Talking Cannibalism: The Donner Party Story

By Shanie Matthews | Tuesday, September 25, 2018

If you were stranded in the midst of arduous travels and the only chance for survival was to eat your human companions, would you do it?

From the soccer team stranded in the Andes in the 1980s to the historical Donner Party, the stories of good-natured people resorting to cannibalism is a horrific reality. The call of human nature to survive – at all costs – is only truly measured when the absolute necessity is upon us.

The story of the Donner Party is one that has haunted the Lake Tahoe area since the moment the unlucky few survivors were found in 1846. For those not caught up to speed on the ins and outs of this story, the Donner Party were a group of settlers who believed in their dreams being fulfilled out West. The group was formed in result of a popular expansionist movement called Manifest Destiny, which spread the belief that Anglo-Saxon United States citizens, as mandated by God, were to spread the government word and way of life throughout the continent. Abraham Lincoln even considered this calling. But a blend of bad decisions and bad luck made this story a legend.

When the group of Manifest Destiny seekers left for the expansive West, they truly believed that they were being called upon by God to populate a landscape that was void of people. This was to be done so that the good Anglo-Saxon people of the United States of America could flourish. Little did they know that this arrogant way to look at a territory (that was most definitely occupied by botMexicans and Native Americans) would, unknowingly, take them into a pit of a human being’s most shameful depths: human cannibalism.

For decades the story of these stranded folk carried with it horror and repulsion. But, really, what is known truly about the people behind the cannibalistic mask?

In a recently published book The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party In the Age of Manifest Destiny, author Michael Wallis takes an in-depth and meaningful look at the Anglo-Saxons who – in all truth – were the first white settlers to the Lake Tahoe region. What is highly interesting about his fascinating look at the Donner Party is that he didn’t just use written history as his fact finder, he also took the time to sit down and speak to the descendants of the Donner Party. It is also noteworthy that Wallis, a historian in the field of the American West, is looking at this story in a way that can connect the old story to what is happening in our world today. In the book he discusses how looking at the underlying reasons that the Donner Party tragedy occurred has more commonalities to our shared America, both of the past and the present.

It isn’t the act of cannibalism that interests Wallis. Instead, his interest lies in the Manifest Destiny reasoning that helped to create a horrific reality that seems to be outside the norm for any person. In his book he discusses how the mindset of the time set about the unraveling of incidents that led to a horrific reality. In the past it may have been believed that the Donner Party perished and resulted to cannibalism because of mistakes made. The author points out, though, that it is because of the mindset of Manifest Destiny and the belief that the Almighty had their backs, that disaster occurred.

The relevance that Wallis discusses, he feels, is highly relevant today. In fact, he says we should heed the warning, per se. Instead of seeing the Donner Party as a crazy few that did what was needed to survive, maybe we should take into consideration their mindset and how that mindset of arrogance plays a part in our world today.

For Lake Tahoe and Donner Summit, this just may put a spin on things.

Photos:, Donner Summit Historical Society

Illustration: Andy Thomas from True West Magazine, Sally Jackson of Deviant Art






About the Author Shanie Matthews
A longtime Lake Tahoe local, Shanie is a freelance writer, Vinyasa Flow yoga teacher and positivity warrior. A true lover of the the gorgeous Tahoe region, she connects with the serenity of the mountains via skiing, biking and backpacking. She also believes in the gift of yoga and its way of allowing one to become his or her true best self, a passion she shares with the world with her online yoga studio.