously, they had no possible exit, either. To protect against the falling snow and the dropping temperatures, the members constructed makeshift shelters and cabins from what they could gather around camp. They began to dig in for a long winter, and made the best survival preparations they could.
Most of their food had been eaten on the trail, and most of their loose stock animals were run off not long before they became snowbound. With only 100 miles to the end of the trail, the group would have had enough supplies to last had the snows not caught them. Now the group faced a long winter in the high Sierras, and the supplies would certainly not last all winter.
Within just the first few weeks they had blown through what was left of their foodstuff. They then began slaughtering what stock animals remained. After that was devoured, the group was reduced to eating dirt, grass, tree bark and hides.
As supplies diminished by mid-December, 15 of the strongest group members decided to strike out over the pass in search of help. They fashioned snowshoes from the forest and began their trek. In later days, this search group would be called Forlorn Hope. The name suggests the party’s dire straits.
Soon, the Forlorn Hope group became lost in the white peaks of the high Sierras. They staggered around in the winter landscape, with no bearing as to where they were headed. After just a few days, several in the group were on the verge of death. The legend goes that on Dec. 25, Patrick Dolan went mad, stripped naked, ran into a storm, and collapsed dead in the snow. Imagine the scene.
A Shocking Decision
Towering pines encrusted in snow bent stubbornly to the howling wind. All around the Forlorn Hope lay a vast expanse of white. They didn’t know where they were going, where they had been, or how far they had to travel. The hunger pains that had begun cramping their stomachs weeks earlier were once again noticeably prevalent. They had been marooned in the high country for nearly 60 days, and no help had been contacted. This group was the only hope the Donner Party had of contacting somebody from the outside world. It was at that point, when Patrick Dolan collapsed, that members of Forlorn Hope made a decision that would become the focal point of the Donner story. They butchered and ate Patrick Dolan.
Patrick Dolan was not the only group member who was eaten. Two Native Americans also happened to be traveling with Forlorn Hope in search of help. When they saw the cannibalized body, they separated from the group out of fear that they, too, might be eaten. After several days, the duo was found by the rest of Forlorn Hope. At that point, William Foster is reported to have shot the two Native Americans in order to cannibalize them. Eventually, the battered search group exited the mountains alive. They soon notified local residents that the majority of their party was still stranded at Truckee Lake.
With heavy snows in January and February, the search effort was not able to commence right away. By mid-February, the first relief effort punched through the deep snow to reach the stranded party. Unable to bring pack animals, they brought whatever supplies they could carry and ushered out those who could make it. Over the next two and half months, rescuers guided out what remained of the Donner Party. In mid-April, the final effort was made to save the last survivors. Legend says that Lewis Keseberg was the last to be rescued. When rescuers arrived, Lewis was surrounded by half-cannibalized people lying all around him. Some speculated he had murdered the remaining party members in order to eat them. In the end, no charges were ever proven against him.
The Donner Party is a well-known part of western history. Had the group arrived at the now aptly named Donner Pass just one day earlier, odds are all of them would have lived. But of the original 81 pioneers who started the winter at Truckee Lake, only 45 survived to tell the tale. More than 150 years later, their story still shocks those who hear it.
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