Donner party’s tragic journey is one of the most disastrous expeditions in the history of California and western US migration.
Regarded as one of the most bizarre and sensational tragedies in history, the Donner Party’s haunting journey involved a group of travelers who had set off to California in May 1846. This group of American pioneers became most famous in Californian history and western US migration. Led by George Donner and James F. Reed, they were about 87 members all of which only 48 survived. Many of them resorted to cannibalism for survival.
Set out on a wagon train, they got delayed and underwent a series of mishaps and blunders, and had to spend the 1846-47 winters, trapped in snow in the Sierra Nevada, US.
Here are some hauntingly bizarre facts about the journey of Donner party.
The whole journey was full of hardships but the most testing phase was the last one. It was a 160 km trek over the hazardous Sierra Nevada mountain range. Getting the wagons past the much precipitous eastern slope was next to impossible and piling up of a large amount of snowfall made it even harder.
As is known, the worst winter ever recorded in the history of Sierra Nevada just happened to be the year the Donner party strived to make it through.
The adventurer Lansford Hastings’ shortcut ‘Hastings Cutoff’ is considered as the lethal shortcut that landed everyone in deep troubles. Hastings claimed that this path could reduce hundreds of miles off the journey but it rather delayed their journey by adding about 200 km to the usual trail.
A journalist named Edwin Bryant who was traveling with them eagerly took Hastings’ shortcut and saw the rough terrain that could prevent wagons from moving forward and spell doom. So he soon got back to the trading post at Black Fork, leaving a warning letter about the risky shortcut for the Donner party. But, perhaps, they never really received the letter.
It is said that the trading post’s owner Jim Bridger advertently didn’t deliver the warning letter to the Donner party. A perfectly positioned trading post could’ve benefitted the travelers but he gave the written instructions left by Hastings and allowed them to continue on their way unaware of the impending dangers.
The party members themselves were positive about the new path, with James Reed claiming,
“Hastings Cutoff is said to be a saving of 350 or 400 miles and a better route. The rest of the Californians went the long route, feeling afraid of Hastings’s cutoff. But Mr. Bridger informs me that it is a fine, level road with plenty of water and grass. It is estimated that 700 miles will take us to Captain Sutter’s fort, which we hope to make in seven weeks from this day.”
As was predicted by Bryant, the shortcut turned out to be exhausting, finishing up its resources. They reached a point of crisis after passing the perilous shortcut when two wagons became entangled. James Reed and John Snyder, their owners, cursed each other and soon after that, Reed killed Snyder with a knife. Upon hearing this, Snyder’s group members asked that Reed be hanged for murder. But upon the plea of Reed’s wife, he was exiled.
Despite all the delays, they somehow managed to reach the Sierra Nevada by October. The Native Americans made an estimate that they would have about a month before the snow would block the pass. But it didn’t go as per plan.
The Donner party decided to spend the night around 300 meters from the summit of the pass. And they planned to clear the summit the next day and started walking down out of the range. But they did not clear the summit that day as one of the Donner family wagons’ wheels got broken. So estimating that they had enough time, the rest of the party waited for them.
Snowing for up to 1.5 meters that night, the summit turned impervious. And they realized that their chance of crossing the mountains before winter was lost. With low supplies, they couldn’t do anything but return to Truckee Lake (now called Donner Lake) and form a camp.
The hunger struck them. Margaret Reed reminisced that the Donner party “had not the first thing to eat. We seldom thought of bread for we had not any since I could remember.” Due to the food supplies coming to an end and the quandary of hunting or foraging in deep snow, the party looked for some alternate sources of food.
At first, they fed on the few oxen that had endured the taxing journey. After that, they devoured on leather and the dried hides used for tents. Elizabeth Donner recalled consuming plenty of barks and twigs to satisfy the hunger. But that didn’t really help to maintain the livelihood.
On 15 December, the young Bayless Williams was the first person to die due to lack of food.
During mid-December, a small group called “Forlorn Hope” tried to get past the pass on foot. They were aptly called so as they started walking on homemade snowshoes and carried almost no food or supplies with them (well, there wasn’t any really). Because of the heavy snow, they traveled about 6 km a day on average. After a few days, it became even worse when the snow became thicker and a blizzard made them lose their way. And being at the loss of food and in a starving state, they started thinking of sacrificing one of their own lives to feed the others.
And this problem apparently got solved on its own when the party member Patrick Dolan lost his mind, stripped off his clothes, fell down, and collapsed. So, some member of the Forlorn Hope took out the flesh from his corpse and the group started roasting it and eating it. And as others died, the survivors butchered them and labeled them so that the corpse’s meat doesn’t get consumed by a relative or close friend.
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