As an American people and as American citizens we grow the most through hardship and through learning from our mistakes. This is certainly true now in the midst of a global pandemic. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily noontime COVID-19 briefings are must-see TV because he’s dealing with the facts, doesn’t mince words, and offers nuggets of inspiration at the end of his press conference. He’s the leader we desperately need today. On the Tuesday, March 24, 2020 briefing I was struck by his words and they reminded me of how the Donner Party DID NOT heed them. Perhaps if the Donners had, they wouldn’t have found themselves in such a mess.

[Governor Andrew Cuomo]: You can have younger people go back to work. You can have an economic startup strategy that is consistent with the public health strategy. It’s smart, it’s complicated, it’s sophisticated, but that’s what government is supposed to do, right? That whole concept of develop government policy and program. You can do both, but not in a clumsy ham-handed way. Right? Well, we’ll just sacrifice old people. They’re old people anyway, and the old get left behind. What is this, some modern Darwinian theory of natural selection? You can’t keep up so the band is going to leave you behind. We’re going to move on, and if you can’t keep up, well, then you just fall by the wayside of life. God forbid.

Governor Cuomo was responding to what Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, had voiced the previous night that older Americans should sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy. In some circles the belief holds that America needs to get back to work, screw COVID-19!

In early October of 1846 as the Donner Party approached Truckee Meadows, now modern-day Reno, Nevada, via their journey by the Humboldt River, they did leave someone behind, an older man behind, and nothing was ever the same for them after they did. It cursed them every step of their way after this decision.

No one in the Donner Party ever learned Hardcoop’s first name—all they knew was that he was a kind, hard-working, sixty-year-old cutler from Belgium who drove Lewis Keseberg’s wagon. By the way, a cutler is someone who makes cutlery. Lewis Keseberg ended up being the “Donner Party Cannibal” who ate Tamsen Donner and the young sons of William Foster and William H. Eddy, our Reluctant Cannibal and main hero of this blog series.

Food supplies were running low. After a horrible slog through the Utah salt flats, many of the pioneers had abandoned their wagons because their cattle had run off or died. Keseberg was now down to one wagon. Paiute Indians were having a fun time messing with the Donner Party’s oxen, picking off their cattle, while William Eddy and his friends were trying to hunt badly needed game.

Late one night on the trail a rider, who had backtracked, found Hardcoop five miles from camp and brought him back to their camp. Hardcoop told Eddy and the rest that Keseberg had kicked him out of the wagon because of weight and the loose sand concerns that made the going difficult for the wagon wheels. Keseberg had said that everyone was walking, including Keseberg’s wife who held their infant son. Hardcoop’s feet bled and blistered something fierce and he worried that he couldn’t continue on his own power the next day. Eddy hoped that Keseberg would take Hardcoop because after all, he was his responsibility. Unfortunately, everyone learned that Keseberg had kicked Hardcoop out of the wagon yet again. Along the march, Hardcoop begged Eddy to take him in Eddy’s wagon, but Eddy couldn’t. If he did, his own wagon wouldn’t move.

By nightfall, there was still no sign of Hardcoop. Eddy set a signal fire and asked Patrick Breen and Franklin Graves for a horse to find Hardcoop and bring him back like that rider had done the previous night, but both men, the patriarchs of large families, both refused. They said, “There’s no time! We must march on!” when Eddy, Milt Elliott, and William Pike offered to search for Hardcoop and then reiterated that the train wouldn’t wait for them. Hardcoop wasn’t coming on his own. Some boys had seen him earlier that day sitting shoeless near a sagebrush. His black feet were so swollen they were split open.

No one went back to find him. Hardcoop was left behind. No one stepped up to be a hero for Hardcoop. No one tried hard enough. Not even William Eddy.

Perhaps William Eddy could have stolen a horse from Mr. Graves or Mr. Breen to bring Hardcoop back to camp. Perhaps Eddy could have constructed a sled to drag Hardcoop across along the trail, but time and resources would have been taken away from Eddy’s family. But the real tragedy for Hardcoop was that without loved ones among the Donner Party to sacrifice for him his fate was sealed.

I do believe that the survivors initially felt guilty about leaving the older man behind, but as their troubles mounted and starvation set in, the Hardcoop guilt was replaced by greater guilt and loss. We’ll never know if the Donner Party tragedy could have been averted if these Americans hadn’t sacrificed Hardcoop. But all I know that today we can’t sacrifice our older population. Great tragedy will occur, and we’ll never be the same again as a people.


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