When you think of the Donner party, more than likely, one word comes to mind: cannibalism. At the California Trail Interpretive Center, one of our jobs is to bring history to life. We especially enjoy uncovering the incredible stories of the people and events surrounding westward expansion.
For this reason, we’ve put together seven interesting facts you may not know about the Donner-Reed party. We hope it paints a broader picture of this ill-fated group.
- Although the group is commonly referred to as “The Donner Party,” neither Donner patriarch survived.
- Lansford Hastings went on to write other “Emigrants’ Guide” books.
- There were multiple warning attempts to keep the party from taking the Wasatch Valley route.
- One of the Reeds was exiled from the party and later helped rescue the group.
- Children made up a large portion of the travelers.
- An attempt to leave camp and find help resulted in the only time people were intentionally murdered to fend off starvation.
- John Stark went above and beyond to rescue as many children as possible during the third rescue mission.
Neither Of The Pioneer Leaders Survived
Brothers Jacob Donner (a furniture manufacturer), and George Donner (a farmer), led the 20-wagon party of emigrants. The group also included their wives and children. Unfortunately, both Donner brothers, their wives, and many of their children died. The Reed and Breen families were the only two who made it out of the Wasatch Valley with all members alive. The Reed family never resorted to cannibalism.
Lansford Hastings – Author Extraordinaire
Despite the tragic failure of his advice in “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California,” Lansford Hastings continued to write guidebooks. In 1867, he published “The Emigrants Guide to Brazil.” He did manage to lead one group of post-civil war “refugees” to new homes in South America. He died leading his second group down.
Warning – Danger Ahead
Experienced mountain man, James Clyman, warned the Donner-Reed party against taking Hasting’s Cutoff. Journalist Edwin Bryant scouted this potential departure from the California Trail and sent letters back indicating that the wild route was not suited to wagon travel.
The correspondence made it to Jim Bridger’s trading post but never made it into the group’s hands. Reed and Bryant later suspected the letters disappeared purposely – the trading post stood to gain a lot of money on this and future expeditions along the new route.
The Exiled Rescuer – James Reed
James Reed was exiled after trying to intervene in a fight between wagon drivers. He killed his attacker in self-defense. Thankfully, this allowed James to seek help for the rest of the party. The Mexican-American War and weather conditions kept rescue at bay for months while the pioneers starved.
Over Half Of The Emigrants Were Children
Because the party was made up mostly of families, most of the people who ended up struggling to survive were children, including six babies. Margaret Reed had to leave two of her four children behind during the first rescue mission because they were too weak to make the trek. Her husband, James, arrived in the nick of time with the next rescue party, saving the children.
You can see Patty Reed’s doll on display at the Emigrant Trail Museum at Donner Memorial State Park.
The Tragic Fate Of Forlorn Hope
Once they were stranded and starving at Lake Truckee, the party sent out a group of 15 people to get help. The group, later known as the Forlorn Hope, included two native Miwok men, Salvador and Luis. As the expedition continued to hike through the snowy mountains, they resorted to cannibalism as people died.
Salvador and Luis refused to participate and ran away in fear that they would be next. They ended up being the only two members of the Donner-Reed party intentionally murdered for food.
God, Stark & The Virgin Mary
During the third rescue mission up the mountains, 11 survivors – including nine children – were found. Two of the rescuers grabbed a child each, but party member John Stark refused to leave any of the children behind. Along with his heavy supplies, he would carry two children for a few yards, then set them down and go back for more. By continuously backtracking this way, he was able to save the rest of the children.
One of the children, Peggy Breen, later said her rescue was all due to “nobody but God and Stark and the Virgin Mary.”
Learn The Real Stories About Real People
We hope these facts help expand your view of the Donner-Reed party beyond the more salacious parts of their famous story. They are just one group of emigrants that helped to settle the American West. We invite you to contact us today to learn more about upcoming events and current exhibits at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV.