PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: A painting based on scenes of the Donner Party's entrapment in the Sierra in the terrible winter of `1846-47.

How many people were in the Donner Party and how many died?

That’s a question dependent on time and geography. Of the 91 people associated with the group, including one who left the party and six who died before reaching the Sierra camps, 44 died, and 47 survived.  Of the 87 emigrants who took the cutoff, plus the two Miwok Indians who joined them in Nevada, only 81 were trapped in the mountains because some pioneers had died or left the group. Of the 81 souls trapped in the mountains, 36 died and 45 survived.

Why didn’t the Donner Party simply retreat to the Truckee Meadows (the present site of Reno) once they experienced the snowstorms?

In November 1846, the members of the Donner Party made several attempts to cross the pass with and without wagons. They retreated in the face of deep snow and more storms. Going east also was dangerous. The Paiutes had harried the party across Nevada. If they were to move at all it would be toward the safety of Sutter’s Fort. By the time they realized they couldn’t move west in the deepening snow, the trap had closed behind them as well.

James and Margaret Reed, who with the two Donner brothers, were the nucleus of the Donner Party.

Was the winter of 1846-47 the worst ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada? Weather records show the winter of 1846-47 was severe, with about 20 storms (including 10 major storm systems) and a snow depth of about 25 feet at Donner Lake. Other winters since have generated greater snow depths, including 1951-52 (37 feet at Truckee) and the record winter of 1889-90 that buried the Sierra under 66 feet of snow. The early storms were the main cause of the disaster.

Because no archeological proof of cannibalism has been found, could it be a myth?

Archaeologist Dr. James Hardessy dug at the Murphy cabin site at Donner Lake in the 1980s without finding gravesites or hard evidence of cannibalism. A team from the University of Oregon dug at a fire pit at the site of the Alder Creek camp of the Donner families in 2004-2005, but no cooked human bones were found among the fragments of animal bones at that site. But the lack of hard evidence so far doesn’t disprove the many contemporary accounts of cannibalism told by rescuers and survivors. No graves have been found, either, and yet there are unquestioned accounts that many of the victims were buried at the lake. The emigrants repeatedly boiled animal bones to extract every bit or nutrition, which is why those fragments devoid of organic material survived. When survivors turned to cannibalism in the last weeks of their entrapment, there would have been no reason for them to treat human bones the same way as the animal bones they processed earlier in their ordeal.

A bone found by archaeologists in 2004 at the Alder Creek camp of the Donner families that shows cut marks. The bone was from a deer, and thousands of other bone fragments that had been boiled repeatedly also were from animals, not humans.

When did the cannibalism start?

The Forlorn Hope party first resorted to cannibalism on Dec. 26, 1846, during their escape from the high camps on snowshoes. The first mention of cannibalism in Patrick Breen’s diary is from the entry on Feb. 26, 1847, after the first relief party left the camps.

Was there a single mistake the Donner Party made that can account for the tragedy?

Taking an unproven shortcut and encountering early storms in the Sierra Nevada were the main causes of the disaster, but there were many factors that added up to a great tragedy. The party elected the patriarchal George Donner as their leader, rather than the more able James Reed. They lingered for five days at what is now the Utah-Nevada border while looking for Reed’s lost cattle. They rested in the Truckee Meadows, albeit in scattered parties rather than in a large group, before ascending the Sierra. The vanguard of the party failed to push past the lake on Oct. 31, 1846. It was a cascade of events that resulted in a calamity.

A page from Patrick Breen’s diary.

Others crossed what is now Donner Pass in the winter, so why couldn’t the Donner Party make it?

The Townsend-Stephens-Murphy Party crossed east-to-west in November of 1844 but abandoned wagons at what is now Donner Lake. John C. Fremont’s mapping party crossed the Sierra, with great difficulty, in the winter of 1844-45. The exhausted Donner Party was trapped by early snows and lacked the experience and the leadership to get across the pass.

Pioneer Moses Schallenberger survived a winter at Donner Lake in 1844-45, so why did the Donner Party have so much trouble?

Schallenberger, 16, was a member of the Townsend-Stephens-Murphy Party, who helped build and stayed at what would become the Breen cabin at the lake. Schallenberger was ill and could not go on with the others. He survived by using animal traps to catch small game, and to pass the time he read some of Dr. Townsend’s books. The Donner Party members had no animal traps. They tried to rely on hunting for game, most of which had retreated to lower elevations, and tried to fish in the ice-bound lake. They lacked the experience to make the best of extreme winter conditions.

Who was to blame for the Donner Party tragedy?

Many authors have placed the blame for the tragedy on Lansford Warren Hastings, an Ohio lawyer who promoted the ill-advised shortcut. Hastings led parties over the shortcut, now known as the Hastings Cutoff, in advance of the Donner Party. But James Reed, absent Hasting’s salesmanship, was interested in the shortcut when the Donners and others reached Fort Laramie. The pioneers themselves made the decision to take the risk, because they wanted to get to California earlier than the other wagon travelers and get the best land.

Did survivors ever confront Lansford Hastings about the phony shortcut he promoted?

Lansford Hastings

It is said that survivor William Eddy vowed to kill Hastings, but nothing ever came of it. Members of the parties that Hastings safely led on the shortcut later voted him captain of their militia unit in the Mexican War, so it seems there was not a lot of animosity against him among those who were not trapped at the high camps.

What happened to Hastings after he took his shortcut?

The lawyer went on to fight in John C. Fremont’s California Battalion in the Mexican War and later practiced law in San Francisco. For the rest of his life, Hastings promoted various schemes. He suggested the Colorado River as a water route from California to Utah, ignoring the presence of the Grand Canyon. He volunteered to command a rebel army that would take California for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He died in the Virgin Islands while conducting former Confederates to Brazil, where he dreamed of setting up a republic. Historian Will Bagley has written that Hasting’s life demonstrates what the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once noted: “Character is fate.”

SOURCE: “The Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train, 1846-47” by Frank X. Mullen, RN&R editor.

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