Ric Burns wrote, directed and co-produced the film The Donner Party. He describes why the story of the Donner party has had such a lasting resonance, and how it fits into America’s grand fascination with the West.
The Year America Went West
The year the Donner party went West, 1846, was the year that historian Bernard DeVoto much later called the year of decision. It was really the big year of the American immigration west. Before 1846 began, California, Oregon, the entire Southwest, weren’t part of America, and Americans tended to think of their country as really going up to the Great Plains and not extending beyond that. But beginning in the early ’40s and then crescendoing in the Donner party year is this fantastic immigration to Oregon, to California and into the Southwest. The Donner party was part of a movement that was not just one wagon train that went wrong, but part of the whole country kind of looking to expand itself, looking to first, dream its own future, and then make it a reality. And so much of what the Donner party is about is a very tragic sense of how very potent dreams led people astray.
Who to Blame?
Any time something goes wrong, people want to find out who’s to blame. And the Donner party — nobody on the wagon train really was to blame. And that was one of the things that I thought was surprising. There was a German-American immigrant named Lewis Keseberg who at the time, in the immediate aftermath, was really reviled because he was the only one of them to talk openly about having eaten human flesh. And so kind of the yellow journalism — the tabloids of their day in California made a great deal of hay out of his monstrous — the fact was that Keseberg, when you look at the record, was really like everyone else. He was a person in a terrible human situation, trying to make — trying to survive.
And one thing that is very humbling and very moving about the actual record is that you discover, really, that it’s a great tragedy that’s kind of a great democratizer. Everyone is reduced to the barest and sort of the most harrowing kind of circumstance, which is the circumstance simply to get by. And it makes you — the more you look at the record, the less you want to judge, because you understand that until you are in that similar situation, you’d have no way of really knowing how you yourself would respond. So that temptation to sort of judge and divide the world up into sort of angels and demons really — the more my partner Lisa [Ades] and I looked into it, the more we understood that that kind of dichotomy between good guys and bad guys wasn’t going to work.
A Written Record
One of the striking things about the Donner party in particular, and the immigration of 1846, is how many people left records from that year. 1846 was the year Francis Parkman went out over the Oregon trail and did the research for the book that became The Oregon Trail. A friend of mine once said that — Richard Snow, the editor of American Heritage once said — that before the Civil War it seemed like there were about 200 people in America, and they all knew each other and the quality of looking at the record migration in 1846 is that they’re all out there. They’re all seeing each other. They’re all interacting on the trail, and they all kind of knew each other or wave to each other along the trail. What that means is that as you’re trying to authenticate accounts, the Donner party, because of the intense national interest focused on the immigration, people knew this was a big event.
It was like the moon shot of its day in many ways. And people knew that that’s where the action was, so there were many reporters, many writers, many people who were amateurs, scriveners at home now reporting back, sending letters back from the trail. So you have an ability to crosscheck on this very narrow avenue, Independence, Missouri, on into Sacramento — or what would become Sacramento — to sort of crosscheck diaries and letter entries. And that’s one way you can authenticate accounts, simply by seeing whose version of things is corroborated by somebody else’s. And also there’s a question of motivation.
James Reed, who is one of the leaders of the Donner party, which is sometimes called in the historical record the Reed party or the Reed/Donner party, was — a critical moment in the tragedy came in October when James Reed and a teamster named John Snyder got into a terrible altercation somewhere along the Humboldt River. The two men came to blows, and James Reed ended up killing, probably in self-defense, John Schneider. James Reed never spoke about this event in the many things he wrote immediately thereafter, after he survived, and in the years to come. He simply never ever talked about it as if he airbrushed out of his account of the Donner party the murder that took place — whether in self-defense or otherwise. And so peculiarly the only thing we know about the murder is not from the murderer’s standpoint but from other accounts, which he didn’t so much dispute as he just remained absolutely poker-faced about it.
The Western Epic
I think there are a couple of epic stories in American history, the story — the war to end slavery is one, the industrialization of the country is another, and the connected and interesting ways to both of those stories is the story, what from the European American standpoint, gets called the conquering of the West. This was truly one of the epic movements in history, certainly in American history. And it’s one of those epic movements that defined the character of the American people permanently. And you can say that about very few events in the life in the history of any nation, and this is surely one of those events. It changed, physically, the nation’s boundaries and just as importantly, it reshaped the imaginative sense of the nation.
It was a profound thing when this country got, not only physically through exploration, but also in through the demographics of mining and farming and settlement, got to reach the Pacific Coast, so to speak. And Frederick Jackson Turner famously in 1893 officially declared that the frontier had closed, that this experience of moving West from the East Coast on towards the Pacific — which had been going on really for 400 years since the first Europeans had arrived in the New World — had now closed. That experience which accelerated tremendously in the middle 19th century as a technological ability to conquer the West increased rapidly with the railroad and the telegraph and other expedients. The second half of the continent was really overrun from around 1846 down to about 1893. And that light — that transformation taking place so rapidly within a single lifetime had a mind-boggling effect on the character of the nation.
A Long Walk
I think there’s no way, unless you get out and walk the trail, to understand what it would mean to walk one mile an hour, about the pace of an average ox, 1,500 miles from the stepping off point into California. And I think the expedient we adopted to try to convey that sense was to try to and make it apparent how as the days went by and the landscape went from being something more or less familiar, more or less like landscape you could see back East and became increasingly harsh and rugged and beautiful in a new and different kind of way. People began to not lose their memories of home, but not be able to remember how long it had been since they’d left that the experience became for them so all-encompassing that it began to feel like it had been forever since they left home, which is, I think, really the way they felt.
They usually started after the rains had — after the rivers had subsided in the spring. And I think by sometime around June, when they got out along the Platte River in Nebraska and the heat increased and the Platte itself seemed to go on forever, people began psychologically to lose track of what day it was. Each day one day would follow so much like the previous day and that sense of having really embarked on a journey from which there was no going back. So those were the qualities where you’re trying to — there’s almost a dream-like quality of following this ribbon of river west as it gradually sloped up the continent towards the Rocky Mountains and that sense of everything familiar falling away. It was those kind of psychological qualities that we hoped we might be able to evoke and that those characteristics would stand for a kind of scale of journey, a slowness of speed, a sheer size of territory which is almost impossible to really imagine. Essentially it was like going to the moon.
One of the most striking and often noted statistics from the Donner party, which had 87 people in it, was that of the half or so who died, two thirds of the survivors — rather, two thirds of the people who survived the disaster — were women. There are many theories that have been put forward as to why that was, ranging from biology like more subcutaneous fatty tissue so you have more calories on board to burn, to psychological theories that women do not panic as quickly under adversity, and that men, two sort of parallel psychological theories, that men for many reasons, most of them biological and psychological, wish to dig themselves out of any emergency they find themselves in, therefore, burnt more calories by exerting themselves too strenuously in a circumstance they couldn’t actually do that much to change.
In the end the most striking reason why women survived in much greater number is actually, to me, much more moving — which is that single women didn’t tend to go across the Oregon/California trail. Almost all the women were in family units in one kind or another. In the Donner party 22 single men out of the 87 people in the Donner party — there were 22 single men who were attached to the party as teamsters, servants, drivers, hired help of one kind or another. Of the 22 single men, many of the men not in families, 19 of them died. So that pretty much accounts in and of itself for that disparate survival statistic between men and women. What it means is that if you didn’t have a family to help you, you fell by the wayside.
The Ambitions of Lansford Hastings
I think Lansford W. Hastings is finally the reason why the Donner party remains one of the most compelling stories. He was like many of the people who founded the West. A kind of a booster enthusiast, something very close to a charlatan, but not quite, who had an absolute irrepressible sense of his own worth and an irrepressible sense of his ability to succeed. And what he saw was that California was about to tip into the American sphere and out of Mexican hands and that if he, Lansford Hastings, were associated with bringing a larger immigration of Americans to California and thereby sped that process of increasing unrest in upper California, he would be associated with its independence, maybe there would be an independent country, the Republic of California, as there was briefly. Maybe there would be a new state in the union, and like Sam Houston in Texas, he would be the founding father.
So he’s a man of enormous dreams and an enormous ambition but of a particularly American kind, which was detached from a sense of the consequence of prosecuting those ambitions, detached from a realistic grasp of the geography of the American West, detached from a realistic grasp of the peril that he was going to be putting men, women, and children, most of whom, almost all of whom, had never been in anything like that kind of geography, the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin. And so he was able to, out of his own selfishness and desire to achieve his own goals, he was able to simply deny the evidence finally of his own senses. He himself began advertising the shortcut long before he or anybody had actually found it.
A Dark, Shining Parable
We live in an age in which you can fly from here to California in, you know, four or five hours, from New York to California in four or five hours. And the present moment that we live in is always so compelling that the dimension, the historical dimension, the dimension we came from is often very hard to grasp. And here was an event that took place within the memory of our grandmother’s grandmother. I mean varied by any realistic yardstick, an event that took place very, very recently. And it was at a time when the country was still so nascent, so under-formed, so much in the process of becoming what it was going to become, and that here sort of like a dark shining parable at the very origin of California of the Western dream is this tale of people who are reaching too far too fast, not because they’re bad, but because they’re human. And I think the story tells us a lot about the possibilities but also the perils of what we now call, glibly, “The American Dream.”
The immediate consequence of the Donner party was that immigration for a little while fell off to California but only for a year or two, then the Gold Rush was kind of like a great river that just sent now a torrent of people west, not to settle farms, but to get gold. I think that the lesson of the Donner party, in a sense, was washed away by that Gold Rush. Ironically the Donner party was really moving through the same gold country, Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento was the destination of the forty-niners as well as of the Donner party. And I think, as so often happens, the poignant lesson of history is usually something that we extract many years later and pride ourselves in being able to sort of point out the lesson, but so rarely is that lesson available in any practical sense for men and women who could avail themselves of it on the scene at that time and place.
The Barker Outside the Tent
The cannibalism becomes like the barker outside the tent. It’s what helps you bring people into the story, but then you end up telling them a story, once inside, that’s actually quite different from what the barker has led people to believe, which is a story of really kind of infinite pain and sorrow and not a story really of immorality and ghoulishness at all, but a story of suffering and stoicism and survival in the face of adversity.
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