History of the Donner Party

Inspired by the historical facts of a group of pioneers who traveled west in 1846, Meet Your Mountain focuses on just 16 characters to tell the story. But the actual history is just as fascinating as the story created for the musical. 

Donner Memorial State Park.

Donner Memorial State Park.

The journey west usually took between four and six months, but the Donner Party was delayed due to difficulties encountered on the trail. They took a new route, referred to as “Hastings Cutoff,” which led through rugged terrain crossing the Wasatch Mountains, and then to even worse conditions crossing the Great Salt Desert. The group’s troubles continued as they lost many cattle and wagons, experienced rifts between members of the company, and fell further and further behind on the trail.

By the beginning of November, the pioneers had reached the foreboding Sierra Nevada mountain range, but in that year there was an early, very heavy snowstorm which blocked the mountain pass over the final summit to California. Trapped by the snowstorms, the group set up camp in the mountains, but their food supplies were nearly gone. Rescue parties from California tried to reach the group, but the same snowstorms which trapped the pioneers also prevented rescue, and it was more than three months before the first rescue party reached them.  Of the 87 members of the Donner Party, 48 survived to reach California.

For all of the hardships and trials along the 2,000 mile journey, the one thing for which the Donner Party is most remembered is that many of the survivors were able to live by cannibalising the flesh of their fallen companions.

For  Further Reading

  • History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra Nevada by Charles McGlashan (1918)
  • Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party by George R. Stewart (1936)
  • Winter of Entrapment: A New Look at the Donner Party, by Joseph King (1992)
  • Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party, Edited by Kristen Johnson (1996). 
  • The Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train, 1846-47, by Frank Mullen Jr with Photographs by Marilyn Newton (1997)