There have been many books, stories, and videos about the Donner Party (Desperate Passage was reviewed in our May, ’14 Heirloom). The reporting started as soon as people in California found out about the trapped emigrants in the Winter of 1846-47 and has gone on into current times. The story is very well-known, so at first thought it did not make much sense to read again about the tragedy in this book. On further thought though, the editorial department thought it might be interesting to read one of the first books and see how the travails of the Donner Party were reported in the 19th Century. The 19th Century was a time of "Yellow Journalism" and excess. The newspapers were trying to win customers and truth was not always the priority. That could not happen today of course. Our modern sensibilities would not allow it. McGlashan approached his subject as an historian. What would it show?
C.F. McGlashan was a local luminary in Truckee. He was a newspaper publisher, businessman, historian, lawyer, and public servant. His book, The History of the Donner Party, was one of the first to detail the infamous episode. McGlashan spent a lot of time researching a thorough fact-based story using newspaper articles, diaries, interviews, and survivors’ manuscripts. It appeared in print 33 years after the events.
The book recounts experiences on the trail: cooking with buffalo chips “these chips burn well”, Indians attempting to steal things or trying to buy Mary Graves, meeting other wagon trains, injuries, etc. It also recounts all of the troubles that led up to and caused the big trouble: disagreements and arguments that kept them from working together, the week spent looking for the Reeds’ lost cattle, Indian thefts, death by exhaustion, death by disappearance (murder?), death by accident (gun discharge), the Reed-Snyder dispute at Gravelly Ford and Reed’s banishment, the general slow going and delays, and the fateful decision to follow Lansford Hastings’ advice to take the Hastings Cut-0ff. That last decision took 28 days to go 21 miles. Just doing the math of that we see how hard progress must have been, and that was nowhere near the worst.
Once the Party got to Donner Lake (although the Donners were actually 7 miles away) they made multiple attempts to cross the Summit with and without wagons. Then they tried without the oxen but the snow was too deep. The Forlorn Hope Party was another try to get to California and send back help. It left in Mid-December with the members wearing snowshoes.
McGlashan describes the impetus for the group in his 19th Century prose:“The emigrants were no longer on short allowance, they were actually starving! Oh! the horror! The dread alarm which prevailed among the company! C.T. Stanton, ever brave, courageous, lion-hearted, said “I will
bring help to these famishing people or lay down my life.”
The Forlorn Hope was misery compounded. They crawled, staggered, and floundered through the snow making little progress once they’d gotten to the Summit. They were out of food. They were starving and could hardly move. They drew lots to see who should die to feed the others. Dolan lost but they did not execute him.
Things got worse. The fire melted through the snowpack and fell into a stream. No more fire. There was no shelter from the storm as they slept. People began to die and eventually there was cannibalism, “…they remained at the ‘Camp of Death.,’ said McGlashan but then he deflected, “Would you know more of the shuddering details? Does the truth require the narration of the sickening minutiae of the terrible transaction of these days? Human beings were never called upon to undergo more trying ordeals.” Then a worse storm arrived. To McGlashan the Forlorn Hope were heroes facing unimaginable terrors. Their decisions were completely understandable. They had to survive, to keep going, to get to California, and get help for those still at the Lake.
One can’t imagine one’s own reaction until confronted with like circumstances but maybe McGlashan goes a bit too far when the Forlorn Hope kills the two Indians who had come from Sutter’s Fort to help the emigrants. The members of the Forlorn Hope were starving. Soon none would survive. There were people at the Lake counting on them including their children. “Contemplate his position!… His comrades, his wife, were in the last stages of starvation…Was it murder? No! Every law book, every precept of that higher law, self-preservation, every dictate or right, reason or humanity, demanded the deed… It was not simply justifiable – it was duty; it was a necessity…. The five women and Eddy heard two reports of a gun.” Pg 104
“Is there a mind so narrow, so uncharitable, that it can censure these poor dying people from the acts of this terrible day?... can the most unfeeling heart condemn them?”
Some of the Forlorn Hope reached the Sacramento Valley. Their arrival engendered the rescue parties.
McGlashan shifts his focus from the Hope to the rescue parties starting out and to the condition of the people at the Lake, interspersing quotes from diaries.
One cannot help but get drawn into the pathos. Back at the lake Bayliss Williams “starved to death…What words can portray the emotions of the starving emigrants, when they saw one of their number actually perish of hunger before he their eyes!” pg 89
The rescue parties were heroic. People put themselves at risk to go into the mountains to save others. Then there was the extraordinary
heroism of John Stark who refused to leave any of the Starved Camp and got them all to California.
Throughout the book, to help readers appreciate the personalities, McGlashan writes short biographies. Then at the end he dissects the whole tale: who lived, who died, who was rescued when, and what happened to all of the survivors afterwards.
Particularly interesting was McGlashan’s giving Louis Keseberg a podium from which to tell his side of the story. Keseburg, in the popular telling, is the villain. Lurid contemporary accounts tell of him sitting on a log with blood running down his beard and a body part in his hands as the rescuers arrive. In less lurid accounts he was accused of murder and theft (which McGlashan reports) and idleness. Even today he is the butt of jokes, for example, Keseberg opened a restaurant afterwards and served finger foods (he did in fact run a hotel and a rooming house as well as other businesses). McGlashan interviewed Keseberg and, although we cannot know the truth, we get a very different telling. One particularly sad moment was when, upon being rescued and having made it to the Summit, he rested in one of the previously used campsites. He saw a piece of calico sticking out of the snow and he pulled on it. It was his daughter’s clothing. He had not known she was dead. Keseberg must have led a life of misery given all of his setbacks following the Donner Party episodes.
After reading his account, one can agree with Keseberg, “I have been born under an evil star!” That was something new for me and it came from the first Donner Party book.
McGlashan also includes a report of General Kearney’s visit to the Donner Lake site in 1847, written by Edwin Bryant who’d come to California just ahead of the Donner Party. With that description, it is clear that if any blame applied to Keseberg, it should have been shared by many more. Edwin Bryant wrote What I Saw in California (1846), reviewed in our April, '13 Heirloom.
Then there is the report of McGlashan’s archeological work at the Donner Lake sites and his description of some of the 500 objects that were found.
The book is interesting. More modern books have had the advantage of much more available material including the science of starvation, but McGlashan’s book is a good introduction and his flowery descriptions are an interesting counterpoint to today’s prose.
Just for fun you may want to read some 19th Century "truth". The rescuers come to Donner Lake to rescue the Donner Party and find only Louis Keseburg alive. It's a very interesting contrast to Mr. McGlashan's fact-based reporting. See 19th Century "Truth."
Interesting contrast for the reader, knowing what was to happen:
“We had this morning buffalo steaks broiled…no fear of Indians, our cattle graze quietly around our encampment unmolested… I could never have believe we could have traveled so far with so little difficulty. The prairie….is beautiful beyond description… everything was new and pleasing... we laid in 150 pounds of flour and 75 pounds of met for each individual, and I fear bread will be scarce.” pg 32 Yes, bread would be scarce. Tamsen Donner in a letter from the So. Platte June 16, 1846
The Hastings Cut-Off
“Alas! There were trials in the way compared with which their recent struggles were insignificant. But for the fatal delay caused by the Hastings Cut-off, all would have been well, but now the summer was passed, their teams and themselves were well-nigh exhausted, and their slender stock of provisions nearly consumed." Pg 40
“to the Donner Party [the ascent of the Sierra] brought terror and dismay The company had hardly obtained a glimpse of the mountains, ere the winter storm clouds began to assembly their hosts around the loftier crests. Every day the weather appeared more ominous…” Every day’s delay had cost a dozen lives. “It was too late!...they found themselves encompassed in six inches of snow” at Prosser Creek. On the Summit the snow was feet deep.
Donner route over summit
All day long the men and animals floundered through the snow, and attempted to break and trample a road. Just before nightfall they reached the abrupt precipice where the present wagon-road intercepts the snow-sheds of the Central Pacific. Here the poor mules and oxen had been utterly unable to find a foothold on the slippery, snow-covered rocks.” pg 61
What the resuers saw pg 124
The inmates lived subterranean lives. Steps cut in the icy snow led up from the doorways to the surface. Deep despair had settled upon all hearts. The dead were lying all around, some even unburied, and nearly all with only a covering of snow. So weak and powerless had the emigrants become, that itt was hardly possible for them to lift the dead bodies up the tep out to the cabins. All were reduced to mere skeletons.”