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Living Through the Donner Party

The nineteenth-century survivors of the infamous Donner Party told cautionary tales of starvation and cannibalism, greed and self-sacrifice. But not until now are we learning why the survivors survived.

By Jared Diamond
Jan 19, 1992 12:00 AMMay 21, 2019 5:45 PM


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Nearly a century and a half after it happened, the story of the Donner Party remains one of the most riveting tragedies in U.S. history. Partly that’s because of its lurid elements: almost half the party died, and many of their bodies were defiled in an orgy of cannibalism. Partly, too, it’s because of the human drama of noble self-sacrifice and base murder juxtaposed. The Donner Party began as just another nameless pioneer trek to California, but it came to symbolize the Great American Dream gone awry.  By now the tale of that disastrous journey has been told so often that seemingly nothing else remains to be said--or so I thought, until my friend Donald Grayson at the University of Washington sent me an analysis that he had published in the Journal of Anthropological Research. By comparing the fates of all Donner Party members, Grayson identified striking differences between those who came through the ordeal alive and those who were not so lucky. In doing so he has made the lessons of the Donner Party universal. Under more mundane life-threatening situations, who among us too will be lucky?  Grayson’s insights did not depend on new discoveries about the ill-fated pioneers nor on new analytical techniques, but on that most elusive ingredient of great science: a new idea about an old problem. Given the same information, any of you could extract the same conclusions. In fact, on page 104 of the March 1992 issue you’ll find the roster of the Donner Party members along with a few personal details about each of them and their fate. If you like, you can try to figure out for yourself some general rules about who is most likely to die when the going gets tough.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 to 1806 was the first to cross the continent, but they didn’t take along ox-drawn wagons, which were a requirement for pioneer settlement. Clearing a wagon route through the West’s unmapped deserts and mountains proved far more difficult than finding a footpath. Not until 1841 was the first attempt made to haul wagons and settlers overland to California, and only in 1844 did the effort succeed. Until the Gold Rush of 1848 unleashed a flood of emigrants, wagon traffic to California remained a trickle.  As of 1846, when the Donner Party set out, the usual wagon route headed west from St. Louis to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, then northwest into Idaho before turning southwest through Nevada and on to California. However, at that time a popular guidebook author named Lansford Hastings was touting a shortcut that purported to cut many miles from the long trek. Hastings’s route continued west from Fort Bridger through the Wasatch mountain range, then south of Utah’s Great Salt Lake across the Salt Lake Desert, and finally rejoined the usual California Trail in Nevada.  In the summer of 1846 a number of wagon parties set out for California from Fort Bridger. One, which left shortly before the Donner Party, was guided by Hastings himself. Using his shortcut, the party would eventually make it to California, albeit with great difficulty.  The pioneers who would become the members of the Donner Party were in fact all headed for Fort Bridger to join the Hastings expedition, but they arrived too late. With Hastings thus unavailable to serve as a guide, some of these California-bound emigrants opted for the usual route instead. Others, however, decided to try the Hastings Cutoff anyway. In all, 87 people in 23 wagons chose the cutoff. They consisted of 10 unrelated families and 16 lone individuals, most of them well-to-do midwestern farmers and townspeople who had met by chance and joined forces for protection. None had had any real experience of the western mountains or Indians. They became known as the Donner Party because they elected an elderly Illinois farmer named George Donner as their captain. They left Fort Bridger on July 31, one of the last parties of that summer to begin the long haul to California.  Within a fortnight the Donner Party suffered their first crushing setback, when they reached Utah’s steep, brush-covered Wasatch Mountains. The terrain was so wild that, in order to cross, the men had first to build a wagon road. It took 16 backbreaking days to cover just 36 miles, and afterward the people and draft animals were worn out. A second blow followed almost immediately thereafter, west of the Great Salt Lake, when the party ran into an 80-mile stretch of desert. To save themselves from death by thirst, some of the pioneers were forced to unhitch their wagons, rush ahead with their precious animals to the next spring, and return to retrieve the wagons. The rush became a disorganized panic, and many of the animals died, wandered off, or were killed by Indians. Four wagons and large quantities of supplies had to be abandoned. Not until September 30-- two full months after leaving Fort Bridger--did the Donner Party emerge from their fatal shortcut to rejoin the California Trail.  By November 1 they had struggled up to Truckee Lake--later renamed Donner Lake--at an elevation of 6,000 feet on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, west of the present-day California-Nevada border. Snow had already begun to fall during the last days of October, and now a fierce snowstorm defeated the exhausted party as they attempted to cross a 7,200- foot pass just west of the lake. With that storm, a trap snapped shut around them: they had set out just a little too late and proceeded just a little too slowly. They now faced a long winter at the lake, with very little food.  Death had come to the Donner Party even before it reached the lake. There were five casualties: on August 29 Luke Halloran died of consumption (presumably tuberculosis); on October 5 James Reed knifed John Snyder in self-defense, during a fight that broke out when two teams of oxen became entangled; three days later Lewis Keseberg abandoned an old man named Hardkoop who had been riding in Keseberg’s wagon, and most of the party refused to stop and search for him; sometime after October 13 two German emigrants, Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer, murdered a rich German named Wolfinger while ostensibly helping him to cache his property; and on October 20 William Pike was shot as he and his brother-in-law were cleaning a pistol.  In addition, four party members had decided earlier to walk out ahead to Sutter’s Fort (now Sacramento) to bring back supplies and help. One of those four, Charles Stanton, rejoined the party on October 19, bringing food and two Indians sent by Sutter. Thus, of the 87 original members of the Donner Party, 79--plus the two Indians--were pinned down in the winter camp at Donner Lake.  The trapped pioneers lay freezing inside crude tents and cabins. They quickly exhausted their little remaining food, then killed and ate their pack animals. Then they ate their dogs. Finally they boiled hides and blankets to make a gluelike soup. Gross selfishness became rampant, as families with food refused to share it with destitute families or demanded exorbitant payment. On December 16 the first death came to the winter camp when 24-year-old Baylis Williams succumbed to starvation. On that same day 15 of the strongest people--5 women and 10 men, including Charles Stanton and the two Indians--set out across the pass on homemade snowshoes, virtually without food and in appallingly cold and stormy weather, in the hope of reaching outside help. Four of the men left behind their families; three of the women left behind their children.  On the sixth morning an exhausted Stanton let the others go on ahead of him; he remained behind to die. On the ninth day the remaining 14 for the first time openly broached the subject of cannibalism, which had already been on their minds. They debated drawing lots as to who should be eaten, or letting two people shoot it out until one was killed and could be eaten. Both proposals were rejected in favor of waiting for someone to die naturally. Such opportunities soon arose. On Christmas Eve, as a 23-year-old man named Antoine, a bachelor, slept in a heavy stupor, he stretched out his arm such that his hand fell into the fire. A companion pulled it out at once. When it fell in a second time, however, no one intervened--they simply let it burn. Antoine died, then Franklin Graves, then Patrick Dolan, then Lemuel Murphy. The others cut off and roasted flesh from the corpses, restrained only by the rule that no one would partake of his or her own relative’s body. When the corpses were consumed, the survivors began eating old shoes.  On January 5, 23-year-old Jay Fosdick died, only to be cut up and boiled by Mrs. Foster over the protests of Mrs. Fosdick. Soon after, the frenzied Mr. Foster chased down, shot, and killed the two Indians to eat them. That left 7 of the original 15 snowshoers to stagger into the first white settlement in California, after a midwinter trek of 33 days through the snow.  On January 31 the first rescue team set out from the settlement for Donner Lake.  It would take three more teams and two and a half months before the ordeal was all over. During that time many more people died, either in the winter camp or while fighting their way out with the rescue teams. There was never enough food, and by the end of February, cannibalism had established itself at the lake.  When William Eddy and William Foster, who had gotten out with the snowshoers, reached the lake with the third rescue team on March 13, they found that Keseberg had eaten their sons. The Foster child’s grandmother accused the starving Keseberg of having taken the child to bed with him one night, strangling him, and hanging the corpse on the wall before eating it. Keseberg, in his defense, claimed the children had died naturally. When the rescuers left the lake the next day to return to California, they left Keseberg behind with just four others: the elderly Lavina Murphy, the badly injured George Donner, his 4-year-old nephew Samuel, and his healthy wife Tamsen, who could have traveled but insisted on staying with her dying husband.  The fourth and last rescue team reached the lake on April 17 to find Keseberg alone, surrounded by indescribable filth and mutilated corpses. George Donner’s body lay with his skull split open to permit the extraction of his brains. Three frozen ox legs lay in plain view almost uneaten beside a kettle of cut-up human flesh. Near Keseberg sat two kettles of blood and a large pan full of fresh human liver and lungs. He alleged that his four companions had died natural deaths, but he was frank about having eaten them. As to why he had not eaten ox leg instead, he explained that it was too dry: human liver and lungs tasted better, and human brains made a good soup. As for Tamsen Donner, Keseberg noted that she tasted the best, being well endowed with fat. In a bundle held by Keseberg the rescuers found silk, jewelry, pistols, and money that had belonged to George Donner.  After returning to Sutter’s Fort, one of the rescuers accused Keseberg of having murdered his companions, prompting Keseberg to sue for defamation of character. In the absence of legal proof of murder the court verdict was equivocal, and the issue of Keseberg’s guilt remains disputed to this day. However, Tamsen Donner’s death is especially suspicious since she had been in strong physical condition when last seen by the third rescue team.  Thus, out of 87 Donner Party members, 40 died: 5 before reaching Donner Lake, 22 in their winter camp at the lake, and 13 (plus the two Indians) during or just after efforts to leave the lake. Why those particular 40? From the facts given in the roster, can you draw conclusions, as Grayson did, as to who was in fact the most likely to die?  As a simple first test, compare the fates of Donner Party males and females irrespective of age. Most of the males (30 out of 53) died; most of the females (24 out of 34) survived. The 57 percent death rate among males was nearly double the 29 percent death rate among females.  Next, consider the effect of age irrespective of sex. The worst toll was among the young and the old. Without exception, everyone over the age of 50 died, as did most of the children below the age of 5. Surprisingly, children and teenagers between the ages of 5 and 19 fared better than did adults in their prime (age 20 to 39): half the latter, but less than one-fifth of the former, died.  By looking at the effects of age and sex simultaneously, the advantage the women had over the men becomes even more striking. Most of the female deaths were among the youngest and oldest, who were already doomed by their age. Among those party members aged 5 to 39--the ones whose ages left them some reasonable chance of survival--half the men but only 5 percent of the women died.  The dates of death provide deeper insight. Of the 35 unfortunates who died after reaching the lake, 14 men but not a single woman had died by the end of January. Only in February did women begin to buckle under. From February onward the death toll was essentially equal by sex--11 men, 10 women. The differences in dates of death simply underscore the lesson of the death rates themselves: the Donner Party women were far hardier than the men.  Thus, sex and age considered together account for much of the luck of the survivors. Most of those who died (39 of the 40 victims) had the misfortune to be of the wrong sex, or the wrong age, or both. Experience has taught us that the youngest and oldest people are the most vulnerable even under normal conditions, and their vulnerability increases under stress. In many natural disasters, those under 10 or over 50 suffered the highest mortality. For instance, children under 10 accounted for over half the 240,000 deaths in the 1970 Bangladesh cyclone, though they constituted only one-third of the exposed population.  Much of the vulnerability of the old and young under stress is simply a matter of insufficient physical strength: these people are less able to walk out through deep snow (in the case of the Donner Party) or to cling to trees above the height of flood waters (in the case of the Bangladesh cyclone). Babies have special problems. Per pound of body weight a baby has twice an adult’s surface area, which means double the area across which body heat can escape. To maintain body temperature, babies have to increase their metabolic rate when air temperature drops only a few degrees below body temperature, whereas adults don’t have to do so until a drop of 20 to 35 degrees. At cold temperatures the factor by which babies must increase their metabolism to stay warm is several times that for adults. These considerations place even well-fed babies at risk under cold conditions. And the Donner Party babies were at a crippling further disadvantage because they had so little food to fuel their metabolism. They literally froze to death.  But what gave the women such an edge over the men? Were the pioneers practicing the noble motto women and children first when it came to dividing food? Unfortunately, women and children last is a more accurate description of how most men behave under stress. As the Titanic sank, male crew members took many places in lifeboats while leaving women and children of steerage class below decks to drown. Much grosser male behavior emerged when the steamship Atlantic sank in 1879: the death toll included 294 of the 295 women and children on board, but only 187 of the 636 men. In the Biafran famine of the late 1960s, when relief agencies tried to distribute food to youngsters under 10 and to pregnant and nursing women, Biafran men gave a brutally frank response: Stop all this rubbish, it is we men who shall have the food, let the children die, we will make new children after the war. Similarly, accounts by Donner Party members yield no evidence of hungry men deferring to women, and babies fared especially poorly.  Instead, we must seek some cause other than male self-sacrifice to account for the survival of Donner Party women. One contributing factor is that the men were busy killing each other. Four of the five deaths before the pioneers reached the lake, plus the deaths of the two Indians, involved male victims of male violence, a pattern that fits widespread human experience.  However, invoking male violence still leaves 26 of 30 Donner Party male deaths unexplained. It also fails to explain why men began starving and freezing to death nearly two months before women did. Evidently the women had a big physiological advantage. This could be an extreme expression of the fact that, at every age and for all leading causes of death--from cancer and car accidents to heart disease and suicide--the death rate is far higher for men than for women. While the reasons for this ubiquitous male vulnerability remain debated, there are several compelling reasons why men are more likely than women to die under the extreme conditions the Donner Party faced.  First, men are bigger than women. Typical body weights for the world as a whole are about 140 pounds for men and only 120 pounds for women. Hence, even while lying down and doing nothing, men need more food to support their basal metabolism. They also need more energy than women do for equivalent physical activity. Even for sedentary people, the typical metabolic rate for an average-size woman is 25 percent lower than an average-size man’s. Under conditions of cold temperatures and heavy physical activity, such as were faced by the Donner Party men when doing the backbreaking work of cutting the wagon road or hunting for food, men’s metabolic rates can be double those of women.  To top it all off, women have more fat reserves than men: fat makes up 22 percent of the body weight of an average nonobese, well- nourished woman, but only 16 percent of a similar man. More of the man’s weight is instead made up of muscle, which gets burned up much more quickly than does fat. Thus, when there simply was no more food left, the Donner Party men burned up their body reserves much faster than did the women. Furthermore, much of women’s fat is distributed under the skin and acts as heat insulation, so that they can withstand cold temperatures better than men can. Women don’t have to raise their metabolic rate to stay warm as soon as men do.  These physiological factors easily surpass male murderousness in accounting for all those extra male deaths in the Donner Party. Indeed, a microcosm of the whole disaster was the escape attempt by 15 people on snowshoes, lasting 33 days in midwinter. Of the ten men who set out, two were murdered by another man, six starved or froze to death, and only two survived. Not a single one of the five women with them died.  Even with all these explanations, there is still one puzzling finding to consider: the unexpectedly high death toll of people in their prime, age 20 to 39. That toll proves to be almost entirely of the men: 67 percent of the men in that age range (14 out of 21) died, a much higher proportion than among the teenage boys (only 20 percent). Closer scrutiny shows why most of those men were so unlucky.  Most of the Donner Party consisted of large families, but there were also 16 individuals traveling without any relatives. All those 16 happened to be men, and all but two were between 20 and 39. Those 16 unfortunates bore the brunt of the prime-age mortality. Thirteen of them died, and most of them died long before any of the women. Of the survivors, one--William Herron--reached California in October, so in reality only 2 survived the winter at the lake.  Of the 7 men in their prime who survived, 4 were family men. Only 3 of the 14 dead were. The prime-age women fared similarly: the 8 survivors belonged to families with an average size of 12 people, while Eleanor Eddy, the only woman to die in this age group, had no adult support. Her husband had escaped with the snowshoers, leaving her alone with their two small children.  The Donner Party records make it vividly clear that family members stuck together and helped one another at the expense of the others. A notorious example was the Breen family of nine, every one of whom (even two small children) survived through the luck of retaining their wagons and some pack animals much longer than the others, and through their considerable selfishness toward others. Compare this with the old bachelor Hardkoop, who was ordered out of the Keseberg family wagon and abandoned to die, or the fate of the young bachelor Antoine, whom none of the hungry snowshoers bothered to awaken when his hand fell into the fire.  Family ties can be a matter of life and death even under normal conditions. Married people, it turns out, have lower death rates than single, widowed, or divorced people. And marriage’s life-promoting benefits have been found to be shared by all sorts of social ties, such as friendships and membership in social groups. Regardless of age or sex or initial health status, socially isolated individuals have well over twice the death rate of socially connected people.  For reasons about which we can only speculate, the lethal effects of social isolation are more marked for men than for women. It’s clear, though, why social contacts are important for both sexes. They provide concrete help in case of need. They’re our source of advice and shared information. They provide a sense of belonging and self-worth, and the courage to face tomorrow. They make stress more bearable.  All those benefits of social contact applied as well to the Donner Party members, who differed only in that their risk of death was much greater and their likely circumstances of death more grotesque than yours and mine. In that sense too, the harrowing story of the Donner Party grips us because it was ordinary life writ large.

Here's a list of all members of the Donner Party:

Donner Family  Jacob Donner M 65 died in Nov. in winter camp  George Donner M 62 died in Apr. in winter camp  Elizabeth Donner F 45 died in Mar. in winter camp  Tamsen Donner F 45 died in Apr. in winter camp  Elitha Donner F 14  Solomon Hook M 14  William Hook M 12 died Feb. 28 with first rescue team  Leanna Donner F 12  George Donner M 9  Mary Donner F 7  Frances Donner F 6  Isaac Donner M 5 died Mar. 7 with second rescue team  Georgia Donner F 4  Samuel Donner M 4 died in Apr. in winter camp  Lewis Donner M 3 died Mar. 7 or 8 in winter camp  Eliza Donner F 3  Murphy-Foster-Pike Family  Lavina Murphy F 50 died around Mar. 19 in winter camp  William Foster M 28  William Pike M 25 died Oct. 20 by gunshot  Sara Foster F 23  Harriet Pike F 21  John Landrum Murphy M 15 died Jan. 31 in winter camp  Mary Murphy F 13  Lemuel Murphy M 12 died Dec. 27 with snowshoers  William Murphy M 11  Simon Murphy M 10  George Foster M 4 died in early Mar. in winter camp  Naomi Pike F 3  Catherine Pike F 1 died Feb. 20 in winter camp  Graves-Fosdick Family  Franklin Graves M 57 died Dec. 24 with snowshoers  Elizabeth Graves F 47 died Mar. 8 with second rescue team  Jay Fosdick M 23 died Jan. 5 with snowshoers  Sarah Fosdick F 22  Mary Graves F 20  William Graves M 18  Eleanor Graves F 15  Lavina Graves F 13  Nancy Graves F 9  Jonathan Graves M 7  Franklin Graves Jr. M 5 died Mar. 8 with second rescue team  Elizabeth Graves F 1 died soon after rescue by second team  Breen Family  Patrick Breen M 40  Mary Breen F 40  John Breen M 14  Edward Breen M 13  Patrick Breen Jr. M 11  Simon Breen M 9  Peter Breen M 7  James Breen M 4  Isabella Breen F 1  Reed Family  James Reed M 46  Margaret Reed F 32  Virginia Reed F 12  Patty Reed F 8  James Reed Jr. M 5  Thomas Reed M 3  Eddy Family  William Eddy M 28  Eleanor Eddy F 25 died Feb. 7 in winter camp  James Eddy M 3 died in early Mar. in winter camp  Margaret Eddy F 1 died Feb. 4 in winter camp  Keseberg Family  Lewis Keseberg M 32  Phillipine Keseberg F 32  Ada Keseberg F 3 died Feb. 24 with first rescue team  Lewis Keseberg Jr.M 1 died Jan. 24 in winter camp  McCutchen Family  William McCutchen M 30  Amanda McCutchen F 24  Harriet McCutchen F 1 died Feb. 2 in winter camp  Williams Family  Eliza Williams F 25  Baylis Williams M 24 died Dec. 16 in winter camp  Wolfinger Family  Mr. Wolfinger M ? killed around Oct. 13 by Reinhardt and Spitzer  Mrs. Wolfinger F ?  Unrelated Individuals  Mr. Hardkoop M 60 died around Oct. 8, abandoned by Lewis Keseberg  Patrick Dolan M 40 died Dec. 25 with snowshoers  Charles Stanton M 35 died around Dec. 21 with snowshoers  Charles Burger M 30 died Dec. 29 in winter camp  Joseph Reinhardt M 30 died in Nov. or early Dec. in winter camp  Augustus Spitzer M 30 died Feb. 7 in winter camp  John Denton M 28 died Feb. 24 with first rescue team  Milton Elliot M 28 died Feb. 9 in winter camp  Luke Halloran M 25 died Aug. 29 of consumption  William Herron M 25  Samuel Shoemaker M 25 died in Nov. or early Dec. in winter camp  James Smith M 25 died in Nov. or early Dec. in winter camp  John Snyder M 25 killed Oct. 5 by James Reed  Jean Baptiste Trubode M 23  Antoine M 23 died Dec. 24 with snowshoers  Noah James M 20

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