A segment of the wagon train headed to California in 1846. They had been enticed by young promoter Lansford W. Hastings, who advertised a new and faster route to California (which he only tested once with a horse; it turned out not only more dangerous but 125 miles longer than the charted route).
The twenty wagons of the Donner Party left the regular route in early July and headed for Fort Bridger, the first stop on the shortcut. Beginning on the shortcut in late July, they at first made good time but soon found that the trail over the Wasatch Mountains was almost impassible. Instead of only a week, the trip over the steep Wasatch to the Great Salt Lake took a whole month. Next, the journey over the Great Salt Desert took nearly six days instead of two. The shortcut rejoined the established trail two months after they had embarked on it. By late October, they reached the Sierras but an early winter storm blocked the pass. The travelers were trapped, only 150 miles from the safety of Sutter's Fort.
Trapped in the mountains from November until April, two thirds of the men died as did a third of the women and children. Desperation drove most of the Donner Party to eat the dead. A group of fifteen of the strongest immigrants (nine men, five women, and a boy of twelve) and two Indian guides set off to find help in mid-December, but when they found help in mid-January only two of the men (both married with children) were alive; all five women survived.
"Anguish and dismay now filled all hearts. Husbands bowed their heads, appalled at the situation of their families. They cursed Hastings for his false promises and broken pledge at Fort Bridger... Mothers in tearless agony clasped their children to their bosoms with the old, old cry, 'Father, Thy will, not mine, be done.' It was plain that try as we might, we could not get back to Fort Bridger. We must proceed, regardless of the fearful outlook." -Eliza Donner (1843-1922)
The third rescue party captured perhaps the most poignant scene of the Donner Party.
"The picture of distress... They had consumed two children of Jacob Donner. Mrs. Graves’s body was lying there with almost all the flesh cut away from her arms and limbs... Her little daughter, about 13 months old, sat at her side, one arm upon the body of her mangled mother, sobbing bitterly, crying, 'Ma! Ma! Ma!'"
"I have not wrote you half of the trouble we’ve had, but I have wrote you enough to let you know what trouble is. But thank God, we are the only family that did not eat human flesh. We have left everything, but I don’t care for that. We have got through with our lives. Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody. Remember, never take no cutoffs (shortcuts) and hurry along as fast as you can." -Virginia Reed (1833-1921)
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