The Story of the Donner Party: Deadly Mistakes Over the Snowy Sierra

Photo of James F. and Margaret Reed, who were members of the Donner Party

I could have died so many times. Active people have a complex relationship with risk; something like, “How much ridiculous fun can I have without my tombstone reading, ‘Cause of Death: Stupidity?'” Over 3,000 people die in car crashes every day, yet no one thinks of driving to the grocery store as risk, or having a “brush with death.” Travelling in a covered wagon in the 1800s probably did not seem like a life-defying act either, but sometimes the choices we make literally become “life or death” decisions.

In 1846-47 the Donner Party made the trek from the midwest to California, and people died. It was a genuine historical version of “The Perfect Storm.” They ended up trapped for months in heavy snow in the Sierra Nevadas with meager provisions. Some of the survivors may have cannibalized the bodies of the already-dead in order to survive, and this is what the tragedy is, sadly, most famous for. Their quandary was not the result of a single error in judgement or slip of fate, but rather a long list of circumstances that could have gone one way or the other, risk versus reward. Only 48 of the 89 souls survived.

The story of the Donner Party is not fiction. Real human beings endured unthinkable hardships in order to survive, and some didn’t make it. The purpose of this article is not to second guess the decisions made on the expedition from more than 150 years in the future; pointing fingers and laying blame. Rather, it is to consider what really happened to these people and how we might handle similar challenges in 2020. The decisions we make in 2020, especially in the wilderness, are important and can mean the difference between life and death.

In those years there were tens of thousands of emigrants were heading west for the goldfields of California or Oregon’s verdant Willamette Valley. There was no such thing as an “average” trip. Too many variables like weather, equipment failure, having enough food, water and grass for livestock made exact planning difficult. Yet romantic notions of striking it rich in the West filled peoples’ minds and hearts, a force to be reckoned with. The Donner Party began as 89 people and 20 wagons heading for California.

Obstacle #1, Hitting That Sweet Spot

Safe travel west meant hitting the “sweet spot” for timing. Leave Missouri too early and there would not be enough grass to sustain cattle and oxen. Both were needed as sources of food and to pull the wagons. Leave too late and you hit impassable snow in the Sierras. Mid-April was considered optimum timing, and the Donner party departed May 12th, 1846. Lots of others were beginning the same journey a month later than ideal, so this was not considered a huge risk. It was mainly future delays that put the Donner Party in jeopardy.

Some good questions to consider are: Was there backup plan if they ended up way behind schedule? It might have been easy to feel a false sense of security because the Donners were only one of many groups making the same trip at the same time. How smart is it to develop a herd mentality in the wilderness, to give in to peer pressure and follow the crowd?

Obstacle #2, Groceries

It was common knowledge that the trip took four to six months. The Donner Party brought four months-worth of food, but no more. There was some opportunity for hunting along the way, but with the vast numbers of emigrants headed west, much of the wild game had been thinned out or dispersed far away from busy trails.

What were their options if they ran out of food? To some degree food could be obtained from other emigrants, but there was a limit to folks’ generosity. While there were some towns and forts along the way where one might be able to get additional food, the sheer numbers of travellers must have made that doubtful at times. Just like any backpacker has to strike a balance between the value of bringing extra food versus carrying all that extra weight, the Donners chose to go lean and mean. Was that a mistake? You decide.

Obstacle #3, Wet Weather

By the time they reached what is now Kansas, the party was delayed at the Big Blue River. Heavy spring rains had swollen water levels to 20 feet higher than normal, which meant the emigrants had to build ferries, help one another and wait their turn to cross. This cost the expedition nearly a week while vital food supplies continued to shrink. That put them about five weeks later than what was considered prudent.

Weather, of course, happens. While the expedition might not have been able to predict heavy rains, building some extra time into their itinerary for just such eventualities might have been smart. As it was, they were pressed for time from the start.

Whenever I venture into the wilderness alone, I always write down a day or range of days that I expect to be back. I tell my wife that if she hasn’t heard from me by that time, that I might be in trouble and to summon help. I also give her as much information as possible about where I plan to be, and when. I’ve never needed to be rescued, but far more experienced folks than I certainly have. Once in the wilderness, it’s too late to make backup plans. At least at this point the Donners were in the company of other travelers, and there is strength in numbers. They would not have that luxury later on.

Obstacle #4, Gambling with Lives

James Reed, one of the leaders of the Donner Party, had obtained Lansford Hastings’ new book titled The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California. In fairness to Major Hastings, his guide only contained a single sentence describing the possible route west of Ft. Bridger (now Wyoming) that came to be known as Hastings Cutoff:

The most direct path would be leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east of Fort Hall (today in Idaho); thence bearing west-south west, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco.”

It didn’t take Reed long to deduce that taking the new route (called Hastings Cutoff) would reduce the trip by 350-400 miles. By the time the group made it to Fort Bridger he had convinced some members of his party to try the new route. Most split off here and stuck with the tried-and-true route.

Ft. Bridger was  one of several popular places where parties going to California, Utah and Oregon split up to take different trails. The main trail began (more or less) in Missouri, and headed west from there. It was common for groups going to California to mingle with other groups aiming for Oregon, and even Mormons on their way to the Great Salt Lake. Most groups traveled together as far as possible, and only began splintering off in what is now Wyoming.

Obstacle #5, Ulterior Motives?

Lansford Hastings

Lansford Hastings, author of The Emigrant’s Guide, had been a Confederate Major during the Civil War, and had visions of somehow wrestling a portion of California away from Mexico and holding high office there. In an effort to get emigrants to eventually outnumber the few Mexicans who lived there at the time, he published his guidebook. The problem was, Hastings had never personally taken the route before publishing his book.

Hoping to gain traction for the book, Hastings promised to personally lead the Donner Party through his Cutoff (despite the fact that he had never taken it himself), and told them to meet him in Ft. Bridger. This probably contributed to Reed’s enthusiasm, plus he probably recognized the opportunity to make up for some lost time.

Ft. Bridger was an important stop for the Donners. Here they were supposed to meet Major Hastings and break away from the traditional route on the so-called Hastings Cutoff. Only problem was, since the Donners were running late in arriving, Major Hastings had taken another group through the cutoff instead. The Donners waited another full week before deciding to proceed through Hastings Cutoff without a guide.

On the plus side, the Donners figured the trail of the other group would not be difficult to follow, and they were partially correct. Though they did not know it yet, they still had to cross the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert before the Cutoff rejoined the California trail. Major Hastings left several notes to the Donners stuck on trees. While the Cutoff did cut down on miles, it added significant time that put the Donners that much further behind schedule for crossing the Sierras.

Donner Summit. Flickr/George Lamson

It’s difficult to imagine a 2020 equivalent to Reed’s decision to take Hastings Cutoff. He could not have known that Major Hastings had ulterior motives for publishing his guide book, enough to refer to a route he had never taken. On the other hand, Reed must have recognized that cutting 350 miles off the trip could have made him a hero while also making up for lost time. It’s good to remember that a lot of decisions you make in the wilderness have consequences, and slow, safe and steady is usually the best way to go. Putting faith (and your life) in the hands of total strangers is rarely a good idea.

Edwin Bryant happened to be a journalist who joined Lansford Hastings on the first trip through the Cutoff. He quickly decided it was such a monumental mistake that he left several letters behind for the Donners stating his viewpoint in no uncertain terms. It was clearly much more difficult than anyone imagined. None of his letters were ever found by the Donner Party. Bryant later wrote in his diary that he believed Jim Bridger (the namesake of Fort Bridger) concealed or destroyed his letters because he supposed the Hastings Cutoff would be good for business at his trading post.

In Check, Risk vs. Reward

Donner Party State Park

Once they had taken the Cutoff, the Donners were committed. The terrain was much steeper than expected, especially as the party trudged over the Wasatch Mountains. Hastings left directions stuck to trees and Reed continued to advocate for the new route. By this time there was a growing contingent in favor of turning around and abandoning the Cutoff. It was already September by the time the group made it out of the Wasatch Mountains and entered the Great Salt Lake Desert.

Coming out of the mountains another of Hastings’ letters was found. It said it would take two days and two nights of difficult travel to get across the desert. The group finally got across the desert in six days. Most of their oxen, out of their minds with thirst, fled off into the featureless desert.

Finally, in late September, the Cutoff rejoined the traditional California route. Instead of being a true shortcut, Hastings Cutoff delayed the party another full month. It was well into October by then, and tempers were short. Reed ended up stabbing a teamster to death for whipping an ox. As a result, Reed was banished from the group. The Donners also split from the group thinking they could make better time on their own. 

Water is typically more available in the mountains than in deserts, yet the party struck across the arid landscape on the blind faith that they could last for the promised two days. You would think by now that Lansford Hastings’ credibility would have been questioned. Hardly anything he had promised so far had turned out to be true, and at some point someone should have recognized the pattern in his ineptitude.

Checkmate, The Sierras

Flickr/Todd Lappin

They knew the Sierra Nevadas would be much harder to cross than the Wastach. They stopped for a time to rest what livestock was left and consider whether to proceed or not. It was already October 20th, and they figured they had a few weeks before the passes would be closed with snow. Here they were rejoined by the Donners. James Reed  also joined them briefly before departing with another man sharing a horse. The Donner Party decided to go for it.

They were making good progress trudging up the grade when it began to snow. They camped three miles below the summit near Truckee Lake (now called Donner Lake). Several attempts were made to breach the summit that failed. The group had great difficulty even finding the trail in the deep snow.

The party was split into two groups several miles apart. The larger group settled in for the winter at Donner Lake in three crude wooden cabins. The smaller group (including the Donners) settled into tents along Alder Creek. Another snowstorm hit on November 4th, and it snowed for eight days. Several attempts were made on foot to breach the summit, but it was just too difficult.

Humans need air, water and food to survive, and the first two they had in abundance. Some hunting was accomplished, but the groups had to get creative with their diets. Stews were made from the remaining parts of the livestock. Their bones were boiled, softened and finally eaten. An old oxhide rug left in front of a fireplace was roasted and eaten. Eventually all the oxhide tents had to be eaten. Several had died of starvation already.

Crude snowshoes were fashioned and a group of 17 departed the Donner Lake location in an attempt to cross over the pass. Within days the hikers started to die. There was much discussion about survival, and about the notion of sacrificing some to be eaten by the others. Two men were discovered close to death after nine days without food, and they were shot and consumed. Miraculously, on January 12th, the group came upon a Miwok camp. After several days they were taken to a small farming community on the edge of the Sacramento Valley.

It took several attempts to get the rest of the survivors out. Some were considered to have “gone mad.” It was obvious that most had survived eating human flesh. It wasn’t until April 29th that the last survivor made it back to Sutter’s Fort.

2020 Conclusions

While the wilderness can be a playground, it can also be a cemetary. For active people, risk is both something to savor (as in jumping out of an airplane) and respected (as in doing your homework before taking that risk in the first place). Take a first aid kit, and know how to use it. Regular CPR and first aid courses are a great idea.

Knowledge is power. Before heading into the wilderness, do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the place you are going and the risks you are likely (and unlikely) to encounter. What could go wrong, and then what? What is your backup plan?

There is strength in numbers. For safety’s sake, it’s always best to take a buddy into the wilderness. It’s OK to go into the wilderness solo, but make sure you have all the skills and have considered all the options first. Start small, and work your way up to bigger adventures.

Make sure people know where you are and when you expect to get back. Designate someone to call the police if you have not been in contact by a certain date.

It’s hard not imagining what it must have been like for the Donner Party. “Desperate” is a relative term, and they experienced “desperate” to the extreme. In their situation, could you eat human flesh in order to survive? Could you sacrifice yourself for the survival of others? Could you kill and eat another human being? These are questions we hope to never have to answer. Being fully prepared is the best way not to have to.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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