Monday, July 26, 2010

Just One More Day Without Snow

The History Channel, AMC, BBC America, The Weather Channel, PBS, Food Network, The Travel Channel. That’s all. Can I get just the cable channels I want?

I do have basic: 19 channels plus #23. The Weather Channel sneaks its way into my house, clear-imaged but with an annoying static fuzz. So I watch silent radar images, arching fronts, on-scene reporters. Transfixed. I’m a weather geek. I even remember when Jim Cantori had hair.
So this post is how a history nut works her weather passion into this week's theme:
an epic event known simply as “the Donner Party”.

The 1840s. Ahh, such a sweet decade in English literature! On this side of the pond, a booming, mass migration of U.S. Easterners swarmed along trails like ants to the wide open lands of the west. California and its rolling, golden hills waited, just out of reach in each night’s alluring sunset.

The unknown man behind the Donner Party disaster was Lansford Hastings. He’d gone west and come back with the idea of writing a guide book to lead parties westward. A great American success story—if it had worked. Mr. Hastings had never really taken the route he suggested.

April 1846, Springfield Illinois. The Reed and Donner families, among others, head west in multiple wagons, on separate departures, traveling on rain soaked, muddy trails.

Mr. Hastings, always just ahead on the trail, left word he'd wait for any interested parties to join him at Fort Bridger. Hundreds of pioneer families had to make the choice: follow the old tried and true trail, or take a chance on Hastings’ new shortcut. Most took the advice of an old mountain man and took the established route. On July 31st, now nearly half way to California, nine families and sixteen single men split off to follow Hastings.

The new route was brutal. They had to double team their wagons to get them up mountains and through canyons. It took them a month to get where they’d expected to be in a week. Their next message from Hastings encouraged those who’d followed to forge on and prepare for a two day "dry" crossing of the great salt desert. At this point, the end of August, they still had 600 miles to go before winter closed the Sierras.

On the third day of crossing the desert, their water ran out. Oxen died, cattle ran off, never to be seen again. Everyone suffered from exhaustion, dehydration and the extremes of heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night. Much of their belongings were left behind. By the time they made it out of the desert--a five day ordeal, not two days as they'd been told--all the other immigrants from Springfield had arrived in California except for the group known as the Donner party.

Bitterness fed by exhaustion burned through the group. Mr Reed was put out of the camp after killing his teamster for beating an ox. He went on alone, while his family continued with the party, many of whom were now walking to lessen the oxen’s work. A sick old man was left behind to die before a Paute raid took many of their remaining oxen and cattle.

The party reached Nevada's Truckee River on October 18th. One of the men who’d gone ahead for supplies returned with food, two guides, and a new deadline. They had to get through the mountain pass within a month to beat the winter snows.

George Donner cut his hand while fixing a wagon axle and sent the rest ahead. The majority made it to just below the summit and decided to wait for the Donner family. A few days later the entire party reunited near the highest pass. after a brutal uphill battle over muddy, frosty and very steep inclines. They had crossed 2400 miles in seven months. But they missed getting to their destination 150 miles away by one day. That night a blizzard filled the pass with five feet of snow.

They turned back to build a winter camp on Truckee Lake.

The details here are long and arduous, too many and too chilling to recount. Very few will ever know the extremes of weather and hunger the Donner party went through. There wasn’t just snow for one night but days of snow at a time, often blanketing their makeshift lean-tos and huts until they disappeared under the accumulation. By Thanksgiving, twenty foot drifts were common. Some of the party left, desperate to find food and rescue.

Mr. Reed, banned from the party weeks earlier, arrived at their destination in California only to learn the rest of his group had never made it. For five more months, the stranded immigrants fought to survive and rescuers, including Reed, risked all to locate those survivors. You must know by now that some of them did survive.

The details found in first person accounts, diaries and interviews give grueling testament to the power of the human desire to live. Some deny and some admit to resorting to cannibalism. Very few stories can meet this one as a compelling ‘human interest’ story.

On April 21st, 1847, almost one year from the date they left Springfield, the last of the Donner party left Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) to start their new lives in California.

87 started: 41 died, 46 survived.
2/3 of the women and children made it.
2/3 of the men did not.

While the morbid and gruesome nature of this story may stir your interest or disgust you, I find the personal details of their struggle to survive in such extreme conditions fascinating. I complain when it takes too long (more than five minutes) for my truck to heat up in January. I get irritable if I'm unable to meet my appointed meal time and feel hunger for that extra hour. I complain when my cross-country flight is delayed and I have to sit in the airport for an extra 45 minutes.

What could I survive if I had to? What would I do to make sure my children survived?
What about you?

What stories of human struggle for survival have captivated your imagination? Have you ever had to deal with extreme heat, cold, snow or even hunger and thought how absolutely easy our lives are compared to so many others, past or present? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

The Donner Pass photo just above shows cars climbing the same route under the same conditions, well, except for snow plows and the combustion engine. Courtesy of BrianButko. Colorado snows (Header Photo) courtesy of Gregory_y/Flickr.

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  1. Wow, this is really great!!!!!!!!! I am a history geek if you will so I really enjoyed this.I have to say it reminds me of a scripture in either Jeremiah or Isaiah were the Lord was talking to the new generation and telling them to take the old path and they replied that they would not take the old path. When they refused to do this it led them into bondage.Sometimes we just need to stick with what we know is proven to work rather than going off on our own and trying to make our own path.

  2. Oh Louise. Those are sweet words to my ear.
    well both the 'history geek' AND the beautiful words of Scripture. You know, I looked for a tie-in there and it eluded me. Thanks so much for sharing!

    You will find most of my posts centering around history. Love it.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. The exact scripture is Jeremiah 6:16 This is what the LORD says:"Stand at the crossroads and look;ask for the ancient paths,ask where the good way is,and walk in it,and you will find rest for your souls.But you said,"We will not walk in it"

  4. Debra, I LOVE this post. Thank you so much for sharing the details of the Donner party's trials. Your account fleshed-out my own limited knowledge and wow. When I was a kid I used to wish that I have lived in those times. Now that I'm an adult, I'm like you, appreciative of my heater when it's 14 degrees outside. I hope that we never have to endure what those brave souls did.

    ~that rebel, Olivia

  5. Hi, Deb: The story of the Donner party is a hard read for me. I can't imagine what they went through. And my heart always goes out to the poor animals - God's creatures, too - who suffered.

    I suppose one day a generation will look back on us and wonder how we 'did it'. I'd love to find out what they think is so hard for us. I think I'm living in paradise (though we spell it Pair-a-dice here in Vegas) already. I can't imagine it getting much easier.

    I know, I am blessed.

    But I imagine, at one point, the Donner party thought they had it pretty easy, too -- compared.

    Have a great day.


  6. Thanks Louise! A simple truth I've found to be true: shortcuts are not always the best path to follow.

  7. Olivia, years ago, I read the book I show in the blog. I couldn't put it down. Do you know that I often think of this when I'm out in the winter hurrying from one warm place to another? My 62 degree house can feel so cold. (what a wimp!)

    The presentation by PBS American Experience is one of the best I've seen on the 'ordeal'. You can actually get those via Netflix, if you've never seen it, or watch online.

    I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for commenting. It really is appreciated!

  8. Connie, you are such an animal lover. At least the travelers made some effort to relieve the animals' burden as they realized the effort.

    Mr. Reed actually killed his driver for beating an ox, and I don't recall hearing that he ever received any kind of legal action for it. The Reeds went on to be successful businessmen in California.

    I'm so glad you stopped in today! We miss you--Hugs coming your way!

  9. Ooh, what a chilling post today, Deb(literally and figuratively!). I can't imagine the horrors those folks endured. On a field trip to the Mission at San Juan Bautista, we visited a house (now a museum) where several members of the Donner Party eventually ended up. On display are clothes, dolls, and household items they used, accompanied by letters and journal entries. Seeing those things made their terror all the more real.

    Deb, is it still sweltering hot where you live? My parents actually had to turn their heater on this morning. Whoa.

    Thanks for visiting, Olivia and Louise. And Connie, how are you?

  10. Deb,
    From one history geek to another )or should that be to a 'Nutter?') :) incredible information. I've got to say I'm with Connie(Hi Connie!Miss you!) on feeling so sorry for the critters too. I can't imagine. I'd probably been one of the first to drop dead.

  11. Thanks for the interesting story! Weather and history - a great combo!

  12. Susie, we did have a break in the weather this weekend. Last night it almost felt chilly compared to the last two weeks. Today is a perfect perfect weather day in my area.

    I never got up to that area in CA when I was up near Tahoe and Reno. I would like to visit it. California did a nice job of keeping its history.

  13. Hey Jilian!
    I think it's interesting how the women and children fared better than the men. I suppose there are many ideas on why this is so.

    As for myself, my fingers and toes have such poor circulation they 'pain me somethin fierce' when I'm outside in the winter for too long.

    The stories of the people who left the camp and went on in search of help are the most extreme. Imagine camping in/on snow and building a fire that melted down a few yards into the snow by morning!

    Wenda, how familiar are you with the Donner party story? There must be many famous tales of weather survival 'up your way'. I know I personally don't care for the "Alberta Clippers" when they bring arctic air my way. Yet I know your weather is not all that extreme, due to the influence of the Pacific.

  14. Louise, glad to see you hanging out with this cool group of ladies. I've been trying to talk her into joinging ACFW.

    Oh, and I used that Jeremiah scripture in my first novel. Weird story, though. I sort of heard the scripture in my mind, but didn't recall ever reading it. I looked it up in a concordance and there it was.

  15. Okay Louise, you've been 'outed'! ACFW is a great resource for writers, and now you have your second official invitation to join.

  16. Hey Olivia, did you see you won Stephanies book?

    Well, ladies I just had to go and look to see what became of Lansford Hastings. Apparently no backlash for his misguided guide! A few decades later, he wrote another guide. This time for Brazil where many disgruntled confederates had moved to. Can you believe it? After the Donner disaster?

  17. Okay @Dina thanks for "outting" me to the rest of the group lol. Anyways, yeah who knew Dina and I will be joining the ACFW as soon as possible just been a little busy working on some characters in my book as well as writting a devotional on my blog.The first offical one is today.

  18. I always think of extreme temperatures and how easy my life is when I read Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter. No trains. 40 or 50 below zero. Blizzard after blizzard. Burning hay instead of coal. Grinding wheat in the coffee grinder to bake into bread. I can't even fathom how they survived--physically or emotionally!

    But even then, spring came and the snow melted. The story always gives me hope!

  19. Your comment makes me want to go through and read all the Little House books again, D'Ann.

    Okay, I know. It's going to take me some time...
    Welcome Anne Mateer, our newest published author!!

  20. This was very interesting. I think about the Donner party every winter. I also think about the Jews who survived concentration camps. One awful story has the women outside, after showers, dancing and jumping as the temps drop below freezing. How did anyone survive that? I'm also inspired by the strength of the human spirit and body through those stories, the slaves in America who fled and the people who helped them on the underground railroad. Risks that people take to help others. We shall overcome!

  21. Mary, I used to do a lot of outdoor work in my job, heavy work in the hot sun and I thought of the Mormon women who pulled carts across the west to Utah. There are so many amazing stories of human strength and perseverance out there. Thanks for some good reminders!

    Great to see you too!


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