Ethan Rarick, Desperate Passage; The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 288pp.
On May 12, 1846, George and Tamzene Donner, along with James and Margaret Reed, left Independence, Missouri with a group of fifty wagons and 150 adults for a better life in "the bay of Francisco." They left a little late and brought up the rear of a snaking line of 500 wagons heading to Oregon and California that spring. Loaded with children, livestock and provisions, and lumbering along at two miles an hour, the two thousand mile trip took about six months. After they crossed the Continental Divide, and turned left to take the Hastings Cutoff ("an untried shortcut through unknown wilderness"), instead of the tried and true path to the right, the travelers coalesced into what became known as the Donner Party.
There was nothing remarkable about the Donner Party's sojourn to California (which at the time still belonged to Mexico). The first wagon train west left in 1841; they were merely part of an "expansionist fever" over the next two decades that saw 250,000 people cross the continent. The outcome of their trip, though, and the sensationalist reporting about it, make them some of the most famous and carefully studied of the early pioneers. Only a mile or two from summitting the Sierra Nevada mountain range onto a downward slope just 100 miles from their destination, a ferocious November snow storm buried them in a frigid prison.
Thanks to the diaries, journals, letters, and (conflicting) memories of the survivors, and later work by historians and archaeologists, today we have a good idea of exactly what happened. Eighty-one people were trapped for four months in snows up to twenty feet deep, at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Forty-five people survived because of their decision to eat their dogs, boiled rawhide, and even their own dead, and thanks to the bravery of four separate rescue parties (the last of which found one man alive on April 17). Initial reports caricatured the Donner Party as ghouls because of their cannibalism, or dupes due to their poor choices and lack of experience. Rarick rejects these interpretations; in his empathetic retelling, the Donners were Everyman, "the drama of the mundane gone madly wrong." Today a national historical landmark, state park, memorials, towns, and a lake all commemorate this survival adventure with the Donner name. Interested readers will also enjoy the The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride (2009) by Daniel James Brown.