December 26 1846 – The Donner Party is Forced to Face Cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

December 26 1846 – The Donner Party is Forced to Face Cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
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*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The romance involved with the concept of Manifest Destiny — the idea the United States should stretch from sea to shining sea — took hold of many during the 19th century. Of all the difficult journeys past the Mississippi River, that of the Donner Party became one of the most famous because of the horrifying result. Trapped in the snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada near modern Tahoe, California, members of the group engaged in cannibalism to survive beginning on December 26, 1846.

Driven to attack the western frontier by the promise of new opportunities in the lands at the far edge of Louisiana Territory, residents in eastern cities like New York and Boston — or farmers from Kentucky or Ohio — packed up their belongings and began the westward trek shortly after the spring thaw. Striking out for Oregon or California, people of all types formed traveling groups in order to found new towns or simply for safety in numbers. With little in the way of protection, pioneers were vulnerable to attack from Native American tribes or roving bandits hoping to score a quick profit.

Gathering in Independence, Missouri — part of present-day Kansas City — dozens of wagons set off as the weather warmed in the spring of 1846. Heading west along the Oregon Trail on May 12th, George Donner and his family soon connected with the wagons of the James Reed clan. Coming in at the tail end of a 50-wagon train, the group grew in size along the way, coming up against only minor hassles as it rolled methodically through Kansas, Nebraska and into Wyoming.

At Blacks Fork in western Wyoming, the group made a fateful decision. As the trail split into a northern route toward Fort Hall, Idaho and a southern way to Fort Bridger, the decision of which path to choose created debate amongst the adults. Unbeknownst to either Donner or Reed, Edwin Bryant had traveled down the latter and left letters with strict instructions to turn northward — the rocky terrain southwest of Fort Bridger along the newly-forged Hastings Cutoff would be nearly impossible for them to pass, especially with heavy wagons and a large number of women and children. Missing this key piece of information, the men at the head of the Donner Party made a choice that sealed their fate.

Excited by the possibility of shortening the trip some 350 miles by cutting across northern Utah and Nevada to meet the California Trail, Reed lobbied Donner for the southern route. Having been told it would be take significantly less time — shaving more than three weeks off the trip — and the threat of hostile natives was minimal, the promise of flat terrain from Jim Bridger made the decision seem like a no-brainer. Turning to the south on July 31st, the party was eleven days behind Lansford Hastings, the guide who had created the shortcut as a marketing gimmick before ever traveling on it by horseback — he had yet to make any attempt using wagons.

Within a week, the group learned the details Bridger had shared at Blacks Fork were false. (Bryant would later assert Bridger hid the letters from the Donner Party to give business to the fort bearing his name.) The Wasatch Mountains, some of the tallest in the western United States, were not easy trail the emigrants were promised. Three riders, including Reed, left the wagon train behind in search of Hastings. Catching up with the guide, the men were given the option of following the group ahead of them through Weber Canyon, forging along a poorly-described trail or turning back for the more-established Oregon Trail.

Reed once again brought his opinion to bear. The group would push forward along the “safer route” for wagons Hastings had loosely outlined before returning to Weber Canyon. Forced to clear the way, the men of the now-87-member Donner Party hacked at trees and bushes to open a gap for the large train coming behind them. Cutting through to the Great Salt Lake Desert had taken a month, eliminating the supposed advantage gained in taking the shortcut.

Near the end of September, the Donner Party finally connected with the California Trail. As they pushed further west in mid-October, families separated in a bid to move quicker. Reed, banished from the group after killing a fellow traveler in a dispute, shared a horse with one of his ox drivers and rode ahead. Sitting at the base of the Sierra Nevada, the group moved to the southwest toward Fremont Pass on October 20th believing they had a month to cross the mountains before the snows set in. As they pulled out, the first flakes of the season began to fall on the four families and various associates attempting to clear the 1,000-foot pass to Truckee Lake.

On November 4th, the snowfall got worse. The 60 remaining members of the Donner Party were soon trapped in hastily-constructed cabins with little to eat — the animals were dead and hunting was not an option as the blizzard set in. Before long, about a third of the group attempted to clear Fremont Pass on foot, fashioning snowshoes in the hopes of walking over the 12-foot-deep snows. Starving and unable to find anything to eat, those lost in the thick snow and the families attempting to wait out the winter months in cabins soon realized they would have to eat their dead companions if they were to survive.

By December 26, 1846, the first corpse had been turned into a meal. It would be three weeks before any of the Donner Party were found — some of the “Forlorn Hope” walking through the snow had managed to find a Miwok tribe. Those at Truckee Lake would have to wait until early February to be found. Levinah Murphy, living in one of the cabins, heard the calls of the rescue team and answered, “Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?”

Over the course of six weeks, three separate relief parties were sent to bring the gaunt survivors through the mountains and down into the Sacramento Valley. Only 48 of the 87 who opted for the Hastings Cutoff made it all the way to California.

Sensationalized in newspapers across the United States (when it wasn’t hidden for fear it would keep people from making the journey west) the cannibalism gave the Donner Party unwanted notoriety, especially when considered among the massive migration that occurred as the 1800s wore on. Tourists traveled through the area in search of the fabled cabins by the mid-1850s, but there was no official monument — placed alongside the newly-renamed Donner Lake — until June 1918.

Also On This Day:

1792 – King Louis XVI is put on trial by the National Convention of the French Revolution

1799 – George Washington’s funeral is attended by 4,000 people

1860 – Sheffield, England sees the first documented club soccer game, between Hallam FC and Sheffield FC

1944 – United States General George S. Patton’s army breaks through at the Battle of the Bulge

1991 – The Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union Ends the USSR

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