The Donner Party: Facts & Summary

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

One of the most tragic episodes in the history of the American frontier involves the Donner Party and their ill-fated journey west to California. In this lesson, you'll learn about the pioneers who joined the Donner Party, the disaster they faced and the desperate steps they took to survive.

Infamous Pioneers

The story of the Donner Party is one of the most disturbing tales of western migration during the time of Manifest Destiny, the common 19th-century belief that the United States was destined to expand across the entire continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. A group of pioneers set off for new lives in California, but would face snow and starvation that would lead them to resort to cannibalism to survive.

Who were they?

By 1846, more and more people were picking up and moving west. The call of Manifest Destiny led not just explorers, but whole families to make the great trek across the continent to states like Oregon, Utah and California. George Donner was the organizer of the Donner Party expedition. His advertisement in the Springfield, Illinois Gazette invited anyone who wanted to travel to California for free land to join him. Many families eager for the promise of land answered Donner's call to pursue the American dream.

On April 16, 1846, a group of 87 men, women and children left Springfield, Illinois, and began the long and rugged journey to California. The group stopped first in Independence, Missouri, where most wagon trains stocked up on supplies before starting west. The Donner party set out again on May 12, with the hope of arriving in California before the winter snows arrived on the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Road Less Traveled

The Donner Party made a fateful error when they decided to try the Hastings Cutoff to make their way across Utah and Nevada. Normally, travelers went north around the Great Salt Lake into Wyoming before turning south again back into Nevada. However, a new route promising a straighter and faster passage south of the Great Salt Lake was suggested by land promoter, Lansford Hastings in his book, The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California. As it turns out, Hastings had never actually traveled this route, and had no idea whether wagons could handle the trail.

The Hastings Cutoff vs. the Normal California Trail
The Hastings Cutoff vs. the Normal California Trail

On the map, this route looked much quicker. However, in actuality, the cutoff was not accessible for wagons and cattle, and was many miles longer. There is some speculation that warnings about the bad shortcut were suppressed by the owner of a trading post who stood to profit from more pioneers heading west via the Hastings Cutoff. However, this is difficult to verify. We only know that the Donner Party made the mistake of following this new route.

Winter Strikes

Winter Snow in Truckee
Winter Snow in Truckee

The Hastings Cutoff put the Donner Party weeks behind schedule, and they reached the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains by late October. But along the way, they had lost cattle to Native American raids and depleted the majority of their food supply. Then winter came early. A blizzard hit the Sierras, and the Donner Party was snowed in on Truckee Lake. It would turn out to be one of the worst winters in the history of the Sierra Nevadas where snowpack can pile from 15-30 feet high. For five months, the Donner Party was stranded with no food, and no chance for escape or rescue. The families took shelter in cabins on Truckee Lake. They butchered the cattle they had, but many of the cows had wandered off or died in the snow. Soon they turned to boiling leather shoestrings and hides for food. Before long, they had run out of even these meager supplies.

Truckee Lake
Truckee Lake

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