We've all heard the gruesome story of the Donner Party. After crossing from Illinois to Nevada in 1846, the 90-wagon train headed up the Sierra Nevada mountains. But the Donner Party was too late - snow trapped dozens of people in the pass for months until they finally turned to cannibalism to survive.
So many things went wrong with the Donner Party. The Hastings Cutoff, a never-tested shortcut, doomed the travelers. And 5-foot-tall snowdrifts made it impossible to cross the pass with wagons and oxen. So how did members of the Donner Party survive? Some risked their lives to heroically save children. Others turned to cannibalism.
Even if you've heard of the gruesome tale of Manifest Destiny gone wrong, there's a good chance many of these Donner Party facts are new to you. Did you know that a war interfered with rescue efforts? Or that Native Americans tried to save the Donner Party - until the white settlers shot at them? There's a lot about the Donner Party that you may not know.
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Abraham Lincoln Considered Joining The Party Before They Left
A very famous future president nearly found himself trapped at Donner Pass. But Abraham Lincoln escaped that fate and went on to lead the country through the Civil War.
When the Donner Party left Springfield, IL, Lincoln was a young lawyer in the state capital. He was also friends with James Reed, an organizer of the expedition. Reed asked Lincoln to join the wagon train. And Lincoln considered the idea.
But he ruled out traveling with the Donner-Reed party because of his wife, Mary Todd. She was pregnant in the spring of 1846 and the couple had a toddler. Plus, Lincoln had his eye on a future in politics. Instead of heading West, Lincoln ran for Congress and won a seat in the House of Representatives.
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John Stark Rescued Donner Party Children By Carrying Them On His Back And Refusing To Leave Any Behind
John Stark might be the greatest hero of the Donner Party. During a rescue effort to save the stranded travelers at Starved Camp, Stark put his life on the line to make sure no one was left behind.
Stark's fellow rescuers argued that they could not save everyone. They voted to pick two children to save, leaving behind nine other people to starve. John Stark refused. He would carry one or two children on his back down the mountain, stopping to retrace his steps and pick up more children.
In dangerous circumstances, Stark kept the children's spirits up. He joked that if his back were broad enough, he was so strong he could carry all of them at the same time.
John Stark saved every last child. One of those children, James Breen, later said, “To his great bodily strength, and unexcelled courage, myself and others owe our lives. There was probably no other man in California at that time, who had the intelligence, determination, and what was absolutely necessary to have in that emergency.”
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One Member May Have Died From Overeating
Dozens of members of the Donner Party starved to death. But one actually perished from overeating.
Rescue parties managed to reach the trapped wagon trains in the late winter. Starving settlers hiked through the snow to safety. Along the journey, they stopped in Bear Valley, where rescuers had set aside a cache of provisions.
Worried the starved survivors would overeat, the rescuers hung the provisions in a tree. That night, 12-year-old William Hook climbed the tree, ate as much as he could and died.
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The Donner Party Shot At Native Americans Who Tried To Help Them
The Donner Party wasn't alone in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Washoe tribe also survived the harsh winter of 1846-1847. And the Washoe even tried to help the Donner Party.
According to oral traditions, the Washoe left out rabbit meat and wild potatoes for the starving travelers. They also crossed the snowy pass to bring a deer carcass to the white settlers. But instead of accepting the help, members of the Donner Party shot at the Native Americans.
It wasn't long until the Washoe saw the white settlers eating human flesh. Terrified that the white people were evil, the Washoe avoided approaching the camps.
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A War Delayed Efforts To Rescue The Stranded Donner Party
As the Donner Party trekked across the Sierra Nevada, a war raged to the south. The Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846-1848, would determine a new border between the two countries.
The Donner Party set off as the war began. In March 1846, Mexico's army attacked US troops near the Rio Grande in Texas. The Donner Party left Springfield, IL, in April 1846. The next month, President James K. Polk declared war.
In fact, when the Donner Party set out, their ultimate destination - California - was still part of Mexico.
When the Donner Party became stranded, soldiers couldn't help with the rescue effort because James Fremont had just led an entire battalion south to fight in Los Angeles. Without the war, rescue parties might have reached the stranded travelers earlier and saved lives.
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Large Families Had A Higher Survival Rate Than Small Kin Groups Or Single Travelers
The Donner Party included families, siblings traveling together, and solo travelers who didn't know anyone else. Surprisingly, the survival rate depended on how many people you knew.
In particular, the larger family groups on the journey had higher survival rates. All of the Reeds survived the journey. The five children of George Donner survived. And every member of the Breen family survived.
What explains the higher survival rates for large families? Families tended to look after each other. They shared food and protected each other. Rather than sharing food with the broader group, Margaret Reed hid away apples, beans, and meat to give her children on Christmas Day. Reed declared, "Children, eat slowly for this one day you can have all you wish."