Keeping Up With the Donners

I recently had the opportunity of spending a few days in the lovely mountain community of Truckee, California.

Today, Truckee’s main street is a numbingly trendy procession of fashionable shops, fine restaurants, and sporting goods and service providers catering to the tourists who flock to the area year round from the Bay Area and from around the world.

In the winter they ski at the local resorts–including the politically incorrect and soon to be renamed Squaw Valley (which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1960). In the summer they come to enjoy the hiking, swimming, and boating opportunities in and around nearby Lake Tahoe.

Truckee is not immune to today’s problems; in fact it’s an integral part of them. High end development serving tourists and, I suspect, well-heeled telecommuting Covid refugees, has pushed up demand for housing and labor costs at the same time.

The median home price in Truckee is now $1.2 million dollars, lower-end rental accommodations are going Air BnB, a one room apartment might be had for $1500/month. I recall hearing the story of one unhoused worker who froze to death sleeping in his car last winter.

I would expect not an insignificant portion of the work force has responded to the rise in housing costs by seeking work and more affordable accommodations in nearby Reno, Nevada.

The main street of Truckee was littered with signs offering $18-20 dollars an hour for dishwashers, maybe $30 an hour for a cook. Restaurant staffing in August looked like a children’s crusade and you could find a teenager serving you a beer; I wonder what will happen when the high schools reopen.

Eateries closed early when they couldn’t staff their late shifts; the local Walgreen’s cut back its closing time from 11 pm to 6 pm; and another cavernous pharmacy made do with a single and I might say rather inexperienced guy at the cash register, one person in the back, and shelves indifferently and sparsely stocked.

During my stay in Truckee the wind shifted and the smoke from the immense Dixie wildfire in northern California funneled into the pass, and was bolstered by another sizable fire a few miles west—the River Fire.

I found good use for my Covid N95 masks as the local Air Quality Index spiked through the red and purple ranges—that’s “Unhealthy” and “Very Unhealthy” and peaked out one day at an eye watering “Hazardous” AQI of 370. As I made my exit from Truckee, another big fire burst out 40 miles southwest of Lake Tahoe—the Caldor Fire—and filled the northern half of the Central Valley with smoke.

[When I was originally writing this up I forgot to mention that a hardware store in Truckee got a shipment of air purifiers and sold them out the same morning.  Up in the mountains air conditioning is something of a rarity, so people had to make emergency purchases of purifiers to filter out the nasty stuff.  PL 2021 8 22]

And if you’re wondering, in things Covid Truckee locals seem to be less vax-inclined and more test and hope-inclined in line with America’s more conservative constituencies.

The local hospital was much more busy than it would like to be and there was a 24 hour lag for the Covid hotline to call you back.

For those of you not familiar with California geography, Truckee is where it is because it sits on the vital mountain pass in the Sierra Nevadas that connects northern California to points east. The railroad runs through it, the freeway runs through it, and in the pre-railroad and pre-freeway days it provided passage across the Sierras for emigrants eager to grab a piece of the Alta California pie.

Anyone who possesses a smidgen of knowledge of California history knows that Truckee is the site of Donner Lake, a notorious place where emigrants got stuck and people got et during the horrible winter of 1846-1847.

Thanks to a series of misjudgments and misadventures, a wagon train of 87 emigrants from Illinois known as the Donner Party took some bad advice about a shortcut that turned out to be a longcut, and got to Truckee too late to make it over the pass to Sacramento before the winter storms hit. They hunkered down, ran out of food, and eventually resorted to cannibalism. About half of the emigrants perished before they were rescued. Very sad.

That’s the short version. The longer version is awkward, interesting, and has provided grist for several revisionist retellings of the heroes (and heroines), villains, and lessons of the catastrophe.

The most recent and to my mind best account of the Donner Party saga is Michael Wallis’s 2017 book The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny.

Wallis builds on the foundation of the dozen or so Donner books written over the years and comes up with fresh and surprising insights.

For instance, I learned that Abraham Lincoln—still grinding away at the legal game in Illinois—was actually invited to join the Donner enterprise and seek his California fortune by one of its leaders.

Lincoln decided to pursue his political career in the East instead, but I invite fan fiction and alternative history enthusiasts to speculate on what would have happened if Honest Abe had been on the disastrous trek and how he would have dealt with the omnishambles of error, rancor, theft, murder, and cannibalism that ensued.

The simplest Donner mythos—valiant settlers forced by mistakes and circumstances to commit unthinkable acts—doesn’t really hold up when the disastrous trek is examined in detail.

For instance, the first murder occurred not during the starving times in the Sierras, but when two men sent back to help out a member of the group pausing to bury his wagon (and hide his gold) during a difficult stretch in present-day Utah. They killed him instead and stole his money. Their alibi: Indian attack!

Another man was considered too slow a walker and too heavy a burden to carry on a wagon and was simply left to die on the road.

And, despite the dominant narrative that the snowbound Donner Party had to watch their friends and family die and then make the terrible decision to consume their flesh, cannibalism included murder for meat…Native American meat.

The plight of the Donner Party, scattered in a series of camps around present day Truckee (some near Lake Donner and another a few miles up at Alder Creek), was known pretty early in California. A series of rescue parties were sent over the mountain pass to bring the emigrants assistance and get them out.

The problem was that the horrendous snows kept coming down, eventually making the trails impassable to pack animals, and limiting the food carried to what could be backpacked in.

Rescuers reached Truckee with barely enough food to keep themselves and the emigrants alive for a few days; to avoid starvation they had to turn around as quickly as possible with as many emigrants that were fit to travel and try to struggle back over the pass and into California.

One of the first extractions of emigrants and rescuers, later known as the Forlorn Hope party, found itself bogged down on the return trip for weeks in a series of blizzards. They were starving, frostbitten, and out of food. Rescuers and evacuees started dying and the living began eating the dead.

Conversation turned to slaughtering two members of the party, Miwok Indians, Luis and Salvador, who had been dispatched to Truckee from Sacramento with a team of mules and supplies and were now trapped and starving with the rescue party.

Tipped off by a sympathetic member of the party, Luis and Salvador fled, but were unable to make it back to their home in the California valley in their exhausted and famished state. They were found helpless in the snow a few days later by the Forlorn Hope party, executed with gunshots to the head, and eaten.

The pattern of underpowered rescue teams was repeated at least five times. Two teams simply gave up in the foothills and turned back. The inability to mobilize enough manpower to get enough rescuers and food to the trapped emigrants was an important factor contributing to the intensity of the suffering and the cannibalism.

California then—like Truckee today!–was short of manpower, at least short of altruistic manpower willing to undergo a horrific ordeal in the Sierras in winter to rescue some out of luck emigrants.

The US Army, busily engaged in manifest destiny f*ckery to wrest California from the Mexican government, couldn’t spare the troops.

The 19th century equivalent of GoFundMe—a fundraising appeal to the public in a San Francisco theater–was coupled with financial incentives—that’s to say so much money per day, $50 for every child carried out– to supply the expeditions and rally enough men to risk the trek to Truckee.

The effort to extract the Donner Party had, in addition to genuine heroes, attracted its share of frontier predators eager rob the prosperous emigrant farmers of the gold they had hidden in their wagons and belongings to use in building their new lives in California.

The luckless Tamsen Donner gave two rescuers $500 in gold to take her three children out to Sacramento; they took the money and dumped the children with another trapped family just 6 miles down the valley.

The most sordid exercise was the fourth and final party to reach Truckee, not known as the “rescue” party but the “salvage” party dispatched after the spring thaw. Its members didn’t expect to find anyone living; the local US authority promised them half-share of the goods and money extracted from the emigrant camp, the rest to be distributed among the orphaned child survivors.

The salvage party found one living emigrant, Lewis Keseberg, who had survived by cannibalizing the available corpses. In keeping with their mission, the salvage team members threatened to lynch Keseburg for the alleged crime of murdering the last survivors for food but in the event were satisfied when he disgorged $275 dollars that he claimed he was holding for Tamsen Donner’s children.

Tamsen Donner’s body was never found.

Tamsen Donner has been anointed the great heroine of the Donner tragedy. She was finally able to send her children off with a rescue party but stayed behind to comfort her dying husband, George Donner, even though she was healthy enough to make the trip out herself.

Cannibalism was rife at the Donner encampment and I for one wonder at Tamsen Donner’s robustness.

Was the lifegiving human flesh only given to children, or did Tamsen Donner finally share in it to give herself the strength to trek back and forth for miles through the snows surrounding Truckee to arrange the rescue of her three daughters?

Was it self-sacrifice that inspired Tamsen Donner, a supremely compassionate and sensitive woman, to remain, die, and be eaten in Truckee?

Or was it self-disgust?

Was it the awareness that she had witnessed, accepted, and partaken of America’s ultimate naked lunch that decided Tamsen Donner to die in the mountains amid bones, excrement, and offal instead of building a new life in California founded on greed, robbery, murder, and cannibalism?

Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.