Monday, December 20, 2010

The Donner Party

Donner Lake, at dinner time.
Since it is snowing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, hard, now is a good time to discuss the famous Donner Party.

In 1846, a half-dozen families numbering 32 people in all set off from Springfield, IL to seek their fortune in California. They were guided by a book written by some idiot named Hastings. That book recommended an "easy" route that neglected to mention crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert.
If this is the easy way, let's go the hard way.
By the time they had left Fort Bridger in Wyoming the party had more than doubled in size (Apparently, Hastings had written a best seller) and now numbered 87 men, women, and children.

The lack of food and water, dying oxen, and a couple disease deaths had made the travelers a tad edgy. The first murder occurred at Iron Point, half way between Elko and Pyramid Lake...
aka, the middle of nowhere
when James Reed objected to a teamster whipping an ox by stabbing the teamster in the gut. Reed was exiled by the party but would return later in  the story.

Two days later, Lewis Keseberg fired one of his teamsters. Everyone else refused to help the man and the entire party left him behind to die by the side of the trail (murder #2). Later, two men (Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer) robbed and killed a third.

While crossing the Sierra Nevada the Donner family had to stop to repair a broken wagon wheel. The rest of the party pressed on. By early November, the rest of the party, numbering 59, were snowed in at Donner Lake. The 22 members with the Donner family were snowbound six miles away.
Donner Pass
The snow was 30 feet deep. Cabins were built for warmth but there was no game for hunting. On November 29, the last of the oxen was butchered for food. After that they began eating twigs and bark. On December 15, Balis Williams was the first to starve to death. The first to be eaten was Patrick Dolan on Christmas Day.

Fifteen people decided to leave the encampment and try to reach Sutter's Fort, 100 miles away. A month later, seven people staggered into the fort. The eight who died had been eaten by the survivors. At least two were murdered for food.

With news that people were trapped in the mountains, rescue parties were formed. One of the leaders was James Reed, the man exiled in the desert had reached Sutter's Fort about the time the Donner Party had gotten snowed in.

Georgia Ann Donner
Back at the main camp the others had also begun to resort to cannibalism. Mothers feed their dead husbands to their children. Fathers ate daughters. It wasn't until April that the last of the Donner Party was rescued.

In the end, 36 of the 80 people trapped died. Women did quite well, only eight died while 24 survived. There has been recent attempts to rewrite history and claim that no cannibalism took place. But this is a story where contemporary accounts including diaries written by party members should carry more weight than what bone diggers failed to find.

Sources: Donner Party list of members
Survivors and casualties of the Donner Party
1847 newspaper account
The story of Lewis Keseberg
Legends of America
The Donner Expedition (pub. 1911, Project Gutenberg)
Daniel Rosen's website on the Donner Party

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