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. The Donner Party’s dream was spawned by Manifest Destiny.
The dramatic backdrop to the Donners’ storied trek is the expansionist movement dubbed Manifest Destiny—the belief, widely held in 1840s America, that Anglo-Saxon citizens of the United States had been mandated by God 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 the 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 scores of sovereign Indigenous nations as well as Mexico.
2. Abraham Lincoln briefly considered going with them.
While working as a lawyer in Springfield, 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. The Donner Party got some very bad directions.
If not for some wrong turns, internal strife, and a series of unprecedented winter storms, the Donner Party would have been an unremarkably successful wagon train. That, of course, was not the case.
One of the chief architects of their misfortune was Lansford Hastings, an early California land promoter who wrote a popular book, 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.
As a result, they became snowbound in the mountains in early November 1846. They could go no farther until the snow melted in spring.
4. It’s often said that none in the Donner Party killed a person for the purpose of cannibalism—but there was one horrific exception.
In mid-December, a small group set out from the snow-buried 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 guides, Luis and Salvador, who had been sent by early California settler John Sutter to help the trapped emigrants. They brought badly needed supplies and helped provide important winter survival advice.
This party was the first to be forced to resort to cannibalism when all their supplies were gone. Eventually, when even the (dead) human sources of food dwindled, it was decided that Luis and Salvador would be killed. Both men were shot and their flesh consumed. The rest of the party rationalized the murders because they considered Native Americans less worthy of survival than white people, an obviously racist view that resulted in the deaths of two innocent people.
5. At the snowbound camp, cannibalism began when every other source of protein had been consumed.
Once the Donner 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 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.
Males succumbed at a higher rate than females and also died sooner. Mothers in the caravan made every effort to keep their families alive, but the younger single men of the party, who exerted more energy and had no family ties to support them, 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 passed from truth to legend almost immediately.
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. Wild tales told of emigrants feasting on human flesh out of pleasure instead of survival. These scurrilous stories went unchecked and unchallenged for many years. In fact, the party’s acts of survival cannibalism demonstrated to the world that the morally righteous settlers were no better than animals.
Michael Wallis is the author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.