The Donner Party
Uploaded by sammy69 on Oct 26, 2011
This is an essay about the Donner Party, written in a narrative, not academic, style. (11+ pages; 3 sources; 2 additional suggested readings)
The Donner Party
The tale of the Donner Party and its tragic journey is one of the great stories of American history. It is at once horrifying and inspiring, an almost legendary account of human behavior at its worst, and its best.
In the accounts of the settlers that went west with the ill-fated wagon train, we can see some of the issues that continue to plague society today. There were squabbles over the route; squabbles over food; squabbles over the workload. But there were also larger issues: the dislike of some of the emigrants for the Germans in the party; the factionalism that developed, often along societal lines; and the greed of several men who put their own profits before the lives of the settlers.
We see the same ugliness surfacing in the men who attempted to rescue the snowbound emigrants. More than once, boastful men proved themselves to be craven, and rescue attempts fell apart. Courage and cowardice, greed and selflessness, seem to have been side by side throughout this extraordinary episode.
The Donner Party’s history, at least at the beginning, is not that different from the stories of others going west in the 1800’s. But it almost seems as though the train was destined to fail.
First, there was infighting from the beginning. The man finally picked to lead the train, George Donner (known as “Uncle George”), was not the man best qualified. That title goes to James Reed, younger, stronger, tougher, and more experienced. But Reed was disliked because of his wealth. Donner too was wealthy, but Reed made an ostentatious display of his money, while Donner did not. Early historians, such as McGlashan, whose History of the Donner Party was published in 1896; and George Stewart, whose Ordeal by Hunger (1934) is widely acknowledged to be a classic about the emigrants, both say that Reed had a wagon that he called the Pioneer Palace. It was supposedly a two-story affair that towered over the other wagons, contained unheard-of luxuries, and was the epitome of comfort.
In a much more recent history, Frank Mullen suggests that James Reed would not have set out on such a trek with a wagon that would...