Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Donner Party -- A Dreadful Fate 1847


It was in April of 1846 that eight families gathered together in Springfield, Ilinois, all with the common goal of going to California. Their party was originally organized by forty-six-year-old James Reed who was a businessman. 

Reed was born in the north of Ireland and came to America as a boy. He grew to settle in Illinois, and he became known as a sharp businessman. Though prosperous, he had hopes of making an even greater amount of money in California. While the California Gold Rush had not yet happened at that time, many Americans saw California and Oregon as places of boundless opportunity. 

As for Reed, it's said that he also saw California's temperate climate as a place to alleviate his wife's medical conditions. It was certainly seen to be better than the harsh winter climate found in Illinois. So in 1846, Reed saw the West as a better choice for his sickly wife, Margaret, their four children, and Margaret's seventy-year-old mother. When it was time to leave, the Reed family and two servants traveled in three wagons. It's said that Reed had one of the wagons custom-built as a double-decker home of sorts on wheels. James Reed would later be expelled from the wagon train for committing murder.

George Donner, who was a sixty-year-old farmer, was chosen as the wagon train's captain. So subsequently, the expedition took his name -- the Donner Party. It was believed at the time that it should take an estimated four months to make their trek. Before leaving Illinois, James Reed had heard of a newly discovered route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Known as "Hastings Cutoff," that new route was said to cut as many as 300 miles off of their journey. 

They departed on May 12, 1846, almost an entire month late if they wanted to ensure beating the heavy snows. As they traveled to the Mississippi River, their train of 8 wagons joined others heading in the same direction. In all, the entire caravan is said to have stretched for two miles while underway. 

Although tedious, their journey was uneventful until they reached a small trading post at Fort Bridger in what is present-day Wyoming in mid-July. It was at Fort Bridger that some eighty-seven members of the wagon train, including the Donner brothers and their families, decided to separate from the main body and travel the Hastings Cutoff route west. James Reed was convinced that the Hastings Cutoff would save them time because it was reported as being shorter. 

All of those who traveled the old route and didn't use the Hastings Cutoff arrived in California safely. That was not the case for those who took the newer trail. And yes, at Fort Bridger, all were warned not to take that new route.

When they reached the Humboldt River in present-day Nevada, the wagon train had been underway for over five months. They thought they would be in California by then. Because of that, it's said that nerves were frayed and they were angry. One member of the party, John Snyder, began to beat his oxen with his whip while climbing a steep hill. The frustrated wagon driver did so trying to urge his oxen forward. 

When Reed saw that, he rushed forward to have words with Snyder. Soon, the two men were arguing. Then Reed attacked and killed Snyder with his knife. Reed was bound and tried on the spot. George Donner acted as a judge and the rest of the members of the train acted as a jury. Because Snyder struck Reed first and then actually hit Reed's wife while she tried to stop the fray, what took place was seen as self-defense by some and murder by others. Where one stood on whether to hang him or not depending on whether or not you liked Reed. Frankly, it sounds as though he wasn't very liked since a few were for hanging him. 

With no laws to guide them, since the United States laws were not applicable west of the Continental Divide in what was then Mexican territory, Reed was instead banished from the wagon train. Reed departed alone the next morning. While he left unarmed, it's believed his step-daughter Virginia secretly provided him with a rifle and food. James Reed left the train and went on ahead to California. His invalid wife, children and mother-in-law were left behind to travel to California on their own with the Donner Party. 

As for Margaret's seventy-year-old mother, she had tuberculosis and died on the trip. She is said to have been buried somewhere along the way. And was not part of when they became stranded. I can't find if her resting place was ever noted.

It was October 28, 1846, and the Sierra Mountains were white and cold. Snows had started a month earlier than usual that year. As the Donner Party approached the summit of the Sierra Mountains near what was known as Truckee Lake at the time, they found the pass unpassable. It was clogged with up to six feet of new-fallen snow. 

Realizing that their wagons were no match for the deep snow, they retreated to the lake twelve miles below. That was where the hapless pioneers became trapped, unable to move forward or back. Shortly before, the Donner family had suffered a broken axle on one of their wagons and fallen behind. Also trapped by the snow, they set up camp at Alder Creek six miles from the main group. Soon, survival was on their minds as each camp erected make-shift cabins and hoarded their limited supply of food. 

The snow continued to fall, and some reports say it reached a depth of as much as twenty feet. Those conditions made hunting and foraging for food impossible. It was because of being unable to hunt and forage, and seeing their wagons as unable to move, that they slaughtered their oxen. It is said that when this meat was consumed, they relied on the animals' tough hides. Boiling and eating the hides was not enough. When starvation began to take its toll, and no other option left, supposedly the survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive.

By the middle of December, a group of fifteen of those stranded and starving used makeshift snowshoes to trudge through blizzard conditions to break through the pass and into California. It is said that seven of those 15 survived to alert Sutter's Fort of what happened to the Donner Party. After that, a series of four rescue parties were launched with the first arriving at the Donner camp in late February. Between them, the rescuers were able to lead forty-eight of the original eighty-seven members of the party to safety in California.

To his credit, James Reed attempted to raise men to save those stranded. Of course of the 48 who survived, only the Reed and Breen families remained intact. The children of Jacob Donner, George Donner, and Franklin Graves were orphaned. William Eddy was alone. Most of the Murphy family had died. Most of the Donner Party members' possessions were discarded.

As for the reports of cannibalism?  Supposedly the survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive. Or did they? Is there any proof that survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive? 

Well, there are conflicting reports from survivors and rescuers. In fact, at one point, a few survivors said yes but then than recanted to say no it didn't happen. One Of the different groups there, it's said that the Reed family was the only group who is known for certain to have not resorted to cannibalism. Some say it had to do with Margaret Reed refusing to allow it to happen. Considering she was said to be so sickly, that's quite a feat. 

As for evidence of cannibalism? In 2010, a report came out that stated "members of the infamous Donner Party might not have been cannibals — but some experts are having trouble digesting the idea."

The 2010 article states, "Gwen Robbins, an anthropology professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., recently completed inspection of 85 pieces of bone found in Alder Creek and found all the bones to be from animals — cows, horses, deer and one dog bone. These findings followed a smaller dig in 2004 that also didn’t find any human bones. 

Robbins and her team operated under the assumption they would need to test 105 samples to make a more conclusive statement about the cannibalism, but because many of the bones were fragmented, burned and otherwise damaged, only 85 were found.

The researchers were about 70 percent confident they would find at least one human bone, assuming those human bones were less than 1 percent of the sample and their remains were processed and preserved similarly to other fragments, Robbins said. The human bones would have been on the top of the deposit, Robbins said, but none were found.

"The findings don’t prove that cannibalism didn’t take place," Robbins said, "but they suggest that, at the Alder Creek site, cannibalism may have been limited." -- end of article.

So was there cannibalism? Well, the fact is that there is no physical evidence of cannibalism taking place there. So if there was cannibalism there, it's my belief that it was not as rampant as it was portrayed in the sensationalized newspaper accounts of the time. 

Tom Correa

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