"Desperate Passage: the Donner Party's Perilous Journey West" by Ethan Rarick

by MediaPhile@evpl on Wednesday, February 4 2009, 5:10pm. Viewed 1,956 times.

desperate passageIf you've been suffering the privations of the ice storm and resulting electrical grid collapse this past week, just remember that whatever your conditions, they were much better than those faced by the Donner Party in the winter of 1846.  At least that's what I kept reminding myself as my family and I suffered through 7 days without power.  After all we had a house, a fireplace, firewood, hot water, candles, batteries, flashlights, a radio, and plenty of warm dry clothes and blankets.  (Oh, I forgot the car, gasoline, restaurants, the list goes on and on).

I had just finished this fascinating history last month.  Before that, the only thing I knew about the Donner Party was that they ended up eating each other.  Now I marvel at the fact that the majority of the group actually made it out of the mountains in one piece (no pun intended).

In fact, it seems like a whole different breed of Americans who were willing to walk alongside their ox carts (saved for carrying children and worldly possessions) for 2000 miles, starting in Independence, Missouri and ending in the warm paradise of California.  The secret was in the timing.   The trip must start when there was enough new grass for the cattle and must end before winter closed the steep passage through the Sierra Nevadas. 

The group that is forever remembered as the Donner Party made a few fatal mistakes.  They started their journey a little late in the spring.  They lagged at the tail end of the large crowd making that year's trek.  And, worst of all, they made the foolhardy decision to try to shave some time off their trip by following a treacherous shortcut through Utah  that had never actually been traversed.  80 men, women and children ended up being trapped by a series of blizzards at the base of the pass.

This story of triumph is a lesson in the ability of the human spirit to transcend great odds.  An interesting side note is that the woman did better than the men -- largely due to their determination to save their children (but also to the fact that they store more fat).

Comments (9)

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on Wednesday, February 4 2009, 6:48pm

I'm so glad I wasn't one of the many who got to live through near-pioneer conditions recently; experiencing hardship vicariously through books or films will do nicely!

I haven't read this book but can recommend an excellent 90 minute TV production that ran on PBS some years ago as part of its "American Experience" series called simply "The Donner Party".   It was produced, directed, and written by Ric Burns, brother of the better-known Ken Burns ("The Civil War", "Jazz", "Baseball", "The War", etc.).  

I found this documentary absolutely chilling (no pun intended here, either), and it has stayed in my memory. An atmosphere of dread is achieved, not through any overt and gruesome film, but rather through shots of ever-increasing snowfalls and the somber naration of the depressed, weary settlers, as skillfully voiced by David McCullough, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, and others.

As of February, 2009, Central library owns a videotape copy of this haunting production.

on Wednesday, February 4 2009, 7:07pm

My son said he had seen a DVD on the topic.  Thanks for the info.  When a friend first told me about this book I thought oh, no, it will probably be really sensationalistic.  But the author made them very human.  There is a wealth of primary source material on the incident, as well as the entire westward expansion,  that the author clearly consulted when writing this book.

this.is.not.here@evpl wrote
on Wednesday, February 4 2009, 7:51pm

Okaaaay.  Remind me not to ask you if you've "savored" any of the latest books that you "devour" with such gusto.  (all puns totally intended.)  And remember you told me not to take things so seriously....

on Wednesday, February 4 2009, 7:59pm

Hey...this all reminds me of how precarious our power situation is...plenty of people around the world can't rely on a dependable source of electricity or heat -- including those in Iraq and Afghanistan...as the population climbs and more and more of us are competing for the same scarce resources we may face some long-term crises...but anyway I am lightening up...I was actually trying to be funny...guess it didn't necessarily come through...good thing I don't rely on comedy for a living....

this.is.not.here@evpl wrote
on Wednesday, February 4 2009, 8:41pm

It's easier said than done.  I tried to read Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith which came highly recommended by Becky, former staff person and dog lover I might add.  I couldn't get past the beginning which described a very frigid Russia in the Soviet Union in 1933 and people so cold and hungry that they were eating the legs off the wooden stools.  When these people began stalking (hunting) a cat (and I have a cat)......  I couldn't go any further.  I'm now not being so serious and actually reading some more tonight as we speak.  I'll report my impressions later.

on Wednesday, February 4 2009, 9:11pm

Child 44...never heard of it...that Becky...but really I was trying to be a little light-hearted by comparing our recent power outages with what the Donners experienced...the book is really good.......

on Thursday, February 5 2009, 5:17pm

I would really like to read the Donner Party book, but i think i will skip "Child 44" - I just talked to this.is.not.here - yuck!

on Friday, February 6 2009, 10:22am

I don't know...Child 44 looks kind of interesting...catalog summary is this:  "A rising Soviet state security force officer encounters the test of his career when a serial killer challenges his beliefs about the paradise of the working world, resulting in his demotion and threats against the lives of his family members."

this.is.not.here@evpl wrote
on Saturday, February 7 2009, 12:35pm

What started out as kind of a joke has become a journey to possibly a very interesting book.  I just put Child 44  audiobook on my mp3 player.  I always forget that I have to get past the really gross parts at the beginning of these serial killer books to get to the page-turner parts.