Doesn't sound like such a bad deal, huh? Not until I tell you who placed this ad: George Donner of the infamous Donner Party, almost one year to the day before his tragic death in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Many others in the party died in the mountains as well. Those who survived had to resort to cannibalism. It is this for which the Donner Party is infamous.
So what would have happened if you answered this ad? If you were a young man in the 1840s, you may have been California dreamin' -- thinking of sunshine, warm winters, and miles and miles of land for the taking. Some of your friends had probably already headed west on the California and Oregon Trails, and, as an adventure-lover, you were ready to follow suit. Once brothers George and Jacob Donner decided you were a good addition to the team, you would have joined them and their families as they left their farms with six wagons in April 1846.
The Donners were not the only members of the Donner Party. Several other families, including the Reeds, the Murphys, and the Graves, joined them. Men, women, children, rich and poor, yet with one thing in common: they were bound for California!
Up until Wyoming, it was all smooth traveling, a beautiful and pleasant journey. It was in Wyoming that they heard of a shortcut, from a letter left by a fame-seeking explorer. After much debate, they split up, and eighty-nine people, traveling in twenty wagons, decided to follow wagon master George Donner to the shortcut... and unknowingly follow him to disaster.
By the time they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they were exhausted and hungry, families were bickering, and morale was down. In order to gather strength for the difficult mountain crossing ahead, the group rested for nearly a week. Oh goodness, that was a mistake!
To explore the area where they became trapped that fatal winter, the Farzan Party (i.e., my dad and I) heads up in our car to Donner Lake. "It's like 'Take Your Dad to Work Day,'" my father jokes as we journey up the mountain. I am happy to have my dad with me on this adventure. For the Donner Party, family was probably all they had.
It was at these two camps where things started getting ugly. First off, let me tell you how deep the snow was that winter - twenty-two feet.
Twenty-two feet of snow! That is a whole lot of snow. My entire family of four would have to stand on top of each other's heads to be over twenty-two feet. The monument that is built in memorial to the Donner Party stands at twenty-two feet and towers over me. It was the worst winter ever recorded in the Sierra Nevadas.
"Would you have become a cannibal?" I ask my dad. His hesitation in answering the question makes me happy that we have trail mix, crackers, and a melon (a present from my buddy, Tucker) in the car in case we get hungry. It is such a difficult topic to discuss, because we have no concept of what starvation is really like and what tragedies the Donner Party faced. We tend to joke about the idea, because it is uncomfortable to truly have to think about it.
Being faced with such severe circumstances brings out the best and worst in people. The Donner Party should not be remembered just for cannibalism, but also for the positive ways they dealt with this adversity. Families stayed together, adults sacrificed for children, those who were healthier would carry the sick and dying through the snow.
And what happened to the wagon master, George Donner? By the time rescue parties reached his camp, George was dying from a badly infected cut on his hand. Although she was able to walk, his wife Tamsen refused to leave her beloved George and died in the mountains where so many other members of her party had perished.
I have driven by Donner Lake so many times during the winter on my way to Lake Tahoe and always thought to myself, "Yeah, those were the people who ate each other." Now that I have stopped to explore and learn more, I am glad that I will have a better understanding of this story... a story of miscalculation and misfortune, of heroic struggle and grim survival.
Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Neda - A Toyota Tercel named Turkey on the trail of Lewis & Clark