Episode 8: 978.02 – The Donner Party

This week, Hailee is bewitched by the tragic fate of the Donner Party. Literally every conceivable thing went wrong for this rag-tag group of travelers. pioneers traveling the Oregon trail were *inspired* by the promise of free land in California and Oregon. Spurred on by what journalist John L. O’Sullivan coined Manifest Destiny, and encouraged by President Polk who was so singular in his focus of owning the western part of the United States he started the Mexican American war, these settlers thought it was their Divine right to journey west and claim the land for themselves. They were promised acres of good, farmable land by the Westward Expansion organizations, never minding that most of California was still owned by Mexico and, of course, hundreds, maybe thousands of indigenous people already called the land home. Hoping to take a newly “discovered” shortcut that would supposedly shave off 300 miles of their journey, the Donner party unfortunately ended up trapped in the Sierra Nevadas in feet of snow and very quickly began to starve.

Titles recommended in this episode

  • The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep by Allen Roth
  • The Hunger by Alma Katsu
  • To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party by Skila Brown
  • Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics
  • The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis
  • The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown

If you’re interested in purchasing the books mentioned in this episode, visit our bookshop.org affiliate shop


For a full list of the members of the Donner Party as well as their fate, click here.

This amazing website has complete biographies of most of the Donner Party, maps, family trees and so much more. Wonderful.

In 2020, a group of snow hikers attempted to take the same path as the Forlorn Hope Expedition. Track their journey here.


Wallis, M. (2018). The best land under heaven: The Donner Party in the age of Manifest Destiny. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Wolf, A. (2020). The snow fell three graves deep: Voices from the Donner party. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

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