8 Facts You Might Not Know About the Donner Party

A Donner Party memorial in California.
A Donner Party memorial in California.

In April 1846, a group of pioneers who came to be known as the Donner-Reed Party departed Springfield, Illinois, headed for the Mexican province of Alta California. Mindful of the severe cholera epidemics across the nation and the lingering consequences of the financial panic of 1837, they were also inspired to head west by America’s grand expansionist movement, Manifest Destiny.

The Donner Party’s collective dream, however, became a collective nightmare thanks to poor timing, terrible advice, and even worse weather. After becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the border between Nevada and California, the party soon ran out of food and ultimately resorted to feeding off the flesh of their dead companions and family members in order to survive. It's this aspect of the Donner Party story that makes it so grotesquely fascinating, and one of the most haunting to come out of the settlement of the American West.

1. THEIR DREAM WAS SPAWNED BY MANIFEST DESTINY.

The dramatic backdrop to the Donners' storied trek is the expansionist movement dubbed Manifest Destiny—the widely held belief that Anglo-Saxon citizens of the United States had been mandated by God Almighty to embark on a mission to spread its form of government and way of life across the entire continent, from sea to shining sea. As some of the first foot soldiers of the movement, the Donner Party revealed the foibles and follies of Manifest Destiny—the rather arrogant belief that the continent was meant for Anglo-Americans to possess since no other humans lived there. In truth, much of the land belonged to Mexico and all of it was populated by scores of Indian tribes.

2. ABRAHAM LINCOLN BRIEFLY CONSIDERED GOING WITH THEM.

Abraham Lincoln around 1846.Wikimedia // Public Domain

While working as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln continued his friendship with James Reed, one of the principal members of the Donner-Reed Party. They had first met many years before, when they were messmates in the Blackhawk War. When Reed’s businesses began to fail due to a national economic downturn, Lincoln counseled his friend, and just before the wagon caravan departed for the far West, Lincoln helped Reed through bankruptcy proceedings. Reed was able to stash away a considerable amount of cash that he later used to purchase land in California.

Many years after the Donner Party tragedy, one of Reed’s daughters revealed that Lincoln seriously considered joining the caravan but ultimately didn't go due to opposition from his wife. Instead, Lincoln entered the political arena.

3. THEY GOT SOME VERY BAD DIRECTIONS.

If not for some wrong turns, internal strife, and a series of winter storms the likes of which had never been seen before, the Donner Party would have been an unremarkably successful wagon train. That, of course, was not the case.

One of the chief culprits was Lansford Hastings, an early California land promoter who wrote a then-popular book entitled The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California. Besides containing many inaccuracies, Hastings’s guide extolled the virtues of a shortcut, the Hastings Cutoff, that he claimed would save much time. Little did the emigrants know that Hastings had never taken the shortcut himself. They decided to take his advice only to find the route he suggested actually added more precious time to their journey, contributing to their inability to cross the Sierras before the heavy winter snows.

4. IT'S OFTEN SAID THAT NONE OF THE SURVIVORS KILLED A LIVING PERSON TO CANNIBALIZE THEIR BODY, BUT THERE WAS A NOTABLE EXCEPTION.

In mid-December, a small group set out from the snow-bound camps on crude snowshoes in hopes of making it over the pass to summon help. They later came to be known as the Forlorn Hope. Included in the group were two Miwok Indians, Luis and Salvador, who had been sent by early California pioneer John Sutter to help the trapped emigrants. The Miwoks brought badly needed supplies and helped provide important winter survival advice.

This party was the first forced to resort to cannibalism of the dead when all their supplies were gone. Eventually, when even the (dead) human sources of food dwindled, it was decided to kill the Miwoks. Both men were shot and their flesh consumed. The rest of the party rationalized that as Indians, the pair were not really humans.

5. THE CANNIBALISM ONLY STARTED WHEN EVERY AVAILABLE SOURCE OF PROTEIN WAS GONE AND BOTH STARVATION AND HYPOTHERMIA BECAME RAMPANT.

Stumps of trees cut by the Donner Party in Summit Valley, CaliforniaWikimedia // Public Domain

Once the party was trapped on the east side of the High Sierras, they killed and ate all the horses and oxen. They boiled the hides to make a gelatinous concoction and picked all the marrow from the animal bones. They gobbled up any mice they could catch in their makeshift cabins. Then, one by one, they killed all their pet dogs and ate them. Finally, desperate and delirious, they chewed on pine bark and pine cones. As a last resort, while watching their children and others die, they turned to the dead bodies buried in the snowdrifts.

6. FOUR SEPARATE RELIEF PARTIES RESCUED THE SURVIVORS AT THE TWO DONNER PARTY CAMPS.

It took the four relief parties more than two months to rescue the survivors. When members of the First Relief reached the camps it was said they saw no signs of human activity until a lone woman, gaunt from starvation, emerged from a hole in the snow. When they approached her, the woman asked, “Are you men from California or do you come from heaven?”

In the end, 41 people died and 46 survived. Five perished before reaching the Sierras, 35 died at the camps or attempting to cross the mountains, and one died just after reaching the valley at the foot of the western slope. Many of the survivors lost toes to frostbite and suffered chronic physical and psychological disorders.

7. MORE DONNER PARTY MEN DIED THAN WOMEN.

James and Margaret Reed. Wikimedia // Public Domain

Males succumbed at a higher rate than females and also died sooner. The principal reason was that the mothers in the caravan made every effort to keep their families alive, while the younger single men who exerted more energy had no family unit and died early on. Overall, the death toll was highest among the very young and the elderly. Older children and teens fared better than adults. All the Donner adults—brothers George and Jacob and their wives—perished, but several of their offspring survived. Two entire families—the Reeds and the Breens—also survived, and the Reeds were the only ones in the entire party who never ate human flesh.

8. THE DONNER PARTY STORY ALMOST IMMEDIATELY PASSED FROM TRUTH TO LEGEND.

Even before the last survivor was rescued from the snowy Sierras, myths about the Donner ordeal were created, and exaggerated newspaper accounts distorted the truth. These scurrilous stories went unchecked and unchallenged for many years. Wild tales abounded that told of emigrants feasting on human flesh out of pleasure instead of survival. In fact, the party’s acts of survival cannibalism helped convince much of the public that the so-called "civilizers" themselves became savages.

Michael Wallis is the author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny. He is also the best-selling author of Route 66 and Billy the Kid, and has won numerous honors and awards. He is a popular public speaker and a highly acclaimed voice actor. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

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If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

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You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

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2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

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Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

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3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

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Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

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Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

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Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

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LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

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7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

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Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

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8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

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The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

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Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

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Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

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The Library of Congress Needs Help Transcribing More Than 20,000 Letters Written to Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt would want you to transcribe these letters.
Theodore Roosevelt would want you to transcribe these letters.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

With some historical figures, the best we can do is speculate about their innermost thoughts and imagine what their lives might really have been like. With Theodore Roosevelt, we don’t have to. In addition to a number of books, the 26th U.S. president wrote speeches, editorials, diary entries, and letters that document virtually every aspect of his self-proclaimed strenuous life both in and out of the Oval Office.

When it comes to letters, however, only reading those written by Roosevelt can sometimes be like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. Fortunately, the Library of Congress possesses tens of thousands of letters written to Roosevelt, too—and they need your help transcribing them.

The collection includes correspondence from various phases of his career, covering his time as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War; his stint as William McKinley’s vice president (and abrupt ascent to the presidency when McKinley was assassinated); his own campaign and two-term presidency; and his work as a conservationist. Overall, the letters reveal the sheer volume of requests Roosevelt got, from social engagements to political appointments and everything in between. In January 1902, for example, Secretary of State John Hay wrote to Roosevelt (then president) on behalf of someone who “[wanted] to be a Secretary to our Special Embassy in London.” A little over a week later, The Gridiron Club “[requested] the pleasure of the company of The President of the United States at dinner” that weekend at the Arlington Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Of more than 55,000 documents in the digital archive, about 12,000 have already been transcribed, and nearly 14,000 need to be reviewed. There are also roughly 24,000 pages that still have yet to be touched at all. If you’d like to join the effort, you can start transcribing here.