We look at things from the outside, sometimes; we have to, to keep ourselves from getting too close to the horror of a situation, making terrible things cartoonish so that we can deal with them. Cannibalism – that is, the consumption of humans as nourishment – is, of course, taboo, but at the same time fascinating. And it then brings with it the age-old question: what would you do to survive? Would you eat ox leather, boiled to mush? Your cat or dog? Your best friend? Your own child?
Would you die or would you kill?
This question, what would you do to survive, is responsible for a lot of the interest in the Donner party’s fate. But there are things forgotten, that our minds skip over, when thinking of such a situation: the smell of so many bodies, unwashed. Greasy smoke in a too small space, all-pervasive, coating your moist skin, your nostrils, the inside of your mouth. The smell of blood, and that of flesh. At some point, surely, your mind must close itself to the horrors. To take nothing else in, to protect yourself.
But you’ll dream. For the remainder of your life, you’ll dream.
The truly terrible part of this story isn’t the cannibalism. It’s not even the death and starvation suffered by the members of the party – those things are tragic, truly. The terrible part of this story is that the driving factor that ruined so many lives, resulted in death and suffering and a lifetime full of nightmares for the survivors – wasn’t simply bad luck or ineptitude – it was greed, pure and simple. The downfall of the Donner party was truly on the shoulders of two men, neither a part of the Donner party, cupidity in their hearts and dollar signs in their eyes: Langford Hastings and Jim Bridger.
Hasting’s life isn’t particularly noteworthy in itself: he was a lawyer and the son of a doctor, and he fancied himself an adventurer. He wanted power, and so he hatched a plan to take California from Mexico by populating the state with white, American migrants, and to install himself as a high-ranking official in this newly colonized land.. In service of this, and to make his mark, he advised migrants to take a route that he called “The Hastings Cutoff,” which he had never traversed in its entirety, nor with a wagon and oxen, and no part of it had he explored in the extreme conditions that plagued the area.
Jim Bridger, who also fancied himself an adventurer, had rather more reason to make that claim than Hastings. He was smart and savvy, and had a lifetime experience canoeing and hunting, and was comfortable with weapons and on horseback in a way that even then few men were, from a very young age. And he was very taken with Hasting’s planned cutoff which would bring wagons and migrants, who would need rest and supplies, directly in the path of his trading post. As long as Hasting’s cutoff was used as a migrant route, business would be good. He assured the Donner party as they came through, when asked, that Hasting’s cutoff would be an easy route with plentiful plantlife and water, aside from a relatively short stretch of desert. Bridger was a survival expert,, and perhaps because of this he misunderstood the trouble the average person would have successfully making it through, but it seems far more likely that he acted out of greed. There have been allegations that the letters of warning of the trouble ahead, left by a concerned journalist who had traveled with the party, gone ahead and returned, had been withheld by Bridger himself, a view held by both the journalist in question and the head of the Reed family.
But we’re getting ahead of our story. The year was 1846, and a great many settlers were on the move.
The ill-fated “Donner Party” started out as the Donner and Reed families alongside their employees – 37 people, 9 well-provisioned wagons, and assorted beasts of burden. They were headed for California. The families left a week or three later than was strictly advisable, but not outside the realm of good sense.
The journey started with hope, as ideally all such journeys do. The journey would take a half year, give or take, depending on routes and weather conditions and the hazards of the road. By the same time the following week, the group had joined with a party of 50 wagons. Over the following months, several other families joined along the way. And in the first few months, the journey went well. There had been one death, that of an elderly woman who had been very ill before they left, to mar their peace of mind; but everyone was fed, reasonably well-rested, and more or less happy according to accounts from the time. There had been the sort of delays that one might expect: some flooding, some unexpected storms, some sickness along the way. All in all, though, things were going well until the riders sent out by Hastings to distribute his letter about “the Hasting’s cutoff” had encountered the large party in early July.
Most of that large wagon train chose to take a traditional route, perhaps intuiting that this all sounded far too good to be true. Some of the party – including the Donner and Reed families – broke off in favor of this new route. This smaller group, more than half of whom were children and young teenagers, wound up being led by George Donner, for whom this whole sorry adventure would take its name. A man who had traveled with the party and then gone on ahead tried to warn them away: a letter, describing the difficult terrain and advising them sincerely to not take the cutoff, was left for them in the care of Jim Bridger, owner of Bridger’s Fort. Jim Bridger did not give them to the party; rather, he assured them that the path was safe to travel, with food for the animals and water for the migrants. He warned them of the upcoming desert, but vastly underrepresented the distance and time required to cross it. Separately, a friend of the head of the Reed family directly warned him, but Reed disregarded this information. He had Hasting’s word, after all, with confirmation from Bridger. It would be fine.
It did not take long before they had discovered that Reed’s friend was quite correct: the terrain was rough and had very steep hills. Completely unsuitable for wagons in some places and nearly impassable in others. As they struggled along, the group found letters, pinned to trees, left for them by Hastings. He would guide them past the difficult part, he wrote. He did not. A group sent to find him reported even worse terrain ahead. Several of that search party soon found themselves lost, only finding their way back to the main group after reaching the brink of starvation. They had been ready to kill and eat their horses.
Later, another letter on another tree: there were two days of travel ahead, no food or water along the way. They struggled along – struggling with their wagons on the unfriendly terrain, low on water, low on food. Some of the wagons were abandoned on the brutal trek across the Great Salt Lake Desert, and many of the beasts of burden, oxen and horses, were too weak to continue or fled in a panic. Their “two day” journey took six days, and while they hadn’t lost any human members across the desert, they were all certainly weakened from the ordeal. It was far, far too late to turn back. As tempers flared, Reed murdered a man in anger for beating his donkey and was banished, though his family snuck him food and he survived to catch up with George Donner and his family, who were riding ahead of the wagon train. The main group was attacked repeatedly, animals shot or stolen, and a man was said to have been murdered along the way by an Indigneous man searching for food. It was later discovered that he had been murdered by a member of the party. Another man was killed by accidental rifle fire.
The snows came early that year, and the main group was already exhausted and weakened. They were left without options. They attempted to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and it was now impassible. And so, they did the only thing they could. They camped. The Donners, still riding ahead, had made it to Sutter’s Fort and were in a slightly better position than the main group who had settled near Truckee lake.
Food was scarce, and the vast majority of the group were not experienced in living off the land. They lost many of their animals in the quickly accumulating snow, and they ate what they could take from their deceased animals before they became buried in the snow; after that – boiled leather, captured rodents, and bones. People began to die of starvation, malnutrition. No one had fallen to eating their dead yet, but they must have known it was coming.
There were several attempts to walk through the snow, to get help or escape, and none were successful. At last, in mid-December, a group of the more able-bodied from the camp (both adults and children) made make-shift snowshoes out of the scarce materials at hand, and left on a mission to make it through the mountains. Within days they’d lost two members who needed to turn back, and one member who was too weak to continue. Several days thereafter there was talk of drawing up a lottery or having a duel, so that one person would be killed to feed the group. Three died very quickly thereafter, murder not required, including the man who had initially suggested that a sacrifice be chosen. Several members refused to eat human flesh, though most gave in eventually. After the three bodies had been consumed, there was talk of consuming the two men of the Miwok tribe who had come along to help the party before the snows began, and who promptly fled upon learning of this plan. In the time before they were found by the party, another man had died and been consumed. The starving escapees, once located, were promptly murdered and also consumed. Shortly thereafter, the surviving party members found help. There were by then 7 individuals remaining in the party.
Some of the settlers camped at Truckee lake were also cannibalizing their dead. Word of their misfortune had spread, though; through Reed, who was concerned for his family; through the snowshoers who had made it to safety, and slowly rescue efforts were made. It took two months in all to rescue all survivors, some of whom died on the journey to safety.
Of the 87 people who chose to take Hastings Cutoff, nearly 50% died along the way. Many of the survivors were children, orphaned by the cold and snow and hunger. Of the 39 who perished, 11 of those were children under the age of 10.
Lansford Hastings, upon confrontation after the fact, had little to say but that he was sorry and that he hadn’t meant for any of this to happen, which was surely of little consolation to the people who had suffered and watched their loved ones die, perhaps having been forced to eat them and feed them to their children. He received death threats, but survived to fight in two wars, practice law, and went on to die of yellow fever while attempting to colonize Brazil with Confederate sympathizers after the end of the Civil War.
The Donner party made some mistakes along the way; they left too late, they may have been too trusting. Certainly they didn’t have the experience required to survive such a trek, and as anyone who has played Oregon Trail can attest, it was risky to travel the emigrant trails for anyone. This was not the Donner party’s fault, though. They acted on good faith, if a bit naively; the greed of two men was in fact what did them in, what cost all the suffering, and that’s often lost in discussions of this incident.
Afterward, the survivors lived the same kind of lives that most emigrants did. A number of the very, very young women, having been fully or partially orphaned, married immediately out of necessity. Some became wealthy in the gold rush and lived lavishly, and some did not and lived impoverished, austere lives. Certainly, all were scarred by their ordeal, and no amount of gold or distraction through work would stop those dreams of their time at Truckee lake.
This story is in part well known because it’s grisly, ghastly – the remains of body, flesh eaten and as starved of fat and juices as the living were quickly becoming, gristle and exposed bone and raggedy flesh laying across fresh snow, blood crusted into ice by the cold and laying in snow stained like rust and old wine. The horror here, the true horror, isn’t one of survival but of greed. The trapped migrants needed to eat flesh to survive. But Hastings and Bridger? Their hunger was only for wealth, and each man died without having suffered for it.
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Blakemore, Erin. “How the Donner Party Was Doomed by a Disastrous Shortcut.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 19 February 2019. Retrieved 21 April 2022.
The Donner Party: The Tragic Story of the Wild West’s Most Notorious Journey. Charles River Editors, 2017.
Dowd, Katie. “The Strange, Sad and Influential Lives of the Donner Party Survivors.” SFGATE, 24 December 2021. Retrieved 7 April 2022.
Ficklin, Marilou West. “The Donner Party.” Donner Party – List. Retrieved 21 April 2022.
Jim Bridger: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Famous Mountain Man. Charles River Editors, 2017.
“Lansford Hastings.” California Trail Interpretive Center, California Trail Interpretive Center, 22 April 2020. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
Weiser, Kathy. “The Tragic Story of the Donner Party.” Legends of America, April 2020. Retrieved 5 April 2022.
ABOUT EM HILKER
Obsessed with all things dark and weird from a young age, E. Madelyne Hilker has used every opportunity to steep herself in mysterious lore, and is working on her first novel Hallow Earth. She works as a new media producer by day and crochets like a madwoman by night. Maddy lives in small town Ontario, Canada with her family and a large collection of houseplants.