Why does the Old West fascinate us so much? Maybe because it’s America’s origin myth of ordinary people seeking a better life, new adventures, more money, and more freedoms, of course at the cost of the folks who were already there—the Indians and Mexicans. The Old West has been a part of my psyche since I was four and half years old because of Star Wars. Yes, everything in Star Wars is derivative of old Western movies starring John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Gary Cooper, among others. George Lucas totally lifted a poignant, heart-breaking scene from The Searchers (1956) for Star Wars (1977). Boba Fett is modeled off of Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunter in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Han Solo has a touch of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn from the original True Grit (1969). In the same way that Star Wars will always be a part of my favorite stories, the Donner Party story has also worked its way into my obsessions.
Why the Donner Party? I first heard about the pioneers and their tragic story while watching/reading The Shining (1980). Jack and his family are driving to the Overlook Hotel and Jack Torrance remarks, “They got snowbound one winter in the mountains and they had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive.” The Shining is also about how the white man killed Indians—the reason the hotel is haunted is because it was constructed on sacred Indian ground. Of course, I was fascinated, but didn’t go crazy and do research—I did that later in 2011 after visiting the St. Louis arch and museum where they had a label about the Donner Party. After reading Wikipedia I was tripled grossed out and didn’t return to my Donner Party studies until this August when I challenged myself to write a song about an American woman from the 19th century who is considered a hero. That person is Tamsen Donner, matriarch of the Donner Party and here’s that song!
Here’s a famous line from Tamsen:
“Indeed if I do not experience something far worse than I yet have done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started.” –Tamsen Donner, 1846
Well, that didn’t work out so well. She and her husband, George, died, but all five of their daughters survived. Unfortunately, they had to resort to cannibalizing their deceased family members and teamsters to do so. Tamsen didn’t have to die, but she chose to stay with her dying husband until he died instead of leaving with her kids. Her kids left with William Eddy (he of the Forlorn Hope party and a hero) and the other rescuers and hours later he died. Her timing sucked. She was later eaten by Lewis “the Cannibal” Keseberg and nothing of her remained.
In this blog I intend to write more about the Donners, my newly found Mormon great-great-great uncle, James Henry Martineau, who was a contemporary of the youngsters in the Donner Party and also followed their trail, albeit four years later. His journals are all in in the book, An Uncommon Pioneer (2008) and are fascinating as hell. I also want to explore other ancestors who participated in the “teaching” (I’m using this word loosely) of Indian children at the Tomah Industrial School in Tomah, Wisconsin, in the early part of the 20th century. The more I research the Indian schools the more I learn how fundamentally horrible they were/are to native peoples. More later! Oh, and trains. I love trains and reading about hobos. And we can’t forget cowboy songs, work songs, and much more.
I’m also switching from poetry to fiction and am working on western sci-fi short stories, flash fiction and a novel—maybe involving the Donners, space, and time travel—you never know! I hope that this blog, which I’ll post in weekly will spur my creativity and get my writing fingers nimble again.
Before I close here’s a bit of info about the Donner Party—which definitely falls into the weird West category.
Till next time!
Who? The Donner-Reed Party consisted of 87 people who were part of a larger wagon train, The Russell Party. 46 survived, 41 died, 2/3 of the women lived.1/3 of the men lived. Why is that? Are women stronger? Yes and no. The menfolk were all tired out from building cabins and felling trees and what not and they were more likely to succumb to hypothermia and starvation than the women because their health was already at dangerous levels. Also, many of the men didn’t have women taking care of them–which proves that the love of a good woman is everything!
Where Everyone except the Donners were stuck at Truckee Lake, which is 15 miles from the Summit, the only way to get over the Sierras into California. The Donners were stuck at Alder Creek, 6.5 miles northeast of Truckee Lake.
Why? To escape cholera, malaria, typhoid, for greater economic opportunity, to make more money and buy land before everyone else did.
What? George Donner and James Reed (our fearless leaders) thought it best to take the Hastings Cuttoff, the much-touted short cut that Lansford Hastings had written about in the Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California. California wasn’t yet a state (1850).
From Hastings himself: “Unless you pass over the mountains early in the fall, you are very liable to be detained, be impassable mountains of snow, until the next spring, or, perhaps, forever.” (ouch!)
The Reeds survived with their family intact and never ate other humans. Of course, I’ll share more about the awesome Reeds, but here’s a quote from the oldest daughter after the ordeal: “Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.” (one of my favorite quotes ever)
When? They left Independence, Missouri, on May 12, 1846. They were snowed in Oct 31, 1846. There were 10 major snowstorms in the Sierras from mid-Oct to early April 1847 (ouch!) The rescues started February 17, 1847.
It all started with the Snowshoe Party (later named the Forlorn Hope) leaving Truckee Lake in mid-December 1846 with the goal of reaching Johnson’s Ranch on the Bear River: Fifteen started out, only 7 survived. Only two men survived: William Eddy and William Foster. The women: Harriet Pike (Foster shot her husband—kind of awkward), Sarah Graves Fosdick, Mary Ann Graves (Sarah and Mary Ann were sisters), Amanda McCutchen, and Sarah Murphy Foster. All resorted to cannibalism: the first two were Patrick Dolan and Franklin Graves. William Foster murdered their two Indian guides, Luis and Salvador, for food. The Forlorn Hope ate the flesh of six of the eight men who died. And it took them 33 days to reach Johnson’s Ranch. As a result of their sacrifice, the First Relief rescue party was quickly organized and they arrived at Truckee Lake on February 17, 1847. When they guys arrived, they heard this from a skeletal Levinah Murphy: “Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?”