Saturday, February 16, 2013

History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra by Charles F. McGlashan



Why I read it: I was engrossed by the Ken Burns documentary while in college, and have even visited Donner Pass.

Summary: America's most famous tragedy inolving cannibalism. Pioneers heading for California cannot beat winter to the Sierra-Nevada Mountains.

My Thoughts: I wasn't around when it happened, so I might not truly have the right to say these words fairly, but I don't think there's any blame to be had in ths tale as far as the cannibalism goes.

The problems are many-fold, though. First, I'm temporally out of context. I'm not living in 1847 reading the newspapers of the day, and am unsure of what societal mores I would have carried, what early Victorian sensibilities would have swayed my thoughts. I also don't know if America has since had a "coming to grips" with the notion of "survival at all costs." If we have, it probably had to do with this very event. It was the precedent.

I think, too, though, that never having been in the position of starving to death with a warm dead body lying beside me, I am noit qualified to say whether or not I would do it. I am willing to bypass passing judgment under the weight of the evidence as I have it.

But the book itself provides another problem. The author, a late Victorian Era journalist, interviewed survivors of the tragedy (a little more than half of the 90 pioneers made it through) and, in the fashion of the day, made exalted heroes of them. Every character sounds, in quotes, like an English professor, using words no one ever uses in average convsersation. The accusation against the author was that he was too close to many of the people he interviewed, and the story was skewed into their favor because of it. If that is true, then I don't have the proper evidence to pass judgment.

In the end, that's the big question that looms over your head as you read. What would you have done? Cannibalize or die?

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