“Remember, never take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can”
-Sage advice given by a survivor of the Donner Party incident to her cousin who was coming to California.
In the winter of 1846-1847 a band of wagon train pioneers became horribly trapped in unseasonably harsh weather in the Sierras. Snowbound for months, the desperate families watched as provisions ran low, and then ran out.
Having covered more than 2,000 miles of harsh overland, crossing Indian-infested prairies and vast deserts and cutting their way through mountain passes, they were only 150 miles from their destination when the weather closed in and would not let go. As they began to freeze and to starve and die, the survivors began to contemplate the unthinkable: eating the remains of loved ones in order to survive themselves.
Lots were drawn, and then ignored, but finally the desperate hunger became more than they could bear and the unlucky dead were served up to feed the starving living.
By the time relief parties reached them, It was too late for nearly half the party. Survivors were brought to the safety of Sutter’s Fort in what is now Sacramento. Of the 87 members of the party, only 48 survived to tell the tale.
Back in San Francisco, sordid reports began filling the newspapers, labeling the survivors as cannibals, all.
“A more shocking scene cannot be imagined, than that witnessed by the party of men who went to the relief of the unfortunate emigrants in the California Mountains. The bones of those who had died and been devoured by the miserable ones that still survived were lying around their tents and cabins. Bodies of men, women and children, with half the flesh torn from them, lay on every side.” - The California Star, April 1847
While the Star’s lurid description was a gross exaggeration of the tragedy of the Donner Party, the horror of their situation has fascinated generations since, inspiring books, music and films, art and memorials.
The Emigrant Museum in Truckee sits almost at the spot where the Donner Party made their final camp sites. The small collection contains books, maps and personal items that once belonged to members of the Donner Party, as well as a replica of the doll young Patty Reed smuggled to safety in her petticoats. Artifacts recovered during Donald Hardesty’s local excavations are displayed in a case near printing plates from The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate, written by survivor Eliza P. Donner Houghton.
Outside the museum a self-guided tour goes past the Donner Party’s Murphy family cabin site, and a nearby memorial topped by a forward-looking pioneer family marks the remarkable height of the snows from the winter of 1846-47.