How You Could Have Survived The Donner Party Expedition

Let's say you were a member of the Donner Party. Would you have been one of the 47 Donner Party survivors? Or would you have been one of the 42 dead?

The answer depends on the choices you made along the way. Would you agree to try the untested Donner Party route, or stick to the well-traveled route? Could you carry children to safety on your back, or would you abandon everyone else and only think of your own survival? And how do you feel about cannibalism in life-or-death situations?

Most members of the Donner Party made it out alive. But a few wrong choices could have doomed any of them. 

  • Don’t Try Taking The New Unused Route

    The Donner Party might have made it to California before heavy snow if not for one fatal decision: Taking the Hastings Cutoff.

    The Hastings Cutoff was a route around the south side of the Great Salt Lake that had never been used before. A travel writer named Lansford Hastings recommended the route, claiming it would cut up to 400 miles off the journey.  The Donner Party trusted Hastings - a decision that cost them.

    The Hastings Cutoff took the travelers across 80 miles of desert with no access to water and through the arduous Wasatch Mountains, where they had to cut their own path. The "shortcut" added an extra 125 miles to the trip, dooming the Donners to a winter trapped in the Sierra Nevadas. Sticking with the tried-and-true route would have almost certainly saved lives.

  • Ditch Your Wagons And Walk
    Photo: Daniel A. Jenks / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ditch Your Wagons And Walk

    The Donner Party found itself struggling to cross Truckee Pass in part because of their oxen. That meant it took longer to travel even short distances. 

    Instead of staying with the oxen and wagons, members of the Donner Party could have abandoned everything and continued on foot. That left them with two choices: cross the pass and head for Sacramento, or backtrack and wait out the snow. 

    According to Bill Bowness, a historian who works at Donner Memorial State Park, more people might have survived if they had abandoned the wagons and oxen. Butchering the oxen for food might have given them enough sustenance to reach safety.  

  • Learn How To Trap Animals
    Photo: Lawrence & Houseworth / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Learn How To Trap Animals

    Two years before the Donner Party, another group of white settlers found themselves stuck in heavy snow near the Truckee Pass. But 17-year-old Moses Schallenberger survived alone because of his trapping skills.

    Unable to hike out to safety, Moses spent the winter at Donner Lake. He lived by trapping all kinds of animals, including coyote, fox, and crow. Moses survived on stewed crow, boiled coyote, and roasted fox until rescuers reached him. 

  • Bring Your Family
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Bring Your Family

    Want to survive? Travel with your family. 

    People traveling with family members had a higher survival rate than single travelers in the Donner Party. Single travelers were twice as likely to perish. But why? One theory points to the role of support networks. Families would hoard food for their own group rather than sharing.

    Another theory claims that family groups cared for each other both psychologically and physically. As a result, children aged 6-14 also had an above-average survival rate.

  • Pick A Different Winter To Cross The Pass
    Photo: T. H. O'Sullivan / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Pick A Different Winter To Cross The Pass

    “Ninety percent of the time, the Donner Party would have made it,” says historian Mark McLaughlin

    The winter of 1846 was one of the snowiest on record. The snow started early and piled up. By October, the pass was already packed with snow. By November 1, 1846, 5 feet of snow made the pass impossible to cross.

    In almost any other year, the Donners would have made it before the snow. 

  • When Saved, Don’t Overeat
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    When Saved, Don’t Overeat

    Starvation can kill you. But so can overeating when you're rescued. Twelve-year-old William Hook learned that lesson the hard way. 

    "Bread Bread Bread was the begging of every child," James Reed recalled of the moment he met with the first rescue party. But when young William Hook first reached safety at a California ranch, he ate too much and died. His body, so used to starvation rations, could not handle the amount of food he consumed.