I hope that you have put down the electronic gadgets that were your entertainment for the long cold winter days, and are outside enjoying Minnesota’s beautiful spring weather. I had yellow finches, an oriole, a ruby-crested gross beak and an army of squirrels at my bird feeder so far this week. I have my new bird bath out there, but no birds have used it yet.
We sure did have a long cold winter this year. Cold early and then blizzards through April. Oh, well, it just makes one appreciate the other three seasons of the year so much more.
This past winter reminded me a very severe winter of long ago. It is still considered one of the worst winters to ever hit the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was the winter of 1846-47, and it trapped a group of emigrants bound for California in the mountains. This group of folks became the infamous Donner Party….the “Cannibal Emigrants”.
In case you don’t know, cannibals are people who eat other people. You have them in some of your video games. For the Donner Party cannibalism was no game…it was to survive.
There is so much more to the story of the Donner Party than just getting grossed out by their dining choices. It is a really good illustration of a really bad case of poor listening skills. An extreme example of what happens when good advice is ignored and the foretold disaster strikes with a vengeance. Like when parent’s or grandparent’s advice is disreguarded, and there is nothing left to do but dry the inevitable tears.
They chose to take an untried shortcut, and, like with most untried shortcuts, this one led to…catastrophe.
The Donner Party was a group of 89 men, women and children that set out from Springfield, Illinois in 1846 to homestead in California. Yes, they were from the same town as Abraham Lincoln and knew him. In fact, James Frazier Reed, a member of the Donner Party, and James Clyman, mountain man, actually fought in the same military company as Lincoln during the Black Hawk Indian War of 1832.
James and Margaret Reed, Springfield, Illinois residents and Donner Party members.
Interestingly, the friendships with members of the Donner Party were not the only Lincoln connection. More than 163 years after the Donner disaster a set of military documents partially penned by the 16th U.S. president was found among Mr. Reed’s papers.
The documents were the official soldier lists for the company of mounted Illinois volunteers that Lincoln had joined. The documents show that Private Abraham Lincoln, was 23 years old, owned a horse worth $85 and had $15 of additional equipment. Lincoln also had a government issued tent that he was to return at the end of his military service.
Early Photograph of Abraham Lincoln
Several Lincoln scholars have confirmed that Lincoln had handwritten the title of one of the muster rolls. A muster roll is a list of names a military officer uses to take attendance of his soldiers. Just like a teacher would do at school. It reads, “Muster Roll of Captain Jacob M. Earleys [sic] Company of Mounted Volunteers Mustered out of the service of the United States By order of Brigadier General Atkinson of the United States army on White Water Rivers of Rock River on the 10th day of July 1832.”
Lincoln’s company never saw any military action, but he was elected captain. He later said this was one of his life’s greatest honors. Years later speaking on the floor of Congress, Lincoln summarized his soldiering experience, “By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military Hero? Yes sir; in the days of the Black Hawk war, I fought, bled, and came away…. I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes; and, although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.”
Hunger was often a constant companion to those traveling west to California during the 1800’s. They had to carry all of their food, and much of their water with them. The small wagons pulled by either oxen, mules or horses had to contain everything needed to survive the almost 2,000 mile trip.
In the 1800’s there were no grocery stores along either the Oregon or California trails. There was a trading post or two, but they were few and far between. You had to take personal responsibility for your own welfare. So, to ensure your family’s survival all of food needed for the entire journey was packed into your covered wagon.
A family would usually travel in one or two small sturdy wagons pulled by six to ten oxen. They often had a milk cow or two along. As the buffalo and other prairie fresh meat disappeared from over hunting, emigrants began to take cattle with them to provide a fresh meat.
There was no extra space inside one of those canvass covered ships of the prairies. They were filled to the brim. Food for a family of four consisted of 600 lbs. of flour, 120 lbs. of biscuits, 400 lbs. of bacon, 60 lbs. of coffee, 4 lbs. of tea, 100 lbs. of sugar, and 200 lbs. of lard. In addition there were often sacks of rice and beans and dried fruit. When found on the trail, berries and other wild fruit were picked and made into jam or dried.
In the spring of 1846 almost 500 fully packed wagons left Independence, Missouri, the starting place of the Oregon and California trails. The very last group of pioneers to leave that spring were the 32 original members of the Reed and Donner families and their employees.
There was a tight travel schedule on the California Trail. Wagon trains needed to head west in the spring as soon as the winters snows had melted, but after grass became available for their mules, horses, oxen and livestock.
The best time to start out was mid to late April. That gave the travelers plenty of time to cross the prairies and deserts and reach the mountain passes well before snow began to fall.
The Donner party not only left last, but they had a late start. They did not set out until May 12, which did not leave them with any extra time for trail troubles such as illness, broken wagons, bad weather or other natural disasters.
After their first week of travel, the Donner Party was joined by another group of fifty wagons. They traveled 450 miles their first month, but by June 16, they were obviously behind schedule and still had 200 miles to go before they reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming.
Reaching Wyoming was a big deal. It was there that most wagon trains to California would choose, actually all of them but two and one of those was the Donner Party, to follow the well-used traditional trail that went north through Idaho before dropping south and across Nevada or try the newly discovered “Hastings Cutoff.”
In 1846, a crook by the name of Lansford Hastings wrote a guide book that promised a straighter and faster route through the mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Desert. While this idea sounded wonderful to trail weary travelers, there was a problem. No one, had used this route with wagons not even Mr. Hastings himself!
At this point in the Donner Party’s journey, James Reed accidentally met up with his old friend from Springfield, Illinois, James Clyman. An experienced mountain man, Clyman had just ridden his horse over Hastings’ trail. He strongly advised the emigrants not to use the Hastings trail. He told them, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it because you can’t take wagons that way. Go the old route. Be safe. You’ll perish.”
By July 18 the wagon train had traveled 1,000 miles. They still had another 1,000 miles to go before they reached California. On July 20 they were at the crossroads, the members of the wagon train had to decide whether to take the well-established path or try the new Hastings’ route.
Most of the members of the train chose to take the known route. However, twenty wagons, including the nine belonging to the Reeds and Donners turned left towards Fort Bridger and the entrance to the “Hastings Cutoff.” It was at this time that this wagon train officially became the Donner Party, when George Donner was elected to be their leader.
The “Hastings Cutoff” decision turned out to be a bad one. The trail itself almost killed off these poor folks long before they got trapped by snow in the mountains. There really was no trail. The pioneers had to make the trail themselves by cutting down trees. Their progress slowed to about a mile and a half a day. Rather than saving them time, Hastings’ shortcut ended up adding nearly a month and an extra 150 miles to the Donner Party’s journey.
Salt Lake Dessert
In the late August with desert temperatures soaring over 100 degrees, their thin oxen fatigued and their water supply nearly gone, the Donner Party began to cross the Salt Lake Desert. The desert crossing of 40 miles that had been promised by Hastings to take only two days, in reality was over 80 miles and took six days…..at great cost.
Although Donner Party members were called pioneers, many had left behind middle class affluent homes. They had been town folk. Few had the specific skills and experience necessary to travel through deserts and mountains. They had no experience in making camps or compounds that protected their livestock. Nor did they know how to interact with Indians.
While no humans lives were lost during the desert crossing. Oxen became so weak that they, and the wagons they pulled, were abandoned. That means that all of the supplies in those wagons were lost. The Reed’s lost nine of their ten oxen when the poor beasts became crazed with thirst, broke free and ran off. More wagons had to be left behind. Cattle, horses and mules were lost to the desert.
Unfortunately the desert crossing was not the end of livestock loss for the Donner Party. The oxen, cattle, mules and horses that remained were now half-starved and very lean. Some were too weak to go on and just died. Others were chased away or killed by Indians. Indians chased away all the horses owned by one family. Therefore, another wagon filled with supplies was left behind.
In the dry terrain there was less and less grass which meant that the cattle wandered farther away to graze. This presented an opportunity to the local Paiutes Indians who captured 18 one evening and a few days later shot another 21. Indians have to eat too.
By the time they exited the desert, the wagon train had lost almost 100 oxen and cattle and was already running low on food supplies. The Eddy family’s oxen were killed by Indians and their wagon abandoned. The family had no food, and other families refused to even help feed their children. Forced to walk, the Eddy’s carried their hungry and thirsty children. Margaret Reed and her children had also lost their wagon and were on foot.
The loss of human decency is like a ball… it picks up speed as it goes down hill. If the level of civilization in a society is measured by how its strongest members treat its weakest members, the Donner Party quickly became the poster child for the uncivilized.
Spite and selfishness quickly replaced kindness and generosity. Soon, the cry of a hungry child did not matter unless it was your own. Hearts hardened. A seventy-year-old man was thrown out of the wagon in which he was riding. The wagon’s owner telling him to walk or die. A few days later the old fellow was last seen sitting next to a stream with feet so swollen they had split open. He was never seen again.
A younger member of the group pleaded that they should help him. Nobody listened to him. All of the other members of the wagon train had decided that a seventy-year old man was a waste of resources. Which is a shame as maybe he was the one who knew how to catch trout, build a fish trap, cache meat above snow levels or make a roof that did not rot or leak. There is more to human value than youth and physical strength.
A collective sigh of relief was breathed by the Donner Party once the desert was behind them. Many of them thought the worse was over.
Sierra Nevada Mountains
The most difficult part of the trip was the last 100 miles where the emigrants, wagons and their tired animals had to cross over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These are big mountains and are extremely steep. There are over 500 different distinct peaks, some tower over 12,000 feet high. Located so close to the ocean, this range of mountains naturally receives more snow than most of the other mountains ranges in western North America.
After losing an additional two months by taking the “Hastings Cutoff”, the Donner Party finally rejoined the traditional trail. (See map below.) Sadly, it was now well into the month of October.
Fearing being caught in the mountains the exhausted wagon trail tried to speed up their progress by taking less time to rest themselves and their animals. Tired and sick of all of the opportunities for personal and profession growth the trip had provided, they began to turn on each other. It wasn’t long before the have’s were charging the have not’s double for food.
Desperate to get over the mountains the Donner Party made one final push in late October. Surely there was still plenty of time. They had been told that the mountain passes would remain open until about the middle of November.
As it turned out, they got there one day too late.
Snow began to fall.
One family did make it up the nearly vertical 1, 000 foot slope to Truckee Lake (now known as Donner Lake). However, there were still three impossible miles to reach mountain’s summit.
Truckee Lake, now known as Donner Lake
Soon the pioneers were blanketed by 5-10 foot snow drifts. The first storm lasted for eight days. Others followed. While they made many attempts to cross over the mountains, they were never successful. The snow continued to fall, eventually reaching depths over twenty feet.
Trees cut off by the Donner Party show snow depth.
The Donner party was stranded until relief parties from California could reach them and that took months.
And so the famine began…..
Members of the Breen, Graves, Reed, Murphy, Keseberg and Eddy families along with their workers became stranded at Truckee Lake. They lived in three windowless pine log cabins with dirt floors and flat leaky roofs made out of ox hide or canvas. There was a hole cut into the side of the cabin to go in or out.
The Breens occupied one cabin, the Eddys and Murphys another and the Reeds and Graves the last. The Keseberg family lived in a lean-to attached to the Breen Cabin. The group at Truckee Lake numbered about 60. Nineteen were men over 18, 12 were women and 29 were children. Six of the children were toddlers or younger.
The Donnor family set up tents several miles away by Alder Creek. These tents housed 21 people; 6 men, 3 women and 12 children.
Right from the beginning there was a food shortage. Each cabin horded their limited supply of food. As oxen died their frozen bodies were stacked.
The lake had not frozen over yet and they could see that there were Lake Trout, but those eastern town folks did not know how to catch trout. Although, why they did not build a fish trap or blast them to the surface with either dynamite or a gun powder charge is beyond me. Obviously, their great uncles did not fish with dynamite or teach them how to make fish traps like mine did. Furthermore, it was shocking to learn that horse and oxen carcasses became exposed in the spring thaw. If you didn’t have the strength to dig down to the meat, fire melts snow.
One fellow did shoot a bear, but that wasn’t much meat to share among so many people.
Desperation grew. Still. there was no cannibalism…
Franklin Graves made 14 pairs of snowshoes out of parts from oxen harnesses and hide. Then, on December 16, a group of 17 set off to attempt to get through the mountain pass and bring back help. They packed lightly and only took a six-day supply of food and a blanket each. In addition the group were armed with a rifle, hatchet and a couple of pistols. Two of those without snowshoes had to turn back almost right away. The first evening out the party made one more set of snowshoes out of a pack saddle.
This Donner Party group became known as the “Forlorn Hope.” They had a terrible time, just reaching the mountain’s summit. It took almost three days. When they started down the other side the bright sunshine on the snow made most of them go “snowblind.” They couldn’t see, were running out of food and became lost.
After walking in the deep snow for another two days without food, it was proposed that they needed to kill one of their members to feed the others. They drew straws, then did not have the heart to kill the person who lost.
On they went. Only to have another blizzard stop them.
As they huddled together in the storm, two fellows died. Another fellow went nuts, stripped himself naked and ran into the woods, only to return and die within a couple of hours. One of the youngest members of the group was dying, to try and save him, the others decided to eat the dead naked guy. Probably because he was already undressed and as fate would have it, he had been the first person to suggest they resort to cannibalism.
The next morning they processed the other three dead bodies to use as food. They dried the meat so it would not rot, then carefully marked it to ensure that nobody ate their own relatives. I guess thoughtfulness like that counts in moments like those.
Soon, they were again without food. So they ate the leather in their snowshoes as they eyed their two Indian guides as potential nourishment. The guides were tipped off to the murderous plans and took off. Unfortunately about nine days later the pioneers found the Indians close to death laying in the snow. They shot them and ate them. These poor Indians were the only people known to be murdered for food.
On January 12 the seven surviving members of the “Forlorn Hope” found help in an Indian camp. The Indians took one look at these scary skeletal figures emerging from the dark forest and immediately decided the zombie apocalypse had begun and ran away. Eventually, they returned and shared their food with their fellow human beings who were so very starved. The trip of the “Forlorn Hope” had taken 33 days. Of the seven survivors only two were men. All five women had survived.
After the “Forlorn Hope” had left the Lake Truckee camp, two-thirds of those remaining were children.
Life at the camp went from bad to worse. Once food supplies were gone, the pioneers ate ox hide. They boiled it into a nasty glue-like jelly. Ox and horse bones were boiled again and again to make soup. The Murphy children ate the ox hide rug that was in front of the fire place. Mice were caught an eaten. There is about 14 calories in a roasted mouse.
By January the situation had become so severe that the emigrants began eating the ox hide cabin roofs. Soon the lack of food made the people so weak that they spent most of their days in bed.
It became every family for themselves. In fact, one day, the Graves family came to collect on a debt owed them by the Reeds. They took all of the Reeds ox hides leaving them with no food whatsoever. Apparently, Mrs. Graves had forgotten the golden rule of doing onto others as you would want them to do for you. I have read that the only family where all of the members survived, and that did not practice cannibalism, was the Reeds. Mrs. Graves did not survive and got her just desserts by becoming someone’s dessert.
In California concerns over the missing wagon train caused people to organize several rescue attempts. Early attempts failed, but on February 18 a rescue party finally reached the camp. When they got there they did not see anyone. All of the cabins were completely covered with snow. Soon heads began to poke out of the snow. The rescue party shared food with the starving emigrants.
Twenty-three people were chosen to go with the rescue party, leaving twenty-one in the cabins at Truckee Lake and twelve at Alder Creek.
There were no deaths in the Donner Party between the departure of the first relief party and the arrival of the second. This was probably due to them eating their dead. This is when the cannibalism began in the camps.
The second relief party took 17 emigrants with them. Only three were adults. That left five people at the Truckee Lake camp. At the Donner camp at Alder creek, Tamsen Donner, the mother, chose to stay with her husband who was slowly dying from an infection. She also kept three of their daughters with them.
During the five months that the Donner Party was stranded in the mountains, almost half of that time rescue teams knew where they were. There were four relief teams and it took well over two months to get all of the survivors back to civilization. The last person to be rescued was Lewis Keseberg. He was found in April of 1847, completely crazy sitting among the have eaten bodies of his former companions.
Of the 89 emigrants who left Independence, Missouri on May 12, 1846, 42 died of disease or starvation. Five people died before the party reached the mountains. 81 became stranded in the mountains. Of those, more than half were younger than 18.
Age, gender and family support were the most important survival factors. Those most likely to die were children under six and adult single males over the age 35. Sixty-six percent of males aged between 20 and 39 died.
Women were more likely to survive, because of their naturally slow metabolism and extra body fat. That is the only light in this otherwise dark tale, I didn’t make me fat, nature did.
Children made up the vast majority of the the Donner Party survivors. In fact, Isabella Breen, only a year old during that disastrous winter, lived to be ninety-years-old. She died in 1935.
No adults over the age of 49 survived.
Of the dozen or so families that were in the Donner Party, only two families reached California without having any family members die…the Reeds and the Breens. George and Jacob Donner, their wives and four of the children all died. William Eddy, lost his wife and two children. The children of Jacob Donner, George Donner, and Franklin Graves were orphaned and most of the Murphy family died.
Breen home in San Juan Bautista, California
The story of the Donner party just goes to show that when people ignore the voice of experience, they do so at their own peril. After a God-given encounter with James Clyman, a friend and frontier man, they chose to disregard his wise counsel and still take the “Hastings Cutoff.” Their troubles really began when they came to the conclusion that they were smarter than the expert.
The Bible tells us over and over again that knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom. Knowledge by itself can be dangerous. Wisdom is superior to knowledge, because it combines knowledge with experience. Wisdom requires a process of ripening and that takes time.
In truth, had the Donner party listened to the man who had knowledge and experience their cannibalistic catastrophe would never have taken place. They were less victims of happen chance than of pride. I guess in addition to ignoring the golden rule the Donner Party forgot that God tells us that pride comes before the fall or in their case…the snowfall.
I am not going to worry a bit about the grossness of this story, because I have seen the video games you play.
Have a great week and I love you very much.