The Donner Party


The Donner Party consisted of eighty-seven emigrants who journeyed from Illinois to California in the winter of 1846-1847. Many groups embraced westward expansion in the 1840s and moved to the California, enduring a treacherous journey for the promise of abundant free land. However, the Donner Party is notorious because of the small mistakes they made that turned their exciting quest into a nightmare.

Beginning of the Journey

Although the journey west was long, ti
The Donners
The Donners
ring, perilous, and often deadly, many pioneers in the 1800’s braved the elements and the Native Indians in order to reach states like Oregon and California. These pioneers believed that the risks they were to take would be rewarded by availability of land, more opportunities, a better life, or more religious tolerance.
In 1846 the Donner-Reed Party moved west for many of the same reasons. Whether for health reasons, or for potential prosperity, the Donner-Reed Party went from Utah to California, by wagon in order for better life. One of the driving forces was most likely the idea of manifest destiny, or the concept that the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans rightfully belonged to the United States of America. The feeling of manifest destiny was running rampant through the United States during the nineteenth century.

The most prominent members of the large party were the families of George and Jacob Donner and James Reed. In May of 1846 they left Illinois and joined another group in Missouri, completing the ill-fated party of pioneers. They were already aware of most of the hardships they would face, but they were still difficult to endure: carrying enough supplies for a long journey, pulling out wagons that became stuck in rivers, and doing everyday activities such as washing laundry and dishes. These tasks were made even more difficult by the fact that almost half of the group was made up of small children. The journey was tough, but they pressed on.

The real problems arose when James Reed convinced the group to take the shortcut that was promoted in Lansford Hastings' book The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California. It promised a direct route that passed through the Watsatch Mountains and the desert near the Great Salt Lake, and it had been used successfully by a group the year before, so at Little Sandy River, the Donner-Reed party split from the other families in the group and headed off on their own. According to the guidebook, the eighty mile journey through the desert near the Great Salt Lake was supposed to take two days, but it took the Donner Party six continuous days to make it. It was the end of summer, so they had to endure stifling heat during the day and frigid cold at night. By September, the group realized that they were falling behind schedule and autumn was coming close, followed by a dangerous winter that they did not want to be caught in. By this time, fear was taking its toll on the party, and many of the group members resented Reed for his arrogant attitude. Reed and another teamster, John Scheider, got into a fight and Scheider was killed. Some thought that it was an act of self-defense, but because no one knew for certain, Reed was banished from the group. Fortunately for the pioneers, instead of giving up on them he made his way toward California on his own to seek help.


It was mid-October when the members of the party reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains and began to fun out of food. Soon Charles Stanton, a pioneer who had gone for help, returned with food, two Indian guides, and the welcome news that they had at least another month to make it through the pass before it was closed. Thankful for the apparent good luck, the party rested for five days before beginning the next leg of their journey. Unfortunately, heavy snow began to fall on October 31st, where the pioneers had just arrived at Truckee Lake, just below the summit of the mountain. By the next day, their path was blocked by five feet of snow and it was impossible for them to get through, so they returned to the lake and made camp while they decided what could be done. During the next month, times became very desperate as the group was faced with brutal elements and began to have to slaughter the remaining cattle for food. Many small groups attempted to cross the summit to go for help, but they were unsuccessful, and on December 15, 1846, the first death from malnutrition occurred. After the last of the cattle ran out, a group of seventeen people made one more attempt at crossing the summit, and made it to the other side after two long days. However, their struggle was not over. The group that went for help was faced with snow-blindness and starvation as their food ran out, and to make matters worse, another blizzard struck on December 25. They began to wonder if most of them could be saved by killing and eating one of theexternal image DonnerParty_map1.gif others, but they could not bring themselves to do it. Despite the decision to spare each other, three of the men died during the night and were butchered and eaten by the remaining pioneers. Luis and Salvador, the Indian guides, refused to eat the other settlers, and were eventually shot and killed themselves when starvation became a threat again. By the time this group reached civilization on January 17, 1847, only seven of the original seventeen were left alive.


Meanwhile, James Reed had been attempting to gather a rescue party since he reached Fort Sutter in late October, but he had been unsuccessful. While they waited, those members of the party who were still trapped at Truckee Lake were facing rapidly deteriorating conditions. Many people were malnourished, and by February 1847, twelve of the remaining sixty people were dead, but they did not resort to cannibalism. The group that made it through the pass and the efforts of Reed finally brought awareness to the situation, and two relief parties were formed in early February. The first group reached the survivors on February 19, but only had enough supplies to take about twenty people with them. The party led by Reed arrived soon after, but he found that the conditions had worsened greatly. Ten more people had perished and those who remained had begun to feed on them. He took back eighteen survivors, but they encountered yet another blizzard and four of them died during the storm. The remaining members once again turned to cannibalism before being rescued by a third relief party, which continued on to the lake but could only bring back the remaining children. When a fourth party returned to the lake a month later, only one survivor was left. The nation soon learned of this horrible event through the newspapers, and they were shocked at the accusations of murder and cannibalism. The desire to move west faced a lull after this, until the promise of gold once again lured pioneers towards California.

May 1846:
Donner and Reed families leave Illinois to begin their journey
August 1846:
Party struggles for 6 days across the desert near the Great Salt Lake
September 1846:
Group is behind schedule
James Reed is banished from party for murder

October 1846:
Party reaches Sierra Nevada Mountains
A blizzard begins just before they reach the summit
James Reed reaches Fort Sutter

November 1846:
Blizzard prevents party from making it through the pass
Small groups attempt to cross summit and fail

December 1846:
First death occurs as a result of malnutrition
Group of seventeen makes it through pass, but has to resort to cannibalism when they get caught in a blizzard

January 1847:
Small group makes it to civilization with seven of seventeen members alive
February 1847:
Two relief parties leave to rescue survivors at Truckee Lake
First party arrives and takes back twenty survivors
Second party takes back eighteen survivors, but four die when they encounter a blizzard

March 1847:
Third party helps second party and brings children from Truckee Lake
April 1847:
Last survivor is rescued by fourth relief party


1. The Donner Party of 1846 was a group of western settlers who…
A. Helped launch the California Gold Rush
B. Were slaughtered by Mormons dressed as Indians in Utah territory

C. Ate the flesh of their dead to fight off starvation
D. D. Did none of the above.

B. 4.3%
D. 6.5%

2. If you were traveling and four out of five experienced men advised you that a longer route was safer and would save time because it was a better road, whose advice would you take.
A. The advice of the one advising the shorter route
B. The advice of the four advising the longer route

A. 100%
B. 0%

3. If you were with a group of travelers miles from any form of law, or police protection and a murder was committed amongst your group, would you
A. Hold a trial there, and if necessary, an execution.
B. Hold the accused prisoner until proper legal authorities are reached.
C. Send the accused away from the group at gunpoint, threatening to shoot to kill if he returns
D. Do none of the above.

A. 8.7%

4. If circumstances placed you in a situation where you and the group with you are dying from starvation, could you eat horse meat from your farm animals.
A. Yes
B. No

B. 6.5%

5. If circumstances placed you in a situation where you and the group with you are dying from starvation, could you eat dog meat from among the pets.
A. Yes
B. No


6. If circumstances placed you in a situation where you and the group with you are dying from starvation, could you eat human flesh from those who have already died.
A. Yes
B. No


Now and Then

Since the time the Donner Party ventured forth to California in 1846, compared to today, transportation, technological resources, and the ability to protect and care for oneself has improved drastically. Taking a journey 2,500 miles across the United States from Illinois to California without thought to the time of year, or the type of weather a group was likely to encounter would have been seen as total foolishness. Yet, traveling cross-country today, year around, has become a norm for several Americans and the occupation of many others. On any given Monday, a package may be mailed from a post office 2,500 miles away, only to arrive on Thursday, a mere four days later, at its planned destination. The Donner Party of 1846 had to deal with traveling in wagons and using oxen and horses to transport themselves. Along with this mode of transportation came the needed process of gathering enough life sustaining resources to last the group throughout the expedition. They took great risks when deciding on what and how much provisions to take along. If the trip lasted longer than their stores, their lives would be in peril. Today, running out of resources still occurs, but generally in the form of no gasoline nor money, and virtually never to the point of starvation or death. Finally, means of protection for the Donner Party was highly primitive when compared to today. Their protection from the weather was clothing and a wagon. Their protection from the cold was a campfire. Their protection from each other was knives and the pointed barrel of a gun. People from the party froze to death in the snow because of not having the necessary materials to build warm shelters or adequately clothe themselves. Today people bundle up in their thermal coats, polar fleece hats and gloves, pile into their heated automobiles, and stop at a hotel for the night when weary from the journey. If needed, today’s travelers can usually dial 911 from their cell phones, should unexpected danger appear. The changes that have happened over the past century and a half have created vast differences compared to travel of 1846. The Donner Pass of today is no longer a scene of starvation and death but is instead a popular winter transportation artery for many vacationers heading to Lake Tahoe or the bright lights of Reno. Travel taken for the purpose of arriving in safety and the chance for a better life is now taken for pleasure and the entertainment of the travelers.

Lake Truckee, where the party was trapped, is now Donner Lake in Donner State Memorial Park.
Lake Truckee, where the party was trapped, is now Donner Lake in Donner State Memorial Park.

Donner Party Video-The American Experience


"Donner Party." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2009. EBSCOhost. Web. 3 Apr. 2010.

McGill, Sara A. "Donner Party." Donner Party (2009): 1-2. EBSCOhost. Web. 8 Apr. 2010.

C, McGlashan F. History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1954. Print.

The Donner Party, PBS/The American Experience (WGBH Educational Foundation, 1997)

"The Donner Party." Map. The Fateful Journey of the Donner Party. Web. 8 Apr. 2010. <>.