All About Guns Anti Civil Rights ideas & "Friends" Cops


ATF Firearms Technology Branch, Attorneys, Bureaucracy

I came of age in the ’80s. Ruby Ridge and Waco defined my worldview. Regardless of who started it or who was at fault, the country I served and loved had no business letting that happen. I distrusted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as a result. It was burned into my DNA.

Now fast forward a couple of decades. I got to know a couple of the local ATF guys well. I saw them as committed and patriotic law enforcement officers, because that’s what they were. They own guns themselves and are in it for the right reasons. If you disagree with my assessment, I would challenge you to get to meet some for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

I’ve had an FFL/SOT for more than a decade. I meticulously follow the rules. Every time I have had a problem, question, or inspection, the ATF has been responsive, supportive, friendly, and fair.

On a more global scale, however, it’s hard not to feel that the ATF as an agency has an innate bias against and antagonism toward American gun owners. The recent arbitrary reclassification of the Q Honey Badger pistol as an SBR is the archetypal example. Right, wrong, or otherwise, much of the ATF decision-making transpires behind a veil of secrecy. This leaves those of us on the receiving end frustrated, confused, and frankly alarmed.

ATF Source Material

Rick Vasquez is the former Acting Chief of the ATF Firearms Technology Branch. He works as a consultant nowadays through Rick Vasquez Firearms, LLC., but his insights into the inner workings of the ATF are unrivaled. He graciously submitted to this interview.

Vasquez arrived at the FTB before the move to Martinsburg, W.V. The FTB has the task of dissecting guns and gear and then rendering judgments based upon how those devices fit into the labyrinthine dicta that comprise U.S. firearms law. The folks tasked to do that work are the technicians.

The expectation for ATF FTB Techs is to be mechanically adroit subject matter experts on the technical aspects of firearms, as well as the pertinent laws and regulations. Vasquez said these techs are generally gun guys themselves. You either have the gun nerd gene or you don’t; that’s not something that can be readily taught.

“When I arrived, the five techs were holed away in a linear office sharing a single set of tools,” Vasquez said. “By the time we got everyone settled in at Martinsburg each work station featured its own bench and sophisticated tool set. Known industry experts, as well as firearms manufacturers both domestic and foreign, provided additional training, and we formalized the training program. This created improved information sharing and synergy, resulting in a technician with a deep level of gun knowledge. The technicians also received formal training on all aspects of the GCA, NFA, import law, and rulings that concerned their classifications. Many of the senior personnel retired, taking with them knowledge that required years to accumulate. New training allowed the modern technicians to far exceed this knowledge.”

The techs understand guns and the law, make technical assessments, and have little to nothing to do with policy. They aren’t the problem.

How Could the Honey Badger Ruling Happen on Trump’s Watch?

Here’s a poorly kept secret: Nobody ever really gets fired from bureaucratic government positions. Those responsible for the Operation Fast and Furious debacle that led to the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent just got reassigned. You could trade state secrets to a foreign national in exchange for kiddie porn and suffer little more than an onerous weeklong ethics refresher class. As a result, most of the current administrative leadership, as well as the ATF attorneys, date back to the Obama era.

The ATF hires FTB Technicians for their technical skills. ATF attorneys, however, are crusaders. Vasquez explained that they gravitate toward the job with the mindset that they are out to save the American public from guns. Couple this with career administrative leadership cultivated during the eight years of the Obama/Biden administration and you have a latent bias against private gun ownership. This bias manifests in countless small ways.

Vasquez told me that the ATF attorneys must review all of the tech’s opinions. As a result, instead of simple technical information, these adjudications run through a biased filter. Technical rulings become weaponized to promote policy. The end result is the Honey Badger reclassification.

The Dark Side of ATF Extremism

An ideological zealot can miss the big picture. The point should be putting Bad Guys in jail. Bad Guys are violent criminals who might use firearms to harm others and threaten public safety.

“Imagine the hours special agents will spend tracking down arm braces when they could be investigating real crime,” Vasquez said.

When you lose track of the overarching mission, innocent Americans can get hurt. Ruby Ridge resulted in the needless deaths of a woman holding an infant, a 14-year-old boy, and a Deputy U.S. Marshal all over the length of a shotgun barrel.

In 2018, a 100 percent combat-disabled U.S. Marine with no criminal history faced federal prison for putting the rubber tip from a walking cane on the end of a pistol stabilizing brace. However, the point is that in pursuit of a precedent that might be used in future cases, the ATF was willing to send a nonviolent disabled veteran to prison over quite literally nothing.

Vasquez explained that the techs don’t really have a dog in that fight. They make technical assessments. It is the supervisory leadership and attorneys who are driving this train.

Reining In a Leviathan

Providing elected administrative oversight of such an organization is a bit like being a substitute teacher. Think about it. The kids know you can’t hit them. On top of that, they know you’ll be gone in a day or two. Presidents come and go, but the bureaucracy always prevails.

As a result, guidance and directives from President Trump’s DOJ only carry weight so long as Trump is in office. All they need do is stall until the election is over. The president doesn’t have nearly as much power over the government as you might think.

Soldiering War

Returning Soldiers Reveal the Dark Side of Life in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion “Because of rigor mortis, we had to break his legs,” one recruit recalled, while another spoke of enduring more in three days in Ukraine than months in Afghanistan. By Alastair McCready

US veteran leaving Ukraine after 'heartbreaking' recovery of fallen comrade
How to join the foreign legion Ukraine

This story contains graphic descriptions of death and human remains.

When wave after wave of Russian cruise missiles rained down on the Yavoriv training base in Western Ukraine in the early hours of March 13, it was an attack of major strategic significance.

The sprawling military base sits just 10km from the Polish border and NATO territory, and has played host to several drills between the military bloc and Ukrainian forces in recent decades. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started, on Feb. 24, it has also played host to thousands of recently arrived foreign recruits into the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, the newly-created international arm of the country’s armed forces.

Adam was one such new recruit there the day of the bombardment. The Polish carpenter, who asked to use only his first name for security reasons, had only been in Ukraine for a matter of days when he was awoken at around 4AM that Sunday morning by exploding missiles. Emerging from his tent, he witnessed utter carnage unfolding around him—including one soldier who had been severely maimed by a blast.

“His face was burned out. He didn’t have hands, both of them. He was walking like a zombie,” Adam said. “He’s calling you to help, but what can you do? You cannot do nothing for him, you know that he’s dead already, that he’s just running on adrenaline.”

Speaking to VICE World News on Sunday from Krakow, having only crossed the border back into Poland two days earlier, Adam is now able to reflect on the gravity of his experience. Now safely back in his home country after serving two weeks as a unit commander, he is among the first wave of returning Foreign Legion volunteers able to offer firsthand testimony of the front line as a foreign soldier.

While celebrated stories of foreigners brave enough to venture into a war zone are plentiful, little has been heard yet from those who have emerged from the other side. Adam and other Foreign Legion recruits told VICE World News harrowing tales of death and destruction that marred the short stints in which they were in Ukraine, carrying home with them severe trauma as they shed light on the brutal and chaotic nature of events on the ground

“I was exposed to much more things in my first three days [in Ukraine] than the whole tour in Afghanistan,” said the 35-year-old, who served for six months in the country in 2012. “If, right now, [someone] told me you are going on a mission to Afghanistan, I would say: ‘Why do you want to give me a vacation?’”

Reflecting on the hours-long Russian attack on Yavoriv, which killed 35 Ukrainians and up to 180 “foreign mercenaries” according to Kremlin sources, Adam is still able to find a silver lining. The number of foreign recruits dwindled significantly when, in the aftermath of the explosion, Ukrainian officers gave them an opportunity to turn back and leave the country.

“There were a lot of adventure seekers. There were lots of people saying they were in the army and the military. But I think there were just a bunch of liars as well,” Adam said. “But we were actually very happy that this happened before we got to Kiev. Because that was the best selection of the people that you could fucking imagine—the best one.”

Adam's unit patrolling at a destroyed bridge in Kiev. Photo: Hieu Le


Another foreign recruit who survived the bombardment that day and pushed on to the Ukrainian capital is Hieu Le.

Originally from the Bay Area of California, the Vietnamese-American sold noodle soup in Medellin, Colombia until three weeks ago, when he was compelled to act by an impassioned speech from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calling for foreign recruits to help in the resistance fight.

When he spoke to VICE World News late last week, he was sitting in a hotel room in the Polish capital Warsaw with another Legionnaire from the U.S. Both men had arrived in Ukraine separately on March 9, before leaving the country together on March 22.

Le, a soft-spoken 30-year-old, was a soldier in Adam’s unit of around 20 men. He too had completed a nine-month tour in Afghanistan in 2012, also working as a counterintelligence agent in the country for more than three years before leaving for Medellin in 2020 when COVID-19 struck.

“The distinct risk of catching a bullet in the back from some criminal guys [on your side] was a lot higher than comfortable.”

Like Adam, he said his previous combat experience prepared him only so much when confronted with the asymmetric nature of warfare in Ukraine, where Russia has bombarded towns and cities with rockets as President Vladimir Putin launched the largest military offensive in Europe since World War II.

“Even those with military experience, you’ve got to realise that there isn’t a war that has been fought like this in a long time,” Le said. “What’s different with the US military and all the other NATO militaries—they’re spoiled. When it comes to fighting a war, they have air support, medivac, logistics, all kinds of different levels of intelligence, and support. Here in Ukraine, we had none of that.”

Both Adam and Le described the anxiety that accompanies urban warfare, something Le equated with fighting “in a forest.” The men’s home base, which Adam estimated housed more than a thousand foreign troops—Georgians, Americans, Brits, Eastern Europeans and even South Americans—at an undisclosed location in Kiev, offered little more in terms of refuge due to the perennial threat of shelling.

“If you know anything about the war right now, you know that urban [warfare] is basically hell,” Le said. “Surrounded by the enemy—so many enemies, so much armour. You’d be walking, then you run into enemy armour.”

Hieu Le sold Vietnamese noodle soup in Medellin, Colombia until three weeks ago. Photo: Hieu Le


Firm figures are hard to come by, but in early March the Ukrainian Defense Ministry estimated that 20,000 people had volunteered to join its foreign forces, hastily created three days after the invasion as the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine. Outlets have reported that contracts have been handed to foreign recruits restricting them from leaving the legion until the war is over. Le, however, says it was “actually amazing how many chances that the Ukrainians give you to leave.”

But while commending the “impressive” Ukrainian resistance and everything achieved by the Foreign Legion in a short space of time, Le also described a lack of structure and leadership in its ranks. This is something he says has resulted in unnecessary casualties, and could be remedied by embedding a Ukrainian officer in every unit.

These issues with discipline manifested within the walls of the barracks, according to Le, as he described a looming threat of violence from one unruly and ill-disciplined collection of troops. Americans and Brits who claimed to be ex-special forces, these soldiers antagonised, threatened and assaulted fellow Legionnaires during his time there, Le says. Both he and Adam suspected substance abuse among those men, while unconfirmed accounts of looting and even the shooting of stray dogs on missions began circulating in the barracks.

As the days ticked on, Le’s sense of anxiety grew as he remained constantly vigilant for enemy attacks, while beginning to doubt his safety even among his own men. He said they represented a minority of volunteers—“psychos and criminals” drawn to Ukraine not to help the country, but in order to have a “free pass to kill people and act a fool.”

“There were a lot of people that didn’t want to go on mission with these guys, because they just were untrustworthy,” he said. “The distinct risk of catching a bullet in the back from some criminal guys [on your side] was a lot higher than comfortable.”

VICE World News could not independently verify Le’s accounts of reckless behaviour on missions, but Adam confirmed that all five men had been removed from the Legion by the time he had left the country. He also emphasised that these men represented outliers among an otherwise harmonious group of foreign fighters, and that the Ukrainian government was making efforts to stamp out poor behaviour in its foreign ranks. The American soldier whom Le had travelled to Warsaw with, who had been physically assaulted by one of the men, confirmed he left due to fears for his safety among his own soldiers, but declined to give a full interview.

“Because of rigor mortis, we had to break his legs and his arms to get him in there. These cars are super small here in Europe. It was pretty gruesome, I’ll never forget it.”

For Le, however, it was not solely for these reasons that he called an end to his time in Ukraine after two weeks. To explain that decision, he soberly recalls the events of one mission in meticulous detail, after which he knew he had experienced enough.

Patrolling a forest in western Kiev on March 18, Adam’s unit encountered the body of a Georgian soldier from their barracks killed by rocket fire. Unwilling to leave him behind, both Adam and Le helped carry his stiff, lifeless corpse 8km through thick forest to the nearest road. There, Le would search his uniform for ID, writing down on a piece of scrap cardboard his name, details and date of death, before lifting him into a waiting vehicle.

“Because of rigor mortis, we had to break his legs and his arms to get him in there. These cars are super small here in Europe,” Le said. “It was pretty gruesome, I’ll never forget it.”

He described the sorrow he felt seeing other Georgian soldiers paying their respects to the body. This experience with death would prove too traumatic to bear repeating, and Le would depart the country days later, saying he “did not realise how much it would affect me.”

Soldiers from Adam's unit carrying the body of a fallen Georgian soldier. Photo: Hieu Le


“You know, it’s a sombre moment. And it was, for me, too much. I never wanted to do that again. It was…,” he said, pausing. “It was absolutely heartbreaking.”

Adam, for whom it was the second encounter with death within a week, recalls the incident in characteristically jovial fashion. This, he says, is his way of coping.

“This is my reaction for whatever happened over there. This is my stress management. I’m doing that for me,” Adam said. “I think it’s fine if someone wants to judge this. Go ahead. I don’t care. But if I’m gonna be about to cry all the time about this, well, what’s the point?”

Adam, who left in part due to those tensions in the barracks, isn’t ruling out a return to Ukraine. He’s currently lobbying to raise money for scopes, thermal and night vision goggles—equipment he says would be a “game changer” for urban warfare in Kiev.

Le is now spending time travelling in Europe in order to process what he has experienced before returning to Colombia to resume his life selling noodle soup. He says he is mentally preparing for similar feelings he felt when he returned from Afghanistan, where “no one cared and nothing changed.”

He warns against those without military experience going to Ukraine, “as you will probably quit after the first air strike.” On his social media posts that have since gone viral wherein he details his experience, Le has faced criticism—in part from soldiers he had served with—for leaving the country after two weeks.

He reiterates several times that this critique comes from a place of ignorance. Still, you can see that, given all that he has endured, the harsh words from his peers sting.

“I try not to take it too personally, because they don’t know. They really don’t know this is an entirely different type of conflict,” he said. “The only thing I really have to say to those guys is they have the opportunity to come here too. And they didn’t.”


Syrian Civil War: WWII weapons used, stolen from – WWII weapons used

The ongoing Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, is of course dominated by Cold War-era (and even 21st century) weapons, however, there is an astonishing mix of WWII gear – both Axis and Allied – in use. Some of these weapons had previously not seen combat for decades.


(Syrian rebel with a WWII German StG-44 assault rifle.)


(Yugoslav-made M18/43F, a copy of the WWII German leFH 18M howitzer, in action with Jaish al-Fatah rebels.)



(A Syrian rebel with a WWII Mosin-Nagant 91/30 – retrofitted with a modern scope – takes aim in 2014.)


(Rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) distribute WWII French MAS-36 rifles.)


(Syrian government soldier with a WWII Soviet 61-K anti-aircraft gun in October 2015.)

the Syrian Civil War at a glance

Unlike the civil wars of the USA (1861-1865), Spain (1936-1939), or Sri Lanka (1983-2009), the conflict in Syria is not an “us vs them” situation. There are multiple factions trying to achieve different things.


The current regime is trying to remain in power and eventually regain control over the whole of Syria. The largest rebel group is the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is often incorrectly used as a synonym for the conflict overall. The FSA is in fact a complex structure, with it’s own de jure forces plus an “umbrella” of smaller allied groups, of varying loyalty. Next there are the islamist jihadi factions such as Jaish al-Islam and al-Nusra (themselves partially “umbrellas” for smaller jihadi factions); they are also seeking the overthrow of the current regime but have different postwar objectives than the FSA. ISIS, which straddles the east of Syria and north of Iraq, has no clear objective other than endless war and is fighting all the other factions. Finally the Kurds in Syria’s far north seek separation from all the above.


(The quartermaster of Jaish al-Islam in his office during 2016. A WWII Mosin-Nagant is visible in the upper left corner and behind him, a broomhandle C/96 Mauser. All of the other weaponry is modern, with the exception of what appears to be a Model 1878 Zig-Zag revolver above the chromed AK.)

The rebels goals do not coincide with each other. Some want to retain Syria as a secular government. Others want an Iranian-style islamic republic, while others want a theocracy modeled on the 1990s Taliban in Afghanistan. ISIS wants to put the whole region under it’s control. Even if one or more factions were knocked out of the war, the fighting would thus continue.



(Publicity photo from the Jabhat Ansar al-Islam faction. This salute is actually not rare in the 21st century middle east; Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip also use it. Jabhat Ansar al-Islam is a hardline sunni group in Syria’s southwest. In 2016, the administration of President Obama decreed it as a “vetted” group eligible to receive BGM-71 TOW missiles. In 2017, the administration of President Trump suspended this decision.)

A vexing issue is that all of the factions are potentially weak enough to face possible defeat, but, none is strong enough to achieve victory.

brief overview of Syrian arms after WWII

WWII weapons to Syria from France

As the former colonial power, Syria’s first generation of weapons came both from those left behind by the former Vichy regime’s Levant Army, and from several major buys in 1948 and 1949.

East German arms sales to Syria after WWII

Syria was one of East Germany’s main weapons export recipients. East German’s effort was limited by it’s peculiar circumstances: It only regained sovereignty in 1949, and, it’s military (the Volksarmee) was first formed in 1956, from units of the Volkspolizei created during the Soviet occupation. Any Third Reich-era military industry which survived WWII was looted by the USSR, so both from an organizational and industrial viewpoint, East Germany “started from zero” as far as weapons exports.

Finally there was a political side, East Germany’s national mythology portrayed it’s army as “defensive-only”, and peddling guns to autocratic regimes abroad did not fit that storyline. For all these reasons, East Germany was a latecomer to the Syrian market.

East Germany’s interest in Syria started in the early 1960s. The Volksarmee, initially equipped with WWII castoffs, began transitioning to the SKS in 1958 and the AK-47 in 1960. For the first time, East Germany had surplus weapons. In 1964, Gen. Heinz Hoffman negotiated the nation’s first arms export deal with Syria.


(Generals Heinz Hoffman and Mustafa Tlass, architects of weapon transfers from East Germany to Syria. Gen. Hoffman passed away in 1985. Gen. Tlass fled Syria when the civil war started.)



(East German Volkspolizei with Third Reich-era StG-44s. Thousands of these assault rifles later ended up in Syria.) (Bundesarchiv photo)

The deal was for 4,500 WWII small arms (including the StG-44) and reboxed WWII ammunition. This was followed a year later by several hundred MP-40s. Following Syria’s 1967 defeat in the Six Day War, a huge emergency rearmament shipment was sent, including thousands of rifles and machine guns, and, for the first time, a half-dozen WWII-vintage T-34 tanks.

East Germany was vehemently hostile towards Israel and also directly armed terrorist groups in the region, including Saika and the PLO.


(Palestinian fighter with a StG-44 supplied by East Germany in Lebanon during the 1980s.)

Weapons for Syria were free of charge, a gesture East Germany’s wobbly economy probably should have avoided. Outside of the USSR the deliveries were unknown and even in East Germany’s own military, knowledge of the transfers was restricted. The scale of the effort was not fully known until October 1990 when East Germany ceased to exist. In paperwork recovered by the reunified government, many details are sparse or nonsensical, likely indicating that the effort was micro-managed as it went.

As part of a second large tranche after the Six Day War, several thousand PPSh-41s were sent, but this was the end of the road for WWII-era gear. The rest of this deal was post-WWII SKS and AK-47 rifles, missiles, and MiG-17 jet fighters. Thereafter all East German aid to Syria was modern gear.


Czechoslovak arms sales to Syria after WWII

Czechoslovakia was briefly a weapons supplier to Syria’s arch-rival Israel. In 1954, the country switched sides and began selling to Syria. The timing was ideal, as the Czechoslovak army was starting to purge WWII equipment. Weapons for Syria shipped under the euphemism “speciální materiály” (special materials).

In 1956 the first weapons to Syria shipped. The most interesting thing was ex-Wehrmacht Panzer IV tanks and StuG III assault guns. Other assets were sent as well, including various calibers of ammunition, small arms, and military sundries. The Czechoslovaks also sent a team of pavement engineers to Syria to resurface WWII-era French airfields for use with modern Soviet jets. Czechoslovakia demanded payment in “hard” currency, at that time the British pound. The value of the whole deal was £254,644 (£5,833,000 or $7,433,226 in 2017 money). This was an exceptional outlay for a poor country like Syria on old gear. Czechoslovakia required 20% at shipment and the balance on revolving credit. These terms held true for the rest of the Cold War era.

In 1957 Syria tendered a second buy, including 10,000 “self-loading rifles”, likely a mix of WWII StG-44s and postwar SKSs. Also included for the first time was modern post-WWII equipment, namely RO-21 Liben battlefield radios. Finally an astonishing 50,000,000 rounds of ammunition in all calibers was delivered.


(The honor guard at a postwar state funeral in Czechoslovakia is armed with WWII German StG-44s. Just like in East Germany, some of these ended up in Syria.)

By 1958, Syria had already run up about $22,000,000 in arrears. None the less, sales continued.

In 1962, a mega-deal for £3,200,000 (£62,600,000 / $80,000,000 in 2017 money) was signed. This included WWII-era T-34 tanks. From then onwards, Syria became the main recipient of Czechoslovakia’s T-34s as they were replaced by T-54/55s. The size of the deal required Czechoslovakia to raise Syria’s debt ceiling by several million pounds.

After the 1967 Six-Day War all the Warsaw Pact nations participated in an emergency rebuilding of the Syrian military. As part of this, about $750,000 worth of gear (Czechoslovakia had switched to the US dollar as it’s preferred “hard currency”) was donated, the rest put on credit. Significant numbers of T-34s were shipped; but this deal marked the end of the “WWII era” in weapons. Thereafter, sales were all Cold War-era equipment.

By 1990, Syria’s line-of-credit arrears had reached an astronomical $900,000,000 ($1.95 billion in 2017 dollars), some of which was undoubtedly still from long-retired WWII gear. During the 1992 split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, this balance due divided proportionally between the two new nations. Given the state of Syria in 2017, it’s unlikely either will ever see their money.

Soviet arms sales to Syria after WWII

The USSR was the largest military aid provider to Syria, starting in the early 1950s and continuing until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Like the situations described above, early aid was a mix of WWII-legacy gear and newer equipment, with the latter becoming prevalent in the late 1960s.


(WWII Soviet F1 hand grenade, one of the many WWII weapons the Soviet Union supplied to Syria. F1s are still in use in the current civil war.)

The scope of Soviet military aid was enormous, for example after the 1967 Six Day War, the Soviets provided $200 million ($1.56 billion in 2017 dollars) worth of equipment, including 4,000 tons which was airlifted at great expense to Damascus.

the unusual Croatian connection

Some of these WWII-era weapons, or derivatives thereof, came from Croatia. Late in December 2012, Saudi Arabia purchased a large number of weapons (both obsolescent and current) from Croatia and delivered them to Syrian rebels. This was completely secret on both ends at the time. The scheme was uncovered in February 2013, when military observers worldwide noticed a modern RAK-12 rocket launcher in use with the FSA. This late-1990s Croatian weapon has no other source and throughout 2013, other pieces of the puzzle were uncovered.


(Modern RAK-12 as used by the Syrian rebels.)

The 1995 Erdut treaty and the Dayton Accords, which ended Croatia’s part in the Yugoslav civil war, mandated a listing of available weapons to each side. Croatia maintained an off-the-books reserve in violation of this. After Croatia joined NATO in 2009, this became a headache and the government in Zagreb looked for a way to quietly get rid of this stockpile. Saudi cash in 2012 was the answer they were looking for. The Croatian weapons (WWII-era, Cold War-vintage, and modern) were flown from Europe to an airstrip near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, then shipped by sea to Jordan and finally overland to Syria.


the Mosin-Nagant


The standard rifle of the Soviet army in WWII, the bolt-action Mosin-Nagant came in several versions, all of which fired the 7.62x54mm(R) cartridge (2,838fps muzzle velocity) from a 5-round stripper-loaded internal magazine.

In June 1967, East Germany provided Syria with 360 of the M44 carbine version. Beyond that, trying to pinpoint who gave what quantity to Syria when, is probably hopeless. The Mosin-Nagant was a staple of East Bloc arms transfers in the 1950s and 1960s, and well past that was a fixture on the worldwide black market. The Mosin-Nagants in Syria today in 2017 could have passed through any number of hands.



(A fighter of the Liwa al-Islam faction with a Mosin-Nagant. This was probably early in the civil war as this faction later merged into Jaish al-Islam and no longer exists.)

Free Syrian Army fighters, holding their weapons, stand during military training north of Idlib

(Most of these rebels, likely of al-Nusra, have AK-platform weapons but one has a Mosin-Nagant 91/30.)


(This FSA fighter in 2014 has one of the carbine versions, either the M44 or Bulgarian 91/59, both of which were imported into Syria.)

Mosin-Nagants have been seen since the fighting started, most often as sniper weapons. On 91/30 versions originally set up for sniping, the WWII-era Soviet PU sight is usually replaced by modern civilian hunting optics. Other 91/30s and even some M44s have had the optics added.


(This sniper of the Moataz Billah faction has put a modern scope onto the flat part of the WWII mount for the Mosin-Nagant 91/30’s PU scope.)


(This FSA fighter in 2013 has an elaborate sniping kit with modern optics on a new mount, which would require retapping the 91/30’s receiver.)


(The 15 June 2013 issue of the New York Times showed a FSA sniper in Aleppo with a 91/30 fitted with modern optics.)

In addition to importing ammunition for these rifles from Bulgaria, Egypt, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and the USSR; Syria also manufactured it domestically.


(1962-headstamped Syrian 7.62x54mm(R) cartridge.)


(Box of Syrian-made 7.62x54mm(R) ammunition. Three 5-round strippers are in the box; the clips and rimmed cartridges requiring the wedge shape.)

As the civil war started, additional ammunition for these rifles came in from outside the country.


(This 7.62x54mm cartridge is headstamped by AMIG of Iran. The Iranians support the current Syrian regime.)


“Wolf” is a trademarked brand of the American trade company SSI, which imports Russian ammunition for civilian use inside the USA. The CIA also buys Wolf ammunition when it quickly needs Soviet calibers and doesn’t care about it being known as coming from the United States. Wolf headstamped 7.62x54mm(R) rounds have been recovered in Syria in 2014 and again in 2016, as above.


(Empty box of a different caliber (for AK-47s) of Wolf ammunition found laying on the ground in Kobanî, Syria after a 2015 battle between ISIS and Kurdish forces.)

The Syrian government and ISIS do not use Mosin-Nagants, but just about every other faction does, and they will probably remain a fixture for some time to come.


(Rebels with a rescoped WWII Mosin-Nagant 91/30 and it’s Cold War replacement as the standard Soviet sniper rifle, the Dragunov SVD.)

the 98K / M48B


The most-produced German firearm of WWII, the bolt-action 98k was 3’7″ long and weighed 9 lbs. It fired the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge from a stripper-loaded 5-round internal magazine. It had iron sights and was accurate out to roughly 550 yards. Syria’s 98ks were a mixture of WWII German and postwar Yugoslav production.


(Early-Cold War East German Volkspolizei with 98k rifles and a StG-44, both WWII captures reissued by the Soviets, and both later exported to Syria by East Germany.)

In 1965, 2,000 98ks were delivered to Syria by East Germany, followed by another 1,000 in June 1967 with 90,000 rounds of 7.92mm Mauser ammunition. This was all WWII-vintage, having been reissued to East Germany by the USSR.  Czechoslovakia also provided some, likely also refurbished WWII German production.

Syria also used the Yugoslav M48B and M48BO, clones made from 1956 to 1965. The M48 was an exact reproduction of the WWII German original, and the M48B differed only in using cheaper metal parts, as Yugoslavia intended them for export only. The stock was also changed from walnut to a cheaper elm or beech; also; the carved recess in the stock was omitted and instead the bolt’s turndown angle was lessened and the knob flattened on the back. The M48BO (a Serbian acronym for ‘without markings)’ was the same version, but as might be inferred, the customers (Syria, Burma, Egypt, Indonesia, and Iraq) had the option to have them shipped unmarked. In some cases they didn’t have the option if Yugoslavia didn’t want to be associated with the recipient regime. The entire M48BO run was originally done for Egypt just prior to the Suez Crisis but not delivered at that time. They were later mixed in with normal M48Bs.


Most of Syria’s M48Bs have the national crest on the receiver. Syria’s M48Bs came with a blued steel Yugoslav M44 bayonet manufactured by Zastava; this has a barrel ring not on the German WWII design. The serial numbers are in the Sxxxx series indicating fewer than 9,999 made; however there are some in the Vxxxxx (it’s unknown what the V stands for; one theory is that it is the Serbian abbreviation for ‘military’ and were built on speculation before a buyer was found.) As part of this export program, Yugoslavia also mixed in M98/48(n) rifles; these were WWII ex-Wehrmacht 98ks reconditioned with the cheaper parts. In the same token, M48B orders were delivered with a mix of reboxed WWII ammunition, and, a specific Yugoslav version of the 7.97 Mauser round which used a 168 grain spitzer bullet and was also available in tracer.

Syrian M48Bs are not rare either inside or outside of the country. After the Syrian army retired them in the 1970s following a very brief service life, some were shipped to proxy forces in Lebanon during the 1980s (and may be making their way home now in the 2010s), while others were passed to Ba’ath militias, rural tribes, or civilian police. Prior to the civil war starting, the 98k was classified as legal for civilian ownership in Syria, and some were sold off by that route.

Meanwhile Israel captured some in 1967 and released them to the American civilian market.

Besides the M48Bs & M48BOs bought in the late 1950s and 1960s, there may be some other basic M48s floating around Syria today in 2017. These were common during the 1990s Balkan wars and may have been mixed in with the Croatian arms shipments.


In August 2012, a cache of warehoused WWII German 98ks was seized by the FSA and put into action. None the less, the 98k is a minor player in the Syrian conflict due to it’s obsolescence.

the MAS-36


The MAS-36 was France’s newest battle rifle when WWII started in 1939. This bolt-action rifle was 3’4″ long and weighed 8¼ lbs. It fired the 7.5x54mm (mod.1929) cartridge from an internal 5-round stripper-loaded magazine.

The origin of these rifles is no mystery. The MAS-36 was the standard-issue longarm of the Syrian army between 1945-1948, and remained in secondary issue until the 1960s. By then, the MAS-36 was obsolete and used for training or placed into reserve storage.

The first big “boon” for the MAS-36 during the civil war was in 2012, when a raided armory warehouse yielded some. In July 2013, the FSA captured a huge stockpile and paraded them around Aleppo in a convoy of civilian pickup trucks, cargo beds overflowing with crates of MAS-36s.



(Some of the MAS-36s seized by the FSA in July 2013.)


(The FSA distributed the MAS-36s to it’s fighters in the Aleppo region.)

Later that year and in to 2014, further MAS-36s were obtained by other rebel groups. The combined numbers with all rebel groups are not at all small, by best estimate between 4,500 to 6,000 are or were in use.


(A cache of MAS-36 rifles used by the al-Tawhid Brigade, another rebel faction in Aleppo. al-Tawhid disintegrated after it’s leader was killed, with it’s fighters (and presumably their MAS-36 rifles) migrating to Shams al-Shamal or other islamist groups.)


(Syrian rebel with a MAS-36 in 2013.)

Ammunition for the MAS-36s in Syria is not as scarce as might be imagined. Syria inherited WWII-vintage 7.5mm French ammunition when the last French forces pulled out in 1946. Syria itself manufactured the round during the 1950s.


MAS75syrianArmslist15rds(7.5x54mm ammunition made by Establishment of Defense Factories in Syria during the 1950s. They were boxed 15rds each.)

In 1964, there was still apparently enough interest in the caliber to make a foreign buy; Syria was part of a 3-country contract with FN in Belgium for this ammunition.


(A Lebanese 7.5x54mm round with the 1960s FN headstamp. The FN headstamp for Syria is identical less the star, while the Moroccan has additional information.)

After the turn of the millennium, and shortly before the civil war started, the Syrian army started to sell as surplus it’s 7.5x54mm stockpile, now badly aged. This was obviously halted when the conflict started. There was probably still a decent amount floating around the country in 2011. Beyond this however, little to none will be forthcoming. The last known military production run was in February 1985, when Issy les Moulineaux made a lot for Ivory Coast. France sold the last of it’s reserve in the 1990s. The only current production is low-scale for hobby civilian shooters.


MAS-36s were not uncommon during the first stage of the Syrian civil war. Throughout 2015, they steadily faded, most likely as the ammunition supply was depleted. By the summer of 2017 they are only sporadically seen.


the StG-44


Military historians consider the WWII German StG-44 (Sturmgewehr, or assault rifle) to be the world’s first successful assault rifle. The selective-fire StG-44 fired the 7.92x33mm Kurz round (2,247fps muzzle velocity) from a 30-round box magazine. It was 3’1″ long and weighed 10 lbs with a full magazine. In full-auto, the rate of fire was 550rpm. The StG-44 had iron sights and was accurate to 300 yards in typical combat. A total of 426,000 were made during WWII. This excellent gun simply came too late and in too few numbers to help Germany’s WWII situation.

Despite the small production, an inordinate percentage of StG-44s still existing in May 1945 were retained by Allied forces that secured them due to their advanced nature. The USSR alone still had 102,000 StG-44s in inventory three years after WWII’s end.

The USSR did not desire the StG-44 as a long-term asset and transferred most to allies, mainly Czechoslovakia (which also already had some left behind on it’s territory in 1945), but also East Germany and North Vietnam. Hungary also received a small (4,000) batch, and Yugoslavia had a large allotment; both from Soviet transfers and partisan captures during WWII. (Yugoslavia later sold it’s whole inventory to Libya, and none went to Syria).

Syria’s total receipts of StG-44s is thought to be between 6,100 to 7,500 guns, of which half were ex-East German (2,200 in the 1964 weapons transfer); with the balance coming from Czechoslovakia (several thousand in 1957, mixed with SKSs), and a small quantity from the USSR.

Czechoslovakia was also the main source of Syria’s Kurz ammo after WWII. Besides it’s significant stockpile of WWII German manufactured rounds, Czechoslovakia ran it’s own production. Czechoslovakia also controlled the East Bloc’s Kurz ammunition repackaging effort after WWII. Sellier & Bellot was heavily involved in this work, reboxing ex-German rounds ranging from truckloads to opened cases to loose individual rounds.


(15-round boxes of Czechoslovak-reboxed Kurz ammo. The labels state it was from “N” (Nemecko, or Germany), made in 1945, reboxed in 1955, and should be used within 6 years.)

In East Germany, MW Königswartha made Kurz ammo from 1958-1962. In typical inept fashion for East Germany’s planned economy, first a large import order was placed with Czechoslovakia, quickly followed by the domestic production seemingly duplicating it, which itself overlapped the end of the StG-44’s active use by East German troops. East Germany retained Kurz ammunition in reserve storage until 1969, having sent 600,000 rounds to Egypt in 1967, a smaller quantity to Syria the same year, and then whatever remained to Somalia in 1969.


(East German Kurz box, this one being from the Czechoslovak import contract.)

For certain, the appearance of the Sturmgewehr in the Syrian civil war is stunning to say the least. The last time the StG-44 had appeared in any numbers on the world’s battlefields was during the 1978 Ogaden War between Somalia and Ethiopia. By the turn of the millennium it was assumed that the StG-44 was extinct outside of museums and private collections.


On 8 August 2012, the FSA captured a storage container with roughly 5,000 StG-44s, along with small numbers of other WWII guns including 98k rifles. This container alone would be between 67% – 82% of the entire total Syria ever received, from all sources. Other than normal minor wear, all appeared to be in very good condition.


(The WWII waffenamt stamp on one of the Syrian StG-44s.)


(FSA fighter with a StG-44.)

These guns immediately were distributed and went into action. They were mainly seen with the FSA in the northwest, but occasionally popped up in the south and (rarely) on the Mediterranean coast. Some were resold on the black market.


(Jihadis in Syria with a field-stripped StG-44.)


(FSA fighter with a StG-44 in 2014.)

Free Syria Army STG

(Syrian rebel with a WWII StG-44 and Cold War-era AKM.)


(StG-44 in action in Syria.)


(FSA guerilla with a StG-44 in northwest Syria.)

The most common question worldwide is where the rebel groups are obtaining Kurz ammunition 70 years after WWII. Beyond the ammunition Czechoslovakia and East Germany provided during the Cold War, there is no readily apparent answer.

Spain ran some in 1949 and again in 1952-1955; these are certainly long gone. Yugoslavia is believed to have sold all of it’s Kurz ammunition to Libya in the 1980s.  Today, the only major manufacturer is the Serbian company Prvi Partizan. It’s 7.92 Kurz is of high quality, and priced accordingly. Intended for a niche hobby shooter market, it is unaffordable for mass battlefield use.


It has been suggested that as part of the Saudi-Croatian transaction, ex-Yugoslav 7.92x33mm Kurz ammunition not sold to Libya and hoarded during the 1990s was included. Some StG-44s were seen in the 1990s Balkan Wars, so at least some ammunition was left behind. However it’s doubtful any remained by the 2010s.

In this instance, it appears that the simplest answer is probably correct:……there is no source, other than whatever remained in Syria when the fighting started.


(StG-44s being traded in 2015.)

In October 2016, the black market price of StG-44s in Syria suddenly fell dramatically, likely indicative that the Kurz ammo had finally been exhausted. By June 2017 the StG-44 was fading from the Syrian civil war.


the PTRS-41

This WWII Soviet rifle was a semi-automatic successor to the single-shot PTRD. Designed by Sergei Simonov (later of Cold War SKS fame), the PTRS-41 fired 14.5x114mm ammo from a 5-round internal magazine. It had a maximum range of 1 mile and was especially effective between 400 – 875 yards. The armor-piercing 14.5mm round, simply designated BS by the Soviets, had a 6″ overall cartridge length with a lead / tungsten-carbide 994 grain bullet, and a sensational 3,300fps muzzle velocity.

The PTRS-41 was originally intended to compensate for a lack of anti-tank guns in the Soviet army. As the thickness of armor on Wehrmacht tanks increased, it became less effective. Many PTRS-41 squads were disbanded after WWII and the guns doled out overseas, including to Syria.

During the Cold War, the concept of the “anti-material rifle” was refined and firearms of this type gained new life. Here, a sniper would not target soldiers but rather objects like supply trucks, electric generators, fuel bowsers, etc. A lone sniper with an anti-material rifle could cause losses much more expensive than the gun itself. During the fighting in Beirut (1980s) and Sarajevo (1990s) they also proved devastating in urban combat, with their heavy bullets powering through walls of civilian buildings.


(A pair of anti-material riflemen of the FSA. The fighter in back has a WWII-vintage PTRS-41. The weapon in front is a Say’yad 2, a 12.7x99mm bolt-action Iranian gun of 21st century design.)

Limited numbers of PTRS-41s remain in use with both the FSA and Syrian government forces. A wide variety of more modern anti-material rifles are also in use with all factions.


This photo is being widely circulated as “proof” of M1 Garands in the Syrian civil war.


The photo was actually taken in Lebanon in 2012, and the fighter belongs to the al-Meqdad shi’ite militia in that country. This is not to say that for certain there are zero Garands in Syria, just not this one.


the MP-40


The WWII German full-auto MP-40 fired the worldwide-standard 9mm Parabellum cartridge (1,312fps muzzle velocity) from a 32-round box magazine at 500rpm. It was 2’8″ long (or 2′ with the stock folded) and weighed 8¾ lbs.


(WWII German recruitment poster showing the MP-40 and 98k, both of which are in use in Syria in 2017.)

Tens of thousands of this WWII submachine gun were still in Soviet warehouses at the start of the 1950s. Czechoslovakia and France also had smaller quantities. After East Germany remilitarized the Soviets transferred some to that country.


(Syrian soldiers engage Israeli forces during the 1948 war. The standing soldier has a MP-40 from a consignment of ex-Wehrmacht guns France donated to the Syrian army in 1945. Covering fire is provided by a Chauchat, a French light machine gun. The Chauchat is famous for all the wrong reasons; it is regarded as the worst machine gun ever designed.)

East Germany delivered a total of 3,500 MP-40s to Syria, starting with small batches (550 total) in the early 1960s and then one large tranche as part of the 1967 emergency shipments after the Six Day War. Others may have come from elsewhere in much lower numbers. In 1964, East Germany also provided 66,000 rounds of reboxed WWII Parabellum rounds.

The MP-40 was never a popular gun in Syrian service. They were already rarely seen by the 1970s. Some were probably transferred to proxy forces in Lebanon during the 1980s.


(MP-40 being used by a Syrian rebel in April 2017.)


(The MP-40 carries a Steyr maker’s mark and 1942 production date.)

Few MP-40s have been seen during the Syrian civil war, and of those that have, they appeared a year or two into the conflict. There is a decent chance that these guns were not preexisting in the country at all, but rather brought in after the fighting started. The Saudi-Croatian deal is one possibility (MP-40s were seen during the 1990s fighting in the Balkans) as is Libya, which had bought some WWII-vintage MP-40s from Yugoslavia in the 1980s.

the PPSh-41


(Russian specops soldier with WWII PPSh-41 in Palmyra, Syria during 2016.)

This iconic submachine gun served the USSR well during WWII. The PPSh-41 was 2’1″ long and weighed 8 lbs. It fired the 7.62x25mm Tokarev cartridge (1,601fps muzzle velocity) at 900rpm from a 71-round drum. It was intended for close-quarters use and is only accurate out to roughly 180 yards.

In 1968, East Germany provided 9,000 PPSh-41s to Egypt and Syria; in paperwork recovered by the reunified government during the 1990s, the exact breakdown was not specified. These WWII guns had been transferred to East Germany by the USSR during the 1940s -1950s. Smaller quantities were probably provided to Syria by Czechoslovakia, the USSR, and maybe Poland as well.


(A mobilized Syrian reservist carries a WWII PPSh-41 in Damascus during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Cold War-era rifle is a vz.52, one of the many weapons Czechoslovakia sold to Syria.) (photo via Hulton Archive)


Ammunition for the PPSh-41 was provided by Czechoslovakia. This round, recovered in Syria, has a Sellier & Bellot headstamp.


(An American advisor along the Syrian-Iraqi border in 2016 holds a PPSh-41 captured from an ISIS commander. It has been souped-up with a CQB sight, vertical foregrip, and Magpul nylon sling. The drum is ornately decorated in ISIS colors.)

As sufficient quantities of SKSs and AK-47s were delivered in the 1960s and early 1970s, Syria’s PPSh-41s were passed to the reserve or to tank / APC crews as dismounted emergency weapons. Some of these were still in active use as the Syrian civil war started.


(A Syrian army APC crewman with a PPSh-41 near Deir Ezzor in 2016.)

The PPSh-41 is seen with some regularity in the Syrian civil war. Whereas some of the WWII weapons, like the 98k, are considered “better-than-nothing” assets, the PPSh-41 is genuinely a highly desirable firearm, due to it’s heavy rate of fire in urban settings, and small size.


(A rebel using the nom de guerre “Abu Mohammed” in his makeshift Aleppo gun store during 2013. He is holding a WWII PPSh-41 and Cold War-era AKM. In the merchandise case are WWII Soviet F1 hand grenades.)

the Modello 38/44


Only one of this WWII Italian submachine gun has been seen during the Syrian civil war, but because of it’s uniqueness it is quite photogenic. The Beretta Modello 38 was Italy’s main submachine gun during WWII; with the Modello 38/44 being a much-simplified wartime version. This full-auto gun fired the 9mm Parabellum cartridge (1,407fps muzzle velocity) at 600rpm from a 40-round detachable box magazine.


(The forward trigger fires single shots, the rear is for full-auto.)

Syria could have obtained this gun from two sources; the first being an arms buy from Italy in 1949 of Mussolini-era gear (mainly, 30 Centauro fighter planes); or, as part of the “mixed bags” of WWII Axis weapons France delivered in the same time frame.


The example seen in 2013-2014 is heavily modified with a chromed finish, cutts-type compensator, and buttstock changed to pistol grip. It’s possible that it was once some sort of VIP gift from Italy along with the aircraft.


the DP


This Soviet light machine gun of WWII weighed 25 lbs loaded and was 4’2″ long. It fired the 7.62x54mm(R) cartridge at 550rpm from a 47-round pan magazine.

In post-WWII terms, the DP wasn’t exactly great. The steel mainspring was sited under the barrel and as the gun aged, heat from the barrel would draw out it’s temper. The overhead pan magazine (necessary because of the cartridge’s shape) was time-consuming to refill.

East Germany provided Syria with 430 of these machine guns in 1967. Probably about that many again were provided by the Warsaw Pact countries during the emergency rearmament of Syria after the Six Day War.


(DP machine gun used by the Martyrs Of Islam rebel faction.)

A small number of these machine guns have been seen in action during the Syrian civil war. Compared to the Cold War-era RPD and RPK, they are a poor option but when nothing else is available they are a way to deliver sustained automatic fire.

the MG-34

This excellent machine gun was the predecessor of the MG-42. Germany started WWII with it in 1939, and as MG-42 production lagged behind demand, MG-34s served the Wehrmacht until the final May 1945 surrender. The MG-34 was 4′ long and weighed 27 lbs. It fired the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge (2,510fps muzzle velocity) from either a 50-round drum or 250-round belts at 850rpm. It had adjustable sights and had a maximum range of about 1 mile.

East Germany gave Syria 55 of these machine guns in 1967, with perhaps another larger batch during the emergency rearmament of Syria after the Six Day War. (Curiously, the Soviets reissued ex-Wehrmacht MG-34s to their East German puppets, but, never MG-42s.) Similar lots to Syria came previously from France in the late 1940s, and Czechoslovakia in the early 1950s. The USSR may have provided some in the late 1950s as well.


(A Syrian army display of gear recaptured from the rebels. A WWII MG-34 (center) is flanked by two Cold War-era weapons; a SKS rifle and RPG-7 rocket launcher.)

Considering the limited amount in Syrian service at it’s peak, the MG-34 has been fairly well represented during the civil war. It was one of the first machine gun types looted from Syrian army warehouses when the fighting started.


(FSA fighters in Latakia, Syria in April 2012, near the beginning of the civil war. The fighter with crossed bandoliers has a MG-34.)


(This photo was taken at a Jordanian police station and shows a MG-34 along with other confiscated firearms. Even as Jordan assists the USA and Saudi Arabia with arming the Syrian rebels, it is trying to curb other cross-border arms traffic.)

the MG-42 / MG3

Certainly the best light machine gun of WWII, and maybe of all time, the MG-42 had a 423,600 production run in WWII Germany. It fired the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge (2,428fps muzzle velocity) at 1,200rpm from 250-round belts. The MG-42 was 4′ long and weighed 26 lbs.


(A member of ISIS with a MG-42 or MG3 in 2015.)


(FSA fighter with a MG-42 or MG3 in 2014.)

There are several generations of the MG-42, which tie in as to how they ended up in Syria. The WWII German original is obviously the MG-42, which was redesignated MG1 by West Germany after it rearmed, and M53/42 by Yugoslavia which inherited some on it’s territory in 1945. Yugoslavia also produced a MG-42 clone, the Zastava M53 Šarac, during the Cold War.

In 1959, West German production switched to the MG3, which is basically the MG-42 rechambered to 7.62 NATO and compatible with American belts. The MG3 is known as the MGA3 in Iran and Karar in Sudan. Finally, Beretta made a version called the MG-42/59 for the Italian army during the Cold War which also uses 7.62 NATO but has a lower (800rpm) rate of fire.


(FSA fighter with a MG3, likely provided by Saudi Arabia, in Aleppo during 2016.)

Syria obtained low numbers of WWII original MG-42s from France and Czechoslovakia in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Another small lot may have come from the USSR.

Most of the MG-42s currently in use in Syria, and there are many, are of the Cold War versions. Saudi Arabia’s army uses the MG3 as it’s standard GPMG and has shipped many to the rebels, mainly the islamist factions. Iran has delivered MGA3s to the Syrian regime, while Sudan has allegedly sold Karars to ISIS. The Kurds received 40 MG3s from Germany, most of which have by now been lost, including a batch captured by ISIS and used against Iraqi troops near Tikrit. ISIS also has a small number of MG-42/59s of unknown origin. Turkish troops operating on Syria’s northern border against the Kurds use the MG3 (which is built under license in Turkey) and some of these have been captured. Mauser-chambered M53 Šaracs have popped up in rebel use, possibly part of the Croatian shipments. Finally, there may still be a few Mauser-chambered MG-42s of WWII German vintage in use.


(MG-42 or MG3 being used by Division 16, a FSA-affiliated faction, in Aleppo.)


(Both the WWII-version MG-42 and Cold War MG3 have a pop-up anti-aircraft sight.)


(This gun being used by an ISIS fighter was described both as a MG-42/59 and as a MG3.)


(ISIS fighter with MG-42 or MG3 along the Syria-Iraq border in 2016.)

By any of the fighting factions, the 7.62 NATO-chambered MG3 is considered the best machine gun currently in use in the civil war. It is an excellent weapon in all regards.


There is at least one American-made M1919 in use. This WWII machine gun fired the .30-06 Springfield cartridge at 500rpm from 250-round belts. It’s unclear how it ended up in Syria, as the M1919 was never a standard Syrian weapon. It’s possible it was taken off a disabled Israeli vehicle during the Yom Kippur War or the 1980s fighting in Lebanon. The M1919, which was seen with the FSA near Idlib in northwest Syria, appears to have a pintle socket which may indicate it at one time had been aboard a tank or half-track.


There have been reports of M1910 water-cooled machine guns in the Syrian civil war. This Soviet weapon fired the 7.62x54mm(R) cartridge at 600rpm. For certain, East Germany included some of these in it’s June 1967 arms transfer to Syria, and the USSR may have supplied some directly in the 1950s. So far there are no known photos or video of M1910s in the civil war.



the 61-K


(A 61-K captured by Nawa Front, a FSA-affiliated faction, being test-fired. This gun is still on it’s original ZU-7 four-wheeled carriage from WWII.)

The towed 61-K was crewed by eight men. It fired a 37×250(R) cartridge from 5-round clips. The slant range was 2,733 yards with an absolute altitude ceiling of 5,380′. The entire set-up weighed 2½ tons. On paved roads the maximum tow speed was 31mph, off-road much less. In transit, the barrel was traversed 180° and held by a travel lock. For use, the whole carriage was jacked up on four footpads. Aiming was by a simple iron sight, and both elevation and traverse were by manual handwheels. The latter would likely be problematic today, as the handwheel traverses 19°/second at best, making it hard to keep up with a fast jet.


(Swing-wing MiG-23 “Flogger” fighter of the Syrian AF bombing rebel positions.)

The listed rate of fire is 160rpm however a clip was exhausted in about 4 seconds, and factoring in the time to feed a new one, the realistic rate of fire was about 45rpm, or 60rpm with a very good crew. Forty 5-round clips can be stored on the gun, if it is on it’s original WWII carriage.

About 20,000 of these guns were made during WWII. The first ones were delivered to Syria in 1955. About 300 in total were delivered between 1955-1968, with some replacing guns destroyed in combat. Poland made spare parts during the Cold War and likely sold some to Syria after the Soviet logistics system stopped supporting the 61-K. These guns saw active Syrian use in the 1967 Six Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 Bekaa Valley air engagements.

During the 1980s Syria placed it’s remaining 61-Ks into storage. However when the civil war started, these were reactivated as the combination of major caliber (the OR-167 ammunition has a 1½ lbs projectile with 2,887fps muzzle velocity) with high rate of burst fire made them ideal for urban ground-to-ground combat.

During WWII, the Soviet army calculated that the 61-K had a 0.11% chance of a hit from any given round fired (these very low odds were comparable to similar German, French, and Japanese AA guns). Against a modern jet fighter the odds would be worse yet. None the less, before adequate numbers of shoulder-fired SAMs became available, this was all many of the rebel groups had in the way of air defense.


The FSA in particular has taken these guns off their carriage and put them onto the beds of civilian trucks. The one above was dueling with a Syrian AF Su-22 “Fitter” jet above Aleppo in February 2016.


This FSA contraption is quite bizarre. The truck is a GAZ Sadko, the civilian version of the GAZ-3308. On the bed is the elevation & traverse housing of a 61-K, but, with the actual WWII 37mm gun replaced by a Cold War-era 2A7 23mm autocannon, apparently salvaged from a destroyed ZSU-23-4 air defense vehicle.


Not to be outdone, the Syrian army mounted a 61-K on this BREM-2 with an improvised gunshield. The BREM-2 is a Cold War-era repair vehicle based on the BMP-1 armored personnel carrier. It is normally unarmed, but as the Syrian army is in need of fighting vehicles, it was modified as above.


This vehicle was used in a government offensive against Jaish al-Islam near Mleha in July 2014.


the leFH 18M / M18/43F


(Rebels of the Ahar al-Sham faction using a leFH 18M / M1843F in August 2015.)

Besides the StG-44s, these howitzers are the most surprising WWII weapons in the Syrian civil war. The leFH 18 family was the Wehrmacht’s standard divisional-level howitzer throughout WWII. This towed 105mm howitzer weighed 3¾ tons and had a 6-man crew. It fired a 33 lbs shell out to 7½ miles.


There were three versions: the wooden-wheeled leFH 18 which Germany started WWII with, the leFH 18M which added a muzzle brake and metal wheels with solid rubber tires, and the leFH 18/40 with a lightweight carriage.


The first appearance of this howitzer during the Syrian civil war was in July 2013, and then again during 2015 and 2016. Most (or all) of the guns seen are not WWII German leFH 18Ms but rather a postwar Yugoslav near-clone, the M18/43F.

Surrendered ex-Wehrmacht leFH 18M howitzers were simply designated M18 in the post-WWII Yugoslav military. The M18/43F was a Yugoslav project that modernized the leFH 18M carriage and also modified the breechblock assembly to make it compatible with American 105mm shells (it could continue to use WWII German ammunition) and the Soviet PG-1 sight (likewise, it could use a German sight). There is little else changed on the actual weapon, and 95%+ of a M18/43F’s parts are compatible with a WWII German leFH 18M.


(Illustration of the M18/43F from a 1969 Federal Yugoslav Army guidebook.)

The M18/43F was one of three post-WWII Yugoslav leFH 18M projects; the others being the M18/61 which had a new carriage with a high-speed axle and pneumatic tires; and the M18/40 which had the German carriage but with heavier trails and spades. In turn all these concepts were used in the M56, a later Cold War-era howitzer still loosely based on the leFH 18M.

During the 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia, HVO (Croatian Defense Council, ethnic Croat forces inside Bosnia-Herzegovina) got their hands on some long-warehoused howitzers. As part of the 1995 Dayton Accords, artillery of this caliber was turned over to the national Bosnian army. In the late 1990s this lot was auctioned to a metal recycler in Turkey. It was supposed to be “demilled” (barrels cut off, etc) prior to leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina but quite obviously that didn’t happen. Somehow, Syrian rebels ended up with some from the Turkish scrapyard.


(leFH 18M or M18/43F howitzer of Jaish al-Fatah in recoil.)

There are certainly three, probably four or five, and maybe six of these howitzers active in Syria, although never together at the same time. They can be visually kept apart by their camouflage, rot patterns on the rubber tires, and absence/presence of optics.


(Howitzer belonging to Ahar al-Sham firing.)


(Howitzer of Ahar al-Sham bombarding the shi’ite town of Fu’ah, Syria, in 2015. The firing lanyard is visible.)


(A different gun of Ahar al-Sham (note the different camouflage on the slide and newer right tire) being fired. The faction’s flag is visible.)


(The same gun as above, during the 2015 Fu’ah bombardment, showing detail of the breechblock and handwheels. The on-mount optics are missing.)


(Rebel howitzer active during the 2015 Fu’ah bombardment. Note the civilian car being used as support vehicle.)

Ammunition is surprisingly not a problem. Manufacturers in Russia, Europe, Canada, and Indonesia offer still shells for these guns, as the relatively modern M56 is backwards-compatible with it’s rounds. The Soviets used ex-German leFH 18Ms into the 1950s and manufactured reverse-engineered rounds as well, some of these were still in storage in the early 1990s and may still be today.


(Cyrillic writing on leFH 18M ammunition being used by the Syrian rebels.)


(An example of modern ammunition compatible with the M18/43F. The rounds on either end are base bleeds; these expel a small amount of gas inflight which eliminates a low-pressure drag zone behind the shell. It can add between 25%-30% to the range.)


(This howitzer was used by Jaish al-Fatah (logo on the right), a sub-faction of Ahar al-Sham (logo on the left), an umbrella group of islamist jihadis which refuse to join the FSA. It appears well-stocked with ammunition.)


Often a cylinder is pictured nearby (as above), this is not a fire extinguisher or IED as is sometimes stated. It is an industrial flask of nitrogen to service the howitzer’s recuperator, the pressurized piston atop the barrel which returns the gun to battery position after firing.


(The weapon at maximum recoil, showing the recuperator’s piston.)

In online videos of these howitzers posted by the rebels, the guns sometimes appear sluggish when recovering from recoil. Regardless of whether they are WWII German or early post-WWII Yugoslav, the gaskets on the recuperator are no doubt old.


(This gun, being manned by Jaish al-Fatah in 2015, has on-mount optics present.)

There is anecdotal evidence that Syria previously operated actual ex-German leFH 18Ms, and possibly, that one of the current howitzers is one. The Damascus Military Museum had one ex-Wehrmacht leFH 18M in it’s collection prior to the civil war. It was not stated if the gun was a donation from the Syrian army, or, if it had been purchased abroad specifically for display.

In 1949, France sold Yugoslavia 90 ex-German leFH 18Ms in various states of repair; these were used as skeletons for the M18/40, /43F, and /61 projects. At the same time, France was making a large sale of ex-Wehrmacht gear to Syria including Panzer IV tanks and PaK-40 artillery pieces, so it would be reasonable that the French directly sold Syria some leFH 18Ms as well. The USSR also could have also been a source in the mid-1950s; as the Soviet army used ex-German artillery into the early 1950s.


(An older Syrian man adjusts the optics of a leFH 18M or M18/43F.)

A grainy cell phone video shot by a rebel group operating one of these howitzers shows old men in their 60s or 70s discussing the gun’s parts with much younger fighters. It’s possible that these men had been leFH 18M crewmen in the Syrian army decades ago.

Of note is the device pictured below, which is sometimes incorrectly described as the leFH 18M’s WWII German sight.


It is actually a Selbstfahrlafetten-Zielfernrohr (Sfl.Z.F.1a), part of the optics kit of Syria’s long-gone StuG III fleet. This forgotten one was apparently salvaged by the rebels from a spare parts warehouse. It is indeed of WWII German manufacture. During the 2015 bombardment of Fu’ah, rebels used it as a makeshift off-mount sight.


The rebels rigged up a digital camera to the Sfl.Z.F.1a. Here, the minaret is being used as a reference bearing for the howitzer. The target is the building in the center, which the rebels said was being used by the shi’ite militia guarding the town.


Regardless of whether the howitzers were actual WWII German leFH 18Ms or early postwar Yugoslav copies; these old guns dealt out major punishment on Fu’ah.

the PaK-40


This was a standard German anti-tank gun in WWII from 1942 onwards, with 23,303 being built during WWII. The PaK-40 weighed 3,142 lbs and fired a 75x714mm round. It had a range of 1,820 yards against tanks and could also be used as a howitzer out to 3¾ miles. Even after WWII, the PaK-40 was still decently effective, and could take out the T-34 or M4 Sherman under the right circumstances.


(One of the two PaK-40s which are, or were, at the Damascus Military Museum.) (photo via milinme website)

A few of these guns were included in a muddled hodge-podge of WWII weapons which France sold to Syria in 1948-1949. The USSR sold a small lot of PaK-40s to North Vietnam in 1955 (the Soviet army itself was still using captured examples as late s 1954) and possibly dealt some to Syria in the same timeframe. Along with the North Vietnamese sale was a mixture of ammunition from WWII German manufacture and postwar Soviet production, so it would stand to reason that Syria received a similar blend.

Czechoslovakia may have been another source. After WWII Czechoslovakia refurbished and reissued ex-Wehrmacht artillery on it’s territory. This included intact guns surrendered in May 1945 and weapons reassembled from pieces of wrecked artillery. By Christmas 1949, a total of 227 PaK-40s had been reissued. Czechoslovakia’s PaK-40 inventory peaked in January 1951, when 302 guns were in active duty. By the start of 1960, this had fallen to 102. The PaK-40 was discarded from Czechoslovak reserve storage in January 1968.


(Czechoslovak army Tatra T-128 trucks towing WWII PaK-40 guns during a Warsaw Pact military exercise.)

Whatever the source, for certain Syria had PaK-40s in use by 1955, when some were observed in a parade, and in 1967 when they made a brief (and futile) showing during the Six Day War. In the Syrian army, the PaK-40 was assigned to a brigade-level anti-tank platoon. The PaK-40 was withdrawn from active Syrian use in the late 1960s. As recently as 2011 there were two on display at the Damascus Military Museum, and there may have been more in the army’s warehouse storage.


(Syrian PaK-40 captured by Israel.)


(Syrian PaK-40 in the Golan Heights destroyed by Israel. Local scrappers have cut off the barrel and trails. The area is still rife with UXO making a tow of the remains too dangerous.)

In 2013 it was repeatedly reported that the rebels were using a PaK-40 in western Syria however there was no clear photo of it. In 2015 one was again reported to be in use. Nothing has been said of it since.

the ZiS-2


The “big brother” of the more famous ZiS-3, the ZiS-2 was an anti-tank gun of the WWII Soviet army. A product of the Grabin design bureau, this towed 57mm gun weighed just 1¼ tons but was immensely powerful for it’s caliber, with the 57x480mm(R) cartridge’s 7 lbs hardened penetrator having a sizzling 3,282fps muzzle velocity. Until 1942, the ZiS-2 could penetrate any Wehrmacht tank at any range. The tradeoff for this was that the ZiS-2 was much more expensive than the ZiS-3, and at the height of the German invasion, production was halted. It resumed later in WWII and eventually a total of 10,016 were made before production ended in 1945.

Everything about the ZiS-2 was good. It had a loading assist that automatically closed the breech and put the gun into battery when a round was chambered. The gun could traverse 56º without having to reposition the mount.

Syria received an unknown quantity from the USSR in November 1955. For certain they were used in the Golan Heights during the 1967 fighting, as the Israelis destroyed several and captured one. During the late 1980s, they were finally replaced by wire-guided anti-tank missiles and placed into long-term layup.


The FSA captured one from a Syrian army warehouse and removed the carriage’s trails and wheels. It was mounted on the bed of a Cold War-era GAZ-3308 truck, inside a makeshift armored gunhouse.

In July 2016, this vehicle was observed fighting in Aleppo. It operated alongside a Cold War-era ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft gun sat on a civilian pickup, with the ZiS-2 targeting fortified buildings and the AA gun then raking the area with automatic fire.

the A-19

This big (7¼ tons, 28’8″ total length) towed howitzer served the Soviet army throughout WWII. A total of 2,244 were made during WWII plus 206 after the war. The 122mm A-19 had a crew of 9 and a maximum range of 12½ miles. During WWII, it was generally regarded as a success, however afterwards it was not popular. It had a sluggish 3rpm rate of fire, and needed a strong vehicle (usually the tracked Ya-12) to tow it.

The USSR provided Syria with about 100 (based on Warsaw Pact organization, probably actually 96) A-19s during the 1950s, and probably a small replacement batch after the Six Day War. In Syrian use, they were organized into 12-gun batteries controlled at the corps level.


These guns were placed into storage around the turn of the millennium. One was captured from an arsenal warehouse by the FSA and has been used by them. On the other side, the Syrian army reactivated several and used them against both ISIS and al-Nusra forces, most recently in late 2016.

the M-30


During WWII, the M-30 was a standard divisional-level artillery piece of the Soviet army, with 19,266 made. The towed 122mm M-30 weighed 3½ tons with a 8-man crew. It fired 45 lbs shells out to 7¼ miles. Besides WWII ammunition, the Petrov bureau designed the M-30 to be backwards-compatible with First World War 122mm ammo, and “future-proofed” to accommodate rounds not yet invented. As such, ammunition supply is still no problem, even in the 21st century.

SIPRI quotes Syria as receiving 200 M-30s from the USSR between 1955-1957 however this is almost certainly on the low end, and may be the total in simultaneous service at any given time. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, this WWII gun was a staple in Soviet arms sales in the middle east, and was a “go-to” weapon in Arab armies. By best estimate, about 150 were still in Syrian army use at the turn of the millennium.


The M-30 is one of the most common of the dwindling number of WWII weapons still in use in the 2010s. Two dozen armies have it on active duty or first-tier reserve, including Syria. The Soviet army itself was still using WWII M-30s during the 1980s war in Afghanistan. At the end of the Cold War, it was stated that 4,000 were still in Soviet army storage.

Since Syria’s civil war started, M-30s are in use with multiple factions: the Syrian army, the FSA, ISIS, and the Kurds. The Syrian army has enough in service to field WWII-style batteries, which it did near the city of Homs in February 2017.


(Syrian army M-30s in action in 2017.)

The M-30 achieved mainstream press in 2017, when the Russian Federation announced it was shipping 21 to Syria. Now 72 years past WWII, it was astonishing that the Russian army still had some of these guns in storage and many military observers felt it was either a translation error or bad reporting. In fact, these were WWII-vintage M-30s. They arrived via a Russian merchant ship in early May 2017.

the ML-20


Designed by the Petrov bureau, this towed Soviet 152mm “heavy-hitter” of WWII weighed 8 tons and fired 108 lbs HE shells out to 10½ miles, with a 4rpm average rate of fire. A total of 6,873 were made during WWII and another 15 shortly after the war ended.

Syria received 200 of these big guns from the USSR as part of the emergency rearmament after the 1967 Six Day War defeat, with the last arriving in late 1968. Some of these were no doubt lost during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 2008, the Israeli army estimated that 70 remained in Syria.

The Syrian government forces are the only faction known to be using the ML-20, not surprising considering the gun’s weight as well as the logistics needed to keep them fed with heavy shells. They are in sporadic use, mainly in the country’s east against ISIS.


(Syrian ML-20 in use during September 2016.)


The WWII legend T-34 was the item of that era military observers thought would make a reappearance during the Syrian civil war. Surprisingly, it has not.


(Czechoslovak-supplied T-34s in Syria.)

Syria began importing T-34s from the USSR in 1955 (with 100 delivered in the first batch), from Czechoslovakia in 1962, and from East Germany in 1967. In July 1956, Czechoslovakia set up a T-34 training facility in Syria. During the Six Day War the T-34 was by far the most common Syrian tank and it was still in use during the Yom Kippur War.


(One of the two T-34s filmed by Southern Front, an FSA-affiliated faction.)

These two T-34s are in Quneitra province, which lies west of Damascus inbetween the capital and the Israeli border in the Golan Heights. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, it briefly looked as if the Israelis might threaten Damascus itself. These T-34s were set up in westward-facing defensive dugouts, and apparently just left there after the war.

Due to a strange sequence of events, Quneitra province is now an isolated exclave of  rebel-held Syria, sandwiched between Israel and government-held territory. It is held by a shaky coalition of the FSA’s Southern Front and two islamist groups.  These three have themselves occasionally fought each other.


(This T-34 is certainly not going anywhere, as the armored transmission cover is open and empty.)

The photos were taken in early 2016. As far as is known, the Southern Front forces did not attempt to resurrect the two T-34s, but did use their hulks as cover for infantry. This is the only photographed appearance at all of any T-34s during the civil war. As of 2017, one can only believe that if a usable T-34 remained in Syria, somebody would have tried to use it by now.



The Hunt For WW1’s Missing Dead | The Great War Tour With Norm Christie | War Stories

This great Nation & Its People

I sure miss that Old Man!

All About Guns

Shooting the Cameron Yaggi 1903 Trench Rifle Conversion

Some Scary thoughts War

What if Putin Didn’t Miscalculate?

What if Putin Didn’t Miscalculate?

The conventional wisdom is that Vladimir Putin catastrophically miscalculated.

He thought Russian-speaking Ukrainians would welcome his troops. They didn’t. He thought he’d swiftly depose Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. He hasn’t. He thought he’d divide NATO. He’s united it. He thought he had sanction-proofed his economy. He’s wrecked it. He thought the Chinese would help him out. They’re hedging their bets. He thought his modernized military would make mincemeat of Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainians are making mincemeat of his, at least on some fronts.

Putin’s miscalculations raise questions about his strategic judgment and mental state. Who, if anyone, is advising him? Has he lost contact with reality? Is he physically unwell? Mentally? Condoleezza Rice warns: “He’s not in control of his emotions. Something is wrong.” Russia’s sieges of Mariupol and Kharkiv — two heavily Russian-speaking cities that Putin claims to be “liberating” from Ukrainian oppression — resemble what the Nazis did to Warsaw, and what Putin himself did to Grozny.

Several analysts have compared Putin to a cornered rat, more dangerous now that he’s no longer in control of events. They want to give him a safe way out of the predicament he allegedly created for himself. Hence the almost universal scorn poured on Joe Biden for saying in Poland, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

The conventional wisdom is entirely plausible. It has the benefit of vindicating the West’s strategy of supporting Ukraine defensively. And it tends toward the conclusion that the best outcome is one in which Putin finds some face-saving exit: additional Ukrainian territory, a Ukrainian pledge of neutrality, a lifting of some of the sanctions.

But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if the West is only playing into Putin’s hands once again?

The possibility is suggested in a powerful reminiscence from The Times’s Carlotta Gall of her experience covering Russia’s siege of Grozny, during the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. In the early phases of the war, motivated Chechen fighters wiped out a Russian armored brigade, stunning Moscow. The Russians regrouped and wiped out Grozny from afar, using artillery and air power.

Russia’s operating from the same playbook today. When Western military analysts argue that Putin can’t win militarily in Ukraine, what they really mean is that he can’t win clean. Since when has Putin ever played clean?

“There is a whole next stage to the Putin playbook, which is well known to the Chechens,” Gall writes. “As Russian troops gained control on the ground in Chechnya, they crushed any further dissent with arrests and filtration camps and by turning and empowering local protégés and collaborators.”

Suppose for a moment that Putin never intended to conquer all of Ukraine: that, from the beginning, his real targets were the energy riches of Ukraine’s east, which contain Europe’s second-largest known reserves of natural gas (after Norway’s).

Combine that with Russia’s previous territorial seizures in Crimea (which has huge offshore energy fields) and the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk (which contain part of an enormous shale-gas field), as well as Putin’s bid to control most or all of Ukraine’s coastline, and the shape of Putin’s ambitions become clear. He’s less interested in reuniting the Russian-speaking world than he is in securing Russia’s energy dominance.

“Under the guise of an invasion, Putin is executing an enormous heist,” said Canadian energy expert David Knight Legg. As for what’s left of a mostly landlocked Ukraine, it will likely become a welfare case for the West, which will help pick up the tab for resettling Ukraine’s refugees to new homes outside of Russian control. In time, a Viktor Orban-like figure could take Ukraine’s presidency, imitating the strongman-style of politics that Putin prefers in his neighbors.

If this analysis is right, then Putin doesn’t seem like the miscalculating loser his critics make him out to be.

It also makes sense of his strategy of targeting civilians. More than simply a way of compensating for the incompetence of Russian troops, the mass killing of civilians puts immense pressure on Zelensky to agree to the very things Putin has demanded all along: territorial concessions and Ukrainian neutrality. The West will also look for any opportunity to de-escalate, especially as we convince ourselves that a mentally unstable Putin is prepared to use nuclear weapons.

Within Russia, the war has already served Putin’s political purposes. Many in the professional middle class — the people most sympathetic to dissidents like Aleksei Navalny — have gone into self-imposed exile. The remnants of a free press have been shuttered, probably for good. To the extent that Russia’s military has embarrassed itself, it is more likely to lead to a well-aimed purge from above than a broad revolution from below. Russia’s new energy riches could eventually help it shake loose the grip of sanctions.

This alternative analysis of Putin’s performance could be wrong. Then again, in war, politics and life, it’s always wiser to treat your adversary as a canny fox, not a crazy fool.

California Grumpy's hall of Shame Hard Nosed Folks Both Good & Bad

On the back of that sign, there’s a pictogram and recipe instructions for preparing human flesh. Not a lot of people know that.

Donner Party

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to navigationJump to search

Refer to caption

The 28th page of Patrick Breen’s diary, recording his observations in late February 1847, including “Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would Commence on Milt & eat him. I dont that she has done so yet, it is distressing.” [sic]

The Donner Party (sometimes called the Donner–Reed Party) was a group of American pioneers who migrated to California in a wagon train from the Midwest. Delayed by a multitude of mishaps, they spent the winter of 1846–1847 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Some of the migrants resorted to cannibalism to survive, eating the bodies of those who had succumbed to starvation, sickness and extreme cold.

The Donner Party departed Missouri on the Oregon Trail in the spring of 1846, behind many other pioneer families who were attempting to make the same overland trip. The journey west usually took between four and six months, but the Donner Party was slowed after electing to follow a new route called the Hastings Cutoff, which bypassed established trails and instead crossed the Rocky Mountains’ Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake Desert in present-day Utah. The desolate and rugged terrain, and the difficulties they later encountered while traveling along the Humboldt River in present-day Nevada, resulted in the loss of many cattle and wagons, and divisions soon formed within the group.

By early November, the migrants had reached the Sierra Nevada but became trapped by an early, heavy snowfall near Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) high in the mountains. Their food supplies ran dangerously low, and in mid-December some of the group set out on foot to obtain help. Rescuers from California attempted to reach the migrants, but the first relief party did not arrive until the middle of February 1847, almost four months after the wagon train became trapped. Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived the ordeal. Historians have described the episode as one of the most fascinating tragedies in California history, and in the entire record of American westward migration.[1]


An encampment of tents and covered wagons on the Humboldt River in Nevada, 1859

During the 1840s, the United States saw a dramatic increase in settlers who left their homes in the east to resettle in the Oregon Territory or California, which at the time were accessible only by a very long sea voyage or a daunting overland journey across the American frontier. Some, such as Patrick Breen, saw California as a place where they would be free to live in a fully Catholic culture;[2] others were attracted to the West’s burgeoning economic opportunities or inspired by the idea of manifest destiny, the belief that the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans belonged to European Americans and that they should settle it.[3] Most wagon trains followed the Oregon Trail route from a starting point in Independence, Missouri, to the Continental Divide of the Americas, traveling about 15 miles (24 km) a day[4] on a journey that usually took between four and six months.[5] The trail generally followed rivers to South Pass, a mountain pass in present-day Wyoming which was relatively easy for wagons to negotiate.[6] From there, pioneers had a choice of routes to their destinations.[7]

Lansford Hastings, an early migrant from Ohio to the West, went to California in 1842 and saw the promise of the undeveloped country. To encourage settlers, he published The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California.[8] As an alternative to the Oregon Trail’s standard route through Idaho‘s Snake River Plain, he proposed a more direct route (which actually increased the trip’s mileage by 20 miles) to California across the Great Basin, which would take travelers through the Wasatch Range and across the Great Salt Lake Desert.[9] Hastings had not traveled any part of his proposed shortcut until early 1846 on a trip from California to Fort Bridger. The fort was a scant supply station run by Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez in Blacks Fork, Wyoming. Hastings stayed at the fort to persuade travelers to turn south on his route.[8] As of 1846, Hastings was the second of two men documented to have crossed the southern part of the Great Salt Lake Desert, but neither had been accompanied by wagons.[9][A]

Arguably the most difficult part of the journey to California was the last 100 miles (160 km) across the Sierra Nevada. This mountain range has 500 distinct peaks over 12,000 feet (3,700 m) high[10] which, because of their height and proximity to the Pacific Ocean, receive more snow than most other ranges in North America. The eastern side of the range is also notoriously steep.[11] After a wagon train left Missouri to cross the vast wilderness to Oregon or California, timing was crucial to ensure that it would not be bogged down by mud created by spring rains or by massive snowdrifts in the mountains from September onward. Traveling during the right time of year was also critical to ensuring that horses and oxen had enough spring grass to eat.[12]


In the spring of 1846, almost 500 wagons headed west from Independence.[13] At the rear of the train,[14] a group of nine wagons containing 32 members of the Reed and Donner families and their employees left on May 12.[15] George Donner, born in North Carolina, had gradually moved west to Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, with a one-year sojourn in Texas.[16] In early 1846, he was about 60 years old and living near Springfield, Illinois. With him was his 44 year-old wife Tamsen, their three daughters Frances (6), Georgia (4), and Eliza (3), and George’s daughters from a previous marriage: Elitha (14) and Leanna (12). George’s younger brother Jacob (56) also joined the party with his wife Elizabeth (45), teenaged stepsons Solomon Hook (14) and William Hook (12), and five children: George (9), Mary (7), Isaac (6), Lewis (4), and Samuel (1).[17] Also traveling with the Donner brothers were teamsters Hiram O. Miller (29), Samuel Shoemaker (25), Noah James (16), Charles Burger (30), John Denton (28), and Augustus Spitzer (30).[18]

He has dark bushy hair and a beard and is wearing a three-piece suit with wide lapels and a bow tie. She has dark hair and wears a 19th-century dress with lace collar and bell sleeves.

James and Margret Reed

James F. Reed (45), immigrated from Ireland with his widowed mother during childhood, and moved to Illinois in the 1820s. He was accompanied on the journey by his wife Margret (32), step-daughter Virginia (13), daughter Martha Jane (“Patty”, 8), sons James and Thomas (5 and 3), and Sarah Keyes, Margret Reed’s mother. Keyes was in the advanced stages of consumption (tuberculosis)[19] and died at a campsite they named Alcove Springs. She was buried nearby, off to the side of the trail, with a gray rock inscribed “Mrs. Sarah Keyes, Died May 29, 1846; Aged 70”.[20][21] In addition to leaving financial worries behind, Reed hoped that California’s climate would help Margret, who had long suffered from ill health.[16] The Reeds hired three men to drive the ox teams: Milford (“Milt”) Elliott (28), James Smith (25), and Walter Herron (25). Baylis Williams (24) went along as handyman and his sister, Eliza (25), as the family’s cook.[22]

Within a week of leaving Independence, the Reeds and Donners joined a group of 50 wagons nominally led by William H. Russell.[14] By June 16, the company had traveled 450 miles (720 km), with 200 miles (320 km) to go before Fort Laramie, Wyoming. They had been delayed by rain and a rising river, but Tamsen Donner wrote to a friend in Springfield, “indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started”.[23][B] Young Virginia Reed recalled years later that, during the first part of the trip, she was “perfectly happy”.[24]

Several other families joined the wagon train along the way. Levinah Murphy (37), a widow from Tennessee, headed a family of thirteen. Her five youngest children were: John Landrum (16), Meriam (“Mary”, 14), Lemuel (12), William (10), and Simon (8). Levinah’s two married daughters and their families also came along: Sarah Murphy Foster (19), her husband William M. (30) and son Jeremiah George (1); Harriet Murphy Pike (18), her husband William M. (32) and their daughters Naomi (3) and Catherine (1). William H. Eddy (28), a carriage maker from Illinois, brought his wife Eleanor (25) and their two children, James (3) and Margaret (1). The Breen family consisted of Patrick Breen (51), a farmer from Iowa, his wife Margaret (“Peggy”, 40), and seven children: John (14), Edward (13), Patrick, Jr. (9), Simon (8), James (5), Peter (3), and 11-month-old Isabella. Their neighbor, 40-year-old bachelor Patrick Dolan, traveled with them.[25] German immigrant Lewis Keseberg (32) joined, along with his wife Elisabeth Philippine (22) and daughter Ada (2); son Lewis Jr. was born on the trail.[26] Two young single men named Spitzer and Reinhardt traveled with another German couple, the Wolfingers, who were rumored to be wealthy; they also had a hired driver, “Dutch Charley” Burger. An older man named Hardkoop rode with them. Luke Halloran, a young man sick with consumption, could no longer ride horseback; the families he had been traveling with no longer had resources to care for him. He was taken in by George Donner at Little Sandy River and rode in their wagon.[27]

Hastings Cutoff[edit]

To promote his new route (the “Hastings Cutoff“), Lansford Hastings sent riders to deliver letters to traveling migrants. On July 12, the Reeds and Donners were given one of them.[28] Hastings warned the migrants they could expect opposition from the Mexican authorities in California and advised them to band together in large groups. He also claimed to have “worked out a new and better road to California”, and said he would be waiting at Fort Bridger to guide the migrants along the new cutoff.[29]

Map of the route taken by the Donner Party, showing the Hastings Cutoff—which added 150 miles (240 km) to their travels—in orange

On July 20, at the Little Sandy River, most of the wagon train opted to follow the established trail via Fort Hall. A smaller group opted to head for Fort Bridger and needed a leader. Most of the younger men in the group were European immigrants and not considered to be ideal leaders. James Reed had lived in the U.S. for a considerable time, was older, and had military experience, but his autocratic attitude had rubbed many in the party the wrong way, and they saw him as aristocratic, imperious, and ostentatious.[30]

By comparison, the mature, experienced, American-born Donner’s peaceful and charitable nature made him the group’s first choice.[31] The members of the party were comfortably well-off by contemporaneous standards.[12] Although they are called pioneers, most of the party lacked experience and skill for traveling through mountainous and arid land. Additionally, the party had little knowledge about how to interact with Native Americans.[32]

Journalist Edwin Bryant reached Blacks Fork a week ahead of the Donner Party. He saw the first part of the trail and was concerned that it would be difficult for the wagons in the Donner group, especially with so many women and children. He returned to Blacks Fork to leave letters warning several members of the group not to take Hastings’s shortcut.[33] By the time the Donner Party reached Blacks Fork on July 27, Hastings had already left, leading the forty wagons of the Harlan-Young group.[29] Because Jim Bridger’s trading post would fare substantially better if people used the Hastings Cutoff, he told the party that the shortcut was a smooth trip, devoid of rugged country and hostile Native Americans, and would therefore shorten their journey by 350 miles (560 km). Water would be easy to find along the way, although a couple of days crossing a 30–40-mile (48–64 km) dry lake bed would be necessary.

Reed was very impressed with this information and advocated for the Hastings Cutoff. None of the party received Bryant’s letters warning them to avoid Hastings’s route at all costs; in his diary account, Bryant states his conviction that Bridger deliberately concealed the letters, a view shared by Reed in his later testimony.[29][34] At Fort Laramie, Reed met an old friend named James Clyman who was coming from California. Clyman warned Reed not to take the Hastings Cutoff, telling him that wagons would not be able to make it and that Hastings’s information was inaccurate.[8] Fellow pioneer Jesse Quinn Thornton traveled part of the way with Donner and Reed, and in his book From Oregon and California in 1848 declared Hastings the “Baron Munchausen of travelers in these countries”.[35] Tamsen Donner, according to Thornton, was “gloomy, sad, and dispirited” at the thought of turning off the main trail on the advice of Hastings, whom she considered “a selfish adventurer”.[36]

On July 31, 1846, the party left Blacks Fork after four days of rest and wagon repairs, eleven days behind the leading Harlan-Young group. Donner hired a replacement driver, and the company was joined by the McCutcheon family, consisting of 30-year-old William, his 24-year-old wife Amanda, their two-year-old daughter Harriet, and a 16-year-old named Jean Baptiste Trudeau from New Mexico, who claimed to have knowledge of the Native Americans and terrain on the way to California.[37]

Wasatch Range[edit]

Emigration Canyon, route of the Hastings Cutoff
Donner Hill at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, the last obstacle in the Wasatch Range

The party turned south to follow the Hastings Cutoff. Within days, they found the terrain to be much more difficult than described. Drivers were forced to lock the wheels of their wagons to prevent them from rolling down steep inclines. Several years of traffic on the main Oregon Trail had left an easy and obvious path, whereas the Cutoff was more difficult to find. Hastings wrote directions and left letters stuck to trees. On August 6, the party found a letter from him advising them to stop until he could show them an alternate route to that taken by the Harlan-Young Party.[C] Reed, Charles T. Stanton, and William Pike rode ahead to get Hastings. They encountered exceedingly difficult canyons where boulders had to be moved and walls cut off precariously to a river below, a route likely to break wagons. In his letter Hastings had offered to guide the Donner Party around the more difficult areas, but he rode back only part way, indicating the general direction to follow.[38][39]

Profile of a man with a long nose and straight hair reaching his collar.

Charles Tyler Stanton

Stanton and Pike stopped to rest, and Reed returned alone to the group, arriving four days after the party’s departure. Without the guide they had been promised, the group had to decide whether to turn back and rejoin the traditional trail, follow the tracks left by the Harlan-Young Party through the difficult terrain of Weber Canyon, or forge their own trail in the direction that Hastings had recommended. At Reed’s urging, the group chose the new Hastings route.[40] Their progress slowed to about one and a half miles (2.4 km) a day. All able-bodied men were required to clear brush, fell trees, and heave rocks to make room for the wagons.[D]

As the Donner Party made its way across the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, the Graves family, who had set off to find them, reached them. They consisted of 57-year-old Franklin Ward Graves, his 45-year-old wife Elizabeth, their children Mary (20), William (18), Eleanor (15), Lovina (13), Nancy (9), Jonathan (7), Franklin, Jr. (5), Elizabeth (1), and married daughter Sarah (22), plus son-in-law Jay Fosdick (23), and a 25-year-old teamster named John Snyder, traveling together in three wagons. Their arrival brought the Donner Party to 87 members in 60–80 wagons.[41] The Graves family had been part of the last group to leave Missouri, confirming the Donner Party was at the back of the year’s western exodus.[42]

It was August 20 by the time that they reached a point in the mountains where they could look down and see the Great Salt Lake. It took almost another two weeks to travel out of the Wasatch Range. The men began arguing, and doubts were expressed about the wisdom of those who had chosen this route, in particular James Reed. Food and supplies began to run out for some of the less affluent families. Stanton and Pike had ridden out with Reed but had become lost on their way back; by the time that the party found them, they were a day away from eating their horses.[43]

Great Salt Lake Desert[edit]

Luke Halloran died of tuberculosis on August 25. A few days later, the party came across a torn and tattered letter from Hastings. The pieces indicated there were two days and nights of difficult travel ahead without grass or water. The party rested their oxen and prepared for the trip.[44] After 36 hours they set off to traverse a 1,000-foot (300 m) mountain that lay in their path. From its peak, they saw ahead of them a dry, barren plain, perfectly flat and covered with white salt, larger than the one they had just crossed,[45] and “one of the most inhospitable places on earth” according to Rarick.[9] Their oxen were already fatigued, and their water was nearly gone.[45]

The party pressed onward on August 30, having no alternative. In the heat of the day, the moisture underneath the salt crust rose to the surface and turned it into a gummy mass. The wagon wheels sank into it, in some cases up to the hubs. The days were blisteringly hot and the nights frigid. Several of the group saw visions of lakes and wagon trains and believed they had finally overtaken Hastings. After three days, the water was gone, and some of the party removed their oxen from the wagons to press ahead to find more. Some of the animals were so weakened they were left yoked to the wagons and abandoned. Nine of Reed’s ten oxen broke free, crazed with thirst, and bolted off into the desert. Many other families’ cattle and horses had also gone missing. The rigors of the journey resulted in irreparable damage to some of the wagons, but no human lives had been lost. Instead of the promised two-day journey over 40 miles (64 km), the journey across the 80 miles (130 km) of Great Salt Lake Desert had taken six.[46][47][E]

None of the party had any remaining faith in the Hastings Cutoff as they recovered at the springs on the other side of the desert.[F] They spent several days trying to recover cattle, retrieve the wagons left in the desert, and transfer their food and supplies to other wagons.[G] Reed’s family incurred the heaviest losses, and Reed became more assertive, asking all the families to submit an inventory of their goods and food to him. He suggested that two men should go to Sutter’s Fort in California; he had heard that John Sutter was exceedingly generous to wayward pioneers and could assist them with extra provisions. Charles Stanton and William McCutchen volunteered to undertake the dangerous trip.[48] The remaining serviceable wagons were pulled by mongrel teams of cows, oxen, and mules. It was the middle of September, and two young men who went in search of missing oxen reported that another 40 miles (64 km) of desert lay ahead.[49]

Their cattle and oxen were now exhausted and lean, but the Donner Party crossed the next stretch of desert relatively unscathed. The journey seemed to get easier, particularly through the valley next to the Ruby Mountains. Despite their near hatred of Hastings, they had no choice but to follow his tracks, which were weeks old. On September 26, two months after embarking on the cutoff, the Donner Party rejoined the traditional trail along a stream that became known as the Humboldt River. The shortcut had probably delayed them by a month.[50][51]

Rejoining the trail[edit]

Reed banished[edit]

Along the Humboldt, the group met Paiute Native Americans, who joined them for a couple of days but stole or shot several oxen and horses. By now, it was well into October, and the Donner families split off to make better time. Two wagons in the remaining group became tangled, and John Snyder angrily beat the ox of Reed’s hired teamster Milt Elliott. When Reed intervened, Snyder proceeded to rain blows down onto his head with a whip handle – when Reed’s wife attempted to intervene she too was struck. Reed retaliated by fatally plunging a knife under Snyder’s collarbone.[50][51]

That evening, the witnesses gathered to discuss what was to be done. United States laws were not applicable west of the Continental Divide (in what was then Mexican territory) and wagon trains often dispensed their own justice.[52] But George Donner, the party’s leader, was a full day ahead of the main wagon train with his family.[53] Snyder had been seen to hit James Reed, and some claimed he had also hit Margret Reed,[54] but Snyder had been popular and Reed was not. Keseberg suggested that Reed should be hanged, but an eventual compromise allowed him to leave the camp without his family, who were to be taken care of by the others. Reed departed alone the next morning, unarmed,[55][56][57][H] but his step-daughter Virginia rode ahead and secretly provided him with a rifle and food.[58]


Narrow river partially covered in ice.

The Truckee River in winter

The trials that the Donner Party had so far endured resulted in splintered groups, each looking out for themselves and distrustful of the others.[59][60] Grass was becoming scarce, and the animals were steadily weakening. To relieve the animals’ load, everyone was expected to walk.[61] Keseberg ejected Hardkoop from his wagon, telling the elderly man that he had to walk or die. A few days later, Hardkoop sat next to a stream, his feet so swollen they had split open; he was not seen again. William Eddy pleaded with the others to find him, but they all refused, swearing they would waste no more resources on a man who was almost 70 years old.[62][63]

Meanwhile, Reed caught up with the Donners and proceeded with one of his teamsters, Walter Herron. The two shared a horse and were able to cover 25–40 miles (40–64 km) per day.[64] The rest of the party rejoined the Donners, but their hardship continued. Native Americans chased away all of Graves’ horses, and another wagon was left behind. With grass in short supply, the cattle spread out more, which allowed the Paiutes to steal 18 more during one evening; several mornings later, they shot another 21.[65] So far, the company had lost nearly 100 oxen and cattle, and their rations were almost completely depleted. With nearly all his cattle gone, Wolfinger stopped at the Humboldt Sink to cache (bury) his wagon; Reinhardt and Spitzer stayed behind to help. They returned without him, reporting they had been attacked by Paiutes and he had been killed.[66] One more stretch of desert lay ahead. The Eddys’ oxen had been killed by Native Americans and they were forced to abandon their wagon. The family had eaten all their stores, but the other families refused to assist their children. The Eddys were forced to walk, carrying their children and miserable with thirst. Margret Reed and her children were also now without a wagon.[67][68] But the desert soon came to an end, and the party found the Truckee River in beautiful lush country.[68]

They had little time to rest. The company pressed on to cross the Sierra Nevada before the snows came. Stanton, one of the two men who had left a month earlier to seek assistance in California, found the company; and he brought mules, food, and two Miwok Native Americans named Luis and Salvador.[I] He also brought news that Reed and Herron, although haggard and starving, had succeeded in reaching Sutter’s Fort in California.[69][70] By this point, according to Rarick, “To the bedraggled, half-starved members of the Donner Party, it must have seemed that the worst of their problems had passed. They had already endured more than many emigrants ever did.”[71]


Donner Pass[edit]

Winding road leading up a mountain

The 7,088-foot (2,160 m) high pass above Truckee Lake became blocked by early snow in November 1846 (here photographed in the 1870s). Both the pass and the lake are now called Donner.

Faced with one last push over mountains that were described as much worse than the Wasatch, the ragtag company had to decide whether to forge ahead or rest their cattle. It was October 20 and they had been told the pass would not be snowed in until the middle of November. William Pike was killed when a gun being loaded by William Foster was discharged negligently,[72] an event that seemed to make the decision for them; family by family, they resumed their journey, first the Breens, then the Kesebergs, Stanton with the Reeds, Graves, and the Murphys. The Donners waited and traveled last. After a few miles of rough terrain, an axle broke on one of their wagons. Jacob and George went into the woods to fashion a replacement. George Donner sliced his hand open while chiseling the wood but it seemed a superficial wound.[73]

Snow began to fall. The Breens made it up the “massive, nearly vertical slope” 1,000 feet (300 m) to Truckee Lake (now known as Donner Lake), 3 miles (4.8 km) from the summit, and camped near a cabin that had been built two years earlier by another group of pioneers.[74][J] The Eddys and Kesebergs joined the Breens, attempting to make it over the pass, but they found 5–10-foot (1.5–3.0 m) snowdrifts, and were unable to find the trail. They turned back for Truckee Lake and within a day all the families were camped there except for the Donners, who were 5 miles (8.0 km)– half a day’s journey– below them. On the evening of November 4, it began to snow again.[75]

Winter camp[edit]

Map showing the Truckee Lake and Alder Creek sites

Sixty members and associates of the Breen, Graves, Reed, Murphy, Keseberg, and Eddy families set up for the winter at Truckee Lake. Three widely separated cabins of pine logs served as their homes, with dirt floors and poorly constructed flat roofs that leaked when it rained. The Breens occupied one cabin, the Eddys and the Murphys another, and the Reeds and the Graves the third. Keseberg built a lean-to for his family against the side of the Breen cabin. The families used canvas or oxhide to patch the faulty roofs. The cabins had no windows or doors, only large holes to allow entry. Of the 60 at Truckee Lake, 19 were men over 18, 12 were women, and 29 were children, six of whom were toddlers or younger. Farther down the trail, close to Alder Creek, the Donner families hastily constructed tents to house 21 people, including Mrs. Wolfinger, her child, and the Donners’ drivers: six men, three women, and twelve children in all.[76][77] It began to snow again on the evening of November 4—the beginning of a storm that lasted eight days.[78]

By the time the party made camp, very little food remained from the supplies that Stanton had brought back from Sutter’s Fort. The oxen began to die, and their carcasses were frozen and stacked. Truckee Lake was not yet frozen, but the pioneers were unfamiliar with catching lake trout. Eddy, the most experienced hunter, killed a bear, but had little luck after that. The Reed and Eddy families had lost almost everything. Margret Reed promised to pay double when they got to California for the use of three oxen from the Graves and Breen families. Graves charged Eddy $25—normally the cost of two healthy oxen—for the carcass of an ox that had starved to death.[79][80]

Desperation grew in camp and some reasoned that individuals might succeed in navigating the pass where the wagons could not. In small groups they made several attempts, but each time returned defeated. Another severe storm, lasting more than a week, covered the area so deeply that the cattle and horses—their only remaining food—died and were lost in the snow.[81]

Three log cabins with flat roofs set in the midst of tall trees, with mountains in the background. People, livestock, and covered wagons are engaged in various activities in a clearing in the middle of the cabins.

Artist’s rendering of the Truckee Lake camp based on descriptions by William Graves[K]

Patrick Breen began keeping a diary on November 20. He concerned himself primarily with the weather, marking the storms and how much snow had fallen, but gradually began to include references to God and religion in his entries.[82] Life at Truckee Lake was miserable. The cabins were cramped and filthy, and it snowed so much that people were unable to go outdoors for days. Diets soon consisted of oxhide, strips of which were boiled to make a “disagreeable” glue-like jelly. Ox and horse bones were boiled repeatedly to make soup, and they became so brittle that they would crumble upon chewing. Sometimes they were softened by being charred and eaten. Bit by bit, the Murphy children picked apart the oxhide rug that lay in front of their fireplace, roasted it in the fire, and ate it.[83] After the departure of the snowshoe party, two-thirds of the migrants at Truckee Lake were children. Mrs. Graves was in charge of eight, and Levinah Murphy and Eleanor Eddy together took care of nine.[84] Migrants caught and ate mice that strayed into their cabins. Many of the people at Truckee Lake were soon weakened and spent most of their time in bed. Occasionally one would be able to make the full-day trek to see the Donners. News came that Jacob Donner and three hired men had died. One of them, Joseph Reinhardt, confessed on his deathbed that he had murdered Wolfinger.[85] George Donner’s hand had become infected, which left four men to work at the Donner camp.[86]

Margret Reed had managed to save enough food for a Christmas pot of soup, to the delight of her children, but by January they were facing starvation and considered eating the oxhides that served as their roof. Margret Reed, Virginia, Milt Elliott, and the servant girl Eliza Williams attempted to walk out, reasoning that it would be better to try to bring food back than sit and watch the children starve. They were gone for four days in the snow before they had to turn back. Their cabin was now uninhabitable; the oxhide roof served as their food supply, and the family moved in with the Breens. The servants went to live with other families. One day, the Graves came by to collect on the debt owed by the Reeds and took the oxhides, all that the family had to eat.[87][88]

“The Forlorn Hope”[edit]

Members of “The Forlorn Hope”
Name Age
Antonio* 23‡
Luis* 19‡
Salvador* 28‡
Charles Burger† 30‡
Patrick Dolan* 35‡
William Eddy 28‡
Jay Fosdick* 23‡
Sarah Fosdick 21
Sarah Foster 19
William Foster 30
Franklin Graves* 57
Mary Ann Graves 19
Lemuel Murphy* 12
William Murphy† 10
Amanda McCutchen 23
Harriet Pike 18
Charles Stanton* 30
* died en route
† turned back before reaching pass
‡ estimated age[89]

The mountain party at Truckee Lake began to fail. Spitzer died, then Baylis Williams (a driver for the Reeds) also died, more from malnutrition than starvation. Franklin Graves fashioned 14 pairs of snowshoes out of oxbows and hide. On December 16, a party of 17 men, women, and children set out on foot in an attempt to cross the mountain pass.[90] As evidence of how grim their choices were, four of the men were fathers. Three of the women, who were mothers, gave their young children to other women. They packed lightly, taking what had become six days’ rations, a rifle, a blanket each, a hatchet, and some pistols, hoping to make their way to Bear Valley.[91] Historian Charles McGlashan later called this snowshoe party the “Forlorn Hope“.[92] Two of those without snowshoes, Charles Burger and 10-year-old William Murphy, turned back early on.[93] Other members of the party fashioned a pair of snowshoes for 12-year old Lemuel Murphy on the first evening from one of the packsaddles that they were carrying.[93]

The snowshoes proved to be awkward but effective on the arduous climb. The members of the party were neither well-nourished nor accustomed to camping in snow 12 feet (3.7 m) deep, and by the third day, most were snowblind. On the sixth day, Eddy discovered his wife had hidden a half-pound of bear meat in his pack. The group set out again the morning of December 21; Stanton had been straggling for several days, and he remained behind, saying he would follow shortly. His remains were found in that location the following year.[94][95]

The group became lost and confused. After two more days without food, Patrick Dolan proposed one of them should volunteer to die in order to feed the others. Some suggested a duel, while another account describes an attempt to create a lottery to choose a member to sacrifice.[95][96] Eddy suggested that they keep moving until someone simply fell, but a blizzard forced the group to halt. Antonio, the animal handler, was the first to die; Franklin Graves was the next casualty.[97][98]

As the blizzard progressed, Patrick Dolan began to rant deliriously, stripped off his clothes, and ran into the woods. He returned shortly afterwards and died a few hours later. Not long after, possibly because Murphy was near death, some of the group began to eat flesh from Dolan’s body. Lemuel’s sister tried to feed some to her brother, but he died shortly afterwards. Eddy, Salvador, and Luis refused to eat. The next morning, the group stripped the muscle and organs from the bodies of Antonio, Dolan, Graves, and Murphy. They dried them to store for the days ahead, taking care to ensure nobody would have to eat his or her relatives.[99][100]

Head and bust of a man with a high forehead, hair reaching his shoulders, wearing a 19th-century three-piece suit and a cravat

William H. Eddy

After three days’ rest, they set off again, searching for the trail. Eddy eventually succumbed to his hunger and ate human flesh, but that was soon gone. They began taking apart their snowshoes to eat the oxhide webbing and discussed killing Luis and Salvador for food, before Eddy warned the two men and they quietly left.[101] Jay Fosdick died during the night, leaving only seven members of the party. Eddy and Mary Graves left to hunt, but when they returned with deer meat, Fosdick’s body had already been cut apart for food.[102][103] After several more days—25 since they had left Truckee Lake—they came across Salvador and Luis, who had not eaten for about nine days and were close to death. William Foster shot the pair, believing their flesh was the rest of the group’s last hope of avoiding imminent death from starvation.[104]

Not more than a few days later,[L] the group stumbled into a Native American settlement looking so deteriorated that the camp’s inhabitants initially fled. The Native Americans gave them what they had to eat: acorns, grass, and pine nuts.[104] After a few days, Eddy continued on with the help of tribe members to a ranch in a small farming community at the edge of the Sacramento Valley.[105][106] A hurriedly assembled rescue party found the other six survivors on January 17. Their journey from Truckee Lake had taken 33 days.[102][107]


Reed attempts a rescue[edit]

James F. Reed made it out of the Sierra Nevada to Rancho Johnson in late October. He was safe and recovering at Sutter’s Fort, but each day he became more concerned for the fate of his family and friends. He pleaded with Colonel John C. Frémont to gather a team of men to cross the pass and help the company. In return, Reed promised to join Frémont’s forces and fight in the Mexican–American War.[108] He was joined by McCutchen, who had been unable to return with Stanton, as well as some members of the Harlan-Young party. The Harlan-Young wagon train had arrived at Sutter’s Fort on October 8, the last to make it over the Sierra Nevada that season.[109] The party of roughly 30 horses and a dozen men carried food supplies, and expected to find the Donner Party on the western side of the mountain, along the Bear River below the steep approach to Emigrant Gap, perhaps starving but alive. When they arrived in the river valley, they found only a pioneer couple, migrants who had been separated from their company who were near starvation.[110][111]

Two guides deserted Reed and McCutchen with some of their horses, but they pressed on farther up the valley to Yuba Bottoms, walking the last mile on foot. Reed and McCutchen stood looking up at Emigrant Gap, only 12 miles (19 km) from the top, blocked by snow, possibly on the same day the Breens attempted to lead one last effort to crest the pass from the east. Despondent, they turned back to Sutter’s Fort.[112]

First relief[edit]

Members rescued by first relief
Name Age
Elitha Donner 14
Leanna Donner 12
George Donner, Jr. 9
William Hook* 12
Margret Reed 32
Virginia Reed 12
James Reed, Jr. 6
Edward Breen 13
Simon Breen 8
William Graves 17
Eleanor Graves 14
Lovina Graves 12
Mary Murphy 14
William Murphy 10
Naomi Pike 2
Philippine Keseberg 23
Ada Keseberg* 3
Doris Wolfinger 20
John Denton* 28
Noah James 20
Eliza Williams 31
* died en route[89]

Much of the military in California were engaged in the Mexican–American War, and with them the able-bodied men. For example, Colonel Frémont’s personnel were occupied at that precise time in capturing Santa Barbara. Throughout the region, roads were blocked, communications compromised, and supplies unavailable. Only three men responded to a call for volunteers to rescue the Donner Party. Reed was laid over in San Jose until February because of regional uprisings and general confusion. He spent that time speaking with other pioneers and acquaintances. The people of San Jose responded by creating a petition to appeal to the U.S. Navy to assist the people at Truckee Lake. Two local newspapers reported that members of the snowshoe party had resorted to cannibalism, which helped to foster sympathy for those who were still trapped. Residents of Yerba Buena, many of them recent migrants, raised $1,300 ($36,100 in 2020) and organized relief efforts to build two camps to supply a rescue party for the refugees.[113][114]

A rescue party including William Eddy started on February 4 from the Sacramento Valley. Rain and a swollen river forced several delays. Eddy stationed himself at Bear Valley, while the others made steady progress through the snow and storms to cross the pass to Truckee Lake, caching their food at stations along the way so they did not have to carry it all. Three of the rescue party turned back, but seven forged on.[115][116]

On February 18, the seven-man rescue party scaled Frémont Pass (now Donner Pass); as they neared where Eddy told them the cabins would be, they began to shout. Mrs. Murphy appeared from a hole in the snow, stared at them and asked, “Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?”[117] The relief party doled out food in small portions, concerned that it might kill them if the emaciated migrants overate. All the cabins were buried in snow. Sodden oxhide roofs had begun to rot and the smell was overpowering. Thirteen people at the camps were dead, and their bodies had been loosely buried in snow near the cabin roofs. Some of the migrants seemed emotionally unstable. Three of the rescue party trekked to the Donners and brought back four gaunt children and three adults. Leanna Donner had particular difficulty walking up the steep incline from Alder Creek to Truckee Lake, later writing “such pain and misery as I endured that day is beyond description”.[118] George Donner’s arm was so gangrenous he could not move. Twenty-three people were chosen to go with the rescue party, leaving twenty-one in the cabins at Truckee Lake and twelve at Alder Creek.[119][120]

Tree stumps taller than a man, in a forest clearing

Stumps of trees cut at the Alder Creek site by members of the Donner Party, photograph taken in 1866. The height of the stumps indicates the depth of snow.[121]

The rescuers concealed the fate of the snowshoe party, informing the rescued migrants only that they did not return because they were frostbitten.[122] Patty and Tommy Reed were soon too weak to cross the snowdrifts, and no one was strong enough to carry them. Margret Reed faced the agonizing predicament of accompanying her two older children to Bear Valley and watching her two frailest be taken back to Truckee Lake without a parent. She made rescuer Aquilla Glover swear on his honor as a Mason that he would return for her children. Patty Reed told her, “Well, mother, if you never see me again, do the best you can.”[123][124] Upon their return to the lake, the Breens flatly refused them entry to their cabin, but after Glover left more food, the children were grudgingly admitted. The rescue party was dismayed to find that the first cache station had been broken into by animals, leaving them without food for four days. After struggling on the walk over the pass, John Denton slipped into a coma and died. Ada Keseberg died soon afterwards; her mother was inconsolable, refusing to let the child’s body go. After several days’ more travel through difficult country, the rescuers grew very concerned that the children would not survive. Some of them ate the buckskin fringe from one of the rescuer’s pants, and the shoelaces of another, to the relief party’s surprise. On their way down from the mountains, they met the next rescue party, which included James Reed. Upon hearing his voice, Margret sank into the snow, overwhelmed.[125][126]

After those rescued migrants made it safely into Bear Valley, William Hook, Jacob Donner’s stepson, broke into food stores and fatally gorged himself. The others continued to Sutter’s Fort, where Virginia Reed wrote, “I really thought I had stepped over into paradise”. She was amused to note one of the young men asked her to marry him, although she was only 12 years old and recovering from starvation,[127][128] but she turned him down.[129]

Second relief[edit]

Members rescued by second relief
Name Age
Isaac Donner* 5
Patty Reed 9
Thomas Reed 4
Patrick Breen† 51
Margaret Breen† 40
John Breen† 14
Patrick Breen, Jr.† 9
James Breen† 5
Peter Breen† 3
Isabella Breen† 1
Elizabeth Graves* 45
Nancy Graves† 9
Jonathan Graves† 7
Franklin Ward Graves, Jr.* 5
Elizabeth Graves† 1
Mary Donner† 7
Solomon Hook 15
* died en route
† came out with John Stark[89]

Around the time the first relief party was being organized, nearby California settler and patriarch George C. Yount had likely previously heard of the plight of the Donner Party, and had distressing dreams of a struggling group of starving pioneers in deep snow. Yount, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and others then raised five hundred dollars to send out another rescue party.[130]

On March 1, the second relief party arrived at Truckee Lake. Those rescuers included veteran mountain men, most notably John Turner,[131][132] who accompanied the return of Reed and McCutchen. Reed was reunited with his daughter Patty and his weakened son Tommy. An inspection of the Breen cabin found its occupants relatively well, but the Murphy cabin, according to author George Stewart, “passed the limits of description and almost of imagination”. Levinah Murphy was caring for her eight-year-old son Simon and the two young children of William Eddy and Foster. She had deteriorated mentally and was nearly blind. The children were listless and had not been cleaned in days. Lewis Keseberg had moved into the cabin and could barely move due to an injured leg.[133]

No one at Truckee Lake had died during the interim between the departure of the first and the arrival of the second relief party. Patrick Breen documented a disturbing visit in the last week of February from Mrs. Murphy, who said her family was considering eating Milt Elliott. Reed and McCutchen found Elliott’s mutilated body.[134] The Alder Creek camp fared no better. The first two members of the relief party to reach it saw Trudeau carrying a human leg. When they made their presence known, he threw it into a hole in the snow that contained the mostly dismembered body of Jacob Donner. Inside the tent, Elizabeth Donner refused to eat, although her children were being nourished by their father’s organs.[135] The rescuers discovered three other bodies had already been consumed. In the other tent, Tamsen Donner was well, but George was very ill because the infection had reached his shoulder.[136]

Lake beside snowy mountains with railroad construction sheds in foreground

View of Truckee Lake from Donner Pass, taken in 1868 as the Central Pacific Railroad reached completion

The second relief evacuated 17 migrants from Truckee Lake, only three of whom were adults. Both the Breen and Graves families prepared to go. Only five people remained at Truckee Lake: Keseberg, Mrs. Murphy and her son Simon, and the young Eddy and Foster children. Tamsen Donner elected to stay with her ailing husband after Reed informed her that a third relief party would arrive soon. Mrs. Donner kept her daughters Eliza, Georgia, and Frances with her.[137]

The walk back to Bear Valley was very slow. At one point, Reed sent two men ahead to retrieve the first cache of food, expecting the third relief, a small party led by Selim E. Woodworth, to come at any moment. A violent blizzard arose after they scaled the pass. Five-year-old Isaac Donner froze to death, and Reed nearly died. Mary Donner’s feet were badly burned because they were so frostbitten that she did not realize she was sleeping with them in the fire. When the storm passed, the Breen and Graves families were too apathetic and exhausted to get up and move, not having eaten for days. The relief party had no choice but to leave without them.[138][139][140] The site where the Breens and Graves had been left became known as ‘Starved Camp’.[141] Margaret Breen reportedly took the initiative to try to keep the members of the camp alive after the others departed down the mountain. Soon however, Elizabeth Graves and her son Franklin perished before the next rescue party could reach them, and the party resorted to eating flesh off the dead bodies in order to survive.[142]

Three members of the relief party stayed to help those remaining at the camps; Charles Stone at Truckee Lake, Charles Cady and Nicholas Clark at Alder Creek. While Clark was out hunting, Stone traveled to Alder Creek and made plans with Cady to return to California. According to Stewart, Tamsen Donner arranged for them to take her daughters Eliza, Georgia, and Frances with them, perhaps for $500 cash. Stone and Cady took the three girls to Truckee Lake, but left them at a cabin with Keseberg and Levinah Murphy when they started for Bear Valley. Cady recalled later, that after two days on the trail they noted and passed Starved Camp, but they did not stop to help in any way. They overtook Reed and the others within days.[143][144] Several days later, at the Alder Creek camp, Clark and Trudeau agreed to leave for California together. When they reached Truckee Lake and discovered the Donner girls still there they returned to Alder Creek to inform Tamsen Donner.[145]

William Foster and William Eddy, survivors of the snowshoe party, started from Bear Valley to intercept Reed, taking with them a man named John Stark. After a day, they met Reed helping his children struggle on toward Bear Valley, all frostbitten and bleeding but alive. Desperate to rescue their own children, Foster and Eddy persuaded four men, with pleading and money, to go to Truckee Lake with them. During their journey they found the eleven survivors at Starved Camp, huddled around a fire that had sunk into a pit. The relief party split, with Foster, Eddy, and two others headed toward Truckee Lake. Two of the rescuers, hoping to save some of the survivors, each took a child and headed back to Bear Valley. John Stark refused to leave the others. He picked up two children and all the provisions and assisted the remaining Breens and Graves to safety, sometimes advancing the children down the trail piece-meal, putting them down and then going back to carry the other debilitated children.[146][147][148]

Third relief[edit]

Members rescued by third relief
Name Age
Eliza Donner 3
Georgia Donner 4
Frances Donner 6
Simon Murphy 8
Jean Baptiste Trudeau 16[89]

Foster and Eddy finally arrived at Truckee Lake on March 14, where they found their children dead. Keseberg told Eddy that he had eaten the remains of Eddy’s son; Eddy swore to murder Keseberg if they ever met in California.[149] George Donner and one of Jacob Donner’s children were still alive at Alder Creek. Tamsen Donner had just arrived at the Murphy cabin to see to her daughters. She could have walked out alone but chose to return to her husband, even though she was informed that no other relief party was likely to be coming soon. Foster and Eddy and the rest of the third relief left with the Donner girls, young Simon Murphy, Trudeau, and Clark. Levinah Murphy was too weak to leave and Keseberg refused.[150][151]

Two more relief parties were mustered to evacuate any adults who might still be alive. Both turned back before getting to Bear Valley, and no further attempts were made. On April 10, almost a month since the third relief had left Truckee Lake, the alcalde near Sutter’s Fort organized a salvage party to recover what they could of the Donners’ belongings. Those would be sold, with part of the proceeds used to support the orphaned Donner children. The salvage party found the Alder Creek tents empty except for the body of George Donner, who had died only days earlier. On their way back to Truckee Lake, they found Lewis Keseberg alive. According to him, Mrs. Murphy had died a week after the departure of the third relief. Some weeks later, Tamsen Donner had arrived at his cabin on her way over the pass, soaked and visibly upset. Keseberg said he put a blanket around her and told her to start out in the morning, but she died during the night. The salvage party were suspicious of Keseberg’s story, and found a pot full of human flesh in the cabin along with George Donner’s pistols, jewelry, and $250 in gold. They threatened to lynch Keseberg, who confessed that he had cached $273 of the Donners’ money, at Tamsen’s suggestion, so that it could one day benefit her children.[152][153]


A more revolting or appalling spectacle I never witnessed. The remains here, by order of Gen. Kearny collected and buried under the superintendence of Major Swords. They were interred in a pit which had been dug in the centre of one of the cabins for a cache. These melancholy duties to the dead being performed, the cabins, by order of Major Swords, were fired, and with every thing surrounded them connected with this horrid and melancholy tragedy, were consumed. The body of George Donner was found at his camp, about eight or ten miles distant, wrapped in a sheet. He was buried by a party of men detailed for that purpose.

Member of General Stephen W. Kearny‘s company, June 22, 1847[154]

News of the Donner Party’s fate was spread eastward by Samuel Brannan, an elder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a journalist, who ran into the salvage party as they came down from the pass with Keseberg.[155] Accounts of the ordeal first reached New York City in July 1847. Reporting on the event across the U.S. was heavily influenced by the national enthusiasm for westward migration. In some papers, news of the tragedy was buried in small paragraphs, despite the contemporary tendency to sensationalize stories. Several newspapers, including those in California, wrote about the cannibalism in graphic, exaggerated detail.[156] In some print accounts, the members of the Donner Party were depicted as heroes and California a paradise worthy of significant sacrifices.[157]

Emigration to the West decreased over the following years, but it is likely that the drop in numbers was caused more by fears over the outcome of the ongoing Mexican–American War than by the cautionary tale of the Donner Party.[156] In 1846, an estimated 1,500 people migrated to California. In 1847, the number dropped to 450 and then to 400 in 1848. The California Gold Rush spurred a sharp increase, however, and 25,000 people went west in 1849.[158] Most of the overland migration followed the Carson River, but a few forty-niners used the same route as the Donner Party and recorded descriptions about the site.[159]

In late June 1847, members of the Mormon Battalion under General Stephen Kearny buried the human remains, and partially burned two of the cabins.[160] The few who ventured over the pass in the next few years found bones, other artifacts, and the cabin used by the Reed and Graves families. In 1891, a cache of money was found buried by the lake. It had probably been stored by Mrs. Graves, who hastily hid it when she left with the second relief so she could return for it later.[161][162]

Lansford Hastings received death threats. A migrant who crossed before the Donner Party confronted him about the difficulties they had encountered, reporting: “Of course he could say nothing but that he was very sorry, and that he meant well”.[163]


Of the 87 people who entered the Wasatch Mountains, 48 survived. Only the Reed and Breen families remained intact. The children of Jacob Donner, George Donner, and Franklin Graves were orphaned. William Eddy was alone; most of the Murphy family had died. Only three mules reached California; the remaining animals perished. Most of the Donner Party members’ possessions were discarded.[164]

I have not wrote to you half the trouble we have had but I have wrote enough to let you know that you don’t know what trouble is. But thank God we have all got through and the only family that did not eat human flesh. We have left everything but I don’t care for that. We have got through with our lives but Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody. Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.

Virginia Reed to cousin Mary Keyes, May 16, 1847[M]

A few of the widowed women remarried within months; brides were scarce in California. The Reeds settled in San Jose and two of the Donner children lived with them. Reed fared well in the California Gold Rush and became prosperous. Virginia wrote an extensive letter to her cousin in Illinois about “our troubles getting to California”, with editorial oversight from her father. Journalist Edwin Bryant carried it back in June 1847, and it was printed in its entirety in the Illinois Journal on December 16, 1847, with some editorial alterations.[165]

Virginia converted to Catholicism, fulfilling a promise she had made to herself while observing Patrick Breen pray in his cabin. The Murphy survivors lived in Marysville, California. The Breens made their way to San Juan Bautista, California,[166] where they operated an inn. They became the anonymous subjects of J. Ross Browne‘s story about his severe discomfort upon learning that he was staying with alleged cannibals, printed in Harper’s Magazine in 1862. Many of the survivors encountered similar reactions.[167]

George and Tamsen Donner’s children were taken in by an older couple near Sutter’s Fort. Eliza was three years old during the winter of 1846–1847, the youngest of the Donner children. She published an account of the Donner Party in 1911, based on printed accounts and those of her sisters.[168] The Breens’ youngest daughter, Isabella, was one-year-old during the winter of 1846–1847 and the last survivor of the Donner Party. She died in 1935.[169]

I will now give you some good and friendly advice. Stay at home,—you are in a good place, where, if sick, you are not in danger of starving to death.

Mary Graves to Levi Fosdick (her sister Sarah Fosdick’s father-in-law), 1847[170]

The Graves children lived varied lives. Mary Graves married early, but her first husband was murdered. She cooked his killer’s food while he was in prison to ensure the condemned man did not starve before his hanging. One of Mary’s grandchildren noted she was very serious; Graves once said, “I wish I could cry but I cannot. If I could forget the tragedy, perhaps I would know how to cry again.”[171] Mary’s brother William had several different occupations, a diverse lifestyle, and his nieces thought he was “eccentric and irascible”. He died in 1907 and was buried in Calistoga.[172][173]

Nancy Graves was nine years old during the winter of 1846–1847. She refused to acknowledge her involvement even when contacted by historians interested in recording the most accurate versions of the episode. Nancy reportedly was unable to recover from her role in the cannibalism of her brother and mother.[174]

Eddy remarried and started a family in California. He attempted to follow through on his promise to murder Lewis Keseberg but was dissuaded by James Reed and Edwin Bryant. A year later, Eddy recalled his experiences to J. Quinn Thornton, who wrote the earliest account of the episode, also using Reed’s memories of his involvement.[175] Eddy died in Petaluma, California on December 24, 1859.[176]

Keseberg brought a defamation suit against several members of the relief party who accused him of murdering Tamsen Donner. The court awarded him $1 in damages, but also made him pay court costs. An 1847 story printed in the California Star described Keseberg’s actions in ghoulish terms and his near-lynching by the salvage party. It reported that he preferred eating human flesh over the cattle and horses that had become exposed in the spring thaw. Historian Charles McGlashan amassed enough material to indict Keseberg for the murder of Tamsen Donner, but after interviewing him he concluded no murder occurred. Eliza Donner Houghton also believed Keseberg to be innocent.[177]

As Keseberg grew older, he did not venture outside, for he had become a pariah and was often threatened. He told McGlashan, “I often think that the Almighty has singled me out, among all the men on the face of the earth, in order to see how much hardship, suffering, and misery a human being can bear!”[178][179]


Three figures on a tall stone plinth

Statue at Donner Memorial State Park, the top of the 22-foot (6.7 m) pedestal indicating how deep the snow was during the winter of 1846–1847

The Donner Party episode has served as the basis for numerous works of history, fiction, drama, poetry, and film. The attention directed at the Donner Party is made possible by reliable accounts of what occurred, according to Stewart, and the fact that “the cannibalism, although it might almost be called a minor episode, has become in the popular mind the chief fact to be remembered about the Donner Party. For a taboo always allures with as great strength as it repels”.[180] The appeal is the events focused on families and ordinary people, according to Johnson, writing in 1996, instead of on rare individuals, and that the events are “a dreadful irony that hopes of prosperity, health, and a new life in California’s fertile valleys led many only to misery, hunger, and death on her stony threshold”.[181]

The site of the cabins became a tourist attraction as early as 1854.[182] In the 1880s, Charles McGlashan began promoting the idea of a monument to mark the site of the Donner Party episode. He helped to acquire the land for a monument, and in June 1918, the statue of a pioneer family, dedicated to the Donner Party, was placed on the spot where the Breen-Keseberg cabin was thought to have stood.[183] It was made a California Historical Landmark in 1934.[184]

The State of California created the Donner Memorial State Park in 1927. It originally consisted of 11 acres (4.5 ha) surrounding the monument. Twenty years later, the site of the Murphy cabin was purchased and added to the park.[185] In 1962, the Emigrant Trail Museum was added to tell the history of westward migration into California. The Murphy cabin and Donner monument were established as a National Historic Landmark in 1963. A large rock served as the back-end of the fireplace of the Murphy cabin, and a bronze plaque has been affixed to the rock listing the members of the Donner Party, indicating who survived and who did not. The State of California justifies memorializing the site because the episode was “an isolated and tragic incident of American history that has been transformed into a major folk epic”.[186] As of 2003, the park is estimated to receive 200,000 visitors a year.[187]


Most historians count 87 members of the party, although Stephen McCurdy in the Western Journal of Medicine includes Sarah Keyes—Margret Reed’s mother—and Luis and Salvador, bringing the number to 90.[188] Five people had already died before the party reached Truckee Lake: one from tuberculosis (Halloran), three from trauma (Snyder, Wolfinger, and Pike), and one from exposure (Hardkoop). A further 34 died between December 1846 and April 1847: twenty-five males and nine females.[189][N] Several historians and other authorities have studied the mortalities to determine what factors may affect survival in nutritionally deprived individuals. Of the fifteen members of the snowshoe party, eight of the ten men who set out died (Stanton, Dolan, Graves, Murphy, Antonio, Fosdick, Luis, and Salvador), but all five women survived.[190] A professor at the University of Washington stated that the Donner Party episode is a “case study of demographically-mediated natural selection in action”.[191]

The deaths at Truckee Lake, at Alder Creek, and in the snowshoe party were probably caused by a combination of extended malnutrition, overwork, and exposure to cold. Several members became more susceptible to infection due to starvation,[192] such as George Donner, but the three most significant factors in survival were age, sex, and the size of family group that each member traveled with. The survivors were on average 7.5 years younger than those who died; children aged between six and 14 had a much higher survival rate than infants and children under the age of six, of whom 62.5 percent died, including the son born to the Kesebergs on the trail, or adults over the age of 35. No adults over the age of 49 survived. Deaths were “extremely high” among males aged between 20 and 39, at more than 66 percent.[189] Men have been found to metabolize protein faster, and women do not require as high a caloric intake. Women also store more body fat, which delays the effects of physical degradation caused by starvation and overwork. Men also tend to take on more dangerous tasks, and in that particular instance, the men were required to clear brush and engage in heavy labor before reaching Truckee Lake, adding to their physical debilitation. Those traveling with family members had a higher survival rate than bachelor males, possibly because family members more readily shared food with each other.[188][193]

Claims of cannibalism[edit]

Refer to caption

Jean Baptiste Trudeau, pictured here as an adult, gave conflicting accounts of cannibalism at Alder Creek.

Although some survivors disputed the accounts of cannibalism, Charles McGlashan, who corresponded with many of the survivors over a 40-year period, documented many recollections that it occurred. Some correspondents were not forthcoming, approaching their participation with shame, but others eventually spoke about it freely. McGlashan in his 1879 book History of the Donner Party declined to include some of the more morbid details—such as the suffering of the children and infants before death—or how Mrs. Murphy, according to Georgia Donner, gave up, lay down on her bed and faced the wall when the last of the children left in the third relief. He also neglected to mention any cannibalism at Alder Creek.[194][195] The same year McGlashan’s book was published, Georgia Donner wrote to him to clarify some points, saying that human flesh was prepared for people in both tents at Alder Creek, but to her recollection (she was four years old during the winter of 1846–1847) it was given only to the youngest children: “Father was crying and did not look at us the entire time, and we little ones felt we could not help it. There was nothing else.” She also remembered that Elizabeth Donner, Jacob’s wife, announced one morning that she had cooked the arm of Samuel Shoemaker, a 25-year-old teamster.[196] Eliza Donner Houghton, in her 1911 account of the ordeal, did not mention any cannibalism at Alder Creek.

Archaeological findings at the Alder Creek camp proved inconclusive for evidence of cannibalism. None of the bones tested at the Alder Creek cooking hearth could be identified with certainty as human.[197] According to Rarick, only cooked bones would be preserved, and it is unlikely that the Donner Party members would have needed to cook human bones.[198]

Eliza Farnham’s 1856 account of the Donner Party was based largely on an interview with Margaret Breen. Her version details the ordeals of the Graves and Breen families after James Reed and the second relief left them in the snow pit. According to Farnham, seven-year-old Mary Donner suggested to the others that they should eat Isaac Donner, Franklin Graves Jr., and Elizabeth Graves, because the Donners had already begun eating the others at Alder Creek, including Mary’s father Jacob. Margaret Breen insisted that she and her family did not cannibalize the dead, but Kristin Johnson, Ethan Rarick, and Joseph King—whose account is sympathetic to the Breen family—do not consider it credible that the Breens, who had been without food for nine days, would have been able to survive without eating human flesh. King suggests Farnham included this in her account independently of Margaret Breen.[199][200]

According to an account published by H. A. Wise in 1847, Jean Baptiste Trudeau boasted of his own heroism, but also spoke in lurid detail of eating Jacob Donner, and said he had eaten a baby raw.[201] Many years later, Trudeau met Eliza Donner Houghton and denied cannibalizing anyone. He reiterated that in an interview with a St. Louis newspaper in 1891, when he was 60 years old. Houghton and the other Donner children were fond of Trudeau, and he of them, despite their circumstances and the fact that he eventually left Tamsen Donner alone. Author George Stewart considers Trudeau’s accounting to Wise more accurate than what he told Houghton in 1884, and asserted that he deserted the Donners.[202] Kristin Johnson, on the other hand, attributes Trudeau’s interview with Wise to be a result of “common adolescent desires to be the center of attention and to shock one’s elders”; when older, he reconsidered his story, so as not to upset Houghton.[203] Historians Joseph King and Jack Steed call Stewart’s characterization of Trudeau’s actions as desertion “extravagant moralism”, particularly because all members of the party were forced to make difficult choices.[204] Ethan Rarick echoed this by writing, “more than the gleaming heroism or sullied villainy, the Donner Party is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous”.[205]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ There are no written records of native tribes having crossed the desert, nor did the migrants mention any existing trails in this region. (Rarick, p. 69)
  2. ^ Tamsen Donner’s letters were printed in the Springfield Journal in 1846. (McGlashan, p. 24)
  3. ^ While Hastings was otherwise occupied, his guides had led the Harlan-Young Party through Weber Canyon, which was not the route that Hastings had intended to take. (Rarick, p. 61)
  4. ^ The route that the party followed is now known as Emigration Canyon. (Johnson, p. 28)
  5. ^ In 1986, a team of archaeologists attempted to cross the same stretch of desert at the same time of year in four-wheel drive trucks and were unable to do so. (Rarick, p. 71)
  6. ^ The location has since been named Donner Spring where the Donner Party recuperated, at the base of Pilot Peak. (Johnson, p. 31)
  7. ^ Reed’s account states that many of the travelers lost cattle and were trying to locate them, although some of the other members thought that they were looking for his cattle. (Rarick, p. 74, Reed’s own account “The Snow-Bound, Starved Emigrants of 1846 Statement by Mr. Reed, One of the Donner Company” in Johnson, p. 190)
  8. ^ In 1871, Reed wrote an account of the events of the Donner Party in which he omitted any reference to his killing Snyder, although his step-daughter Virginia described it in a letter home written in May 1847, which was heavily edited by Reed. In Reed’s 1871 account, he left the group to check on Stanton and McCutchen. (Johnson p. 191)
  9. ^ The branch of Miwoks from the California plains region were the Cosumne, between where Stockton and Sacramento are located. Luis and Salvador, both Consumne, were Catholic converts employed by John Sutter. Historian Joseph King deduced that Luis’s given Miwok name was Eema. He was probably 19 years old in 1846. Salvador’s given name was probably QuéYuen, and he would have been 28 years old the same year. (King, Joseph A. [1994]. “Lewis and Salvador: Unsung Heroes of the Donner Party”, The Californians, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 20–21.)
  10. ^ The cabins were built by three members of another group of migrants known as the Stevens Party, specifically by Joseph Foster, Allen Stevens, and Moses Schallenberger in November 1844. (Hardesty, pp. 49–50) Virginia Reed later married a member of this party named John Murphy, unrelated to the Murphy family associated with the Donner Party. (Johnson, p. 262)
  11. ^ This drawing is inaccurate in several respects: the cabins were spread so far apart that Patrick Breen in his diary came to call inhabitants of other cabins “strangers” whose visits were rare. Furthermore, this scene shows a great deal of activity and livestock, when the migrants were weakened already by low rations and livestock began to die almost immediately. It also neglects to include the snow that met the migrants from the day they arrived.
  12. ^ Sources give dates ranging from January 9 to January 12. (McGlashan, 1947 Stanford edition, Editor’s foreword, pp. xii,xiii,xxxvi) (Johnson, pp. 62, 121)
  13. ^ Virginia Reed was an inconsistent speller and the letter is full of grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes. It was printed in various forms at least five times and photographed in part. Stewart reprinted the letter with the original spelling and punctuation but amended it to ensure the reader could understand what the girl was trying to say. The representation here is similar to Stewart’s, with spelling and punctuation improvements. (Stewart, pp. 348–354)
  14. ^ Grayson stated in his 1990 mortality study that one-year-old Elizabeth Graves was one of the casualties, but she was rescued by the second relief.


  1. ^ McGlashan, p. 16; Stewart, p. 271.
  2. ^ Enright, John Shea (December 1954). “The Breens of San Juan Bautista: With a Calendar of Family Papers”, California Historical Society Quarterly 33 (4) pp. 349–359.
  3. ^ Rarick, p. 11.
  4. ^ Rarick, pp. 18, 24, 45.
  5. ^ Bagley, p. 130.
  6. ^ Rarick, p. 48.
  7. ^ Rarick, p. 45.
  8. Jump up to:a b c Rarick, p. 47.
  9. Jump up to:a b c Rarick, p. 69.
  10. ^ Rarick, p. 105.
  11. ^ Rarick, p. 106.
  12. Jump up to:a b Rarick, p. 17.
  13. ^ Rarick, p. 33.
  14. Jump up to:a b Rarick, p. 18.
  15. ^ Rarick, p. 8
  16. Jump up to:a b Dixon, p. 32
  17. ^ Dixon, p. 20.
  18. ^ Dixon, p. 22.
  19. ^ Johnson, p. 181.
  20. ^ Johnson, pp. 18-19.
  21. ^ Rarick, p. 22.
  22. ^ Dixon, p. 21.
  23. ^ Rarick, p. 30.
  24. ^ Stewart, p. 26.
  25. ^ Dixon, p. 19.
  26. ^ Dixon, p. 35.
  27. ^ Stewart, pp. 21–22.
  28. ^ Johnson, pp. 6–7.
  29. Jump up to:a b c Andrews, Thomas F. (April 1973). “Lansford W. Hastings and the Promotion of the Great Salt Lake Cutoff: A Reappraisal”, The Western Historical Quarterly 4 (2) pp. 133–150.
  30. ^ Stewart, pp. 16–18.
  31. ^ Stewart, p. 14.
  32. ^ Stewart, pp. 23–24.
  33. ^ Rarick, p. 56.
  34. ^ Stewart, pp. 25–27; Rarick, p. 58.
  35. ^ Johnson, p. 20
  36. ^ Johnson, p. 22.
  37. ^ Stewart, p. 28.
  38. ^ Stewart, pp. 31–35.
  39. ^ Rarick, pp. 61–62.
  40. ^ Rarick, pp. 64–65.
  41. ^ Rarick, pp. 67–68, Johnson, pp. 25, 295.
  42. ^ Rarick, p. 68.
  43. ^ Stewart, pp. 36–39.
  44. ^ Rarick, pp. 70–71.
  45. Jump up to:a b Stewart, pp. 40–44.
  46. ^ Stewart, pp. 44–50.
  47. ^ Rarick, pp. 72–74.
  48. ^ Rarick, pp. 75–76.
  49. ^ Stewart, pp. 50–53.
  50. Jump up to:a b Stewart, pp. 54–58.
  51. Jump up to:a b Rarick, pp. 78–81.
  52. ^ Rarick, p. 82.
  53. ^ McNeese, p. 72.
  54. ^ Rarick, p. 83.
  55. ^ Stewart, pp. 59–65.
  56. ^ Johnson, pp. 36–37.
  57. ^ Rarick, pp. 83–86.
  58. ^ Downey, Fairfax (Autumn 1939). “Epic of Endurance”, The North American Review 248 (1) pp. 140–150.
  59. ^ Stewart, p. 66.
  60. ^ Rarick, p. 74.
  61. ^ Rarick, p. 87.
  62. ^ Johnson, pp. 38–39.
  63. ^ Rarick, pp. 87–89.
  64. ^ Rarick, p. 89.
  65. ^ Rarick, p. 95.
  66. ^ Rarick, p. 98; Stewart, pp. 75–79.
  67. ^ Rarick, p. 98.
  68. Jump up to:a b Stewart, pp. 67–74.
  69. ^ Stewart, pp. 75–79.
  70. ^ Rarick, p. 91.
  71. ^ Rarick, p. 101.
  72. ^ Johnson, p. 43.
  73. ^ Stewart, pp. 81–83.
  74. ^ Rarick, p. 108.
  75. ^ Stewart, pp. 84–87.
  76. ^ Stewart, pp. 105–107.
  77. ^ Hardesty, p. 60.
  78. ^ Stewart, pp. 84–87.
  79. ^ Stewart, pp. 108–109.
  80. ^ Johnson, p. 44.
  81. ^ Stewart, pp. 110–115.
  82. ^ Rarick, p. 145.
  83. ^ McGlashan, p. 90.
  84. ^ Rarick, p. 146.
  85. ^ Johnson, p. 40. See also McGlashan letter from Leanna Donner, 1879.
  86. ^ Stewart, pp. 160–167.
  87. ^ Stewart, pp. 168–175.
  88. ^ Rarick, pp. 148–150.
  89. Jump up to:a b c d “Roster of the Donner Party” in Johnson, pp. 294–298.
  90. ^ McGlashan pp. 66–67,83.
  91. ^ Stewart, pp. 116–121.
  92. ^ Johnson, p. 49, McGlashan, p. 66.
  93. Jump up to:a b McGlashan, p. 67.
  94. ^ Stewart, pp. 122–125.
  95. Jump up to:a b Rarick, p. 136.
  96. ^ Thornton, J. Quinn, excerpt from Oregon and California in 1848 (1849), published in Johnson, p. 52.
  97. ^ Stewart, pp. 126–130.
  98. ^ Rarick, p. 137.
  99. ^ Stewart, pp. 131–133.
  100. ^ Thornton, J. Quinn, excerpt from Oregon and California in 1848 (1849), published in Johnson, p. 53.
  101. ^ Thornton, J. Quinn, excerpt from Oregon and California in 1848 (1849), published in Johnson, p. 55.
  102. Jump up to:a b Rarick, p. 142.
  103. ^ Thornton, J. Quinn, excerpt from Oregon and California in 1848 (1849), published in Johnson, p. 60.
  104. Jump up to:a b Johnson, p. 62.
  105. ^ Stewart, pp. 142–148.
  106. ^ Johnson, pp. 63–64.
  107. ^ Stewart, p. 149.
  108. ^ Johnson, p. 193.
  109. ^ Rehart, p. 133.
  110. ^ Stewart, pp. 95–100.
  111. ^ McGlashan, pp. 122–123.
  112. ^ Stewart, pp. 101–104.
  113. ^ Stewart, pp. 150–159.
  114. ^ Rarick, pp. 180–181.
  115. ^ Stewart, pp. 176–189.
  116. ^ Rarick, pp. 166–167.
  117. ^ Stewart, p. 191.
  118. ^ Rarick, p. 173.
  119. ^ Stewart, pp. 190–196.
  120. ^ Rarick, p. 170.
  121. ^ Weddell, P. M. (March 1945). “Location of the Donner Family Camp”, California Historical Society Quarterly 24 (1) pp. 73–76.
  122. ^ Rarick, p. 171.
  123. ^ Stewart, p. 198.
  124. ^ Rarick, p. 174.
  125. ^ Stewart, pp. 197–203.
  126. ^ Rarick, p. 178.
  127. ^ Stewart, pp. 204–206.
  128. ^ Rarick, p. 187.
  129. ^ McGlashen, p. 239.
  130. ^ Camp, Charles L. and Yount, George C. (April 1923). “The Chronicles of George C. Yount: California Pioneer of 1826” California Historical Society Quarterly 2 (1) pp. 63–64.
  131. ^ Stewart, p. 209
  132. ^ McGlashan, p. 161
  133. ^ Stewart, pp. 211–212.
  134. ^ Stewart, pp. 213–214.
  135. ^ Rarick, p. 191.
  136. ^ Stewart, pp. 215–219.
  137. ^ Rarick, p. 195.
  138. ^ Stewart, pp. 220–230.
  139. ^ Reed, James “The Snow Bound Starved Emigrants of 1846 Statement by Mr. Reed, One of the Donner Company” (1871), in Johnson, p. 199.
  140. ^ Rarick, pp. 199–203.
  141. ^ Rarick, p. 200.
  142. ^ Rarick, pp. 200-213.
  143. ^ Stewart, pp. 231–236.
  144. ^ Rarick, pp. 207–208.
  145. ^ Rarick, pp. 216–217.
  146. ^ Stewart, pp. 237–246.
  147. ^ King, pp. 92–93.
  148. ^ Rarick, pp. 214–215.
  149. ^ Rarick, pp. 217–218.
  150. ^ Stewart, pp. 247–252.
  151. ^ Rarick, p. 219.
  152. ^ Stewart, pp. 258–265.
  153. ^ Rarick, pp. 222–226.
  154. ^ Stewart, pp. 276–277.
  155. ^ Stewart, p. 276.
  156. Jump up to:a b Rarick, pp. 241–242.
  157. ^ Unruh, pp. 49–50.
  158. ^ Unruh, pp. 119–120.
  159. ^ Hardesty, p. 2.
  160. ^ Dorius, Guy L. (1997). “Crossroads in the West: The Intersections of the Donner Party and the Mormons Archived February 2, 2014, at the Wayback Machine“, Nauvoo Journal 9 pp. 17–27.
  161. ^ Stewart, pp. 276–279.
  162. ^ Rarick, p. 235.
  163. ^ Johnson, p. 233.
  164. ^ Stewart, p. 271.
  165. ^ Reed, Virginia (May 16, 1847), “Letter to Mary Keyes”, published in Stewart, pp. 348–362.
  166. ^ King, pp. 169–170.
  167. ^ Browne, J. Ross, excerpt from “A Dangerous Journey” (1862), published in Johnson, pp. 171–172, and Johnson, p. 170.
  168. ^ Johnson, p. 2.
  169. ^ King, pp. 177–178.
  170. ^ Graves, Mary (May 22, 1847), “Letter from California”, published in Johnson, p. 131.
  171. ^ Johnson, pp. 126–127.
  172. ^ Johnson, Kristin (January 31, 2006). “The Graves Family”. Retrieved March 22, 2021.
  173. ^ Johnson, Kristin (January 31, 2006). “Donner Party Bulletin”. Retrieved March 22, 2021.
  174. ^ Rarick, p. 230.
  175. ^ Hardesty, p. 3, Johnson, pp. 8–9.
  176. ^ McGlashan, p. 243.
  177. ^ King, p. 106.
  178. ^ McGlashan, pp. 221–222.
  179. ^ “According to LDS record he died September 3, 1895, in Sacramento County Hospital”. Archived from the original on March 5, 2016. Retrieved August 5, 2013.
  180. ^ Stewart, p. 295.
  181. ^ Johnson, p. 1.
  182. ^ State of California, p. 43.
  183. ^ Rarick, pp. 243–244.
  184. ^ State of California, p. 44.
  185. ^ State of California, p. 45.
  186. ^ State of California, p. 39.
  187. ^ State of California, p. 59.
  188. Jump up to:a b McCurdy, Stephen (1994). Epidemiology of Disaster: The Donner Party (1846–1847)Western Journal of Medicine160, pp. 338–342.
  189. Jump up to:a b Grayson, Donald K. (Autumn 1990). “Donner Party Deaths: A Demographic Assessment”, Journal of Anthropological Research 46 (3) pp. 223–242.
  190. ^ Johnson, p. 54.
  191. ^ Hardesty, p. 113.
  192. ^ Hardesty, p. 114.
  193. ^ Hardesty, pp. 131–132.
  194. ^ Stewart, pp. 307–313.
  195. ^ McGlashan, p. 161.
  196. ^ Stewart, p. 312.
  197. ^ Dixon et al., 2010; Robbins Schug and Gray, 2011
  198. ^ Rarick, p. 193.
  199. ^ Farnham, Eliza, excerpt from California, In-doors and Out (1856), published in Johnson, pp. 139–168.
  200. ^ Johnson, p. 164., Rarick, p. 213, King, pp. 86–87.
  201. ^ Wise, H. A., excerpt from Los Gringos (1849), published in Johnson, pp. 134–135.
  202. ^ Stewart, p. 297.
  203. ^ Johnson, p. 133.
  204. ^ King, Joseph; Steed, Jack (Summer 1995). “John Baptiste Trudeau of the Donner Party: Rascal or Hero?”, California History 74 (2) pp. 162–173.
  205. ^ Rarick, p. 245.


Further reading[edit]

All About Guns

Glock 18 Close-up

All About Guns

How To Load and Fire Civil War Cannon