Donner ~Tanya Hanson


When I was a little girl, my family drove over Donner Pass, elevation 7,057 feet, to get to Lake Tahoe, and I clearly remember shivering at my parents’ brief mention of gruesomeness. Truly, all most people recall about the Donner Party is, well, cannibalism.

Since then, I’ve learned more about this brave group of hard-working, normal, middle-class Midwesterners faced with the unimaginable. They were not ghouls or zombies. And their stories have so touched my heart I’ve decided to share some of them with you this year.

First off, a short summary:

In mid April 1846, an Illinois businessman James Reed, 45, organized a wagon-train trek to California, consisting of 8 families. His ill wife Margret needed a warmer climate. She, her four children and her mother came along.

J. Reed

Farmer George Donner, 60, accompanied by his wife Tamzene and his five daughters, was named “Captain” of the journey. Along the way, they picked up other travelers until the wagon train was two miles long.

George Donner

Reed claimed they’d spend four months on the trail.

Although the train left a tad late, the journey proved quite unremarkable. Until Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Despite strong warnings from knowledgeable mountain-man James Clyman, James Reed made a decision both fateful and fatal. He insisted on taking the “Hastings Cut-off”, an unproven shortcut through Utah’s Great Salt Desert that was supposed to shave 300 miles off their ETA.

At Bridger, the Donner Party–87 travelers including 45 children–separated from the main group.

Donner Pass domain

Tragically, the Donner party’s short-cut proved a long-cut, adding nearly a month of misery and loss to their travels. As they finally approached the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in late October, they encountered their fiercest enemy of all.


The winter of 1846-47 had begun a month early, drenching the mountain passes and trapping the 81 pioneers at two camps, the main group at Truckee Lake. George Donner’s family group had fallen behind due to a broken wagon axle. They bivouacked six miles away in a grove at Alder Creek.

Their entrapment would last four months.

Each camp set up hasty shanties and tents, slaughtered remaining oxen, and hoarded whatever food they could. Supplies could not be replenished. During the ordeal of the “Hastings Cut-off,”  many cattle had perished or run off seeking water.  As snow deepened, the remaining horses, mules and cows –all possible food sources,  were buried, never to be found.

Large game animals had retreated from the frigid conditions, making hunting impossible. And incredibly, the pioneers had no animal traps to obtain smaller game. Perhaps worst of all, Truckee (now called Donner) Lake had frozen too thick for fishing.

After sacrificing beloved family dogs–actually a much-needed source of warmth during brutal nights in damp clothes, the starving pioneers started in on the tough animal hides they were using for shelter. However, cannibalism upon those who had already died came to be the only solution.

Yes, there were brave, strong members who tried to trudge up through the blinding conditions on foot, to seek help from Sutter’s Fort (think Sacramento), nearly a hundred miles away. Four relief parties forged up the mountains’ west side with provisions, much of which was lost to wild animals, and  helped to evacuate the strongest. By late February, 1847, all 48 survivors had reached safety in California. But these are stories for another day.

During that heartbreaking winter, 20 snowstorms, with blizzards lasting as long as 8 days, buried the Donner party in 25 feet of snow. While these hearty pioneers were well experienced with Midwestern winters, nothing had prepared them for the ferocity of Pacific storms.

Monument 2

Today, the museum at Donner Lake heralds these brave souls.  The brick portion of the monument above shows the depths of snow that tried to defeat the Donner Party.

Now a gorgeous summer and winter resort, Donner Lake is one of those sacred places in American history not to be missed. Have any of you stopped by?

(photos courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution-Share and Frank Mullen.)

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35 thoughts on “Donner ~Tanya Hanson”

  1. I, too shuddered at hearing the story of the Donner Party. Sometimes I think that we too often judge what we have no Knowledge of. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I know, Connie. At first, rescuers reacted to the horror of cannibalism quite matter of factly, something the survivors needed to do to survive. Months later, journalists started sensationalizing the events, calling the party “ghouls” etc

    Judge not, you know…

  3. That is quite an ordeal that they went through. I couldn’t imagine going through it. I’m glad they finally made it to California.

    • HI Janine, we are beach people who just had our first “white Christmas” at our niece’s who lives in the Tahoe area, and I had forgotten how cold snow actually is. My little grandsons even had teary moments with cold hands and windchill. I cannot begin to imagine how it was, in the cold like that. Brrrr. The Donner party’s resilience and courage has really stayed with me.

      • For weeks, Margret Reed scavenged and hid a few scraps of miserable food to have a Christmas “dinner” for her children. Her little girl had a teeny doll she would talk to for comfort. These facts really touch my heart.

  4. I must have missed Donner party day in history class, (or I’ve confused the events with some horror movie I saw at some point), but I always thought the infamy stemmed from them killing & eating members of their party during the time they were snowbound. After reading your post, I’m actually relieved.

    • I hear ya, Sam. I had always heard much the same. The legends and untruths are always so gory. But the two camps never killed anybody. Yes, they faced an inhuman decision with someone died…and tried to be as respectful as possible to grief-stricken loved ones. Beyond sad. Thanks so much for posting today! xo

    • Hi Margaret, we did a snow-play day in Tahoe last week, and with temps in the 20’s, we were freezing. I remarked to my sis: I don’t think we’d be very good pioneers. And we all wore fancy snowproof clothes and gortex gloves. The Donners spent months in wool and cotton garments that would freeze at night because they melted a bit on the sun in the day time….and never got dry. Wow.

      It truly is an impressionable place, and impressive story, to be sure. Hugs to you~

  5. Living in the Tahoe area for many years, I have often wondered why these courageous people would have attempted to trek over these treacherous mountains (even to cut their ETA) during the winter months. Their stories of survival have always intrigued me though. I have spent much time hiking the Donner area during the summer months wondering how these folk physically & emotionally did it. We have not had heavy winters in this region for years now.

    • Hi Colleen, oh so glad you could stop by! It is true that many of their problems and delays were the result of Reed’s arrogance and Donner’s lack of leadership. (all potential future blog subects wink-wink.) Crazy…they would have made it over the pass had they started out ONE DAY sooner. But the big-whigs decided to rest one more day at Truckee Meadows, today’s Reno…

      After that fatal-fateful October 31 snowfall, they couldn’t move ahead, or go back. Sheesh.

  6. Forgot this, I believe I read that the last super-heavy snowfall, mega-feet of it, was 1980. The Donners just happened to be part of a “perfect storm” event. Like…the year before or the next year they wouldn’t have gotten trapped. Oh, fate…

  7. That has got to be one of the saddest things ever. I don’t think I could ever eat my dog–much less another person! But who knows what you’re driven to in those awful conditions! What a wonderful post, Tanya–I always learn something from your posts, and this was no exception. I’ve never been there but I would like to go, just to say I’d seen it.

    • I hear you, Cheryl. As terrible the whole account is (I just re-read Desperate Passage again…it’s such a terrific non fiction book I even reviewed it on Amazon!), I did cry about the dogs, too. At least the other victims were already dead…you’d have to see your pup look you in the eye. Horrific all around. Thanks for posting. xo

  8. Tanya, although I feel the same as the others, saddened by their having to resort to cannibalism and then killing their dogs,(oh, I don’t think I could do that), I enjoyed learning more about the Donner party and the Pass. I remember learning about the Donner Pass in school(long time ago) but I don’t remember it being covered in such detail. I enjoyed reading about the fortitude of our forefathers and the challenges they were forced to face. Thanks so much for sharing such interesting history. Can’t wait to read Open Hearts–sounds like a dandy read.

    • Thanks, Beverly, about Open Hearts. I had such fun writing it…it’s a snowbound story with a happy ending!

      The Donner saga has so many heart-rending tidbits. Just ordinary people whose lives imploded and they tried to live. I can’t even imagine going on a normal wagon train! I am such a weenie. I so appreciate you posting today.

  9. We visited both sites a couple years agonist the Fall. Very moving. It’s so lovely there, hard to imagine what they went through.

    • Hi Nancy, so good to see you here. The lake site, where you can see where the shanties were, is very moving. But it’s busy. Where I found the most tremendous effect was Alder Creek. It’s so beautiful and peaceful now. It must have been glorious in the fall.

  10. Tanya, I knew the basics about the Donner party, but you added quite a bit to my knowledge. Thank you!

    I’ve often wondered what kind of lives those poor people led after their ordeal. That kind of experience must leave indelible scars on a person’s soul.

    • Hi Kathleen, of course some became minor celebrities. Others did the fifteen-minutes of fame thing and helped sensationalize the events, in not good ways, of course. One daughter was so horrified she never mentioned her maiden name after marriage. I still get shivers just thinking on such things…living through it, wow. Hard to imagine sleeping at night even after you got safe and warm. Thanks for posting today, my friend!

  11. Tanya, thank you for sharing your research into the Donner tragedy. It’s an amazing story of survival. You are so right, we should not condemn those poor people. They did what they had to do. If they hadn’t, none of them would have made it off that mountain pass. Including the children.

    • Hi Lyn, thanks for stopping by. its a riveting account and I almost feel guilty reading about it from the comfort of my home.Approx two dozen children survived..Wow.

  12. It is hard to fault the survivors for eating those who died. As a parent, what would you do if your child would die of starvation unless you used a source of protein available without harming anyone? Not a pleasant thought, but a reality they were faced with.
    There is a very good book called IMPATIENT WITH DESIRE: THE LOST JOURNAL OF TAMSEN DONNER by Gabrielle Burton. Tamsen Donner was known to have kept journals and although none were found, the book follows their journey on a very personal level, using journal entries and descriptions of events as the author imagines they happened using what was know of events and the personalities of the people involved. Had I known her, I would have been her friend. When I reached the last few chapters, I put the book down and didn’t finish it for a few weeks. I knew what was going to happen and in my heart was trying to postpone the inevitable. It was like losing a real friend. The book gives good insight into what they were facing and how some responded to it.
    Thank you for reminding me about the book.

  13. Patricia, thanks so much for alerting me to this book. I will look for it. Tamsen,, the correct spelling of which is likely Tamzene, was a remarkable woman who did write early letters back home to her sister. I do want to share some of the women’s accounts in future. Tamzene had survived horrible tragedy already, losing her first family…she claimed George Donner saved her. She would not leave him as he lay dying at Alder Creek from starvation and gangrene, although their girls were strong enough to leave with relief parties. Again, heartbreak. Thanks for,stopping by.

  14. I’m sorry for getting here late.
    I always get the chills when I read something about the Donner party. I can’t imagine how horrible it truly was for them. I would not want to be faced with the decision to eat my friend or loved one or die.
    Open Hearts is such a wonderful story, Tanya. I’m so happy it’s out as a single. I wish you all the very best.

    • Oh, Sarah, thanks for complimenting Open Hearts so heartily LOL. Honestly, it was one of those rare stories that all but wrote itself.

      Yes, the Donner party was faced with such terror, yet hope, too. I felt hope and courage when I stood in the meadow at Alder Creek.

      Thanks for the post today, my friend! xo

  15. Tanya, I think I had heard of the Donner party before, but forgot about it until I read this blog post yesterday. Then I was listening to a Louis L’Amour book yesterday and they mentioned it in there!

  16. Hi Faith, don’t you love it when some little coincidence occurs? I always put more stock in it that I should LOL. I’d love to know the title of the book…I love L’Amour but missed this one. I wonder how the Donners were explained in the story. Thanks so much for posting today! Well, yesterday LOL. I am just now finishing up here. God bless you in 2015.

  17. The book was “Showdown Trail”. It was a very short description of the Donners, mostly because the wagon train the main character had joined up with for a bit was taking almost the same route the Donners did, so Rock Bannon was recalling hearing about the Donners.

    • Thanks for the return comment, Faith. I will definitely look for this book. I need to find out of any wagon trains after the Donners attempted the fake Hastings Cutoff…all best to you.

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