If one just read the title of the book without reading the sub-title, you wouldn’t know what, if anything, this book was about. The title initially caught my eye but when I read the sub-title, I was totally intrigued:
“The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride”
The title comes from a haunting poem by W.B. Yeats, called “A Dream of Death” – the poet dreaming about the death of a loved one in a foreign place:
And they nailed the boards over her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above….
Haunting is one good description of this book. I’ve heard bits and pieces, mostly lore (which means some true, some not so much), about the Donner Party and their ill-fated trek to California. The author, Daniel James Brown, takes the reader on this journey through the eyes of one member of that party – Sarah Graves Fosdick.
Sarah was a newlywed, married just before her family’s trip to California from Illinois began. Her husband had decided to leave his own family and travel to seek a better life with his wife’s family in California. See Tombstone Tuesday – The Tale of Two Sarahs.
The book chronicles the step-by-step journey of the Graves family as they left Illinois to head to St. Joseph, Missouri and then on to the trail that would lead them to California. They became part of the Donner Party, headed by two brothers, George and Jacob Donner, and James Reed. The travelers wearied of the journey (as would be expected) along the way, and the author includes many details about the obstacles they faced before they were stopped because of heavy snow and cold weather months later.
Then the horrors we’ve heard of began … these people are in despair, and desperate people do desperate things. These were probably God-fearing people who a few months before would have never even considered what they did just to try and survive.
I probably should just stop here and not relay too much information about the details – definitely something you should experience yourself and draw your own conclusions. I’m sure theories abound as to how and why this horrific event occurred. One thing I observed is that they probably relied too heavily on the “advice” of one Lansford Warren Hastings, whose book “The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California” over-sold, shall we say, the dream of prosperity in what was then a foreign place (California was part of Mexico at the time).
I believe Daniel Brown took excruciating care to research beyond the stories of the Donner Party which have been told (or fabricated) over the years. He meticulously drew from multiple resources, all listed at the end of the book. Perhaps because he had family members of his own who were witness to this event in history, he wanted to handle it with the utmost care, dignity and integrity.
All in all, a fascinating (albeit sometimes gruesome) story.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.