Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party. George R. Stewart. 1936. 392 pages. [Source: Online]
First sentence from the preface: The misadventure of the Donner Party constitutes one of the most amazing stories of that land of amazing stories, the American West. It is worthy of record as a historical document upon what human beings may achieve, endure, and perpetrate, in the final press of circumstance. This account is intended for a full and critical history of that ill-fated band of pioneers, and has been made possible by the remarkable preservation of detailed records. It is strictly factual, based upon the evidence of the sources and upon reasonable deduction from that evidence; it is not fiction.
It almost goes without saying that the Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party won't be for every reader. It is a nonfiction account written in 1936 by George R. Stewart.
To put the book into a little context, there were two survivors of the Donner Party still living--Naomi Pike and Isabella Breen--when he began his first draft of this nonfiction narrative. Both died before the book's publication--one in the spring of 1934 and the other in the spring of 1935.
Stewart stresses that this book is nonfiction and not a fictional treatment of the Donner Party. That his narrative is derived from factual accounts. He drew from contemporary letters and journals, works written and published soon after 1847 (including oral testimonies), and works written and published after 1870 (including autobiographies and memoirs).
The book opens with a decision--a decision to take a shortcut recommended by a fellow named Hastings--that would increasingly prove fatal. It is here with this decision that "the Donner Party" came into existence. These were the wagons that broke away from the main wagon train--who were also going to California but by a different route.
His narrative provides an overview of the tragic events in 1846/1847. Sometimes his narrative focuses on specific individuals and perhaps may be said to reflect a more personal account of those events. But overall I wouldn't say his narrative style is personal or intimate. His account doesn't so much focus on feelings and emotions--trying to put the reader inside the minds of those who lived and/or died that winter--but on the actions and deeds.
Contemporary readers may fault Stewart a couple of things. One that his narrative focuses almost exclusively on men (and boys). The narrative doesn't ask if the women were equally heroic, brave, determined, hard-working, and/or strong as the men. Occasionally, he does shift his focus to the women--briefly, very briefly. But honestly the women, for the most part, weren't the decision makers on this trip (or any trip). What choice did a woman have if she disagreed with the decisions? It's not like she could abandon the wagon train, her family, her supplies and set off cross country on her own to try to find a better way to California.
In the case of the Donner Party, it wouldn't be completely unfair to say it was like the blind leading the blind. They didn't have an actual, physical guide guiding them along the route. They were following some pretty sketchy written guides that didn't exactly prove all that accurate. The decision makers were making best guesses or not-best guesses as the case may be. But they had no way of knowing--after that one big decision coming at the beginning of the book--if their decision would be WISE or FOOLISH. They had no way of knowing/predicting the future.
Another thing that may prove difficult for modern readers in Stewart's text, is his treatment of other races--specifically Native Americans and Mexicans. This mindset when you think about it isn't all that unexpected. He is writing an account of settlers and pioneers traveling in 1846/1847. Manifest Destiny. The West is yours for the taking. It is yours if you want it, if you work for it. COME, COME, COME. That the settlers themselves felt entitled to it, well, it shouldn't be surprising. Many of his sources would have had this perspective or bias. Stewart was also writing in the 1930s. Perhaps western films and shows weren't in their golden era just yet--but if not yet, it was still coming. Now his descriptions of events--the way he phrases things beyond telling the bare facts (which can't be changed, can't be erased, can't be cancelled)--is cringe-worthy and offensive.
If in the story I have told much which is unpleasant and much which the actors themselves would have been glad to let be forgotten, I may at least plead that I have told all in charity. I blame none of the emigrants for their acts during that winter, any more than I should blame a man for his acts during a delirium. Upon controversial points I have honestly considered both sides, and have given each a chance to speak, in the notes if not always in the text.
A microcosm of humanity, to be tested with a severity to which few groups of human beings in recorded history have been subjected, destined to reveal the extremes of which the human body and mind are capable — and yet to the eye of the trapper or wandering Indian merely one more emigrant train going west.
From the very journey which they made they must indeed be called pioneers, but they cannot be called frontiersmen. They were merely country-folk and townspeople of the middle-west, not mountain-men...By now they had adapted themselves to the routine. To the mere hardships of the life they were inured, used as they were at best to but few of the comforts of civilization. But this was not the life to which they were accustomed.
Worst of all, they were playing — and they knew it — against Time, and they had lost the first game.
Hatred and inhumanity walked beside the wagons.
But in the game which the emigrants were playing against Time, the score could not be evened by a rifle bullet, and it stood heavily against them. During those last days of October snow fell as they moved along. The cattle had to nose through it for grass. On the distant mountains it lay white upon the pine-branches. Winter was in the air; it was bitter cold, and the sky was bleak.
Sensing the crisis, some of the emigrants urged a bold push forward, but most of them were too exhausted to make a further effort. So they prepared to spend the night as best they could upon the snow. They gathered about the fire, and had something to eat. Then they laid blankets and buffalo-robes on the snow, put the children to bed bundled up as well as possible. The men and women huddled about, some making themselves beds, and some sitting crouched by the fire. They were too weary now; they would cross in the morning. Then it began to snow.
Back across the lake, as they looked through the darkening atmosphere of the short winter afternoon, they could see the solid rampart of the pass, a mass of snow unbroken except where bare precipices stood darkly out. It was November 4th. The trap which had clicked behind them at Fort Bridget had closed in front.
Every week now was making a perceptible difference in the emigrants. Beaten upon by blizzards, half starved, they now had more and more difficulty in cutting and dragging firewood through the deep snows. They began to suffer from the cold. About this time they must have begun to notice what afterwards seemed to them so astonishing. The women stood the strain better than the men did. Whether food was apportioned by individuals rather than by size, whether the men did more physical work and therefore expended more energy, whether the constitution of a woman is more enduring than that of a man, whether merely in these individual cases the women were hardier — these questions cannot be surely answered. Most likely several of these factors were at work, but certainly, with some exceptions, the men failed sooner.
When men abandon a sinking ship, so the stories go, they at first conduct themselves with some degree of steadiness and order. But as the ship lurches more heavily, they feel the tension, and the rhythm quickens until the last moments are a wild running about the decks. Then the boats go down with a run; men leap overboard; and the vessel dips to the final plunge. So the rhythm seems to quicken in the rescue of the Donner Party. Glover’s men had doggedly pushed ahead in a spirit of calculated audacity; Reed’s party had been more hurried; and now Eddy and Foster with their two aids seen by comparison to run, as if they felt the ship settling beneath them.
A little after midday they came to the cabins. They found no one alive. Around them lay a scene of filth and mutilated corpses, even worse than that which earlier relief-parties had been forced to witness. The seven men stood speechless and awestruck, and as the intense silence of the forest seemed to sweep in upon them, even Fallon, the mountain-man, felt the creeping horror.
Probably the best way to feel the actuality of the story is to travel through its setting. For the country is tangible and solid, now as then. And for this reason, I have in the telling often stressed the scene until the reader has, I hope, come to feel the land itself as one of the chief characters of the tale.
The very fact that it may be called spectacular should warn us, however, against the fallacy of considering it typical. It is no more typical of the wagon-journey to California than the last voyages of the Titanic and the Lusitania are typical of the trans- Atlantic passage. Emigrants ordinarily suffered hardships along the Humboldt, and had a difficult struggle in getting over the Sierra, but they also had some good times upon the road, and often got through to California in good enough health and spirits.
One turns naturally to the question of what caused the disaster of the Donner Party. It was of course the direct result of their taking the so-called cut-off advocated by Hastings. But who was responsible? I have found widely spread a tendency to blame the emigrants themselves, to consider that they, or at least their leaders, were a pig-headed, ignorant lot who thought they knew more about matters than other people did and who by blundering ahead brought upon themselves pretty much what they deserved. As I have tried to show in the first chapters of this book, such an attitude is not well based.
I do not maintain that the men, or even the women, of the Donner Party were faultless, that they always made the right decisions, or that they were immune from the ordinary human shortcomings, including that of common stupidity. I do not believe, however, that they had more than their share of such weaknesses. And I object strongly to the smug conviction that because they starved to death we of a later day knowing only very different conditions can conclude that it was all their own fault.
Nevertheless, the cannibalism, although it might almost be called a minor episode, had become in the popular mind the chief fact to be remembered about the Donner Party. For a taboo always allures with as great strength as it repels.
The story of their ordeal is not pleasant. Few, I fear, will find it always easy reading. But after all, the merely pleasant It is thin and bloodless; a picnic in the park scarcely gives humanity a chance to show of what it is capable. Not of that sort, all will agree, is this adventure in the snow. Here, if anywhere, we see men and women and children put to the final strain of body and spirit. Yet suicide finds no place in the story. And since these too in great part endured, others in evil circumstance may be encouraged to fight boldly. By this, their story may even be said to meet the demands of some that literature should serve an extraneous social purpose. For though despair is often close at hand, it never triumphs, and through all the story runs, a sustaining bond, the primal force which humanity shares with all earthly creatures, the sheer will to live.
© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews