I don't think I will ever get this story out of my head for as long as I live. I can't even imagine, no matter what books I read on the subject, what it was like. Truly horrifying.
Thursday, July 22, 2021
Mini Reviews | The Donner Party
Sarah Graves is twenty one at the time that she and her family embark on what will prove to be a harrowing journey of unimaginable horror. She and her family, including her new husband, head west in search of a better life. Yet in a short seven months they find themselves trapped with other emigrants led by George Donner in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sarah joins a dozen other members of the party who attempt to make it out by snowshoe to get help for those they are leaving behind. Who knows what they will find when and if they even return.
Yet even before that heavy storm came in and barred their passage out, the journey was difficult. Covering many miles a day in a bumpy wagon over unforgiving terrain, there were accidents and people died. Animals were injured and sometimes whole wagons full of belongings had to be abandoned if they could not be repaired.
When the snow finally came, the oxen were so malnourished that they could not continue. This effectively trapped the members of the party who could not all make it out on foot. They killed some of the animals to have some food, but with the animals being underfed die to the conditions, it is easy to see why that plan didn't work out so well.
Sarah and those who attempted to seek help on foot had plenty of tragedy and horror of their own after leaving their makeshift camp. Even they could not escape the starvation, hypothermia, and death despite their best efforts.
I learned so much more about the Donner Party - for instance it was a massive group of extended families travelling together, and not only the Donners - obviously, since the author has chosen to focuses specifically on Sarah Graves and her family as part of the larger group. The group also consisted of several single men who had been hired to help the group on their way. Often the story is told that these were foolhardy people who had no idea what they were doing or what they were up against. Yet the Graves family had experience in travelling in this manner before. They were pioneers who knew what a difficult journey this would be, and unfortunately their party crossed paths with those who were ruled by greed, sending the massive party on a 'short cut' that was no such thing.
I never knew this before, but this route had never been travelled, ever. EVER. In my vague recollection of learning about the party, I always thought they simply left far too late in the year and were caught in a terrible snowstorm. While it is true they did leave Missouri about three weeks after the cut-off, that was not the only cause of their demise.
I appreciate the author's efforts to present a full and complete picture of the entire group, documenting to the best of his ability the route they took - though of course his transportation was a lot more comfortable, and there was a much less likely chance of him getting caught in a blinding storm and starving or freezing to death. He does not spare us any details in fact, about anything. The author is thorough in his research and reports on every aspect of the journey. The attention to detail is important and you can't help but feel you are right there with them, in the worst of it, wondering how anyone could possible come out of this alive.
I read both of these books fairly close together and feel that both did an excellent job in recounting the devastation of this journey that only half the emigrants would survive.
The author uses numerous sources to tell the story of the party, not focusing on one particular woman or family, as the previous book did. This way works just as well, and I feel like reading both books would be helpful for anyone wanting to know more. He uses scientific data such a survival rates and snowfall totals, as well as journals and letters written by those who belonged to the Donner Party. Descendants of the doomed travelers made these documents available and one can not read through the writings without feeling such deep sadness for those who were once so full of hope at the prospect of starting a new life out West, to provide for their families.
One of the things the author does well is presenting the party as human beings forced to make extraordinarily difficult decisions when the time came to do so. There are not heroes and villains here, or at least the area is much more grey than black and white. I also appreciate that he does not dwell on the gruesome aspects of the story, when finally those who stayed behind at Donner Lake were driven to such madness by hunger, that they would take to eating the dead. It also must be remembered that most did not actually do so.
One thing the author does well is look at the contradictions in survivors' accounts later on. In his examination of this journey, he is seeking to find what went so wrong, what made this trek so vastly different from the hundreds of thousands of others that travelled West during that span when heading West was the thing to do? The author sets out to answer these questions and more in his analysis and does a thorough job with all the sources available to him. Aside from the sources mentioned previously, he also uses newspaper accounts, interviews, and diaries to complete his research.
Both texts are fantastic explorations of the doomed party and I recommend both for those who are interested.