Photo: James and Margaret Reed
It was the age of the pioneers. Families were loading up their covered wagons and traveling hundreds of miles to California in hopes of a new and better life. George and Jacob Donner and James Reed were among them, but their story would stand out. In 1846, the Donner-Reed Party left Illinois. Their circumstances were already not so great, they were leaving much later than other travelers. On top of that, Reed had convinced the group to take a shortcut to California. The problem was the author of this shortcut had never actually traveled it.
Photo: George Donner Son of Jacob Donner
It had never been taken by wagons before, so the party wasted a month cutting down trees and crossing a salt desert. Tensions were high, and during an argument, Reed stabbed another man, killing him. He was banished and forced to ride west without his family while the others continued together. Things were about to get much worse.
In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it began to snow. The party couldn’t continue, and they ran out of food. During a hellish five months, people ate everything from bark to shoelaces. One especially gruesome incident involved two Native Americans who had joined the Donners. While a small group went out in search of help, the men ran away out of fear of being murdered and eaten. A few days later, they were found close to death, and one of the other hikers shot them. This was not the only case of cannibalism in the Donner Party, though, with everyone else, the people had already died.
Photo: Sierra Nevada Mountains
By the time the party was rescued, James Reed himself among the saviors, almost half of the original group had died. Only two families – the Breens and Reeds – had not lost someone. George and Jacob Donner both died, as well as their wives and four children. The Donner Party and their horrifying story immediately captured the imagination of Americans, and it remains one of the most famous stories of its time. The lesson it teaches: beware of shortcuts.