Even if you’ve never heard of the infamous Donner Party, you’ve heard of the Donner Party. Whenever a book, tv show, or movie jokes about survival cannibalism, you should know this is a direct result of the horrific expedition of a group of settlers during the 19th century. This group of American settlers had high hopes for their westward expansion, but, through a series of poor decisions and preparedness failures, they succumbed to cannibalism. Only 45 of the original 81 made it out of the ordeal alive. The legend of the Donner Party has even been memorialized in California with both the Donner Pass and Donner Memorial State Park because it is “an isolated and tragic incident of American history that has been transformed into a major folk epic.”
Before we move on to the survival lessons we can learn from the Donner Party, here’s a quick review. According to History.com, “In the spring of 1846, a group of nearly 90 emigrants left Springfield, Illinois, and headed west. Led by brothers Jacob and George Donner, the group attempted to take a new and supposedly shorter route to California. They soon encountered rough terrain and numerous delays, and they eventually became trapped by heavy snowfall high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Purportedly reduced to cannibalism to survive through the winter, only half of the original group reached California the following year.”
After sussing out the details, there are some clear don’ts we should follow to avoid falling into the same predicament as the Donner Party did on their ill-fated expedition.
Don’t be ignorant or arrogant
Michael Wallis wrote a book entitled The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny that goes far beyond discussing the taboo of cannibalism. In an interview about the book, Wallis says, “Those of us who do not learn our history are doomed to repeat it — the sins of the past — and that's certainly the case with the Donner Party. The words that ring out to me continually are two words that combined can be very fatal, then as now, and those words are: ignorance and arrogance.”
One misconception about the Donner Party is that they were unprepared. They were not unprepared; they were underprepared. In their arrogance, they packed wagons full of belongings, including items like fine wine, books, and big feather beds. Along the journey, they wound up having to abandon these things to lighten the load.
The Donner Party also didn’t have the knowledge they needed to survive this expedition. For example, they took cattle, but they left during a season when it made traveling with animals difficult, and they didn’t know how to fish for trout. Not only did they run into issues feeding their own animals, but they also wound up eating their animals when they couldn’t find other food sources.
Don’t take shortcuts
A major reason the Donner Party faced such extremes is that they took an ill-advised shortcut. According to History.com, “In 1846, however, a dishonest guidebook author named Lansford Hastings was promoting a straighter and supposedly quicker path that cut through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Salt Lake Desert. There was just one problem: no one had ever traveled this ‘Hastings Cutoff’ with wagons, not even Hastings himself. Despite the obvious risks—and against the warnings of James Clyman, an experienced mountain man—the 20 Donner Party wagons elected to break off from the usual route and gamble on Hastings’ back road. The decision proved disastrous.” This shortcut took them almost a month longer and nearly depleted their water sources. The lesson: don’t take shortcuts, and be careful where you get your advice.
Don’t ignore threats
Unfortunately, the Donner Party ignored very clear threats along their expedition. First, they started their journey much later than they should have. History.com explains, “Emigrants needed to head west late enough in the spring for there to be grass available for their pack animals, but also early enough so they could cross the treacherous western mountain passes before winter. The sweet spot for a departure was usually sometime in mid to late-April, yet for unknown reasons, the core of what became the Donner Party didn’t leave their jumping-off point at Independence, Missouri until May 12. They were the last major pioneer train of 1846, and their late start left them with very little margin for error.”
With the late start and the failed shortcut, they found themselves facing an early winter and stuck in one of the worst snowstorms imaginable facing hypothermia and starvation. When you go out this winter, make sure you have winter gear in your car trunk and your hiking bag. You don’t want to be caught unprepared.
Don’t neglect others
When the families in the caravan realized they were facing disaster, they resorted to a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. This hurt them rather than helped them. In fact, those who worked together as family units survived far better than those who tried to go solo. Mental Floss explains, “Males succumbed at a higher rate than females and also died sooner. The principal reason was that the mothers in the caravan made every effort to keep their families alive, while the younger single men who exerted more energy had no family unit and died early on.” Moreover, they needed one another to survive and be rescued.
Don’t deplete your resources
Historians are clear that the Donner Party did not turn to cannibalism until it was the absolute last resort. Wallis explains to NPR:
“They ate literally everything before they had to turn to human flesh. They of course killed the great oxen, the horses, everything, and ate that meat. They boiled the hides, they picked out the bone marrow, they made this gelatinous, awful goo from the hides, and it had very little, if any, nutritional value.
They ate field mice they caught in their cabins and camps. They finally got to the point where they had to kill all of their beloved dogs, very sadly, and ate all of them. Then they were chewing on pine cones and ponderosa pine bark. They're starving and they're freezing to death, they're becoming delirious, they had to chew on something, so they chewed on anything they could find.”
They turned to cannibalism because they needed protein to survive, and the dead bodies were the only source of protein they could find. But, before they turned to cannibalism, they had already depleted their water and abandoned many of their essential supplies. They tried to be resourceful with what remained – as grotesque as it may seem.
It’s easy for us to judge the Donner Party, but the truth is, we haven’t faced as desperate a situation. Therefore, avoid arrogantly suggesting you won’t do what they did to survive.
As Wallis explains, “When people say to me, ‘This cannibalism, how awful!’ I always just turn it right around on them and say, ‘What would you do? What would you do if you were starving to death, freezing to death, and your children were around you, and you saw them, and they were dying, and you knew that this store of protein was there? What would you do?’ I know what I would do.”
Ultimately, there are many survival lessons we can learn from the Donner Party. The biggest is to prepare for more than the minimum. Don’t stick to the suggested 3 days’ worth of water and food – go far beyond it. Our preparedness supplies and skills should cover all seasons, weather, and possible disaster scenarios.
Don’t make the same mistakes, friends.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply