This memorial to the men, women, and children of the Donner Party stands near what is now Donner Lake, California. The top of the monument (where the statues are standing) marks the depth of the snow endured by the party in 1846-1847.
Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, courtesy Library of Congress

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    On February 19, 1847, a team of rescuers reached survivors of the Donner Party, pioneers trapped in California’s snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains for nearly four months. 
     
    The Donner Party had made crucial mistakes from the beginning of their journey. They were one of the last groups to leave Independence, Missouri, on the famous “Oregon Trail” in 1846. With more than a dozen children, several senior citizens, and at least two members of the party ill with tuberculosis, their wagon train traveled unusually slowly. Most importantly, the party chose to take an ill-advised “cutoff” across the Great Salt Lake Desert and Wasatch Mountains. This brutal summer trek through the Great Basin delayed the group even further and cost them oxen, wagons, food, and belongings.
     
    When the Donner Party finally reached the Sierra Nevada—the final obstacle in the trip to California—they were met with one of the most severe winters on record, and most of the party could not continue. Several men left their families to seek help at Sutter’s Fort, California, which stocked supplies for pioneer groups. 
     
    When the men returned with the first of three rescue parties, what they found was tragic. Most surviving pioneers had resorted to cannibalism. Driven to desperation, members had killed two members of the party for food, and then taken advantage of others who had died of starvation, malnutrition, or frostbite.
     
    About 90 pioneers (families, workers, and guides) began the journey. Only 48 survived.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    advice Noun

    recommendation or opinion.

    brutal Adjective

    extreme, harsh, or cruel.

    cannibal Noun

    organism that eats the meat of members of its own species.

    crucial Adjective

    very important.

    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    desperation Noun

    extreme, urgent hopelessness and sadness.

    detour Noun

    unplanned or temporary path.

    frostbite Noun

    injury or destruction of skin and tissue due to exposure to extremely cold temperatures.

    Great Basin Noun

    enormous watershed region in the western United States with no drainage to the ocean, including most of the state of Nevada, and surrounding areas in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah.

    journey Noun

    voyage or trip.

    malnutrition Noun

    lack of a balanced diet.

    obstacle Noun

    something that slows or stops progress.

    pioneer Noun

    person who is among the first to do something.

    starvation Noun

    dying from lack of food.

    tragic Adjective

    very sad or depressing.

    trek Noun

    journey, especially across difficult terrain.

    tuberculosis Noun

    infectious, sometimes deadly, disease of the lungs.

    wagon train Noun

    group of pioneers traveling in covered wagons, often those emigrating to the American West in the 1800s.