Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

Synopsis

In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year's westwardmigration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. Aftermonths of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for abrutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion isknown: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the mostharrowing extremes of human survival. But until now, the full story of whathappened, what it tells us about human nature and about America's westwardexpansion, remained shrouded in myth. Drawing on fresh archaeological evidence, recent research on topicsranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters anddiaries made public by descendants a century-and-a-half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner party and their unimaginableordeal: a mother who must divide her family, a little girl who shines withcourage, a devoted wife who refuses to abandon her husband, a man who risks hislife merely to keep his word. But Rarick resists both the gruesomelysensationalist accounts of the Donner party as well as later attempts to turnthe survivors into archetypal pioneer heroes. "The Donner Party," Rarick writes,"is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often,the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture ofgenerosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity." A fast-paced, heart-wrenching, clear-eyed narrative history, A Desperate Hopecasts new light on one of America's most horrific encounters between the dreamof a better life and the harsh realities such dreams so often mustconfront.

Excerpt

Margret Reed spread out a buffalo robe for her children and then covered them with a shawl. It was snowing—“great feathery flakes,” as one of the youngsters remembered—so every few moments Reed would rouse herself and shake the accumulation from their makeshift bedding, lest she and the children be buried alive in a muffling layer of white.

Huddled near a campfire, the forward section of the Donner Party had stopped for one last night of rest before the final assault on the mountains. Almost six months earlier, they had left Independence, Missouri, striking out for new lives in California. In the long ordeal of their journey, they had survived accidents, misjudgment, inexperience, disease. They had battled each other and helped each other. They had buried some comrades and abandoned another. They had hacked their way over trackless mountains and willed their way across murderous deserts. They had listened to the blandishments of a huckster promoting a shortcut that did not exist. Most important of all, they had fallen behind their fellow emigrants. That was the one unpardonable sin of the whole great venture, and now their penance was upon them.

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