Saving the Donner Party and Forlorn Hope

Richard F. Kaufman 2014, 211 pgs (incl index

What new could there be to say about the Donner Party?  Newspapers at the time covered the emigrants caught in the mountains.  There were articles afterwards about the lawsuits.  The episode became fodder for the sensational reports of the time with rescuers arriving to find Mr. Keseburg, blood dripping from his beard, holding a leg that he refused to give up.  C.F. McGlashan wrote the first book, History of the Donner Party in 1879 after interviewing survivors (see the Heirloom for April, ’15).  There followed a string of books over the century following, each with slightly different emphases.  The end seemed sure to have come when Ethan Rarick wrote Desperate Passage in 2008 (see our May, ’14 Heirloom).  He took advantage of new archeological and scientific evidenc.  Who could have more to say?  The diaries and survivor interviews had been pored over and over.  Nevertheless, Richard Kaufman wrote Saving the Donner Party and it has a new emphasis.

When the DSHS committee in charge of selecting books to be reviewed saw the title of this book it was intrigued.  Most of the Donner Party is about the journey; cannibalism; surviving (or not) at Donner Lake; Patty Reed, her doll and experiences; Tamsen Donner as a heroine; the choices people had to make (for example how does a parent decide to leave the children and go for help? Will the kids die as orphans if the parents don’t make it? Will the children survive without the parents?); the weaknesses of the party (lack of unity, bad choices, infighting); the left hand (wrong) turn; etc. but there’s not a lot about the rescuers.   The rescuers traversed Donner Summit multiple times. Starved Camp, made up of rescuees, was on Donner Summit.  The Forlorn Hope went over the pass and it was five members’ survival that got the rescue ball rolling in California.  The title of the book sounded good.

Just as the book was chosen from the shelf of books you can look forward to seeing reviewed in the Heirloom, the snow had started to fall on Donner Summit.  What could be better: a good book, a warm spot to read, and outside the snow falling.  One could imagine the Donner Party’s tribulations but remain warm and snug.

There were three kinds of volunteers who volunteered to rescue the Donner Party.  There were those out for glory and fame.  Others wanted to make money from the government, get salvage (getting to keep part of the property recovered), and earn rewards.  The third group were the humanitarians, those who went to save their fellows (see “Heroism on Donner Summit” in the May, ’14 Heirloom).

Kaufman begins the story at Donner Lake with some members of the party making it to the top of Donner Pass with their wagons only to be disappointed by the depth of the snows and having to return.  They wouldn’t be able to get over the Sierra and so, set in for the winter at Donner Lake.   Before committing this new fact to memory, read on.  The party was in “appalling disarray” according to Kaufman and he lists many problems.

Kaufman paints a group that is not feckless though.  Although they did not work together well on the trail and made many mistakes of judgment, when they found themselves stuck at the lake they did not just accept the fate.  Getting a few wagons up Donner Pass in the snow must have been extraordinarily difficult but wasn’t the end of trying to help themselves.   There were a number of escape attempts with the Forlorn Hope group being the one that did get some members over the Summit and into California.

It was the reporting of the Forlorn Hope as well as James Reed’s (he’d been banished from the wagon train for knifing a man and had to leave his family) solicitations for help that got the public to pay attention and make donations and which were the impetus for five rescue parties (not including the U.S. Army visit to Donner Lakes in the summer of  1847).  Kaufman goes into a lot of detail about each one of the rescue attempts and talks about Charles Stanton’s and James Reed’s relief efforts. Stanton had left the Donner Party with another member and headed to California for supplies while the wagon train was still far out in Nevada.  Stanton was able to return with supplies and was part of the Forlorn Hope.

Read the book for the extra detail not mentioned in other sources.  I did not know the Donner Party had gotten a few wagons up Donner Pass before settling in at the lake (“Two wagons made it to the top” pg xi).  The date, October 31, was interesting too.  Most years there is no permanent snow by then.  It’s not uncommon though and that “earlyish” snow trapped the Donner Party. Detail about the relief efforts includes the members of each attempt, how many horses and mules each party had, the amount of food, where food was cached and who supplied it, the background and events leading up to each attempt, etc.  It’s interesting to come across 83 year old Caleb Greenwood again (he’d guided the Stevens Murphy Party in 1844, the first wagon train to get to California with wagons).   Kaufman talks about what was happening in California at the same time.  For example James Reed was made a lieutenant in the Volunteers and went with some men to break a blockade of San Francisco.  The blockade was over but trouble was brewing Santa Clara so he had to return there instead of heading up sooner into the Sierra for his family.

Kaufman details the settlement at Donner Lake, who was living with whom and in what.  It was interesting to note that there was some good distance between the dwellings.  One would think the people would hunker together for support.

The Forlorn Hope experiences are recounted in detail and show the trapped emigrants’ dire straits but also their resolution to survive.  How anyone could survive the hardships is amazing.  The members of the Forlorn Hope had to work together to prepare and some of those traveling were leaving children behind with others whom they must have trusted.  The experiences of the Forlorn Hope are recounted almost day by day and give the reader an inkling of what it must have been like for those people sacrificing themselves to get help for the others at the lake.  Of the 15 who went over the pass only five made it to California.  They spent five days without food and two and a half days without fire at one point.  Eventually they roasted the organs of some of the bodies at the “Camp of Death.” Try to imagine the group’s conditions.  They had had no food for days.  They were exhausted from trudging through the snow.  When a multi-day storm hit, they  got into a circle, each facing in,  on the snow with a blanket over their heads for cover.  They stayed that way for 36 hours while the snow piled up around them. There are more details making the attempt to get help heroic.  The Indian, Lewis’, big toe dropped off from frostbite.  Everyone’s feet were wrapped in rags and soaked with blood as they walked.  When they left the snow and no longer needed their snowshoes, they ate the rawhide strings.  Mary Graves lost all of her toes.  “None of the survivors could walk, …. Three weeks after their rescue” Kaufman says.

The conditions at the Donner encampment are recounted too. The actual Donners had tents, not buildings as those who were at Donner Lake had. During one storm the occupants of one tent huddled together with only blankets and no fire. They were found frozen.  Imagine surviving a Sierra winter in a tent.

It was interesting too, to read about the later lives of the various rescue party members and about the lawsuits that followed the Donner Party members’ rescues.
So there is a lot of information in the book. 

There is also a lot of what is not good too.

There is an amazing number of typos (a particular problem with apostrophes either missing or put where they should not be), grammar errors, and awkward wordings (“…this would have been a salvation to the horror that they were about to find.” Pg 114 or “Sutter decided to defend Keseberg in the Americna Court, out of despite than anything else” pg 166).

There are errors in fact which then undercut other things Kaufman says.  For example he repeats over and over that Charles Stanton’s grave is at Cascade Lake [sic] where there is a ski lodge.  There is no ski lodge at Cascade Lakes.  There is no ski lodge for miles.  He says over and over that Cascade Lakes and part of the rescuers’ routes were in the Royal Gorge.  The Royal Gorge is miles away.  He  misnames Coldstream Canyon a couple of times at the beginning but by page 169 he has it right. (In fairness some early maps call Coldstream Cold Creek, but that should be noted so the modern reader can orient himself.)

Errors in fact undercut other assertions. For example, I was intrigued that some wagons had made it up Donner Pass before returning to the lake, “Two wagons made it to the top.”  That is elaborated upon fifty pages later, “On the following morning of October 31st two of the Breen wagons headed up Summit grade, and made it to the pass that evening after several rope-pulls over rocks and slippery ice. Snow covered the original trail going up… At the location of today’s Donner Cut, wagons had to be disassembled to get over the face of a large rock, which took most of the day… By the end of the second day, two wagons were close to the top but stalled on the overhanging cliffs….Soon four wagons were marooned high on the summit road…”  (page 52)

I had not read that before.  On reflection though it appears Kaufman never even looked at geography.  There is no “summit grade.”  There are no “overhanging cliffs” to be “stalled on”. There is no “Donner Cut.”  Kaufman is making some educated guesses based on the Stephens Party’s experiences.

Our sometimes fact checker, Art Clark (see our Then and Now’s in each Heirloom) reports, “In Ordeal by Hunger it says the Breens got a little ways past the lake, but stopped, and unloaded some stuff and strapped it to the oxen. They made it a little further, but then went back.” Looking at other sources looked like a good strategy so at that point we went to our DSHS library of authoritative sources and pulled out McGlashan’s History of the Donner Party.  McGlashan wrote the first book about the events and interviewed the survivors who were still alive 30 years afterwards.  McGlashan says, “Some wagons and families did not reach the lake until the thirty-first day of October… while others, on the evening of the twenty-ninth, struggled through the snow, and reached the foot of the precipitous cliffs between the summit and the upper end of the lake. Here, baffled, wearied, disheartened, they turned back to the foot of the lake.” 

Then, because we value our readers and want to do a good job by them in terms of historical accuracy, Linda Cashion weighed in with a quote From Patrick Breen’s Diary. Patrick Breen was a member of the Donner Party and he was the one Kaufman says got to the top of the pass. 

“Truckey's Lake. November 20, 1846 Came to this place on the thirty-first of last month; went into the pass; the snow so deep we were unable to find the road, and when within three miles from the summit, turned back to this shanty on Truckey's Lake; Stanton came up one day after we arrived here; we again took our teams and wagons, and made another unsuccessful attempt to cross in company with Stanton; we returned to this shanty; it continued to snow all the time. We now have killed most part of our cattle, having to remain here until next spring, and live on lean beef, without bread or salt. It snowed during the space of eight days, with little intermission, after our arrival, though now clear and pleasant, freezing at night; the snow nearly gone from the valleys.”

Although Kaufman footnotes some things he did not footnote the four wagons reaching the top and so fact checking is not possible.  

That brings up another problem. Kaufman keeps repeating himself. For example on page 126 he tells of the second relief getting to the Yuba Bottoms and finding the cache of food. A paragraph later he repeats the story again.  On page 166 Kaufman has Keseberg admitting to “human consumption, as did the others…” and then on page 167 says, “Keseberg admitted his consumption of the dead, but so did other survivors…”

Then there are silly statements. Only these mountain men could have survived, says Kaufman, but then he says Reed and McCutcheon survived at the same time and they were rescuing others including Reed’s children.  Patty Reed had hallucinations and those “religious nuances…have far reaching consequences (pg 126)” says Kaufman.  There is no follow up.  Since there are some errors or fact, it’s interesting to speculate about hallucinations Patty Reed may have had. Linda Cashion again weighs in, “It was Virginia Reed who may have had hallucinations and later converted to Catholism upon reaching California. She was greatly influenced by the Breens who were Catholic and looked after Patty and Virginia after their mother left them as part of first rescue party.”

There are a number of maps in the text to show the approximate locations of places and events. Their small size and low resolution makes them unreadable.

There are some lapses in logic.  John Stark was the hero of the Starved Camp.  He would not leave anyone behind and he had refused remuneration for his services during the third relief party.  When Stark joined the fourth relief party, which failed, he joined because Patrick Breen “likely persuaded” him and Stark was “undoubtedly rewarded handsomely (page 155).”  No evidence for the supposition is given and it is not footnoted. It’s important because Stark was a genuine hero and his heroism is tainted by his “handsome reward.”  On page 181 “indestructible mountain man” John Turner was accidentally shot (by himself) and died.   That’s not “indestructible”. William Eddy on page 180  divorced “most likely from the effects of his encounters” as part of the Donner Party.  There is no evidence cited that Eddy’s experiences with the Donner Party contributed to his divorce. He married again and did not divorce.

There is also a lack of logic in one of Kaufman’s main emphases.  New research he says can be applied to the events of the Donner Party are tree ring analyses.  Kaufman says that what trapped the Donners was not the “storm of the century” as other writers have written.  Kaufman reports that using tree ring analysis the “information… is quite different than what earlier writers thought it to be.”  He says that tree ring analysis shows that “weather phenomenon for the Sierras [sic] in 1846 and 1847 were slightly ‘dry years’ with a normal pattern of observable tree ring growth.”  No doubt that’s true but that does not mean there were no big storms.  The overall weather pattern does not define day-to-day weather.  Kaufman says himself the party got to the lake on October 31.  A big storm preventing travel with the snow not melting off is unusual.  He describes there being three to five feet of snow on the top of the pass.  On October 31 that would be unusual.  So the Donner Party was affected by storms regardless of the winter’s pattern.

Then there are some errors in the footnotes. For example in footnote 61 Kaufman argues with George Stewart (Ordeal by Hunger) about the route.  Kaufman holds out for the route that climbed “to the Cascade Lake…[sic]”  Here perhaps Kaufman’s reliance on satellite imagery comes into question.  Many times he resorts to satellite imagery to describe where he thinks the emigrants or the rescue parties actually were.  That is no substitute for on the ground reconnaissance.  Cascade Lakes (actually two lakes, not one) are downhill quite a bit from Donner Pass, miles downhill.

It was with interest that we picked up Saving the Donner Party, but it was with disappointment that we put it down.  There’s a lot of good detail but some may be wrong and the reader does not know which, given that some things definitely are wrong.  The grammar errors and typos undercut the telling as well.  Some of the repetitions are irritating and show a lack of author’s craft.  That points out to the usefulness of an editor.

The various details about the rescue parties are interesting and will add to one’s knowledge of the Donner Party if one is familiar already.  If one is not familiar I suggest Desperate Passage by Ethan Rarick (Heirloom May, ’14) or Ordeal By Hunger by George R. Stewart (Heirloom October, ’15).