The Donner Party and the Andes Plane Crash

Updated June 26, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

by Elaine Rho

Donner Lake, near the pass in which the tragedy occurred, is today a popular mountain resort.

The tales of the Donner Party and the Andes Plane Crash are both well-known examples of survival under extreme circumstances. Although the two stories occurred in different centuries and on different continents, there are a few eerie similarities. In both, the weather and environment —and, arguably, poor judgment— played a major role. But one gruesome parallel overshadows the others: cannibalism. The outcome of the two events, however, was quite different — one is considered a great tragedy, while the other has been characterized as a human triumph. Here are their stories.

The Donner Party (1846-1847)

On April 16, 1846, a group of emigrants from Illinois started off in nine covered wagons on a journey to California that would become one the great tragedies in the history of westward migration. It was a time when Americans were consumed with thoughts of the west, and among those eager to capitalize on this was Landsford W. Hastings. In his book, The Emigrant's Guide to California and Oregon, Hastings advertised a new shortcut across the Great Basin called Hastings' Cutoff, which enticed members of the now infamous Donner Party to set out across it, headed for Sutter's Fort in California.

The two most prominent families in the group were the Donner family and the Reed family. The group, which came to be known as the Donner Party after George Donner became its leader, encountered one difficulty after another on its long journey. On June 27th, when the party reached Fort Laramie, they came across a man named James Clyman who had come east from California using Hastings' Cutoff. He warned them of the great desert and the Sierras, and told them to take the old route. The party didn't take his advice. In the five days it took to cross the harsh desert, many of their animals wandered off or were killed.

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