Winterkill, 1846


When the Donner Party reached the Sierra, it had included eighty-two people, five having died on the way there. Thirty-five died in the mountains, along with the two Indians who had come to rescue them. As Bernard DeVoto points out in his classic Year of Decision: Eighteen Forty Six , the party had shared the common chance of the emigrant trail and “the common chance turned against them.” But chance alone is not enough to explain that disastrous combination of events, personalities, and interests that overwhelmed them. Chance was one factor, but so was the ambition of Lansford Hastings, the business enterprise of Jim Bridger, the cumbersome prosperity of the Donner wagons, the obstinate temper of Reed, the early winter, the tardiness of the relief parties … perhaps even so little a thing as James Clyman’s grubby looks.

Among the forty-seven survivors there were not many who came through without being haunted for the rest of their lives by the memories of what they had had to endure. The sight of a rising moon forever reminded Mrs. Foster of that moonlit night in the mountains when her companions in the Forlorn Hope set to work on the body of Patrick Dolan, while her brother Lemuel Murphy lay dead in her arms. Eliza Donner never forgot how she had eaten the bark of trees to ease the pain in her stomach.

For the most part the survivors settled into blessedly ordinary lives. Fourteen-year-old Virginia Reed, for one, received a marriage proposal even before she reached Sutler’s Fort. “Tell the girls that this is the greatest place for marrying they ever saw,” she wrote home to Illinois. Keseberg, for a time, reveled in his notoriety, finding an audience for his ghoulish tales in the bars of Gold Rush San Francisco—until the town grew more respectable and he sometimes found himself taunted and stoned when he stepped outside his house.

And then there was Lansford Hastings, whom William Eddy set out one day to kill. But Eddy was dissuaded by a friend from carrying out his plan. The Ohio schemer lived on, forever optimistic, chasing one elusive dream after another. During the Civil War he went to Richmond with a plan for seizing Arizona and southern California for the Confederacy, but nothing came of it. Later, he tried to establish a colony in Brazil for ex-Confederate soldiers. To forward his scheme he even published an Emigrants’ Guide to South America . But in 1870, before his plans were well under way, he died of a tropical disease. Not for him a cold winter death, starvation in the snow.