The Case for Cannibalism, or: How to Survive the Donner Party

Let’s say you want to strike it rich. The year is 1846 and you’re somewhere in the Midwest pulling potatoes out of the ground. But you’re tired of pulling potatoes. You want to pull gold. And maybe you’ve heard the rumors: People are finding fortunes in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.1 So you hitch up your Conestoga wagon and head west, joining that year’s convoy of California-bound immigrants. And on July 20, you and the rest of these early pioneers find yourselves staring at a crossroads in what is today southwest Wyoming. Like them, you’ll face a choice: Turn right or turn left?

Both trails lead to California, but the trail to the right detours far north. It meanders deep into Idaho before it reverses course and turns back south into eastern Nevada. The left trail eschews the northern deviation. It takes a straight shot across Utah, and by doing so removes almost 350 miles from your journey. So let’s say you look at a map, note the faster route, and decide to turn left.

At the time, this seems like the wise choice. Andrew Hastings, an adventurer and respected guide, had just scouted this shortcut on horseback the winter before and advertised his new cutoff in guidebooks and postings along the trail. Most of the convoy, fearful of the unknown and unwilling to trust one person’s word, turn right. But you’re not the only one keen to arrive early in California. When you turn left on that July day, 20 other wagons do the same. After a few uneventful days, you and the rest of these previously unconnected pioneers will caravan together for safety and, following some debate, you’ll elect a nice, older, wealthy fellow as the leader of your party. His name is George Donner.

Illustration: Cody Cassidy; Kevin Plotner

The problem with Hastings’ trail, as you’ll soon discover, is that there is no trail. It’s just a line he drew on a map, and the line runs right over Utah’s Wasatch mountains. Because there is no trail, you’ll have to carve your way up with axe and shovel. The 36-mile crossing that you had planned to make in three days will instead take three weeks.

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On August 20, exhausted and low on supplies, you’ll reach the peak of the Wasatch only to be greeted by a sickening view: The Great Salt Lake Desert. Hastings will have prepared you for this “dry drive,” saying it would be a difficult but manageable 40 miles. In reality, the distance is more like 80. You’ll have to drive your parched cattle for six days and six nights, desperate to get to water.

When you finally reach the other side, your party will have lost three wagons and a quarter of its oxen. Recriminations begin, tensions fray: When you hit a second desert in Nevada, an argument breaks out between James Reed and John Snyder, and Reed stabs Snyder to death. Reed is banished.2 Two days later, Lewis Keseberg kicks a Mr. Hardkoop out of his wagon to lighten his load and leaves Hardkoop to die.

The Hastings route will have cost you lives, friends, wagons, food, supplies, tools, livestock—but it will also have cost you your most precious asset of all: time. Instead of cutting three weeks from your journey, the Hastings cutoff will have added almost four. So rather than rolling safely into Sacramento on October 13, you’ll instead arrive in what is today Reno, Nevada, and prepare for your ascent into the Sierra Nevada.

As tardy as you are, you would still, in a normal year, be fine. Late October and even early November is early for heavy snow in these mountains. In a typical year, the pass wouldn’t see heavy snow for another few weeks. “Ninety percent of the time, the Donner Party would have made it,” Mark McLaughlin, a historian of the Sierra Nevada and author of The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, tells me.

Unfortunately, the winter of 1846 starts early. Two weeks of snow has buried the top of the Sierras by the time you arrive, and the weather’s terrible turn is as unlucky as it is decisive. Oxen always struggle to haul wagons up the steep granite walls protecting Truckee Pass (now Donner Pass), but when you attempt it on November 1, you’ll find it buried in five feet of powder. Less than three miles from the summit, you will face two terrible options: one, abandon your wagons and cattle, fashion snowshoes, and trek for Sacramento and your life; or two, retreat to a few cabins by Truckee Lake that previous pioneers constructed a few years prior. The Donners chose to retreat.