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Donner Party FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions)

Since this website was inaugurated in August 1997, several readers have written to me asking similar questions. Here are some of the most common (in no particular order) with my answers. For information about the number of members and deaths, see the Statistics page.

"Missing" Donner Party Members | Cannibalism | Primary sources | Why did they go to California? |
Why did they take the cutoff? | Causes | Effects | Going back down | Fishing
Male/Female Survival | Donner Party movies | Religion | Maps and illustrations

Family tradition says my ancestor was in the Donner Party, but I don't see him/her on your Roster. Why not?

Many people emigrated in 1846 and membership in wagon trains was fluid; people would travel with one group for a while, then join another party. The person you're looking for may very well have met or traveled with the Donners before the Donner Party was formed. The misunderstanding arises because, over time, oral tradition gets garbled. "Pa went west the same year as the Donner Party" can turn into "Great-grandpa was in the Donner Party." The bottom line is, if they aren't listed in the Roster, they weren't members of the Donner Party.   

Cannibalism: Did they really eat each other?

Yes.
 
       Cannibalism is the best known and least understood aspect of the Donner Party. Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, there was no feeding frenzy in the mountains. The emigrants held out for as long as they could; they slaughtered their animals and ate the meat, then lived on boiled rawhide, leather scraps, and bones, whatever they could find, until there was nothing left but the bodies of the dead. About half the survivors were rescued before any cannibalism occurred, and almost all of those who ate human flesh did so for only a few days or weeks at the end of their ordeal. It's ironic that the Donner Party should be remembered, reviled, or mocked as cannibals, when their very reluctance to eat human flesh may have cost some of them their lives. If they had started eating the dead sooner, more of them might have survived.
       Here's a brief outline of Donner Party cannibalism:
 
In December 1846 fifteen of the emigrants (later called the "Forlorn Hope") set out on snowshoes to cross the mountains. Their food ran out, some died, and the survivors were compelled to eat human flesh for about two weeks until they reached an Indian village in the foothills.
At the lake camp, no cannibalism was ever reported at the Graves cabin.
There was no cannibalism at the Breen cabin until after the Breens and Reeds had left.
The Murphy cabin was the scene of cannibalism from about February 25, 1847, until sometime in March. Toward the end of the month, Louis Keseberg moved from the Murphy cabin into the deserted Breen cabin, where he subsisted on human flesh for about a month until after the arrival of the Fourth Relief on April 17.
At Alder Creek, at least some of the Donners ate human flesh, probably for as little as ten days to two weeks. For more about cannibalism  there, see Donner Party Bulletin No. 15.
En route to California, most of the Second Relief's charges became too weak to continue and had to be left behind without any food. When the Third Relief arrived at "Starved Camp" five days later, they discovered that the famished refugees had consumed three of their number who had died.
 
Archaeologists have not yet discovered physical evidence of cannibalism at Donner Party sites, but this doesnít mean that it didnít happen. Contemporary accounts record that Donner Party members said they intended to eat human flesh, survivors said they ate human flesh, and rescuers saw the grisly evidence.
Incidentally, some readers have suggested that what occurred in the Donner Party wasnt really cannibalism because they did it only to survive. I strongly agree that "Donner" should never be confused "Dahmer," but "cannibalism," as commonly understood, means eating another individual of one’s own kind, so until someone comes up with a new term, "cannibalism" is the only one that can be used.

I’m writing a paper about the Donner Party and need primary sources. Where can I find them?

The major primary sources are available in print and there are also quite a few on the Internet, several on this website. Lists of print and online primary documents are at the top of  the Sources page.

Why did the members of the Donner Party decide to go to California?

Different people had different reasons. One of the most common was that California was said to be so healthy; some were attracted by the promise of cheap land; others went for the adventure. Usually it was a combination of factors. The younger men were attracted by the adventure and the opportunity to make a start in life, while some of the older men wanted to make a fresh start. Charles Stanton, for instance, had failed at business;  he was also influenced by the description of California in Hastings book. James Reed wanted to put his business failures behind him, too, and in addition he hoped the climate would be better for his ailing wife Margret. Franklin Ward Graves was attracted to California's healthy climate but he also was said to have an itchy foot. The same is probably true of George and Jacob Donner. In addition to any other motivation, the Breens and Murphys may have gone for religious reasons, the Breens wanting to live in a Roman Catholic area and the Murphys wanting to rejoin the Mormons, who were reportedly going to California.
 
Another important reason could be called "family" or "affection." Sarah Keyes went because she didnt want to be parted from her daughter, Margret Reed, and also because she hoped to meet her son Robert on the trail. (Hed gone out the previous year and was thought to be returning East.) Sarah Graves was torn between her family and her sweetheart; she had intended to stay in Illinois, but changed her mind at almost the last minute. Jay Fosdick wanted to be with Sarah, so they got married just before the Graves family left home and went with them.
 
In fact, "family" is the reason the majority of Donner Party members went. Im talking, of course, about the women and children. Many of them might not have wanted to go at all, but if a man made up his mind to head West his family had very little choice but to accompany him. For a woman to refuse to go with her husband was desertion and grounds for divorce, which was a social disgrace, and children had to go with their parents. Women and children might have expressed their feelings, but the ultimate decision was the husbands. Levinah Murphy was probably the instigator of her familys move; Tamzene Donner wrote favorably (though with no great enthusiasm) of the idea of going to California: "I am willing to go & have no doubt that it will be an advantage to our children & to us"; Margret Reed was "overcome with grief" when she left Springfield; but we dont know how the other women of the Donner Party felt.
 
Why did they decide to take Hastings Cutoff?
 
The decision to take the cutoff was not as foolish as some critics would have it. The Donner Party did what reasonable people do: they gathered information, discussed their options, and made a decision. The information they based their decision on was questionable, but they didnt know that. And remember, about 300 other people -- the so-called "Harlan-Young Party" -- made the same decision based on the same information; no one has called them foolish. That they made it safely to California and the Donner Party did not was the result of circumstances that developed after the decision was made.
 
There was good reason for emigrants to think that the new route was practicable. First, there was Lansford W. Hastings. He had led a group to Oregon in 1842, another group to California in 1845, and had written a book. His Emigrants Guide, with its glowing accounts of Californias charms, had induced many emigrants to leave home for the Pacific. Hastings promised to meet the travelers at Fort Bridger and personally conduct them on the cutoff. Then there were the reports of John C. Fremont, a national hero, whose description of the new route to California mentioned grass, water, and game but not the 80-mile dry stretch across the Great Salt Lake Desert. And third, the famous mountain man Jim Bridger assured the Donner Party that the new route was good. These positive accounts, plus the promise that the cutoff would save hundreds of miles, convinced the Donner Party to take it.

What caused the Donner Party disaster?

The simplest answer is "the weather." If the Donner Party had made exactly the same decisions, done exactly the same things, and the first big snow had held off for as little as two or three days, we probably would never have heard of them. But they werent in control of the weather, they could only have changed their behavior, so a lot of accusations have been made. Some writers have criticized the Donner Party for being stupid, lazy, and quarrelsome, while others have singled out Hastings or Reed to blame for the decision to take the cutoff. I dont think its that easy; I think that it was a combination of all these factors -- behavior, personalities, weather -- that caused the disaster.

What effect did the Donner Party disaster have?

The Donner Party was a relatively minor event, but although it didn't change the course of history, it did have some effects:
 
A common misconception is that people were so horrified at the news of the Donner disaster they were afraid to go to California, but this belief cannot be justified. News of the disaster didn't reach the east until late in the summer of 1847, months after emigrants had set out across the plains, so the Donner Party could not have affected people's decision to go to California that year. It may have had something to do with the lower number of emigrants who went in 1848, although the fact that the United States was still at war with Mexico was probably a factor, too. But any worries people may have had about the journey to California were blown away by news of the gold discovery, and in 1849 thousands flocked to the territory.
Another myth is that Donner Pass was abandoned by overland pioneers. True, new routes over the Sierra Nevada were developed after the disaster, but what had happened to the Donner Party was by no means the only reason why. The Truckee Route, which had cost them so dearly, was extremely difficult under the best of circumstances and in addition, new entrances to California were necessary to accommodate the heavy traffic to the gold fields in 1849-50. Some of these new routes were successful, others less so, but overland emigrants continued to the Truckee Route via Donner Lake, where many recorded seeing human remains at the ruined cabins.
One effect the Donner disaster did have was to inspire Californians to take steps to prevent another such tragedy. In 1849, 1850, and 1852, when large numbers of emigrants were streaming into the territory, Californians allocated money to send relief teams eastward into the mountains and desert to assist struggling overlanders with food and water. (See John D. Unruh, The Plains Across, p. 368-378, for details.)
Back in Utah, the road the Donner Party blazed from Fort Bridger  into the Salt Lake Valley in 1846 was a godsend to the Mormon pioneer companies of 1847. It became part of the Mormon Trail, and for twenty years was the main route to Salt Lake City.

Why didnt they go back down to Truckee Meadows or someplace to spend the winter?

Going back down the Sierra seems like such a simple solution to us, knowing what was going to happen to the Donner Party, but they didnt have the advantage of our knowledge. Lets ask instead, Why should they go back down?, bearing their situation in mind. They had spent grueling months heading west; food, friends, and journeys end lay ahead of them, not behind. The eastern side of the Sierra is steep, and it had been hard enough to get up to the lake, so going back down, away from help, would have seemed a terrible waste of effort. Besides, could they have gotten back down? Wouldnt the snow that had kept them from going over the pass also have prevented them from returning east? Perhaps not, if they abandoned their wagons, but the wagons contained the tools and equipment they needed to live. There was no guarantee that theyd find food on the eastern side; they hoped that, early as it was in the season, the snow would melt and they could cross; and they expected Reed and McCutchen to come back with supplies any day now. They didnt know that the snow wasnt going to melt soon, that it would take four months for relief to arrive, that half of them were going to die of starvation. If theyd known these things, then yes, they might have decided to go back down.

Couldnt they have eaten fish from the lake?

Theoretically they could have, and they did try. Lovina Graves told a granddaughter she "distinctly remembered going with one older brother and sister to the lake to fish. The ice was so thick they had to cut a hole in it about a foot and a half square, through which they dropped their lines, but they could not catch a thing. They could see the fish plainly, but caught nothing. It was very hard for them to go away without any fish for they were very hungry." --Edna Maybelle Sherwood, "Tragic Story of the Donner Party."
 
"There was an abundance of beautiful trout in the lake, but no one could catch them. W. C. Graves tells how he went fishing two or three different times, but without success. The lake was not frozen over at first, and fish were frequently seen; but then were too coy and wary to approach such bait as was offered. Soon thick ice covered the water, and after that no one attempted to fish. In fact, the entire party seemed dazed by the terrible calamity which had overtaken them." --C.F. McGlashan, History of the Donner Party.
 
"The failure of the emigrants attempts to catch fish has long formed a subject for debate. Any experienced native of the district can testify that lake fish may be taken easily (if not legally) during the winter months. The facts seem to indicate that members of the party failed to catch fish chiefly because they lacked experience and equipment and because they were too bewildered and dispirited to acquire them." --Ibid.
 
Theres a certain amount of criticism implied in some of these comments. I think that whatever the problems might have been at first, the emigrants simply became too weak to make the effort.
 
Why did more women than men survive?
 
This is a complicated question with no simple answer, but here are some major factors:
 
1) Men led more dangerous lives. Some, like John Snyder, Mr. Wolfinger, William Pike, Luis, and Salvador died violently. Also, more men went out on snowshoes to get help; most of these men died.
 
2) The men had done heavy labor along the way -- clearing the road through the Wasatch Mountains, for instance -- and when they reached Donner Lake they set to work felling trees and building cabins. During the winter they were expected to continue doing "mens work," like shoveling snow and chopping firewood. Basically, the men started the winter in worse physical shape, and their customary activities further weakened them.
 
3) Women have less muscle and more body fat than men. They need less food, have more stored energy, and may have an advantage in some cold situations, although this last is by no means certain.
 
4) All the women traveled with at least one family member, which gave them not only a support system but also something to live for. Having a family was also a factor in mens survival; all the adult males who survived the entrapment were fathers, and all the bachelors (single men 21 and over) died.
 
5) When things get tough, men tend to want to go out and do something to fix the situation. The strongest men went with the Forlorn Hope snowshoers. The ones left behind couldnt do much but wait; they certainly couldnt fix the weather, and as they weakened from hunger they were less able to perform their expected tasks, like hunting, cutting firewood, or shoveling snow. I believe that the men were more likely to fall prey to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Milt Elliott returned from the Donners at Alder Creek reporting that "it was very sad down their & it made a man feel awful bad when he could not do any thing to fix them any better." Some of the men, like Jacob Donner and James Smith, seem to have just given up. James F. Reed wrote, "James Smith was about the first who died of the boys. He gave up, pined away, and died. He did not starve."
 
6) The women, on the other hand, still had their usual roles of keeping house and tending children. Women seem to be better at putting up with things, at accepting the fact that a situation isnt fixable and trying to make the best of it. This gives them a psychological advantage in scenarios like the Donner Party, when people are at the mercy of factors beyond their control. In addition, its not as damaging to a womans self-esteem to have to be rescued.
 
In the 1990s Donald K. Grayson, an anthropologist, and Stephen A. McCurdy, a physician, independently performed statistical studies of Donner Party mortality rates. The full length reports of their studies appear in professional journals but synopses are available on the Internet; see Jared Diamonds "Living Through the Donner Party" in Discover 3:13 (March 1992), p. 100-107, which describes Graysons work, or the summary of McCurdy's study.
           
For Donner Party mortality/survival figures by gender, see the Statistics page.

Are there any Donner Party movies?

No feature films, but there have been two made-for-television movies. The first one, Donner Pass: The Road to Survival, aired in 1978 and has also been released on video. It's not very good as either history or entertainment, but if you'd like a copy, you can often find one being auctioned at eBay.
 
The second movie, One More Mountain, aired in March 1994 on the Hallmark Hall of Fame, with Meredith Baxter starring as Margret Reed. It's a cut above the previous one, but leaves a lot to be desired. Formerly you could find it only in the possession of people who taped it off the air and kept a copy, but Disney finally released it on VHS in the spring of 2000. The video was marketed to educators at a whopping $99, but is now available (with additional educational material) on DVD for $59.95 (VHS is $49.00). See the Disney website for details.

What was the religion of Donner Party members? Were they Mormons?

No, they weren’t a Mormon group, but yes, one family was or had been Mormon. Levinah Jackson Murphy converted to the LDS faith in 1836; she and her children lived in the Mormon seat of Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1841-1842, then returned to their home in Tennessee. They may have been attempting to rejoin the church when they went West, but it’s not certain that they still considered themselves Mormons in 1846. As for the other members of the Donner Party, the Breens and Patrick Dolan were Roman Catholics; Margret Reed and her mother Sarah Keyes were Methodists; James Reed had been raised Presbyterian but joined the Methodist church after his marriage to Margaret; Augustus Spitzer may have been Jewish; Louis Keseberg was a Lutheran, but his wife Philippine had been raised Catholic.  Tamzene Donner may have been brought up Episcopalian, but the German Prairie Christian Church which she and George attended in Illinois was evidently a Disciples of Christ congregation.
 
After their rescue Virginia Reed Murphy, Mary Murphy Covillaud, and the Fosters converted to Roman Catholicism; William G. Murphy joined the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and was active in founding a congregation in Marysville; Naomi Pike Schenk and Eliza Donner Houghton joined the Episcopal Church; Nancy Graves Williamson became a Methodist (and married a minister); and her sister Lovina Graves Cyrus attended Baptist services.

Where can I find maps of the Donner Party route and other illustrations?

Please see Maps and Illustrations on the Student Page. The OCTA bookstore has trail maps for sale, as did the Emigrant Museum at Donner Memorial State Park the last time I was there.

 

"Missing" Donner Party Members | Cannibalism | Primary sources | Why did they go to California? |
Why did they take the cutoff? | Causes | Effects | Going back down | Fishing
Male/Female Survival | Donner Party movies | Religion | Maps and illustrations

 

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