It's still considered one of the worst tragedies in the history of westward migration in the U.S.
While pioneers traveling west to settle new territories in Oregon and California faced hardships along the way, the trek typically lasted only a few months. Despite worries about potential dangers, including hostile Native American tribes and harsh weather conditions, most settlers viewed the westward migration as the beginning of a new life. So, when 500 wagons left Independence, Missouri to head west to California in the spring of 1846, the nine rear wagons containing members of the Donner and Reed families were naturally filled with anticipation of the adventure ahead of them. Within a few weeks, the Reeds and the Donners joined up with another group of 50 wagons that had been delayed by bad weather. Along the way, several other wagons, including the wagon containing immigrant Lewis Keseberg and his family joined them as well. It was not a harmonious group, unfortunately, and personality clashes became common.
Despite warning signs of potential trouble (including overloaded wagons, few settlers with actual survival skills, inadequate route information, and a late start) the expedition eventually reached the Sierra Nevada mountain range before meeting with disaster. There are still conflicting stories of how the party came to be marooned in what is now known as Donner Pass. By turning off the main trail and using a suggested shorcut, the party's leaders, George Donner and James Reed, had hoped to save considerable time and catch up to the other wagon trains. It was a costly error in judgment.
Through various mishaps (including several deaths, cattle being stolen by Native tribesmen, and frequent arguments), the party continued to disintegrate and James Reed was eventually banished from the group after killing a man in what he claimed to be self-defense. Finally, the party became trapped in the mountains, having failed to cross before the winter snows began. While there were several abandoned cabins that the party used for shelter, their food supplies were totally inadequate for sustaining the group through the winter months. Although James Reed, now safely in California, heard word of the party's plight and attempted to send help, he and the other rescuers failed to locate the stranded wagons. As food supplies got low, some of the party members set out on foot to get help but the winter storms drove them back.
After the last of their cattle and horses died and starvation set in, more and more of the settlers began to die from malnutrition. In desperation, the survivors resorted to eating the flesh off of the corpses of the settlers who had already died. By February 1847, the first rescue party was finally able to reach the stranded settlers although it would take four relief parties to bring the last of them to safety. As for the dead bodies, they were gathered into one of the remaining cabins which was then burned to the ground. In the four months since their wagon train had become stranded, forty-eight of the original eighty-seven settlers had died. The dead included George Donner and his wife, as well as many children. Only the Reed and Breen families were left relatively intact.
News of the Donner Party and their struggle for survival received national coverage. Although the stories were often contradictory, lurid details about cannibalism were prominently featured in the numerous newspaper stories of their ordeal. In one of them, survivor Jean Baptiste Trudeau reportedly boasted of eating a baby raw although Trudeau would emphatically deny this later. There were also recurring rumours that some of the settlers who had been eaten had been murdered first. While the surviving settlers attempted to get on with their lives, the rumours relating to their cannibalism continued to haunt them.
The most comprehensive description of the Donner Party was published in 1879 by Charles McGlashan. As the editor of the town newspaper in Truckee, California near what is now Donner Pass, McGlashan made a long-term project out of interviewing many of the survivors. He also collected more than 2,000 letters, diaries, and witness accounts and serialized many of them in his newspaper. His book, History of the Donner Party, was an immediate success and still provides the best detail of what had actually happened during their struggle for survival.
Which, inevitably, included the cannibalism widely rumoured to have occurred. Although some of the survivors denied eating human flesh, McGlashan's book included details of his interviews describing how many of them had eaten parts of corpses to survive. One of the most notorious survivors that McGlashan interviewed was Lewis Keseberg. Numerous news stories describing the Donner Party were emphatic in describing Keseberg as the chief villain of the entire saga. Almost as soon as the Donner survivors were safe at Fort Sutter, several of them accused Keseberg of murdering at least one member of the Donner family. He was also said to have been the first one to advocate cannibalism and to have killed several of the weaker party members (including children). One of the relief parties that attempted to rescue the Donner survivors had threatened to lynch him when they found a pot of human flesh in his cabin as well as many of George Donner's possessions.
Although Keseberg denied the rumours, the stories hung over him and he even went so far as to sue several of the other survivors for slander. The court records weren't available by the time McGlashan wrote his book but he described the eyewitness descriptions of the hearing and the evidence for and against Keseberg. While Keseberg won the case, it wasn't much of a vindication for him. Not only was he awarded just one dollar in damages, he was also required to pay all court costs. McGlashan actually portrayed Keseberg as being relatively blameless but this was definitely a minority opinion. The cannibalism and murder rumours lingered over Keseberg for the rest of his life although he was never charged with the crimes of which he had been accused. His notoriety made him a pariah for much of his life and, as he once told McGlashan, "I often think that the Almighty has singled me out, among all the men on the face of the earth, in order to see how much hardship, suffering, and misery a human being can bear!". When he died in 1895 at the age of 81, most obituaries repeated the cannibal rumours that had haunted him for so long.
As for the rest of the Donner party survivors, the cannibal rumours haunted them as well. The Breens attempted to start an inn but a number of guests would later report feeling uncomfortable about staying at an inn run by "alleged cannibals". Even into the 20th century, the children who had survived the Donner Party continued to be marked by their experiences and often refused to cooperate with historians seeking additional details. The last survivor of the Donner Party, Isabella Breen, died in 1935 at the age of 90.
Along with inspiring a host of fiction and non-fiction books, movies, and documentaries, Donner Pass remains a tourist landmark. A monument was placed on the site of one of the Donner Party's cabins in 1918 and the State of California created the Donner Memorial State Park in 1927. In establishing the park, a California official went on record as describing the Donner Party as "an isolated and tragic incident of American history that has been transformed into a major folk epic". The park is estimated to receive more than 200,000 visitors a year.
So why does the Donner Party story still inspire such fascination? Admittedly, the lurid details of cannibalism and the struggle for survival makes for a compelling tale. Cannibalism is one of those taboo subjects that can both intrigue and repel us although facts relating to what actually happened to the Donner survivors remain limited. Archaeological excavations of the bodies unearthed at the Donner camp have not provided conclusive evidence of cannibalism. All that can be said is that the Donner Party represents a graphic example of the harsh choices that are often faced when dealing with disaster.