Ordeal By Hunger
George R. Stewart

1936  305 pages

This is a good book – even if you know the story.

“The misadventures of the Donner Party constitutes one of the most amazing stories” of “what human beings may “achieve, endure, and perpetrate, in the final press of circumstances.”

No kidding, especially as George Stewart relates the story.

In 1936 George R. Stewart wrote Ordeal By Hunger which he started by having the reader imagine he was hundreds of miles above the center of Nevada.  To the left is the Pacific Ocean and to the right the Rockies.  He then zeroed in on the emigrant route describing the geography which will almost be a character in the book:  “The Great Salt Lake…a brilliant spot of blue… a wide alkali desert… the arid country of the Big Basin… A monotonous succession of mountain ranges… treeless… empty sagebrush valleys… a thirsting land… dust storms… rivers are few… forty miles of desert….” And then  “At the western edge of this arid country rises suddenly the sheer wall of the Sierra Nevada.” 

“The only mark of civilization is a tenuous trace… a faint pair of parallel lines – the track of wagon wheels on the California Trail.”

What an introduction.  It’s almost poetic in its description.  The emigrants on the wagon train will have to navigate, survive and conquer the geography.  Given the description, it’s almost a foreshadowing of things to come.  Foreshadowing is a literary term and although the book is non-fiction, it’s literary and in the style of a fiction book.  Stewart tells a good story.  That makes for easy reading and even though we know the outcome, Stewart builds suspense just like a novel.

“It is a long road and those who follow it must meet certain risks; exhaustion and disease, alkali water, and Indian arrows will take a toll. But the greatest problem is a simple one and the chief opponent is Time.  If August sees them on the Humboldt and September at the Sierra – good!  Even if they are a month delayed, all may yet go well. But let it come late October, or November, and the snow-storms block the heights, when wagons are light of provisions and oxen lean, then will come a story.”

Indeed, here comes a story.

The story starts with characters turning left for California while the “greater number of the [1846] emigrants turned their wagons off to the right.”  This was the fateful decision.”

The cause of the turn was a letter a fellow named Lansford Hastings had circulated among emigrants touting a new and shorter route he’d explored.  He would wait for emigrants at Fort Bridger to guide them through. 

What could go wrong? 

The Donner Party decided to follow the new route.   Hastings did guide emigrants and his train did get through to California but the Donner Party was a bit behind and so was not part of Hastings’ group.  Hastings had not waited long enough for the Donners.

Stewart gives information about wagon trains, wagons, and how they all operated but the main focus is on the human element.  The emigrants were farmers and business men “the strong timber of which commonwealths are built” but the qualities needed at home were not the qualities needed for a journey across the continent.  The emigrants were  used to comforts, not hardships.  “Many had never seen a mountain.”  They also lacked the requisite skills: trail reading, finding water, or dealing with desert and snowstorms.

At Ft. Bridger the Party’s route choice was validated.  They heard the new route was much shorter, among other things, and their spirits were buoyed.   Edwin Bryant, though,   (author of What I Saw in California, 1846 –see the Heirloom for July, ’12) had left a letter for James Reed, a member of the Donner party.  He said don’t take the Hastings Cutoff.  Reed never got the letter.  Hastings was not waiting either, but the Donner Party pressed on. They  thought they had good advice. Now we know something bad is going to happen.

“For five days they struggled as if still in the nightmare, to open about six miles of road, cutting timber and hacking through brush, digging down sidehills, rolling out boulders, and leveling for creek-crossing… now they were lacking confidence.  The way which they cleared was merely a passage strewn with boulders and ugly with stumps; the wagons took the chance in coming through.  By a crooked and steep road they got to the top…. The emigrants were completely wearied….” They went up the “steep north wall… It was a gamblers’ chance…. By pick and shovel they had beaten the Wahsatch; literally by the edge of the ax they had cut their way through…” but morale was low, food was reduced, winter was coming.  They had taken 23 days to go 36 miles.  They were late.  On that same day that they’d conquered the Wahsatch, Edwin Bryant had topped what would be later called Donner Pass.  He was hundreds of miles ahead.

After the “Wahsatch,” there was the desert.  It took six days to cross the desert.  The emigrants were more tired.  More oxen had been lost.  Wagons has been left. Spirits were even lower.  There was more cussing at Hastings.  Two men went on ahead to Sutter’s Fort to get supplies.

Problems multiplied.  A man was killed with a knife. James Reed was banished. An emigrant was left for dead.  Horses were lost. Cattle were shot by Indians.  Dissension among the emigrants grew. More wagons were abandoned and goods cached.

Stewart does a wonderful job conveying the unbelievable hardships and surmising daily life in the wagon train.  Truly, how much can  “human beings…. endure… in the final press of circumstances”?  But there was worse to come.

They came up the Truckee River towards the Sierra, “Unfortunately the going was hard, double so for the worn-down oxen, many of them still suffering with arrow-wounds.  The road ducked and dogged…. They had to ford the river more than once to the mile.”

The left hand turn was not the only wrong turn the Party made.  As they got close to the Sierra the  party missed the turn to go into Coldstream Canyon to Roller or Coldstream Passes that had been used by emigrants in 1846. Instead, half the group ended up at Donner Lake under the granite walls of what would be called Donner Pass.  The snow was five feet deep.  The Donner family was miles away from the rest of the group.

Part II, the encampment, starts with another view from high above.  To the left it’s all green and there is a valley. To the north and the east it is all white, covered with snow.  Stewart describes the geology of the lakes, streams, mountains, canyons, and forests.

Then the story focuses on the emigrants’ camps, what life must have been like in the camp, .  “All were unkempt and unbathed.  Every one spent much of the time in bed, wrapped in blankets and quilts which had not been sunned in months.  Even the cold weather failed to keep down the vermin.  The sick looked haggardly at those who could still move around. The starved babies were too weak to cry.  The smells mingled -  boiling hides, babies, sickness, unwashed bodies, filth.”

Then there were the escape attempts; the activities of those who went ahead; and the rescue parties. Here Stewart splits the narrative going from James Reed’s diary and his work to get rescuers and Patrick Breen’s diary of life at Donner Lake.

Stewart tells the stories of heroes but does not focus on the heroism as remarkable.  That’s left for the reader.  Stanton and McCutchen were sent ahead for supplies.  Stanton had no family in the train.  He could have just escaped.  Instead he came back and then died. McCutchen was enticed by the Hastings train, which the two came across far ahead of the Donner train.  Friends there offered him food to just go back and get his wife and daughter and join them. He’d given his word.  He could not.  James Reed made an attempt to return with McCutchen and failed enduring hardship.  The relief parties slogged through the snow and across swollen rivers to bring supplies and rescue the emigrants. John Stark rescued a whole group all by himself [See Heroism on Donner Summit in the May, ’14 Heirloom].  Luis and Salvador came with Stanton to bring supplies from Sutter’s Fort.  They died and were eaten.  Few of the rescuers were mountain men.  They gave up safety and comfort to be miserable, cold, wet, and endure unending trail breaking in deep snow and danger.  Some died.

Stewart also covers the mendacity of some: the rescue party leader who would not push forward, the men who agreed to take the Donner children to safety for $500 but just left them at Donner Lake and the “rescuers” who stole from the emigrants. 

The cannibalism though, although sometimes almost graphic, is not something Stewart blames the emigrants for.  Who, in the most dire circumstances, would not eat human flesh to stay alive? 

Finally, rescue parties arrive,

“’Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?’

“Other human figures, ghastly and horrible sights, began to appear. It was as if the rescuer’s halloo had been Gabriel’s horn raising the dead form their graves.  Their flesh was wasted from their bodies.  They wept and laughed hysterically. They cried out as well as they could in hoarse and death-like voices, confusedly:  ‘Relief, thank God, relief!’”

“Morning brought the rescuers a chance to see more fully the terrible conditions at he cabins. The snow was high above the roofs. Inclined planes led up from the cabins to the top of the snow, and up these slopes the dead bodes had been dragged with ropes which the starving people had not been able to lift them.  Some bodies now lay upon the snow wrapped in quilts. Some of the hides which were being used for food were putrefied from having serves as roofs of cabins…The emigrants were overwrought emotionally, and many seemed mentally unbalanced. …”

With the end of the story there are  a number of sections at the end of the book: notes, causes of the tragedy (not the emigrants), Patrick Breen’s diary, James Reed’s diary, Virginia Reed’s letter to a cousin summarizing the events, and a list of Donner Party members.

The power in Stewart’s book is the writing in the fictional mode.   He tells stories and his prose is evocative. There are stories of the “former Schoolma’am…. Kneeling…to pick up the scattered tatters [of a letter left behind by previous emigrants maybe containing advice] and piece them together;” the Reeds leaving their wagons in the desert; the stories of the various escape and rescue attempts; and others. 

Descriptions are especially strong such as that of the desert, “That day was sheer horror. Across the heat-stricken sand of the sink naked mountains rock, luridly sinister in brown, red, yellow and poisonous green, leered out at the straggling train like devil-haunted hills in a dream. The road was the mere scratching of wheel-tracks

In describing “Starved Camp” on Donner Summit,  Stewart builds suspense. James Reed had returned and after helping people (the descriptions of that are almost horrific too) at the lake led a group out across the lake and up the pass.  As they got to the top and storm broke over the exposed emigrants. “From the children shivering beneath their poor blankets rose a steady wailing” from others there was “praying, weeping, and lamentation.”  The relief party rescuers has to work constantly.  The fire had to be kept up. Snow melted from under the fire and the logs sank lower.  The wind blew harder. Driving snow cut the skin.  One could not see more than twenty feet into the wind. James Reed was blinded. Each person got a spoonful of flour.  The children cried.  “The wind was so cold, and they were so exhausted by now, that when they went away from the fire to cut wood, they could not stay more than ten minutes without returning to war warm themselves.”  “Death was very close.”