In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year's westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is known: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival. But until now, the full story of what happened--and what it tells us about human nature and about America's westward expansion--remained shrouded in myth.
Drawing on fresh archeological evidence, recent research on topics ranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters and diaries made public by descendants a century-and-a-half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner party and their unimaginable ordeal: a mother who must divide her family, a little girl who shines with courage, a devoted wife who refuses to abandon her husband, a man who risks his life merely to keep his word. Rarick resists both the gruesomely sensationalist accounts of the Donner party as well as later attempts to turn the survivors into archetypal pioneer heroes. "The Donner Party," Rarick writes, "is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture of generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity."
A fast-paced, heart-wrenching, clear-eyed narrative history, Desperate Passage casts new light on one of America's most horrific encounters between the dream of a better life and the harsh realities such dreams so often must confront.
©2009 Ethan Rarick; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
This is a superb book, especially for listening to while driving in the country traversed by the Donner party members. The amount of research that went into this book is overwhelming. I've never heard of some of these details, nor had I ever studied the event enough to realize the complexity.
It wasn't just that they got stranded on the wrong side of the summit when the snows of Truckee started falling in earnest. Over the course of the trip, there were times over and over when they could have gained a day here or there, thwarted by a flooded river for a loss of three days in one spot, taking an extra day off for a 4th of July hangover, etc. If any one of those events had been changed, sending the party on down the trail just a little faster and sooner, they'd have been able to crest the ridge and struggle into the California settlements.
Poor decision making made an impact, as did a shyster named Hastings, who promoted the Hastings Cutoff as a way to save time. It turned out to be an undeveloped trail that hadn't even been fully traversed by wagons, and the promoter didn't wait to guide them as promised. Trail progress was gained in inches as the roadway was built literally in front of the struggling train.
Had they stuck with known trails, they'd have made much easier and faster progress overall. They lost cattle and oxen during the trip, and when they finally gave up to winter over at the lake, they didn't have enough supplies. Animals wandered away, died under the deep snows, not to be found without grave difficulty. Even when found, the starved animals provided little food.
There were several efforts to push through to California with a few of the members, each group given a name, such as "The Forlorn Hope." Some made it through to Sutter's Fort, and Sutter himself helped in assembling relief parties to rescue the stranded. Some of these foundered in the foothills and lost heart themselves as they rationalized that these people in the mountains must be dead, or else doing just fine with all that livestock to eat.
Meanwhile, the stranded travelers, living in rude cabins roofed with ox hides, were eating everything they could, including the hides that formed their roofs. Eventually cannibalism became the only option left, for all but one family. The escape parties also engaged in cannibalism. The dead had been emaciated when they passed, and they provided little sustenance for those who yet lived.
Tamsen Donner is a heroine, nursing a dying husband while sending her children to safety. The first time she sent them away, paying their guardians a substantial sum of money for their trouble, the guardians promptly dumped the kids with another stranded family that was camping a ways away. A second attempt at getting the kids out went better, but there were casualties in that party. Tamsen didn't go out with the last big group, electing to check on her husband once again, 7 miles by trail in their shabby cabin. She was going to catch up to them, but it was an unrealistic dream, as even strong men could only do some 5 miles or so a day in the snows, and Tamsen had been on starvation rations for months. Of her fate, we have only Lewis Keseberg swearing that she showed up at his cabin after George Donner died, and that she died that night, presumably from the stress of her journey from their own cabin. Did Keseberg help her into that final darkness? Rob her of family treasure?
It's a fascinating tale, though a tragic one. We know a luxurious life today compared to those struggling travelers who spent months in wet or icy clothing, huddled around a sputtering fire while gales howled through the drafty walls.
The narration is very well done.
Average stay at home housewife with 3 kiddos trying to learn about new somethings in the world. Only non-fiction! No time wasters for me!
I cannot say enough about this book. What an incredible story. One of the best things about this book is that there is quite a bit of psychological insight to the mindset of these people.
I highly recommend this book.
I am an eBay seller who listens to approx. a book a day while taking & editing photos of my items. I love a good suspenseful mystery!
Wow! I bought this book on sale and waited months to listen to it because a) I thought I knew the story already (pioneers caught in the dead of winter with no food forced to partake in cannibalism blah blah blah) and b) I thought it might be kind of boring but I couldn't have more wrong! One day I ran out of books to listen to and found this one in my library so I decided to give it a try and all I can say is WOW! This book is brilliantly written, the details have been thoroughly researched and the narrator is excellent! I found this story so engaging I did not want to turn it off! After it was over I told EVERYONE I knew about it!
The story itself is probably one of the most difficult I've ever listened to and yet it tells of a part of history I feel every person should know. Descriptions of the suffering and pain these people endured is in depth and not for the faint at heart however it's also so much more than just about the gore! So much more than JUST cannibalism and that is saying a lot!
This book made me appreciate my life, made me not want to complain or stress out over stupid things but above all this book gave me an excellent perspective on not only how much suffering, neglect & pain one can endure but how truly STRONG the human spirit is and how the will to live can turn a simple human into a super human!
This book is incredible! If you're hesitant to buy it just remember this is not the story you read in high school. You may think you already know this story but until you listen to this book you really don't!
This book is concise, accurate, riveting and flows nicely. The author has done magnificent research and portrays this trajedy in accurate context. He also dispells the earlier myths and exaggerations of the publics understanding of the events. This work explains many of the details of the significant mistakes and decisions that lead the Donner Party to their entrapment in the Sierras. But from there the author clearly lays out the trials and tribulations of their four and a half month horror and the reader learns they simply did what they had to do to survive. This book made me feel a part of the experience. What a tribute to the pioneering spirit that helped settle our West. I cannot pray over my meals or at my bedside without pausing to reflect my own blessings of food, warmth, and shelter. The narrarator does a fine job. Some reviews are simply too critical and expect perfection. The narration flows nicely.
This book taught me a lot about this time era of the pioneers and the harsh stuff these people went through. Amazing what they did and has made me very greatful I haven't had to travel on foot and live through the conditions they had too.
Mom, birdwatcher, and online teacher
Yes, it is one of the few audiobooks that I have already listened to several times. Once you reach the end, the information about the main characters at the beginning becomes more interesting. The imagery that is evoked by the narration is powerful.
Tamsen Donner was my favorite character. She tried to keep the semblance of a normal life for her daughters, telling them stories and fixing their hair, amidst great tragedy.
Inspiring story about all aspects of human nature.
Yes if they like history. The whole first half is nothing but history. It takes forever to get to the story.
I didn't realize that they endured these conditions for sooo long.The least interesting part is you get a way too detailed history lesson before they even get to Donner's Pass.
There weren't any character performences except in the places where letters were read.
No , because it's a nonfiction book.
If you like history then you will like this book, but it takes forever to get to the storyline. Once you finally get there, ,and I mean it takes several hours, it gets really interesting. I didn't know anything about the Donner Party so it was really interesting to learn about. I was in snow storm Nemo and it made me feel very fortunate for what I have. I went 24 hrs without power and being cold but these people went 3-5 months. The conditions they endured were terrible and each family's story was touching. I didn't realize there were so many people that were in the Donner Party. It is sad because most of the families stuck by themselves. I think if everyone had of pooled there resources and come together that things would of turned out differently and alot more people would have survived. It is truly amazing how many people did survive and at the very end of the story you get to find out what happened to alot of them after their horrible ordeal. The narrator did a really good job and kept me engaged through the long drawn out history lesson. Overall this one could either be worth or not worth your time.
I didn't know much, just the basics about the Donner Party tragedy, and found this audiobook to be riveting, and I gained new respect for the pioneer western settlers. This book is based on actual diaries and other accounts of people who were involved, so you get the real story, or at least as much as can be had.
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