Bad Decisions in History – featuring The Donner Party

Previously in Bad Decisions in History: Asking the wrong guy for money and a terrible aphrodisiac.

If you have ever played the old computer game ‘The Oregon Trail’, you know that traveling across a still mostly-unsettled 1800s America was pretty dangerous. Taking a wagon journey through a mountain pass meant perils galore. Getting bit by rattlesnakes, overturning your wagon during a river crossing, getting stuck in the mud, coming down with dysentery, accidentally shooting one of your party while on a hunting trip…the possibilities were endless. (You may have noticed that I referenced a lot of examples from that game. I definitely cheated my way through it and enjoy fond memories of it).

Undertaking a long trek during this time was not a thing to be taken lightly. Nature can be very dangerous and unpredictable.

damn nature

Bad Decision: Taking a shortcut through uncharted wilderness.

In April of 1846, a group of 89 people decided to emigrate west from Springfield, Illinois, heading for California. The group was led by two brothers, named Jacob and George Donner. Their surname probably rings a bell, because this story ends disastrously and notoriously.

The emigrants took the well-traveled California trail to Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Here, they learned of a new and supposedly shorter route, which had been discovered by a trail guide called Lansford Hastings. The guide was not in Fort Bridger at the time to guide them, having already gone ahead to lead a wagon train along this new route, but he sent word that he would mark the trail for the Donner party to follow.

The emigrants decided that this was still a good idea, and set out on the new trail instead of the established, well-known one. With twenty wagons, they travelled to Weber Canyon, where Hastings had promised there was an easy passage through the Wasatch Mountains. Upon arriving at the canyon, the group of travellers found a note from Hastings on a forked stick, planted into the path. In the note, Hastings warned that the route ahead was more difficult than anticipated, and that they should wait at Weber Canyon until he could return to show them a better way.

weber canyon

The emigrants had two options. They could camp at Weber Canyon until Hastings returned to guide them, or they could take several days to travel back to Fort Bridger and return to the established route to California. They decided to wait for Hastings.

As an aside here, I do not understand this decision. Backtracking is certainly tedious, and probably demoralizing, but the delay would have only been several days. Waiting for Hastings had a chance of incurring the same amount of delay, since they didn’t know how quickly he would return. I suppose they were lured by the idea of the rest of the route being shorter, but I feel like Hastings’ warning that it was very difficult should have been a reminder of the perks of taking a well-established trail. However, having hindsight makes all the difference, so it’s hard to know what they were thinking.


In this case, it sure did. It made one heck of a difference.

The party waited for eight days, and when Hastings had still not returned to Weber Canyon, they sent a messenger ahead to search for him. He returned several days (see?) later with instructions from Hastings about which trail to follow. This route turned out to be nearly impassable, since the immigrants had to clear a path for the wagons through thickets of trees and navigate around rocky ground.

By the time the Donner party reached Great Salt Lake, making it through the Wasatch Mountains, the supposedly shorter route had cost them eighteen days.  Due to this delay, they crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains later in the season than they should have. Late in October, a snowstorm blocked the high mountain passes, leaving the emigrants trapped, surrounded by heavy, deep snow, which the wagons could not navigate.

Spending the winter trapped in the frozen mountain pass took a severe toll on the group. Only 45 of the original 89 emigrants reached California. Dwindling supply levels and the difficulty of hunting in the snow-laden landscape meant that starvation was an imminent and serious problem. In desperation to survive, members of the party were forced to eat family dogs, mice, twigs, bones, and string. There is evidence that some people resorted to cannibalism.

Outcome: Death. Despair. Probable cannibalism.



Forget your car. The people you don’t have to eat will also thank you for it.



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