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The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party Study Guide & Plot Summary

Marian Calabro
This Study Guide consists of approximately 29 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party.
This section contains 503 words
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Purchase our The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party Study Guide

The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party Summary & Study Guide Description

The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party by Marian Calabro.

Plot Summary

The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party tells the tale of the ill-fated journey of the Donner Party from Illinois to California in 1846. A series of bad choices and unfortunate incidents forced the group of several families and individuals to suffer through a terrible winter, stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

In April 1846, a total of thirty-two people set out from Springfield, Illinois, guided by the promise of free land in California. Chief among these people were the Donner families (headed by George and Jacob) and the Reed family (headed by James).

A trip to Independence, Missouri proceeded without incident, and the train of covered wagons traveled into Wyoming. The group grew as more families joined. In July, despite warnings from a local frontiersman, James Reed and George Donner persuaded the Donner Party to take a shortcut route advocated by a pamphlet called the Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California. This pamphlet was written by a man named Lansford Hastings, who had designs on becoming emperor of California, but who had little frontier experience.

The shortcut, known thereafter as the Hastings cutoff, was a disaster, filled with treacherous steep terrain and thick forest. The party had to proceed very slowly, losing significant time.

The Donner Party next had to cross the Great Salt Lake Desert. Hastings again led the families astray, leaving them a note that said the desert would take only two days to cross. It actually took six days, and the harsh desert environment decimated livestock and oxen, forcing the party to abandon wagons. By the time they got back to the primary route to California, it was late September.

By late October, the Party traveled along the Truckee River across the Sierra Nevada mountains. They encountered massive snowdrifts and could not cross the summit of the mountain. Snow built up on either side of the wagon train, and they were essentially trapped for the winter in the mountains at Truckee Lake.

Setting up makeshift cabins and dwellings, the families did the best they could to survive the harsh winter. But food was extremely scarce, as all game animals had migrated out of the area. Lack of food caused several in the group to leave in order to hike to California. This group would be known as the Forlorn Hope. Tragically underestimating the distance to California, this group succumbed to terrible frostbite and starvation, and several people resorted to cannibalism. Only seven of fifteen members of the Forlorn Hope survived.

James Reed - who had been exiled from the wagon train for killing an oxen driver gone mad from hunger - made it on his own to California and frantically organized rescue teams. Meanwhile, the group at Truckee Lake spent months in the mountains, slowly dying off from the cold or hunger. Eventually, several at Truckee Lake also resorted to cannibalism. Three rescue teams arrived in February and March to ferry survivors out of the mountains. Out of the ninety total members in the Donner Party, forty-three died.

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This section contains 503 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Purchase our The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party Study Guide
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The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party from BookRags and Gale's For Students Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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