SPECIAL NOTE: this shortened version of this essay will appear in the anthology, Exploring: Discoveries. Challenges. Adventure. edited by Randell Jones, coming to you spring 2019. 

The Donner Party. Snow. Starvation. Cannibalism. Why does this tragedy from 172 years ago obsess me today? I’m fascinated with any story about extreme weather, foolish choices, poor leadership, unexpected heroes, and people who dream about making a better life, but die on the road to achieving it. I don’t have an ancestor from the Donner Party, but my father’s family, who came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries from England and the Netherlands, wanted everything the Donners did: new hope for their families while securing a strong financial future for their children. We want the same things in America today.

Like their great-grandparents and my ancestors who fled the Old Country, the Donner brothers packed up their lives to discover a more prosperous tomorrow in California. George and his brother Jacob, born in Rowan County, North Carolina, had already moved to build better farms in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, and now California had the promise of more land, easier weather, and a career opportunity for George’s wife, Tamsen. She was George’s junior by twenty years and had suffered greatly when she was a school teacher in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where her two young children and husband all died from disease. Fate and timing led her to Sangamon County, Illinois, where she married twice-widowed George, and became a step-mother to Leanna and Elitha, and mother to Georgia, Frances, and Eliza. She loved being a mother, but wanted to return to teaching, so she made plans to start a girls’ seminary in California. Along the 2,000-mile journey, Tamsen carefully drew and recorded all of the wildflowers and other flora she met along the wagon trail in her journal. Sadly, her journal and her body were never recovered from the camp where she spent her last winter with her family.

This summer, I fell headlong into Tamsen Donner who hit all of the marks as I created a new folk song: North Carolina ties, a tragic end, a bold story of sacrifice. I felt I could have been friends with her. Tamsen knew it was a bad idea to follow the Hastings Cuttoff through the Wasatch Mountains and Great Salt Lake Desert of Utah instead of following the well-traveled Oregon Trail. She felt Lansford Hastings’ much-touted short cut written about in the Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California was nothing more than a scam to get emigrants to buy overpriced goods at Fort Bridger. Unfortunately, no one listened to her and the short cut cost the Donner Party many valuable days and cattle, setting them up to be stranded in the Sierra Nevadas because the high snows wouldn’t let them pass safely into California.

At Alder Creek, the Donner families and their teamsters fared much worse than their fellow emigrants who hunkered in cabins next to Truckee Lake six miles away. George had injured his hand while repairing a broken axle and that wound quickly got infected. Isolated with their oxen meat buried in 25-foot snow drifts, the dead accumulated, and Tamsen made the children eat their flesh to survive.

Tamsen kept her girls going by brushing their hair every day, reading to them, and assigning chores to keep life as close to normal in their snowy prison. The first rescue party arrived in February, three and a half months after their path was blocked, but Tamsen refused to leave George, so she and her birth daughters stayed at camp. Finally a month later Tamsen told the last rescue team, “Please save my children.” She was never seen alive again, but all three girls made it safely through the mountains.

I wanted to write an honest song that addressed the choice of staying with a beloved partner versus leaving your young children potentially orphaned. As a mother of two, I know I couldn’t leave my children, but this was Tamsen’s song. And so I wrote the chorus:

Paradise, guide us around the bend
Please, let this winter end
Stop the sky from falling

The hurt from calling
No, sir, I cannot leave
Please save my children
Some dreams weren’t meant to be

The rest of the song traces Tamsen’s journey from hope to horror and then back to hope:

I hear hummingbirds, meadows warm in the sun
Almost like Carolina where we come from
I float over the cabins and creek.
Girls—you’ve made it to Paradise without me.  

Tamsen’s dream died, yet all of her girls lived long, reasonably healthy lives, and gave her grandchildren because she inspired them to see the beauty amongst the decay, and the hope amongst the fear. She gave them strength to carry on and it’s through this strength that I make meaning from her life and her sacrifice every time I sing her song.

You can listen to the full song: