On This Day In History 1847: The Donner Party Is Rescued [Video]

On This Day In History 1847: The Donner Party Is Rescued

The tragic story of the Donner party began in Springfield, Illinois on May 1846. At the time, many Americans packed up their belongings and set out for a better life out west. The wagon train of the Donner party had 89 people; 31 people were family members of the Donner’s and Reed’s.

Since many pioneers had already traveled west, trails had been established that were to be used by others during their travels. The Donner party arrived at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, and George Donner was elected to be the leader of the pioneers as they continued west. With George Donner as the leader, it was decided that the party would not take one of the already established trails. A short cut through Hastings Cutoff was where they were going.

The short cut through Hastings Cutoff did not have the intended results. The Donner party went through more supplies than expected, and they were set back three weeks from their intended time frame. In October, the pioneers arrived at the Sierra Nevada mountains. An unusually early snowstorm struck the area and blocked the Donner party’s route.

Not being able to continue the journey, the Donner party established a camp while they hoped for the snow to melt. The majority of the pioneers stayed by a lake that is now named Donner Lake while other members set up camp six miles away at Alder Creek. Fifteen members of the Donner party decided to try and walk to Sutter’s Fort in San Francisco. The brave men who set out on foot became known as the Forlorn Hope.

The Forlorn Hope quickly found that they were going to be unable to get to their destination due to the winter storms. They quickly ran out of food. Patrick Dolan was one of the men who set out on foot, and he brought up the idea of sacrificing one of the men in order to feed the others. They could not come to a decision as how to choose who would be killed for the greater good. Eventually, it was decided to just wait for people to die. Dolan eventually died, and his body was cannibalized. The remaining members of the Forlorn Hope began to strip the meat off the bodies of the others who had already died. Seven members remained, and they found a Native American camp. The natives fed the survivors. One of the members continued west and arrived in Sacramento Valley, where he was able to get help to rescue the others. The remaining members were rescued on January 17, 1847.

The winter was there to stay. After weeks being stranded by the winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains, supplies began to run out. The Donner party, now out of food, slaughtered the oxen that were pulling the wagons in order to eat them. Eventually, survivors had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive.

News of what happened to the Donner’s made its way to Sutter’s Fort in San Francisco. A rescue mission was set in motion. The rescue team set out for the 20-day trip to rescue the Donner’s on January 31, 1847. Rescuers from Sutter’s Fort finally arrived on February 19, 1847, at the site where the Donner party was stranded.

When rescuers arrived, they found the remaining members of the Donner party extremely malnourished. The rescue team fed the pioneers with the food they brought with them. Three other rescue teams were dispatched to help evacuate the Donner’s from their snowbound camp. When the rescuers and Donner party finally arrived in San Francisco in April, only 45 members of the wagon train were alive.

A timeline of the Donner party can be found here.

[Image via Pixabay]