Early in April 16, 1846, eighty-seven pioneers led by George Donner, a well-to-do 62-year-old farmer, set out from Springfield, Illinois, for California. Like many emigrants, they were ill prepared for the dangerous trek. On July 20, at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, the party decided to take a shortcut. Soon huge boulders, arid desert, and dangerous mountain passes slowed the expedition to a crawl. During one stretch, the party traveled only thirty-six miles in twenty-one days. Twelve weeks after leaving Fort Bridger, the Donner Party reached the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and prepared to cross Truckee Pass, the last remaining barrier before they arrived in California’s Sacramento Valley. On October 31, they climbed the high Sierra ridges in an attempt to cross the pass, but five-foot-high snowdrifts blocked their path. Trapped, the party built crude tents and tepees, covered with clothing, blankets, and animal hides. To survive, the Donner party was forced to eat mice, their rugs, and even their shoes. In the end, surviving members of the party escaped starvation only by eating the flesh of those who died. In mid-December, a group of twelve men and five women made a last-ditch effort to cross the pass to find help. During a severe storm, two of the group died. The surviving members of the party “stripped the flesh from their bones, roasted and ate it, averting their eyes from each other, and weeping.” More than a month passed before seven frostbitten survivors reached an American settlement. By then, the rest had died and two Indian guides had been shot and eaten. Relief teams immediately sought to rescue the pioneers still trapped near Truckee Pass. During the winter, four successive rescue parties broke through and brought out the survivors. Of the original eighty-seven members of the party, only forty-eight survived.

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