Thursday, January 2, 2014

8 Things I Never Knew about the Donner Party


Meme: Donner Party? I thought you said "dinner" party.
I spent this weekend doing nothing but reading Ordeal by Hunger, by George R. Stewart. It sat on my shelf for 10 years after a chance purchase in a Truckee bookstore. Now, I live about 70 miles from Donner Lake and can see that forbidding ridge of the Sierras from my living room. Then, a couple weeks ago, we had snow. This is not supposed to happen--we're only at 1,500 feet. But it did happen, and our pipes froze and our driveway iced, which is why I think I finally plucked this one off the shelf.

Going in, I knew what most people know: they were pioneers en route to California, got snowed in at Donner Lake, and died. I think at some point I must have known there was cannibalism involved. I was under no illusion that this was going to have a happy ending, but holy mother of God, I had no idea it was this bad. There's a lot I didn't know or didn't remember.

There's a lot no one tells you.

This is by no means an exhaustive summary. It's more a jumbled recollection of the moments that pierced the cold, cold veil of my shriveled heart.

1. They were pretty much beaten before they ever reached the Sierra. Just getting to California had exhausted them in every way. To get their wagons over the Wasatch mountains, they had to stand in front of the wagons with axes in their hands, making the damn road yard by yard. They had to cross the desert beneath the Great Salt Lake, a more fucked up route than other travelers because the Donner party took an ill-advised southern cutoff that wasted a shit-ton of time. Suffice to say, when someone tells you the next water is three days away but really it's seven, you're going to have a bad time. Blame that douche-bag Hastings, who told them, "No sweat. My cut-off is a piece of cake," and then ditched them, leaving behind notes that lied to them about how far away the next water was.

2.  They didn't like each other very much. It would have been a shit trip under any circumstances. But in addition to the navigation issues, they also lost a bunch of cattle to the Paiutes, both through thievery and general marauding. No blame, just a statement of fact. All told, by the time they got to the eastern slope of the Sierra, they were tired, hungry, in need of supplies, and lacking tolerance for each other. If you and your sibling got on each other's nerves in the car as kids, imagine going on a six-month car ride where you had to build the road for the car by working in harmony with said sibling.  I'm pretty sure Mother Teresa would have needed at least one time out.

3.  They weren't all stuck in one cabin, tent, or even general area. There were three distinct cabins, with the two Donner families a whopping five miles behind them. When they got to Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake), it was about Halloween...and it started snowing like a mother-you-know-what. It didn't stop. They tried twice to get those big-ass wagons up and over the pass, but it just didn't happen. So they dropped back down on November 4 and realized they had to make camp on the eastern side of the pass until spring.

They set up some primitive cabins along the lake, with the Jacob and George Donner family groups about five miles back.  The party had always been segregated by family groups (the Breens, the Donners, the Reeds, the Murphys, the Kesebergs, etc.), but now those segregations etched themselves in stone. Contact between family groups was generally limited to requests for help, which were usually ignored or fulfilled only grudgingly. There were 60 people: 19 men, 12 women, and 29 children, including toddlers. The men bore the brunt of the work--gathering firewood, attempting to hunt, etc. Suffice to say, it fucking sucked.

Bad Luck Brian meme: Invited to a party for the first time--the Donner Party
At first, they had some food: a bear, a few remaining cattle, mice, and hides they boiled and used for soup. But when that runs out, what happens? Can you sit around a dank, dismal cabin full of sick and malnourished people, including your own children, and tell them they're going to die because there's nothing to eat? The first person to die was Baylis Williams. It was December 15, a month after making camp.

4. One group escaped on foot. On December 16, a group of 15 snow-shoed out, trying to cross the pass on foot. They were headed for Sutter's Fort in what would become Sacramento to beg for help and organize relief. But there was hardly any food left for those staying behind, let alone extra to send along with the people fleeing.

On the first day, they went four miles...all still on the eastern side of the pass, and still able to see the smoke from their families' cabins.  The snow was so damn high and so damn soft that it took a long time to cross, even with the snowshoes.

They had each taken six days' rations. Every person had a strip of jerky as long as two fingers, three times a day. That's it. Now go walk miles in a ferocious snowstorm and climb the parts of the mountain that snow won't stick to and don't forget to gather firewood and take turns maintaining it at night and generally try to give a shit so much that your mind wills your body not to die. I'm not sure I could have done it. When Eddy, one of the men, found a half pound of bear meat in his pack that his wife had hoarded and packed in secret with a love note, I almost cried.

Four days out, they were exhausted, malnourished, snow-blind, and subject to hallucinations. One man lasted six days. On the sixth, he sat down, smoked his pipe, told the others he was coming soon, and waited to die.

The seventh day, they shared the bear meat.

The eighth day, they had nothing.

The ninth day, they had nothing. And it started to snow again. They were all skeletal, malnourished, weak, and frozen. What were the options? Finally, they broached the subject: draw lots to see who dies and who lives? Fight to the death, so at least whoever went down went down swinging? They decided it was too horrible, and they had to wait. It wasn't a long wait. That night, a man named Antonio died. A few hours later, Billy Graves died.  A third man, Patrick Dolan, died a day later while they paused for Christmas Day. They waited another day. On the eleventh day, they did what they had to do. Two Indian guides and Eddy at first refused to eat. They trudged down the mountain, up and down canyons, through storms and conditions that make a Hieronymus Bosch painting look like Club Med. More dead than alive, they stumbled into a ranch on January 17. They'd started with 15 people, five women and ten men. Only two men made it out. All five women survived. (Yay, ladies.)

Mr. and Mrs. Reed of the Donner Party
5. There was gallows humor. Back in the lake camp, things went from bad to worse. Terrible weather, vermin, sickness, malnutrition, starvation...you name it, it happened. George Donner had sliced his hand with a chisel. The wound festered and he didn't have the strength to fight the infection off. He also didn't have the strength to die. Old Mrs. Murphy went blind. A bunch of kids died. To keep the remaining ones alive, some of the corpses were dug up. Jacob Donner's wife, Elizabeth, said to her sister, "Guess what I cooked this morning? Shoemaker's arm."

6. Rescue came in waves, organized and orchestrated poorly and often by people with little or no snow/mountaineering experience. The snowshoers managed to send back several waves of rescuers, some more willing and able than others. The first wave of rescuers crossed the pass and realized what a terrible state everyone was in. They brought out everyone who was able to walk and not needed to care for the ones left behind--23 people, with 17 staying behind. The walkers included three children three years old. Tommy Reed was one of them. He made it two miles before it became painfully obvious that he couldn't keep stepping through the enormous drifts.  His sister, Patty, was also doing poorly. They were holding up the rest of the group. The rescue coordinator Glover, told the childrens' mother the two little ones had to go back to camp. No one had enough strength to carry the two children (the rescuers had run into storm and supply troubles of their own). Their mother sent them back to the camp and continued on with the rescue party. "Well, mother," Patty said, "if you never see me again, do the best you can." Oh holy Jesus, tear my heart out, why don't you...

A second rescue party included two men who had already escaped with the snowshoe party, Reed and McCutchen. They both had kids still starving at the camp and had to go back. Their party rescued the Breen family, the Graves family, a couple of the Donner kids, and Reed's two kids who had been sent back. As they struggled down the mountain on the other side of the pass, the Breens and the Graves could go no further. The rest pressed on. I've seen the word "abandoned" used to describe the Breens and Graves after the others marched on. I don't think you can use this word in that context. It seems too cruel. It was what it was. No one can pass judgment who didn't go through it.

A third rescue party, including Eddy and Foster (both escapees via snowshoe), went back into hell to try and save their children, both too young to have made it out with the other parties. But by the time they got there on March 13, Eddy's wife and child were already dead. A man named Keseberg seems to have eaten them. Elizabeth Donner was dead. Her husband, Jacob Donner, was dead...and partially eaten. George Donner was ill but clinging to life. His wife, Tamsen, refused to leave him. Rescuers told her they weren't sure if and when a third rescue party would make it. She stayed.

Meme: Donner, Part of One: Your Table Is Ready
7. One of the survivors was accused of murdering Tamsen Donner. This is weird, you guys. So Keseberg was one of the last left in the camp. When the third rescue party arrived, they found him alone with a pot of what might have been human entrails and/or blood. They asked where everyone was, but Keseberg said they were all dead. They checked the Donner tents five miles away and found George Donner dead and wrapped in a sheet--obviously Tamsen had outlived him. They found no sign of her body, though. They went back and asked Keseberg where she was. He said Tamsen appeared at his cabin one night, drenched to the bone from a fall in the creek. She said George had died and she now wanted to cross the pass on foot to get to her children. He bundled her up for the night, but she was dead by morning. This didn't jive with the rescuers, who had seen Tamsen on rescue waves one and two. The healthiest of all the settlers, she didn't seem likely to die after one cold night. But they couldn't find a body anywhere. Keseberg said he'd eaten her--that she was the best-tasting of them all because she still had a little fat. However, if this was true, where were the remains? The head, for example? Jacob Donner's split skull had been recovered, even after the brains were eaten. Where was Tamsen? Was Keseberg lying? If so, why?

It struck some of the rescuers that Keseberg might have killed her. The Donners were wealthy, and maybe he thought he could scrounge their belongings to find cash or valuables. They got him out of that horrible death camp and tried him when they'd made it to safety. He was acquitted, but made to pay all the costs of the trial. Keseberg seems to have changed his story later in life, saying he did not participate in cannibalism. No one will ever know.

8. Some of the survivors ended up near where I grew up. It's not all doom and gloom, which is why I saved this point for last. The entire Breen family survived, 7 kids and 2 parents. They settled in San Juan Bautista, in an adobe near the mission I've seen a dozen times. I never knew. The entire Reed family survived, 3 kids and 2 parents. They settled in San Jose. I never knew. There are still Donner descendants in the state. Even Keseberg has at least one descendant in the state.

This is one of those stories that hits you in the nuts and the guts. I read this book faster than any fiction I've read in the past two years. I couldn't do anything else afterward but keep looking for more information on this event and these people. I just sat back, breathless, in awe of what these people went through. I could not have done it. Their will to live was so much stronger than anything I've felt in my entire life. That is both my shame and their honor.