The Story of the Donner Party
Peter R. Limburg
The year is 1846, long before the transcontinental railroad. You are a member of a wagon train heading west for California. You are running a couple of weeks behind schedule, but the experts tell you that you can still get across the Sierra Nevada mountain range before the pass is blocked by snow—if you don’t get delayed further. Midway in the journey, in Indian country, you are asked to join a group of wagons that is going to take a new cutoff that is said to save two weeks of travel time. The cutoff has never been tried by wagons before. What would you do?
You join these hopeful travelers and elect George Donner as your leader. From now on your group will be known as the Donner Party. After weeks of grueling travel and mishaps, including the loss of most of the oxen and some wagons, you come to the backbone of the dreaded Sierras. You have lost precious weeks on the cutoff. There is fairly deep snow on the ground already, but it is still possible to get through—if you hurry. But the exhausted oxen cannot pull the wagons up the nearly vertical, trackless cliffs that block the way. You, like the others, must struggle up on foot, abandoning most of your possessions. You reach the pass at nightfall. Some urge pushing ahead and making camp on the far side. The majority say they are too exhausted, and refuse to go on. What would you do?
Snow falls that night; in the morning the pass is hopelessly blocked. You and your fellow travelers return to the lake at the foot of the ridge and make camp. There is no game to hunt, and the remaining oxen are lost in another snowstorm. People are growing weak from hunger and malnutrition. A group of the younger and fitter people set off to cross the pass on snowshoes and bring help from Sutter’s Fort. Weeks pass, and no help arrives. People are dying now, and the food supplies are nearly exhausted. Someone suggests that you try to survive by eating the flesh of those who have died. What would you do?
For the people of the Donner Party, these were not academic questions. Deceived is their true and tragic story, the story of a hopeful dream turned into horror and disaster. They lived it—or died in it.
Peter R. Limburg is the author of twenty books on nature, the environment, marine science, and other topics. Among his books are Weird!, Stories Behind Words, The Story of Your Heart, and Deep-Sea Detectives: Marine Mysteries and Forensic Science.. He is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He makes his home near New York City.
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