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Wild West Western Facts

Donner Party


George Donner was a farmer, who along with his brother Jacob, organized the famed Donner party in 1846. George Donner was 62 at the time, and the expedition party consisted of 27 men, 17 women, and 43 children, spread throughout 23 wagons.

Donner and the other leaders relied on a book by a man named Hastings who wrote "Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California" however there was misinformation in the book that would bear on decisions of the party to leave the "trail" at Hastings cutoff. Therefore, because of the leadership disputes and the misinformation the group lost weeks of valuable time crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Salt Lake Desert, so as they approached the pass in the Sierra Nevadas in late October, the party was weary and low on critical supplies. Two men were sent ahead to get more supplies in California and one returned with food and two Indian guides.

When they started through the pass, a blizzard struck, and the group became snowbound, and the party made shelters. The snow in the pass increased and the food became critically short. In mid-December the remaining livestock wandered off, and the now panic-stricken party sent off a small group of 8-men, 5-women, and the two Indians guides set out with scanty rations, and they ran into a bad storm on Christmas, forcing them to "hole-up" for days without food. Four of them died and the others turned to cannibalism to survive, and then two more died, and the Indians refused to eat human flesh and were shot and also eaten. 32 days later seven severely exhausted and almost starved survivors reached an Indian camp.

In the meantime, the survivors up in the mountains were eating hides in snow that had reached 13-feet deep. February 18, a rescue party arrived and led 22 of the party down the mountain but the food that they had hidden for the return trip had been broken into by animals, and so several days later this starving group of people met another relief party headed by a James Reed, who had at an earlier time been part of the Donner group. Mr. Reed brought 15 almost starved survivors down the mountain when a storm hit them. On March 8th, the stronger members made an attempt to go on, and those left behind had no food left. When the 3rd relief party found those left behind with fuel for the fire but no food, three had died and the others had turned to cannibalism. Part of the 3rd relief party went on to the where the main party camped in makeshift cabins, where they found only a few survivors, eating the bodies of the dead. The relief party returned with the strongest people who could travel, and left behind George Donner and his wife who were dying, and an old women named Mrs. Graves and a German named Keseberg. When a party went back in the spring, only Keseburg was alive.

In 1918, the Pioneer Monument was put up at the site of the ill-fated mountain camp, in remembrance of the Donner party and the place became known as Donner Pass. The Donner party is infamous for their cannibalism, rather than for their poor planning and disputes of leadership which had to contribute to the entire disaster. In modern times, there have been reports of cannibalism, most notably the soccer teams plane that crashed in the mountains in South America, where the people had to resort to cannibalism to survive. In certain primitive cultures eating parts of the dead are considered beneficial, however, in western culture cannibalism has been disapproved of as morally wrong. It is also a sad commentary on morality that people in the Donner party shot and killed the Indians that were trying to help them, but they were not condemned for the murder of their fellow man, only the cannibalism they practiced to stay alive.

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