Anniversary Post: Donner Party Begins

Donner Party - Page 28 of Patrick Breen's Diary: 'On this day in 1846, the Donner Party set out from Springfield, Illinois. They went on to famously eat each other. As a result, I’ve never been that much interested in it because when I’m hungry I’ll eat anything. So it doesn’t much matter to me. But I bring it up today for a totally different reason.

I had been out of touch with my friend Will for a number of years. I think we managed to independently marry different women on the same day. But when I got back in touch with him, I found that he had become obsessed with the Donner Party. I remember one evening coming over to his place and his idea of the proper way to spend the night was to listen to a lecture on the Donner Party.

Now, on the one hand, I greatly admire that. And I can always use it when Will tells me that whatever I’m currently obsessing about is boring. But it is a little creepy. You haven’t seen a guy for years and all he wants to talk about is cannibalism. I’m not saying Will is a cannibal, but he is very picky about exactly what taco trucks we eat at. Just saying.

The one thing I learned about the Donner Party is this wasn’t the case of people getting stuck and then starving. The whole thing went on for a year. People went off looking for help, leaving others behind. The whole thing seemed very much preventable. If only other people had cared more. But hopefully, Will will notice this post and fill us all in with a comment.

But as I indicated: it just doesn’t seem strange to me that starving people would eat the flesh of dead people. I don’t see the big deal. In fact, I don’t see any issue at all. It is a totally rational decision. Any other decision is just standing on ceremony.

8 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Donner Party Begins

  1. It’s kind of a cautionary tale about unregulated markets. This con artist sold the party on a new route even though he’d never actually found the route before. And people died as a result. If a fishing guide did that today, he’d be in real trouble, and rightfully so!

    • I didn’t know that. But the libertarian would point out that there is no problem, because word would get around and that con artist would quickly be out of business!

  2. My grandmother was related to the branch of the Donner family that _didn’t_ make the trip that year; there are family legends about a distant cousin, a survivor of the trek, who hoarded food in her dotage because she never wanted to be hungry again. I have no idea whether I should believe those legends or not, but they were part of the family lore when I was a kid.

    Anyway, since I have a sort of left-handed right to the name, I’ve long used it as my restaurant-reservation name, just for the fun of hearing it called out when the table is ready. As with so many other things, Randall Munroe took that joke to its logical conclusion…

    I also bought this shirt, which cracks me up inordinately:

    • Ah, like that Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man.” There are so many things wrong with that episode!

      Yeah, I was thinking it. It sounds so natural, “Donner: Party of Six.” Actually: good band name.

  3. Yeah, so the thing we were listening to was not a lecture, but an audio book of, Ordeal By Hunger, by George R Stewart. It is really the definitive work on a the subject and rather a big book. read to us by Jeff Riggenbach….and a fabulous job he does. Here is a link to this work on Amazon
    I used to alternate in listening to this work and a narrative work on the final days in Hitlers bunker.
    Yeah, I already know, I am one fun date.
    Both stories are the result of making a series of poor decisions. Yet, despite the madness that surrounds the characters, effort is made to make the best of circumstances.
    When the first survivors of the Party get through, they attempt to rally support, to send help, but are sidelined by local skirmishes and politics. Their initial attempts are ineffectual and the whole mess languishes for months. It always leaves me shaking my head and hugging my children.

    • Ah. I thought it was a series of lectures, but chapters make sense. As I said: I think eating the dead was making the best of a bad situation. I don’t blame them. I would do the same thing. My only concern would be that the meat was gamy. Regardless, I would be more interested now than I was then.

  4. More should be stated, at least kudos to Tamsen Donner. A doding mother and the wife to party namesake George Donner. Her husband was severely wounded and suffering for the duration of the story. She had at least three opportunities to leave and save herself, but stayed by her mans side through his (and her) demise. The story has the elements it really needs to live on in lore and history books: fateful pride, deceit, profiteering, murder.

Leave a Reply