The Donner Party: Social Disintegration (Free Quickread)

donnerfree“I wish I could cry, but I cannot. If I could forget the tragedy, perhaps I would know how to cry again.” Mary Graves. Survivor, the ‘Donner Party’  (click on cover for free copy)

When people hear the ‘Donner Party’, the first thing they think of is cannibalism. That was part of the final event, a result of a number of preventable cascades. By the time this group resorted to that extreme, they had made enough mistakes that we’re not going to spend much time on that aspect.

To me, the most important aspect of the Donner Party catastrophe were the homicides and the way the group fell apart because it is an ominous portend of what happens during catastrophes that needs to be taken into account. The Donner Party is key because it’s a study of group dynamics or rather, how group dynamics don’t work.

Few of us understand how quickly the veneer of civilization can be torn away from people. Soldiers who’ve served in combat zones can attest to this phenomenon, especially among civilians who aren’t trained like the military. In zones such as Bosnia, the Middle East, and other places, the barbarity into which apparently ‘ordinary’ people can quickly descend is frightening, and that is the lesson to understanding the catastrophe that was the Donner Party, because something similar can happen rather easily in future disasters. Turn the power off for a week in a large locale with no relief in sight and the results will be terrifying.

The Facts   In Spring 1846, a group of emigrants departed west for California. Rather than take the usual route, they decided to take a ‘shorter’ new route, the Hastings Cutoff. The delays from taking that route caused them to reach the last obstacle, the Sierra Nevada Mountains so late in the season that they became trapped by heavy snowfall, and were forced to spend the winter. Starving and freezing, some of the group resorted to cannibalism. Eventually, about half the party was rescued in the Spring of 1847.

1846: 15 April: The core of the party sets out from Springfield, Illinois.

12 May: The party sets out from Independence, Missouri, the start point of western emigration.

18 June: William Russell gives up command of the party, trading in his wagon for mules to travel faster, along with Edwin Bryant and some others.

27 June: The party arrives at Fort Laramie. They are urged not to take the Hastings Cutoff.

17 July: Passing Independence Rock, the party receives a letter from Hastings saying he will meet them at Fort Bridger and guide them.

18 July: The party crosses the Continental Divide.

19 July: At the Little Sandy River the party splits and the Donner Party heads toward Fort Bridger while the rest stay on the known California Trail.

31 July: The party leaves Fort Bridger to take the Hastings Cutoff. They cross the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, with many delays.

30 August: The party sets off across the Great Salt Lake Desert, experiencing more delays

26 September: The party finally rejoins the California Trail at the Humboldt River. 7 October: An elderly man is abandoned by the convoy, left on the side of the trail to die.

13 October: One man decides to cache his wagon; the two men who stay behind to help him, come back without him saying he was killed by Indians. He was murdered by one of them.

25 October: A small relief party arrives from California with seven mules of provisions; accompanied by two Native American guides. November: The party cannot make it over Truckee Pass and camp for the winter.

15 December: The first member of the party dies from malnutrition.

16 December: The strongest members of the party set out on snowshoes to make it through the pass to Sutters Fort (the Forlorn Hope).

21 December: The snowshoers have made it over the pass but are battling deep snow. One member sits down, smokes his pipe, and tells them to go on. He dies.

24 December: The snowshoers can go no further. They draw lots to decide who to kill and eat. But can’t kill the loser. Members begin to die.

26 December: They resort to cannibalism.

30 December: The snowshoers run out of human meat. It’s suggested they kill the two Native Americans who were part of the resupply party. Warned, the two run off. 1847

9 January: The snowshoers come upon the two weakened and exhausted Native Americans who’d tried to escape. Shoot the two and then eat them.

17 January: The snowshoers are taken in by a Native American village. For the rest of the party on the other side of the mountains, it’s uncertain when they resorted to cannibalism of those who died from malnutrition and/or the cold.

19 February: The First Relief makes it over the mountains.

29 April: The last surviving member of the Donner Party arrives at Sutter’s Fort.

Whew. Worn out yet? For the complete story, here’s the free Quickread.


  1. I love stories of survival and cannibalism. What I have learned from Shakelton, the raft of the Medusa and others: a decisive leader is hugely important.

  2. Chilling stuff, my grandmother ( a lifelong genealogist) informed me that we are related to someone from the Donner Party. Strange little factoid to live with. Philosophy wise, it serves as a grave reminder. We all have the potential to do damn near anything.

    • Most places this country are five days without power (and hope of getting power restored) from anarchy. It will happen fast and it will be brutal.

  3. Excellent article with keen observations. I used to be a bit of an anti-civilization, ‘return to nature’ guy, but my time overseas taught me to value modern civilization very, very highly. People have no idea what they are capable of.

  4. I’ve always been fascinated by this story…and it is indeed chilling to think how quickly “civilized” society can disintegrate. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina provided just a hint. I can still remember reading about the lawlessness and despair in New Orleans in that time and wondering what would ever happen if there was a massive power grid failure across the country. Scary stuff.

    • As noted above. A key have been our disasters have been localized. So help could come in from places outside the disaster zone. But if the disaster was nationwide or further, things will get very bad, very quickly. One of my largest concerns is how many health care providers, police and others will actually show up for work once things start unraveling?

  5. Tough as it was for those folks (and they could have avoided it all with a bit of common sense and patience), it would be harder now, in a big city. Yes, I’m certain of it.

    Good post. Excellent books.

  6. You may enjoy my Twitter feed @DonnerDigest where I am updating the daily travels of the Donner Party. Also, you have an error above–in April they left Springfield, Illinois, not Ohio.

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