Breaking News
More () »

Suspected mass grave of the infamous Donner Party hidden beneath state park in the Sierra | Bartell's Backroads

Believed to have resorted to cannibalism after getting trapped by snow near Truckee, members of the ill-fated Donner party who didn't survive now lie below a park.

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Located just off Interstate 80 near Donner summit, you’ll find the iconic pioneer statue looking over the Sierra, but below it is what’s believed to be a mass grave.

The statue is located at Donner Memorial State Park and according to interpreter Ben Griswold, the tragic events happened just feet from the monument. 

“This is the site that the Donner Party was trapped in on the winter of 1846 to 1847,” Griswold said.

For those who don’t know the story, the Donner Party was a group of about 90 pioneers who left Independence, Missouri to start a new life in California. Instead of taking the normal wagon trail route, the Donner Party took a shortcut that ended up not being so short.

“They got here right as winter hit and decided to take a break, and during that time a storm came in and they were never able to actually get out,” Griswold said.

It’s estimated that snow drifts were 17 feet tall and before long food became scarce. After eating all the livestock, written diary accounts hint that cannibalism took place. 

“So, it’s a complicated question because the official park stats say there is no scientific evidence but we have several written accounts,” Griswold said.


► See an interactive map of everywhere John has visited on the backroads
► Watch all of the Backroads videos
► Follow John on Facebook

Cannibalism or not, in the end about half of the Donner Party died and it would have been more had a group of pioneers not hiked down the mountain to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento to get help. 

“The last person, Lewis Keseberg, got out on April 20th,” Griswold said.

Today, Donner Memorial park is a recreation area great for hiking, sledding and enjoying the water at Donner Lake. Learn more about the Donner Party and the construction of the transcontinental railroad at the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center.

Watch more Backroads It's in the Western Pacific Railroad Museum now, but this iron beast once saved the lives of hundreds of train passengers.