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What tragic choice do the leaders of the Donner party make today?

October 31st

440px-JamesMargaretReedOctober 31, 1846 — The Donner party, unable to cross what we now call Donner Pass, begin construction on a winter camp today.

The group of American pioneers was led by George Donner and James F. Reed (pictured here with his wife, Margaret). Their wagon train was delayed by a series of mishaps and mistakes, forcing them to spend the winter of 1846–47 trapped by an early, heavy snowfall near Truckee (now Donner) Lake.

Historians have described the episode as one of the most bizarre and spectacular tragedies in Californian history and western-US migration.”Their food supplies ran extremely low, and in mid-December some of the group set out on foot to obtain help.”

Rescuers from California attempted to reach the emigrants, but the first relief party did not arrive until the middle of February 1847, almost four months after the wagon train became trapped. Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived to reach California, many of them having eaten the dead for survival.

Words of Wisdom

Froze hard last night to day clear & warm Wind S: E: blowing briskly. Martha’s jaw swelled with the toothache: hungry times in camp; plenty hides, but the folks will not eat them. We eat them with a tolerable good apetite. Thanks be to Almighty God. Amen. Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that [she] thought she would Commence on Milt. & eat him. I don’t [think] that she has done so yet; it is distressing. The Donners, 4 days ago, told the California folks that they [would] commence to eat the dead people if they did not succeed, that day or next, in finding their cattle, [which were] then under ten or twelve feet of snow, & [the Donners] did not know the spot or near it; I suppose they have done so ere this time.

— From Donner Party member Patrick Breen’s journal. He filled 29 books from Nov. 20 1846 (several months after the journey began in April) to March 1, 1847 (the day of the rescue party’s arrival)

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