Commentary: Donner Party tragedy – An obsession for many |

Commentary: Donner Party tragedy – An obsession for many

David C. Henley

It was in May of 1846 – 164 years ago this month – that 87 men, women and children left Independence, Mo., aboard nine covered wagons for California, which they believed was the promised land.

Known as the Donner Party, the travelers faced an endless nightmare of misadventures that included near-starvation, illness, endless quarrels among its members, confrontations with Indians, broken wagons and searing heat.

After reaching the Great Salt Lake in early September, 1846, the party traveled south through Utah, and following a time-consuming detour through near- impassable country that forced it to abandon several of their oxen and wagons, reached the Ruby Mountains south of present-day Elko.

From there, the immigrants continued westward by following the Humboldt River where they were harassed by Indians who killed and made off with horses and oxen.

Then it was on to the Humboldt Sink, and by Oct. 6 the travelers moved south through Pershing County (near present-day Lovelock) across the blazing, inhospitable Forty-Mile Desert and entered into what today is Churchill County about 33 miles north of Fallon.

The travelers rested here two days before moving westward and encountering the Carson River and passing through the vicinity where current-day Wadsworth is located. Then they continued traveling west, reaching the Truckee Meadows, Verdi and, finally, into the Sierra where they became trapped in massive snows near present-day Truckee and Donner Lake.

There, exhausted, frozen, famished and huddled in rude cabins scattered throughout several encampments, many in the Donner group survived by eating the flesh of their dead companions.

Rescue parties reached the stranded travelers beginning in February 1847, nine months after they had set out from Missouri. By then, 48 were alive.

People the world over have been fascinated and even obsessed with the Donner saga and its cannibalistic element for the past 164 years. Countless newspaper and magazine articles, popular and scholarly books and diaries of the survivors have been published.

A handful of authors have questioned the extent of the cannibalism, and a few weeks ago a professor of anthropology at a North Carolina university made headlines when she claimed that research she conducted at one of the Donner campsites near Truckee indicated that there was no evidence there of cannibalism and, furthermore, cannibalism probably wasn’t practiced at the other sites as well.

A day later, following angry rebuttals from other anthropologists and archaeologists who have conducted lengthier and most extensive research at the Donner sites that they say proves cannibalism was in fact practiced, as well as the release of survivors’ diaries that describe the cannibalism, the North Carolina professor withdrew her initial findings.

The Donner Party saga will always be with us. It is a tale of unspeakable tragedy and horror that will live forever.

• David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.