The Untold Truth Of The Donner Party

Was it hubris? Was it naivete? Was it a plan so crazy, it just might work — except it didn't? As History tells us, there were so many factors at play for the Donner Party, a wagon train of westbound immigrants headed for California from the Midwest. And almost none of those factors were positive. In far too many ways, they were doomed from the start.

Immigrant trains used oxen to pull heavy wagons full of household goods and supplies, with an eye to sufficient clothing, tools, and food — especially food — to walk from Missouri to Western California. The National Oregon/California Trail Center records that a pace of 15-20 miles a day was considered good, when the terrain wasn't challenging and the weather cooperated. Most tried to start the trip no later than mid- to late-April, but the Donners and company didn't set out until May 12, 1846, according to History. Weather played a huge part: caught on the trail, winter could kill. And it did.

Besides the late start, the Donners took some bad advice from a man who claimed to know what he was talking about but didn't. They were given directions to an allegedly faster shortcut for the route to California. They nearly died crossing the Utah desert, and lost valuable time trying to force their way through wilderness that was less than wagon-friendly.

A memorial marks the site of the tragedy

They almost made it. They reached the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in early November, but then the weather turned with a vengeance. One of the harshest winters ever recorded arrived early, as Michael Wallis, author of the book The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, told NPR. The area was blanketed with foot upon foot of snow. Their supplies and herds had already been decimated during the previous weeks of struggle. They were snowbound; before long, they were starving. They really did eat everything else first — oxen, then their hides; leather; bones cooked and re-cooked. They were left with each other. It's unclear who might have been deliberately murdered in order to provide meat for the survivors; it's certain that two Native Americans were shot and butchered.

In a February 2017 interview in Smithsonian, Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, said, "We have these sets of rules we try to follow. But when the going gets tough, that stuff eventually goes out the window... . There's a biological directive to survive and at that point, when you reach that extreme, you're not worried about the fact that there's a taboo. You simply want to live."

Rescue parties finally reached them in March 1847. Of the 81 trapped by the snow, 45 walked out alive. Roughly half had engaged in cannibalism. Only two of the original dozen families made it to California without suffering a death.