Desperate Passage

Desperate Passage

The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

Book - 2008
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Publisher: Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2008
Description: 288 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., map ; 25 cm
ISBN: 9780195305029
Branch Call Number: 979.4 Rar


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IndyPL_RyanD Feb 01, 2020

Desperate Passage is Ethan Rarick’s overview and analysis of the infamous Donner Party that travelled west from Independence, Missouri with the eventual goal of reaching California in the 1840s. Rarick’s style of writing makes readers want to keep reading in order to find out what happens next. He also does a good job in explaining why members of the Donner Party wanted to settle in California, and he documents experiences of the Donner Party such as receiving bad advice to travel through the muddy and harsh terrain of Utah, which contributed to them later getting stuck in the Sierra Neva Mountains in the winter and where some members resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The book concludes by exploring how some strong family units survived the trip as opposed to single men who died at higher rates during the journey. Rarick also concludes the book by discussing newspaper headlines from the time period, their sensationalist news coverage of the event, and portrayals of the Donner Party as mentally unstable. This book is a great resource for its insight on the Donner Party and for the exciting writing style of Rarick.

Mar 09, 2015

In the modern American lexicon, the Donner Party is synonymous with cannibalism. The average person knows next to nothing about these people or what drove them to do what they did, but everyone seems to know the one detail that matters: They ate each other. The actual truth is more nuanced than that, but there's no getting around that the story of the Donner Party is one of the most infamous examples of cannibalism in human history.

Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage starts at the very beginning, at the head of the California Trail in Independence, Missouri. It was May 1846 and, as the pioneers of the time knew, that was an awfully late start date for a wagon party heading west. The risk of winter arriving before they did was too high. This was the first of series of unfortunate decisions that would, compounded over time, lead the emigrants towards historical notoriety.

Two points jumped out at me while I was reading. (1) To be trapped in the mountains during the early winter of 1846 under the circumstances that led to, not immediate death, but cannibalism was a result of an improbable confluence of timing. It's like the stars aligned in the worst way—geographic terrain, time of year, etc. Each factor had a small window that could lead to big problems and in each case the timing was disastrously perfect. (2) The Donner story is one of extraordinary actions under unimaginably desperate conditions, and yet the tale that people told for half a century afterwards painted the survivors as monsters. Why the lack of sympathy? Rarick supposes when sharing stories of westward expansion, of manifest destiny in other words, the storytellers preferred optimism over despair. The tragedy occurred just a few years ahead of the California Gold Rush and it's not hard to imagine that pioneers wanted reasons to push onward, not to stay away.

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