Contemplate this scene of desperation and deprivation in algid towering reefs of incessantly falling snow: "As the week wore on, the sugar and the seeds and the tea began to run out, and finally there was nothing at all left to alleviate the stabbing hunger cramps of the children in the pit. All of them were profoundly emaciated, and with no body fat to insulate them, their internal temperatures hovered near the hypothermic range. Finally seven-year-old Mary Donner, the toes of her feet blackened by frostbite and the burns she had suffered after falling into the fire, could not stand the hunger pangs any longer. She suggested that they eat the dead."
And consider this horripilant1 vignette borne of mad, snow-bound, ravenous hunger: "Three-year-old James Eddy was dead in the Murphy cabin. And a night or two before, Louis Keseberg had taken one-year-old George Foster into his bed with him. In the morning the boy was dead. As Levinah Murphy and the three Donner girls looked on in abject horror, Keseberg took the boy's limp body from the bed, carried it to a wall, and hung it on a peg, like a piece of meat." Indeed, a horror story that was never meant to happen. But happen it did, in the terrible winter of 1846 and 1847 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Shocking and mesmerizing, this perilous tale is replete with heroics and selflessness too.
Since news of the gruesome tragedy first trickled out, the wrenching saga of the Donner Party has captured the imaginations of journalists, historians and novelists. Comprised of 87 men, women and children, this most famous ill-fated wagon train took its name from George Donner, the elected leader.
Now a local writer -- Daniel James Brown from Redmond -- has provided the latest historical narrative, a vivid portrait of the hopes, extreme persistent hardship and, ultimately, the excruciating hunger, the mind-bending starvation that overtook this pioneer company. Throughout, Brown touches upon the travails of one particular member of the Donner Party -- Sarah Graves Fosdick.
Recently married, Sarah and her husband Jay Fosdick made a fateful decision to follow her father, mother and siblings from Illinois to the promised land of California. Like most of the women in the Donner Party -- and unlike most of the men - Sarah would survive the ordeal. In one attempt to break out of their niveous2 entrapment, Sarah would be at her father Franklin Graves' side as he died. Franklin Graves would beg Sarah and her sister Mary Anne to consume what remained of his body in order to survive. Nor would Sarah's husband make it to California. She would witness his extricated heart cooked over a desperate fire and eaten by her voracious, macilent3 companions. Sarah did not partake of that grisly feast. But neither did she object to the consumption of her spouse's remains.
The man who whetted the land-lust that captivated many like those who comprised the Donner Party was Lansford Warren Hastings. A lawyer, an unscrupulous and ambitious adventurer, a shameless and reckless huckster, he planned to become a political force in California. In 1845, Hastings authored a book, "The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California," in which he portrayed the West as a tempting destination for restive American citizens looking to lay claim to an abundantly rich and fertile land. "A pair of inconvenient facts -- that Oregon was at the time jointly and uneasily claimed by both Great Britain and the United States, and that California was sovereign Mexican territory -- held little sway for Hastings and the other Americans nosing about in the West."
Also in his book -- which included virulently racist depictions of Mexicans and Native Americans -- Hastings had proposed a shortened route to California that might entice more emigrants to venture toward the Pacific. However Hastings "had never taken his own shortcut, which ran directly through the Wasatch Mountains. In fact, except for a few trappers and a mounted expedition under the command of John C. Fremont and Lieutenant Theodore Talbot the previous fall, no one had ever attempted the route, certainly no one riding farm wagons laden with 2,500 pounds of goods drawn by teams of plodding oxen. Anyone who had done so would not likely have suggested it to anyone else."
For the Donner expedition, Hasting's foolhardy instructions were an unmitigated disaster. The party's exhausting journey brought them into the treacherous, nearly impassable mountain terrain. They were an extraordinarily tough pioneering people used to the rigors imposed by their ethos of hard work. The Donner Party actually came close to their destination, but before they breached the imposing mountains the relentless, inundating snows arrived and completely curtailed their progress. What followed is a staggering bit of history. Brown's telling of the travail of Sarah Graves Fosdick and her fellow emigrants is a compelling one. n