Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Perfect Snowstorm, or, Why I'm Obsessed by the Donner Party

Unidentified books in Emigrant Trail Museum exhibit
To me, clearly Tamsen Donner's books

I’m fascinated  by the Donner Party. Believe it or not, my interest has very little to do with cannibalism. That’s of course the attention-getting, morbid fact that initially grabs you by the throat, but after that subsides, what you’re left with is a complex story whose narrative can be almost endlessly examined.

Sexism, racism, ageism, personal responsibility, survival tactics, starvation, greed, murder: all of these big topics fall under the Donner umbrella,  as well as the more mundane (but no less worthy of scrutiny) topic of group dynamics and how people get along—or don’t—during a multi-month road trip.

I was recently talking with historian Kristin Johnson about what fuels our interest in this long-ago community of emigrants. I told her I loved high adventure stories, like Shackleton and crew stuck on a ship in the frozen Weddell sea (well, until it was crushed by the ice and destroyed, whereupon they began living upon an ice floe), or the Everest teams beset by weather in 1996. Two words: Beck Weathers. The Donner Party faced incredible struggle, and roughly half of them survived.

But I realized later that that was only half my answer. When I thought about it more, I realized that a huge part of what appeals to me is the “perfect storm” (or in this case, perfect snowstorm) aspect. In Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm, the titular concept is that many small mishaps combine to form a huge tragedy. If only one of those would have gone differently, either the disaster could have been averted, or at least significantly abated.

I’ve always loved that child’s nursery rhyme about how a single nail (or lack thereof) brought a kingdom down.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Tiny actions have amazing and significant consequences. In the case of the Donner Party, any number of small adjustments (or large) could’ve meant none of us had ever heard of the Donners. The same is true for the sinking of the Titanic, another story I’ve been fascinated by since I was a young girl and read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember.

Let’s take a look at my rough list, off the top of my head, of the small events that gained potency in numbers, in a perfect storm scenario.

If only…
  • The binoculars had been in the lookout as they were supposed to be
  • Captain Smith paid better attention to the ice warnings instead of glancing at them and putting them in his uniform pocket
  • The Marconi operator of a far closer ship than the Carpathia hadn’t turned off his machine and gone to bed (he was not negligent in doing so, by the way, but it would have been nice for all involved if he’d pulled an all-nighter)
  • (relatedly) The Titanic had struck the same iceberg during daylight hours
  • The crew had performed their required boat drill on April 14 and were confident enough to fill the lifeboats to full capacity (there were still not enough seats, but the loss of life would have been diminished)
  • There were enough lifeboats for all passengers (again, not negligent: the Titanic was abiding by the absurd shipping rules of its era—one nice effect of the sinking was that it forever changed these archaic rules and ensured each passenger would have a seat on a lifeboat should the ship sink)
  • Some would add, if only J. Bruce Ismay wasn’t aboard and therefore urging Captain Smith to dangerous speeds on the ship’s maiden voyage
  • If only they had kept full engine speed to successfully turn the ship, rather than killing the engines
  • The iceberg had struck a different spot on the ship, so that each of the watertight compartments wasn’t breached
On and on, a slew of factors which all went wrong, but if any one of them had gone right, we might have a far less dramatic tale to tell about the Titanic.

And here’s the same listing for the Donner Party:

If only:
  • They didn't take the Hastings Cut-off, which ironically added weeks to their time
  • They didn't waste a week waiting for Hastings to come back and guide them through the Wasatch mountains
  • They had located the hidden cut-through that would have gotten them through the Wasatch just fine
  • Indians hadn't stolen and killed so many of their oxen and cattle (both slowing them and also deleting their food stores)
  • Hastings had correctly given the time required to cross the Salt Desert, rather than halving it; they might've better provisioned themselves before the attempt and not lost so much livestock
  • George Donner's wagon wheel hadn't broken
  • George Donner's hand hadn't been significantly injured by trying to repair the wheel (infection set in and ruined him...wish I could slip him some penicillin)
  • Snow had fallen just three or four days later; they were so close to crossing the mountains to safety
  • The emigrants had somehow fastened their cows so they weren't lost when literally buried by snow
  •  They had backtracked and wintered in a more forgiving landscape
  • Stanton had allowed the snowshoe company to continue forward instead of keeping a foolish promise to protect the mules over the emigrants (the mules died anyway, and so did Stanton...hindsight is so deliciously wretched, as well as 20/20)
Now, you'll notice I don't say:

  • If only they hadn't stopped for the funeral of Sarah Keyes and other stops others have subsequently objected to. As Kristin Johnson points out, cattle need to rest.
  •  If only they hadn't gotten such a late start. They caught up to other westbound trains and made up for their late start. If they hadn't taken the Hastings Cut-off, they would have been fine.
I have to admit, I love/agonize over the "coulda, shoulda, woulda" of the Donner Party's circumstances. I'm the kind of person who dissects my failures and falls prey to self-recriminations; the Donner Party narrative rewards such a personality. I'm sure that for the rest of their lives, the people who survived the trauma never ceased their sleepless nights, their burning feelings of "Why didn't I....?"

The women in particular must have suffered helpless self-excoriation, for they truly did not get a vote. It's always said of Tamsen Donner that she was sulky or grumpy about the choice--made by men of the party--to take the cut-off. She must have chastened herself that she wasn't more persuasive, that she couldn't gain George Donner's ear the way she would've wanted to.

To me, one of the most poignant exhibits at the Emigrant Trail Museum near Donner Lake shows several school books. Almost without a doubt, they must have been Tamsen's, as she planned to set up a west coast school. (The plaquing at the museum does not specifically identify the objects in that case, although I'm sure somewhere in their records the books' provenance is logged .) She was one of those women who bristled at the constraints her century forced upon her gender. The decision-making of the wagon trains did not permit women's voices to be heard. 

As she tended her husband, dying from a simple hand wound that traveled up his arm to kill him from an infection we'd swiftly derail with medication today, did she have to bite her tongue to not question him for the fatal choices he'd made--not only on his behalf, not only on grown women's behalf, but on the behalf of the dozens of small children that composed the Donner Party?

And that's what wrenches me most about the Donner Party story. There were kids involved. Newborn babies who died because their mother's milk dried up. Toddlers who starved to death. Young kids who tried valiantly and just couldn't make it.

There's a great morbid interest around the Donner Party, especially for those who read the harrowing accounts of body parts and organs left stranded around the camp. But those bodies weren't strewn because of a ghoulish lack of concern. It was because the residents of the camps were so close to death themselves. They were weak--it's hard to carry or drag bodies even when you are in full health. They needed to leave the bodies close by enough to cut tissue from them to eat. In Keseberg's cabin, it's said the bodies were left where they died. A horrible fact to contemplate, as the living continued their fragile existences mere inches away--but the cabin was so buried in snow (above its roof) that the unhappy inhabitants had had to carve snow steps up out of the snow. How on earth do you pull a corpse up those steps when you yourself have eaten nothing, or simply trace amounts of, say, buffalo hides, for days?

Prisoners liberated from Mauthausen concentration camp, 1945

When I think the people at the camps, I picture people from another kind of camp. I think of the photographs of starved, gaunt Jews from the concentration camps. The hollow cheeks, the sudden architecture of the forehead, the eyes so stark and large...that's what I believe the Donner Party victims looked like too. In fact, it is said that when the snowshoe party wandered into a Native American village, the inhabitants there were terrified and thought the Donner Party people were ghosts. 

I feel pity for the Donners and the other families stranded in the Sierra that terrible winter of 1846. They perhaps didn't make the most savvy decisions--but they were pioneers in every sense of the word, doing something very few had done before. And let's be honest: the snows of the Sierra are so much more heavy/deep than anything these midwesterners had ever seen before. They knew snow; they just didn't know snow. They thought they were doing fine. 

And they would've been fine, if only one of the myriad things that went wrong had instead....gone right.

. . . .

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