Up until a couple of nights ago, lifetime reader that I am and far from young, I had never actually read anything on the Donner party George R Stewart s description of that terrible tragedy has remained the definitive account, which is saying something as it is also probably the best known and most widely recounted story of pioneer journeys ever.Among Americans anyway, you only have to say, the Donner party and the immediate association is cannibalism That much I knew, but little else.From the moment I picked up Ordeal by Hunger two nights ago, I have scarcely been able to think about, much less read anything else Although I am not a believer in luck, the saying, if they didn t have bad luck, they had no luck at all fits here Stewart s book was originally published in 1936, which was optimal because he was able to interview the last surviving witnesses and yet enough time had passed that everything hidden had been flushed out by way of diaries, and other oral and written evidence, etc My copy also included the 1960 update to the 36 edition as well as a forward which updated the 60 update Additional information has continued to come out, but less in the way of evidence to change known facts and by way of new generation s perspectives on what actually happened It is so easy to judge I admit I was doing it all the while, sitting in my comfortable chair, in my warm okay it is September home with a full stomach The truth is, none of us knows what he she would do under similar circumstances And these were some of the most extreme circumstances I have ever read about And there were SO many children and babies involved Yes surprisingly survived 47 than died 42 Also, it is unfortunate the cannibalism is what is best remembered Rather the heroism of so many who braved untold misery to save not only themselves and their own families but even complete strangers knowing full well the worst that could befall them is what will stay with me.Stewart would not have been a believable author if he was completely indifferent to everything that happened, but he did a fair job of relating events without undue prejudice What he interjected of himself, caused me at least to consider him a reliable narrator A book, a story, not to be forgotten. The Tragedy Of The Donner Party Constitutes One Of The Most Amazing Stories Of The American West In Eighty Seven People Men, Women, And Children Set Out For California, Persuaded To Attempt A New Overland Route After Struggling Across The Desert, Losing Many Oxen, And Nearly Dying Of Thirst, They Reached The Very Summit Of The Sierras, Only To Be Trapped By Blinding Snow And Bitter Storms Many Perished Some Survived By Resorting To Cannibalism All Were Subjected To Unbearable Suffering Incorporating The Diaries Of The Survivors And Other Contemporary Documents, George Stewart Wrote The Definitive History Of That Ill Fated Band Of Pioneers An Astonishing Account Of What Human Beings May Endure And Achieve In The Final Press Of Circumstance Ordeal by Hunger is, um Dated is the kindest word I can think of The naivete of Stewart s racism is almost charming except for the part where it makes me want to throw the book across the room He s also prone to sentimentality about the heroism of the men of the party and the pathos to be milked from the plight of the women and children, and I object to the explicit trivializing of the children s experiences and equally explicit privileging of the men s There is the story, for instance, of how little Eliza Donner cried herself to sleep that next night because Miller had promised her a piece of loaf sugar if she would walk a certain distance, and then had harshly told her that there was no sugar And then how, the morning after, he would have beaten her because she would not walk, if Foster and Eddy had not peremptorily stopped him But after all, this is only the pathos of childhood, not the tragedy of strong men in the struggle with death And before we judge Miller too harshly, we must recall his heroism when on the night of the storm he labored with McCutcheon to keep the fire going The man had been in the snow for nearly three weeks, and had been to the lake twice if his nerves were frayed out, we may forgive him 201 Eliza Donner was three years old and had been trapped in increasingly desperate, grotesque, and outright horrific situations for nearly six months I can do the math, even if Stewart can t Also, if we go by his own definition the tragedy of strong men in the struggle against death I think Eliza s mother, Tamsen Donner, deserves far attention than he gives her There s no excitement or romance to Tamsen Donner s heroism Stewart is really not interested in the people who stayed in the camp by Truckee Lake, only in those who crossed the pass, and thus Tamsen Donner, who refused than once to make the journey because she would not leave her dying husband, is mostly off his radar And her death, mysterious and grotesque as it is she survived everything only to die and be eaten by Keseberg who very possibly murdered her less than a month before he was taken out seems to me every bit as tragic if we must assign a valuation to such things as that of Stanton, who made it safely to California twice and died because he came back to help the rest of the party.But honestly, I object to the imposition of narrative values onto history Making it into a story particularly making it into the story of strong men in the struggle against death obscures the truth Eighty seven people were trapped on the wrong side of the pass Forty two of them by my count were children under 18 and thirty of those forty two were under 12 , and one of the most dreadful aspects of the situation is what happened to those children as their parents either died or left them behind or in the case of the little Donner girls, tried to send them ahead Neglect and starvation were the best they could hope for without their parents protection and at least one parent turned against her own child before she herself died , and some of them didn t even get that much, such as Harriet McCutchen, age 1 Seared into her Patty Reed s memory was the plight of the McCutchen baby, after its mother had departed with the snowshoers When the lice pardon me, sir were literally eating it up alive It had scratched, broken the skin over its little bones The adults in the cabin, apparently recognizing the child s fate, but with euthanasia not part of their philosophy, tied its hands down so that it could no longer scratch, and let it cry until the crying ceased 244 And notice the way Stewart dehumanizes Harriet McCutchen he never calls her by name except in the roster of the Donner Party appended on pp 291 2, behind both his narrative and the primary documents He applies Victorian sentimentality to children where he can where he can t, he treats them as almost sub sentient Unimportant.And, yes, many of these problems are due to this being a book written in 1936, and, yes, I will be looking for recent scholarly work But this is a good object lesson in the distortions created by the insistence on creating a narrative out of history, especially a narrative with value judgments inherent in its structure, and in the distortions created by the patriarchal bias that says Men Are Important I don t for a moment deny that the men s experience is as important as the women s or as important as the children s I just deny that some animals are equal than others. In the longstanding tradition of adoring nonfiction where historical people suffer and die and suffer some , I loved Ordeal by Hunger Donner Party tales are a dime a dozen It is arguably the proto die and suffer nonfiction A group of pioneers whose tragedy was built for consumption Even back in 1846, the story quickly traveled back to the East Coast, reproduced in countless local papers, despite the lack of telecommunications or trains It is a story that must be told.Author George Stewart s depiction emerges from the many depictions of this story for two reasons First, it recognizes the need for build up We do not begin the book with the Donners racing to cross the Sierra as winter approaches Rather, we begin way back in Wyoming, at the end of July, as the wealthy pioneers decide to take the Hastings Cutoff through Utah instead of the traditional California Trail Route that edges northward to Oregon before coming back down Stewart delivers the exposition in a way that pushes the Donners to fall from the highest heights possible His second successful tactic is his devotion to consulting the primary sources Relying heavily on diaries and firsthand accounts, he never lets you forget this all happened.As a noted Oregon Trail junkie and connoisseur of the survival tale, I consumed Ordeal by Hunger like insert punny Donner cannibalism joke here I felt giddy reading it in the way only the best stories fictional or non can do. True life horror story of the Donner Party emigrants that end up stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1846 Originally written in 1936 and revised in 1961, it pulls no punches while still maintaining an objectivity that avoids lurid sensationalism A bit dated in style and ethnic sensitivity It s a little like a Tolstoy novel because of the number of characters involved and the back and forth of the various parties and rescue missions.You will never forget the vision of the rescuers finding some of the enfeebled, dead, and starving survivors at the bottom of a 25 foot snow and ice crater surrounded by the half eaten corpses of their neighbors and family, their entrails still in the stew pot over the fire.At once a testament to both the heroism and desperation that humanity is capable of Murder, greed, and selfishness are just the beginning.It s a classic of survival literature that never fails to fascinate and hold us in suspense even as our stomachs churn.Contains the Reed and Breen diaries as appendices as well as the 12 year old Virginia Reed s account of the harrowing journey. This was a fascinating tale of true strength and bravery like no other I have read My boyfriend is a truck driver so he drives Donner s Pass a lot and he has told me about it, so when I saw the made for TV mini series on the Weather Channel over Thanksgiving, I knew I would want to read about this ordeal Boy, what an ordeal I mean being in cold freezing snowy weather when people were dropping like flies and then eating them in order to survive I WOULD DIE IN A HEART BEAT Excellent book and an interesting tid bit in history. Stewart focuses on forming an accurate logistical picture of the travels and trials of 87 members of the Donner Party against a harsh environment, whose wagon train came together around July 1846 near the Great Salt Lake and headed to California over a newly inspired yet little tested route over a dangerously steep pass in the Sierra Nevadas, which the trusted and well traveled Hastings recommended they try in order to save 300 miles had they taken the known and therefore safer emigration trail around the mountains Unfortunately the going is rough in Utah and Nevada, and they are doomed to hunker down and camp beside what is now known as Donner Lake This tale of tragedy and triumph ends in April 1847, after several relief parties often comprised of family members of the original caravan made successful rescues over the course of the long and brutal winter featuring several devastating storms packing snow 30 feet in some parts Amazingly, 42 of the 87 characters many of whom are painted in thin brushstrokes by the author, but just enough to begin caring about them make it out of the mountains and down to Sutter s Fort in Sacramento, a lush valley ripe for settling, and the promised land which was the basis for most of the families making the trip in the first place Many, including the Donners, had been farmers in the midwest, and envisioned taking a grand adventure in a well orchestrated way books and goods and kitchen utensils and blankets all packed into wagons driven by teams of oxen with cattle and pack animals behind providing comfort for the many women and children, some as young as one year old The families were mainly of Irish and German and English descent, and we get a glimpse into the different and resourceful ways they survive, as the elements ultimately cause each family to fall back on itself for support As a city dweller in the 21st century, I could only marvel at the kind of grit and determination displayed by these pioneering folk 200 years ago As the winter progressed, the snowbanks rose far above the chimney tops of the cabins they built lakeside Game was scarce Only timber and religion were of endless supply to them The ones who were snowed in at the camps had mostly to combat slow starvation and cramped conditions They lived off of rawhide before resorting to cannibalism as a last resort on the well preserved bodies of the dead in the snow Some went mad The ones who ventured out from time to time in last ditch efforts to cross the towering pass to the 100 mile or so stretch of canyons and valleys which lay on the other side to take them down to Sacramento, showed incredible tenacity and spirit Others were selfish and cowardly, and abandoned all scruples in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds Such was the kind of language the author used to recount the stories A bit old fashioned but powerful nevertheless, and kept me reading well past my bedtime Here are some vivid images circling my mind still, well portrayed by the author A man wrapped in blankets propped up against a snowbank beside a campfire, smoking the last of tobacco after saying goodbye and courageously telling the hikers to go on without him, and left behind to die alone in the mountains Five women who made it over the pass on snowshoes, coming into an Indian camp looking like skeletons on broken frostbitten feet and half clothed, being taken into warming huts and given acorns to break the starvation A father returning two months after leaving his children in the camp, on a relief mission funded by the rudimentary California Mexican government, and finding his 8 year old daughter sitting on the edge of the roof of the cabin he built for them, her feet scraping the receding snowbanks In the time he was absent, he had survived war, flood, fire, starvation, cold, and thirst Unlike the others, his entire family would survive the ordeal and live to tell Another image of a group of nine hikers, long starved, mostly young children, holding on for dear life in the midst of a snowstorm in the mountains, 30 feet down in a hollow made by a campfire which grew and ultimately sunk down into the snow by the heat, and made a space large enough for all of them to climb down into, to stay warm until days later when they were found One who had died there had their liver and heart taken for boiling for sustenance of the remainder Solitary men and women at Sutter s Fort, finally arrived, gazing back to the foothills every day, wishing and wondering whether their loved ones were still alive on the other side. I read this book for two reasons 1 I grew up in northern California and we would drive through Donner s Pass from time to time.2 I ve been into true survival stories lately, most notably 127 Hours and the 1972 Uruguayan plane crash It s almost hard to believe what they went through, even before getting trapped in the mountains They got lost, had to carve their own trail, attacked by Indians, and almost died of thirst on the Salt Lake flats That s before they got trapped in the Sierras and had to resort to cannibalism It s definitely one of the bleakest books I ve ever read There wasn t helicopters for a rescue, and there were children involved It s hard not to blame it on men s stupidity and arrogance What type of men would bring their women and children on an untested shortcut when there was an established and safe trail Though no one deserved what they got for their fatal mistake, that s for sure.It s a thorough and the most famous telling of the ordeal There were heroes and cowards, like there are always in times of trouble, though rarely this extreme It was written in 1936 so the language tries to make it seem like some great adventure sometimes, and there are obvious racial and sexist bias But it s an interesting read, if a bleak one. Most people know at least a little bit about the Donner party of 1846 Probably all of them know something about the cannibalism The whole story of the Donner Party is so much fascinating and important than the sensational tidbits that might get tossed around in casual conversation Ordeal By Hunger was written in 1936 90 years after the events it describes and vividly tells the story of hardships endured by a handful of rugged individuals and families who followed their dreams and sought out the adventure of a new life in the unsettled and disputed territory of California One decision that of following the unproven but shorter Hastings Cutoff rather than the traditional California Trail precipitated and one could argue directly caused their future calamities.This is a book that I would recommend to almost everyone except, of course, for young children and the very squeamish It made me, than ever, appreciate what we have today and realize the true strength and endurance of the human spirit and its desire to explore and its will to survive. I ve never read anything by George Stewart before and discovered him by way of Wallace Stegner s Big Rock Candy Mountain This was truly a page turner and well written It was written in 1936 so was probably the first book about that incident He seems to have done a lot of research quite a few of the people had left journals and of course about half of them survived He mentions that one of the survivors was still alive at the time of his writing but he she must have been pretty old as the ordeal took place in 1846 Stewart is a good writer so that added to the suspense of the story There have been a lot of stories about the Donnor Party but this one seems to be the real deal I highly recommend it if you can find it I plan to read by Stewart.
The Stand .His 1941 novel
- 392 pages
- Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party
- George R. Stewart
- 27 July 2019 George R. Stewart