FiftyFifty Brewing Co.

Donner Party Porter

Truckee, CA

(pdf version)

    During the spring of 1846, nearly 500 covered wagons left Independence, MO and headed west.  The very last of them was the Donner Party, led by George Donner and James Reed, who started their journey along the Oregon Trail.  Their wagons, family members and associates departed on May 12 and completed the first part of the journey with little trouble other than the passing away of Reed’s stepmother who had been ill for many years.  
    In late July, while traveling through present-day western Wyoming, the group was forced to make an important decision.  Rumors of rogue Mexicans and Native Americans had spread throughout the region while, at the same time, a different trail that promised to bypass these hazards was also being promoted, especially by its developer, Lansford Hastings.  Known as the Hastings Cutoff, this route promised to shorten the trip by 350 miles and avoid all hostile conflicts.  In addition, it also drove travelers by Jim Bridger’s trading post, giving him great business.  Bridger was known to spread stories of the trail’s easy terrain and safe passage but was also accused of hiding letters that were sent to the Donner Party to warn them of difficulties that actually laid ahead.
    While most of the wagons continued on the normal route towards Fort Hall, ID, both Donner and Reed decided that the Hasting’s Cutoff was a better idea and directed what remained of their wagon train south across the Wasatch Mountains and into the Great Salt Lake Desert, and this was when the party began to experience some serious problems.  The lack of water and food in the area mixed with extreme isolation and a lot of bad luck caused people to die, animals to die and the last bits of supplies to be used up or damaged.  By the time the group met back up with the California Trail in the Rocky Mountains, both the people and the animals were starving, exhausted and pushed to their limits.  Unfortunately, things would only get worse.
    Reed was banished from the party for fatally stabbing a man in a fight, Native Americans killed or scared off many of the party’s horses, cattle and oxen, and many travelers were forced to leave their wagons behind and walk the rest of the journey.  As the grass became scarce and the snow became deeper, animosity started to spread.  
    The group had been told that the Sierra Nevadas would remain passable until mid-November, when the mountains traditionally became covered in snow.  On October 20, the travelers decided to try and push through the Sierra Nevadas but quickly found themselves fighting usually heavy snowfall.  Eventually, the entire party become trapped near Truckee Lake, now known as Donner Lake, high in the mountains.  They quickly ran through their remaining food supplies and, in their desperation, ate their oxen and horses.  After that was diminished they resorted to eating mice, and then they ate the oxhides they used for their roof, and then they ate their rugs, and then they ate their shoes.  
    It was obvious that someone needed to get help so a group of 17 men, women and children set out into 12 feet of snow in the hope of finding a way off the mountain.  After a few days, the group became terribly lost and Patrick Dolan, one of the group members, suggested that someone should sacrifice their body to provide food for the rest of the group.  The idea was intensely debated and, soon after, people began to die from starvation.  Dolan himself lost his mind and ran off naked into the woods, only to return with serious frostbite and die a few hours later.  His body was the first to be harvested.  The remaining survivors cut apart the bodies of Dolan and three others and set out their flesh and organs to dry.  They took three days rest and then made another attempt to get off the mountain but only found more of the same.  They ran out of food, more people died, more bodies were cannibalized and two men were even murdered for their flesh.
    After 25 days of wandering through the frozen wilderness, seven of the 17 members stumbled into a Miwok Indian camp.  Their bodies were so deteriorated that the Indians ran away after first seeing them but they then returned to feed the starving people and lead them to help.  Efforts to save the remaining travelers were organized by Reed who, because of his banishment, had ridden ahead and was already on the other side of the mountains.  Multiple waves of rescuers entered the dangerous terrain and found the weak, starving people desperately in need of help, but the terrain was vicious and it would take the lives of a few more of the stranded travelers as well as a few rescuers before everyone finally made their way out of the mountains.  Of the 87 members who left Independence with the Donner Party, 48 made it to California.
    At Donner Lake, near the town of Truckee in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, visitors can now find Donner Memorial State Park, the very location where the Donner Party camped for the winter of 1864.  A statue at the park remembers the people who lost their lives during that winter, as does the Donner Party Porter, located just down the street at FiftyFifty Brewing Co.


From the Brewer:  DPP is one tasty porter that will get you through the harshest winter.  This complex pint’s flavor profile includes hints of oak cakes, molasses, smooth rich dark chocolate, mocha and espresso.  That, my friends, is what we call a robust, almost historical porter, and why we say “your friends never tasted so good!”.  ABV 6.7%, IBU 30
Andy Barr - Founder & CEO, Alicia Barr - Founder & CXO (Chief Experience Officer)


James and Margaret Reed, 1862