The Donner Party

Did you learn this story in your American History class?

My job as a substitute in Minneapolis puts me in all sorts of places to see and learn about the varied conditions within which the youth of Minneapolis grow up and learn. Once in a blue moon, though, I’ll also receive some education on top of all this by learning right on along with the students. Earlier this week, I was teaching middle school American history and the topic was the Donner Party, an ill-fated venture out west for a group of frontier families in 1846-7.

That it spanned two years is already a clue that things went awry. These journeys to California from the states east of the Mississippi started in spring and ended in early fall. That was the plan for James Reed and company. Reed was a wealthy man from Illinois who decided to move his wife and four children out to California in 1846. He gathered a group of 87 people in all–other family and individuals including the Donners from which the “Donner Party” got its name.

Reed was eager to try a new route over the mountains which included the untested “Hastings Cuttoff”.

Hastings Cuttoff in red

All the way from Indiana, their wagon train took the Oregon Trail to Fort Laramie, Wyoming without too much issue. The members of the party even commented on the relative ease of the journey. But they had a long way to go, and they hadn’t yet tried Hastings Cutoff.

While in Fort Laramie, Reed actually bumped into an old friend, James Clyman. Clyman was coming from California and had taken the cutoff himself. He told them not to as it was very difficult by horseback–let alone wagons.

They had all of Wyoming to consider Clyman’s warning. On the other side of of the state, the Donner Party got to Fort Bridger, the fork in the road where they were to decide which path to take. Reed, with the assurances of Hastings himself via a letter he left for other settlers, decided to take the cutoff. They found it much more difficult than described. They had to detour, and suddenly their relatively easy journey now included blazing their own trail over mountains by cutting down forests to make room for the wagons. More than effort, this was burning up precious time and food. By the time they made it to the Great Salt Lake, it was already August 20th, and by the time they crossed the cutoff, realigning with the original trail, they had lost about a month.

Crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert also contributed to this delay. The salt-based dirt turned into gunk as deep as two feet in the day sun. They had to trudge their wagons and oxen through miles and miles of this. These cattle, on the verge of dehydration, went mad and ran off. The Donner Party itself was also being split up with some going on ahead of the slower riders. As provisions waned from the less prosperous families, emotions ran high. Past the desert, two wagons tangled and party member John Snyder started to beat the cattle of the other wagon. Reed tried to stop him and Snyder turned the whip on Reed. So Reed stabbed Snyder in the chest and killed him. Despite some of the party’s wishes to hang Reed–himself already unpopular for leading them thus far–the group decided on banishment. Reed had to ride off and leave his family with the group.

James Reed and wife Margret

As grass became in short supply, members decided to walk it. One 70-year-old man couldn’t keep up. No one took him in their wagon. He was last seen sitting along the road behind them in the distance. Slow and disheartened, the party made their way along the crests and valleys of northern Nevada. Paiute Indians killed their oxen with poison arrows. They could hear the Indians laughing at them from the cliffs. By the time the party got to the final peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains in late October, the snow began to fall and fall and fall. The winter of 1846-7 recorded one of the deepest snowfalls ever. They lost the road. Their animals couldn’t climb the hills.

They were trapped.

All winter they remained at a camp they built on top of an existing  one on Truckee Lake. They hadn’t any food, however. They started eating their cattle and horses. They started mixing their dwindling supply of meat with hides, bark, or twigs. Seeing the writing on the wall, a group of 17 men (including two Indian guides), women, and even a couple children set out to find help. They found none, wandering hopelessly for days. Starving to death, they decided to draw straws to see who they’d kill to eat. None could kill the unlucky man, though. Finally one died and they ate him. Their two Indian guides refused the meal and eventually left the group when one of the members threatened to shoot them for food. Some members went mad with hypothermia, many would die. They took care to label the meat so as to not eat each other’s kin. The 17 dwindled to 7 before making it back to camp 33 days later.

All this time those back at camp also faces grim ordeals. The remaining men, women, and children started to die as well, and cannibalism commenced.

Reed, meanwhile, managed to make it to the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains to Sutter’s Fort. He went in search for his family in late October. This first attempt was unsuccessful due to the conditions of that year’s record snowfall.

Snow so deep, these are the stumps left behind by the Donner Party.

Eventually, in February, Reed managed to gather a search party from California. The media picked up on the stranded party. The search party went in and, in three different search and rescues, came out with members of the withered Donner Party. In all, 48 of the 87 members survived. Many of the survivors went on to live  lives of mixed success. Miraculously, all the Reeds lived and James Reed would prosper once more in San Jose.

I was only able to watch the first half of this documentary with my students as classes were 50 minutes and the documentary an hour and a half. So after the final class, I stayed in the room to finish the video myself. It’s a story of heroes, madmen, conflict, death, and ultimately, sadness scraping the pit of your gut. But many survived, and I couldn’t help of but write down the words of Reeds’ daughter, Virginia. The 13-year-old wrote her cousin after the nightmare ordeal ending with the words of advice, “Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.”

Moved by the experience, I take these words to heart.


I discovered this very documentary on YouTube. There’s much more to it than my synopsis here. Enjoy and be grateful for our warm homes this winter:



What say you?