Western Life

The Donner Party

In the middle of the 18th century, America witnessed one of the greatest numbers of migrations from East/Midwest to the Californian territory. Fascinated by the western economy and the catholic culture of California, it became a place where families from the East and Midwest saw fit to lead their lives and flourish. The journey by no means was a comfortable one. California was only accessible either through sea or a tedious land journey taking over 26 weeks to complete, through mountains. Nearly 500 wagon trains compromising of families aspiring to lead a flourishing life in California left in 1846 with little knowledge of what laid ahead for them. These American migrants are referred to as the Donner Party.

The Donner Party took off with high hopes from Missouri and chose the land journey over a sea voyage to reach their ultimate destination. Their choice of the trail was the Oregon Trail which usually took a couple of months to complete. Still wishing to reach California faster, the Oregon Trail was soon voted out and the migrants decided to choose an alternate route known as the Hasting’s Cutoff. The Hasting’s Cutoff had no marked route in comparison to the Oregon trail which consisted of establishing trails that could be followed. Instead, the Hasting’s Cutoff took the migrants through Utah’s mountains and the famous Great Salt Lake Desert. The journey through Hasting’s Cutoff initially seemed more convenient primarily because it would help save migrants plenty of time but little did they know about the difficulties the alternative route would bring. For starters, unlike the Oregon Trail which had proper trail marks, the rugged terrain faced by the migrating families through the Hasting’s Cutoff was difficult to pass. This resulted in the families becoming separating from each other and losing cattle they had brought with them on the journey.

With the migrating families now divided into smaller groups with little information or knowledge about the other families, they carried on with their journey nonetheless. All the ordeals and incidents faced by the families by far would be nothing compared to what awaited them. The toughest part of the journey to California was undoubtedly the last 150 kilometers which cut through the mountains of Sierra Nevada. With hundreds of mountains peaking thousands of feet, steep and covered by the early snow, the families became stuck. Efforts made by some smaller groups to reach the summit ended in vain, snowbound and with little to no food available. It was a life or death situation for them and in order to stay alive, some migrants resorted to cannibalism in order to stay alive.

Rescuers from California made several attempts to reach the migrants. Eventually around half of the people who set out on the journey finally made it to start new lives in California.

The circumstances faced by the Donner Party were a consequence of poor decision making and simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Donner Party, is regarded as one of the worst tragedies in the history of America and has served as the story behind dozens of works of poetry, drama, and film.

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