A friend sent me this gripping account of the Donner Party, but to save you time (TL;DR) I’ll tell you what happened in case you don’t have the full story.
Buckle up, buttercups!
So yeah, I know you think you know what happened: a mess of settlers in covered wagons set out across the Great Plains and got snowed in in the Sierra Nevada. All their food ran out, and they were reduced to making asscheek jerky out of their dead compatriots. Yeah yeah yeah ok but it’s actually SO MUCH WORSE THAN THAT!
If stupidity, hubris, and karma had a baby, it would be the Donner Party. Stukarbris? Yeah. That’s what it was. Straight up, unmitigated STUKARBRIS.
It all starts in Springfield, IL with a few dozen white farming families who decide the Illinois soil is played out, and they need to “seek their fortune” in California or Oregon. Abe Lincoln almost went along for the ride, but he was too busy running for Congress, which turned out to be a good thing for America, as we now know. (Plus as you can see from pics he didn’t have much meat on the hoof, so no harm no foul).
Anyhoo, these guys pack up a bunch of shit and I mean like, a LOT of shit. We’re talking pounds and pounds of flour, sugar, bacon, and biscuits. They basically put a whole Arby’s franchise on a team of oxen. Then there was the extra crap like novelty cannonballs and weapons to stave off “the Injuns” and a featherbed for a dying grandma and a bunch of textbooks and plant sample jars that the only person with any sense at all—family matriarch Tamzene Donner—decided to take along for the ride because she liked plants.
Everything is basically OK until something called the Hastings Cutoff. Up until then, they’re just doing the old timey racist SOB colonizer thing that’s been romanticized and white-washed into your 6th grade play: striking out for new land; displacing, disrespecting, and starving out indigenous peoples; literally circling the wagons; caching buffalo chips; haggling at mercantiles and trading posts; getting housed on moonshine; etc., all while the wives just keep washing clothes and making biscuits and babies, one after the other. A few people die of old age and broken legs and consumption, but all is pretty chill until they get to the Hastings Cutoff.
As I said, the Hastings Cutoff is where things start to shit the bed. I just Googled to see whether this is the same guy who got a California law school named after him, but no, that was just another self-important white supremacist with the same last name. Yay ‘Murica!
This Hastings was of course also a white supremacist colonizer, and the worst guide ever—pretending to know a lot of things he didn’t know and leading everyone up shit’s creek sans paddle. By the time the Donners finished his alleged “shortcut,” they were pissed AF and literally using his guidebook for toilet paper. Zero stars. DO NOT RECOMMEND, had Yelp existed.
And they were slowly coming to accept the fact that the Sierra Nevada mountain range was going to kick their asses with 17 consecutive blizzards, which is kind of what happened, but not before they almost died of thirst crossing the Utah desert and half their cattle and oxen keeled over from water poisoning.
Side bar: Living in Alaska, I know how easily the wilderness can kill you, which is why I never do anything or go anywhere. As I’ve said many times, I am fine being a headline for suing the governor or for my raunchy tweets, but I refuse to be rescued off a glacier. Turns out, I’m a step ahead of the Donners, who by this time were firmly on the struggle bus, or struggle wagon, to be more accurate. Really it was the struggle mule. They ditched all their fabric bolts and jewelry, and were left with nothing but a couple of scraggly quadrupeds and maybe a tarp.
You can picture it: emaciated flatlanders getting absolutely RINSED by a western mountain range. Trudging chest-deep through snow, dying oxen everywhere, people hacking up lungs and nursing infected wounds. It was ugly, y’all, but it got way worse as you’ve heard. Pretty soon they were dropping like flies, felled by starvation and dysentery and that’s when the ass jerky buffet began.
They started a back and forth circling around trying to get over the mountains on makeshift snowshoes. Little groups kept coming and going trying to get each other out of the snow and finally they decided to eat each other. Tamzene—the only one who had a lick of sense and tried to talk all the dumb men out of the Hastings Cutoff idea—was thanklessly eaten for her efforts, because of course she was.
Those who weren’t eaten were ultimately rescued and lived happily ever after. But the moral of the story is this: white supremacist colonizers who are woefully unprepared for the wilderness get what’s coming to them: ass jerky.