On this day in 1847, the first woman of a group of pioneers commonly known as the Donner Party dies during the group’s journey through a Sierra Nevada mountain pass. The disastrous trip west ended up killing 42 people and turned many of the survivors into cannibals.
A total of 87 people joined up in South Pass, Wyoming, in October 1846 to make a trip through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to California. Most of the pioneers were farmers who had little experience with wilderness travel. Two large families, the Donners and the Reeds, were at the heart of the traveling group, with 7 adults and 16 children. George Donner was the group’s unofficial leader.
The pioneers left Wyoming on October 27, and were soon faced with the early onset of a harsh winter. They had only a book as a guide and this led them through a mountain pass south of modern-day Salt Lake City. Without any path to follow, it took the group 16 days to go only 36 miles. Eventually, they were forced to leave their wagons–loaded with hundreds of pounds of flour and bacon–and their cattle behind. Trapped by snow, they were forced to make camp for the winter near a small lake (now known as Donner Lake) northwest of Lake Tahoe.
With starvation setting in, a group of 15 adults (known as the Forlorn Hope) attempted to get to Sutter’s Fort near San Francisco–100 miles away–for help. About half of the group died in the harsh conditions and the others were forced to eat their fallen companions’ remains to survive. Finally, the seven remaining members of the expedition were able to reach a Native American village. News of their arrival spread quickly, and a rescue party was sent from Sutter’s Fort to reach the rest of the Donner Party, still stuck in the mountains. By the time the rescue was complete, nearly half of the Donner Party, including George Donner, was dead.