On February 19, 1847, rescuers finally reached the surviving members of one of the great ethics challenges of U.S. history, the Donner Party, a group of California-bound emigrants stranded by snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that ended up resorting to cannibalism when they were trapped by bad weather.
89 pioneers including 31 members of the Donner and Reed families set out in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois the previous summer. They decided to try the so-called “Hastings Cutoff,” a supposed short-cut that an ambitious attorney, Lansford Hastings, had mentioned in 1845 in “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California,” his well-selling book that claimed to be one-stop guide to traveling West.
The book contained a passing reference to a route that would save more than 300 miles over the traditional California Trail that previous emigrants had used, saying, “The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall, thence bearing west southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of St. Francisco.”
Hastings had never tried that route when he wrote about its benefits. Ethics fiasco #1. Number #2: The Donner party accepted the word of the fake explorer without doing the proper amount of research. Hastings hadn’t been considered giant wagons in his specutaltion, and the time the party took to hack away obstacles to its passing delayed progress by weeks, allowing winter to catch them.
Of the 89 original members of group, only 45 reached California. The rest froze to death or starved and some of them were eaten by survivors, though contrary to legend, only about half of those who lived resorted to cannibalism.
There is nothing unethical about chowing down on dead bodies, taboo though it is in our culture and most others. One Donner party member named William Foster, however, shot two native American guides, who were then butchered and eaten by Foster and others. The murder was clearly unethical.
Pop Quiz: Would it be unethical to join in his meal—or to use the meat of the victims to feed children?