covered wagons

Westward expansion slowed briefly after news of the Donner Party's plight, but it soon picked up again.

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The Donner Party Legend

Although the Forlorn Hope was successful in reaching the outside world for help, that help came too late. The first of four rescue parties was sent out on Jan. 31, 1847, but, because of bad weather and a lack of supplies, the rescuers were continually delayed. By the time they arrived at the settlements at Donner Lake and Adler Creek on Feb. 22, many more had died. And people continued to die as the succession of rescuers arrived.

The first rescue mission was able to bring 21 survivors to safety. The second rescued 17, the third saved four, and the final party brought back one last survivor. Of the 87 people who took the Hastings Cutoff, 39 died. Everyone older than 50 perished, and most of the young children did, too.

And so, the tragedy came to an end. The hideousness of the ordeal quickly passed from truth to legend. Myths abounded and inflated, newspaper accounts exaggerated the truth, and much of it went unchecked for years. The California Star, a San Francisco newspaper, was the first to print the Donner Party's story, on Feb. 13, 1847. By today's standards, the piece reads like a tabloid article, full of shocking and grisly details.

The survivors went their separate ways and didn't communicate much for the rest of their lives. Some published their diaries, some wrote memoirs, and some made official statements to the press and courts. Many, understandably, wanted to forget the whole thing and refused to talk about it. Nevertheless, the story was quickly cemented into the imagination of a country caught in the grips of a rush for gold and land. It was a cautionary tale that could slow down even the most gung-ho pioneer.

Teams of archaeologists have examined the two campsites for evidence of what really happened. Some claim that there's no physical evidence to prove that cannibalism took place -- they've found hearths filled with the bones of deer, oxen and rabbits, but no human remains were left behind. It's been argued that the survivors and rescue teams did what they could to give the deceased a proper burial, and that's why there is no forensic evidence of cannibalism. But the written word and testimonies of the survivors that attest to the brutal lengths that survivors went to.

After word got out about the Donner Party, emigration to California dropped severely. Hastings' Cutoff was deserted, and Lansford Hastings' reputation as a trailblazer was lost forever. The flow of westward immigrants all but stopped until early 1848, when gold was discovered in California. By 1849, more than 100,000 people had decided to put the Donner tragedy in the back of their minds and move west.

To learn more about the Donner Party, take a gander at the links on the next page.