Answer Creek: Researching the Donner Party by Ashley Sweeney

The author

It was an already sweltering late-July morning in 2018 that I was led through the cavernous Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering, Nebraska to a tidy archives closet. Hours later, after sifting through boxes and boxes of books, journals, maps (spreading material over three long desks), I wished for a moment that I could have a conversation with one of the many travelers who formed the Great Diaspora of the mid-19th century, notably James F. Reed, one of the leaders of the Donner Party, whose story I was researching in the midst of writing Answer Creek (She Writes Press, 2020).

An estimated 350,000 travelers made the trek from points east toward California and Oregon Territory from 1841-1866. Death by accident, disease, weather, food poisoning, and murder claimed approximately 30,000 lives, or 10-15 deaths per mile (https://www.legendsofamerica.com). Less than half of the emigrants made it their final destination, many of them settling in Idaho or east of Oregon Territory’s Cascade Mountains.

So why take on the Donner Party? Hasn’t their story been told countless times before? I wanted to write their story from a different point of view, one that focused on the group’s collective humanity. Who were they, exactly? What did they eat for breakfast, the noon meal, and supper? When did conversations give way to arguments? Where did they go for moments of privacy? Why did they tarry along the way? How did they spend time in close quarters for five months waiting to be rescued on the eastern slope of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains? And so many more questions.

Using a fictional protagonist freed me from the constraints of recounting the Donner Party saga from the point of view of a member of the entourage. Through Ada Weeks, I observed the story and inserted a fresh perspective on the narrative, rife with taboo subjects: starvation, madness, murder, and even cannibalism.

Throughout the western US one can still find ruts created nearly 200 years ago by wagon wheels traveling over the plains toward California. These are near Guernsey, Nebraska.

As I narrowed my focus to the unique issues facing the ill-fated wagoneers, who traveled from Missouri bound for present-day Sacramento, California in 1846-47, one of the bedrocks of my research was Michael Wallis’s The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny (Liveright, 2017). This fascinating narrative non-fictional account of the Donner Party topped the list of approximately 100 books, journals, newspaper stories, and extant material I used as I researched the Donner Party saga. I also used Frank Mullen, Jr.’s excellent chronology of the Donner Party trek in The Donner Party Chronicles (Nevada Humanities Committee, 1997).

Brothers George and Jacob Donner, James F. Reed, and Patrick Breen and their families made up 31, or approximately a third, of the up to 88 emigrants who traveled with the wagon train that left Independence, Missouri on May 12, 1846. Although the group should have left Independence in mid- to late-April with a five-month window to reach California, this group of farmers, businessmen, and tradesmen and their families were the last major wagon party to leave Missouri that year. Other family groups (Eddys, Graves, Kesebergs, McCutcheons, Murphys, and Wolfingers) joined the trek along the way, in addition to 18 single teamsters and one single woman who accompanied the travelers.

Historians agree the Donner Party’s decision to take the ill-advised Hastings Cutoff through present-day Utah and Nevada was their downfall, putting them a month behind in an already tight schedule to beat the weather in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Running into unusually poor weather in October, the party was forced to camp on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas for a harrowing winter. The rest is history (what most people know about the Donner Party is their unfortunate descent in cannibalism; of the 81 settlers who camped at Truckee Lake that fateful winter, only 45 survived; of the 36 who perished, five of them were cannibalized). (https://history.com/news/10-things-you-should-know-about-the-donner-party)

Near South Pass, Wyoming

In addition to the sit-at-your-desk doing endless hours of Internet and print exploration approach endemic to historical novel research, the most useful perspective bringing this particular story to fruition was traveling the length of the Oregon-California Trail for a month in the summer of 2018.

Armed with a box of research materials and an itemized day-by-day itinerary of the Donner Party’s trek, my husband and I immersed ourselves in the overland experience, taking every opportunity to stop at historical markers, museums, historical societies, bookstores, and coffee shops along the 2,200-mile route from Missouri to California.

From the jumping off point in Independence, Missouri to extant wagon ruts in Kansas, to ghoulish monoliths of Nebraska, through Utah’s Great Salt Desert Utah and the never-ending deserts of Nevada, ending at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, California, the most unforgettable experience was off-road at the crest of the Continental Divide at South Pass, Wyoming (elevation 7,412 feet).

As we stood at a spot untouched by humans since the overland travelers passed that way—no cell phone towers, no fences, no roads, no buildings—my scientist husband remarked that in the span of geologic time, 1846 was a second ago. It was as if I was standing in that spot in 1846 myself, wagon trains lumbering by, emigrants and teamsters goading oxen, horses, and mules; oxen lowing and women chattering; wind and dust whipping my face.

If only I could have talked to these emigrants.

Which brings me back to Legacy of the Plains Museum. Founded in 2013 in Gering, Nebraska through the merger of two other local museums, North Platte Valley Museum and Farm and Ranch Museum, Legacy of the Plains houses one of the largest tranches of Oregon Trail history and memorabilia, The Paul and Helen Henderson Oregon Trail Collection. Included in the collection are more than 100 boxes of extant and collected materials, slides, maps, photographs, manuscripts, diaries, guides, and letters from 1805-1883. For writers of historical fiction, a find like The Paul and Helen Henderson Collection at Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering, Nebraska is nothing short of priceless. (https://legacyoftheplains.org)

These are some of the diary entries I encountered in the Henderson’s large collection, a few of which found their way into Answer Creek in some form:

June 7, 1845

After keeping our new course for seventeen miles our progress became suddenly arrested. We all at once came to the edge of the high prairie, and from thence down to the valley . . . a distance of three miles, nothing but a chaotic mass of rocks, hills, precipices, and chasms could be seen; and through which it seemed as if it were impossible ever to proceed . . .

—J. Henry Carleton

May 2, 1847

Made 20 miles. Exceedingly cold for the season.

—Elizabeth  Dixon Smith Geer

May 24, 1847

This is the place for everything, laughing, scolding, whining, whistling, and singing. Some find everything better than they expected; others worse . . .

—Charles Ingersoll

And this entry, from James Frazier Reed himself, a prominent member of the Donner Party and one of the survivors. My hand shook as I read his words in his hand:

August 1, 1846

Left our encampment and traveled a tolerable rough road crossing several very high hills and encamped at the head of a large Valley with a fine little stream . . . cattle plenty of grass, Country appear (sic) more hale west. Made this day 16.

—James F. Reed

And so the Donner Party plowed on, mile after mile after mile toward the setting sun.

Historical Marker, Utah
Donner Lake from Donner Pass, California
Donner Memorial State Park, California

Ashley E. Sweeney is the winner of many literary awards for her novels Eliza Waite and Answer Creek, including most recently the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Historical Fiction. A native New Yorker, former journalist and educator, and community activist, Sweeney lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest and Tucson, Arizona.

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