As the Covid-19 crisis tears up the fabric of American society and President Trump acknowledges 100,000 to 240,000 Americans may die, we see one truth emerge: no one wants to die alone. Unfortunately, because of the contagious nature of this disease that has no known cure, family members are prevented from being admitted to their loved ones’ besides at the time of their passing. Loved ones, if they’re lucky, communicate with their sick relative via phone call. Most will not because their loved one is not responsive because they’re intubated on a ventilator. How awful that this disease robs us of our human need to be close to someone we love when they pass. But then, what if we don’t let Covid-19 win?
Yes, it is a scary thought to die alone, but as Daniel Burke writes in his article for CNN.com, “Coronavirus Preys On What Terrifies Us: Dying Alone” “there’s a difference between dying alone and dying lonely.” If we know our loved one is about to pass, WE MUST BELIEVE they know we love them and it isn’t our choice for them to be alone. I know this next statement may sound cruel, but we always die alone because our mind and body are transitioning; being with our loved ones who are dying is about achieving closure for ourselves and an important part of OUR grieving process, not the person who is dying.
Death was everywhere for the participants in the Donner Party in the winter of 1846. But let’s narrow it down to Charles Stanton and George Donner’s deaths. Stanton died alone, while George died with his wife, Tamsen, present. Tamsen is considered the female hero of the Donner Party because she stayed with George until he died (which led to her own death), while Charles is the main male hero (there were several male heroes, William Eddy among them) not because of the way he died, but the way he lived. Interesting.
Charles Tyler Stanton (1811-1846) was a thirty-five-year old bachelor originally from New York who joined the Donner Party seeking a second chance after a failed business venture in Chicago. Stanton is considered THE HERO of the Donner Party because he selflessly volunteered to travel to Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento, California) for provisions while the tired and famished Donner Party camped in the Reno, Nevada, area (Truckee Meadows) before they even attempted to cross the boundary of the Sierras. Three weeks later, Stanton returned with two Miwok Indians, Luis and Salvador, along with mules and the vital provisions, which lasted a bit and even sustained the Reed family through the winter because of Mrs. Reed’s smart rationing that gave her four children a real Christmas dinner, and that’s another story.
Stanton is considered even more of a hero than William Eddy because he didn’t have a family waiting on him and thus didn’t have to return to the camp—Stanton only returned because he was a man of his word. Both men co-led the dire Snowshoe Party, later called the Forlorn Hope Party, leaving camp on December 16, 1846 because they wanted to rescue themselves out of the snowbound Sierras rather than wait for rescue. Six days later, Stanton suffered from snow blindness, which doomed the others to lose the trail since he was the only one of their party who had successfully traversed the Sierra Nevadas twice. Suffering from hypothermia as well, he started a fire, lit his pipe and told Mary Graves, “Yes, I am coming soon,” when she asked him if he was well. His friends waited for him to return to camp but he never did. I believe he did not die lonely, he chose how he died, and thank goodness, Stanton was never cannibalized.
George Donner (1784-1847), originally of Rowan County, North Carolina, was named the Party’s leader because he was more popular than James Reed, who was the real brains behind the Donner Party. His late-in-life third wife was the beautiful and smart Tamsen Donner, who gave him three little girls: Frances, age six; Georgia, age four; and Eliza, age three. He and his brother Jacob traveled behind the main party as they made their way to the summit. His wagon’s axle broke and as George fashioned another axle from a tree limb he cut the back of his right hand. Because the Donners were stuck due to the lack of a wagon and the incoming snow, they set up a hastily built camp at Alder Creek, six miles away from the main camp at Truckee Lake.
In spite of all the care and poultices Tamsen gave him for the wound, George got gangrene and died in Tamsen’s arms in March 1847 after four and a half months of suffering. Two rescue parties had come and gone by March and both times Tamsen had refused to join them with her three little girls. Of course, it was known that George couldn’t join his family over the mountains. Between the third rescue party made up of William Eddy, William Foster, Hiram Miller, and William Thompson, Tamsen gave her girls to Charles Cady and Charles Stone who “traded,” aka abandoned the three girls, in the deplorable Keseberg/Murphy cabin (Keseberg had already consumed Foster and Eddy’s infant boys with the Donner girls as witnesses/innocent participants) so they could haul expensive Donner silks and keepsakes up the mountain. Not only did the girls not leave with Cady and Stone, but Tamsen gave the two men $500. Tamsen later learned that her girls had been left behind and in a historical miracle of perfect movie timing, Tamsen arrived at the Keseberg/Murphy at the SAME EXACT TIME that the Eddy rescue party did. Two hours later Tamsen kissed her three daughters goodbye knowing she had to do the right thing and return to George’s side six miles away. Tamsen didn’t allow her husband George to die alone—and this decision rendered Frances, Georgia, and Eliza instant orphans.
Not too long after her girls left with Eddy and the others, George died. Tamsen washed his body and wrapped him in an improvised shroud. She hiked the six miles to the Keseberg/Murphy cabin and encountered the sole survivor: Lewis Keseberg who cannibalized her after she died. Did he kill her or did she die naturally? We’ll never know for sure.
Two years ago when I first learned about Tamsen’s choice I automatically thought she was wrong to leave her girls, but then I’ve come to realize that Tamsen wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she had not been with George when he died. Tamsen trusted that William Eddy would save her girls and that they would be all right without her. And it came to pass. The three sisters endured a challenging childhood, but their lives were significantly better than some of the other Donner Party survivors. Most of their success in life can be attributed to Tamsen’s solid core values, teachings, and leadership. She made the right choice for her, but George ultimately died alone, as we all do.
After writing this blog, I can conclude three things: everyone dies alone, being with your loved one when they pass is more meaningful for you than for the dying person, and Covid-19 is a horrible disease.
I’m praying for those fighting Covid-19 and for those who have recently passed from Covid-19.
Source: The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis. (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017).