Tony Vagneur: Reminiscing for moment for a bit of perspective, posterity | AspenTimes.com

Tony Vagneur: Reminiscing for moment for a bit of perspective, posterity

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

"After the first few deaths, but the one all-absorbing thought of individual self-preservation prevailed. The fountains of natural affection were dried up. The cords that once vibrated with connubial, parental, and filial affection, were rent asunder, and each one seemed resolved, without regard to the fate of others, to escape from the impending calamity. Even the wild, hostile mountain Indians, who once visited their camps, pitied them, and instead of pursuing the natural impulse of their hostile feelings to the whites, and destroying them, as they could easily have done, divided their own scanty supply of food with them."

— From the California Star, April 10, 1847.

Perhaps a bit exaggerated, but not by much.

The quote came from conditions at the Truckee Lake camp of the Donner-Reed party, snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains, forced into such deplorable conditions by fate and bad decisions. It is not for us to judge them, for in this modern world it seems impossible that dire circumstances couldn't be avoided or at least somewhat mitigated.

Those folks did what many of us might have done, given the time period in which they lived. There were no mountaineers, no explorers or seasoned guides on the journey, so decisions had to be based on lessons learned along the way. There was no defense against bad information.

Already snowbound, a journal starts: "Nov 26. (1846) Began to snow last evening, now rain or sleets; Nov 26. still snowing, now about three feet deep; wind w; killed my last oxen today; gave another yoke to Foster; wood hard to be got. Nov. 30. snowing fast, looks as likely to continue as when it commenced; no living thing without wings can get about."

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Part of a journal "kept by a suffering Emigrant on the California mountains. October 31, 1846 to March 1st, 1847."

The snow eventually reached around 13 feet in depth.

It got worse, as the oxen and cattle were soon gone, dead of starvation and lost under feet of snow; dogs were shot and eaten; hides covering the leaky cabin roofs were boiled and eaten, the gelatinous residue lacking in much taste or nourishment. Finally, with very little discussion, the collective decision came to cannibalize those already dead before they all died of starvation.

The most interesting of the winter, at least to this writer, is the group of 17 men, women and children who left the camp at Truckee Lake and headed for civilization at the camp at Bear Valley in California. When the group finally reached their destination, there were only seven left. The others had died of starvation or exhaustion, with the exception of two Miwok Indians, who had been shot for food.

Think about it — they had no shelter, one blanket apiece, scarce provisions and were utterly lacking in clothes or shoes made for wet winter survival. After 33 days on the trail, through blizzards, freezing temperatures and rainstorms, it is amazing that even seven survived the trek.

On April 10, 1847, a third group of rescuers returned to Truckee Lake and the Donner Camp (at Alder Creek about eight miles from Truckee Lake), to gather up what remained of Donner's possessions and rescue the last of the party. They found Donner dead, wrapped in a sheet. At Truckee Lake, a man named Keysburg (the last man standing) was found in one of the cabins.

According to the journal, "He was reclining upon the floor of the cabin, smoking his pipe. Near his head, a fire was blazing, upon which was a camp kettle filled with human flesh. His feet were resting upon skulls and dislocated limbs denuded of their flesh. A bucket partly filled with blood was standing near, and pieces of human flesh, fresh and bloody, were strewn around. The appearance of Keysburg was haggard and revolting. His beard was of great length; his finger-nails had grown out until they resembled the claws of beasts. He was ragged and filthy, and the expression of his countenance ferocious." And, he had killed Mrs. Donner when she had come to tell him about her husband.

There are tales of heroism, murder, personal threats, disintegration of common courtesy, all too numerous to mention here. The horror seems to shine through.

The above was taken from a book in my library, published by Hurst and Company, authored by Edwin Bryant, and printed in 1850, likely the first of three printings, well before copyright dates were part of the printing process. The pages are no longer attached to the spine, and the pages themselves are disintegrating before my very eyes. Each turn of them causes little pieces around the edges to break off and fall onto my lap or desk.

The book was given to me by Mrs. Pat Fender, wife of Bill Fender (both deceased), an intelligent and well-educated woman who was always curious about what I was working on. It will now go back into hiding, its existence saved for posterity.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.

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