DONNER PARTY
...
Sculpture at
Autry Museum of Western Heritage


''Westward ho, who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men of good character who can drive an ox team will be accommodated. Come, boys, you can have as much land as you want without costing you anything.'' -G. Donner 

 

George Donner, a 62-year-old farmer and his family left Springfield, Illinois on April 16th, 1846 heading for their dream of a better life in California.. 

 

The Donner Party is the name given to George Donnerr's group of pioneers who became trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846-47. The 81 members of the Donner Party  traveled 2,500 miles in seven months. 

 

But they arrived a day too late..  They had taken a short cut which cost them valuable time needed to reach the mountains before winter set in. Sadly, they came to the base of a steep mountain just as snow covered it. And although some in the group were able to reach the summit, they were forced to turn back since there was no way the whole party could get through. They retraced their steps to a lake and started building a winter camp. Down by the lake and up on the dark summit above them it snowed and snowed and snowed. The weather in the Sierra Nevadas was horrible for these unfortunate travelers. Just 150 miles from safety at Sutter's Fort in California, 25 men, 15 women and 41 children, including six nursing infants huddled miserably in two makeshift winter camps.

When they ran out of food, they mixed what little meat remained with anything they could chew. They even swallow boiled hides, charred bones, twigs, bark and leaves. On December 15th, death hit the camp as Balis Williams died of malnutrition. For those willing, cannibalism of the dead kept the grim reaper at arm's length. Several starving members of the Donner party even drew straws to chose one of themselves as the next meal. But they didn't have the heart to kill one of their own. Two more attempts to get over a mountain pass ended in failure and left the emigrants floundering in the 20-foot drifts. 

 

By early February, the first rescue party reached the lake encampments.  Not everyone could be taken out and many had already died. The last survivor was taken to Sutter's Fort (now Sacramento) in April. Discovery of cannibalism and accusations of murder during that long winter jolted the civilized world.  Survivors of the ordeal mostly chose not to discuss what occurred.

Of the 87 men, women and children in the Donner Party, 46 survived, 41 died: 5 women, 14 children and 22 men. Two thirds of the women and children made it through. Two thirds of the men did not.  All four adults and four children of  the Donner family did not see the California ocean and beach. They died before reaching their dream.