History of the Donner Party (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

History of the Donner Party takes you straight into the most terrifying tragedy of American western emigration. "More thrilling than romance, more terrible than fiction, the sufferings of the Donner Party form a bold contrast to the joys of pleasure-seekers who to-day look down upon the lake from the windows of silver palace cars," writes McGlashan.

In 1846 the Donner Party emigrated across the American prairies toward California. A trip ...
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History of the Donner Party (Barnes & Noble Digital Library): A Tragedy of the Sierra

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Overview

History of the Donner Party takes you straight into the most terrifying tragedy of American western emigration. "More thrilling than romance, more terrible than fiction, the sufferings of the Donner Party form a bold contrast to the joys of pleasure-seekers who to-day look down upon the lake from the windows of silver palace cars," writes McGlashan.

In 1846 the Donner Party emigrated across the American prairies toward California. A trip already fraught with adversity worsened when the decision to take Hastings Cutoff proved fatal. A snowstorm trapped close to ninety wagons in the Sierra Nevada, and those who survived divulged horrific stories.

About the Author:
Charles Fayette McGlashan, an educator, lawyer, newspaper editor, and teacher, is best known as the author of History of the Donner Party. His contribution to the research of this ill-fated journey through the Sierras extended beyond interviewing survivors; on April 21, 1879, he excavated the Breen and Graves-Reed cabin sites, which resulted in the many artifacts from the tragedy.

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Product Details

Introduction

Within two weeks of its original printing, the entire press run of Charles Fayette McGlashan's History of the Donner Party (1880) had been purchased. The first book devoted to an accursed emigrant band who had been drawn to California in the antebellum era, McGlashan's volume continues to shed light on this dark saga more than a century after its debut. Since that time, this publication, which the author based on first-hand accounts and personal interviews with twenty-four survivors, has appeared in more than a dozen editions. The reason for these many reprints stems in large part from McGlashan's unprecedented access to those who lived through an unimaginable ordeal that reduced some to the unthinkable-cannibalism.

A native of Janesville, Wisconsin, McGlashan was born in 1847, a year after prominent sixty-two year old Springfield, Illinois, resident George Donner and his brother succumbed to California fever. The brothers and twenty-five other men, seventeen women, and forty-three children were caught up in the tide of Manifest Destiny, a powerful concept that swept the nation with an almost religious fervor. The lure of lush lands, verdant forests, adventure, and other compelling promises fueled the imaginations of thousands of Americans living east of the Mississippi River. The Donner family, as well as other families including the Breens, Eddys, Graves, Kesebergs, McCutchens, Murphys, Reeds, Wolfingers, and a few unmarried men who were hired on as teamsters, therefore, joined a steady stream of humanity willing to uproot from their relatively secure lives to brave the unknown.

Ahead of twenty-three oxen-pulled wagons full of families in quest of California lay 2,500 miles of prairies, mountains, and deserts. During this period some promoters, including Lansford Hastings, touted the future Golden State as "the garden of the world." An attorney turned would-be empire builder, Hastings wrote The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California (1845) with the goal of triggering a mass exodus of American settlers bound for the West Coast.

George Donner numbered among those who responded to Hastings' persuasive prose. Armed with a copy of The Emigrants Guide , enthusiastic, self-confident, and successful businessman Donner evoked the aura of a patriarch. His demeanor instilled trust in many of his fellow travelers, and they elected him as their group's captain. Thus Donner's name became inextricably linked with the doomed pioneers.

This choice was but one of the ill-conceived decisions that would lead to catastrophe. Donner lacked the experience to conduct a band through unfamiliar, harsh territory. Unlike knowledgeable frontiersmen such as former U.S. dragoon officer and savvy mountain man James Clyman, who had traversed much of the Rocky Mountain region, Donner relied solely on second-hand information. In particular he followed Hastings' recommendations, as did many members of the party who failed to realize the flawed information found in this small, but influential pamphlet. Among Hastings' inaccurate pronouncements was his adamant assertion that a shortcut to California existed to the south of the more commonly trod road to the Pacific.

While Clyman argued against this route, the Donner Party ignored such sage advice. Rather they followed Hastings' advice, a move that all but sealed their destiny. They embarked into the arid wastes of Utah, a decision that almost claimed all their lives were it not for their timely rescue by a band of volunteers who brought them water.

This brush with death likewise cost the party valuable time. They arrived at the base of the mountains, which had to be scaled before snows made them impassable, with winter quickly approaching. To make matters worse, as they came upon the barrier of the Sierras, Piute Indians killed more than two dozen of the oxen required to haul the wagons over the steep passes before them. The loss of a substantial number of their livestock slowed the party's progress even further.

In late October 1846, despite the urgency to press on, the wagon train halted for nearly a week to rest after the grueling trial in the desert. They delayed in the Truckee basin at the very time the first storms set in, cutting them off and stranding them. The incredibly harsh weather, inadequate shelter, and a rapidly dwindling food supply ultimately spelled disaster.

By January 1847, in desperation some of the stranded survivors trudged over the 7,088 foot pass (now Donner Pass) through the mountains in hope of bringing aid. Ultimately, their grueling efforts, and other circumstances brought relief parties, whom themselves faced harrowing challenges before coming to the rescue of the forty-eight emaciated, forlorn survivors during the bitter cold of April.

Fortunately McGlashan, who in 1849 had come to California as a two-year old, did not share the unfortunate fate of the eighty-seven members of the Donner Party. Instead his journey to California and early years there for the most part proved calm. Growing up and reaching early manhood in his adopted state, he became a resident of Truckee, California, by 1871. McGlashan spent most of the next six decades in that community as a lawyer, local booster, politician, naturalist, inventor, and newspaperman. It was this latter pursuit that brought about his decision to run a serial related to the Donner episode for the Truckee Republican , the paper he edited in the mid-1870s. He hoped the advance announcement of this project would bolster declining readership for the paper because the subject of the Donners was widely known in the area. As such, McGlashan reasoned there would be built-in interest among his audience.

McGlashan barely had released publicity for the proposed stories when subscriptions jumped in anticipation of the series. In response, during 1879, McGlashan hurriedly printed a brief version of the project in a special edition of the paper. At the time he had little to draw on for his text except for a few previously published sources. These included Edwin Bryant's What I Saw in California , an account released in 1848 by a man who had been with the Donners on part of the journey through Kansas and Nebraska, and a chapter from J. Quinn Thornton's book Oregon and California in 1848 that presented a grisly tabloid-like rendition printed in 1849.

His first foray into the topic provoked a backlash from at least one of the Donner family members. Benjamin Wilder, the late George Donner's son-in-law, questioned McGlashan's accuracy. He called for a meeting of survivors to review the matter. McGlashan responded in the May 20, 1879, issue of the Republican that he had taken great pains to publish "all the important facts of the history" in his paper "and as an error appears is corrected forthwith." Not content to let the matter rest, McGlashan continued his investigation. Besides reviewing letters, journals, and written materials, he sought out members of the Donner wagon train and others with direct knowledge of one of the most tragic events of the Westward movement. He succeeded in locating dozens of informants. In a number of instances he obtained extensive cooperation from those who remained alive or from their descendents. Among them, Judge James Breen, one of Patrick Breen's children, supposedly encouraged McGlashan to set the record straight. The result was an expanded and greatly altered version from his original writings. McGlashan's second effort also painted a more positive and detailed picture than previous publications and oral tradition had provided.

At first McGlashan received praise for the thoroughness of his revised work. In fact, Hubert Howe Bancroft, whose extensive late Victorian era encyclopedic studies of the American West set the standard for generations of historians, enthusiastically effused: "C.F. McGlashan published a volume on the subject [of the Donner Party] in 1879, treating it in a manner that has left little or nothing to be desired".

Despite this enthusiastic reception, McGlashan's literary endeavors would not rise to the importance of Bancroft's publications, nor the classic Oregon and California Trail by Francis Parkman. Later critics also charged McGlashan with extreme sentimentality. Moreover, he was accused of bias because he had befriended a few of those he interviewed, and in the process became sympathetic toward them and those who perished. The fact that he emphasized only the attributes of the people who suffered from madding thirst, starvation in the shadow of the bitter cold Sierras, and incredible grief of seeing loved ones die under the most abject conditions, brought his objectivity into question. Here again, Bancroft championed the book concluding: "I think McGlashan has done wisely in suppressing details and dwelling on the noble deeds of each member."

Of course, such a defense was in keeping with the Victorian sense of proprieties, but was not the view of later generations of researchers. George R. Stewart was a prominent student of the Donner episode who faulted McGlashan for being too close to his subject. Stewart set out to address the shortcomings of his predecessor in a 1936 volume titled Ordeal by Hunger . Although Stewart crafted a forceful narrative because of his academic background as an English professor, nonetheless his own presentation often reads more as a piece of fiction than an analytical history.

In more recent years other authors, including those who drew upon archaeological evidence, have attempted to avoid the shortfalls of Stewart and McGlashan. Additionally, Ken Burn's episode on the Donner Party for PBS' American Experience provided a major audience with a dramatic documentary based on some of the best research extant. Although lacking the accuracy of Burn's production, One More Mountain , a fictional feature by Disney, took its inspiration from the tragic tale first chronicled in History of the Donner Party . Consequently, the Donner Party would be remembered in the popular imagination along with George Custer's Seventh Cavalry at Little Bighorn and Big Foot's band at Wounded Knee. And generations after McClashan sought out the survivors of that horrible winter of 1846-1847 his volume still allows readers to relive and reflect on the nightmare and redemption of these tortured victims of the westward movement.

John P. Langellier has written dozens of books related to the American West and other historical topics as well as served as a media consultant on film and television productions since 1973. He received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of San Diego, and in 1982 he was awarded his Ph.D. in History from Kansas State University.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 59 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 59 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 18, 2010

    Thorough, touching, chilling................

    This is certainly not the first book I have read on this subject, but it is the best. An incredible, heart-pounding story.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 26, 2009

    The Donner Party

    This book will grab you from the start and you will not be able to put it down. Charles F. McGlashan researched the information and actually spoke to survivors and received letters from them. No one can tell the story as well as those who were actually there and the author takes their experiances and turns them into a gripping story.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 14, 2008

    Captivating!

    I'm about 3/4 of the way through the book and think about it all day at work. I can't wait to get home and read more. It's amazing what the human body can endure, and the remarkable strength and courage of these individuals.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2012

    I love this book

    It is amazing!!!!!!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2012

    Excellent - a must read

    I'm a bit of a history buff so this book immediately caught my eye. How have I never heard this story? Excellent read. I was fascinated with every detail and couldn't put it down. Even after I finished reading it, I couldn't stop thinking about the people involved. How did the survivors go on to lead normal lives? It is amazing what we take for granted in our overly indulged lives. I highly recommend this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2012

    ???

    Is this scary? My teacher says "You should read it if you like tradity.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2012

    Tragic, Gripping

    Once I picked this book up and started to read, I couldn't put it down. Amazing, brave, and gallant settlers. The horrors-one after another plagued this group. Even though this was written long, long ago, it is an amazing and interesting historical account of what it was like in the days of cowboys, indians, and the desire to discover the new territory of the California west. I gave me a renewed interest in history that I thought I left behind in my high school years.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2011

    If you like history, this is a great read.

    This was written about 30years after the fact, the author having interviewed survivors. There's nothing made up so you get the true sense of what happened. A very sad tale.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2003

    loved it!

    This book is so good! I not only read it 1 time, I read it twice. I continue to read it, and have since bought many books on the Donner Party.

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