The mirages of California have lured many aventurers away from their homes… Seeking gold, land or just for a fresh start, pioneers have sometimes gambled everything they owned on a single journey fraught with pitfalls. A couple of years before the Gold Rush, an expedition got bogged down in the Nevada snowstorms…
In 1846, California was not an American state — it still belonged to Mexico. Home to a few colorful tribes, the landscape was naked, wild, spotted with ranchs and Christian missions. At the time, San Francisco was a shaky village inhabited by 200 adventurers, war veterans or missionaries. The Gold Rush had not materialized just yet: it would soon turn California into ‘the Golden State’, a rich, effervescent land.
Nevertheless, despite the deserted, dangerous features of the American West, it still attracted some explorers in the early-19th century. Why so? People simply longed for a better life, a nicer weather, opportunities to start from scratch and (hopefully) get rich. So they left their homes, wives and children and boarded wagons heading West… On a bumpy, stony trail that held many promises — the notorious California Trail.
Following the pioneers’ footsteps
The California Trail, first cleared by trappers and explorers, was now softened by the wheels of the pioneers’ wagons and the heavy hooves of their cattle. It was a rough way, though — crossing deserts, jumping over lakes, staggering into the mountains, leaning before ravines. The summer of 1846 gathered a massive group of pioneers on exile. Two families, the Donners and the Reeds, decided to team up along the way: 32 people headed to California — 3,000 miles away…
To guide them along the way across that wild, broken territory, explorers relied on a travel guide untitled Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon & California. Inside, author Stanford Hastings promoted ‘his’ shortcut — which supposedly shortened the way by 300 miles and offered a pleasurable landscape and sightseeing. Easy as a hike? Not really. Actually, Hastings had partnered with a local who owned a trading post in the area… The shortcut was aimed at bringing him new, exhausted customers. (Hastings had not even tried ‘his’ shortcut once!)
Sharing Hastings’ advice and confidence nevertheless, the Reeds and Donners entered the ‘Hastings Cutoff’ by the end of July. Poor choice: the road got worse, coarse, blocked by uprooted trees and dense foliage. The whole expedition got slowed down — wagons drove on average one and a half mile a day! By late August, the peaceful, friendly atmosphere that featured the procession had faded away. But it was too late to turn around.
Long Way To Hell
So the pioneers had to keep going, despite the growing exhaustion of man and beast alike. Goatskins were empty, food was getting scarce. To cap it off, the landscape became drier at every day that passed by — switching from rocky mountainous trails to deserts of salt. Lost into the stifling whiteness of the Great Salt Lake Desert, wagons got bogged down into melting salt. Oxes and horses, killed by thirst, were left behind; their rotting carcasses punctuating the infinitely white horizon.
At the end of September, the Donner-Reed expedition eventually made it out of the desert and recovered at a watering place; but the pioneers could not rest for long. The journey was a seasonal one, optimized for the summer months and its easier travel conditions. Because of the ‘Hastings Cutoff’, they had already lost a month (!) over their planned itinerary. And their ordeals were not over yet, as the scorching sun now gave way to October snowstorms…
Wild, Wild West
On October 20, the ragged procession (having in the meantime weathered Native Americans’ raids) reached Truckee Lake and their final challenge: an anonymous yet dangerous mountain, a 2,100 meters-high pile of rock and snow towering over the land. Another unfortunate twist of fate: snowstorms had showed up a month earlier than usual, and already blocked the pass (to be nicknamed Donner Pass) out of the mountain. The pioneers, again, were stuck, and went down Tuckee Lake to build log cabins.
The expedition, which so far had been disastrous, now turned nightmarish. Due to lack of food, people ate rats or boiled ox skin. Storms intensified, killing most of the remaining cattle — their frozen carcasses worth a fortune here, in the middle of nowhere. The pioneers, day after day, became more selfish, anxious about their own survival.
A rescue expedition was eventually set up — the last hope of saving the dozens of people (two thirds of whom were children) trapped on the frozen shores of Truckee Lake. Several had died already. Following 33 days of walking, the surviving pioneers warned the local authorities. When the latter, well-equipped, made it back to Truckee Lake, what they discovered horrified them. The remaining members of the Donner-Reed expedition had turned to cannibalism to survive — eating the bodies of their dead counterparts.
Is Meat Murder?
87 pioneers had taken part in the expedition. Only 48 of them made it to California. This nightmarish odyssey was heavily publicized by U.S. newspapers, and soon the gloomy features of the ‘Donner Party’ echoed around the world. To this day, it still exerts a kind of morbid fascination — as should one of the founding pillars of the Wild West scenery. Sure, the American pioneers’ adventures were seldom that horrific; but the route was often bumpy, chaotic, unpredictable — synonymous with storms, splinters and bursts of self-interest.
One year later, in 1848, the most famous page of the American West history was written in gold and blood. James Marshall accidentally found gold dust while building a sawmill on the shores of the American River — the trigger of the Gold Rush. The greatest human migration of the history of the United States followed. More than a hundred thousand Native Americans were killed in the process, swept away by the wave of pioneers coveting their (promised) lands. And Virginia Reed, one of the 48 survivors of the dreadful Donner Party, wrote her cousin in 1847: “Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can”. A wise piece of advice.
- George Stewart, The California Trail: An Epic With Many Heroes (1983), University of Nebraska Press.
- Julie M. Schablitsky, “A New Look at the Donner Party”, Archaeology, vol. 65, no. 3, 2012, pp. 53–62. JSTOR.
- Waggoner, W. W. “The Donner Party and Relief Hill”, California Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 4, 1931, pp. 346–352. JSTOR.
- Kevin Starr, California: A History (2007), Random House Publishing Group.
- Erin Blakemore, “How the Donner Party Was Doomed By a Disastrous Shortcut”, History.com, 19/02/2019.