Most of us are familiar with the gruesome fate of the Donner Party, the California-bound settlers who encountered disaster when they reached the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1846. But there's more to this story than the horror of a winter with no food.
Inspired by an entrancing photograph of one of the Donner Party survivors, author Daniel James Brown set out to find the humanity in this grimmest of tales. His fascinating and vividly written book, The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, is now out in paperback.
I talked to Brown about what he found when he traveled – literally and figuratively – in the footsteps of a brave and hardy band of Americans.
Q: Why does the story of the Donner Party still resonate with people today?
Part of it is the American fascination with people leaving reasonably stable lives and heading West into a completely unknown set of circumstances. It's this whole idea of moving West, following one's dreams with the kind of rugged individualism that goes along with that.
Q: What fascinated you about the photo of Sarah Fosdick, the young Donner Party survivor who's at the center of your book?
A: I got it from her great-granddaughter. I looked at it and said, "This doesn't look like a face of a cannibal to me. I want to know who this person is."
We don’t know if this photo was taken just before they left or after the disaster. She looks so at peace and so calm and benign that I suspect it was taken before.
Q: What is mysterious to you about the photograph, which was taken at a time when people tended to be very serious in photographs?
A: It's very cryptic, a very Mona Lisa-like picture. To me, there's a hint of a smile there.
Q: You have a personal connection to the Donner Party yourself, right?
A: My own great-great uncle and his son, my great uncle, both went on the first rescue expedition from California. They'd traveled with the Donner Party across the plains, but had taken a different route into California and had gotten through.
Q: What are the biggest myths about the Donner Party?
A: We've reduced the people in the Donner Party to caricatures of people huddled around a campfire gnawing bones. I'm sure nine times out of 10 that's the image that comes to people's minds.
There was cannibalism in the Donner Party, but it was never wanton, deliberate, or sadistic.
In fact, these were 80 people who were very real and had complex lives. I wanted to humanize the story and help people understand that these were real people with real backgrounds and real aspirations. There's so much more to this story.
Q: What surprised you the most about the story of the Donner Party?
A: I traveled the whole route myself to get a feel for it, and I tried to get to where they were at the same time of the year. I got a real strong feeling of the physical ordeal it was to walk – they didn't ride in the wagons because it stressed the oxen – from Illinois to Reno.
They were really tough people. And the women survived the men by two to one. The men fell apart psychologically much more readily than the women did, and it was the women who were holding the family units together.
Q: What can we learn from this whole story today?
A: You can look at this story and get very depressed and draw grim conclusions about the human condition.
But you can look at it the other way: there are 40 survival stories. There is something in the human spirit that allows people to overcome incredible odds and prevail against completely hopeless circumstances.
I came out with out of it with a sense of renewal and optimism about the human spirit.
Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.