As a child, did you ever play Oregon Trail?
From the safety of your computer chair, you were able to get a taste of the trials early pioneers had to endure: illness, food shortages, sluggish pacing, and unreliable tools like that pesky wagon axle that always broke.
Despite the dangers of making the 2,000-mile trek to Oregon or California, there was an upsurge of overland migrations in the 1840’s. Great wagon trains rumbled down the barely mapped western territory in search of adventure and prosperity becoming Western legend. The terrible fate of one wagon party headed down the Oregon Trail–the Donners and Reeds – sealed its place in the history of great American tragedies.
In 1846, the ill-fated Donner Reed party, bound for settlement in California, became trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by heavy snow. They faced a harsh winter, leaving 36 of its 81 members dead and the survivors pushed to the brink of desperation. Immediately after the discovery of their ordeal, rumors of what had truly occurred in the ramshackle tents and cabins of the Donner Party camps included sensationalized accounts of cannibalism that made the story infamous across the nation. Real or embellished, their ordeal became a testament to the Oregon Trail’s harsh, unforgiving nature.
The Urge to Go West
Western settlement in California and Oregon by Americans of European descent began in the 1820’s, with a mixture of fur traders, missionaries, and merchants. At the time, California was Mexican territory, and Oregon was in British hands. Mexico secured independence from Spainin 1821, and subsequently eased trade restrictions with its California region, allowing American merchants to find a new market in California. Fur and beaver trappers moved farther west from the Great Lakes region to harvest game in Oregon. Protestant missionaries soon followed, eager to convert the Nez Perce and Flathead Indians that populated the region. Fur traders and missionaries established a colony in Oregon called Willamette. Willamette began in earnest in 1836: that year, Reverend Henry H. Spalding and Dr. Marcus Whitman came west to establish missions, and their wives Eliza and Narcissa became the first white women to travel the overland trails to the Oregon region. Their detailed letters home from the trail encouraged more migrations to the region, and the Whitmans were soon accepting a steady stream of white migrants into their home.
That same year, President Andrew Jackson, noting the upsurge of religious migration to Oregon, sent Navy Lieutenant Willam Slacum to report on the area’s Indian populations. He returned with positive reports, generating further public interest in Oregon. The government, unwilling to create a land dispute with Britain, believed that if enough Americans migrated to Oregon, they could put pressure on the European power to cede its unused Oregon territory to the U.S. In an effort to encourage more migrants to the region, John C. Fremont went on an expedition to chart the best routes to Oregon in 1842. By 1843, regular Spring migrations began from Missouri.
Typical migrant families did not travel alone, but clumped into wagon trains of over a hundred to protect against Indians. Guides such as fur trappers, with considerable knowledge of Oregon, were often hired. In preparation for the journey, migrants packed up their most important belongings, food stores, and tools into small wagons. They primarily used oxen as the most efficient animals to pull wagons, being both slow but tough and steady. The migrants’ then set out to the unknown, pulled only by the promises and reports of settlers they had most likely never met. They followed paths that had been well travelled by early settlers, checking their route through notable natural markers – chimney rock, devil’s gate – and stopping at forts along the way for provisions and rest. These forts were private establishments rather than military ones, despite their names, and offered much-needed shelter to weary pioneers.
Families and the Overland Trails
There is a modern-day romantic notion that pioneers of the pre-Civil War era were rugged individuals who were destitute, landless laborers, who set out West in hopes of becoming independent farmers or striking it rich after discovering gold in California.
In the pre-Civil War era, family units and the household economy remained the largest organizing feature out West. Historian Anne F. Hyde was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in History for her monograph Empires, Nations, & Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860, which argued that even fur traders and miners used kinship networks, interracial marriages, and unconventional households to yield power, conquer, and broker business alliances out West. Affluent families were often the most successful in Western migration as a successful journey required having enough money to buy a wagon and stockpiling it with a supply of food, tools, equipment, and hiring a guide. That does not include, of course, saving up enough money to purchase extra supplies at designated forts along the way, and creating a homestead once you arrived at your destination. Brian Roberts, a History Professor at the University of Northern Iowa, finds that, far from the popular notion of California prospectors being destitute nomads with nothing to lose, they were usually respectable middle-class men with a yearning for adventure and the means to afford their passage and settlement in the new territory.
The Donner and Reed families were both quite well off: George Donner was a successful landowner with a sizeable farm, and James Reed had become prosperous through business ventures. Reed managed a general store, furniture factory, and sawmill. Reed had even splurged on hiring two servants for the trip, as well as a special, custom-built multi-deck wagon with a working stovetop, which his adopted daughter Virginia dubbed “the pioneer palace car.”
Lansford W. Hastings travelled to Californiain 1842 and hoped that a flood of American migration to the region might wrest the territory out of Mexico’s grasp. He created a guide to Oregon and California in order to entice East coasters to move west, recommending a particular trail that he himself had never journeyed. In his guidebook, he wrote: “The most direct path would be leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east of Fort Hall; thence bearing west-south west, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco.”
He was not the sole enterprising individual profiting from the new urge many inexperienced Easterners had to go West – the 1840s saw a flood of guidebooks giving inaccurate and untested information on trail routes and conditions in Oregon and California. It just so happened that Hastings’ advice caused the most publicized error of judgment.
The Journey and Missteps
In April 1846, the families set out from Independence, Missouri. They began in a conglomerate train of over a hundred wagons, all headed to different destinations in Oregon and California. It was here that the Donner-Reed party made their first grave error in trusting Hastings. Reed took the advice of Hastings, a seemingly well-written lawyer, over his former war comrade, James Clyman, who he met at Fort Laramie and who warned him of the path’s difficulty. As the PBS documentary “The Donner Party” mentions at 1:22 of part two, the Hastings cutoff looked temptingly short, as it went straight across to California rather than curving upwards (the established route followed rivers and grassy plains that provided nourishment for both cattle and travelers). The shortcut went through the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, which, in addition to providing no water for several days, turned into a dense liquid mixture that slowed the party down considerably.
By the time the party reached the Sierra Nevada, they were 2000 miles into their trip and only 150 miles from their destination. It began to snow as they started to climb the mountain, making it impossible to scale the rocky cliffs. All of the emigrants with the exception of the Donners (who had fallen behind attempting to fix a broken wagon) set up camp near present-day Donner Lake. The larger families (the Breens, Murphys, Gravese and Reeds) constructed log cabins for shelter, taking in individuals. The Donners were less fortunate. They stopped at Alder Creek in crudely made tents.
Archaeological studies have attempted to figure out how widespread cannibalism was and found little evidence to suggest it was the camp norm. Analyzing the bone fragments found at the Donner party found no evidence of human bones, but identified horses, cows, and deer remains. This does not necessarily disprove the allegations of cannibalism, especially as several party members admitted to eating human remains. The researchers also found shards of china from plates and tea cups, pieces of writing slates used by schoolchildren during lessons showing that members of the party attempted to go about their lives as best they could while snowed in.
Patrick Breen was the only migrant at the camp who kept a journal. His entries were frequent but curt, providing a small glimpse into the daily life in the camp and the desperation that soon fell upon them. He often mentions praying to God and of the slow descent into starvation.
Thursd. 25th froze hard last night fine & sunshiny to day wind W. Mrs Murphy says the wolves are about to dig up the dead bodies at her shanty, the nights are too cold to watch them, we hear them howl Frid 26th froze hard last night to day clear & warm Wind S: E: blowing briskly Marthas jaw swelled with the toothache: hungry times in camp, plenty hides but the folks will not eat them we eat them with a tolerable good apetite. Thanks be to Almighty God. Amen Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would Commence on Milt. & eat him. I dont that she has done so yet, it is distressing.
Excerpts from Breen’s journal are digitized by the Online Archive of California.
In mid-December 1846, as food ran out and starvation began to set in, a small group attempted to scale the Sierra Nevadas to get help from the other side. Ten men, five women, and two boys volunteered for the dangerous mission. Mary Graves, one of the party’s members, reminisces:
We had a very slavish day’s travel, climbing the divide. Nothing of interest occurred until reaching the summit. The scenery was too grand for me to pass without notice, the changes being so great; walking now on loose snow, and now stepping on a hard, slick rock a number of hundred yards in length. Being a little in the rear of the party, I had a chance to observe the company ahead, trudging along with packs on their backs. It reminded me of some Norwegian fur company among the icebergs. My shoes were ox-bows, split in two, and rawhide strings woven in, something in form of the old-fashioned, split-bottomed chairs. Our clothes were of the bloomer costume, and generally were made of flannel. Well do I remember a remark one of the company made here, that we were about as near heaven as we could get.
This “snowshoe” party, calling themselves “the Forlorn Hope” resorted to cannibalism. After a month-long journey through the mountain, the seven survivors – two men and five women – staggered into a small ranch, alerting the world of the Donner party’s alarming state.
With the promise of pay, a small band of rescuers was mustered from Sutter’s Fort. The party made it across the mountain pass and was shocked by the haggard men, women and children, promising that more rescue attempts would follow. As Ethan Rarick, Director of the Center of Politics at the University of California Berkeley, explains, “In the modern world, rescue is often a relatively easy affair…Sailors are saved from turbulent seas; climbers are plucked from cliffs…The nineteenth-century presented more intractable dilemmas. The helpless travelers face a mountain range all but impassable on foot or in the saddle, yet would-be rescuers shared precisely the same means of transport.” As rescue parties slowly led small groups of the able-bodied to safety, those left in camp continued to die of infection, starvation, and cold. It took until late April for the last of the living members of the party to saved.
The first stories of the Donner party were printed on February 13 in two California newspapers – the Californian and the California Star – reporting purported cannibalism only in passing, the former noting that the Forlorn Hope’s “survivers were kept alive by eating the dead bodies.” It was only later that media accounts began to take liberties in creating gruesome accounts of eating human flesh.
Lewis Keseberg, a German immigrant, seems to have borne the brunt of public scorn, branded a cannibal who enjoyed eating humans. In an interview with Charles MacGlashan, who wrote an 1890 account of the Donner Party, he stated
“It makes my blood curdle to think of it! It has been told that I boasted of my shame – said that I enjoyed this horrid food, and that I remarked that human flesh was more palatable than California beef. This is a falsehood. It is a horrible, revolting falsehood. This food was never otherwise than loathsome, insipid, and disgusting.” He then implores readers to sympathize with him: “A man, before he judges me, should be placed in a similar situation; but if he were, it is a thousand to one he would perish.”
Keseburg took one of his rescuers to court for slander. The Judge ruled in his favor, but Keseburg only received one dollar in damages.
The Donner Party and the Mexican-American War
The Donner Party may have been a mere blip in the history of California settlement, but their desire to settle California was concurrent with contemporary American political ideology. Unbeknownst to the starving Donners holed up in their cabins, separated from the rest of the world by a thick blanket of snow, the United States government went to war with Mexico to expand its territorial possessions on behalf of American settlers in what is now Texas and New Mexico. These American citizens, at first welcomed by the Mexican government eager to develop their Northern borderlands, had grown weary of living under a foreign power. By 1836, they declared Texas an independent republic, and in 1844, President James K. Polk agitated for war. He sent troops to the Rio Grande River, an area viewed by Mexico as their possession, in a successful attempt to instigate conflict and get Congressional permission for war. The conflict, which would end in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, assured that the region the Donner party survivors eventually staggered into was officially American territory. Most American citizens and newspapers were in favor of the war and manifest destiny: the belief that America deserved to own the entire continent from coast to coast in order to house its growing population. The term was first used by John O’Sullivan in an 1845 editorial for the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, stating that American migrations accomplished the “fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
Modern Insights on Survival
One peculiarity of the Donner-Reed ordeal is the high survival rate of women. Of the eighty-one initial travelers, thirty-six died and forty-five survived. Of the thirty-six that died, twenty-eight were men, and only eight were women. Donald K. Grayson, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, found that gender, age, and kinship relations affected how well an individual endured the winter: those most likely to survive were women between the ages of 5 and 35 with close family units. Smaller children, older adults, and men—particularly those who travelled alone—had a higher chance of perishing. Grayson attempts to explain the gendered survival rates by stating women, on average, had a smaller body frame and higher percentage of stored body fat. As for the role social contacts played, Grayson believes a “sense of belonging, access to information, and the availability of timely assistance” helped those with family, friends, and their collective resources to survive.
McGlashan notes in his account that “The men became exhausted much sooner, as a rule, than the women.” George Donner received a deep gash on his hand while repairing the wagon wheel that caused the Donners to fall behind. The wound became infected and likely caused his death. Women’s chores on the trail should not be understated – they lugged iron kettles and pots for food preparation, chopped firewood, chased after children, and washed heavy bundles of clothing. Most importantly, women walked the same distance men did – riding on the wagons was reserved for the young, the elderly, and the infirm.
Indians were the pioneers’ biggest fear; yet Indians offered pieces of salvation to the Donner-Reed party. On the trail, the Donners encountered Sioux and Pawnee. Virginia Reed describes being scared of the Indians, fearing they would kidnap women or steal cattle. However, the party’s experiences with the Indians soon overrode their fears. Tamsen Donner wrote on June 23, 1846, while the party was still in the first stages of their journey:
“Everything was new and pleasing; the Indians frequently come to see us, and the chiefs of a tribe breakfasted at our tent this morning. All are so friendly that I can not help feeling sympathy and friendship for them”.
Once established in their winter camps, the Donners were within Miwoks’ territory, who inhabited Northern California and the Sierras. Acorns were the mainstay of their diet, and they harvested large amounts in the fall, which were stored in granaries for the winter.
Towards the end of the Snowshoe party’s trek through the mountains, they stumbled into a Miwok Indian village, whose inhabitants rushed to help the migrants. The Miwok Indians feed them acorn bread and provided two Indian guides to help them on to the last leg of their journey. McGlashan reports the incident with a touch of Victorian drama:
“It is said that the Indian women and children cried, and wailed with grief at the affecting spectacle of starved men and women…Every person in the rancherie, from the toddling papooses to the aged chief, endeavored to aid them.” The Miwoks, through food and guidance, gave the survivors the last push they needed to complete their journey, and they most likely would not have made it without this assistance. W.H. Eddy, who could go no further, certainly would have died – he was assisted in the last 18 miles by the Indian guides, who half-dragged him to the destination. Several Indians on the other side of the mountain, meanwhile, seem to have known of the Donner lake camp –Breen noted in his diary that a “Solitary Indian passed by yesterday come from the lake had a heavy pack on his back gave me 5 or 6 roots resembling Onions in shape taste some like a sweet potato, all full of little tough fibers.”
The forty-five survivors of the Donner party staggered into California by late April. They set up homesteads and businesses. Orphaned children were adopted. The many female survivors easily married as 90% of European Americans residing in California were men. Some would later give interviews describing their ordeals to abate rumors.
The story of the Donner Reed party, like the Titanic, the Great Plague, or Pompeii, lives on as a legendary man vs. wild tale of historical defeat, an account of the fury of nature and the total destruction it can wreak on human life. Within the scope of American history, it plays a role in highlighting not only the hardships faced on the Oregon Trail but brings to life the importance of families in settling the West, the larger movement to claim California from Mexico, and manifest destiny’s prevalence in media culture. McGlashan states in his account of the party, “The far-famed Donner Party were, in a peculiar sense, pioneer martyrs of California. Before the discovery of gold, before the highway across the continent was fairly marked out, while untold dangers lurked by the wayside, and unnumbered foes awaited the emigrants, the Donner Party started for California. None but the brave and venturesome, none but the energetic and courageous, could undertake such a journey.”
For more information:
- The Brigham Young University Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters Collection (1846-1869)
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for The American West