The Survival of the Donner Party

Essay by ericabeeCollege, UndergraduateB+, April 2009

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While history remembers the Donner Party as a horrific display of cannibalism, it was a small aspect of the entire story which was primarily a story of bravery and the drive to make a better life in the West. The tragedy of the Donner Party is one of the most mesmerizing in the history of the American West. The study of the historical evidence presents this event as a tale of how a group of common people fought back almost to their journey’s end only to face greater hardship, even death. Since the time this incident took place, the Donner story has been narrated, written, explained by many different people in many different ways, but much of what has been written about the Donner Party is creative writing. Of the thousands of people that migrated to California during the second half of the 19th century, none experienced more suffering than the Donner Party.

In the early spring of 1846, the Donner Party was organized in Springfield, Illinois. Composed of the families of George Donner, Jacob Donner and James F. Reed, the Donner Party started westward across the plains caught up in the westward excitement. Traveling on the California Trail, over Hastings Pass and the Sierra Nevada’s, the majority of the Donner Party stopped to wait out the snow storms while the fifteen people of the Forlorn Hope continued on in hope of finding rescue. It was the survival choices of these fifteen people that people now associate with the tragic and gruesome story of the Donner Party.

The Donner Party consisted of the families of George Donner, Jacob Donner and James F. Reed, in addition to their hired hands and totaled 87 people total. George Donner, a prosperous farmer, lived just outside Springfield, Illinois. He was the leader...