Episode 173: The Donner Party: Cowboy Cannibalism

This episode is brought to you by El Yucateco

On this episode of the Sofa King Podcast, we cover a fan-voted topic and discuss the tragedy and cannibalism of the Donner Party. Famous since Cowboy Days, this story of tragedy, bad timing, and trust in the wrong people has become a part of American lore. Originally, the group was a small band of travelers leaving Springfield, Illinois for California using a tested set of trails, seeking fortune and a better life in the Golden State.

However, the group’s leader James Reed, had read a book by a man named Lansford Hastings which said there was a shorter path that would trim 300-400 miles from the arduous trip. This sounded great, except for the fact that the “expert” trail guide named Hastings had never actually taken the path he claimed was safe. As the wagon train caught up with Hastings, they had almost tripled in size and were just under 90 people and 23 wagons, eager to cross the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains.

However, the Hastings Route slowed them down and cost them all their supplies getting through an especially harsh part of the Great Salt Lake Desert. By the time the group got the base of the Sierra Nevadas, they were almost three weeks behind schedule, which was a pretty big deal. There was a small window to make this trek because it needed to be late enough that there was plentiful grass for the oxen and livestock and early enough that they didn’t get snowed in on the mountains.

Long story short—epic fail! The bad trail and bad luck got the Donner Party stuck in blizzard after blizzard. Indians killed all their oxen (and thus their food), and they had little recourse but to build cabins and starve out the winter. And, of course, eat each other. A small group set off on snow shoes trying to get away, and they were the first to resort to cannibalism.

But it didn’t stop there. There are tales of fathers eating sons, people killing each other for more bodies to eat, and any number of horrors. If you’re into the Old West, hardship, starvation, blizzards, and cannibals, this is the episode for you.

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