Donner Party

Donner Party, group of emigrants to California who in the winter of 1846–47 met with one of the most famous tragedies in Western history. The California-bound families were mostly from Illinois and Iowa, and most prominent among them were the two Donner families and the Reed family. In going West they took a little-used, supposedly shorter route after leaving Fort Bridger; the route proved arduous and and they were delayed. They suffered severely in crossing the salt flats W of Great Salt Lake, and dissensions and ill feelings in the party arose when they reached what is today Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada. They paused (Oct., 1846) to recover their strength, and early snow caught them, falling deep in the passes and trapping them. Their limited food gave out, the cold continued, and the suffering of the group, some two thirds of them camped on Alder Creek and the remaining 22, including all of the Donner family, camped at Donner Lake, grew intense.

A party of 15 snowshoers that attempted to make its way through the snow-choked passes in December to get help suffered horribly; about half of them survived to get aid from Sutter's Fort. Many of the emigrants died during the winter. Some surviving members of the Donner Party were reputedly driven to cannibalism, but despite archaeological examinations of the remains, cannibalism has never been definitively proved. Finally, expeditions from the Sacramento valley made their way through the snowdrifts to rescue the hunger-maddened migrants. Only about half of the original party of 81 reached California. The survivors later disagreed violently as to the details of (and particularly the blame for) the disaster. Donner Lake, named for the party, is today a popular mountain resort near Truckee. The large bronze Pioneer Monument (1918) erected at the lake is dedicated to the party. Nearby Donner Pass has a U.S. weather observatory.

See C. F. McGlashan, History of the Donner Party (1879, repr. 1966); G. R. Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger (1936, new ed. 1960); E. Rarick, Desperate Passage (2008).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West
Ethan Rarick.
Oxford University Press, 2008
The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate
Eliza P. Donner Houghton.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997
Pioneer Children on the Journey West
Emmy E. Werner.
Westview Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "The Children of the Donner Party"
The Year of Decision, 1846
Bernard Devoto.
Little, Brown, 1943
Overland in 1846: Diaries and Letters of the California-Oregon Trail
Dale Morgan.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.1, 1993
Librarian’s tip: "The Miller-Reed Diary with Letters by J.F. Reed and Virginia Reed" begins on p. 245, "The Diary of Patrick Breen" begins on p. 306, and "Diaries of the Donner Relief" begins on p. 323
Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849
Kenneth L. Holmes; Kenneth L. Holmes.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.1, 1995
Librarian’s tip: "The Donner Party Letters" begins on p. 65
Utah's History
Richard D. Poll; Thomas G. Alexander; Eugene E. Campbell; David E. Miller.
Utah State University Press, 1989
Librarian’s tip: "The Donner Party" begins on p. 87
Tales of the Frontier: From Lewis and Clark to the Last Roundup
Everett Dick.
University of Nebraska Press, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the Donner Party begins on p. 153
Sutter of California: A Biography
Julian Dana.
Halcyon House, 1938
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 32 "Hunger"
Digging into Donner Lore
Bolt, Greg.
The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), July 22, 2004
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