Monday, January 14, 2013

The Donner Party

In July, 1846, a group of 87 westward-bound pioneers made a bold decision. They would take a new shortcut to California instead of using the Oregon Trail. Named for its leader, George Donner, the Donner party was seeking a new life in a new land. Instead, it found disaster.

The new trail turned out to be no shortcut. The trip was hard and slow, and some families had to abandon their supply wagons. The party also had to travel west across Utah’s  Salt Desert. Food was scarce when the party reached the Sierra Nevada mountains in October, much later than it had planned.
The trail the Donner party followed  was called Hastings Cutoff. It was named for Lansford Hastings, a well, known western guide. A book by Hastings praising the shortcut helped convince the Donner party to take the trail.

An early blizzard trapped the Donner party in the mountains. The settlers hoped the weather  would improve, but more snow fell. In December, some party members left on snowshoes to find help. The rest ate their animals and then the animals’ hides. Some of the settlers starved to death. Some survived by eating the flesh of their dead comrades. Only 40 people survived the terrible winter in the mountains.
You can access a teacher’s guide and some other information here and find diary entries here.

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