The Donner Party departed Independence, Missouri on their ill-fated journey to California.
The 1840s had seen a dramatic increase in the number of pioneers undertaking the long and dangerous journey to settle in the western United States. The California Trail shared its initial stages with the 2,170-mile (3,490 km) Oregon Trail but, after reading about a short cut in a guidebook by Lansford Hastings, a party led by George Donner and James F. Reed decided to take this route.
The group of 20 wagons carrying almost 90 people found the Hastings Cutoff to be considerably rougher terrain than they had been led to believe. Slowed by steep inclines and the need fell trees and move rocks to provide a path for the wagons, the group struggled to move more than one and a half miles a day compared to the fifteen they might have expected to cover on the established trail.
By the time the party had crossed the Wasatch Mountains and reached the Great Salt Lake Desert they were running out of food and water. Families were forced to abandon their animals and, in some cases, even their wagons on the inhospitable plain. By the time they rejoined the main trail route it is estimated that the Hastings Cutoff had cost them a month’s travel time.
This was to have catastrophic consequences as by the time they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains the trail was blocked with snow. Forced to spend winter in the mountains, by January some families were so short of food that they had to eat the oxhides that acted as roofs for their cabins. A snowshoe party consequently set out to find help on a 33-day journey that saw them resorting to cannibalism to survive. Although the survivors were rescued, almost half the people who originally set out from Missouri had died.