History Friday – Snowbound

A few years ago, I was offered an opportunity to review a new movie about the Donner Party – which turned to be one of those arty flicks, with some moderately well-known actors in the cast. It was screened at a couple of film festivals and then went straight to DVD. The plot actually focused on a small group of fifteen, who called themselves the Forlorn Hope. As winter gripped hard, in November of 1846, they made a desperate gamble to leave the main party, stranded high in the mountains, and walk out on snowshoes. They took sparingly of supplies, hoping to leave more for those remaining behind, and set out for the nearest settlement down in the foothills below. They thought they were a mere forty miles from salvation, but it was nearly twice that long. (Seven of the Forlorn Hope survived; two men and five women.) The poster art made it seem as if it verged into horror-movie territory – which I usually avoid, having an extremely good imagination and a very low gross-out threshold – but I did watch it all the way through. The subject – a mid 19th century wagon-train party, stuck in the snows of the Sierra Nevada – is something that I know a good bit about. The ghastly experience of the Donners and the Reeds, and their companions in misery, starvation and madness has horrified and titillated the public from the moment that the last survivor stumbled out of the mountain camp, high in the Sierra Nevada, on the shores of an ice-water lake.

Their doom unfolded inexorably, like a classic Greek tragedy. In retrospect, it seemed to historians and the survivors of the Donner Party that every step taken closed off an escape from the doom of starvation, of murder, betrayal and grisly death which waited for them in the deep mountain snows of the Sierra Nevada. They had departed from the established emigrant trail on advice of a man who had never actually traveled along the route which he had recommended in a best-selling guidebook. They lost precious time, wandering in the desert, where they lost supplies and a portion of their draft animals – and what may have been a worse misfortune, at a critical point, they lost a large portion of their faith and trust in those outside the immediate family circle. (There is a omprehensive website about their journey, here.)

And yet, two years earlier, another wagon-train party, the Stephens-Townsend Party had also become marooned in the mountains, on the very same spot. Ten wagons, carrying fifty or so men, women, and children had also gambled against being over the wall of the Sierras before winter blocked the passes. They also had suffered in the Forty-Mile Desert, had also taken short-cuts along the trail, consumed nearly all of their supplies, become lost, and occasionally distracted with personal disputes, and had made the same hard choices. They also had split their party – but by choice rather than chance, exhaustion and accident. They also built rough cabins – barely more than huts and brush arbors – and slaughtered the last of their draft oxen for food. And yet, the Stephens-Townsend Party, with the Murphys and the Sullivans and the Millers, and young Mose Schallenberger and the rest of them – they survived. Better than survived, for they arrived in California with two more than they started with, two wives in the party having given birth along the way. But hardly anyone has ever heard of them. The eighty or so of the Donner Party, the Reed family, with the Breens, the Graves and the rest – under the same circumstances, same kind of gear and supplies – they lost nearly half their party to starvation and perhaps murder, and became pretty much a byword in the annals of the West.

What made the difference; why did one group manage to hold together, under challenging circumstances, and the other fall apart, spectacularly? I don’t suppose anyone could give a definitive answer at this point, although I wrote a fictional account of the Stephens-Townsend emigrant journey experience in an attempt to explore that question.

It was my theory that the Stephens-Townsend people were fortunate in two respects and that would be their salvation. (Of course, they were also hampered in one respect – of not actually having a trail to follow once departing from Ft. Hall, save the faint tracks of the Bidwell-Bartleson party from three years before.) Against that handicap, of having to scout the longest and most perilous section of the trail to California themselves, they had strong leadership, and men among them who were knowledgeable about what they faced generally, if not specifically. Hired guide Caleb “Old Man” Greenwood was one of the old breed, a mountain man and fur-trapper, who had married a Crow Indian woman. Another member of the party, Isaac Hitchcock, who was traveling with his widowed daughter, had also spent much time in the far west. He is thought by some of his descendents to have been an associate of Jedediah Smith, and to have ventured to California, sometime in the late 1820s. In any case, he also had vast experience of surviving in the untracked wilderness which lay beyond the ‘jumping off’ places, all along the Mississippi-Missouri. Their elected leader, Elisha Stephens, one-time blacksmith and all-around eccentric may have been a teamster on the Santa Fe Trail; he appeared to have superior skills when it came to managing the daily labor of moving a number of heavy-laden wagons over rough trails.

The other fortunate aspect which strikes me, in reading the accounts of these two emigrant parties, is that the Stephens-Townsend group was a more cohesive organization. Over half the party was an extended family group, that of Martin Murphy, Senior – his sons and daughters, son-in-law, and various connections. Although they had lived for a time variously in Canada, and in Missouri, they were accustomed to conditions in the far west in the way that the two old mountain men were, and sensibly accepted the leadership of Elisha Stephens. There were enough adult men in Martin Murphy’s extended kin group that they could have disputed his leadership – but they did not. Stephens – odd and difficult though he was – appears to have been trusted implicitly by everyone in the California-bound contingent, even before splitting off at Ft. Hall from a larger group bound for Oregon.

The Donner Party was also made up of family groups, but in reading the various accounts of historians, it becomes plain that during the increasing hardships attendant on crossing the worst stretches, they fractured, with each family left to look after their own. James Reed, who emerged as the strongest and most able leader among them, killed another emigrant in a violent dispute during the arduous passage along the Humboldt River. Exiled from the wagon-train, he borrowed a horse from his friends, and went on ahead, later bringing back help and spearheading the eventual rescue of his family and friends.

But at the time when active and decisive leadership was most required – the ill-fated emigrants of the Donner Party were deprived of it. As historian George R. Stewart described it, their crossing of the 40-Mile Desert – that deathly stretch between the last potable water at the Humboldt Sink, and the Truckee River – turned into a rout. They had lost draft animals, wagons, supplies, many were on foot, straggling up the twisting canyon of the Truckee River. They had no margin for making considered choices after that point. They could only make a desperate gamble on whatever chance seemed to offer slim odds of success over none at all.

It makes for terrific drama, after all. Still, it has never seemed fair that one party should be infamous, and the other barely known at all.

(Cross-posted at my book blog, where I also have a sample chapter of my next book – The Quivera Trail)