Would you have been a hero?
There we were, boarding the famous Sacramento-Reno Snow Train — dubbed the “Fun Train.” And our tour guide had promised we would have fun, fun, fun.
But I was not thinking “fun” as our train reached the Sierra Nevada foothills, heading toward Donner Pass. I was thinking of the Donner Party, entrapped in late October 1846 in a fierce snowstorm. At the pass, snow was said to be 30 feet deep and the temperatures frigid. Of the 81 in the group, 45 survived and 36 perished.
They set off in April 1846 on that 2,000-mile journey, leaving when spring warmth dried the ground for travel. It was essential to reach Independence, Mo., by May 10 in order to cross high passes before heavy winter snowfall. But the Donner Party not only missed that crucial date but were sold, by a huckster, a bill of goods for a shortcut that did not exist.
Speed of the lumbering oxen was only about two miles per hour — and always there were delays: swollen rivers requiring the construction of crude rafts for crossing, cattle that had to be persuaded to swim the raging streams, broken wagon axles, terrain so steep that 30 oxen were required to pull a single wagon up the grade. Campgrounds with potable water, grazing for cattle and firewood were sometimes hard to find. And, along the way, people died and burials had to be held.
Shortly after the Donners’ departure, Sarah Keyes, 70, oldest of the group, became the first victim. Ill at the start, she insisted on accompanying her only daughter, Margaret. Sarah’s son-in-law, James Reed, had fashioned a special wagon for her comfort, but at Big Blue River Crossing, Sarah died. A cottonwood tree was felled to provide planks for her coffin. Her name and age were chiseled on a wooden grave marker — and the wagon train went on.
That day on the Fun Train, I leaned back in my reclining seat, looked out the picture windows, and thought that life is ironic. I hoped to see snow, perhaps as high as the train, but that day, except for shaded little drifts, the ground was bare — whereas snow in 1846 was so deep, the Donner group was entrapped for more than three months.
When they were unable to cross the pass, they retreated back down the hill to camp at a lake until weather moderated. Rescue parties were unable to get through the snow to bring help. Not until April 1847 did a small group reach Johnson’s Ranch on the west side of the mountain.
There, stranded at the lake site, the Donner Party put up crude shelters. One family used a huge rock as one wall of their “cabin.”
Their only heat was from campfires — and bodily warmth. Gathering wood in the deep snow was physically exhausting. Trees were felled and dragged back to camp. Cold was so intense that wood gatherers worked only 10 minutes before being forced back to the fire to regain feeling in hands and feet.
In “Desperate Passage,” the story of the party’s perilous journey, Ethan Rarick, writes of this tragic incident: Five-year-old Isaac Donner was wedged between his sister, Mary, 7, and Patty Reed, 8, huddled around the fire. Sometime during the night, Isaac died. “The girls did not realize until morning that he was dead.”
Daniel James Brown in “The Indifferent Stars Above,” recounts this awful event: “The Mexican drover, Antonio, believed to be about 23, had crawled to the fire to lie down. After a while his hand fell into the fire pit ... someone pulled it away, but the second time it fell into the fire pit, nobody bothered to move it. He was dead.”
Starvation was imminent. The scrawny few remaining livestock were eaten. Hunting game in the deep snow was impossible. They boiled strips cut from the skin of the slaughtered cattle for nourishment.
Forever since there has been conjecture as to whether cannibalism occurred during those desperate months. Newspapers picked up rumors and stories of such that were embellished by word of mouth, resulting in half-truths and half-lies with each retelling. In Rarick’s “Desperate Passage,” he tells of Nancy Graves, then 8, who in later years married a Methodist minister and had nine children, “but was haunted by the knowledge that she participated in the cannibalism of her own mother at Starved Camp.” As a young girl, she was said to have burst into tears at every memory of such.
The summer following the Donner ordeal, Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, who commanded American armies in California, stopped by those shelters that had been erected at Truckee (now Donner) Lake. They found the body of George Donner — wrapped in a sheet by his distraught wife, Tamsen, as the only “decent burial” she could provide when she was forced to leave behind his body.
In “Desperate Passage,” Rarick contends, “Eating the flesh of people who were dead, already dead, wasn’t barbaric or animalistic. It was the only logical and reasonable course of action open to those left alive.”
Of the 8l in the group, only two older than 40 survived. The death rate for children under 5 was high. Many children were orphaned. Mary Graves, 19, lived — but for three months was unable to wear shoes because her feet had been so badly frozen.
In time, public perception and the stories of cannibalism changed to recognition of heroism by Donner Party members, and they became symbols of a pioneer prototype. Monuments honored them. As we traveled Donner Country in 2014, we saw many geographical and commercial entities remembering the Donner name.
During the two days we spent in Reno on our Fun Train trip, a snowstorm moved in and our return route became a gorgeous snow wonderland. Every fir and pine tree, every bush, every foot of ground was a beautiful glittery white.
And again, I thought of the Donner Party. I was delighted because of this snowfall — whereas snow had been the nemesis of those stranded pioneers.
Down the aisle of the Fun Train came a 20l4 Elvis Presley, exchanging quips with all. Next, a magician stopped to entertain any bored passengers. I thought of those Donner Party members as I set aside my turkey potpie lunch — far more than I could eat— and I wondered how I would have fared as one of that group.
I think I would not have been a hero. And I think how decadent I and some of my fellow Americans have become.
Elaine Rohse can be reached at email@example.com.