S. Hulihan

Many have written about this real-life migrant journey; the Donner-Reed Party. Fact or fiction, the mystique that surrounds these early pioneers’ journey to California, continues to captivate today. One hundred seventy four years ago, a wagon train set out from Independence, Missouri to California, approximately 2,500 miles. The journey should have taken about four or five months.
When you hear the name Donner Pass, the first thing that comes to mind is “cannibalism.” The circumstances that led to cannibalism have been well documented; unfortunately, the horrific actions the Donner pioneers went through live in the shadow of “cannibalism”.

When the Donner-Reed Party started out from Missouri in April 1846, they could not have anticipated the pain, suffering and deaths that lay ahead of them; nor, the overwhelming obstacles they would face over the following months.

It was a beautiful sunny, spring day. The sky was a powder blue with intermittent cumulus clouds. It was truly a picturesque April morning. The wagon train ventured forward and you could see the wild-flowers in the meadow. It looked and felt like the trek to California was going to be uneventful. The Donner-Reed Party could not have anticipated the events that would follow them all the way to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Those events would have a momentous impact on their lives.

Just after the pioneers began their journey west, they encountered a massive thunderstorm. That was the beginning of their future troubles.

The latter part of May 1846, Sara Keyes, George Donner’s mother-in-law was the first to die on the Donner-Reed Party. Keyes was seventy and died from tuberculosis.

On June 27, 1846, the Donner-Reed wagon train pulled into Fort Laramie; James Reed meets James Clyman, who was traveling with Lansford Hasting, the man who wrote The Migrants Guide. They had just come from California by way of the new trail, later known as Hasting Cutoff. Clyman warns Reed and the migrants not to take the new, untraveled trail but stick to the old route.

Reed believed The Migrants Guide book could shave 350 to 400 miles off their journey to California. Reed chose to take the new route in spite of Clyman’s warning.

Traveling by wagon train was rough on everyone: the livestock, teamsters and families. They were already several weeks behind schedule. This new trail would make up for lost time.

In July 1846, the wagon train crosses the Continental Divide. The pioneers had put 1,000 miles between them and Independence, Missouri. The wagon train had roughly 1,000 miles to reach their destination, California.

On August 30th the salt flats in Utah, better known as the Great Salt Lake Desert, was also supposed to be a shortcut. The mud was so deep and thick it took the pioneers roughly 5-days to journey over the waterless, eighty-mile desert.

The pioneers also had to endure the smell of the sulfuric smelling surface for a good 45 miles.

By this time, tempers were flaring. A fight ensues between Milton Elliot, a teamster for James Reed and John Snyder, a teamster for the Graves’ family. James Reed intervenes between the two men fighting which proved to be fatal for John Snyder. Reed stabbed Snyder with his pocket knife claiming it was self defense. Many of the pioneers believed Reed murdered Snyder. Subsequently, James Reed was banished from the wagon train in October, 1846. Reed’s wife and daughter remained with the wagon train.

On October 15, 1846, the Donner Party is hit by Indians, killing 21 of their cattle.

Also in October, at Truckee River, George Donner’s front axle of the family wagon breaks. George was fixing the axle when he severely cut his hand forcing the Donner family to stay another couple of days.

The leaves were turning burnt orange and you could feel winter lurking. The Donner family was aware of the winter time constraints and pushed the livestock team hard to get to the summit before the pass became impassible.

It was the latter part of November when Patrick Breen begins a written daily log. Breen is meticulous in writing the weather conditions as well as any pertinent facts regarding the environment i.e. which way the wind was blowing, was it cloudy or raining. The rest of November snowed continuously with no end in sight. This snowfall was unlike other winters.

Winter came early that year. The Donner Party was already several weeks behind schedule. The pioneers reached the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, snow had covered the terrain.

The weather was clear, but there was some concern there was a large circle around the moon indicating an approaching storm. The Donner Party agreed to rest for the remainder of the day and start fresh the following day. The Donner Party set up camp.

The following morning the pioneers woke to find their tents covered with a blanket of snow. During the night they were visited by a snow blizzard. The wind was howling, the temperature had drastically dropped. The pioneers were ill-prepared for the onslaught of snow. The migrants realized they were entrapped by the snow.

The pioneers knew they would have a difficult time getting their livestock and wagons through the knee-deep and higher snow. Exhaustion set in overtaking them physically; the group stopped their efforts, the mountain was impassible. Nightfall was upon them and it was time to rest. The following morning the pioneers awoke to another blizzard. This group of pioneers had witnessed two major snowstorms in less than three days. They had run out of time!

In-spite of the weather conditions the migrants continued their trek in 15 to 20 feet of snow with blizzard-like conditions when they came across a log cabin. It was December 24th; the group was tired and freezing.

By this time, their supplies and livestock had severely diminished and the group was completely worn out. The cabin was a welcome site to the Donner Party. The group had already decided to remain there until spring. They built onto the existing cabin along with make-shift shelters from the hides of the livestock that had perished along their expedition. The group needed to ration what food they had through the winter and into spring, 1847.

Over time, the migrants began turning on one-another; killing their pets for food; slaughtering their cattle and oxen, using them for food, charging outrageous prices for what little food was left. One family verses another family using food as a negotiating tool and ultimately resorting to cannibalism to survive.

One hundred seventy four years have passed and stories about the Donner Party have been confirmed. Stories regarding cannibalism were entered in the Diary. December 24, 1846, a group was huddled together in the corner of the cabin discussing killing one of them to help the rest of the group survive. No one in the group could go through with their plan.

In January 1847, William Foster came across the two missing party guides, Luis and Salvador, near death from exhaustion and starvation. Foster shoots both of them. The food situation was beyond critical. Foster brings their lifeless bodies back to the Donner camp, providing food for the group.


The facts about the Donner party are accurate but the following should be considered:

1. The newspaper stories focused on the macabre with
sensationalized headlines and captions to sell more papers.

2. Why did it take Charles McGlashan, author of History of the
Donner Party, 1879, Lake Charles American Press, thirty-two years
to write the gruesome details of the Donner party?

Could he be motivated by a possible book deal?

3. Charles McGlashan, a passenger on the Donner party wagon-train,
he interviewed survivors and received letters from survivors of
the Donner party for his book, “History of the Donner Party.”

Did McGlashan also include any of James Reed and Patrick Breen’s
daily logs in his book?

4. There were many ghoulish newspaper articles written on the
Donner party from 1846 through 1879. The headlines were always
written with “selling” as many newspapers as possible.

The publicity on the Donner party made it prime for a book deal.
In 1879, McGlashon’s book was published.

5. Did the publisher, Lake Charles American Press contact McGlashan
to tell his account of the Donner party; or, was it McGlashan that
got in touch with Lake Charles for payment for an eye-witness,
detailed, day-by-day account of the Donner party in 1845 and

Is it possible McGlashan may have exaggerate and embellished
the events that really happened to make the story captivating and

6. How many times has the Donner story been written and rewritten
over the past 174 years?

7. When a story is rewritten, the facts could be minutely altered or
the changing of one word could possibly change the meaning thus
distorting the facts. Is that fact even considered?

8. Can we be absolutely sure that cannibalism really existed at the
Sierra Nevada Mountain site, it would seem probable given the
circumstances; however, there has never been any forensic
evidence i.e. human bones were found but no human bones that
would suggest cannibalism?

9. Patrick Breen started the Diary in late November, 1846. How are
those days from May through November 20, 1846 chronicled? Are
the events written by memory, embellished by Breen or made up?

How can Breen remember six months entries and exact dates?

10. Society has always been fascinated with the macabre. It sold
papers in the 1800s. It sold papers, books, docudramas and
movies in the1900s. The facts about the Donner Pass were
shocking. Patrick Breen gave detailed information and dates in
the Diary confirming their unbelievable story. Could the actions of
the pioneers include making up a story about cannibalism?

Was there ever an investigation or just taking the word of
the passengers of the Donner Party?

A memorial statute was dedicated in 1918. Three of the survivors of the Donner Party attended. Absolutely nothing about cannibalism was mentioned at the memorial; however, if you walk a half-mile down the nature trail a 10-foot high rock lists the survivors on the front of the rock and the so-called cannibals on the backside of the rock.

Today, the lake camp is now Donner Memorial State Park honoring the memory of the Donner Party. Three of the original Donor Party attended the 1918 Memorial. Thousands of people visit the Park each year

Donner Memorial State Park boasts of its beautiful hiking trails, water sports and campsites. It is difficult to believe this incredibly beautiful place was the site of a brutal winter in 1846/47. So many pioneers suffered and died for a better way of life.

Eighty-one pioneers left Independence, Missouri and only forty-five survived and made it to California.

This is part of history and should never be forgotten. The questions I have posed, in this article, died along with the Donner Party pioneers. However, it is “food for thought.”

“What would YOU do, given the same circumstances and conditions our ancestors endured, to SURVIVE?”

In my research I watched two docudramas, both films focused heavily on cannibalism and showed little, if any, on the trials the pioneers went through that forced them into cannibalization. In my opinion, both films were one-sided focusing on the ghoulish and sensationalizing and embellishing the facts. It’s all about the bottom line … money.

Numerous ghoulish newspaper articles all between 1846 and 1870

The Donner Party, New York Times — news article, 1870

2 docudramas — The Donner Party

Balance 5/11/2020 @ 11:45 am $ 617.43 X ok




I’ve been an award-winning writer/producer my entire professional career. My focus has been writing. Learn more on Sharon Hulihan

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Sharon Hulihan

Sharon Hulihan

I’ve been an award-winning writer/producer my entire professional career. My focus has been writing. Learn more on Sharon Hulihan

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