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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Case for Cannibalism, or: How to Survive the Donner Party

Let’s say you want to strike it rich. The year is 1846 and you’re somewhere in the Midwest pulling potatoes out of the ground. But you’re tired of pulling potatoes. You want to pull gold. And maybe you’ve heard the rumors: People are finding fortunes in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.1 So you hitch up your Conestoga wagon and head west, joining that year’s convoy of California-bound immigrants. And on July 20, you and the rest of these early pioneers find yourselves staring at a crossroads in what is today southwest Wyoming. Like them, you’ll face a choice: Turn right or turn left?


Both trails lead to California, but the trail to the right detours far north. It meanders deep into Idaho before it reverses course and turns back south into eastern Nevada. The left trail eschews the northern deviation. It takes a straight shot across Utah, and by doing so removes almost 350 miles from your journey. So let’s say you look at a map, note the faster route, and decide to turn left.

At the time, this seems like the wise choice. Andrew Hastings, an adventurer and respected guide, had just scouted this shortcut on horseback the winter before and advertised his new cutoff in guidebooks and postings along the trail. Most of the convoy, fearful of the unknown and unwilling to trust one person’s word, turn right. But you’re not the only one keen to arrive early in California. When you turn left on that July day, 20 other wagons do the same. After a few uneventful days, you and the rest of these previously unconnected pioneers will caravan together for safety and, following some debate, you’ll elect a nice, older, wealthy fellow as the leader of your party. His name is George Donner.

The problem with Hastings’ trail, as you’ll soon discover, is that there is no trail. It’s just a line he drew on a map, and the line runs right over Utah’s Wasatch mountains. Because there is no trail, you’ll have to carve your way up with axe and shovel. The 36-mile crossing that you had planned to make in three days will instead take three weeks.

On August 20, exhausted and low on supplies, you’ll reach the peak of the Wasatch only to be greeted by a sickening view: The Great Salt Lake Desert. Hastings will have prepared you for this “dry drive,” saying it would be a difficult but manageable 40 miles. In reality, the distance is more like 80. You’ll have to drive your parched cattle for six days and six nights, desperate to get to water.

When you finally reach the other side, your party will have lost three wagons and a quarter of its oxen. Recriminations begin, tensions fray: When you hit a second desert in Nevada, an argument breaks out between James Reed and John Snyder, and Reed stabs Snyder to death. Reed is banished.2 Two days later, Lewis Keseberg kicks a Mr. Hardkoop out of his wagon to lighten his load and leaves Hardkoop to die.


The Hastings route will have cost you lives, friends, wagons, food, supplies, tools, livestock—but it will also have cost you your most precious asset of all: time. Instead of cutting three weeks from your journey, the Hastings cutoff will have added almost four. So rather than rolling safely into Sacramento on October 13, you’ll instead arrive in what is today Reno, Nevada, and prepare for your ascent into the Sierra Nevada.

As tardy as you are, you would still, in a normal year, be fine. Late October and even early November is early for heavy snow in these mountains. In a typical year, the pass wouldn’t see heavy snow for another few weeks. “Ninety percent of the time, the Donner Party would have made it,” Mark McLaughlin, a historian of the Sierra Nevada and author of The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, tells me.

Unfortunately, the winter of 1846 starts early. Two weeks of snow has buried the top of the Sierras by the time you arrive, and the weather’s terrible turn is as unlucky as it is decisive. Oxen always struggle to haul wagons up the steep granite walls protecting Truckee Pass (now Donner Pass), but when you attempt it on November 1, you’ll find it buried in five feet of powder. Less than three miles from the summit, you will face two terrible options: one, abandon your wagons and cattle, fashion snowshoes, and trek for Sacramento and your life; or two, retreat to a few cabins by Truckee Lake that previous pioneers constructed a few years prior. The Donners chose to retreat.

When I ask Bill Bowness, a historian at Donner Memorial State Park, whether you should do the same, he believes fewer Donners would have died had they abandoned their gear and made the trek. So he recommends you go for it. But others, like McLaughlin, aren’t so sure. For one thing, a large snowstorm hits the Sierra in the first week of November, and for another, a later attempt by some of the party to snowshoe from Truckee Lake to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento suggests the trip could take as long as a month. If you try to hike out you’ll likely run out of food, probably suffer frostbite, and potentially die from exposure. So play it safe. Retreat to the lake along with the rest of the Donner Party and hole up in those cabins. Just be aware that by doing so, you’re condemning yourself to a winter in the mountains. The Donner Party, apparently, did not know this. They believed the Sierra, like the mountains they knew in the Midwest, would clear once the weather passed. They won’t.

Food will soon become a problem. A few try to hunt, but this is largely hopeless, since the large animals either evacuate the mountains or hibernate in winter. The only animals that remain are too small to shoot, Bowness tells me, though you could possibly trap them. Moses Schallenberger, a 17-year-old pioneer, survived the winter of 1844 alone in the Sierras by trapping coyote and fox. (Coyote tastes terrible, he later said, but fox is delicious.) Unfortunately, while the Donners are strong, smart, hardworking, entrepreneurial, and industrious, they’re Midwestern farmers. Not mountain men. They don’t have traps, nor the fishing gear to catch trout from the lake, and may not have known how to use either if they did. If you’re going to eat, it’s going to have to be the oxen and the food that came with you in the wagons.

You’ll finish the last of your food stores in days. Then you’ll eat your oxen. Then, just six weeks after hunkering down at the lake, you’ll try to eat leather: You’ll boil it for hours until it turns into a pulp, allow it to cool, and try to eat the resulting gluelike substance. You are now starving to death.

Soon you’ll begin to experience small but noticeable signs of physical and cognitive decline. Your brain will switch its energy source from glucose to fats, and you’ll feel increasingly irritable, low-energy, and cold as you lose the ability to efficiently constrict your blood vessels. Without food, your body will consume itself for the energy it needs. It will start with the proteins and fats, but because you’ve already lost so much weight it will soon harvest muscle, including your heart. Once you’ve lost 35 percent of your body weight from your already skinny baseline, you may experience convulsions and hallucinations. Your weakened heart will then develop an arrhythmia and eventually fail.

But exactly how long it takes your body to reach these grim milestones depends on a few important factors: how much you move, how much you eat, your age, your relationship status, and, most important, your sex.

If you’re a twentysomething single man in peak physical shape—you’re in extreme danger. You have the least fat reserves, the highest metabolism, and no one to help you: Young men in good shape with no families die first in starvation situations. If that describes you, and you don’t follow the steps below, you’ll be dead by Christmas.

In the final 10 days of December, after eight weeks trapped by the lake, Bayless Williams, Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph Reinhardt, James Smith, and Charles Burger all die. All of them are men, and all except Donner, who is 56, are between the ages of 24 and 36. You’ll bury them in shallow, icy graves just outside the cabins.

When I asked Donald Grayson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and author of Sex & Death on the Western Emigrant Trail, why young men starve the fastest and how you can survive if you have the unfortunate luck of being one, he said young men are at risk for a few reasons. The first is cultural.

The gender roles of 1800s pioneers were clear: “It was the expectation of the men at the time that they would perform the heavy labor, and that’s exactly what happened,” Grayson says. Hard work increases your metabolism, so in a cruel twist, the more you helped with carving the trail over the Wasatch, the faster you’ll die.


If you’re a woman, you’re in less immediate danger than a man, not only thanks to cultural advantages, but a few natural ones as well. Women on average have less lean mass than men and more subcutaneous fat, which means their bodies have more stored calories and a lower natural metabolism. In other words, if you’re a woman you have both more fuel and better mileage than a man. And you are a long way from a gas station.

This advantage will not only prolong your survival at camp, but it also gives you an opportunity for escape that a man would be ill-advised to pursue: On December 16, 10 men and five women fashion snowshoes and make a desperate scramble over the pass.

The trip is hellish. You’ll lose your way. You’ll spend a week trapped by a blizzard. You’ll hike for another five freezing weeks with almost no food. But while eight of the 10 men who set off die, all five women survive. So, if you’re a woman, you can consider escaping with the December 16 group—though the trip is so awful it’s difficult to recommend. If you’re a man: hard pass.

Instead, not only should you skip the arduous hike—you should do nothing at all. You need to flatline your metabolism. If you reduce your movement, you can reduce your caloric requirements by some 50 to 80 percent. Rather than working to survive, you want to be in the worst shape of your life. “On the Donner Party, you absolutely want to be a couch potato, not a marathoner,” Grayson says. As proof he points to the example of George Donner, who had a hand infection that kept him bedridden throughout the winter. He survived well into March, long after most men around his age had already starved.

By avoiding exercise entirely, and by skipping the starvation hike, you should survive at least into January. But by the first week of February, with salvation still at least three weeks away, you’ll have eaten almost nothing for over a month, and your situation will become perilous. In the late days of January and the first week of February, Landrum Murphy, Augustus Spitzer, Milt Elliot, and Eleanor Eddy—the first woman to starve—all die by the lake. If you don’t find something to eat, you may soon join them. Fortunately, there’s food all around you. You’ll just have to overcome a powerful taboo to eat it.

Eating human flesh hasn’t always been so distasteful. At least socially.

Archeologists have found butchered human bones far too frequently for it to have been a sporadic, starvation-only practice. And before Western culture washed over the globe, ritualistic cannibalism was not uncommon.

“The Wari’ [an indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest] were just as mortified to learn that Westerners were burying their dead as the Westerners were to learn that the Wari’ were eating theirs,” Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, tells me.

In other words, the revulsion to cannibalism is not innate. It’s a societal taboo without a Darwinian explanation (such as incest).3 What sets it apart from other social taboos is its remarkable power. The Donner Party might be infamous for its cannibalism, but more than a dozen members of the party starved to death rather than eat the already dead.


When I asked Schutt how the cannibalism taboo became strong enough that a person might die rather than break it, he says it’s partly due to its antiquity. People have feared and despised cannibals for so long that it may feel as if you’re breaking some law of nature when you’re breaking off a rib. But what you’re actually doing is breaking a social norm invented by a few xenophobic ancient Greeks, according to Schutt.

Schutt has traced the earliest examples of the taboo in Western culture to some of the earliest Greek stories, such as the tale of Polyphemus and Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. In what may be the first example of a writer depicting cannibalism as the act of a monster, the cyclops Polyphemus catches Odysseus and his men stealing from him and in turn begins eating them one by one until Odysseus blinds the giant.4


“The Greeks used cannibalism as a way to define the worst behavior possible in another group,” Schutt tells me. The probable explanation for why they chose cannibalism to represent the act of a monster is fairly straightforward: It’s what their northern European enemies, the Androphagi (Greek for “man-eaters”), did. For the Greeks, human flesh was the food of foreigners—and thus eating it the lowest one could stoop. From there, the stigma only grew.

“The Romans took the taboo from the Greeks, where it combined with Judeo-Christian beliefs about how you treat the dead,” Schutt says. Combine that with the racism of early anthropologists, who used its practice as justification to commit cultural genocide, and the stigma compounded.

Many in the Donner Party refused to cannibalize at the cost of their lives. No cannibalism took place among the Donner Party members trapped by the lake until at least late February, after at least 13 people starved and died.5 Don’t be one of them. There is frozen food buried by the lake. If you want to survive, you’ll need to eat it. The calories will keep you alive, and for far longer than you might expect. Of those who eventually cannibalized, Keseberg appears to have done so with the most vigor, and he not only survived but, for reasons unknown, he skipped the first two rescue parties and yet was still alive and strong enough to hike out with the third on April 17.


When practicing cannibalism, there are a few safety precautions one must take. First, cook your meat thoroughly to avoid diseases. No tartars or carpaccios. Also, avoid the brain. You run a small risk of catching a deadly prion disease called kuru from eating it. Instead, target the thighs, butt, calves, and back muscles for the highest caloric returns. As for the choice cuts beyond that, refer to the table below, which relies on data compiled by James Cole in his study of the caloric returns of cannibalism. At 32,000 calories per body (based on a 145-pound male body, which while light may be accurate in this case, since you’re eating people who starved) and at least 13 bodies, there will be plenty of food for you to eat and even share until the arrival of the first rescue party. 

Finally, if you’re considering best prep methods or pairings, then according to the journalist William Seabrook, who claimed to have partaken in ritual cannibalization in the 1920s, you can expect for it to taste like veal.

Adequately fed, you should survive until February 18, when seven rescuers arrive. Unfortunately, their arrival doesn’t guarantee your survival. The snow is still far too deep for horses, so the rescuers have only brought a small amount of extra rations, and everyone they take has to hike out under their own power. You should too, though it’s not a pleasant trip. The rescuers cached some food on their way in, but it has mostly gotten stolen by animals. Still, 21 Donner Party members trek out with these mountaineers, and only two die.

After eight days of hiking you’ll arrive at a forward camp in Bear Valley, where you’ll finally find a pantry full of delicious food. Don’t eat it. Or, at least, don’t eat very much. A full meal right now might result in a lethal electrolyte imbalance called refeeding syndrome. Starvation has dropped minerals like phosphate and magnesium to dangerously low levels in your body, and because digestion will draw these minerals from your blood, eating can actually kill you. William Hook, who hikes out with you in the first rescue, gorges himself in the Bear Valley pantry and dies the morning after you arrive.

Of the 85 members of the Donner Party originally trapped in the Sierras, 51 eventually arrive safely in California. And you can too. Even if you are young, single, male, or in great shape. These handicaps can be overcome. Just move as little as possible, learn to love pulpy, gluelike leather food, say no to joining the snowshoeing group, wait for the first rescue party. And, of course, be ready to overcome that old taboo passed down by a few xenophobic ancient Greeks.

Or you can just turn right.

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