On February 19, 1847, a team of rescuers reached survivors of the Donner Party, pioneer
s 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
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 cannibal
ism. Driven to desperation
, members had killed two members of the party for food, and then taken advantage of others who had died of starvation
, or frostbite
About 90 pioneers (families, workers, and guides) began the journey. Only 48 survived.