My family is fortunate enough to spend some time each year in the beautiful mountains near Lake Tahoe. Our particular spot is near Lake Donner, named after the group whose trek west in 1846 became tragically stuck near what was then called Truckee Lake. Most Americans know the Donner Party because of the cannibalism that enabled some of the group to survive the terrifying winter in the mountains.
But if that’s all you know, I couldn’t recommend more highly Desperate Passage, Ethan Rarick’s new history of the Donner Party. It’s an utterly mesmerizing account of the story, which makes vivid not only the harrowing months in the mammoth snows, but also the extraordinary travails all pioneers faced in the journey west.
As a relatively new westerner, I had no idea how strenuous and slow the trek from Missouri to California was before the railroad came. In the 1840s the 2,000 miles between Independence, Missouri and California was true wilderness. Pace many John Wayne movies, the danger wasn’t the native Americans, who were overwhelmingly friendly in the days before genocide really took hold. The danger was that unprepared and underequipped families were venturing into truly harsh, unforgiving, often unmapped terrain.
The first wagon train went west in 1841. When the Donner Party left Independence in May, 1846, there were probably about 700 wagons heading west. The Donner group was probably the last to set off. That was the first of many errors they made. You won’t read a more gripping book this year.