History of the Donner Party, A Tragedy of the Sierra – Charles Fayette McGlashan

DonnerIn the spring of 1846, a group of settlers left home in Springfield, Illinois en route to either Oregon or California.  A popular destination for many was the City of Yerba Buena, known today as San Francisco.  By the first week of may, the party had reached Independence Missouri and soon continued on their route.  They soon learned of an apparent shortcut through what is known as the Hastings cut-off near Salt Lake City, Utah. The trail was named after Confederate General Lansford Hastings (1819-1870).  It was believed that the shortcut would eliminate as much as three hundred miles off of their trip. The group separated and eighty-seven people continued on the trail.  Instead of elminating travel time, their journey was extended by another month.   Deeply behind schedule, their provisions began to run low and winter soon set in.  By the time their ordeal was over, only forty-eight had survived.  Some managed to survive by turning to cannibalism and that act has earned them a permanent place in American pop culture.  We have come to know this group pf settlers as the Donner Party.

The book was originally published in 1880 and this Kindle version is a digital transformation to permanent preserve a book that remains invaluable. When we think of the Donner party, cannibalism typically comes to mind. However, there was far more to the story and the true tragedy of their journey is often lost during discussions of the events that took place.  So just what exactly did happen and why?  McGlashan has the full story, having done the research needed and he even conducted interviews with survivors of the tragedy.  What emerges is a full picture of what really did happen although I am sure some minute parts of the story are lost to history.

The journey west by the Donner and Reed families was typical of the era as settlers sought a new life “out west”. California was destination number even years before the gold rush of 1849.  For the Donners and Reeds, it was a chance at new opportunity far removed from the daily life in Springfield, Illinois.  As their plan picked up, the number of travelers increased until reaching a staggering ninety people.  A number of those who had joined, were not related to either family but had heard about the expedition and expressed interest.  When they set out in early 1846, none of them could have imagined the disaster that lay ahead.

The author details the tragedy as food becomes scare and a brutal winter ravages the party.  Their deaths are sobering and also tragic.  But interstingly, cannibalism plays a minor role in the tragedy in contrast to what has been portrayed in the media and in pop culture.  Nature and lack of food combined to prove the biggest obstacle to survival instead of the treat of being murdered for food.  The cannibalism comes about as a necessity similar to the experience of Nando Parrado, Roberta Canessa and the surivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 as detailed in his book Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home.  External factors as opposed to some internal predatory nature, are the factors behind those in each story making the decision to do the unthinkable.

Those in search of an uplifting read will be quite disappointed. However, if you choose to read about the Donner party, then I have to assume you already know something about their story.  And if so, you know every well that the traditional “happy ending” does not apply here.  Some members did survive but remained scarred by what they saw and experienced.  American history is filled with tales of finding a new life and exploring new terrority, but this book reminds us that for some, that curiousity also led them down a path from which very few have returned.  If you are interested in the Donner party and the truth about the events in 1846-1847 as a group of settlers sought refuge in a new part of the United States, this is a good read.


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