The Strange Connection Between The Donner Party And Abraham Lincoln

Had things gone as planned, we wouldn't have heard of the Donner Party, a pioneer group who attempted to migrate to California in 1846-1847. However, they didn't and we have. Out of the 87 members of the original wagon train, only 48 survived by resorting to survival cannibalism.

Even before they actually descended to cannibalism, the whole trip proceeded as a series of mistakes. Following Manifest Destiny, the team consistently made decisions based on false information, such as being told an 82 mile journey across a desert was only 40 miles. Or they simply moved slowly, crossing Echo Canyon in seven days, not the expected four. Then warriors attacked, killing 21 of the team. And so on and so on so that by the time they ran out of food in December and turned to the feast that ensured them infamy, the Donner party was already on track to be one of the worst disasters of pioneering history and one of its most potent symbols. To be fair, those that did eat humans, which wasn't all of them, ate the ones who had already died, but such considerations did not spare them from condemnation.

However, later discoveries have cast doubt that the Donners, the family saddled with the stigma, had actually eaten anybody.Their descendants are feeling some relief from the stigma, but would prefer a complete separation from cannibalistic associations.

A generally unappreciated aspect of this story, though, is that Abraham Lincoln almost set off with the train.

A meal of the people, by the people, for the people

In 1846, the then thirty-seven year old lawyer knew a James Reed from their days serving in the Blackhawk. In addition, Lincoln seems to have helped Reed conduct business matters. James Reed is the James Reed that gave the Donner Party its other name — the Donner-Reed Party — though a dispute made him leave the party before the cannibalizing. With him, he brought various military documents that showed both he and Lincoln serving together, per CNN

Simon Worral, a historian who wrote about the omnishambles that was the Donner Party, goes further than simply suggesting that the two knew each other, but that Lincoln was actively considering joining Reed in his migration. But between his election to his first political office and Mary Todd who with one toddler and being in mid-pregnancy, refused to go, Lincoln didn't go but Mary Todd did give the Donner Party its send off. While the course of U.S. history is almost certainly better off this way, the possibility of Lincoln being part of the Donner party does raise an interesting question. If he had gone along with the party, would he have engaged in cannibalism, refrained to point of death, or have been cannibalized himself?