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The Donner Party

This is an essay about the Donner Party, written in a narrative, not academic, style. (11+ pages; 3 sources; 2 additional suggested readings)

The Donner Party

The tale of the Donner Party and its tragic journey is one of the great stories of American history. It is at once horrifying and inspiring, an almost legendary account of human behaviour at its worst, and its best.

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In the accounts of the settlers that went west with the ill-fated wagon train, we can see some of the issues that continue to plague society today. There were squabbles over the route; squabbles over food; squabbles over the workload. But there were also larger issues: the dislike of some of the emigrants for the Germans in the party; the factionalism that developed, often along societal lines; and the greed of several men who put their own profits before the lives of the settlers.

We see the same ugliness surfacing in the men who attempted to rescue the snowbound emigrants. More than once, boastful men proved themselves to be craven, and rescue attempts fell apart. Courage and cowardice, greed and selflessness, seem to have been side by side throughout this extraordinary episode.

The Donner Party’s history, at least at the beginning, is not that different from the stories of others going west in the 1800’s. But it almost seems as though the train was destined to fail.

First, there was infighting from the beginning. The man finally picked to lead the train, George Donner (known as “Uncle George”), was not the man best qualified. That title goes to James Reed, younger, stronger, tougher, and more experienced. But Reed was disliked because of his wealth. Donner too was wealthy, but Reed made an ostentatious display of his money, while Donner did not.

Early historians, such as McGlashan, whose History of the Donner Party was published in 1896; and George Stewart, whose Ordeal by Hunger (1934) is widely acknowledged to be a classic about the emigrants, both say that Reed had a wagon that he called the Pioneer Palace. It was supposedly a two-story affair that towered over the other wagons, contained unheard-of luxuries, and was the epitome of comfort.

In much more recent history, Frank Mullen suggests that James Reed would not have set out on such a trek with a wagon that would be difficult to handle, cause delays, and create resentment. Mullen points out that only one person actually in the Donner Party mentioned the Reed wagon; surely if it were the monstrosity beloved of early historians, everyone would have said something about it. The fact that no corroborating evidence exists suggests that it was not a palace of any kind. It may have been slightly more comfortable than most, but nothing to cause comment. It would seem that easy explanations for the dislike many of the emigrants felt for Reed are not forthcoming, but it appears unnecessary to go on a “fishing expedition” to explain it.

Reed was wealthy, he made it known, and he had a habit of giving orders to others, rather than doing the work himself. In a society where everyone was expected to pull his or her own weight, such behavior would be deeply resented. Or perhaps it was nothing more than the anger of the hardscrabble workers for those who have the wealth and power they long for. Whatever the reasons, the Donner Party was marred by disagreements and bickering from the beginning.

Their real trouble, though, began when they made the decision that ultimately cost half of them their lives: they decided to abandon the well-known Oregon Trail for a “short cut.” The short cut was the work of Lansford P. Hastings, a self-styled explorer who had written a book entitled Emigrants’ Guide, To Oregon and California, and who promised that turning south out of South Pass, Wyoming, rather than following the Oregon Trail (it went north before a branch split off back to the south) would save over 300 miles. Three hundred miles in those days was weeks of hard travel—who wouldn’t leap at the chance to shorten the trip?

Hastings’ assertions that his new trail was fast and easy were backed up by legendary Mountain Man Jim Bridger, who assured the doubtful pioneers that the way Hastings indicated was every bit as good as it sounded. Tamsen Donner, George Donner’s wife, thought it all sounded too good to be true, and begged her husband not to take the new trail. Also weighing against Hastings was the advice Tamsen Donner had heard from a trapper at Fort Laramie, who said that the new track was awful, and that they would barely survive if they stuck to the old, proven way.

So, on one side there was the well-known Oregon Trail, Tamsen Donner’s great uneasiness, and the warnings of an experienced, but uncouth, trapper; but set against that was Hastings’ enthusiasm, Bridger’s encouragement, and most of all, the dream of cutting 300 miles off the trip. The Donner Party took Hastings’ route.

The reasons for Hastings’ and Bridger’s endorsement of the route are varied and in Bridger’s case at least, extremely unpleasant, as well as extremely familiar:

“It all comes down to money. Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez, the partners at Fort Bridger, know the new route is unsafe, unproven and possibly deadly. …. Instead of warning emigrants, however, the traders rave about the new road. They paint it as a near paradise of grass with only forty miles of waterless desert. Vasquez and Bridger hope the ‘shortcut’ will save their trading post, now bypassed by the Greenwood cutoff.” (Mullen, p. 108).

To save their business, the men condemned the Donner Party to death. We can see that dog-eat-dog logic today in every person who exploits another for the sake of profit.

Hastings’ motives are more complex. It appears that he had political ambitions, and was hoping to create allies in California for a revolution against the Mexican government. He needed to increase California’s population rapidly if he was to realize his dream, and chose this method of bringing new people to the state as quickly as possible. (Mullen, p. 93).

The emigrants discovered within days that they had been tricked, but it was too late to go back—the track was so difficult that even thinking of turning around was heart-rending. They pressed on, cutting a road through thickets and forests, hauling their wagons up and down rocky hillsides, stumbling along in fear and resentment until they finally cleared the Wahsatch Range (today spelled Wasatch) and saw below them the Great Salt Lake Desert. And they discovered they’d been lied to again.

Hastings had left a note saying “2 days—2 nights—hard-driving—cross desert—reach the water.” (Greer, p. 74). The “2 days, 2 nights” message implied a 40-mile crossing. When the survivors, who had lost much of their livestock and abandoned many wagons, got to the other side of an 80-mile wasteland, their despair marked the end of any cooperation within the Party. They began to divide into factions: Germans stuck with Germans, Irish with Irish, the Reeds and Donners, as the “elite”, stayed together. And as it will, suspicion about one another began to grow. Food grew scarce, animals died, then the emigrants began to die.

It all came to a head October 5, 1846, near what is now Golconda, Nevada, when James Reed knifed John Snyder, who was clubbing him on the head with his whip handle. Snyder died, and Lewis Keseberg, a German who hated Reed with a passion, tried to drum up a lynch mob. William Eddy, who may well be the “hero” of this story, and others defended Reed, but he was driven from the train. He announced his intention of going to seek Sutter’s Fort, near what is now Sacramento, and bringing back help for the others, who were already in desperate straits. He rode into the west, leaving behind his wife and children.

The train, now on the west side of the Great Salt Lake Desert, kept dragging on. It was late October, the winter was closing in; they were in a race and they knew it. They came to Truckee Meadows, and made another mistake: they stopped to give their animals and themselves some much-needed rest instead of pushing on and lingered a day too long. It began to snow. By the time they got to the head of what is now Donner Lake and the pass over the Sierras, they’d run out of time and the snow was a blizzard and they could barely see through the howling gale.

On November 3, 1846, most of the party actually crossed the pass, but the snow was chest-high and they were too tired to go further west. And there they made their greatest mistake. If they could have found the spirit to keep going, they would probably have been safe. As it was, they turned, went back across the pass to the east side, and set up camp beside what is now Donner Lake. In so doing, many of them signed their death warrants.

They quickly built cabins and lean-tos. Shelter and food were never problems, but their food was gone before they ever made camp, and they began to starve almost at once. At first, they lived on the few animals they could shoot; then they made do by boiling oxhide strips into a sort of gluey mess and eating that. (It was so nauseating that many of them couldn’t eat it.) It was only as the winter wore on and storm after a storm dumped feet of snow on the camp that they turned to their last, ghastly food source.

Rescue for the Donner Party came from both directions: they sent out several parties to cross the pass; the last one, known as the “Forlorn Hope” got through. William Eddy led it and he was little more than an animated skeleton when he reached Bear Valley on January 17, 1847, thirty-three days after he had left the encampment at the lake. (The distance was approximately 70 miles.) The Forlorn Hope, which had begun as a party of ten men, two boys and five women, survived, like those they left behind, by eating the bodies of their dead. Of the 17 who set out, two men and all five women were left. Eight men perished; the survivors ate all but one.

The rescue also came from the west, as Reed and others set out from Sutter’s Fort to find their loved ones. On April 19, 1847 Lewis Keseberg was found at the lake camp, the last survivor still in the mountains. Contemporary accounts portray him as half-mad, crouched in a filthy hovel by the lake with his unspeakable food supply scattered around him; modern historians debate this report. He was the last of the Donner Party brought in.

One of the most interesting aspects of this is the fact the women, on the whole, fared far better than the men. No one has ever been able to adequately explain their survival:

“Whether the food was apportioned by individuals rather than by size, whether the men did more physical work and therefore expended more energy, whether the constitution of a woman is more enduring than that of a man, whether merely in these individual cases the women were hardier—these questions cannot be surely answered. Most likely several of these factors were at work, but certainly, with some exceptions, the men failed sooner.” (Stewart, p. 117).

Their survival is one of many mysteries of the Donner Party.

The Donner Party also tells us a lot about the human will to survive. Although we know about this ill-fated wagon train mainly because of the cannibalism that is forever associated with it, there is far more to the story than that.

At every turn, it seems, the pioneers found challenges and obstacles they had to overcome. Although the trip from Independence, Missouri to Wyoming had been fairly routine, they had lost Mrs. Reed’s mother, the first of the train’s deaths. These trips across the country to Oregon and California were never “easy” in any sense of the word. The emigrants had left behind the lives they knew to embark on a journey to a place that was completely strange to them.

In many cases, the emigrants in the train were not only new to the west but new to the United States as well. The Breens were an Irish family; Keseberg was German—they had come to America, settled in the east, and then uprooted themselves for another hard journey to California. This is a human endeavour at its best.

Unfortunately, the Donner Party held many examples of human behaviour at its worst. At the desperate camp on the lake, for example, Mrs. Reed “managed to obtain two oxen from Graves and two from Breen, promising to pay two for one when they got through to California.” (Stewart, p. 109). One of Graves’ oxen starved, and Eddy asked if he could have it since Graves didn’t intend to use the meat. Graves said he could—for $25, a grossly over-inflated price. Desperate times led to desperate bargains of which only the most hardened supporter of free-market capitalism could be proud. It is indicative of the divisiveness that plagued the train that one man could even consider selling desperately needed food to another and selling it at an outrageous price.

But if these examples of the paltriness of the human spirit disgust us, there is much to be proud of here, and that is the willingness of these people to do anything necessary to survive. Although sensational stories circulated at the time that the Donner Party survivors refused to eat the food the rescue parties brought and wanted to continue eating human flesh, that canard has no basis in fact.

The emigrants were starving to death; it wasn’t that they’d missed the last slice of pizza or forgot to pack a lunch—they had had no real food in weeks. At a time when many modern Americans would simply give up, these people kept going. They did what they had to do, but they did it unwillingly, grudgingly, sickened by the necessity of their actions. Many sources tell the same story: that they sat around, ashamed, tears in their eyes, unable to look at one another as they ate. It might be more “noble” to starve to death, but it’s far less practical.

That these people were able to overcome their natural revulsion and do what they had to do makes the story one of courage, not disgust. They simply refused to give up.

The story of the Donner Party remains one of American’s greatest tales for three main reasons. First, perhaps naturally, is our revolted fascination with the practice of cannibalism. This may well be humanity’s last taboo, and because the emigrants broke it, their story has become fixed in our collective consciousness.

Second, there is a sense of fatality that grips us as we read, a string of “if only” that makes this seem almost foreordained, as the sinking of the Titanic seems inevitable. If only they hadn’t listened to Hastings; if only they hadn’t become so preoccupied with their own petty differences and learned to work as a team; if only they had broken camp one day earlier than they did; if only they had kept going, despite their fatigue, after they had once crossed the pass.
And finally, the tale retains its appeal because for all its hideousness, it is above all a story of the human will to survive. There is nothing more gripping than that.

References

Greer, Herb. The Short Cut. New York: Roy Publishers, Inc., 1965.

Mullen, Frank. The Donner Party Chronicles. Reno: Halcyon-Nevada Humanities Committee, 1997.

Stewart, George R. Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1964.

Further Reading

McGlashan, C.F. History of the Donner Party. Truckee, CA: T.C. Wohlbruck Co., 1939.

Pigney, Joseph. For Fear We Shall Perish: The Story of the Donner Party Disaster. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1961.

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