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Donner Party

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Donner Party

In the 1840s and 1850s, thousands of people flocked across the United States heading to the West Coast. Few of these groups of pioneers suffered the level of misfortune as the Donner Party, who after being led astray by another pioneer, traveled a dangerous path, got caught in a snowstorm and resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. In this article, you'll find a summary of the history of the Donner Party as well as a timeline of the facts.

The Donner party, testimony, evidence and legacy, StudySmarter

Donner Lake as seen from Donner Pass. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Donner Party Begins

The Donner Party, led by Jacob and George Donner, left Illinois in the spring of 1846. The group of ninety migrants had been looking for a shorter and easier route across the Sierra Nevada mountains. They had been encouraged by a trail guide named Lansford Hastings.

The Donner Party Runs Into Trouble

When the Donner Party left Illinois, they followed the California Trail to Fort Bridger in Wyoming. Here they left the main trail, attempting to take the trail that Hastings had told them about.

This is where the trouble commenced. Hastings did not actually lead them along the supposedly shorter trail. He was off with a different wagon train of migrants. Instead of actually traveling with the Donner party, he promised to mark the new route for them.

This promise was enough to convince the Donner Party to carry on, so they left Fort Bridger and headed for Weber Canyon. This is where the easy route through the Wasatch mountains was to begin. However, when they got there, they found a note asking them to stop and set up camp there, as the route ahead was more difficult than Hastings foresaw. Sounds sketchy, right?

Well, it was. There were no easy decisions for the Donner party. They could return to Fort Bridger and take the original route, but this would waste several days of their precious travel time. They could set up camp for a few days as Hastings advised, but again, it would be wasting their travel time and provisions.

The Donner party ended up camping there. They waited eight days for Hastings to return before sending a messenger up the hill to find him. When the messenger returned, he informed them that Hastings had advised that they take another trail. What could go wrong?

Unfortunately, this new route that Hastings advised was even worse than passing through Webber Canyon. The physical landscape was very unfriendly, but the Donner Party eventually made it through the Wasatch Mountains (also known as the Wasatch Range) and arrived at the Great Salt Lake.

The Donner Party's misfortune continued. They had lost out on a lot of precious travel time and were in a pretty poor position for crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains. They were several weeks behind schedule and got caught by a snowstorm. The snow blocked the mountain passes, leaving the Donner Party trapped.

Some members of the Donner party stayed near what is now known as Donner Lake, while others were stuck at a different camp six miles away at a place called Alder Creek. Some were able to convert their wagons into makeshift cabins, while others were only able to build precarious tents.

The End of the Donner Party

The harsh conditions compelled them to face the facts: they would not survive there. Driven to live, the travelers pushed through. Some members of the Donner party banded together and attempted to hike to Sutter's Fort in December 1846. Half of them made it. A rescue party set out from Sutter's Fort in January 1847, with several subsequent groups coming after them. The first rescue party made it to the Donner Party in February. The last of the Donner Party wasn't evacuated until March. They arrive in Sacramento in April of 1847. Out of the nearly ninety migrants in the Donner party, only half of them arrived in California, the other half didn't survive.

The Donner Party Facts

  • The Donner Party earned its name as it was led by Jacob and George Donner.
  • There were almost ninety people traveling with the Donner Party.
  • The Donner Party attempted to travel a shorter route to California.
  • After a treacherous journey, the Donner party reached the Sierra Nevada. They were trapped in the mountains by a massive, relentless snowstorm in October of 1846.
  • As supplies waned, many began to die of malnutrition and starvation. A group of pioneers began a trek to get help. They were the first to begin to cannibalize their other travelers.
  • The last of the Donner Party was not rescued until the spring of 1847.

Donner Party: A History of Cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada

If you were familiar with any of the lore around the Donner Party prior to reading this article, the one thing you probably had heard is that those who survived resorted to cannibalism.

Forlorn Hope

When the Donner Party was first trapped by the snowstorm, they were near the end of their journey. They were low on provisions. They first began killing and eating animals, like oxen. They had to eat the meat and hide it. As people grew weaker and began to die of starvation, a group of pioneers rallied to go get help.

The elements out on the trail were even worse than at the makeshift camps. The members of the group, known as "the Forlorn Hope," began to die from starvation and exposure to the elements. They began to die, one by one. After a while, the members of the Forlorn Hope finally resorted to cannibalism to survive. They ate the flesh of one of their deceased members.

Luis and Salvador

Luis and Salvador were two Miwok Indian men, who had been sent by John Sutter to deliver supplies. They were part of the Forlorn Hope pioneers, and they refused to participate in the consumption of other humans. Luis and Salvador were murdered by another man in the group and then they were used as meat to sustain the others.

Cannibalism in the Camps

Those who remained in the main camps also resorted to cannibalism. This time, no one was harmed to feed the others. Those who had died from hypothermia or starvation had their bodies placed in snowbanks. Eventually, the flesh from these corpses was cooked so the others could survive.

The Donner Party, Donner camp, Study smarter

Map of Truckee Lake and Alder Creek. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Donner Party Timeline

October 1846

December 1846

Spring 1846

Jacob and George Donner begin leading a group of migrants to California

Snow falls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, blocking mountain passes

A small relief party leaves Alder Creek

February 1847

Rescuers reach the Donner Party

March 1847

The last of the Donner Party is evacuated

April 1847

The last survivors of the Donner Party arrive in Sacramento

The Donner Party Summary

The Donner Party, a group of pioneers looking to settle on the West Coast, left Illinois in the spring of 1846. They took the bad advice of Lansford Hastings when looking for a shorter pass through the mountains of Sierra Nevada.

The route he recommended was worse than expected, and the "shortcut" ended up being a longer journey than the traditional route. This was problematic in many ways. Not only were they low on provisions, but they wasted many travel days which put them closer to inclement weather.

They ended up getting trapped by an early snowstorm. They set up camps and attempted to create a robust shelter to stay safe. They ate their oxen and animals, but as they began to die from starvation, the members of the Donner Party got desperate.

Finally, they resorted to eating the flesh of other pioneers. With the exception of two Miwok Indians, the trapped members of the Donner Party ate those who had already passed away. The two Miwok, named Luis and Salvador, were murdered by others with the intention of eating them.

Lansford Hastings

Every good story has a villain, and in the case of the Donner Party, you could argue that Lansford Hastings plays this role.

Looking back, Hastings was a bit of a con artist. He created a trail guide marketed at those looking to travel west. He touted a virtually untested shortcut and promised future travelers that they would save themselves weeks of travel time and reduce their travel by several hundred miles.

Instead of sharing this route to help, he advertised it to profit off of the pioneers taking his new route. He had planned a few money-making schemes to benefit from their struggles.

Donner Party - Key takeaways

  • The Donner Party of 1846 became notorious after struggling to cross the Midwest of the United States after taking bad advice regarding a shorter route.
  • They lost a lot of travel time, and because of that, ended up getting caught in a snowstorm that trapped them in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
  • While they did everything they could to survive, they ended up resorting to cannibalism to survive the winter.
  • Half of the original members survived the treacherous path and dangerous winter.

Frequently Asked Questions about Donner Party

The Donner Party made its journey between the spring of 1846 and the spring of 1847. 

About half of the pioneers in the Donner Party survived, making it to Sacramento in 1847. 

With the exception of Luis and Salvador, who were killed to be eaten, only corpses were eaten by the Donner Party. 

Final Donner Party Quiz


The Donner Party left llinois in the spring of 

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The Donner Party became trapped by a snowstorm in the 

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spring of 1846

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The Donner party was first reached by rescuers in the 

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fall of 1846

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How many people were in the original Donner Party? 

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approximately 50

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How many people survived the Donner Party? 

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about one-quarter

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True or false: Members of the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism to survive. 

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The Donner Party had been attempting to 

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follow the Oregon Trail

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True or false: One of the issues was that the Donner Party wasted time along the trail. 

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Who were Luis and Salvador?

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two Miwok Indian men, who had been sent by John Sutter to deliver supplies

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The Donner Party attempted to follow an untested trail by 

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John Sutter 

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