The Donner Party has become famous for cannibalism, but they did not start their journey thinking they would have to eat humans to survive. Instead, the party started like many others, headed west to make their fortunes and for a better life, except the Donner party made a few mistakes along the way that led to their gruesome ending and one of the greatest tragedies in the migration west.
In 1845 John L. O'Sullivan coined the term, Manifest Destiny. It was not meant to turn into anything; it was only one part of an article he wrote for the NY Post. Still, it started a movement for those looking for new opportunities and to escape the economic hardships some were facing, including one of the leaders of the Donner-Reed Party, James F Reed.
¨The right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.¨
James F. Reed was looking to make his fortune in California; he had suffered financial hardship and bankruptcy and was looking for a fresh start. He was inspired after reading The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California by Landsford W. Hastings. Which included a shortcut by Hastings; however, it was a shortcut that even Hastings himself had yet to test but was said to cut at least 300 miles off the trip.
When the Donner-Reed Party started, they had a few complications. They had a guidebook, but they could have followed it better and used some common sense. The recommendation was to leave mid-April 1846 to avoid complications and to avoid the snow, as well as to provide optimal travel time. The journey was estimated to take five months.
The party left Independence, Missouri, on May 12, the Oregon Trail's beginning. When the group left, there were a total of 87 people who joined them to make the trip west.
The second problem the group encountered was they were slowed down at the Big Blue River near Marysville, Kansas. The river was too high to cross, and the party was forced to wait until there was a way to cross, building rafts; the team eventually made it across.
Unfortunately, however, this was also the first death of Sarah Keyes, the mother-in-law of James Reed; she died on May 29, 1846.
The group was reportedly only a week behind schedule when they reached Fort Laramie on June 27, 1846. While the group was in Fort Laramie, James Reed ran into James Clyman, a friend from Illinois, and he warned the group not to take the hastings pass cutoff, stating it was unpassable, especially with the wagons. He also provided a warning about the desert and the Sierra Nevadas.
Stating the regular route was safer. Hasting heard word that Donner Party was considering taking the cutoff, so while the group was in Fort Laramie, the group received a letter from Hastings. It stated that Lansford W. Hastings would meet the group at Fort Bridger and guide them through the cutoff.
However, any fears the group had have now been alleviated for at least half the party. Once the group reached Little Sandy River, the route was divided into two paths. One was the known longer route, the other the ¨new untested shortcut¨.
The Donner party now splits up, as over half of the party chooses to take the known, safer passage, and a smaller group choose the riskier but faster route. George Donner was elected as leader of the group taking the cutoff.
The group reaches Fort Bridger on July 28, and instead of meeting Hastings there, they are welcomed with another note from him, ¨supposedly¨. The message stated that:
¨Hasting left with another group, and they are just up ahead. To follow and catch up¨
It has been rumored that Jim Bridger, the owner of Fort Bridger and his supply station, was a huge reason why Hastings directed the party to stop there, to provide customers, as his fort was no longer utilized when the wagons go north.
The Donners still pushed on, even though the book by Hastings did warn them that.
"Unless you pass over the mountains early in the fall, you are very liable to be detained, be impassable mountains of snow, until the next spring, or, perhaps, forever."
As you may be thinking, July-August is early enough, that is also what the Donner party thought, and after a few days in Fort Bridger, they pressed on with the hastings shortcut. While at Fort Bridger, another party, the McCutchen's joined them, and on July 31, they left camp.
Now a total of 74 people, and in the beginning making significant progress 10-12 miles a day until August 6, when they reached Weber River. The party then found another note from Hastings, advising them to take the trail through the Salt Basin and DO NOT go through Weber Canyon as it was impossible to cross.
At this point, Reed and two other men from the party went ahead to search for Hastings, and they did find Hastings, and at that point, hastings directed Reed to the new route to take, which should only take a week to cross. During this time, another party, the Graves family, joined, and now the party consisted of 87 people and 23 wagons, and the party voted to continue forward with Hastings's new suggestion.
On August 11, the group begins to cross the Wasatch Mountains, and the trail is proven harder than expected. They have to remove trees from the road physically, which slows them down, some days not even averaging 2 miles a day, some of the wagons not making it, and left on the trail, abandoned.
At this point, the group is furious with Hastings and Reed. Members of the group were dying, and fear set it. Would they make it over the mountains by winter?
Next up was the Great Salt Lake Desert, projected to take only two days, according to Hastings, but at this point, was he to be trusted? It took the group 5 days to make it across the desert; they lost 32 oxen and some lost wagons, including Reed and Donner. The group was exhausted and still had 600 miles to go, and the food supply was low.
Two men were sent to Sutters Fort, California, to bring back supplies. On September 26, the group finally rejoined the original trail; unfortunately, the party was furious by now, and everyone was on edge.
At one point, one of the men in the group, John Snyder, was beating his ox, Reed got angry and instructed him to stop, but Snyder would not; Reed stabbed the man in his stomach, killing him. The group had to decide what to do with Reed; they banished him from the group and forced him to leave his family.
Many of the party were also now walking to spare the animals, and then on October 12; the group was attacked by Indians, killing 21 of the party's oxen. The party was almost out of food when the men sent to Fort Sutter returned; it was now October 19.
The party then took another five-day break, and the bad luck continued. Wagon wheels broke, causing the group to lose even more days before the snow would inevitably fall on October 30, 1846. The group tried to pass with the snow, but it was impossible, there was one cabin for shelter on the lake, but the group started to construct other shelters hoping the snow would pass and they would be able to continue. Shelters were built with what they had, including buffalo hide and quilts.
The snow kept falling, and they realized they were snowed in at one point and unable to leave. On November 29, the last oxen were killed for food, and the snow continued to fall. The group began eating whatever they could find, including sticks, bones, and even boiling leather.
Not a diet that would sustain them for long. On December 15, Balis Williams died, and they realized something had to be done, or they would all have the same fate.
The next day they sent a group out of 17 for help; they became known as the Forlorn Hope. However, many of them went snowblind, became delirious, and even they started to die. With some of the party dying, a decision was made to begin to eat those who had died.
They preserved the meat, so they had enough energy to make it to Sutters Fort on January 19, 1847. Two men and five women of Forlorn Hope survived. Seven of those who died were cannibalized, but the goal was achieved, and a search party would be sent for the rest of the surviving Donner Party.
James Reed headed the search party, and on February 19, they reached the lake to find only 45 survivors. However, they could not be rescued as it was the middle of winter, so food was brought to them, and some even died on the rescue mission, including two children.
When the second relief mission was sent is when they noticed the cannibalism that had taken place. Four rescue parties had to be sent to rescue the party, and there were fewer survivors each time they came back.
On April 17, the final rescue party was sent and only found one surviving member of the Donner Party, Lewis Keseberg. He was found among the bodies of those that were cannibalized. Two months and four rescue parties were needed, and only 45 members survived; we can guess by eating the fallen members of their party.
What would you do to survive? Would you eat the fallen if it meant you and your family would live?
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