Oct. 30, 2021

The Donner Party

The Donner Party

It's almost Halloween, which means - it's time for a haunted edition of Civics & Coffee.

This week I am diving into the trials, tribulations and downright horror that was the cross country journey of the Donner Party.

There is cannibalism, sure. But there is also so much more.

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Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Donner party."Encyclopedia Britannica, March 24, 2021. Accessed September 26, 2021. (LINK)

Andrews, Evan. “10 Things You Should Know About the Donner Party.” History. January 30, 2020. Accessed September 26, 2021. (LINK)

Wallis, Michael. The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny. New York: Liveright, 2017.

Support the show (http://www.buymeacoffee.com/civicscoffeepod)


“I am beginning to feel alarmed at the tardiness of our movements, and fearful that winter will find us in the snowy mountains of California, or that we shall suffer from the exhaustion of our supply of provisions.” Edwin Bryant, 1846. 

Welcome to Civics & Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic in US History and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in highschool. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 

Intro Music 

Hey peeps, welcome back. 

Happy Halloween Eve! If you follow the pod on any of the socials, then you are likely aware of how much I love the spooky season. I try to incorporate my love of all things haunted and scary into this pod, including a history of halloween episode I did last year. 

When contemplating what kind of dark history I could cover this year, fate dropped a topic into my lap. Peter with the podcast Two Songs, One Couple suggested I look into the Donner Party at some point and I thought to myself - why not cover them for the Halloween episode. 

The Donner Party is most widely known for their acts of cannibalism to stay alive while snowbound in the Sierras in the winter of 1846, however their story is so much more than the headline. 

So today I am covering the donner party. Who were they? What in the heck happened? 

Grab your pumpkin spice latte peeps; let’s do this. 

The Donner Party - sometimes referred to as the Donner-Reed Party, was a cohort of several families, numbering eighty-seven at its peak, who were making the journey to the promises of fertile land and opportunity in California. 

Hundreds of americans were already heading west, thanks in part to pushes from the federal government and the idea that americans were meant to civilize the entire country. In 1845, journalist John L O’Sullivan infamously coined the phrase manifest destiny when he wrote about the need for americans to settle the west quote, “by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty.” end quote. 

In making preparations to move their families west, George Donner and James Reed - the two main patriarchs of the group - did their research in order to get a sense of what was needed to make the months-long journey. They read accounts by John C Fremont and a guide by Lansford Hastings who promoted what he dubbed the Hastings Cutoff, a supposed shortcut that would shave 300 miles off their route. 

Initially, the traveling group eventually known as the Donner Party consisted of three families: George & Tamzene Donner, Jacob & Elizbeth Donner and James & Margaret Reed. Of the three families, George was the most established, carrying ten thousand in cash stitched into a quilt for the journey. James Reed, on the other hand, signed bankruptcy papers the day before he headed west. After settling their affairs and gathering provisions, including two hundred pounds per each member over the age of ten, the three families gathered in nine wagons and started their journey west on April 14, 1846. 

Most of the group was excited about the new opportunity; in a letter, Tamzene Donner wrote quote: “we go to California, to the bay of Francisco. It is a four month trip. We have three wagons furnished with food and clothing. Drawn by three yoke of oxen each. We take cows and milk them and have some butter though not as much as we would like. I am willing to go and have no doubt it will be an advantage to our children and to us. I came here last evening and start tomorrow on the long journey.” end quote. 

The party made decent time at the start, covering 650 miles over six weeks. As I am sure we all remember from our lessons on the Donner Party, timing was everything when venturing west. Families had to ensure they left late enough in the year to have available grass and foliage for their animals to eat, but early enough to ensure they made it through the Sierras before any winter storms. 

This is where the Donner Party made its first major misstep. Leaving Independence, Missouri - the epicenter of the main trails west - on May 12, 1846, the caravan was the last of the season. This delayed start meant they had almost no room for error as they continued on their journey. There were certain milestones the group had to reach, including reaching Independence Rock by July 4th. They showed up a week late. 

The journey was not easy; the party encountered a myriad of natural elements including trail dust, dry heat and rainstorms. Their animals were eaten alive by mosquitoes and gnats who made meals out of the cattle and horses who were so raw they were bleeding. Accidents were common, with wagon wheel incidents the most prevalent. During their journey, one of the men of the party, Edwin Bryant, had to watch as a young boy’s leg was amputated after it had become gangrenous after such an accident. The procedure - which took an excruciating one hour and forty five minutes - did not save the young man. He died immediately after the procedure’s conclusion. 

While grotesque, the death of young Enoch Garrison is not part of the Donner Party death count as he was traveling with another group. The first death for the Donner Party was seventy year old Sarah Keys who passed away on May 29th, 1846, likely from old age.  

After burying Ms. Keys along the trail, the group continued their westward march, arriving at South Pass on July 18th. By this time, tensions were already high and disagreements were common. The biggest debate was whether to take the established California Trail or take a chance on the untested Hastings Cut Off. James Reed, George Donner and Jacob Donner were all committed to the short cut. On July 20th, 1846, the Donner Party officially came into existence as George Donner was “elected” as the leader of the group. 

Joining the Donner Party was James Reed and his family, Patrick Breen, William McCutcheson, widow Levinah Murphy and William Eddy. Each of these families came with children or grandchildren and several employees. The party swelled to seventy four. They worked hard to get to Fort Bridger - the starting point for the Hastings Cut Off - in time to be guided through by the man who promoted the route. Unfortunately, they were two late and Hastings had already taken off a few days earlier with another group. 

The men were a little concerned, knowing the path was untested and believing they were going to have a guide. Two men running the trading post at the fort made assurances to Donner and Reed that they’d be able to catch up to the Hastings group in no time, neglecting to inform them of a letter left for them by a former traveller in their group, Edwin Bryant, telling them to avoid the trail and head to Fort Hall. 

The decision to take the untested Hastings Cut Off on July 31st only exacerbated their already tight timetable. A “shortcut” that was supposed to shave 300 miles off their journey actually added 125 miles and put them severely behind schedule. The trail was completely unprepared for wagon travel, forcing the party to clear their path as they went, further slowing down their progress. Part of Hastings' suggested route was a long stretch through the Salt Lake Desert, where the group lost more livestock as water was unavailable. 

In the sixty eight journey, the party lost three dozen animals, four wagons and eleven days. Along the way, the party picked up another family - the Graves - making their travel size eighty seven. 

With tensions already running high, an altercation led to expulsion for one of the original members of the party, James Reed. On October 5th, while trying to tackle a steep grade, John Synder became incredulous when another member of the party pulled ahead of him. As the anger escalated, James Reed tried to intervene. While accounts vary, Snyder and Reed did get into a physical altercation leading to Reed stabbing Snyder in what Reed maintained was self-defense. 

The group, already emotionally fried and unfond of Reed, demanded the severest punishment possible. After some debate, James Reed was banned from the party, allowed only to take his horse with him. His children managed to smuggle him a gun and some powder, but otherwise Reed was left to his own abilities to get through the most arduous party of the journey yet to come - the Sierras. 

After a series of setbacks and delays, the Donner Party finally reached the valley known as Truckee Meadows on October 20th and Truckee Lake on October 30th. Unfortunately for the travelers, this is where their poor timing and missteps along the way proved most deadly. 

The snow season made its entrance a month early in 1846, dropping several inches of snow. So while the group was just a short ninety miles from their destination, the heavy snow prevented them from traversing the seven thousand foot incline known as Fremonth’s Pass. They had no choice but to camp out for the winter and wait for spring. 

And peeps, this is where it gets super dark. 

The group had not made the appropriate plans for a winter camp and therefore had no means to actually survive several months of frigid temperatures and no available game. The party was split into two separate camps - the Truckee Lake Camp and the Alder Creek Camp. Forced to abandon their wagons and turn their remaining livestock into pack animals, the travelers had only the bare essentials and were forced to forage the landscape to build shelter and find wood to burn. 

Initially, they slaughtered their cattle for meat, using the snow banks as a natural freezer to store the meat. Severely lacking nutrients, they drank the blood of these animals when it was still warm and utilized every piece of the carcass to survive. The hides provided shelter from the elements, marrow from the bones used for soup - even the bones were eventually baked and made into a glue like substance for them to eat. 

On November 20th, passenger Patrick Breen began a diary. His account remains the only known contemporary record of the nearly four month nightmare. In one entry, Breen described their lack of supplies quote, “we now have killed most part of our cattle, having to stay here until next spring and live on poor beef without bread or salt. It snowed during the space of eight days with little intermission, after our arrival here, the remainder of time up to this day was clear and pleasant ,freezing at night the snow nearly gone from the valleys.” end quote. 

Breen was correct in terms of the weather. Between October 1846 and April 1847, ten major snowstorms hit the area. In one such storm, the remaining livestock either ran off and froze to death and buried under the massive piles of ice. Food quickly became limited to roasted mice and a gelatin like substance created when hides and were boiled. 

Death in the winter camp came about two weeks before Christmas, when twenty five year old Baylis Williams died from malnutrition. This was followed quickly by the deaths of four other members of the party: Jacob Donner, Sam Shoemaker, James Smith and Joseph Reinhardt. Seeing their fellow travelers die off in such quick succession prompted some in the party to take the risk of making the journey on foot, creating rough pairs of snow shoes. 

The snowshoe group initially comprised ten men, five women and two children. The journey was rough, to say the least. The group had no idea where they were going as any landmarks were long since buried. The landscape was unforgiving, with people suffering from ailments such as frostbite and snow blindness. Snow blindness is a thing of nightmares. Apparently, the eyes first turn run and watery and then begin to twitch uncontrollably before eventually swelling shut. 

After wandering the wilderness for several days, some in the party wanted to return to the camp. However, having been without food for nearly three days at this point, they were in a no win situation. Their bodies were failing; weak due to lack of any nourishment and suffering from frostbite and diminished circulation, members of the snowshoe party experienced painful constipation and uncontrollable diarrhea. They knew their immune systems were shutting down and they needed to take drastic action to survive. 

And here is where the cannibalism comes in, peeps. Someone in the group, believed to be Patrick Dolan, suggested that someone sacrifice themselves for the betterment of the group. Everything from drawing lots to entering into a duel were debated before they all agreed to wait for nature to take its course. 

Three members of the group died shortly after, providing an opportunity for the others - Patrick Dolan, Franklin Graves and the animal handler Antonio. On his deathbed with his two daughters, Franklin pleaded with them to take any actions necessary to survive - including eating human flesh. The survivors tried to be as civilized as they could and agreed that no one would eat their own family. Because you know, standards. 

Patrick Dolan was the first to be cannibalised, as strips of his flesh were cut away and put on sticks like the worst beef skewer you’ve ever had in your life. The flesh was roasted over the fire or preserved by drying out in the sun. Apparently the drying out process made the flesh look more like jerky, which I am sure helped when it came time to chow down. One of the youngest members of the group, Lemuel, refused to eat the flesh; likely suffering from some form of psychotic break, he captured and ate a live mouse and died shortly after. 

The surviving members hunkered down at what they later called the Camp of Death, trying to preserve the human meat as much as possible. Livers, hearts, lungs and brains were all extracted and ingested and other more fatty parts of the body were cut into various sizes and preserved as much as possible. Finally on December 30th, the group left their camp and headed out. 

The group was able to locate and kill a deer for food, but soon ran out and were getting punchy about their next meal. Apparently, two male members of the group discussed briefly the idea of murdering some of the women, but the women managed to survive. However, two Miwok tribesmen were not so lucky. Luis and Salvador were shot point blank by William Foster and dissected for their meat. The party rationalized that Foster experienced a mental health crisis and the two men were close to death anyway. Not sure that matters, but okay. 

The snowshoers finally made it off the mountain thirty three days after leaving camp. Their ordeal was done, but unfortunately for the rest of the group, the nightmare continued. 

Back at the Alder Creek and Lake Camps, people were suffering from malnutrition and frigid temperatures. Levinah Murphy, who was in charge of most of the children, began to suffer a psychotic break and deteriorated rapidly. Imagine if you will, you are a child making camp in a vast wilderness with no provisions and nothing to keep you warm. The only thing you can rely on are the adults who are there to protect you and make you feel better. Now the person in charge of your care starts to hallucinate and act like a small child herself? Say what you will about the cannibalism, but watching someone descend into madness sounds much more terrifying. 

As the snowshoers made it out and sounded the alarm, a rescue effort was put together and gathered at Sutter’s fort on January 31st. The party at this point had been snowbound for three months. They made it to camp on February 18th and saw no signs of life. They began to shout and suddenly a woman emerged; upon seeing the men she said quote, “are you men from California or do you come from heaven?” end quote.

The first relief team journeyed back with twenty three people considered strong enough to travel, seventeen from the truckee lake camp and six from alder creek. After suffering casualties on their return journey, twenty members of the Donner Party reached Sutter’s Fort on March 4th. 

A second relief party, containing the previously banned James Reed, departed February 22nd and reached Truckee Lake on March 1st. By this time, members of the Truckee and Alder camps had also resorted to cannibalism to survive, cutting up four bodies for their flesh. They lost three on the journey out.

A third relief party arrived on March 14th. This group included two members of the snowshoe group, William Foster and William Eddy, who made the trek to rescue their families. Unfortunately, both men discovered their families were all dead and in Eddy’s case, cannibalised. The third relief party successfully rescued five members of the Donner Party, without losing anyone on the way out. 

Finally, on April 29th, 1847, the final surviving member of the Donner Party made it to Sutter’s Fort. The journey had taken more than a year. 

In all, forty one members of the Donner Party died and forty six survived, many of them children. Of those who died, thirtyfive died at the camp or making the crossing. All of the adults in the Donner family perished, leading to several locations along the journey being renamed in their honor. 

As harrowing a journey as it was, the experiences of the Donner party did not blunt the desire of other countrymen and women to make the trip west. Several thousand people climbed the summit, especially after gold was discovered in California in 1849.

So now that I've given you nightmares, I want to wish you a happy and healthy halloween. Go do something spooktacular; if you’re not into spooky stuff, you could always rate and review the show. This helps spread the word and always makes me smile. Alright peeps, I will catch you all next week.    

Thanks for tuning in and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics and Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.

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