Donner Miscellany 41 Diaries and Documents
Caroll D. Hall, Editor, Book Club of California, 1947 97 pages
Most readers here know the outlines of the Donner Party and its tragedy. There are a lot of books and articles on the subject all with their own emphases. We’ve reviewed many.
Even though all those books and articles include quotes from original sources they tell the story from a distance, through the authors’ points of view, research, and historical frames of reference. The title, Donner Miscellany 41 Diaries and Documents, holds the promise of telling the story through the participants’ voices, which would maybe make the story more alive, more personal, more relatable, and more dramatic. Indeed, it’s interesting to discover in the editor’s remarks that documents were found tucked away inside the Miller-Reed diary that were not authored by Hiram Miller and James Reed. That’s interesting and interesting that the editor just stumbled across them “in a pocket in the back of this diary.” How did they get there and why were they stored there? Why didn’t anyone notice until 1947?
The documents range from the most mundane to the most dramatic: lists of items purchased by Donner Party members from other group members; notes about money owed; contracts of employment for the Donner Party, and later for rescuers; notes about recovering and selling Donner Family goods; and just daily travel diary entries. Some of those are also very mundane, “next day travelled about16 miles in the rain, bad roads and rainy night.” Some of the items fill in details we might have wondered about concerning the aftermath. There is, for example, a letter from Edwin Bryant, who had come to California just ahead of the Donner Party, and who wrote What I Saw in California, appointing James Reed guardian to two Donner Family children. Curious people might wonder how the various orphans were taken care of afterwards. This one is interesting because Reed had almost been lynched by the Party and was banished from the group. Still, in the end, he rescued some of the Donner Family children. Then there are the diary entries that are full of drama – see the sidebars here.
One set of documents which is interesting because I’ve not come across these before, are dated shortly after the group became snowbound. They authorize Milt Elliott to go buy in yokes of oxen and horses and California and bring them back either immediately or in the spring to help the party on the final leg to California. At least some of the Donner Party clearly did not immediately understand the gravity of their plight. They might just have to stay awhile and then go on. That shows the lack of knowledge many emigrants had of the Sierra winters but also explains why they did not immediately head up the pass when they arrived as Charles Stanton urged them to.
Of interest too are documents showing James Reed in California, while his family was trapped at Donner lake. On arrival in California he started petitioning for land in his and his family’s names in a number of places.
Unfortunately the book was written in 1947. Since then other documents have been found and a much clearer picture, in the emigrants’ own words, could have been put together in a longer book. 97 pages does not provide much room. Likewise a bit more commentary from the editor would have provided some needed context to some of the documents. For example the last letter in the book is addressed to James Reed from Justice of the Peace John Sinclair in the summer of 1847. It talks about some controversy having to do with James Reeds’ possessions, left with the Donner Party at Donner Lake. What that’s about, we have no idea, but the letter is intriguing because Sinclair says Reed’s wife is ready to visit “I do not know but presume there is some plot between her and a certain lady who as Shakespeare has it ‘rounds apace’ and grows exceedingly lusty...” “Lusty” probably has had other meanings in other times and a little commentary about the letter and its significance that put it in the book would be good.
“19th at sundown reached the Cabins and found the people in great distress such as I never before witnessed [sic] there having been twelve deaths and more expected every hour the sight of us appeared to put life into their emaciated frames.”
Donner Relief Party Diary, February 19th, 1847
“We had travelled about two miles when one man gave out I waited for him some time but in vain he could go no further I made him a fire and chopped some wood for him when unwillingly left him telling he should soon have assistance but I am afraid he could not live to see it travelled 7 miles” [sic[
Donner Relief Party Diary, February 23, 1847