The lure of a better life on America’s West Coast saw thousands of mid-19th-century pioneers pack their lives into covered wagons and attempt an arduous journey to a promised land. Among them, in 1846, were two families from Illinois: the Donners and the Reids. After travelling with a large wagon train for two months along the California Trail, the Donner party arrived at Little Sandy River in modern-day Wyoming. There, the disastrous decision to follow a new route was made.
George Donner duly led 87 people in 23 wagons to Fort Bridger and the supposedly quicker Hastings Cutoff, where the travelers endured great hardship crossing the Wasatch Mountains and Great Salt Lake Desert. Far worse, they took three weeks longer to reach Elko than those who had stayed on the proven California Trail – a delay that would ultimately prove fatal.
When the Donner party finally reached the forbidding Sierra Nevada Mountains in late October a snowstorm blocked their pass, preventing wagons from progressing. Low on supplies, the stranded emigrants divided into two groups and camped, slaughtering their oxen for food.
In mid-December a group of 15 (later known as the Forlorn Hope) fashioned snowshoes and headed into the mountains. Close to death, seven survivors reached safety in January 1847. They survived only by resorting to cannibalism, eating fallen colleagues after they died. Of those who remained behind, 14 were dead when the first relief party arrived from California in February and saved 21 emigrants. Three further missions rescued the rest, though cannibalism again broke out before the last survivor was collected in April.
Had the Donner party stuck to the California Trail, they would have been through the mountains before the pass became snowbound. But they couldn’t resist the shortcut that never was… and paid the price.
When: Winter of 1846-1847
Where: Sierra Nevada Mountains, Nevada, USA
Death toll: 41
You should know: Of the Forlorn Hope – 15 doughty individuals who set out to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains seeking the safety of California – ten were men and five were women. Of the seven survivors, two were men… and five were women.