Historians Point Out That The Donner Party Settlers Could Have Experienced An Even Worse Fate

The awful fate that befell the Donner Party in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada has gone down in history as one of America’s most gruesome tragedies. But the grisly deaths and stomach-churning survival tactics documented at the time weren’t even the worst-case scenario. If it hadn’t been for the actions of heroes — and a few lucky twists of fate — the tragedy could have been even worse.

Heading west

The story begins in May 1846, when a large party of pioneers departed from the town of Independence, Missouri, in search of a new life out west. For years, migrants had been leaving their homes to settle in California and Oregon Territory, drawn by everything that this new land of wealth and opportunity promised.

Manifest destiny

For some, the appeal lay in the religious freedom and economic prospects that awaited on the western coast. Others, meanwhile, felt drawn there by what was known as manifest destiny — the idea that European Americans had a divine right to settle across the country. Whatever their reasons, many families had already made the long journey by the time this particular wagon train set out.

A late start

By pioneer standards, the wagons were already late leaving Independence. The journey, which would take them along the Oregon Trail before switching to the southern California Trail, was perilous at all times of the year. But in order to stand the best chance of success, migrants needed to travel within a specific window — and time was running out.

The Donner Party sets out

If the pioneers set out too early, you see, they wouldn’t find enough grass along the way to keep their pack animals healthy and well fed. But if they left too late, they ran the risk of encountering heavy snow in the mountain passes. Unfortunately, the Donner Party were among the last to leave Missouri and start the long journey west.