Desperate Passage
The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West
Ethan Rarick 249 pages copyright 2008

The Chamber of Commerce hosts the Donner Party Hikes each Autumn on Donner Summit.  After the hikes and lunch there is always a speaker.  The 2013 speaker was Ethan Rarick, author of Desperate Passage The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party.  

Over almost 170 years, ever since the first gruesome accounts appeared in newspapers,  the travails of the Donner Party has been covered in magazines, books, movies or videos, and talks.  What could Mr. Rarick offer that would be new?

Ethan Rarick has written a good book, worthy of reading even if you have read other Donner Party books or seen Donner Party videos. He set out not to re-relate what happened but to delve into the human equation and the fateful decisions they made.  He relies on new archeological evidence as well as research on starvation, snowfall, and primary sources.  Rarick’s story telling skills add to the new treatment, making this a good read.

Rarick starts with a brief discussion  to put the Donner Party in context: the 19th Century and a brief history of pre-1846 westward movement.  The Donner Party was part of an optimistic group moving west for better lives as Charles Stanton, a member of the larger party and a later rescuer of the Donner Party said, “I have seen the Rocky Mountains – have crossed the Rubicon, and am now on the waters that flow to the Pacific!  It seems as if I had left the old world behind, and that a new one is dawning upon me.”  (pg 44)

The Donner Party left Independence, MO in May of 1846.  They were part of a much larger group of emigrants all heading either to California or Oregon.  Rarick describes the wagons and wagon travel.  The Donner part of the group was toward the end of the migration choosing intentionally to go slow to protect their livestock.  It was just one of their fateful choices.  The fateful choice they are most known for came next when they took the untried Hastings Cutoff while other wagons went right, following the established route.  The Donner Party went left, into the unknown, despite warnings, advice, and doubts.  They went without a guide and of course rued the choice.  “We take a new rout to California, never travelled before this season; consequently our tour is over a new and interesting region.” (pg 61)  Rarick’s descriptions of the route and the work needed to traverse it make one realize they were a lot tougher in the old days and makes one wonder why they just did not turn back.

The Donner Party experienced bad luck along with the consequences of bad decisions.  There was a gunshot accident; a member was abandoned, an argument resulted in a stabbing, death and banishment; and a member of the party disappeared.  Then, after having traveled 2,000 miles and being only 100 miles from their destination, winter came just a bit early.  Snow fell and prevented the party from crossing the pass that would soon be named for them.  Unfamiliar with Sierra snow they expected the first snows to melt and in any case never get too deep.  They settled in at Truckee Lake (soon to become Donner Lake) and at Alder Creek, some miles away from the lake.   They never considered going back to the Truckee Meadows (Reno today) where conditions would not have been so harsh.

It is at this point that Rarick’s skill as a story-teller enriches his telling of the “Desperate Passage” of the Donner Party.  Rarick spends time on the human condition.  There is a discussion of cannibalism in the 19th Century context from stories about shipwrecks.  Rarick says cannibalism was the “’custom of the sea’ – a horror defensible under the circumstance, much as men’s behavior might be different in wartime than in peace,  Surviving cannibals could go on to distinguished careers.”  (pg 132) That’s foreshadowing for people who don’t know the story.  Then he describes the living conditions in the cabins and tents at the lake and Alder Creek. Just living in those conditions was a horror and maybe set the stage for what was to come.

Relating the various escape attempts and then the rescue expeditions, Rarick does not tell the tales linearly.  He breaks them up  and the reader wants to keep reading to see what will happen next, even if the reader knows the story.  For example, Rarick describes the Starving Camp of the 3rd relief party, somewhere on Donner Summit, after a severe blizzard.  13 of the party were too weak to go on. They were mostly children.  The rescuers set off to continue taking only three children.  Would the 4th relief party, supposed to be en route, get there in time?  Will the 13 die exposed to the elements in the snow without food?  Rarick does not answer immediately.  He switches subjects to talk about the  4th relief party, then comes back to Starving Camp, and then to the 3rd relief party that had just left Starving Camp and James Reed who had contracted snow blindness again.  If you don’t know the fate of the people at Starving Camp this review is not going to spoil it in this paragraph.

Rarick enlivens the story with the pathos too.    At Starving Camp Peggy Breen’s son become unresponsive and may be dead.  She rubs him and shakes him.  We can feel the mother’s desperation.  She pushes some sugar into his mouth and….  James Reed ends up carrying his daughter through the snow and feels her dying.  He scrapes the very last crumbs from the inside of a food bag and puts them in his mouth to warm them before putting them in Patty’s mouth.  That is drama.

Then there are the decisions the people had to make. The Forlorn Hope was a group of the Donner Party that left the lake, most on snowshoes.  They knew how bad the conditions were at the lake and how little food was left.  They knew they might never see their loved ones again.  They hoped they would make California and get help.  Who was to be allowed to go?  Who would stay? Families were split.  Seven of seventeen would reach Johnson’s Ranch.  The seven include seven women, the oldest was 23 years old.

When the rescue parties arrived, who would get to go and who would stay?    They were agonizing choices for parents. Which children would be saved?  Which would wait.  Should the parents go with the rescuers and leave children behind?  With whom would they leave the children?  The relief parties took mostly children to California since it was mostly children who were still alive.  Imagine Margret Reed, somewhere on Donner Summit, when it was apparent that two of her children could not continue to California with the rescue party.  What to do?  Should she go back to the lake with those two or continue  on with the other two?  If she went back might she make the two who went on orphans?  Worse, her husband had been banished from the wagon train and was in California – maybe.

John Denton could not go on with the relief party. He also could not go back three days to the lake. He asked to be abandoned by the rescue party. Should the party, whose members could scarcely carry themselves, refuse Denton’s request?

Tamzene Donner, at Alder Creek, faced a like choice.  Should she go with the rescue party and her three children or stay with her husband?  Would another rescue party be coming?  Should she chance it?  Was she sending her children on to die of exposure and cold if a blizzard came upon the rescue party?

Then, too, Rarick uses evocative language, “human skeletons…in every variety of mutilation.  A more revolting and appalling spectacle I never witnessed.”  (pg 229)

The book becomes an exciting story and the reader rushes through to see what happens at the end.  It is so much better than dry recitations or history.  Buy the book.


Heroism on Donner Summit.
The story of the Donner Party is one of pathos coming from a combination of bad luck and bad decisions made in ignorance.  It is also the story of heroics as people made fateful decisions and put themselves at risk.  The Forlorn Hope left the lake taking a huge risk.  They would go to California and send help back.  To get to California they would have to slog through the snow and risk new storms.  They would have to go without food and bare hardships we can only imagine.   What is it like to sleep in the snow in soggy and sodden clothing?  What is it like to hike through the snow, sinking in it with each step and to do it to exhaustion with no food at the end of the exertion?  What is it like to starve slowly and be forced to each leather shoelaces?

Then there are the heroes of the rescue parties.  The rescuers could have stayed in California, comfortably, but instead they chose to head into the Sierra carrying heavy packs to try to bring relief to the starving Donner Party.  One of those rescuers particularly stands out, John Stark.

He was part of the 4th rescue party which met the 3rd rescue party, led by James Reed, who had been banished by the train after the knifing.  The 3rd rescue party had just left Starving Camp and was without food itself.  Some members of the 4th party decided to continue on and see whom they could rescue.  When they arrived at Starving Camp, two of the rescuers decided to take one child each of the eleven people left alive.  That might have been all they could manage. 

John Stark could not stand that.  That meant that nine people, mostly children, would die on the mountain, exposed to the elements down in a very deep hole in the snow (the fires had melted the snow down perhaps 20 feet or more).  John Stark decided he would save all nine, “Already shouldering a backpack with provisions, blankets, and an axe, he picked up one or two of the smaller children, carried them a little ways, then went back for the others.  Then he repeated the whole process.  Again and again.  To galvanize morale, he laughed and told the youngsters they were so light from months of mouse-sized rations that he could carry the all simultaneously, if only his back were broad enough.”  Once they were out of the snow he would eat and rest he said, but not before.  He saved all nine.   That is extraordinary and that is heroism.  It was also heroism he never got contemporary credit for.