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​📰​ ARTICLE: TRUE HORROR: The Cannibalistic Tragedy of The Donner Party



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In this day and age, it takes 30-40 hours to drive from Springfield, IL to Sutter's Fort, CA but back in 1846, it would take 4-6 months in a wagon train. In the 19th century, people traveling west in North America used a long line of wagons, cows and horses, known as a wagon train. Wagon trains were the only overland form of transportation into the western US until the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Some reasons for traveling in a wagon train include:

  1. To get there safely
  2. To protect themselves from attacks by Native Americans 

Covered wagons could travel 8 to 20 miles per day, depending on the weather, roadway conditions, and the health of the travelers. It could take up to six months or longer to reach their destination.

Wagon trains

Wagon Train


Wagon Train


The Westward Ho!

The Donner Party, sometimes called the Donner–Reed Party, were a group of American pioneers who migrated to California in a wagon train from the Midwest to find free land, better climate and prosperity. They also wanted to escape economic difficulties and fulfill their dreams of Manifest Destiny. Delayed by a multitude of mishaps, they spent the winter of 1846–1847 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Some of the migrants resorted to cannibalism to survive, primarily eating the bodies of those who had succumbed to starvation, sickness or extreme cold, but in one case two Native American guides were deliberately killed for this purpose.

The Donner Party originated from Springfield, Illinois, and departed Independence, Missouri, on the Oregon Trail in the spring of 1846, behind many other pioneer families who were attempting to make the same overland trip to start a new life. The journey west usually took between four and six months, but the Donner Party was slowed after electing to follow a new route called the Hastings Cutoff, which bypassed established trails and instead crossed the Rocky Mountains' Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake Desert in present-day Utah. The desolate and rugged terrain, and the difficulties they later encountered while traveling along the Humboldt River in present-day Nevada, resulted in the loss of many cattle and wagons, and divisions soon formed within the group.

The Donner Party is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of westward migration. 42 people died, including both Donner brothers, their wives, and many of their children. The Reed and Breen families were the only two families to make it out of the Wasatch Valley with all members alive. The biggest mistake that the Donner Party made was leaving for their westward journey too late in the spring. They left almost a month after all other wagon trains, and this put them in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the heart of winter. Another mistake was taking Hastings Cutoff in an attempt to find a shortcut. Going back east was dangerous because the Paiutes had killed some of their cattle at spots across Nevada. Westward was toward the safety of Sutter's Fort. By the time they realized that the deepening snow had made any movement to the west impossible, the trail behind them vanished as well. They were trapped.

The Donner Party was stranded for five months in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with no food and no chance of escape. The party took shelter in cabins on Truckee Lake and butchered the cattle they had. To survive, they were forced to eat mice, their rugs, boiled oxhide (cow skin on the cabin roofs/rugs), boiled cow/horse bones repeatedly for soup and even their shoes. However, many of the cows had wandered off or died in the snow. By early November, the migrants had reached the Sierra Nevada but became trapped by an early, heavy snowfall near Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) high in the mountains. Their food supplies ran dangerously low, and in mid-December some of the group set out on foot to obtain help. Rescuers from California attempted to reach the migrants, but the first relief party did not arrive until the middle of February 1847, almost four months after the wagon train became trapped. Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived the ordeal. Historians have described the episode as one of the most fascinating tragedies in California history and in the entire record of American westward migration.

TRUE HORROR: The Cannibalistic Tragedy of The Donner Party (in story format)


The Donner Party: America’s Most Gruesome Tale of Survival


All the Mistakes That Doomed the Donner Party


The Donner Party - Full Movie


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