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The Donner Party. What Cascade Events Led to the Final Disaster?


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Everyone focuses on the end result when the party was trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but the seeds of the disaster were planted long before then. Bad decisions, murder, poor leadership and more, all contributed. Learn what really happened.

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The Donner Party. What Cascade Events Led to the Final Disaster?

  1. 1. What Really Happened? THE DONNER PARTY A True Story of Murder, Mayhem and Cannibalism.
  2. 2. “I wish I could cry, but I cannot. If I could forget the tragedy, perhaps I would know how to cry again.” Mary Graces. Survivor, the Donner Party. The Donner Party: A Case Of Social Disintegration.
  3. 3. The Rule of Seven: Every catastrophe has 7 events. Six Cascade Events leading to the final event, the Catastrophe. At least one of the Cascade Events involves human error. Thus, most catastrophes can be avoided. To do so, we must learn from history and past disasters.
  4. 4. In Spring 1846, a group of emigrants departed west for California. Rather than take the usual route, they decided to take a ‘shorter’ new route, the Hastings Cutoff. The delays from taking that route caused them to reach the last obstacle, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, so late in the season that they became trapped by heavy snowfall, and were forced to spend the winter. Starving and freezing, some of the group resorted to cannibalism. Eventually, about half the party was rescued in the Spring of 1847. THE FACTS
  5. 5. 1846: 12 May: Set out from Independence, MO. 27 June: Fort Laramie. They are urged not to take the Hastings Cutoff. 18 July: The party crosses the Continental Divide. 19 July: At the Little Sandy River the large party splits and the Donner Party heads toward Fort Bridger, while the rest stay on the known California Trail. THE TIMELINE
  6. 6. 1846: 31 July: Depart Fort Bridger to take the Hastings Cutoff. They cross the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, with many delays. 30 August: Set off across the Great Salt Lake Desert, experiencing more delays 26 Sept: Finally rejoin the California Trail at the Humboldt River. 7 Oct: An elderly man is abandoned by the convoy, left on the side of the trail to die. THE TIMELINE
  7. 7. 13 Oct: One man decides to cache his wagon; the two men who stay behind to help him, come back without him, saying he was killed by Indians. He was murdered by them. 25 Oct: A small relief party arrives from California with 7 mules of provisions; accompanied by two Native American guides. November: The party cannot make it over Truckee Pass and camp for the winter. THE TIMELINE
  8. 8. 15 Dec: The first member of the party dies from malnutrition. 16 Dec: The strongest members of the party set out on snowshoes to make it through the pass to Sutters Fort (the Forlorn Hope). 21 Dec: The snowshoers have made it over the pass but are battling deep snow. One member sits down, smokes his pipe, and tells them to go on. He dies. THE TIMELINE
  9. 9. 24 Dec: The snowshoers can go no further. They draw lots to decide who to kill and eat. But can’t kill the loser. Members begin to die. 26 December: They resort to cannibalism. 30 Dec: The snowshoers run out of deceased human meat. It’s suggested they kill the two Native Americans who were part of the resupply party. Warned, the two run off. THE TIMELINE
  10. 10. 1847 9 Jan: The snowshoers come upon the two weakened and exhausted Native Americans who’d tried to escape. Shoot the two and then eat them. 17 Jan: The snowshoers are taken in by a Native American village. For the rest of the party on the other side of the mountains, it’s uncertain when they resorted to cannibalism of those who died from malnutrition and/or the cold. 19 Feb: The First Relief makes it over the mountains. 29 Apr: The last surviving member of the Donner Party arrives at Sutter’s Fort. THE TIMELINE
  11. 11. The Mexican War. Technically speaking, the Donner Party was emigrating to Mexico, not another part of the United States. And they were doing so in the midst of a war between the United States and Mexico. An explorer named Fremont started a revolt in California in early 1846, in the spirit of the Texas War of Independence. This meant assistance would not be available when needed. Cascade 1— what caused it.
  12. 12. Lesson: Larger events have to be factored in; emigrating in the midst of a war is one of them.
  13. 13. Choosing to follow an unknown, untried path. Also known as trying to take a short cut. There were two main routes west at the time of the Donner Party: the Oregon Trail, which was used starting in the 1830s, and the California Trail which was brought into service in 1841. In 1842, Lansford Hastings wrote a book titled The Emigrant’s Guide To Oregon and California. In it, he briefly mentioned a new path to the west, which Hastings claimed was shorter and faster. Technically, on the map, it is. Cascade 2
  14. 14. Cascade 2
  15. 15. Choosing to follow an unknown, untried path. Also known as trying to take a short cut. There was one big problem with the Hastings Cutoff. Hastings had never traveled it until 1846, the same year the Donners attempted it. One of the early leaders in the Donner Party, James Reed, read Hastings’ book and noted the mention of the cutoff. They decided to take it in order to save time and beat other emigrants to California. Cascade 2
  16. 16. LESSON: We all know about shortcuts, especially untried ones. The Donner Party bet their lives on a single sentence in a book written by a man they didn’t know, who wrote about the cutoff when he hadn’t even tried it.
  17. 17. Inability to make sound decisions on their own. After Fort Laramie, there was still time for the group before they had to make a decision but fate, in the form of Hastings, intervened. Hastings had been giving letters to riders heading east to hand to emigrants en route. He warned of opposition to emigration by Mexican authorities in California, advising them to travel in large groups. He also claimed to have worked out a new and better route and would be waiting at Fort Bridger to guide parties west. Cascade 3
  18. 18. Inability to make sound decisions on their own. The problem was that Fort Bridger was off the known path to California so a decision would have to be made soon. The Donner Party received one of these letters on the 12th of July. On The 20th of July, they reached the Little Sandy River in Wyoming and it was time to make a decision. To continue on the main trail or to break off to the southwest toward Fort Bridger. They made the decision to trust Hastings’ letter and route and turned off for Fort Bridger. Cascade 3
  19. 19. LESSON: Between a known and an unknown, the reasons to risk one’s life to an unknown must be compelling and trusted. Despite personal warnings, the party made the decision to trust a man they’d never met.
  20. 20. A Lack of Clear Leadership. Splitting from the others after this decision was made, leadership was passed, by consensus, from Reed to Donner. Reed was former military and older, but his style irritated many in the group. Donner, on the other hand, was easier to get along with. Thus he was elected. From here on, a major problem for the group was a lack of decisiveness in terms of decision-making. Decisions were often put to a vote, which works all right in peacetime, but in crisis can often be fatal. Cascade 4
  21. 21. LESSON: Instead of Donner making a decision whether to press forward after having lost much time, the group took a vote. In tough situations, democracy is usually not the best course of action (Lewis & Clark took a vote now and then, but they had an entirely different group than the Donner Party). The Donner Party elected to follow the new trail.
  22. 22. Crossing the Wasatch, the Great Salt Lake Desert and Pilots Peak. Getting through the Wasatch Range slowed them down considerably. (I spent two months in that range during Winter Warfare training and can attest to the difficulty of the terrain.) Then they hit the the Great Salt Lake desert. In 1986 a group in 4-wheel drive vehicles couldn’t cross the same path the Donners attempted. Cascade 5
  23. 23. In the Wasatch Mountains with 10th Special Forces
  24. 24. Crossing the Wasatch, the Great Salt Lake Desert and Pilots Peak. The Donners lost more time having to stop at Pilots Peak for water and rest. By the time they got across the desert and rejoined the California Trail, they were now the last party on the trail. A fight broke out between two members and one killed the other and was banished. He was also the most forceful and experienced man in the party. Despite knowing how late in the year it was, the Donner Party pressed on. Cascade 5
  25. 25. Lesson: An unwillingness to accept the reality of the situation, even when time was running out. There comes a time when one has to accept sunk cost– a past cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered.
  26. 26. The moment of crisis, also known as the Tipping Point. There is often a key moment in cascade events, both large and small, where something happens that indicates future cascade events will be negative, leading to an inevitable final event. Usually, this cascade event involves a no-do-over event. Cascade 6
  27. 27. The moment of crisis, also known as the Tipping Point. The tipping point for the Donner Party came on 7 October 1846. As they moved toward the Sierra Nevada’s along the Humboldt River, with worn out animals, everyone who could, had to get off the wagons and walk. One of the men owning a wagon forced an elderly man, Hardkoop, who had been traveling with him, out of his wagon. Hardkoop tried walking on severely swollen feet. Unable to keep up, he limped along, pleading with every wagon for someone to take him in. No one did. Hardkoop sat down under a large bush, still pleading. They left him behind. Cascade 6
  28. 28. The moment of crisis, also known as the Tipping Point. This meant the Donner party had no leadership and was no longer a cohesive group. It was everyone for themselves. And that led to what would happen in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Cascade 6
  29. 29. LESSON: Recognizing tipping points is key and often the last chance to avoid a catastrophe. One has to have the ability to make the hard decision. Throughout the journey, one gets the feeling the Donner Party was on an inexorable path to disaster. Yet there were numerous points where a decision could have changed their fate. Whether it be to not take the Hastings Cutoff; to turn back in Utah when Hastings told them to wait; to let go of their extraneous possessions and make the best possible time in order to make it across the desert and through the Sierra Nevadas.
  30. 30. LESSON: The inability to make these earlier decisions led those in the party to make decisions (homicide, cannibalism) that they had never contemplated. While the weather lowered the final boom on the Donner Party, this catastrophe shows human error clearly playing a part.
  31. 31. Starvations, freezing, homicide, and cannibalism. One thousand feet from the summit of Truckee Pass it began to snow. The next day when they tried to press forward, they couldn’t make it over the pass in five feet of snow. In November the party decided to camp for the winter, even though they didn’t have sufficient supplies to make it through. Their hope was that a rescue party would come from Sutters Fort. The Mexican War probably seemed very far away to them, but most of the men who would have formed a rescue party were away fighting. Final Event
  32. 32. Starvations, freezing, homicide, and cannibalism. Many of those in the Donner Party went beyond what most people are capable of in order to survive, but they’d sealed their fate back in Wyoming with the decision to take the Hastings Cutoff and then kept it sealed with decision after decision. One by one they begin to die. And one by one they were eaten by the others. Final Event
  33. 33. As an interesting side note. A young man was trapped in the same place the previous winter and survived. He did a lot of fishing in the lake where there were trout. No one in the Donner Party even attempted to fish.
  34. 34. Seven Ways to Prevent Catastrophes 1. Have a Special Ops preparation mindset 2. Focus by utilizing both big picture & detail thinkers 3. Conduct Special Forces Area Studies 4. Use the Special Forces CARVER formula 5. Have a “10th man” 6. Conduct After Action Reviews 7. Write and USE Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs)
  35. 35. Are you interested in a presentation about various catastrophes and how the cascade events could have been prevented? Events covered range from human-machine interface, to leadership, to communication, cost-cutting, engineering, group think, perseverance, systematic failure, and more? Catastrophes are cascade events culminating in disastrous chaos. War is chaos. Special Forces is the most elite unit trained for a variety of combat situations. What makes Special Forces elite is our mindset and preparation. Are you interested in a presentation on how to use Special Forces tactics, techniques and mental attitude to help your organization anticipate and prevent potential catastrophes? Please email Summary
  36. 36. More Free Information I constantly update free, downloadable slideshows like this on my web site for preparation and survival and other topics. Also, I conduct Area Study workshops for those interested in properly preparing for their specific circumstances.
  37. 37. The guide on the left is the complete preparation and survival guide. The one on the right is a pocket-size manual with just the survival portion. Useful in your Grab- n-Go bag, car and kitchen drawer. SURVIVAL GUIDES
  38. 38. New York Times bestselling author, is a graduate of West Point and former Green Beret. He’s had over 80 books published, including the #1 bestselling series Green Berets, Time Patrol, Area 51, and Atlantis. He’s sold over 5 million books. He was born in the Bronx and has traveled the world. He’s lived on an island off the east coast, an island off the west coast, in the Rocky Mountains, the Smoky Mountains and other places, including time in East Asia studying martial arts. He was an instructor and course developer/writer for years at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School which trains Green Berets and also runs the SERE school: Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.