What Happened to the Donner Party?

by Chris Brower
The Donner Party traveled by wagon and by foot.

The Donner Party traveled by wagon and by foot.

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The story of the Donner Party is legendary among American pioneer survival accounts. The Donner Party was a large band of pioneers heading west who encountered unforeseen hardships, with many members ultimately resorting to cannibalism in an effort to stay alive. Throughout the trip, members broke off into parties that took different routes and then later attempted to help each other. Although some relief parties were more successful than others, each suffered a high number of casualties.

The Beginnings

The Donner Party, which originally included the families of Jacob Donner, George Donner and James Reed, left Springfield, Illinois, to head west in early April of 1846. Eventually they were joined by other people, bringing the total travelers up to more than 80 people in over 40 wagons. Throughout the trip they were occasionally joined by others who only stayed for part of the trip. In the summer they traveled on the Hastings Cut Off, which turned out to be difficult and took much longer than they had been told to expect. Livestock died, as well as some travelers in their group. A fight broke out, with James Reed killing John Snyder. Reed was sent out of the group, but he continued to head west.

First Sign of Cannibalism

By fall, the hardships continued. Indians stole some livestock, forcing most of the Donner Party to have to walk. Other party members died from exhaustion or other circumstances, such as the member who died from an accident while loading a pistol. In October, when they arrived at Prosser Creek, the snow made it impossible for their wagons to continue. The members of the party tried to devise plans to walk out of the snow, but it was impossible. In addition, their livestock wandered off. Finally, on December 16th, 15 members were able to make it out of camp successfully. Still, conditions were rough, and the members were exhausted and cold. Snow continued to fall, and more deaths soon followed. It was here that the survivors first resorted to cannibalism in order to stay alive.

Relief Parties

In January of 1847, the seven survivors from the original group of 15 made it to an Indian village, where the Indians fed them and helped them go to the Johnson Ranch. Eventually, the survivors made it to Sutter's Fort. Meanwhile, James Reed had made it there, as well, with Walter Herron. At Fort Sutter they attained provisions and an Indian guide to try to help the trapped party. Relief parties were led by Reasin F. Tucker and James Reed. Still, hardships from the weather greeted them wherever they went. Things only got worse at Truckee Lake, where the survivors, who had reached Sutter's Fort after Reed, resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. On February 19th, the relief party led by Tucker made it to Truckee Lake, doling out supplies to the survivors still there. Three days later, 23 members of the Donner Party left Truckee Lake with members of Tucker's Party. Hardships continued. Some members had to stay back because they were too weak to continue and food had been eaten by wild animals. Luckily, the Reed party met back up with the others and provided food.

Spring, 1847

In March, Reed's party and 17 other people headed back to Sutter's Fort while others stayed behind from being too weak. Snow continued to barrage Reed's party and the other travelers in his group. They built a camp, later known as "Starved Camp," and then members of the Reed party went on to get provisions for the other people at the camp. Other parties were also created in an effort to assist the struggling people. When a third relief party returned back to Starved Camp, members found evidence of further cannibalism. Relief efforts continued. People were taken to Truckee Lake. A fourth relief party arrived at Truckee Lake on April 17th. The only one alive was a man named Lewis Keseberg, who was believed to have possibly murdered Mrs. Donner. Keseberg sued his accusers, W.O. Fallon and his party, for slander and was awarded one dollar in damages. In the end, 42 of the 90 people in the Donner Party died. The survivors settled throughout California. The Donner Party campsite in Truckee Lake has since been called Donner State Park, and the lake has been rechristened Donner Lake.


About the Author

Chris Brower is a writer with a B.A. in English. He also spent time studying journalism and utilizes both to deliver well-written content, paying close attention to audience, and knowing one word could determine whether a product is a success or a failure. He has experience writing articles, press releases, radio scripts, novels, short stories, poems and more.

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