“SKIRTS IN THE SNOW: BEYOND THE TRAGEDY OF THE DONNER PARTY”
Four years in the making, my album, Skirts in the Snow: Beyond the Tragedy of the Donner Party, features twelve original songs from the point of view of the women of the Donner Party–sometimes using their own words. Each album comes with a twenty-page booklet filled with the stories behind the music.
Alice Osborn wrote and sang these songs and had the good fortune of having these musicians perform on the album: William Woltz (guitar), Steve Howell (banjo), Stevan Jackson (harp and banjo), Alan Black (cello), Daphna Rahmil (violin), Gerry Diamond (piano), and Matt Brechbiel (producer at Bella Music, bass, guitar, and vocals).
The Donner Party tragedy tested the limits of human endurance. What would you do to save your family?
Many of us know about the one of the worst western migration stories in our history: the Donner Party, 29 men, 19 women, and 43 children. They were farmers, merchants, and families who ventured West to California to start a new life, but half of the party did not survive. Those who did had to do the unspeakable to see the spring again in the harsh winter of 1846-1847 in the Sierra Nevada mountains. But who were they and why does their story still fascinate us today? The songs and stories about the Donner Party from the women’s perspective on Alice Osborn’s album bring this history to life showing their grit, civility, and heroism; not only did these survivors form the first families of California, theirs is a cautionary tale about man vs. nature, Indigenous peoples, and society. Theirs is also an inspiring story of how we can better treat our neighbors and be kind even when it’s difficult to do so.
“When It Rains in the Valley” (William Eddy)
The Donner Party survivors quickly learned that rain in the Sacramento Valley meant snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains. William Eddy, after leading the Forlorn Hope group ninety miles, thirty-three days, staggered into Johnson’s Ranch January 17, 1847. When he asked for bread, fifteen-year-old Harriet Ritchie burst into tears after seeing the severely emaciated man. His dreadful condition and persuasive letter reached Sutter’s Fort despite the flooded conditions, thus initiating the First Relief’s rescue of the Donner Party—saving many lives. Unfortunately, Eddy’s entire family died before he returned to Truckee Lake two months later, but he was able to rescue four children, including the three orphaned Donner daughters.
On Saturday, March 13, 1847, the four men of Third Relief reached Truckee Lake. William Eddy and William Foster both hoped that their sons were still alive in the Murphy cabin, but this was not to be. However, the three young Donner daughters were all healthy and ready to travel over the Sierras, along with Simon Murphy, Foster’s eight-year-old brother-in-law. Tamsen Donner, the girls’ mother, arrived at the same time that Eddy and the three other rescuers did. She knew that her girls had not left with the “rescuers” Cady and Stone—instead, Cady and Stone left behind the girls and the family’s keepsakes Mrs. Donner entrusted to them, such as silver spoons and silk dresses, and pocketed Mrs. Donner’s thousand dollars meant to transport the girls to safety. Mrs. Donner left her girls in Eddy’s care, minutes after he found out his own son had died. After a day of travel, the party found the Donner bundles left behind by Cady and Stone. The Third Relief threw the girls’ old dresses into the fire, while Eddy and Thompson, another rescuer who was handy with a sewing needle, fashioned new cloaks out of the former silk dresses.
“SEARCHING FOR PARADISE”
We all want better lives and need hope to pull us through. Sometimes the journey’s too hard for us and leaves us behind, but what examples of our dedication and perseverance did we show our children, friends, and co-workers so that they can search for their own paradise? In a time when America is searching again for its core values and for what pulls us together, listen to these songs that share what it means to be an American.
History. Home. Hope. Alice’s upbeat tempos, poignant lyrics, and powerful vocals charm these story songs in Searching for Paradise all rooted in the singer-songwriter and folk/Americana tradition of the New South.
Searching for Paradise is filled with story folk songs about heroes who did the right thing when no one was watching. They are crowd-pleasing originals about history, heroes, and hope.
These 12 songs are about historical events ranging from the Trail of Tears to Amelia Earhart’s last flight, to Theodosia Burr’s (Aaron Burr’s daughter) death at the hands of pirates off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to three Donner Party songs.
- High Noon
- Old Derelicts
- Angels’ Share
- Amelia, Don’t Leave
- The Ballad of Vince Foster
- Radio Man
- The Trail
- The Siege of Derry
- Searching for Paradise
- Never Take No Shortcuts
- William Eddy
Produced by Matt Brechbiel
I’ve always been a big fan of the Twilight Zone and love watching Rod Serling (1924-1974) puffing away on his requisite cigarette at the top of each episode. In World War II, Serling jumped out of airplanes, but he never flew them. He also got his big break in TV by first being a radio staff writer. I wanted to create a spacey feel that poetically pieced fragments of Twilight Zone episodes into a narrative while making the chorus a call to action for artists to keep
Did you know there’s more lost whiskey in American rickhouses due to humidity than in Scottish ones? Even the tightest oak barrels can’t prevent this evaporation, which is coined the “angels’ share.” Once I learned about this phenomenon I knew I had a song.
These five original songs are about home and identity; of finding your way through hardship and coming out all right on the other side.
- Old Derelicts
- A One-Time Hero
- Boba Fett at the Chick-fil-A in Hickory, North Carolina
- King of Cool
- Siege of Derry
Album produced by Paul Voran at IMURJ in Raleigh, North Carolina
Album artwork: Sherri Leeder, www.sherrileeder.com
Artist photo: David Williams
This song was first inspired by a woodcut painting by Pittsboro, North Carolina, artist Forrest Greenslade. I wrote a poem about his piece, which featured an old truck next to a barn, and then imagined what it must feel like from the truck’s point of view, to be abandoned by your owner, who I call “Bob” in the song.
“Are You Men From California Or Do You Come From Heaven?”
“Are You Men From California or Do You Come From Heaven?” filmed at Bella Music NC studio in Wake Forest for Alice Osborn’s “Skirts in the Snow” CD Release party on September 28, 2022, featuring William Woltz on additional guitar. William also provided additional music for this song.
Mrs. Levinah Murphy of the Donner Party asked this question: “Are You Men From California Or Do You Come From Heaven?” when the seven First Relief rescuers reached Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) the evening of February 18, 1847, four and a half months after the Donner Party became trapped by snow on Halloween night 1846. Very few traveled east to west in the Sierra Nevadas in wintertime. She is known for being the first cannibal at the lake and she is also known for taking care of the many children who were too weak to be rescued. These children included William Foster and William Eddy’s young sons as well as her own son, Simon Murphy. She was also kind to the three Donner girls, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza, when they were dropped in her cabin before William Eddy’s Third Relief party rescued them and Simon in mid-March 1847. Mrs. Murphy was a Mormon widow, who moved her family from Nauvoo, Illinois, West with the dream of having the freedom to practice her religion. The sprawling Murphy clan included children from babies to adults, half of whom survived.