Going back to a comment I had made in the question on What were the types of sieges something I had seen often referred to in the Bernard Cornwell Sharpe series was the Forlorn Hope. Basically these were the soldiers who were first through a breach in the wall, a sort of suicide attack on a well defended position the typical result of this attack was the death of most groups involved. In the Sharpe series it results in him being promoted at least once. Going beyond the fictional account I am curious as to what the origination on this is.
Amplifying Tom Au's answer:
With the military revolution in European warfare, two features entered military operations:
- intensive siege warfare
Prior to the military revolution (cf: Tercio), a subcaste of the nobility mastered warfare, and primarily gained benefits by in group status and rapine. However, the professionalisation of military life meant that in group status benefits were no longer suitable rewards. Instead, systems of advancement, ennoblement, and recognition amongst an open set of wealthy professionals came to replace in group status amongst a caste. For the most junior, and poorest officers of newly professional companies, such advancement was eagerly sought-sought well above the chances of survival.
Secondly, the advances in troop density, decisive infantry engagement, and siege weaponry led to significant changes in the structure of siege warfare. Star forts developed, and again this led to the development of professionalisation. As sieges became more a result of art and engineering than chaos and starvation, the "storming" phase of sieges became much more highly developed. In particular, bastions needed to be stormed by light infantry in skirmish to remove their capacity to defend other emplacements during sieges, and so advance the central purpose of the siege. Such attempts to take by storm had extremely high costs, and the coin paid for those paying the highest price was advancement or in the case of men wealth.
The reduction in smaller field warfare reduced the chance men had for rapine and thus abnormal pleasure, where the increase in troop densities caused systematic and planned pillage to replace amateur rapine. Ordinary men faced military careers devoid of the pleasures of flesh and sin, and so sought the opportunity for abnormal wealth in other phases.
The military necessity of storming heavily defended bastions caused by the military revolution; the change in status structures for those in command of battle caused by the professionalisation caused by the military revolution; and, the change in the opportunity for martial pleasure amongst serving men caused (yet again) by the military revolution in Europe all found their focus in the one event: the folorn hope. The first unit through the breach enjoyed peculiar benefits because of their peculiar and abnormal chance of death. But these benefits were so highly esteemed that the position of the folorn hope was eagerly volunteered for.
By the time of the "Sharpe" fiction series, these cultures had become institutionalised even though warfare had substantially moved back towards field manoeuvre (this change again caused by the continuing effects of the military revolution). While sieges were not central to warfare any more, the folorn hope still played a cultural role related to its military role.
(I say pity more the second unit through the breach: a similar volume of fire, but no advancement).
A "forlorn hope" is a small breach, or at least a weakening of the walls or defense system of a besieged city or fortress. It is the place where the attacker will initially try to enter the defenses, which is why the defenders will typically do their utmost to contain it. As a result, most of the attackers, at least the early ones at the "forlorn hope," will get killed.
Often, this effort is NOT in vain, because while the defenders are trying to contain/repair the breach at the forlorn hope, their attention and manpower will be drawn away from other potential invasion sites. It's possible that the defenders will (initially) contain the breakthrough from the forlorn hope, and succumb to an attack from another direction.
(The Sharpe Companion, Mark Adkin, Harper Collins Publishers 1998. Reproduced with permission of the publishers).
The Concise Oxford Dictionary, defines "forlorn hope" as "a desperate enterprise" and gives its origin as the Dutch phrase "verloren hoop"--a lost troop. The phrase was well known to veterans of the Peninsular Wars!
The "Forlorn Hope", usually referred to as "The Hope", always led the assault on a fortress and was a party of about 25-30 soldiers led by a subaltern and a couple of sergeants, to draw the enemy fire. They were the first into the breach and, usually, the first to die. It was a post of the utmost honour and there was seldom a lack of volunteers. If the officer survived, he was virtually sure of promotion: the sergeants could normally expect battlefield commissions: the soldiers got nothing. One of those who volunteered at the siege of Cuidad Rodrigo and again at Badajoz was Edward Costello of the 95th. He described the selection procedure: 'On the eve of the storming of a fortress, the breaches etc being all ready, captains of companies, on their private parages, give the men to understand that such and such a place is to be taken by storm. Every man then who wishes to volunteer to head the stormers (the Forlorn Hope was in front of the stormers) steps forward to the front and his name is immediately taken down by the officer'. The attacking columns on the two breaches at Cuidad Rodrigo were composed according to the tactical teaching of the time. First, engineers and a covering party next 'The Hope', followed by the stormers and then the bulk of the attacking battalions, one after the other.
In the 95th, at San Sebastian in July 1813, only two volunteers were needed for "The Hope" from each company, but many more stepped forward. Lots were drawn to find the 'lucky' men--Ptes Royston and Ryan. They were offered 20 pounds to exchange places but refused. At about this time survivors of 'The Hope' from Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz were recognised in the 52nd Regiment by a badge of laurel with the letters VC (Valiant Stormer) underneath. This was worn on the right arm but it was a commanding officer's award, not given outside this regiment. The French were more generous. Such volunteers, 'enfants perdu' (lost children) were usually commissioned and received the Legion of Honour, which obliged their comrades to salute them.
Private Burke of the 95th survived 'The Hope" at Cuidad Rodrigo, Badajoz and San Sebastian only to be mortally wounded at Quatre Bras in the Waterloo campaign.
During the 1840s, the United States saw a dramatic increase in settlers who left their homes in the east to resettle in the Oregon Territory or California, which at the time were accessible only by a very long sea voyage or a daunting overland journey across the American frontier. Some, such as Patrick Breen, saw California as a place where they would be free to live in a fully Catholic culture  others were attracted to the West's burgeoning economic opportunities or inspired by the idea of manifest destiny, the belief that the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans belonged to European Americans and that they should settle it.  Most wagon trains followed the Oregon Trail route from a starting point in Independence, Missouri, to the Continental Divide of the Americas, traveling about 15 miles (24 km) a day  on a journey that usually took between four and six months.  The trail generally followed rivers to South Pass, a mountain pass in present-day Wyoming which was relatively easy for wagons to negotiate.  From there, pioneers had a choice of routes to their destinations. 
Lansford Hastings, an early migrant from Ohio to the West, went to California in 1842 and saw the promise of the undeveloped country. To encourage settlers, he published The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California.  As an alternative to the Oregon Trail's standard route through Idaho's Snake River Plain, he proposed a more direct route (which actually increased the trip's mileage) to California across the Great Basin, which would take travelers through the Wasatch Range and across the Great Salt Lake Desert.  Hastings had not traveled any part of his proposed shortcut until early 1846 on a trip from California to Fort Bridger. The fort was a scant supply station run by Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez in Blacks Fork, Wyoming. Hastings stayed at the fort to persuade travelers to turn south on his route.  As of 1846, Hastings was the second of two men documented to have crossed the southern part of the Great Salt Lake Desert, but neither had been accompanied by wagons.  [A]
Arguably the most difficult part of the journey to California was the last 100 miles (160 km) across the Sierra Nevada. This mountain range has 500 distinct peaks over 12,000 feet (3,700 m) high  which, because of their height and proximity to the Pacific Ocean, receive more snow than most other ranges in North America. The eastern side of the range is also notoriously steep.  After a wagon train left Missouri to cross the vast wilderness to Oregon or California, timing was crucial to ensure that it would not be bogged down by mud created by spring rains or by massive snowdrifts in the mountains from September onward. Traveling during the right time of year was also critical to ensuring that horses and oxen had enough spring grass to eat. 
In the spring of 1846, almost 500 wagons headed west from Independence.  At the rear of the train,  a group of nine wagons containing 32 members of the Reed and Donner families and their employees left on May 12.  George Donner, born in North Carolina, had gradually moved west to Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, with a one-year sojourn in Texas.  In early 1846, he was about 60 years old and living near Springfield, Illinois. With him was his 44 year-old wife Tamsen, their three daughters Frances (6), Georgia (4), and Eliza (3), and George's daughters from a previous marriage: Elitha (14) and Leanna (12). George's younger brother Jacob (56) also joined the party with his wife Elizabeth (45), teenaged stepsons Solomon Hook (14) and William Hook (12), and five children: George (9), Mary (7), Isaac (6), Lewis (4), and Samuel (1).  Also traveling with the Donner brothers were teamsters Hiram O. Miller (29), Samuel Shoemaker (25), Noah James (16), Charles Burger (30), John Denton (28), and Augustus Spitzer (30). 
James F. Reed, a 45-year-old native of Ireland, settled in Illinois in 1831. He was accompanied by his wife Margret (32), step-daughter Virginia (13), daughter Martha Jane ("Patty", 8), sons James and Thomas (5 and 3), and Sarah Keyes, Margret Reed's mother. Keyes was in the advanced stages of consumption (tuberculosis)  and died at a campsite they named Alcove Springs. She was buried nearby, off to the side of the trail with a grey rock inscribed "Mrs. Sarah Keyes, Died May 29, 1846 Aged 70".   In addition to leaving financial worries behind, Reed hoped that California's climate would help Margret, who had long suffered from ill health.  The Reeds hired three men to drive the ox teams: Milford ("Milt") Elliott (28), James Smith (25), and Walter Herron (25). Baylis Williams (24) went along as handyman and his sister, Eliza (25), as the family's cook. 
Within a week of leaving Independence, the Reeds and Donners joined a group of 50 wagons nominally led by William H. Russell.  By June 16, the company had traveled 450 miles (720 km), with 200 miles (320 km) to go before Fort Laramie, Wyoming. They had been delayed by rain and a rising river, but Tamsen Donner wrote to a friend in Springfield, "indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started".  [B] Young Virginia Reed recalled years later that, during the first part of the trip, she was "perfectly happy". 
Several other families joined the wagon train along the way. Levinah Murphy (37), a widow from Tennessee, headed a family of thirteen. Her five youngest children were: John Landrum (16), Meriam ("Mary", 14), Lemuel (12), William (10), and Simon (8). Levinah's two married daughters and their families also came along: Sarah Murphy Foster (19), her husband William M. (30) and son Jeremiah George (1) Harriet Murphy Pike (18), her husband William M. (32) and their daughters Naomi (3) and Catherine (1). William H. Eddy (28), a carriage maker from Illinois, brought his wife Eleanor (25) and their two children, James (3) and Margaret (1). The Breen family consisted of Patrick Breen (51), a farmer from Iowa, his wife Margaret ("Peggy", 40), and seven children: John (14), Edward (13), Patrick, Jr. (9), Simon (8), James (5), Peter (3), and 11-month-old Isabella. Their neighbor, 40-year-old bachelor Patrick Dolan, traveled with them.  German immigrant Lewis Keseberg (32) joined, along with his wife Elisabeth Philippine (22) and daughter Ada (2) son Lewis Jr. was born on the trail.  Two young single men named Spitzer and Reinhardt traveled with another German couple, the Wolfingers, who were rumored to be wealthy they also had a hired driver, "Dutch Charley" Burger. An older man named Hardkoop rode with them. Luke Halloran, a young man sick with consumption, could no longer ride horseback the families he had been traveling with no longer had resources to care for him. He was taken in by George Donner at Little Sandy River and rode in their wagon. 
To promote his new route (the "Hastings Cutoff"), Lansford Hastings sent riders to deliver letters to traveling migrants. On July 12, the Reeds and Donners were given one of them.  Hastings warned the migrants they could expect opposition from the Mexican authorities in California and advised them to band together in large groups. He also claimed to have "worked out a new and better road to California", and said he would be waiting at Fort Bridger to guide the migrants along the new cutoff. 
On July 20, at the Little Sandy River, most of the wagon train opted to follow the established trail via Fort Hall. A smaller group opted to head for Fort Bridger and needed a leader. Most of the younger men in the group were European immigrants and not considered to be ideal leaders. James Reed had lived in the U.S. for a considerable time, was older, and had military experience, but his autocratic attitude had rubbed many in the party the wrong way, and they saw him as aristocratic, imperious, and ostentatious. 
By comparison, the mature, experienced, American-born Donner's peaceful and charitable nature made him the group's first choice.  The members of the party were comfortably well-off by contemporaneous standards.  Although they are called pioneers, most of the party lacked experience and skill for traveling through mountainous and arid land. Additionally, the party had little knowledge about how to interact with Native Americans. 
Journalist Edwin Bryant reached Blacks Fork a week ahead of the Donner Party. He saw the first part of the trail and was concerned that it would be difficult for the wagons in the Donner group, especially with so many women and children. He returned to Blacks Fork to leave letters warning several members of the group not to take Hastings's shortcut.  By the time the Donner Party reached Blacks Fork on July 27, Hastings had already left, leading the forty wagons of the Harlan-Young group.  Because Jim Bridger's trading post would fare substantially better if people used the Hastings Cutoff, he told the party that the shortcut was a smooth trip, devoid of rugged country and hostile Native Americans, and would therefore shorten their journey by 350 miles (560 km). Water would be easy to find along the way, although a couple of days crossing a 30–40-mile (48–64 km) dry lake bed would be necessary.
Reed was very impressed with this information and advocated for the Hastings Cutoff. None of the party received Bryant's letters warning them to avoid Hastings's route at all costs in his diary account, Bryant states his conviction that Bridger deliberately concealed the letters, a view shared by Reed in his later testimony.   At Fort Laramie, Reed met an old friend named James Clyman who was coming from California. Clyman warned Reed not to take the Hastings Cutoff, telling him that wagons would not be able to make it and that Hastings's information was inaccurate.  Fellow pioneer Jesse Quinn Thornton traveled part of the way with Donner and Reed, and in his book From Oregon and California in 1848 declared Hastings the "Baron Munchausen of travelers in these countries".  Tamsen Donner, according to Thornton, was "gloomy, sad, and dispirited" at the thought of turning off the main trail on the advice of Hastings, whom she considered "a selfish adventurer". 
On July 31, 1846, the party left Blacks Fork after four days of rest and wagon repairs, eleven days behind the leading Harlan-Young group. Donner hired a replacement driver, and the company was joined by the McCutcheon family, consisting of 30-year-old William, his 24-year-old wife Amanda, their two-year-old daughter Harriet, and a 16-year-old named Jean Baptiste Trudeau from New Mexico, who claimed to have knowledge of the Native Americans and terrain on the way to California. 
Wasatch Range Edit
The party turned south to follow the Hastings Cutoff. Within days, they found the terrain to be much more difficult than described. Drivers were forced to lock the wheels of their wagons to prevent them from rolling down steep inclines. Several years of traffic on the main Oregon Trail had left an easy and obvious path, whereas the Cutoff was more difficult to find. Hastings wrote directions and left letters stuck to trees. On August 6, the party found a letter from him advising them to stop until he could show them an alternate route to that taken by the Harlan-Young Party. [C] Reed, Charles T. Stanton, and William Pike rode ahead to get Hastings. They encountered exceedingly difficult canyons where boulders had to be moved and walls cut off precariously to a river below, a route likely to break wagons. In his letter Hastings had offered to guide the Donner Party around the more difficult areas, but he rode back only part way, indicating the general direction to follow.  
Stanton and Pike stopped to rest, and Reed returned alone to the group, arriving four days after the party's departure. Without the guide they had been promised, the group had to decide whether to turn back and rejoin the traditional trail, follow the tracks left by the Harlan-Young Party through the difficult terrain of Weber Canyon, or forge their own trail in the direction that Hastings had recommended. At Reed's urging, the group chose the new Hastings route.  Their progress slowed to about one and a half miles (2.4 km) a day. All able-bodied men were required to clear brush, fell trees, and heave rocks to make room for the wagons. [D]
As the Donner Party made its way across the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, the Graves family, who had set off to find them, reached them. They consisted of 57-year-old Franklin Ward Graves, his 45-year-old wife Elizabeth, their children Mary (20), William (18), Eleanor (15), Lovina (13), Nancy (9), Jonathan (7), Franklin, Jr. (5), Elizabeth (1), and married daughter Sarah (22), plus son-in-law Jay Fosdick (23), and a 25-year-old teamster named John Snyder, traveling together in three wagons. Their arrival brought the Donner Party to 87 members in 60–80 wagons.  The Graves family had been part of the last group to leave Missouri, confirming the Donner Party was at the back of the year's western exodus. 
It was August 20 by the time that they reached a point in the mountains where they could look down and see the Great Salt Lake. It took almost another two weeks to travel out of the Wasatch Range. The men began arguing, and doubts were expressed about the wisdom of those who had chosen this route, in particular James Reed. Food and supplies began to run out for some of the less affluent families. Stanton and Pike had ridden out with Reed but had become lost on their way back by the time that the party found them, they were a day away from eating their horses. 
Great Salt Lake Desert Edit
Luke Halloran died of tuberculosis on August 25. A few days later, the party came across a torn and tattered letter from Hastings. The pieces indicated there were two days and nights of difficult travel ahead without grass or water. The party rested their oxen and prepared for the trip.  After 36 hours they set off to traverse a 1,000-foot (300 m) mountain that lay in their path. From its peak, they saw ahead of them a dry, barren plain, perfectly flat and covered with white salt, larger than the one they had just crossed,  and "one of the most inhospitable places on earth" according to Rarick.  Their oxen were already fatigued, and their water was nearly gone. 
The party pressed onward on August 30, having no alternative. In the heat of the day, the moisture underneath the salt crust rose to the surface and turned it into a gummy mass. The wagon wheels sank into it, in some cases up to the hubs. The days were blisteringly hot and the nights frigid. Several of the group saw visions of lakes and wagon trains and believed they had finally overtaken Hastings. After three days, the water was gone, and some of the party removed their oxen from the wagons to press ahead to find more. Some of the animals were so weakened they were left yoked to the wagons and abandoned. Nine of Reed's ten oxen broke free, crazed with thirst, and bolted off into the desert. Many other families' cattle and horses had also gone missing. The rigors of the journey resulted in irreparable damage to some of the wagons, but no human lives had been lost. Instead of the promised two-day journey over 40 miles (64 km), the journey across the 80 miles (130 km) of Great Salt Lake Desert had taken six.   [E]
None of the party had any remaining faith in the Hastings Cutoff as they recovered at the springs on the other side of the desert. [F] They spent several days trying to recover cattle, retrieve the wagons left in the desert, and transfer their food and supplies to other wagons. [G] Reed's family incurred the heaviest losses, and Reed became more assertive, asking all the families to submit an inventory of their goods and food to him. He suggested that two men should go to Sutter's Fort in California he had heard that John Sutter was exceedingly generous to wayward pioneers and could assist them with extra provisions. Charles Stanton and William McCutchen volunteered to undertake the dangerous trip.  The remaining serviceable wagons were pulled by mongrel teams of cows, oxen, and mules. It was the middle of September, and two young men who went in search of missing oxen reported that another 40 miles (64 km) of desert lay ahead. 
Their cattle and oxen were now exhausted and lean, but the Donner Party crossed the next stretch of desert relatively unscathed. The journey seemed to get easier, particularly through the valley next to the Ruby Mountains. Despite their near hatred of Hastings, they had no choice but to follow his tracks, which were weeks old. On September 26, two months after embarking on the cutoff, the Donner Party rejoined the traditional trail along a stream that became known as the Humboldt River. The shortcut had probably delayed them by a month.  
Reed banished Edit
Along the Humboldt, the group met Paiute Native Americans, who joined them for a couple of days but stole or shot several oxen and horses. By now, it was well into October, and the Donner families split off to make better time. Two wagons in the remaining group became tangled, and John Snyder angrily beat the ox of Reed's hired teamster Milt Elliott. When Reed intervened, Snyder proceeded to rain blows down onto his head with a whip handle - when Reed's wife attempted to intervene she too was struck. Reed retaliated by fatally plunging a knife under Snyder's collarbone.  
That evening, the witnesses gathered to discuss what was to be done. United States laws were not applicable west of the Continental Divide (in what was then Mexican territory) and wagon trains often dispensed their own justice.  But George Donner, the party's leader, was a full day ahead of the main wagon train with his family.  Snyder had been seen to hit James Reed, and some claimed he had also hit Margret Reed,  but Snyder had been popular and Reed was not. Keseberg suggested that Reed should be hanged, but an eventual compromise allowed him to leave the camp without his family, who were to be taken care of by the others. Reed departed alone the next morning, unarmed,    [H] but his step-daughter Virginia rode ahead and secretly provided him with a rifle and food. 
The trials that the Donner Party had so far endured resulted in splintered groups, each looking out for themselves and distrustful of the others.   Grass was becoming scarce, and the animals were steadily weakening. To relieve the animals' load, everyone was expected to walk.  Keseberg ejected Hardkoop from his wagon, telling the elderly man that he had to walk or die. A few days later, Hardkoop sat next to a stream, his feet so swollen they had split open he was not seen again. William Eddy pleaded with the others to find him, but they all refused, swearing they would waste no more resources on a man who was almost 70 years old.  
Meanwhile, Reed caught up with the Donners and proceeded with one of his teamsters, Walter Herron. The two shared a horse and were able to cover 25–40 miles (40–64 km) per day.  The rest of the party rejoined the Donners, but their hardship continued. Native Americans chased away all of Graves' horses, and another wagon was left behind. With grass in short supply, the cattle spread out more, which allowed the Paiutes to steal 18 more during one evening several mornings later, they shot another 21.  So far, the company had lost nearly 100 oxen and cattle, and their rations were almost completely depleted. With nearly all his cattle gone, Wolfinger stopped at the Humboldt Sink to cache (bury) his wagon Reinhardt and Spitzer stayed behind to help. They returned without him, reporting they had been attacked by Paiutes and he had been killed.  One more stretch of desert lay ahead. The Eddys' oxen had been killed by Native Americans and they were forced to abandon their wagon. The family had eaten all their stores, but the other families refused to assist their children. The Eddys were forced to walk, carrying their children and miserable with thirst. Margret Reed and her children were also now without a wagon.   But the desert soon came to an end, and the party found the Truckee River in beautiful lush country. 
They had little time to rest. The company pressed on to cross the Sierra Nevada before the snows came. Stanton, one of the two men who had left a month earlier to seek assistance in California, found the company and he brought mules, food, and two Miwok Native Americans named Luis and Salvador. [I] He also brought news that Reed and Herron, although haggard and starving, had succeeded in reaching Sutter's Fort in California.   By this point, according to Rarick, "To the bedraggled, half-starved members of the Donner Party, it must have seemed that the worst of their problems had passed. They had already endured more than many emigrants ever did." 
Donner Pass Edit
Faced with one last push over mountains that were described as much worse than the Wasatch, the ragtag company had to decide whether to forge ahead or rest their cattle. It was October 20 and they had been told the pass would not be snowed in until the middle of November. William Pike was killed when a gun being loaded by William Foster was discharged negligently,  an event that seemed to make the decision for them family by family, they resumed their journey, first the Breens, then the Kesebergs, Stanton with the Reeds, Graves, and the Murphys. The Donners waited and traveled last. After a few miles of rough terrain, an axle broke on one of their wagons. Jacob and George went into the woods to fashion a replacement. George Donner sliced his hand open while chiseling the wood but it seemed a superficial wound. 
Snow began to fall. The Breens made it up the "massive, nearly vertical slope" 1,000 feet (300 m) to Truckee Lake (now known as Donner Lake), 3 miles (4.8 km) from the summit, and camped near a cabin that had been built two years earlier by another group of pioneers.  [J] The Eddys and Kesebergs joined the Breens, attempting to make it over the pass, but they found 5–10-foot (1.5–3.0 m) snowdrifts, and were unable to find the trail. They turned back for Truckee Lake and within a day all the families were camped there except for the Donners, who were 5 miles (8.0 km)– half a day's journey– below them. On the evening of November 4, it began to snow again. 
Winter camp Edit
Sixty members and associates of the Breen, Graves, Reed, Murphy, Keseberg, and Eddy families set up for the winter at Truckee Lake. Three widely separated cabins of pine logs served as their homes, with dirt floors and poorly constructed flat roofs that leaked when it rained. The Breens occupied one cabin, the Eddys and the Murphys another, and the Reeds and the Graves the third. Keseberg built a lean-to for his family against the side of the Breen cabin. The families used canvas or oxhide to patch the faulty roofs. The cabins had no windows or doors, only large holes to allow entry. Of the 60 at Truckee Lake, 19 were men over 18, 12 were women, and 29 were children, six of whom were toddlers or younger. Farther down the trail, close to Alder Creek, the Donner families hastily constructed tents to house 21 people, including Mrs. Wolfinger, her child, and the Donners' drivers: six men, three women, and twelve children in all.   It began to snow again on the evening of November 4—the beginning of a storm that lasted eight days. 
By the time the party made camp, very little food remained from the supplies that Stanton had brought back from Sutter's Fort. The oxen began to die, and their carcasses were frozen and stacked. Truckee Lake was not yet frozen, but the pioneers were unfamiliar with catching lake trout. Eddy, the most experienced hunter, killed a bear, but had little luck after that. The Reed and Eddy families had lost almost everything. Margret Reed promised to pay double when they got to California for the use of three oxen from the Graves and Breen families. Graves charged Eddy $25—normally the cost of two healthy oxen—for the carcass of an ox that had starved to death.  
Desperation grew in camp and some reasoned that individuals might succeed in navigating the pass where the wagons could not. In small groups they made several attempts, but each time returned defeated. Another severe storm, lasting more than a week, covered the area so deeply that the cattle and horses—their only remaining food—died and were lost in the snow. 
Patrick Breen began keeping a diary on November 20. He concerned himself primarily with the weather, marking the storms and how much snow had fallen, but gradually began to include references to God and religion in his entries.  Life at Truckee Lake was miserable. The cabins were cramped and filthy, and it snowed so much that people were unable to go outdoors for days. Diets soon consisted of oxhide, strips of which were boiled to make a "disagreeable" glue-like jelly. Ox and horse bones were boiled repeatedly to make soup, and they became so brittle that they would crumble upon chewing. Sometimes they were softened by being charred and eaten. Bit by bit, the Murphy children picked apart the oxhide rug that lay in front of their fireplace, roasted it in the fire, and ate it.  After the departure of the snowshoe party, two-thirds of the migrants at Truckee Lake were children. Mrs. Graves was in charge of eight, and Levinah Murphy and Eleanor Eddy together took care of nine.  Migrants caught and ate mice that strayed into their cabins. Many of the people at Truckee Lake were soon weakened and spent most of their time in bed. Occasionally one would be able to make the full-day trek to see the Donners. News came that Jacob Donner and three hired men had died. One of them, Joseph Reinhardt, confessed on his deathbed that he had murdered Wolfinger.  George Donner's hand had become infected, which left four men to work at the Donner camp. 
Margret Reed had managed to save enough food for a Christmas pot of soup, to the delight of her children, but by January they were facing starvation and considered eating the oxhides that served as their roof. Margret Reed, Virginia, Milt Elliott, and the servant girl Eliza Williams attempted to walk out, reasoning that it would be better to try to bring food back than sit and watch the children starve. They were gone for four days in the snow before they had to turn back. Their cabin was now uninhabitable the oxhide roof served as their food supply, and the family moved in with the Breens. The servants went to live with other families. One day, the Graves came by to collect on the debt owed by the Reeds and took the oxhides, all that the family had to eat.  
"The Forlorn Hope" Edit
|Mary Ann Graves||19|
|* died en route |
† turned back before reaching pass
‡ estimated age 
The mountain party at Truckee Lake began to fail. Spitzer died, then Baylis Williams (a driver for the Reeds) also died, more from malnutrition than starvation. Franklin Graves fashioned 14 pairs of snowshoes out of oxbows and hide. On December 16, a party of 17 men, women, and children set out on foot in an attempt to cross the mountain pass.  As evidence of how grim their choices were, four of the men were fathers. Three of the women, who were mothers, gave their young children to other women. They packed lightly, taking what had become six days' rations, a rifle, a blanket each, a hatchet, and some pistols, hoping to make their way to Bear Valley.  Historian Charles McGlashan later called this snowshoe party the "Forlorn Hope".  Two of those without snowshoes, Charles Burger and 10-year-old William Murphy, turned back early on.  Other members of the party fashioned a pair of snowshoes for 12-year old Lemuel Murphy on the first evening from one of the packsaddles that they were carrying. 
The snowshoes proved to be awkward but effective on the arduous climb. The members of the party were neither well-nourished nor accustomed to camping in snow 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and, by the third day, most were snowblind. On the sixth day, Eddy discovered his wife had hidden a half-pound of bear meat in his pack. The group set out again the morning of December 21 Stanton had been straggling for several days, and he remained behind, saying he would follow shortly. His remains were found in that location the following year.  
The group became lost and confused. After two more days without food, Patrick Dolan proposed one of them should volunteer to die in order to feed the others. Some suggested a duel, while another account describes an attempt to create a lottery to choose a member to sacrifice.   Eddy suggested that they keep moving until someone simply fell, but a blizzard forced the group to halt. Antonio, the animal handler, was the first to die Franklin Graves was the next casualty.  
As the blizzard progressed, Patrick Dolan began to rant deliriously, stripped off his clothes, and ran into the woods. He returned shortly afterwards and died a few hours later. Not long after, possibly because Murphy was near death, some of the group began to eat flesh from Dolan's body. Lemuel's sister tried to feed some to her brother, but he died shortly afterwards. Eddy, Salvador, and Luis refused to eat. The next morning, the group stripped the muscle and organs from the bodies of Antonio, Dolan, Graves, and Murphy. They dried them to store for the days ahead, taking care to ensure nobody would have to eat his or her relatives.  
After three days' rest, they set off again, searching for the trail. Eddy eventually succumbed to his hunger and ate human flesh, but that was soon gone. They began taking apart their snowshoes to eat the oxhide webbing and discussed killing Luis and Salvador for food, before Eddy warned the two men and they quietly left.  Jay Fosdick died during the night, leaving only seven members of the party. Eddy and Mary Graves left to hunt, but when they returned with deer meat, Fosdick's body had already been cut apart for food.   After several more days—25 since they had left Truckee Lake—they came across Salvador and Luis, who had not eaten for about nine days and were close to death. William Foster shot the pair, believing their flesh was the rest of the group's last hope of avoiding imminent death from starvation. 
Not more than a few days later, [L] the group stumbled into a Native American settlement looking so deteriorated that the camp's inhabitants initially fled. The Native Americans gave them what they had to eat: acorns, grass, and pine nuts.  After a few days, Eddy continued on with the help of tribe members to a ranch in a small farming community at the edge of the Sacramento Valley.   A hurriedly assembled rescue party found the other six survivors on January 17. Their journey from Truckee Lake had taken 33 days.  
Reed attempts a rescue Edit
James F. Reed made it out of the Sierra Nevada to Rancho Johnson in late October. He was safe and recovering at Sutter's Fort, but each day he became more concerned for the fate of his family and friends. He pleaded with Colonel John C. Frémont to gather a team of men to cross the pass and help the company. In return Reed promised to join Frémont's forces and fight in the Mexican–American War.  He was joined by McCutchen, who had been unable to return with Stanton, as well as some members of the Harlan-Young party. The Harlan-Young wagon train had arrived at Sutter's Fort on October 8, the last to make it over the Sierra Nevada that season.  The party of roughly 30 horses and a dozen men carried food supplies, and expected to find the Donner Party on the western side of the mountain, along the Bear River below the steep approach to Emigrant Gap, perhaps starving but alive. When they arrived in the river valley, they found only a pioneer couple, migrants who had been separated from their company who were near starvation.  
Two guides deserted Reed and McCutchen with some of their horses, but they pressed on farther up the valley to Yuba Bottoms, walking the last mile on foot. Reed and McCutchen stood looking up at Emigrant Gap, only 12 miles (19 km) from the top, blocked by snow, possibly on the same day the Breens attempted to lead one last effort to crest the pass from the east. Despondent, they turned back to Sutter's Fort. 
First relief Edit
|George Donner, Jr.||9|
|James Reed, Jr.||6|
|* died en route |
Much of the military in California were engaged in the Mexican–American War, and with them the able-bodied men. For example, Colonel Frémont's personnel were occupied at that precise time in capturing Santa Barbara. Throughout the region, roads were blocked, communications compromised, and supplies unavailable. Only three men responded to a call for volunteers to rescue the Donner Party. Reed was laid over in San Jose until February because of regional uprisings and general confusion. He spent that time speaking with other pioneers and acquaintances. The people of San Jose responded by creating a petition to appeal to the U.S. Navy to assist the people at Truckee Lake. Two local newspapers reported that members of the snowshoe party had resorted to cannibalism, which helped to foster sympathy for those who were still trapped. Residents of Yerba Buena, many of them recent migrants, raised $1,300 ($36,100 in 2020) and organized relief efforts to build two camps to supply a rescue party for the refugees.  
A rescue party including William Eddy started on February 4 from the Sacramento Valley. Rain and a swollen river forced several delays. Eddy stationed himself at Bear Valley, while the others made steady progress through the snow and storms to cross the pass to Truckee Lake, caching their food at stations along the way so they did not have to carry it all. Three of the rescue party turned back, but seven forged on.  
On February 18, the seven-man rescue party scaled Frémont Pass (now Donner Pass) as they neared where Eddy told them the cabins would be, they began to shout. Mrs. Murphy appeared from a hole in the snow, stared at them and asked, "Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?"  The relief party doled out food in small portions, concerned that it might kill them if the emaciated migrants overate. All the cabins were buried in snow. Sodden oxhide roofs had begun to rot and the smell was overpowering. Thirteen people at the camps were dead, and their bodies had been loosely buried in snow near the cabin roofs. Some of the migrants seemed emotionally unstable. Three of the rescue party trekked to the Donners and brought back four gaunt children and three adults. Leanna Donner had particular difficulty walking up the steep incline from Alder Creek to Truckee Lake, later writing "such pain and misery as I endured that day is beyond description".  George Donner's arm was so gangrenous he could not move. Twenty-three people were chosen to go with the rescue party, leaving twenty-one in the cabins at Truckee Lake and twelve at Alder Creek.  
The rescuers concealed the fate of the snowshoe party, informing the rescued migrants only that they did not return because they were frostbitten.  Patty and Tommy Reed were soon too weak to cross the snowdrifts, and no one was strong enough to carry them. Margret Reed faced the agonizing predicament of accompanying her two older children to Bear Valley and watching her two frailest be taken back to Truckee Lake without a parent. She made rescuer Aquilla Glover swear on his honor as a Mason that he would return for her children. Patty Reed told her, "Well, mother, if you never see me again, do the best you can."   Upon their return to the lake, the Breens flatly refused them entry to their cabin but, after Glover left more food, the children were grudgingly admitted. The rescue party was dismayed to find that the first cache station had been broken into by animals, leaving them without food for four days. After struggling on the walk over the pass, John Denton slipped into a coma and died. Ada Keseberg died soon afterwards her mother was inconsolable, refusing to let the child's body go. After several days' more travel through difficult country, the rescuers grew very concerned that the children would not survive. Some of them ate the buckskin fringe from one of the rescuer's pants, and the shoelaces of another, to the relief party's surprise. On their way down from the mountains, they met the next rescue party, which included James Reed. Upon hearing his voice, Margret sank into the snow, overwhelmed.  
After these rescued migrants made it safely into Bear Valley, William Hook, Jacob Donner's stepson, broke into food stores and fatally gorged himself. The others continued to Sutter's Fort, where Virginia Reed wrote, "I really thought I had stepped over into paradise". She was amused to note one of the young men asked her to marry him, although she was only 12 years old and recovering from starvation,   but she turned him down. 
Second relief Edit
|Patrick Breen, Jr.†||9|
|Franklin Ward Graves, Jr.*||5|
|* died en route |
† came out with John Stark 
Around the time the first relief party was being organized, nearby California settler and patriarch George C. Yount had likely previously heard of the plight of the Donner Party, and had distressing dreams of a struggling group of starving pioneers in deep snow. Yount, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and others then raised five hundred dollars to send out another rescue party. 
On March 1, the second relief party arrived at Truckee Lake. These rescuers included veteran mountain men, most notably John Turner,   who accompanied the return of Reed and McCutchen. Reed was reunited with his daughter Patty and his weakened son Tommy. An inspection of the Breen cabin found its occupants relatively well, but the Murphy cabin, according to author George Stewart, "passed the limits of description and almost of imagination". Levinah Murphy was caring for her eight-year-old son Simon and the two young children of William Eddy and Foster. She had deteriorated mentally and was nearly blind. The children were listless and had not been cleaned in days. Lewis Keseberg had moved into the cabin and could barely move due to an injured leg. 
No one at Truckee Lake had died during the interim between the departure of the first and the arrival of the second relief party. Patrick Breen documented a disturbing visit in the last week of February from Mrs. Murphy, who said her family was considering eating Milt Elliott. Reed and McCutchen found Elliott's mutilated body.  The Alder Creek camp fared no better. The first two members of the relief party to reach it saw Trudeau carrying a human leg. When they made their presence known, he threw it into a hole in the snow that contained the mostly dismembered body of Jacob Donner. Inside the tent, Elizabeth Donner refused to eat, although her children were being nourished by their father's organs.  The rescuers discovered three other bodies had already been consumed. In the other tent, Tamsen Donner was well, but George was very ill because the infection had reached his shoulder. 
The second relief evacuated 17 migrants from Truckee Lake, only three of whom were adults. Both the Breen and Graves families prepared to go. Only five people remained at Truckee Lake: Keseberg, Mrs. Murphy and her son Simon, and the young Eddy and Foster children. Tamsen Donner elected to stay with her ailing husband after Reed informed her that a third relief party would arrive soon. Mrs. Donner kept her daughters Eliza, Georgia, and Frances with her. 
The walk back to Bear Valley was very slow. At one point, Reed sent two men ahead to retrieve the first cache of food, expecting the third relief, a small party led by Selim E. Woodworth, to come at any moment. A violent blizzard arose after they scaled the pass. Five-year-old Isaac Donner froze to death, and Reed nearly died. Mary Donner's feet were badly burned because they were so frostbitten that she did not realize she was sleeping with them in the fire. When the storm passed, the Breen and Graves families were too apathetic and exhausted to get up and move, not having eaten for days. The relief party had no choice but to leave without them.    The site where the Breens and Graves had been left became known as 'Starved Camp'.  Margaret Breen reportedly took the initiative to try to keep the members of the camp alive after the others departed down the mountain. Soon however, Elizabeth Graves and her son Franklin perished before the next rescue party could reach them, and the party resorted to eating flesh off the dead bodies in order to survive. 
Three members of the relief party stayed to help those remaining at the camps Charles Stone at Truckee Lake, Charles Cady and Nicholas Clark at Alder Creek. While Clark was out hunting, Stone traveled to Alder Creek and made plans with Cady to return to California. According to Stewart, Tamsen Donner arranged for them to take her daughters Eliza, Georgia, and Frances with them, perhaps for $500 cash. Stone and Cady took the three girls to Truckee Lake, but left them at a cabin with Keseberg and Levinah Murphy when they started for Bear Valley. Cady recalled later, that after two days on the trail they noted and passed Starved Camp, but they did not stop to help in any way. They overtook Reed and the others within days.   Several days later at the Alder Creek camp, Clark and Trudeau agreed to leave for California together. When they reached Truckee Lake and discovered the Donner girls still there they returned to Alder Creek to inform Tamsen Donner. 
William Foster and William Eddy, survivors of the snowshoe party, started from Bear Valley to intercept Reed, taking with them a man named John Stark. After a day, they met Reed helping his children struggle on toward Bear Valley, all frostbitten and bleeding but alive. Desperate to rescue their own children, Foster and Eddy persuaded four men, with pleading and money, to go to Truckee Lake with them. During their journey they found the eleven survivors at Starved Camp, huddled around a fire that had sunk into a pit. The relief party split, with Foster, Eddy, and two others headed toward Truckee Lake. Two of the rescuers, hoping to save some of the survivors, each took a child and headed back to Bear Valley. John Stark refused to leave the others. He picked up two children and all the provisions and assisted the remaining Breens and Graves to safety, sometimes advancing the children down the trail piece-meal, putting them down and then going back to carry the other debilitated children.   
Third relief Edit
|Jean Baptiste Trudeau||16 |
Foster and Eddy finally arrived at Truckee Lake on March 14, where they found their children dead. Keseberg told Eddy that he had eaten the remains of Eddy's son Eddy swore to murder Keseberg if they ever met in California.  George Donner and one of Jacob Donner's children were still alive at Alder Creek. Tamsen Donner had just arrived at the Murphy cabin to see to her daughters. She could have walked out alone but chose to return to her husband, even though she was informed that no other relief party was likely to be coming soon. Foster and Eddy and the rest of the third relief left with the Donner girls, young Simon Murphy, Trudeau, and Clark. Levinah Murphy was too weak to leave and Keseberg refused.  
Two more relief parties were mustered to evacuate any adults who might still be alive. Both turned back before getting to Bear Valley, and no further attempts were made. On April 10, almost a month since the third relief had left Truckee Lake, the alcalde near Sutter's Fort organized a salvage party to recover what they could of the Donners' belongings. These would be sold, with part of the proceeds used to support the orphaned Donner children. The salvage party found the Alder Creek tents empty except for the body of George Donner, who had died only days earlier. On their way back to Truckee Lake, they found Lewis Keseberg alive. According to him, Mrs. Murphy had died a week after the departure of the third relief. Some weeks later, Tamsen Donner had arrived at his cabin on her way over the pass, soaked and visibly upset. Keseberg said he put a blanket around her and told her to start out in the morning, but she died during the night. The salvage party were suspicious of Keseberg's story, and found a pot full of human flesh in the cabin along with George Donner's pistols, jewelry, and $250 in gold. They threatened to lynch Keseberg, who confessed that he had cached $273 of the Donners' money, at Tamsen's suggestion, so that it could one day benefit her children.  
Member of General Stephen W. Kearny's company, June 22, 1847 
News of the Donner Party's fate was spread eastward by Samuel Brannan, an elder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a journalist, who ran into the salvage party as they came down from the pass with Keseberg.  Accounts of the ordeal first reached New York City in July 1847. Reporting on the event across the U.S. was heavily influenced by the national enthusiasm for westward migration. In some papers, news of the tragedy was buried in small paragraphs, despite the contemporary tendency to sensationalize stories. Several newspapers, including those in California, wrote about the cannibalism in graphic exaggerated detail.  In some print accounts, the members of the Donner Party were depicted as heroes and California a paradise worthy of significant sacrifices. 
Emigration to the West decreased over the following years, but it is likely that the drop in numbers was caused more by fears over the outcome of the ongoing Mexican–American War than by the cautionary tale of the Donner Party.  In 1846, an estimated 1,500 people migrated to California. In 1847, the number dropped to 450 and then to 400 in 1848. The California Gold Rush spurred a sharp increase, however, and 25,000 people went west in 1849.  Most of the overland migration followed the Carson River, but a few forty-niners used the same route as the Donner Party and recorded descriptions about the site. 
In late June 1847, members of the Mormon Battalion under General Stephen Kearny buried the human remains, and partially burned two of the cabins.  The few who ventured over the pass in the next few years found bones, other artifacts, and the cabin used by the Reed and Graves families. In 1891, a cache of money was found buried by the lake. It had probably been stored by Mrs. Graves, who hastily hid it when she left with the second relief so she could return for it later.  
Lansford Hastings received death threats. A migrant who crossed before the Donner Party confronted him about the difficulties they had encountered, reporting: "Of course he could say nothing but that he was very sorry, and that he meant well". 
Of the 87 people who entered the Wasatch Mountains, 48 survived. Only the Reed and Breen families remained intact. The children of Jacob Donner, George Donner, and Franklin Graves were orphaned. William Eddy was alone most of the Murphy family had died. Only three mules reached California the remaining animals perished. Most of the Donner Party members' possessions were discarded. 
Virginia Reed to cousin Mary Keyes, May 16, 1847 [M]
A few of the widowed women remarried within months brides were scarce in California. The Reeds settled in San Jose and two of the Donner children lived with them. Reed fared well in the California Gold Rush and became prosperous. Virginia wrote an extensive letter to her cousin in Illinois about "our troubles getting to California", with editorial oversight from her father. Journalist Edwin Bryant carried it back in June 1847, and it was printed in its entirety in the Illinois Journal on December 16, 1847, with some editorial alterations. 
Virginia converted to Catholicism, fulfilling a promise she had made to herself while observing Patrick Breen pray in his cabin. The Murphy survivors lived in Marysville, California. The Breens made their way to San Juan Bautista, California,  where they operated an inn. They became the anonymous subjects of J. Ross Browne's story about his severe discomfort upon learning that he was staying with alleged cannibals, printed in Harper's Magazine in 1862. Many of the survivors encountered similar reactions. 
George and Tamsen Donner's children were taken in by an older couple near Sutter's Fort. Eliza was three years old during the winter of 1846–1847, the youngest of the Donner children. She published an account of the Donner Party in 1911, based on printed accounts and those of her sisters.  The Breens' youngest daughter Isabella was a one-year-old during the winter of 1846–1847 and the last survivor of the Donner Party. She died in 1935. 
Mary Graves to Levi Fosdick (her sister Sarah Fosdick's father-in-law), 1847 
The Graves children lived varied lives. Mary Graves married early, but her first husband was murdered. She cooked his killer's food while he was in prison to ensure the condemned man did not starve before his hanging. One of Mary's grandchildren noted she was very serious Graves once said, "I wish I could cry but I cannot. If I could forget the tragedy, perhaps I would know how to cry again."  Mary's brother William had several different occupations, a diverse lifestyle, and his nieces thought he was "eccentric and irascible". He died in 1907 and was buried in Calistoga.  
Nancy Graves was nine years old during the winter of 1846–1847. She refused to acknowledge her involvement even when contacted by historians interested in recording the most accurate versions of the episode. Nancy reportedly was unable to recover from her role in the cannibalism of her brother and mother. 
Eddy remarried and started a family in California. He attempted to follow through on his promise to murder Lewis Keseberg but was dissuaded by James Reed and Edwin Bryant. A year later, Eddy recalled his experiences to J. Quinn Thornton, who wrote the earliest account of the episode, also using Reed's memories of his involvement.  Eddy died in Petaluma, California on December 24, 1859. 
Keseberg brought a defamation suit against several members of the relief party who accused him of murdering Tamsen Donner. The court awarded him $1 in damages, but also made him pay court costs. An 1847 story printed in the California Star described Keseberg's actions in ghoulish terms and his near-lynching by the salvage party. It reported that he preferred eating human flesh over the cattle and horses that had become exposed in the spring thaw. Historian Charles McGlashan amassed enough material to indict Keseberg for the murder of Tamsen Donner, but after interviewing him he concluded no murder occurred. Eliza Donner Houghton also believed Keseberg to be innocent. 
As Keseberg grew older, he did not venture outside, for he had become a pariah and was often threatened. He told McGlashan, "I often think that the Almighty has singled me out, among all the men on the face of the earth, in order to see how much hardship, suffering, and misery a human being can bear!"  
The Donner Party episode has served as the basis for numerous works of history, fiction, drama, poetry, and film. The attention directed at the Donner Party is made possible by reliable accounts of what occurred, according to Stewart, and the fact that "the cannibalism, although it might almost be called a minor episode, has become in the popular mind the chief fact to be remembered about the Donner Party. For a taboo always allures with as great strength as it repels".  The appeal is the events focused on families and ordinary people, according to Johnson, writing in 1996, instead of on rare individuals, and that the events are "a dreadful irony that hopes of prosperity, health, and a new life in California's fertile valleys led many only to misery, hunger, and death on her stony threshold". 
The site of the cabins became a tourist attraction as early as 1854.  In the 1880s, Charles McGlashan began promoting the idea of a monument to mark the site of the Donner Party episode. He helped to acquire the land for a monument and, in June 1918, the statue of a pioneer family, dedicated to the Donner Party, was placed on the spot where the Breen-Keseberg cabin was thought to have stood.  It was made a California Historical Landmark in 1934. 
The State of California created the Donner Memorial State Park in 1927. It originally consisted of 11 acres (4.5 ha) surrounding the monument. Twenty years later, the site of the Murphy cabin was purchased and added to the park.  In 1962, the Emigrant Trail Museum was added to tell the history of westward migration into California. The Murphy cabin and Donner monument were established as a National Historic Landmark in 1963. A large rock served as the back-end of the fireplace of the Murphy cabin, and a bronze plaque has been affixed to the rock listing the members of the Donner Party, indicating who survived and who did not. The State of California justifies memorializing the site because the episode was "an isolated and tragic incident of American history that has been transformed into a major folk epic".  As of 2003, the park is estimated to receive 200,000 visitors a year. 
Most historians count 87 members of the party, although Stephen McCurdy in the Western Journal of Medicine includes Sarah Keyes—Margret Reed's mother—and Luis and Salvador, bringing the number to 90.  Five people had already died before the party reached Truckee Lake: one from tuberculosis (Halloran), three from trauma (Snyder, Wolfinger, and Pike), and one from exposure (Hardkoop). A further 34 died between December 1846 and April 1847: twenty-five males and nine females.  [N] Several historians and other authorities have studied the mortalities to determine what factors may affect survival in nutritionally deprived individuals. Of the fifteen members of the snowshoe party, eight of the ten men who set out died (Stanton, Dolan, Graves, Murphy, Antonio, Fosdick, Luis, and Salvador), but all five women survived.  A professor at the University of Washington stated that the Donner Party episode is a "case study of demographically-mediated natural selection in action". 
The deaths at Truckee Lake, at Alder Creek, and in the snowshoe party were probably caused by a combination of extended malnutrition, overwork, and exposure to cold. Several members became more susceptible to infection due to starvation,  such as George Donner, but the three most significant factors in survival were age, sex, and the size of family group that each member traveled with. The survivors were on average 7.5 years younger than those who died children aged between six and 14 had a much higher survival rate than infants and children under the age of six, of whom 62.5 percent died, including the son born to the Kesebergs on the trail, or adults over the age of 35. No adults over the age of 49 survived. Deaths were "extremely high" among males aged between 20 and 39, at more than 66 percent.  Men have been found to metabolize protein faster, and women do not require as high a caloric intake. Women also store more body fat, which delays the effects of physical degradation caused by starvation and overwork. Men also tend to take on more dangerous tasks, and in this particular instance, the men were required to clear brush and engage in heavy labor before reaching Truckee Lake, adding to their physical debilitation. Those traveling with family members had a higher survival rate than bachelor males, possibly because family members more readily shared food with each other.  
Claims of cannibalism Edit
Although some survivors disputed the accounts of cannibalism, Charles McGlashan, who corresponded with many of the survivors over a 40-year period, documented many recollections that it occurred. Some correspondents were not forthcoming, approaching their participation with shame, but others eventually spoke about it freely. McGlashan in his 1879 book History of the Donner Party declined to include some of the more morbid details—such as the suffering of the children and infants before death—or how Mrs. Murphy, according to Georgia Donner, gave up, lay down on her bed and faced the wall when the last of the children left in the third relief. He also neglected to mention any cannibalism at Alder Creek.   The same year McGlashan's book was published, Georgia Donner wrote to him to clarify some points, saying that human flesh was prepared for people in both tents at Alder Creek, but to her recollection (she was four years old during the winter of 1846–1847) it was given only to the youngest children: "Father was crying and did not look at us the entire time, and we little ones felt we could not help it. There was nothing else." She also remembered that Elizabeth Donner, Jacob's wife, announced one morning that she had cooked the arm of Samuel Shoemaker, a 25-year-old teamster.  Eliza Donner Houghton, in her 1911 account of the ordeal, did not mention any cannibalism at Alder Creek.
Archaeological findings at the Alder Creek camp proved inconclusive for evidence of cannibalism. None of the bones tested at the Alder Creek cooking hearth could be identified with certainty as human.  According to Rarick, only cooked bones would be preserved, and it is unlikely that the Donner Party members would have needed to cook human bones. 
Eliza Farnham's 1856 account of the Donner Party was based largely on an interview with Margaret Breen. Her version details the ordeals of the Graves and Breen families after James Reed and the second relief left them in the snow pit. According to Farnham, seven-year-old Mary Donner suggested to the others that they should eat Isaac Donner, Franklin Graves Jr., and Elizabeth Graves, because the Donners had already begun eating the others at Alder Creek, including Mary's father Jacob. Margaret Breen insisted that she and her family did not cannibalize the dead, but Kristin Johnson, Ethan Rarick, and Joseph King—whose account is sympathetic to the Breen family—do not consider it credible that the Breens, who had been without food for nine days, would have been able to survive without eating human flesh. King suggests Farnham included this in her account independently of Margaret Breen.  
According to an account published by H. A. Wise in 1847, Jean Baptiste Trudeau boasted of his own heroism, but also spoke in lurid detail of eating Jacob Donner, and said he had eaten a baby raw.  Many years later, Trudeau met Eliza Donner Houghton and denied cannibalizing anyone. He reiterated this in an interview with a St. Louis newspaper in 1891, when he was 60 years old. Houghton and the other Donner children were fond of Trudeau, and he of them, despite their circumstances and the fact that he eventually left Tamsen Donner alone. Author George Stewart considers Trudeau's accounting to Wise more accurate than what he told Houghton in 1884, and asserted that he deserted the Donners.  Kristin Johnson, on the other hand, attributes Trudeau's interview with Wise to be a result of "common adolescent desires to be the center of attention and to shock one's elders" when older, he reconsidered his story, so as not to upset Houghton.  Historians Joseph King and Jack Steed call Stewart's characterization of Trudeau's actions as desertion "extravagant moralism", particularly because all members of the party were forced to make difficult choices.  Ethan Rarick echoed this by writing, "more than the gleaming heroism or sullied villainy, the Donner Party is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous". 
FORLORN HOPE: The Donner Party--January 12, 1847
One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week the sixty-some members of the desperate Donner Party were counting on the snowshoers who had left for the Pass and Sutter's Fort on December 16. The “Forlorn Hope” group, as it was known, had been gone for three weeks, but no rescuers had arrived back from California.
Forlorn Hope Struggles West
The pioneers at the Donner and Alder camps didn’t know it, but the snowshoers were still struggling to escape the mountains. But an extended period of cold, fair weather during early January had given the ten surviving snowshoers (five had died) a chance to find their way down the tortuous Sierra west slope.
The group had followed the North Fork of the American River westward. It is in a rugged canyon more than 1,000 feet deep. At one point where the river turned south, they were forced to climb up from the canyon bottom and over a ridge to the west. The terrain was so steep and rocky that the emigrants pulled themselves up by shrubs growing in crevices. From the top of the ridge they got their first glimpse of the green Sacramento Valley, still many miles away.
The snowshoers were battered and starving. Their toes were black and their feet were swollen and bloody from repeated frostbite. Their boots and moccasins were falling apart so they tied fragments of blanket around them. Jay Fosdick, weak and snow blind, had fallen behind the others, but he managed to catch up each night.
Finally, the survivors stumbled down a hill and out of the snow. They were so hungry they started a fire and took, toasted, and ate the rotted, leather thongs from their snowshoes.
In their desperate flight to get to help, as the weeks worn on, members of the group ate the flesh of their dead companions, as they died one by one. When all of this grisly fare was gone, William Foster, delirious and crazed with hunger, suggested killing the group’s two Miwok Indian guides, Luis and Salvador. Luis and Salvador had come up from Sutter’s Fort in November with Charles Stanton in an effort to rescue the Donner Party. William Eddy was against the plan and he told the Indians to flee while they could. They did, heading downhill into California.
Second Week in January 1847
By the second week of January, the snowshoers were out of food of any kind, so William Eddy and Mary Graves took a flintlock rifle and set out ahead of the others to hunt down a deer. The group was below the snow line and signs of game had become common.
Sarah and Jay Fosdick, William and Sarah Foster, Amanda McCutcheon, and the recently widowed Harriet Pike, were exhausted and remained behind. Two miles down the trail Eddy observed crushed grass where a deer had recently rested. The two crept along silently until at last they sighted an emaciated buck about 80 yards away, but Eddy was too weak to hold and sight the heavy weapon.
After two failed attempts to aim the rifle, Eddy was finally able to raise the gun vertically and as he slowly lowered the muzzle to track past the deer, he pulled the trigger and wounded it. Eddy staggered after the animal, overtook it, and killed it with his pocketknife. It was too far to carry any of the meat back to the others, so he and Mary Graves built a fire, roasted some of the venison, and filled their bellies for the first time in weeks. That night, back on the trail, Jay Fosdick died of exhaustion. Now there were only seven pioneers left.
When Eddy and Graves returned to the group the next day with the deer meat, the remaining survivors were eating Fosdick’s corpse. They were all delirious.
A few days later, the still-struggling pioneers came upon Luis and Salvador lying helpless on the trail. The Indians had been without food or fire for days. Once again William Foster suggested killing the Miwoks for food, and this time Eddy was unable, or unwilling, to stop him. This is the only known instance of a Donner Party member killing a human being for food.
Editor's Note: This installment is #28 in an exclusive, weekly series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin, a weather historian and photographer, who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, wrote the series for Tahoetopia. The Forlorn Hope picture is by the author the Foster portrait from the Sutter's Fort Archive. Copies of all the installments can be found in the Tahoetopia archive on the Home Page under Donner Party.
Donner Party Tracker: Forlorn Hope - December 16, 1846
One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week, the members of the Donner Party, now beginning to succumb to their exhaustion and hunger, were placing all their hopes on the efforts of a small group of them who would to try to reach safety and assistance in the Sacramento Valley.
The Forlorn Hope
On December 16, The Forlorn Hope--the name they had given to the small group of brave souls--got an early start after a sorrowful farewell to those they were leaving behind and hoped to, but might never see again. In their favor, the weather and snow conditions were cold but suitable for the expedition. Patrick Breen wrote, "Fair & pleasant. froze hard last night & the Company started on snow shoes to cross the mountains. Wind S.E. [and] looks pleasant."
Seventeen people started out in The Forlorn Hope, each equipped with a blanket or quilt and a ration of food that was to last for six days: a strip of stringy dried beef, and a little sugar and coffee. The group was also supplied with one rifle, a few pistols, a hatchet, and tobacco for the men. Only 14 members had snowshoes the others tramped along behind as best they could in their leather shoes.
Their immediate destination was Johnson's Ranch, the closest settlement over the pass and down in the Sacramento Valley. They estimated that the ranch was about 40 miles away it was actually almost twice that far.
Those of The Forlorn Hope who were fortunate enough to have snowshoes included Sarah Fosdick, Mary Graves, William Foster, Sarah Foster, Charles Stanton, William Graves, Sr., Jay Fosdick, William Murphy, Harriet Pike, Lemuel Murphy, Patrick Dolan, the Miwok Indians Luis and Salvador, Mrs. McCutchen, William Eddy, Antonio, and Karl "Dutch Charlie" Burger. Some of the snowshoers were making the journey to find help to save their families others were leaving so there would be one less mouth to feed at the camps. When bachelor Patrick Dolan joined the snowshoers, he generously left his ration of beef behind with the Breens and Reeds, who were struggling to keep themselves alive.
Two of those without snowshoes, Dutch Charlie and young, 10-year-old, William Murphy, turned back the first day. Lemuel Murphy, who was 12 and also without snowshoes, valiantly struggled on. Within a few days, the members of The Forlorn Hope were over the pass and several miles west, down the hill at Summit Valley. The snow there was about 11 feet deep. Another strong winter storm moved into the mountains on December 18 with heavy snow and a cold, furious wind.
Exhaustion, Hunger, and Frostbite Take Toll
A few days later, on December 21, the shortest day of the year and the first day of winter, Stanton was left behind to die alone in the snow. Exhausted and snowblind, he was too weak from malnutrition to keep up and there was nothing anyone could do to help him. In the end, Charles Stanton, the brave bachelor who had risked everything to get supplies from Sutter's Fort to the Donner Party, could not save his own life.
The members of The Forlorn Hope were now in a more desperate situation than before, surrounded by deep snow with frostbite setting in and their food supplies nearly gone. Luis and Salvador, the two Indians from Sutter's Fort, did their best to lead the pioneers in the blinding snowstorm, but the Indians were effectively lost. One day William Eddy found a small portion of bear meat that his wife Eleanor had secretly hidden in his pack. Eddy always shared any wild game that he was able to hunt, but this time he kept the discovery to himself he hoped the precious protein might give him the strength to lead the pioneers out to safety and help.
San Francisco Weather
Around San Francisco Bay the weather had remained mild through December 19, but later that day the observer on the naval ship Warren reported fresh winds from the northwest, shifting to the southwest. The wind shift and a falling barometer were a sure sign of changing weather conditions. By the morning of the 20th, it was cloudy and raining in San Francisco Bay with light southwest winds.
The precipitation didn't last, however, and the clouds cleared out by evening. By December 21, while members of the snowshoe party were fighting for their lives in a high country blizzard, temperatures had warmed up to near 70 degrees near Sausalito, with fair skies and a light wind from the west.
Editor's Note: Photos from Emigrant Trail Museum (Stanto) and author. This installment is #25 in an exclusive, weekly series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin, weather historian, who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, wrote the series for Tahoetopia.
Discovering the Lost Trail of the Forlorn Hope: A Tale of American Pioneer Legends
In December of 1846, fifteen members of the Donner Party left the encampment at Truckee Lake where 80 pioneers were trapped by an early and severe Sierra winter. It would be a desperate attempt to cross the Sierra Mountains covered in 20 feet of snow, to reach Johnson Rancho some 60 miles away, near today’s Wheatland, to get help. What happened next has caused some to call this the greatest endurance feat in history. This is their story.
All registrants will receive a Zoom link via email a day prior to the start of the program. Click on the link included in that email to view the program live on Apr 27th at 6:00PM.
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Four ultra-distance athletes who share a passion for history will honor the lives and courage of the Forlorn Hope members are: Bob Crowley, Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen, Elke Reimer
The Star Fort
Ninety Six National Historic Site
The Star Fort
When you walk out to the Historic battlefield, you're walking on hallowed ground. The siege trenches are partially reconstructed, but the Star Fort is original.
Construction of the Star Fort started in December 1780 and finished in early 1781. It was built by Loyalist soldiers (loyal to the King of England) & slaves from nearby farms and plantations. It wasn't a very popular design because it was hard to build, and couldn't hold many troops, but Loyalist engineer Lt. Henry Haldane decided that an eight-point star fort would be better for the site than a tradition square fort. The star shape allowed musket and cannon fire in all directions.
The Star Fort had a gun battery which was located near the bottom center point in the picture. The long mound of dirt in the center of the picture is called a Traverse and was built during the Patriot siege of Star Fort (May 22- June 18, 1781). It was to be used as a second line of defense in case the Patriots breeched the Star Fort walls.
The Star Fort was an earthen fort. As you see it today is how it looked in 1781. The Star Fort walls were originally about 14 feet high with sand bags around the top giving it a height of about 17 feet during the battle. The walls are a little weatherworn in places, but are original. No major reconstruction has been done to the fort.
The site of the Patriot attack or Battle for Star Fort is near the bottom 2 left points on the the picture. Read below for more on the Battle for Star Fort.
Please keep off the Star Fort walls. We hope that Star Fort will be around for your children, grandchildren, and future generations to enjoy!
The Struggle for the Star, June 18, 1781
Robert Wilson oil painting, 1977
The Struggle for the Star
June 18, 1781
● Noon: A cannon shot signaled the start of the attack. 50 Patriots (Rebels) called the Forlorn Hope (because of their dangerous mission) rushed forward from the 3 rd parallel toward the Loyalist held Star Fort.
● Patriots carried axes to cut down the abatis (sharpened felled trees to the right of the American Flag) & fraise (pointed sticks around the Star). They also carried grappling hooks to tear down sandbags at the top of the Star’s walls. (Notice the Patriot near the center of the painting)
● Patriots also fired from the 30 foot Maham Tower (at the very left of the painting).
● As the Forlorn Hope rushed the Star Fort, 60 Loyalists attacked surrounding the Patriots in hand-to-hand fighting.
● Assault lasted 45 minutes before General Greene called it off.
● Out of the 50 men of the Forlorn Hope, 30 were killed and never made it back to Patriot lines.
The Artist spent over 500 hours researching and working on the painting. The Artist himself is the man with a gray beard and no coat at the bottom of the painting & his son is in the blue Patriot coat defending his father against Loyalist attack.
Origin & history
- (transitive, obsolete) To lose entirely or completely.
- (transitive, obsolete) To destroy, kill.
- (transitive, obsolete) To abandon, forsake.
- 1590, Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, III.4:
Soone as they bene arriv'd upon the brim / Of the Rich Strond, their charets they forlore [. ].
- 1590, Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, III.4:
- (transitive, obsolete) To bereave deprive.
Entries with "forlore"
forlese: forlese (English) Alternative forms forleese, forlore Origin & history From Middle English forlesen, from Old English forlēosan ("to lose, abandon, let go, destroy&hellip
form genera: form genera (English) Verb forlore Simple past of forlese Anagrams fear monger, fearmonger
floorer: floorer (English) Origin & history to floor + -er Noun floorer (pl. floorers) Someone who floors, lays flooring In skittles, the act of knocking down all of the skittles in one&hellip
sickerness: &hellipfrom danger. 1590, Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, III.vii: Lightly she leaped, as a wight forlore, / From her dull horse, in desperate distresse, / And to her feet betooke her&hellip
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forloren (Danish) Origin & history From Middle Low German.
forlorn (English) Origin & history From Middle English.
forlorn hope (English) Origin & history From forlorn + hope, in.
forlorn hopes (English) Noun forlorn hopes Plural of forlorn hope
forlorne (English) Adjective forlorne (comparative more forlorne.
forlorner (English) Adjective forlorner Comparative form of forlorn
Forlorn Hope Plantation Georgetown Georgetown County
John Roberts sold the land to three men: Sir William Baker, Nicholas Linwood, and Brice Fisher. The three men appointed two agents to sell off the land. Hobcaw Barony would eventually be divided into many plantations (Linder & Thacker, p. 3).
The other half went to William Alston and was called Clifton (Linder & Thacker, p. 70).
Mary Allston, the only daughter of Captain John Allston, inherited the plantation. She probably had a manager take care of the place as she lived at Prospect Hill (Linder & Thacker, p. 64).
A court case was filed to get the land back and it was returned to the Alston family.
He already owned Prospect Hill, and he eventually owned seven other plantations. He combined all of his property and called it Arcadia.
A Scene Beyond Imagination
The second rescue party, mostly experienced mountain men along with Reed and fellow Donner Party member William McCutcheon, arrived at the winter camp on March 1. Nothing could have prepared them for what they saw.
At the camp, they came upon Milt Elliot’s disturbingly mutilated body. As they walked up to the Donners’ cabin, they saw Jean Baptiste Trudeau carrying a human leg. When he saw the rescuers, Trudeau tossed the leg into a hole in the snow — a hole which contained the dismembered body of Jacob Donner.
Inside, Jacob Donner’s children were eating their father’s organs. The rescuers also found the remains of at three other people who had also been eaten.
Horrified, the rescuers evacuated 17 people, leaving only a very few behind. Yet, while on the way back to safety, another blizzard blew in, taking several more lives.
Another rescue party was dispatched, this time with former Donner Party members Eddy and William Foster. Halfway to the winter camp, they came across the mutilated bodies of two children and one woman. Eleven survivors — mostly children — were huddled around a sunken fire pit. There the party split, with three men taking the survivors back down the mountain to safety, and the others — Foster and Eddy — continuing on to Truckee Lake.
They arrived only to find their children dead. Lewis Keseberg, one of the few remaining survivors, claimed to have eaten them.
The rescue party left with three of the Donner children, Trudeau and Simon Murphy. In addition to Keseberg, Tamsen and George Donner and their niece stayed behind.
Two more rescue efforts were attempted, but neither could make it through the snow-covered mountains. Finally, in April, a salvage party was sent to bury the dead and gather whatever belongings they could find.
At the winter camp, they found George Donner’s body in his bed, having died only days earlier. None of the others were to be found, dead or alive. Except Keseberg, who was alive, but “half mad.” When asked about the whereabouts of the others, he gave vague and conflicting answers. They searched his cabin and found cash and valuables belonging to George Donner. Keseberg swore he was only holding these items to be given to the Donner children. But his cookpot was full of human flesh. This, even though the bodies of the oxen were now exposed by snowmelt.
Of the 90 emigrants who entered the Wasatch Mountains, only 48 survived. Thirty-four died between December of 1846 and April of 1847 due to some combination of starvation and cold.
Soon after the last rescue, a battalion of Mormon soldiers rode to the site and buried the remains in a mass grave. They then collected all the party’s belongings into the cabins and burned them down.
Because of the US’ support of expansionism, newspaper accounts tended to focus on the bravery and heroism of the party, downplaying or outright deleting their cannibalism. Some California papers, however, took the opposite approach, recounting it in gruesome detail.
The survivors had managed to escape with their lives, but nothing else. Most were treated as pariahs, and Keseberg, facing particular scorn, became a recluse. Hastings, the man who had indirectly caused so much misery and death, faced death threats. He eventually died at sea while leading a group of emigrants to Brazil.
Today the site of the Donner Party’s winter camp is a lovely state park, the cabins memorialized with a statue and plaque. The lake and pass were renamed “Donner.” Archeological digs have not uncovered definitive evidence of cannibalism (such as cut marks or smoothed edges on human bones), but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Accounts by multiple survivors and rescuers include the horrible things done by desperate people. Not heroes, not monsters just desperate, hungry people.List of site sources >>>