Donner, party of ten! No, eight.

Western lands appealed to many Americans during the 18th and 19th Centuries.  Mexican Texas, Mexican California, and Oregon exerted a magnetic attraction on malcontents of the Mississippi Valley watershed during the 1830s and 1840s.[1]  Real estate speculators and promoters have been talking up America’s “wonders” since John Smith touted the 17th Century Chesapeake.  In 1845 one of Smith’s successors described—accurately enough—the charms of California: “a paradise” of “perpetual spring” with fertile lands and a healthy climate.  With visions like that dancing before their eyes, it’s not surprising that some of the migrants skimmed over the bits about what lay between the point of departure (Independence, Missouri) and the destination.  For example, migrants were warned to leave Independence by 1 May at the latest and to get a move on.  While California might be a land of “perpetual spring,” things were rather different in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where the snow storms could block the passes.

George and Jacob Donner, and James Reed headed a party of 74 people in 19 wagons.[2]  The Donner Party suffered a minor, but spectacular, disaster.  In mid-April 1846 the pilgrims headed west from Springfield, Illinois; a month later they departed Independence.  Having left late, the party then dawdled along the way, failing to catch up with a larger wagon train.  Starting to feel a certain urgency, they consulted their guidebook.  It mentioned a newly-discovered short-cut.  Great!  Problem solved.  Then they encountered a grizzled old trapper heading east.  He didn’t think much of the supposed short-cut.  What to do?  Ignore his inconvenient opinion.  Great!  Problem solved.

Unfortunately, the short-cut took them through the Wasatch Range and over a long stretch of arid salt flats.  Many of the draft animals died there.  Further slowed by these losses, the party reached the Sierra Nevada well behind the recommended dead-line.  Heading into the mountains, they found themselves snowed-in by November 1846.  They could neither go forward nor go back.  They had too little food to last out the winter.  Eventually, in December 1846, they sent out a couple of messengers to try to bring back help.  The pass was snowbound on both ends, so it was February 1847 before help finally reached them.  Only 48 people survived the winter, and nine of them died while being moved west into California.  Many of those who did live had engaged in cannibalism.[3]

Of the 34 who died in the winter camps, 25 were men and 9 were women.  Why was that?  People who study this sort of stuff figure that age, sex, and the size of the family group played the largest role in deciding who survived.  People under the age of 35 had a better chance of surviving than did older people, although most children under 6 died.  Two thirds of men between 20 and 39 died.  Nutritionists tell us that men metabolize protein faster than women, and women do not require as high a caloric intake. Women store more body fat (although you shouldn’t mention this in conversation if you want your genetic line to continue).  This can delay the physical decline caused by starvation and overwork. Men also tend to do more dangerous and physically demanding work.  Men wore down faster than did women.  Then, bachelor males survived at lower rates than did those who were those traveling with family members.  Maybe families were more ready to share neighbors with family than family with neighbors?

[1] Ray Allen Billington, The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860 (1956).  Still a hell of a book.

[2] Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny (2017).  Reviewed by David Price, WSJ, 6 June 2017.

[3] Although not in murder.  People who died of natural causes were consumed by the survivors.   For an analogous case, see Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000).

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