This Halloween, we’re bringing you the ultimate food crime! Cannibalism and the Donner Party.
In the spring of 1846, a group of pioneers left Missouri with hearts full of hope and ventured west along the Oregon Trail to start a new life in California. By the time their voyage was complete, nearly half of them would be dead.
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Alpers, MP (2007). "A history of kuru". Papua and New Guinea Medical Journal. 50 (1–2): 10–9. PMID 19354007.
Bichell, R. E. (2017). When People Ate People, A Strange Disease Emerged. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/09/06/482952588/when-people-ate-people-a-strange-disease-emerged
Burns, R. (1992). The Donner Party. American Experience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dY5zzVrlC6I&t=231s
Costello, N (1992). Women Are Better Able Than Men to Survive Calamity, Research Finds : Anthropology: Body fat, metabolism and temperament cited in study of Donner Party death patterns. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-01-12-me-151-story.html#:~:text=In%20analyzing%20death%20patterns%20among,of%20the%2034%20females%20died.
Engelhaupt, E. (2017). Cannibalism Study Finds People Are Not That Nutritious. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/human-cannibalism-nutrition-archaeology-science#:~:text=A%20study%20of%20ancient%20cannibalism,People%20are%20not%20so%20nutritious.&text=3%20lbs.&text=percentage%20of%20muscle%20and%20little%20caloric%20value.
McGlashan, C. F. (2004). History of the donner party: A tragedy of the sierra. Project Gutenberg.
Nierenberg, C. (2018). Why Women Hae the Survival Advantage in Times of Crisis. https://www.livescience.com/61412-women-survival-advantage-crisis.html#:~:text=Female%20survival%20advantage%20In%20the%20seven%20crises%20analyzed%2C,years%2C%20while%20men%20lived%2C%20on%20average%2C%2018.7%20years.
Robbins, M. (2010). What does human meat taste like? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/05/human-meat-taste-cannibal
St. Fleur, N. (2017). Ancient Cannibals Didn’t Eat Just for the Calories, Study Suggests. The New York times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/06/science/cannibalism-human-body-calories.html
Viegas J. (2011). What the Donner Party consumed in their last days. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna44848382
Wikipedia. (2022). The Donner Party. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donner_Party
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S: Hi everyone! I’m Sarah.
B: & I’m Becca! And you’re listening to Unsavory.
S: Becca, do you know what this episode is?
B: Our Halloween episode?
S: Well, yes, but it’s also our TWO YEAR ANNIVERSARY!!
B: Oh my gosh…happy anniversary!! I didn’t get you anything…
S: You’ve continued to do this podcast with me for two years, that’s enough of a gift! Our very first episode EVER about halloween candy tampering came out two years ago on Halloween day.
B: Yes, scary for many reasons. Mainly because it was our first time recording together.
S: So go check out that episode for a spooky Halloween tale, we talk about the history of trick or treating and cover some true stories of Halloween candy tampering. & be nice, it was our very first episode ever!
B: I feel like our Typhoid Mary episode would be another great Halloween-y option…or even the Maple Syrup Heist episode. We have a big selection of very spooky stories.
S: Definitely. Okay so for today’s episode, it’s very fitting that it’s Halloween because this is easily our spookiest ever. This is a topic that has sat on our list of episode ideas for ages because we were both too scared to cover it, but it had to happen at some point, because this is truly the ultimate food crime. Do you want to say it Becca?
B: It’s… Cannibalism.
S: It sure is. & before you get the ick and turn this episode off, I implore you to stick around because I had a very strong aversion to writing this episode but once I started researching and writing, I would actually say this is one of our most interesting, captivating stories yet.
B: I am terrified but also so excited.
S: & this episode actually came at the perfect time because cannibalism is more present than usual in the media right now, with shows like Dahmer about Jeffery Dhamer and House of Hammer with the Armie Hammer cannibalism-fantasy allegations. But those stories, especially Dahmer, are too close for comfort. It’s too recent, too gory, too brutal. So today, I’m going to tell you one of the most famous tales of survival Cannibalism that took place in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846 - we’re talking about the Donner Party.
S: The Donner Party is one of the most well-documented cannibalism events thanks to diaries and letters that were actually written by party members and interviews with the survivors after the journey. Some of the survivors talked pretty openly about the cannibalism that took place, and others never spoke about it, but when you look at what the Donner Party actually went through on the trail, you see that their journey is a true testament to the human will to survive and they really had no other choice. Are you ready, Becca?
B: Let’s do it!
Cannibalism is an incredibly taboo subject and the vast majority of humans have a very strong aversion to it, and yet, there are many different types of cannibalism that have occurred throughout history. There have been cultures with rituals involving cannibalism. For example, the Foré tribe in Papua New Guinea used to have a practice of cooking and eating their deceased family members, which was thought to help free the spirit of the dead. The women and children would typically eat the brain of the loved one, and over time, it was noticed that a strange disease called Kuru was affecting them. The first signs of Kuru were headaches and joint pain, but the afflicted would quickly deteriorate with decreased muscle control, tremors, difficulty speaking, and sporadic bursts of laughter. Eventually the individual could no longer walk or eat and would die. Turns out, much like Mad Cow Disease, Kuru was spread through a prion in the brains of the deceased person, which is why women and children were effected. This practice of cannibalism is no longer ongoing and the last recorded case of Kuru was in the early 2000s (Alpers, 2007).
B: Um early 2000’s isn’t that long ago…
Then we have criminal cannibalism, like Jeffery Dahmer, where criminals are known to have feasted on their victims after killing them. Dahmer was also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal and he was an American serial killer who committed the murder and dismemberment of 17 men and boys in the late 70s and 80s, and he cannibalized some of his later victims. And there is a new Netflix show out about his story - have you watched it yet?
B: Nope and I refuse. Have you?
I have not been able to bring myself to watch it, but I have heard it’s very good and kind of focusses on all the reasons he wasn’t caught sooner - like being a blonde dude in the 80s.
B: Ya I have seen some parents on TikTok dressing their kids up as Dahmer for Halloween. And I refuse to participate in the sensationalization or glamorization of this a-hole. It’s Ted Bundy all over again.
& then there is Survival Cannibalism, in which people consume eachother out of absolute necessity and desperation, which has been documented multiple times throughout history in Arctic expeditions, remote plane crashes, and famines/wars. We even talked about some survival cannibalism that occurred in our episode on Holodomor, the man-made famine in Ukraine in the 1930s - that was one of our sadder episodes but very informative and we do talk about how the situation grew so desperate there that families were forced to make some difficult decisions about what to eat.
& then there is also the alleged celebrity fantasy cannibalism, as we’ve seen with Armie Hammer, the star of Call Me By Your Name who has fallen from grace since his cannibalistic fantasies were revealed, for example, his ex-girlfriend recounted that he wanted to break her ribs, barbecue them, and eat them.*
Nutritional quality of humans*
So our story today focusses on a story of cannibalism born out of desperation. It’s estimated that people can live without food for 8-21 days, and up to two months if they remain hydrated (Kottusch et al., 2009). But if you’ve ever been hangry before, you’ll know that hunger can impact your mood within only a couple hours, days of hunger can seriously impact your ability to focus and maintain relationships, and once delirium starts to set in, you aren’t able to think clearly and would be motivated by your basic human instincts and would eat whatever is available.
B: I actually did a mini presentation in one of my dietetic rotations on delirium in hospital settings. And apparently up to 40 or 42% of older adults are at risk of delirium in hospital since hospitals are notoriously understaffed and unable to help every patient eat…so like simple food wrappers and things - can create a big enough barrier to prevent someone from eating. Isn’t that terrible? Hospital food is probably another scandal we could one day cover.
Ooo yes, maybe on how the nursing crisis is impacting malnutrition in hospitals? We need more nurses! Pay them appropriately! I hope someone is studying this.
Anyways, one researcher studying cannibalism in the Paleolithic era estimated that a human body would provide an average of 125,000 to 144,000 calories depending on body composition. He concludes that humans are not really worth eating purely for nutritional reasons. The meat on one human’s body could have provided a group of 25 modern adult males with enough calories to survive for only about half a day. Of course, there would be nutritional variation between humans, but this is bad news for the Donner Party, especially since by the time people get desperate enough to resort to something like this, the victims have usually already succumbed to their own malnourishment and do not have a lot of lean body mass.
Also, apparently, humans taste like pork or veal. Interesting
B: Ew. My mouth just filled with saliva
Ok, onto the Donner Party.
The Donner Party
Quick shout out to my sources! I watched a very old school documentary that made me feel like I was in 4th grade and the TV just got wheeled in (best feeling ever), called The Donner Party, directed by Ric Burns and narrated by David McCullogh. I also cross referenced a book called History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra by Charles McGlashan, and I used a variety of articles linked in our shownotes, including our good old friend, Wikipedia. I will say that in my research, I noted some discrepancies in the small details and at the time that the plight of the Donner Party was reported in the media, there was a lot of sensationalism and exaggeration. So, 150 years later, I think some of the true details have been lost to time.
Do you know this story?
B: Only the basics. I think they covered this story on My Favorite Murder at one point.
Yes they did! I’ve heard this story multiple times and each time, it sucks me right in because it’s people being pushed to their absolute limits in multiple ways and it showcases that at the end of the day we are nothing without being able to meet our basic needs, so this story really makes you think - what would I do in this situation?
In the spring of 1846, a group of pioneers left Missouri in a convoy of horse-drawn wagons with all their worldly possessions and hearts full of hope, and ventured west along the Oregon Trail to start a new life in California. Little did they know that by the time their voyage was complete, nearly half of them would be dead.
This gruelling journey was actually a very common one at the time. Many pioneers were inspired to leave their east coast homes and journey west to settle in California in search of better economic opportunities for their families. Which sounds lovely and full of hope, but many were also inspired by the idea of manifest destiny, the idea that white Americans were divinely ordained to settle the entire continent of North America. & the phrase “Manifest Destiny” was actually coined only 1 year before our story begins, so I’m sure a lot of people were invested in the idea.
B: I’ve never heard that term before. But am I surprised thatt colonizers were into manifestation? No.
Most pioneers would follow the Oregon Trail from the starting point in Independence, Missouri, and travel about 15 miles or 24km per day until they reached Oregon or California. This journey that took approximately 4-6 months and it had to begin after the spring mud and before the winter snow or wagons would not be able to make the journey. And while the trail was no Route 66, it was fairly well-travelled, dotted with trading posts for supplies, and most importantly, it used a mountain pass that was relatively easy for wagons to negotiate.
A 27 year old gentleman named Lansford Hastings was one of these dreaming pioneers who saw the potential for economic growth on the east coast. In 1845, he published a book called “The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California”, and in this book he proposed a shortcut that would take travelers on a more direct path right through the Great Salt Lake Desert. This would allegedly save the travelers 200 miles of travel. This was also a route that at the time he proposed it, Hastings had never actually traveled before. And at the time that the Donner party set out on their journey, only two men, Hasting’s himself and one other, had ever crossed the Hasting’s cutoff at all, and nobody had ever taken the cutoff with wagons. & these are no Fischer Price wagons, these are like wagon uHauls carrying with beds and carrying all the possessions and supplies required for a cross country move.
So in May, 1846, there was a huge group of 700 wagons setting out from Independence, Missouri to make the journey West. Towards the very end of the wagon train, there was a group of 23 that held the Reed and Donner families and their employees and a couple other families including the Eddys, Murphys, and Breens. 87 people made up the Donner party so whole list of names is readily available on Wikipedia, but I’ll just read through some of the main characters for our story.
First up, George Donner & the Donner family. George was 60 years old and he was with his wife, Tamsen, and their three daughters, Frances (6), Georgia (4), and Eliza (3), and George’s daughters from a previous marriage, Elitha (14) and Leanna (12). George’s younger brother Jacob and his wife Elizabeth also joined, with their five children, George (9), Mary (7), Isaac (6), Lewis (4), and Samuel (1), and Elizabeth’s sons from a previous marriage, Solomon & William Hook (aged 14 & 12). The Donners also brought their crew to drive the wagons and look after the animals, which was comprised of six young men aged 16-30. Already, you know that these are people who had the means to hire a team to move them cross country.
Alongside the Donner family was the Reed family headed by James Reed, who had immigrated from Ireland with his widowed mother and moved to Illinois in the 1820s. He was joined on the journey by his wife Margaret, step-daughter Virginia (13), and their children Patty (8), James (5), Thomas (3), and his mother, Sarah (70). His mother was already suffering from Tuberculosis but James had brought her along for the journey as he hoped that the warm California weather would improve her health. His wife Margaret also had chronic headaches and he was hoping the same for her. The Reeds also had hired help, 4 men and 1 woman, and they drove the “Pioneer Palace Wagon” as coined by his daughter, that had two stories, an iron stove, and bunks for sleeping. The Reed & Donner families had 9 wagons between the two of them, the Donner party is sometimes referred to as the Donner-Reed party.
Several other families were also part of the wagon train. We have the Murphy’s, headed by the Leviniah Murphy, a widow with 13 children, the Breen family, Patrick & Margaret Breen and their 7 children, a German immigrant named Lewis Keseberg with his wife and daughter, and many others. You may have picked up on this but there are a LOT of children on this trip. Of the 87 that set out, there were 29 men, 15 women, and 43 children spread over 23 wagons.
B: It also sounds like there were a lot of second marriages in the 1800’s…
There was also a young man named Luke Halloran, who also had Tuberculosis and could no longer ride horseback. He was taken in by George Donner and rode in their wagon. & that right there exemplifies what George Donner was like - he was a generous man, a strong leader, and people really liked him - which is why he would eventually become the leader of the Donner party despite James Reed being the more obvious choice in terms of wealth, age, and experience.
At only 1 month into the journey, the group had traveled 450 miles (720km) with about 200 miles (320km) to go before their first check point, Fort Laramie. & just FYI, I will post a map on our Instagram so you can follow along. I had to look at the map probably 10000 times while writing this. At this point, the group were running about 1 week behind schedule, as they had run into rising rivers and rain, but overall spirits were still running high.
B: I mean, we haven’t even gotten into the worst parts of this trip, and I’m already wondering what these kids did all day. This must have been so boring for them without ipads!
Now, remember Lansford Hastings? The one who looked at a map and decided there was a faster route and published a book about it? Well, you don’t just sell books by word of mouth. Lansford Hastings was sending riders out along the trail to catch travelers before the turn off point and convince them to take his route - the Hasting’s Cutoff.
Most of the migrants opted to travel the well-established route, but the Donner and Reed parties decided to take Hasting’s word for it and try the shortcut. Neither the Donner or the Reed families had a lot of experience with traveling mountainous land especially with wagons or had knowledge of how to interact with the Indigenous peoples along the route who could provide them with guidance and food, and so a shorter route (in theory) was quite appealing.
A journalist, Edwin Bryant, who was a week ahead of the Donner Party on the trail, had seen the first part of the Hasting’s Cutoff himself and knew that it would be too difficult for the Donner Party to handle, especially with so many women and children and their large wagons, and so he sent letters to the Donner Party warning them not to take the Hasting’s cutoff. But the Donner Party would never receive those letters. It’s rumored that a man named Jim Bridger concealed the letters from the Donner Party, because he owned a supply post along the Hasting’s Cutoff that would do much better if the migrants traveled past it. In fact, Bridger told the Donner and Reed families that the shortcut would be a smooth trip. Now, when the party was resting at their first check point, Fort Laramie, James Reed ran into an old friend and experienced mountain man, James Clyman, who advised Reed not to take the Hasting’s cutoff. Unfortunately, they did not heed his advice.
On July 31, 1846, 2 & a half months after their departure, the Donner party set out to tackle Hasting’s Cutoff. Pretty much immediately, the trail was way worse than they could have imagined. The rocky ledges were so steep that they had to lock the wheels of their wagon just to keep themselves from sliding down. Soon they stumble upon a letter from Hastings telling the party to stop traveling until Hastings comes back to guide them. But they were already behind schedule and didn’t really have much time to waste - they have to get to California before the snow. So, James Reed rides ahead to find him, he finds him after 5 days and Hasting’s says I can’t help you. So at this point, they have to make the decision whether to turn back and take the conventional route or continue along the path they’ve already started - and at Reed’s urging they decide to continue with Hasting’s cutoff.
The route was so rough that the party’s progress slowed from 15 miles per day to 1.5 miles per day and all men that were able were required to clear brush, cut trees, and heave rocks from the trail. Not surprisingly, tension grew day by day, particularly towards James Reed for choosing to stick to the cut off route.
The group found their way to the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert, which is a huge dry lake with salt deposits so it looks like snow but it’s a fine white dusty texture. Here, the party discovered a letter from Hasting’s saying that they had 2 days and nights of difficult travel ahead of them without any grass or water. By this point, the oxen and horses are already exhausted and thin, but there was no alternative. So they packed 3 days of grass and water, just to be safe. During the day, the moisture below the desert kind of bubbled up and turned the ground into a bubblegum goopy texture that just didn’t jive with wagon wheels, and during the night, the pioneers nearly froze in sub zero temperatures. Oh, and the so-called 2 day/2 night journey that Hasting’s had warned them about? It took 6. & they ran out of water and grass on day 3. They lost many of their animals and wagons in that journey, but miraculously, no human lives were lost in the desert.
B: Nooo. Not the animals.
On the other side of the Great Salt Lake Desert, the group spent days hydrating at a river and trying to recover all the wagons that had been left behind in the desert. For a moment, it seemed like the party’s luck had turned around - they navigated through the valley next to the Ruby Mountains without incident. On September 26, 4 and a half months after leaving Missouri, the group had officially made it through Hasting’s cutoff and reconnected with the traditional trail - a full month behind schedule.
So now they are back on the well-traveled trail, but their troubles were far from over. Soon after, the group met a band of Indigenous people defending their land, who shot and stole several of their remaining oxen and horses. Then, an altercation over an oxen between James Reed and another man named John Snyder, results in James Reed stabbing Snyder in the chest and killing him. Reed was NOT popular with the group at this point, and even though witnesses had seen Snyder instigate the fight by abusing one of Reed’s remaining oxen, they still opted to banish Reed from the group and he had to travel ahead alone, leaving his wife & 4 children behind.
B: For defending his oxen? Not cool Donner Party…not cool. Was Snyder a part of the original crew?
The trials that the Donner Party had endured resulted in splintered groups, where they were each looking out for themselves and distrustful of the others. Fall was upon them and grass was becoming scarce, and the animals were becoming weaker by the day. To relieve the animals' load, everyone was expected to walk. Those who couldn’t walk, were left behind. An elderly Belgiam man who was traveling with the Kesebergs was kicked out of their wagon in late September and no other families had the resources to take him in. He was left sitting by the side of the road. Without animals, families were forced to abandon their wagons, that carried all their possessions, and walk, carrying their children, with very little food or water to help them survive, sometimes boiling bark, twigs, and leaves as food. They had very little time to rest, as it was a race against the clock to beat the snow. At this point, the Donner Party had endured far more than most emigrants, and while they had travelled nearly the full distance of the trail at this point, their journey was only about half done.
B: This is awful
By late October, the party was facing one final push over the mountains and on the otherside of the summit, it would be downhill from there and only about 90 miles to safety. The crew had been told that the pass wouldn’t get snow until mid-November, so they had to decide if they should rest their remaining cattle or forge ahead. While they were deliberating, one gentlemen, William Pike, was killed when a gun was accidentally discharged and this accident pushed the families to leave one by one. The Breens, the Kesebergs, the Reeds, and the Murphys, with the Donner’s traveling last. Just a few miles into this final push, an axle broke on one of their wagons and had to be left behind, and George Donner sliced his hand while chiseling the wood - what appeared to be a surface wound.
The snow started to fall. The Breen family was in the lead and they made their way up a 1000ft vertical slope to Truckee lake, where there were some abandoned cabins. The Eddy’s & Keseberg’s joined them there, and then the 3 families tried and tried to push forward over the summit but they were faced with 5-10 foot snow drifts and they couldn’t even see the trail and they had to turn back. There was no way they could make it with their wagons and families.
It was only November 4, 10 days before they were told the first snow would come, and now they were faced with an 8 day brutal snow storm. The families had no choice but to set up camp at Truckee Lake for the winter. There were 3 log cabins with dirt floors and roofs that were in desperate need of a patch job, which the families patched with oxhide from their dead oxen. The Donner’s set up their camp farther down the trail and it was comprised of canvas tents.
At this point, the Donner party camp was a mere 90 miles from their safe destination, but the extreme weather had completely destroyed their chances of making it.
As you can imagine, there was very little food left at the camps. The remaining animals began to die of starvation and their bodies were frozen and stacked and unfortunately, the pioneers were not experienced fishermen or hunters. One man, William Eddy, killed a bear, but there was no luck after that. Some families were better off than others in terms of supplies, and this created tension but also some complicated social dynamics, where better-off families would sell goods to the worse-off families at an extreme price, often making the families indebted to them. But let’s be honest, none of the families were in good shape at this point.
Desperation grew in camp and some reasoned that individuals might succeed in navigating the pass in small groups without their wagons. The wagons and the children are the biggest barrier to crossing the pass in the snow. There were several attempts made, but each time they returned defeated. Another severe November storm, lasting more than a week, covered the area so deeply that the cattle and horses—their only remaining food—died in the snow.
B: Oh no…
Life at the Truckee Lake camps was absolutely miserable. The cabins were cramped and filthy, and it snowed so much that they could barely go outside. Diets consisted of dried oxhide either gnawed on or boiled into a glue-like jelly. Ox and horse bones were boiled repeatedly to make broth and they became so brittle that they would crumble. Bit by bit, the Murphy children picked apart the oxhide rug that lay in front of their fireplace, roasted it in the fire, and ate it.
In early December, a semi-relief came when Charles Stanton brought supplies to the group along with two Indigenous boys, Salvador and Lewis, who would also act as guides for the Donner Party’s next attempt at escape.
On December 16, a group of 17 of the strongest men and women set off from Truckee Lake on snowshoes to make a final attempt at making it to Bear Valley, many of them leaving their young children with the remaining adults, not knowing if they would still be alive if and when they returned. They packed lightly, taking about six days' rations (I have no idea what they were rationing but I assume it was oxhide & the remaining supplies), a rifle, a blanket, a hatchet, and some pistols. The journey from Truckee Lake to Bear Valley is only about 90 miles.
This meant that 2/3rds of the people left at the camp now, are children. For food, they caught mice that strayed into their cabins and most of them became so weak they spent all of their time in bed. At the Donner camp, Jacob Donner (George Donner’s son) and 3 of the hired men had died and George’s hand (remember that surface level cut?) was now so gangrenous that he couldn’t work or help out at all.
B: Have you seen gangrene before? It is not cute.
The snowshoe crew was making decent headway without the children, but they were already malnourished and trudging through 12ft of snow - not exactly easy. They were also snow blind and had great difficulty following the trail, especially as delirium set in. So, it wasn’t long before someone suggested that one of them should volunteer to die in order to feed the others. The group prepared a lottery and drew pieces of paper to decide who would die, and Patrick Dolan drew the unlucky long strip of paper. However, no one could bring themself to kill him. The ever-reasonable William Eddy (the guy who killed the bear) suggested that they keep moving until someone died naturally. Before they could get moving again, another blizzard forced the group to halt. Antonio, an animal handler, was the first to die; Franklin Graves was next, and others showed signs of hypothermia & delerium, like Patrick Dolan who began to rant deliriously, stripped off his clothes, and ran into the woods and died. Patrick Dolan is allegedly the first to be eaten, and it’s suggested that it’s because some in the group were so close to death that it was the only option. WIlliam Eddy, and two Indigenous gentlemen, Salvador and Lewis, refused to eat. The next morning, the group stripped the muscle and organs from the bodies of Antonio, Dolan, Graves, and Murphy, the four who had passed so far. They dried the flesh to store for the days ahead, and they took great care to ensure that nobody ate their relatives. So even at this point of desperation, care was still taken and it’s clear that no one was comfortable with what was happening.
B: OK but why didn’t they do this with their animals that died…….
One of the men, William Foster, was crazed with hunger and started talking about killing Salvador and Lewis for food. William Eddy, a real hero, warned them and so they left quietly in the night. Another gentlemen, Jay Fosdick, died over night, so now only 7 members of the original 17 remained. William Eddy and Mary Graves actually went out hunting and killed a deer, but by the time they returned, Fosdick’s body had already been cut apart and used for food. After several more days—25 days since they had left the Truckee Lake camp—they came across Salvador and Luis sitting in the snow, who had not eaten for about nine days and were close to death. William Foster shot them, believing their flesh was the rest of the group's last hope of avoiding death from starvation.
A few days later, the group stumbled into an Indigenous settlement looking so deteriorated that the camp's inhabitants ran away at first out of fear. The Indigneous people gave them some food: acorns, grass, and pine nuts. After a few days, William Eddy continued on with the help of tribe members to a ranch in a small farming community at the edge of the Sacramento Valley. He told community members where the rest of the snowshoe crew could be found and quickly put together a rescue party, who found the other six survivors on January 17. Their 90 mile journey from Truckee Lake had taken 33 days and claimed the lives of 10.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, Margret Reed had managed to save enough food for a Christmas pot of soup, much to the delight of her children, but by January the oxhide roof was serving as their only source of food and things were beyond desperate.
Now, Remember James Reed? He was the one who had stabbed someone mid journey and been banished by himself. Well, he actually made it out of the Sierra Nevada to Rancho Johnson in late October. He was safe and recovering, but was very worried about his family and friends and had been pleading with authorities to send them help. One barrier to putting together a rescue party at this time was that most of the able-bodied men were engaged in the Mexican-American war. Reed swore that he would join American forces and fight in the Mexican-American war and in return, a team of men was assembled to cross the pass and help the remaining members of the Donner party.
B: Wow, what a nice guy. Helping those who banished him,
So a party of roughly 30 horses and a dozen men with lots of food supplies set out, and they expected to find the Donner Party on the western side of the mountain, but the Donner Party was on the Eastern part of the mountain still - remember they had tried to pass and were faced with 10ft snow drifts and had to turn back. So they looked where they expected to find them, but after many days searching in the deep snow, the rescue party turned back, but James Reed pushed forward and he actually made it only 12 miles from the peak. I read one rumour that this happened on possibly the same day that the Breen Family had tried to make their final attempt to make it over the summit in early November. Which would be a cruel twist of fate.
So the first rescue mission was unsuccessful, and while Reed would spend the next couple months attempting to organize a second one, but like I said, most of the able-bodied men in California were engaged in the Mexican-American war. By February, Reed had been talking to so many people and rallied so much support that the people of San Jose created a petition for the US Navy to assist the Donner Party. Plus, buzz was growing because newspapers had started reporting the story of a snowshoe party that had resorted to cannibalism.
Finally, a rescue party of 10 men set out on February 4 featuring our guy, William Eddy. The group made steady progress and cashed food at stations along the way so that they didn’t have to carry it all, and on the way back they would still have food. Two weeks later, on February 18, the rescue party scaled the pass (now Donner Pass); and as they neared where the snow covered cabins were supposed to be, they started yelling because they couldn’t see anything - no people, no cabins. Mrs. Murphy poked her head up out of a hole in the snow where her cabin was completely covered and wondered outlouad "Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?"
The relief party gave out food in small portions, concerned that it might kill them if the emaciated migrants overate (smart). All the cabins were buried in snow. Sodden oxhide roofs had begun to rot and the smell was overpowering. Thirteen people at the camps were dead, and their bodies had been loosely buried in snow near the cabin roofs. Some of the migrants seemed emotionally unstable (fair). Three members of the rescue party trekked to the Donners and brought back four gaunt children and three adults. George Donner's arm was so gangrenous he could not move. Twenty-three people were chosen to go with the rescue party, leaving twenty-one remaining in the cabins at Truckee Lake.
Even though they had been rescued, their journey was far from over. Those that had remained at the cabin were extremely weak and could barely walk. When they arrived at the first food cache, it was discovered that an animal had broken in and they went without food for another 4 days. The Donner party cannot catch a freaking break. The rescuers were concerned that the children wouldn’t make it, and some of them didn’t. Some of them ate the buckskin fringe from one of the rescuer's pants, and the shoelaces of another, to the relief party's surprise. I’m actually surprised there aren’t any reports of bowel obstructions with all the leather hide that’s being eaten. As the first rescue party trudged down the mountain, they ran into a second rescue party that included James Reed. Margaret Reed, his wife, was with the first recue party and upon hearing his voice, sank into the snow, overwhelmed.
After those rescued migrants made it to safety, William Hook, Jacob Donner's stepson, broke into food stores and ate so much food so quickly that he died, likely from refeeding syndrome which is a metabolic disturbance that occurs when nutrition is reintroduced too quickly in people who are severely malnourished.
On March 1, the second relief party arrived at Truckee Lake. James Reed was reunited with his daughter Patty and his sonTommy. An inspection of the Breen cabin found its occupants relatively well, but the Murphy cabin was in dire condition. Remember Levinah Murphy was the widow with 13 children. She was caring for her eight-year-old son Simon and the two young children of William Eddy and Foster. She had deteriorated mentally and was nearly blind. The children were listless and had not been cleaned in days.
No one at Truckee Lake had died during the interim between the departure of the first and the arrival of the second relief party, and this appears to be thanks to cannibalism of those who had passed. Members of the rescue party found mutilated bodies and a hole that contained the dismembered body of Jacob Donner that was nourishing his own children.
The second relief evacuated 17 migrants from Truckee Lake and once again, their escape was not an easy one. A violent blizzard arose after they scaled the pass. Five-year-old Isaac Donner froze to death, and James Reed nearly died. Mary Donner's feet were badly burned because they were so frostbitten that she did not realize she was sleeping with them to close to the fire. When the storm passed, the Breen and Graves families were unable to carry on and the relief party had to leave them. Elizabeth Graves and her son Franklin died shortly after and the party survived by eating their bodies until they were rescued.
Desperate to rescue their own children, William Foster and William Eddy (two survivors of the snowshoe party that had to leave their children) persuaded four men to make a final rescue mission. During their journey they found the eleven survivors of the Breen and Graves families, sitting listlessly around a sunken fire in the snow. The relief party split up, with Foster and Eddy heading toward Truckee Lake camps to rescue their children. The rest of the rescuers took one child each and headed back. One man named John Stark refused to leave the others, so he assisted the Breens and the Graves to safety, advancing the children down the trail one by one and going by to carry the others.
Foster and Eddy finally arrived at Truckee Lake on March 14, where they found their children dead. Lewis Keseberg told Eddy that he had eaten the remains of Eddy's son; Eddy swore to murder Keseberg if they ever met in California. Eddy left the camp without Keseberg.
On April 10, almost a month since the third relief had left, a salvage party to recover what they could of the Donners' belongings. George and Tamsen Donner were dead, and the only remaining living person at the camp was Lewis Keseberg, who was found with a pot of human flesh and all the Donner’s valuables.
In the aftermath of the Donner party, Lewis Keseberg was the only survivor who was very open and willing to talk about his cannibalism. He actually went on to open a restaurant.
Of the 87 members of the Donner Party who entered the Wasatch Mountains, 48 survived. They had come 2500m in 7 months to lose their race with the weather by one day, only 100 miles from safety.
The deaths at Truckee Lake, at Alder Creek, and in the snowshoe party were likely caused by a combination of extended malnutrition, overwork, and exposure to cold. Several members became more susceptible to infection due to starvation, such as George Donner, but the three most significant factors in survival were age, sex, and the size of family group that each member traveled with. Those who were under age 6 and over age 49 had almost no chance of survival, and men were much more likely to die than women. Infact, ⅔ of women and children survived, and only ⅓ of men survived. On average, women require less daily calories than men and women also store a higher percentage of body fat, which delays the effects of starvation and also insulates from the cold (it’s a super power, ladies!). Men also tend to take on more dangerous tasks, like clearing the trails and engage in heavy labor, adding to their physical decline.
& that’s the tragic American tale of the Donner Party.
B: Wow what a story. Lots of lessons of preparation,