“Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder,” says George Washington to Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. No truer words can be applied to the many fighting Covid-19 or t to the Donner Party survivors fighting death at Starved Camp in 1847. CNN anchor Chris Cuomo has been broadcasting Cuomo Prime Time from his basement since he contracted the virus. He’s endured endless fevers, night terrors, body aches, extreme fatigue, and chest pain, but he still tells his audience it isn’t as bad as others have it. He says, “Now I’m wise to the beast and its ways. It changes. The fever is just softening us up. It’s making your body hurt so you don’t want to move your body. Because what it wants to do is get into your lungs. That’s what it wants to do.”

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On Tuesday, April 7, Cuomo started moving to the other side of his illness and shared with his audience a few days before how he discovered how to beat the virus that didn’t involve pills or shots: he had to move his body despite the pain. He said that the virus wins when you get complacent and just lie down—this is something the Donner Party rescuers found out firsthand during the Second Relief.

In late February 1847 former Donner Party co-captain James Reed led a party of ten to rescue a party of 18. Of those 18 two were Reed’s children, Patty and Tommy.

Barn and old wooden wagon in the snow

Five people didn’t make it. He and his men crossed the mountains from west to east, and with these trappers, mountain men, and lesser experienced volunteers, they made good time. On March 1 they arrived at the squalid Donner Party camp and started making preparations for the turnaround to bring folks back across the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into the arms of safely. Finally. It had been four solid months of cold, starvation, disease, and despair for the trapped emigrants, and now they were almost home. Unfortunately, March in the Sierra Nevada Mountains can still bring on multiple feet of snow and blizzard-like conditions. In fact, this year, the conditions were absolutely terrible and the CHP-Truckee closed down Highway 80 (the road that crosses the Donner Summit) in early March.

It is an unfortunate happenstance when you realize you could have been safer and better fed staying put at the Donner camp than venturing over the mountains with the Second Relief rescue party led by James Reed. Food caches along way had been raided by martens and other wildlife and a deadly blizzard caught the group unawares past the summit in an open alpine meadow on the west slope of the Sierras near the head of the Yuba River. The rescuers built a fire over a platform on the fourth night, but soon Reed collapsed—he was snowblind and about frozen. This fire had melted the snow and had formed a deep pit—some of the snow had shifted and many logs fell into the pit, extinguishing the fire. Now without fire, death soon awaits. The emigrants suddenly woke up, chilled to the bone. Screaming. Crying. Among those crying were many of the tough mountain men too.

Everyone would have died at Starved Camp except the four who did that cold night, rescuers and rescuees alike, if rescuers William “Bill” McCutchen and Hiram Miller, hadn’t tossed off their gnawing lethargy and numbed limbs to restart the fire. You can only imagine the pain they had to work through to get moving and fight.

McCutchen later said:

The rest of the men were disheartened, and would not use any exertion, in fact they gave up all hope and in despair, some of them commenced praying. I damned them, telling them it was not time to pray, but to get up, stir themselves and get wood, for it was a matter of life or death to us in a few minutes. The fire was nearly out; the snow falling off the trees had nearly extinguished it before discovered; it was only rekindled by the exertion of Mr. Miller and myself.

Like the McCutchen and Miller 173 years ago who fought against the omnipresent cold, Cuomo fought back against what the virus wanted him to do. From a friend of a friend’s valuable advice about moving when you don’t want to move, he fought back so the virus wouldn’t cultivate in his chest and lungs.

Cuomo says, “The chest gets you. It makes you small. It’s really what defines this Covid. And the Covid is banking on you doing nothing. Your indolence, as the doctors call it. It wants us passive on our backs; it wants us to do nothing. The answer has to be to do everything.”

Yes, dying is easier than living. That’s why many of the male and single Donner Party emigrants died because they gave up. They also didn’t have anyone looking out for them and they weren’t looking out for someone else. Chris Cuomo has stated many times during his broadcast that family means everything to him and he’s determined to fight his Covid-19 not only for himself, but for his wife and three children.

Thank you, Chris Cuomo, for being brave and sharing your Covid-19 journey with us. Get better soon!


Sources: The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis. (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017).

Desperate Passage by Ethan Rarick. (Oxford University Press, 2008).

“Chris Cuomo: Here’s the Secret to Kicking This Virus,” https://www.msn.com/en-us/video/peopleandplaces/chris-cuomo-heres-the-secret-to-kicking-this-virus/vi-BB12fdGt