Friends of ours have a beautiful cabin near Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevadas. During one of our Fall hikes years ago, on a day that the orange and yellow leaves formed a colorful contrast with the cooling but bright blue sky, we stumbled upon the famous spot where a group 0f 87 migrants, the so-called Donner Party, stranded in the snow during a heavy winter which hindered the group from crossing the mountains in the winter of 1846. Half of the group would never make it to the Sacramento Valley.
When food became scarce and the snowfall unrelenting, the first people died, to then serve as food for some of the survivors. Riley ‘Sept’ Moutrey, one of the rescuers, told a newspaper a year later what he had found on February 18th, 1846, when he and others reached the first huts of the Donner Party: while the snow still lay feet high and covered everything, there was no one to greet them but when they came closer and yelled out, people fell out of their huts. It was a sight to behold: starving, sick and sobbing people, but the real surprise was inside one of the huts where there were dead bodies with bits torn off, half eaten and rotting.
It has become an American classic, this story, which took place before the first gold was ever found in the American River. Even without the gold, the West spoke to the imagination of so many that entire families packed their wagons and headed west.
The moment that the Donners, the Reeds and a number of other families from Springfield, Illinois, decided to leave, it was a beautiful Spring day in 1846, while California was still unknown territory for the most part. Fur traders had crossed the mountains and had come back with interesting stories. During earlier expeditions, only a few trails had been mapped. But until 1846, there simply wasn’t a detailed map of the terrain that was mostly inhabited by Mexicans and Indians. There was a handful Americans, who were concentrated in and around Sacramento, the Napa Valley, Monterey and the Bay of San Francisco which was still known as Yuerba Buena. Most of them had arrived on ships and even though ships weren’t always safe either, it was still a heck of a lot safer than crossing the Sierras when there were no roads or good trails to speak of. And remember these were heavy wagons who had anything but a GPS.
At the end of August, in 1846, the Donner party reached the valley of Salt Lake in Utah where they were confronted with a route that hadn’t been taken before. This meant they had to literally cut themselves through trees and bushes to create a path. This included hacking pieces out of mountains when the canyons were too narrow for the wagons. Faced with swamps or rivers, they had to make bridges and no less than three times they could not go on, and had to turn around. Upon arriving at Salt Lake and Salt Lake Desert the road was wide open, but soon they ran out of water and they almost died of dehydration. Arriving in Humboldt (Nevada) morale was low, not in the least because some of the oxen had died and that meant leaving wagons behind; goods were buried with the hope the migrants could come back to retrieve their property.
When the group arrived in the Sierras, Fall had set in and the group worried about possible early snowfall which would make the mountains impassable. At night, they were bothered by Indians who would steal horses or oxen. At the end of October, they reached a cabin which was known as the Schallenberger cabin. On November 1st, they attempted to climb up but this led to a return to the cabin. Two days later, they tried it again, without wagons, but wading with a couple of oxen through snow and ice. Making a campfire at night, they argued whether they should push on or return to the cabin and the next morning they were snowed under, and all the oxen had disappeared. They decided to return to the cabin by the lake and build more huts for an unknown period of hibernation. The Donners set up some tents near Alder Creek. Food supplies were dwindling rapidly. The trout in the lake wouldn’t bite and game had sought out lower altitudes already before the first snowfall.
In order to eat, they killed the last remaining oxen.
In December, a small group tried to cross the mountain once again. They had made snow shoes of the bones and leather of the oxen. They did reach the top, more dead than alive, frozen, blind from all the snow and with bleeding feet. In the midst of a snowstorm they nonetheless managed to build a fire: with their ankles in water, they kept the fire going. Billy Graves was dying and told the others they had to eat him after he died. Patrick Dolan went insane, ran away but came back later to succumb to a coma and die. When the snowfall stopped, they made another fire and roasted Dolan’s arms and legs. Samuel Murphy died as well, and the next morning they deboned the three corpses and took the meat with them for their journey. But that supply wouldn’t last either…
On December 30th, the snowfall decreased and starving once again, they ate the leather of their snow shoes. When Jay Fosdick died, his wife covered him with a blanket and when she walked away for a moment and returned, she saw how they others had opened her husband’s rib cage to roast Fosdick’s heart. Luckily, this small group of starving people came across a group of Indians who brought them to safety on the other side. From there, the first rescue attempts were started to reach Donner Lake.
In the meantime, back at Donner Lake, all that was left of the oxen was hides, which they cooked long enough so they became soft enough to chew on and swallow. The bones were used for a watery soup and when that supply dwindled, a number of the migrants opened the snowy graves of their fellow pioneers in search of corpses to eat.
After the first rescue crew made it the the huts and the first news of this drama reached Sacramento, members of the Donner Party were portrayed in the papers as a bunch of bloodthirsty savages and cannibals but under similar circumstances, like for instance, when an airplane crash in 1972 stranded a rugby team from Uruguay in the Andes, cannibalism has been used by people to survive. The man after whom the Donner Party was named, George Donner, would die in his tent with his wife Tamsen by his side. She would kick the bucket, too, but their children survived and made it across the mountains to start a new life as orphans in California.
The story about the Donner Party continues to fascinate. In 1990, scientist Donald Grayson used the Donner Party as evidence that women last longer during periods of starvation as they are more resistant to cold and hunger. Also, in an article of The Los Angeles Times (May 2nd, 2010), it was reported that archeologist Gwen Robbins was excavating the terrain near Alder Creek but could not find human bones or remains, which might raise the impression that cannibalism never took place but was some lurid fable or pioneering urban myth. It was noted in the same article that the exact location of Alder Creek was hard to retrace and that it was not the only place at Donner where people had hibernated. Moreover, the cannibalism stories were reported of those who tried to cross the mountains, so maybe there was no actual cannibalism near Donner Lake itself. This maybe a good thing for every realtor who sells near or around Donner Lake: cannibalism messes with karma and feng shui, don’t you think?
However, the story became so big over time that it served as a warning of the dangers of the westward migration. Yet, once gold had been found, greed got the best of people and people crossed the mountains in droves, cannibalism or no cannibalism.
Having lived in California now for the last sixteen years, I have always been amazed that this sordid piece of pioneering history has become a glorified origination story: at cocktail parties, while munching on paté and salami, people have told me their ancestor(s) came over with the Donner Party, as if the Donner Party is similar to the Mayflower on which every other American’s ancestor seemed to have sailed (which means that ship must have had so many people on it that it’s hard to believe it even made it to the New World). Having Donner Party and/or Mayflower ancestors means you have something like American blue blood– even though it was the blue bloods that most Americans tried to get away from as they sailed out West and into oblivion. But the notion of nobility or blue blood takes on a different, and almost opposite dimension here, for the migrants of the Mayflower and the Donner Party proved first and foremost that American pedigree is determined by hardship, endurance and thinking outside of the box if you want to survive. Survive they did, even if it meant nibbling on grandma’s hipbone… Bon appétit!