George Donner

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

George Donner

George Donner (c. 1784 – March 1847) was an American pioneer and the leader of the Donner Party, a group of emigrants who became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada of Alta California in the winter of 1846–1847. Nearly half of the party starved to death, and some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism.


George Donner was born circa 1784 near Salem, North Carolina. He was the third child and eldest son of George Donner (1752–1844) and Mary Huff (1755–1842). George had three sisters and three brothers, one of whom, Jacob (1789–1846), accompanied him to California as did George's third wife, Tamsen Donner. [1] [2]

Donner's children from his first marriage stayed behind in Illinois, but those of his second and third marriage accompanied him to California. All five of them survived.

Donner Party[edit]

Before emigrating westward, Donner lived just outside Springfield, Illinois. On April 14, 1846, he, his brother Jacob, and James F. Reed, along with their families and hired hands, set out for California in covered wagons as part of the Boggs Company. Three months later, at the Little Sandy River in Wyoming, Donner was chosen to lead the group, now known as the Donner Party.

The party decided to deviate from the main trail in order to take a new route known as the Hastings Cutoff through the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and the Great Salt Lake Desert, rejoining the California Trail west of Elko, Nevada. Though the route had been advertised as a shortcut, it severely delayed their progress and cost the party precious resources when many of their oxen starved to death in the desert. They rejoined the main trail across the Sierra Nevada late in the season, and soon became trapped by impassable snows on the eastern side of Truckee Lake, west of present-day Truckee, California.[3]


Rescue parties were organized but were prevented from reaching the stranded pioneers by the heavy snows. When they finally arrived, Jacob Donner was dead, and George Donner's arm had become gangrenous from an injury to his hand sustained while repairing a broken wagon axle en route to the winter camp. The rescuers took Donner's daughters Elitha and Leanna, leaving Donner and his wife behind.

The second and third rescue parties found Donner too weak to travel. When the fourth and last relief party arrived on April 17, 1847, they found Donner dead in his bed. Some other accounts of Donner's death indicate that his body had been mutilated.[4]


  1. ^ "United States Census, 1790," database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 20 August 2018), George Donner, Rowan, North Carolina, United States; citing p. 304, NARA microfilm publication M637, (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 7; FHL microfilm 568,147.
  2. ^ "United States Census, 1810," database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 20 August 2018), George Donnor, Nicholasville, Jessamine, Kentucky, United States; citing p. 36, NARA microfilm publication M252 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 7; FHL microfilm 181,352.
  3. ^ "United States Census, 1840," database with images, FamilySearch( : 15 August 2017), George Donner, Sangamon, Illinois, United States; citing p. 31, NARA microfilm publication M704, (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 69; FHL microfilm 7,644.
  4. ^ Davidson, Ted (January 1, 2002). Donner-Reed Tragedy. AuthorHouse. ISBN 9780595214716.