The Survivors and Casualties of the Donner Party

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.  

The Donners

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.  

The Donner Family Camp

Reconstruction of Donner Family "Brush Shed" at Alder Creek, photographed 1996

Mary Brunner, Georgia and Eliza Donner, photographed about 1850

The single men who accompanied the Donners fared very poorly.

The Reeds

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.

James and Margaret Reed

Patty Reed

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

The Breens

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.  When first published, the newspapers 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.

Patrick Breen

Margaret "Peggy" Breen

The Eddys

William Eddy

The Murphys

Mary Murphy

William Murphy

The Kesebergs and Hardkoop

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

The Wolfingers, Spitzer and Reinhardt

The McCutchens

The Graves

Mary Graves


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 did not survive the Snowshoe Party either.

Halloran, Antonio and Trudeau

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..................................




      "         "    survived..................................








Number who perished...................................



Had the rate of mortality in the sexes

been equal there would have died.. ...............



Dif against males, and in favor of females ......



Prof. Donald Grayson of the University of Washington conducted a more scholarly mortality study, and .  Click here for his 1994 paper and click here for his 1990 paper.


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