Survivors and casualties

An exact accounting of the Donner Party is made difficult by deciding exactly when the Donner Party actually formed. The Party did not exist when its members crossed the Missouri River in May, 1846.George Donner was elected Captain of the Party at the Little Sandy River on July 20, 1846, but several people joined the Party later, at Fort Bridger and in the Wasatch Mountains.

Four people left the Party to ride ahead for supplies: Charles Stanton, William McCutchen, James Reed and Walter Herron. One returned with supplies and was trapped--Charles Stanton--and he brought two more with him: Luis and Salvadore.

Five people died before reaching the Sierra Nevada mountains: Luke Halloran, John Snyder Hardkoop, Wolfinger and William Pike.

Of the 83 members of the Donner Party who were trapped in the mountains, only 45 survived to reach California.


Donner

The Donner family suffered more than most families. The broken axle on George Donner’s wagon caused the Donners to stop at Alder Creek, eight miles from the cabins at the Lake. Caught by the sudden storm the first week of November, and hampered by a shortage of large trees and strong men to cut them, The Donners did not construct cabins. Instead, they built crude brush sheds covered by their wagon canvas.

Drawing of brush shed

The Donner Family Camp

Uncle George Donner was elected captain of the wagon train that would be known as the Donner Party

Old photograph of Mary Brunner, Georgia and Eliza Donner

Mary Brunner, Georgia and Eliza Donner, photographed about 1850

George’s brother Jacob’s family suffered more most of the families.

The single men who accompanied the Donners fared very poorly.


Reed

James Reed, who was the leader of the Donner Party in fact if not in name, arrived in California ahead of the Party, and mounted two rescue attempts. His wife and children remained with the Party, many of whom blamed Reed for their predicament. Yet, the Reeds were one of only two families to survive without loss.

Portrait of James and Margaret Reed

James and Margaret Reed

Portrait of Patty Reed

Patty Reed

The employees who accompanied the Reeds fared no better than the Donner employees.


Breen

Unlike the Reeds, the Breen family crossed the plains without fanfare or fame. Patrick Breen’s diary reflects the simple, honest approach to life, and is the only contemporary written account of the winter entrapment. The newspapers that first published the diary did not even name the author, a contrast to the newspaper accounts of the Reeds. Like the Reeds, all of the Breen family survived the winter.

Portrait of Patrick Breen

Patrick Breen

Portrait of Peggy Breen

Margaret Peggy Breen

The Breens’ friend and neighbor Patrick Dolan, 35, died on December 26, 1846, at the Snowshoe Party’s Camp of Death.


Eddy

Portrait of William Eddy

William Eddy


Murphy

The Murphy family suffered greatly, but those who survived did well in California.

Portrait of Mary Murphy

Mary Murphy

Portrait of William Murphy

William Murphy


Keseberg and Hardkoop

Lewis Keseberg was the most infamous and vilified member of the Donner Party.


Wolfinger, Spitzer and Reinhardt

Wolfinger, Spitzer and Reinhardt were involved in one of the most mysterious episodes of the Donner Party.


McCutchen

William McCutchen was a hero of the Donner Party.


Graves

The Graves family were the last people to join the Donner Party on the trail west.

Portrait of Mary Graves

Mary Graves


Stanton

A single man with no relatives among the Donner Party, Stanton became the greatest hero of the tragedy by his selfless sacrifice. The two Indians who accompanied Stanton from Sutter’s Fort did not survive either.

Portrait of Charles Stanton

Charles Stanton


Halloran, Antonio and Trudeau

These men joined the Donner Party along the trail.


Survival Rates

One of the most puzzling aspects of the Donner Party is why so many women survived, and so many men died. The statistics were first analyzed by J. Quinn Thornton in his 1849 book Oregon and California in 1848.

Males Females Total
Number who perished.................................. 28 8 36
      ”       ”     survived.................................. 20 24 44
Total 48 32 80
Number who perished................................... 28 8
Had the rate of mortality in the sexes
been equal there would have died.................
21-3/5 14-2/5
Dif against males, and in favor of females.... 6-2/5 6-2/5

Prof. Donald Grayson of the University of Washington conducted a more scholarly mortality study, published in a 1994 paper and an earlier 1990 paper.


Donner Party Descendants

The survivors of the Donner Party settled throughout California, and some became quite well known with numerous descendants.

Helen Whitworth is a member of the McCutchen family. Her great-uncle was William McCutchen, a hero of the Donner Party, who rode ahead for supplies and returned with the Second Relief. You can read about the family at McCutchenNorthwest.com.

If you are searching for genealogical information about your family, the US Gen Web Project is an excellent place to start.