When a group of different families came together and decided to migrate to California in 1846, they didn’t know the journey would take a year, and some would tragically die along the way. They suffered the wrath of harsh weather conditions, diseases, starvation, and endless walks. Here, we look at some heart-wrenching Donner Party facts.

1. Only 48 Migrants Survived

Of the 87 migrants that embarked on the journey to California, only 48 survived, with only the Breen and Reed families remaining intact. The majority of those who succumbed were older people and children who couldn’t persevere through the long treks, harsh weather, and limited resources. As for the animals, only three mules survived.

2. Abraham Lincoln Could Have Been Part of the Donner Party

When the Donner Party was preparing to leave for California, Abraham Lincoln, yes, the man who later became the 16th President of the United States, considered joining them. James F. Reed, one of the migrants’ leaders, was friends with Lincoln; they helped each other through business deals. It took the intervention of Lincoln’s wife for the then-young lawyer to change his mind.

3. Donner Party Members Resorted to Cannibalism

Despite some of the Donner Party members strongly refuting the claims, it was ascertained that they resorted to cannibalism at some point during the journey. While they did not kill any of their own, the migrants fed on the corpses of those who died for survival.

4. Two Native Americans Were Killed

Even though the migrants didn’t kill any of their members for food, it is said that they killed two Native Americans for the same. They badly needed food, so hunting the “foreigners” was seen as an easier option rather than killing one of their own.

5. The Native Americans’ Perspective on What Happened to the Donner Party Hasn’t Been Documented

Other than what the survivors told about their experiences, the perspective of Native Americans who might have also witnessed what happened is not accounted for. According to the Native Americans’ oral tradition, the Donner Party built their tents in unsuitable areas, refused help, and those who attempted to get near the migrants were shot at.

6. Donner Party Originated from Springfield, Illinois

In the 1840s, there was a rush to settle in Oregon Territory or California in the United States. The religious ones thought the region was perfect for practicing Catholicism, while others appreciated it for its burgeoning economic opportunities. That, coupled with many other factors, convinced migrants to take the daunting overland journey, hoping for a better future.

7. The Migrants Thought They Were Taking a Shortcut

Usually, it would take migrants between four and six months to make the journey from the Midwest to California. So, when Lansford Hastings, a former American explorer and Confederate soldier, came up with an alternative route popularly known as the Hastings Cutoff, some migrants openly accepted it. Unfortunately, Hastings had not taken the route himself, resulting in the Donner Party members getting stuck and lost.

8. Lansford Hastings Continued to Write Other Guide Books

It is Lansford Hasting’s book “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California” that deceived the Donner Party into taking an untested route, leading to massive deaths. However, despite his failure, Hastings continued to write more “guidebooks,” including the famous “The Emigrants Guide to Brazil,” published in 1867. He led a group of “refugees” to South America; he died making the second trip.

9. The Donner Party Left Late

Those who intended to make the journey to California had a very tight schedule to follow– they were to avoid being caught in the winter at all costs! As such, most wagons usually left sometime in mid to late April. However, for some reason, the Donner Party didn’t leave until around May 12, 1846.

10. Taking an Untested Route Didn’t Help Much

Besides leaving late, the Donner Party took an untested route, which didn’t help their situation much. If anything, it contributed to why they were caught up in the mountains in winter. They lost the race against the weather by a few days.

11. They Covered 450 Miles In Slightly Over a Month

Even though they left late, the Donner Party moved at a commendable speed in the first phase of the journey. They started on May 12, 1846, and covered about 450 miles (720 km) in slightly over a month. By June 16 of the same year, they were only 200 miles (320 km) shy of Fort Laramie. Considering that they had to deal with a rising river and bad weather, the Donner Party was closer to their goal.

12. The Journey Was Marred with Distrust

At one point during their journey, the Donner Party collectively realized that they were lost and the “shortcut” wasn’t really one, at least not then. Distrust and blame games crept in, resulting in the disintegration and banishing of the groups’ leaders.

13. A 70-Year-Old Man Was Left to Die When Things Got Thick

As seasons passed, grass became scarce, and the animals steadily weakened. To relieve the load off the animals, the group decided everyone, an elderly man named Hardkoop, must walk. Given he was almost 70 years old, Hardkoop couldn’t trek for long. With his feet swollen and extremely tired, the elderly man sat next to a stream and was never seen again; every other member refused to help find him.

14. Some of the Deaths Were “Careless”

While most of the migrants died of starvation and the effects of bad weather, some of the deaths were “careless” and could have been avoided. For instance, William Pike, one of the Donner Party members, was killed after a gun William Forster, another member, was loading negligently went off. In a separate incident, 12-year-old William Hook ate too much relief food and died from its complications.

15. The Mexican-American War Slowed Down Donner Party Rescue

Even though James Reed made it to Rancho Johnson earlier than his family and friends, he had difficulty seeking help. His efforts were frustrated by the Mexican-American, which was going on at the time – the majority of able-bodied men who could help with the rescue were committed to this battle. Moreover, most roads were blocked, supplies were limited, and communication was inefficient.

16. One of the Survivors Attributed Her Survival to God, Stark & The Virgin Mary

During the third and final Donner Party rescue mission, rescuers found 11 survivors, nine of whom were children. Even though there were more survivors than rescuers, John Stark, one of the Donner Party members, vowed not to leave anyone behind. He carried two children for a few meters, put them down, and then returned for more until they were all saved. Peggy Breen, one of the survivors of this ordeal, later attributed her survival to God, Stark and the Virgin Mary.

17. Lewis Keseberg Was Donner Party’s “Villain”

According to media reports, Lewis Keseberg was the Donner Party’s “villain.” He was the one who removed the old man from the wagon and left him for dead. At the time of his rescue (he was among the last to be rescued), he was found eating human flesh from a pot. Keseberg later opened a restaurant in Sacramento and admitted that he had developed a taste for cannibalism.

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Last Update: January 12, 2024