Monday, December 8, 2014

Professor Petrik and Classmates,

Thank you for making this course stimulating and informative!  Happy Holidays!    Diane

Summary of Final Paper: Tamsen Donner: Martyr to Western Expansionism

12.  Summary of Final Paper:

Tamsen Donner:  Martyr to Western Expansionism

      Tamsen Donner was the wife of the leader of the ill-fated Donner Party, the emigrant wagon train that became trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter of 1846 - 1847.   Facing starvation, the group is best remembered for resorting to cannibalism.  Many, however, were ordinary people trying to survive.  How did Tamsen Donner fit into the picture?  How had her life prepared her for such severe hardships?  In what ways did she respond?  What does she tell us about the Donner Party and the larger picture about western pioneer women?

      Primary sources include early letters from Tamsen Donner and other Donner pioneers. Many tend to contradict one another, creating a challenge for historians to identify, interpret and reconcile disputed collective memories in order to draw conclusions. 

      Donner was born into an upper middle-class family in Massachusetts in 1801.  Educated as a teacher, she (unlike most antebellum women) remained single and independent, traveling widely and teaching school.  At twenty-seven, she married Tully Dozier, bore him a son, and thrived on family life.  Within one year, however, she had a miscarriage; her husband and then her infant died; she contracted malaria.  On her own again, she struggled to overcome her adversities, supporting herself for the next ten years.  She married prosperous George Donner in Springfield, Illinois in 1837, becoming stepmother to his children and adding three daughters of their own.

      George Donner shared his wife's wanderlust.  Both were attracted by the lure of opportunity in California, and they headed West in May, 1846.   Tamsen Donner writes of the beauty of the plains, the immensity of bison herds, and of bartering with friendly Sioux and Pawnee.   Against her better judgment, her husband opted to take a "short cut" to California.  Without a trail to follow, the party experienced wagon breakdowns in the Wasatch Mountains and thirst along the Salt Lake flats.  They reached the Sierra Nevadas a month later than planned; in late October, early snowstorms ensnared them near the summit.   The Donners survived in a primitive lean-to and ate their livestock, but food ran out by Christmas.  Weaker members of the party  began dying of starvation.  Later findings of mutilated human remains testify to subsequent cannibalism.   Reports vary as to the Donners' participation.  Here again, collective memory confuses the issue.

      George Donner injured his hand, which became infected and led to blood-poisoning.  Tamsen Donner took over responsibility for the family. In February, 1847, a search party reached them, bearing meager provisions.  Donner sent her three stepchildren out of the mountains with them.  Weeks later, another rescue team arrived and took her three youngest daughters to California.  She feared she would never see her children again, but out of loyalty or obligation, Donner remained at camp with her dying husband.

       With George Donner's death, competing collective remembrances present another quandary about Tamsen Donner's last days.  In one iteration, she wandered into the camp of one of the last remaining emigrants.  He took her in, and when she died in her sleep he cannibalized her.  However, there was no trace of Donner's body.  Other sources speculate that she wandered off, disoriented and starving, and perished in the wilderness.

      Regardless of how she died, Donner's valiant efforts and hard decisions saved her children.  Based on her background, it seems unlikely (but not certain) that the Donners ate human flesh.  Though her name has become synonymous with the cruel side of western expansionism, she, like many other pioneer women, can be credited with making sacrifices that eventually "won the West."

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Devil's Bargains

11.  Devil's Bargains

       I am the consummate tourist.  Historical sites, naturally, are my favorites, but I'm not opposed

to going out of my way to glimpse, say, the world's biggest ball of twine.  Tourist traps, often against

 the better judgments of those who run them, give visitors an essential sense of an area's

ambiance.  By paying less attention to what is written on the signs and in the brochures and more to

local and "neonative" input, it's possible to achieve a truer experience.

      Hal K. Rothman, in Devil's Bargain, Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West, is not concerned whether or not tourists enjoy themselves.  His thrust is understanding how innovative outside investors may destroy the very places they  invade, changing the areas and their residents.  Although Rothman explains this as a western phenomenon, the infusion of big money into backwoods, picturesque locations has precedents elsewhere and earlier.  Reading about the transformation of Paepcke's Aspen reminded me of David McCullough's Johnstown Flood (1968).  In 1889, a handful of wealthy magnets created an artificial lake resort above the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania for their private recreation and enjoyment -- and inadvertently devastated the downstream town and its people when their man-made dam burst.  Although most of Rothman's examples have less dire physical repercussions, incursions into places like Sun Valley, the Grand Canyon or Carlsbad Caverns likewise changed perceptions and interrupted local lives.  The wide open spaces and untouched nature of the West made it possible for the moneyed few to take unfair advantage.

     From my standpoint as tourist,  I particularly enjoyed Chapter 6, "Interregional Tourism."  As a child in the 1950s, I was aware of the influence of automobiles in our lives.  The family car provided my first familiarity with the glories of the western terrain.  Every year or so our family left Spokane for an eight-hour road trip west to Seattle (which now takes about half that long).  We motored down the two-lane highway in Dad's '55 Buick into the arid conditions of central Washington, a literal desert compared to our manicured lawn at home.  The tiny, colorless towns through which we passed held neither interest nor promise for us.  Crossing the Cascade Mountains with its high peaks, lakes and waterfalls  invariably awed me (still does!).  When we reached lush, green western Washington and the blue Puget Sound, I felt much farther from home than the 280 miles we had travelled.  The ride itself was the adventure.  I craved, as Rothman states on page 150, "difference
. . . new activities, seeing new places and doing new things . . . travel did not have to mean anything more than an opportunity to get away." 

      This past May, my husband and I toured the Mid-West in our SUV.  In Missouri, we located the legendary Route 66, intending to follow it to visit old-time tourist traps.  Instead, we discovered only short, intermittent segments of the road, interrupted by seventy-five years of modern "improvements" that bisect and obliterate most of  66.  It was one of Rothman's devil's bargains: its very success in opening the West to auto travel lead to its obsolescence. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

I have commented on Megan's post about Misplaced Massacre.   I have not posted on my blog about it, since I will be presenting in tomorrow evening's class.   Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Was the Comancheria an Empire?

10.  Was the Comancheria an Empire?

November 15, 2014


      Pekka Hamalainen's The Comanche Empire (2008) contends that between 1700 and the early 1800s the Comanches conquered an expansive section of southwestern America  to create the Comancheria empire that rivaled the imperialistic efforts of Europeans.

      The concept of an all-powerful empire among Native Americans seems unique, something I've not previously considered.  American history seldom endows minority groups with such superlatives: Hamalainen obviously intends to start a new discussion about the power and influence of the Comanches.   There is little question that they reinvented themselves to meet the needs of their evolving world as they moved south across the plains.  They became expert equestrians and bison hunters. They developed outstanding economic and political skills that interplayed and vied with Europeans who had a far more extensive history of international machinations. The Comanches incorporated outsiders into their families and tribe, often through slavery, to bolster their numbers and strength.   Their warrior spirit and grasp of conflict, conquest and alliances were par excellence.  Eighteenth-century Comanches were a vibrant, dominant, intimidating, hierarchical, resourceful and violent people.  But was their Comancheria an empire, an example of reverse colonialism?

      It is tempting to permit a sense of presentism when recalling our country's deplorable historical treatment of Indians.  True, most Americans no longer accept good-cowboys-besting-bad-wild-Indians scenarios as the basis for relationships between the two cultures.  But neither have we established a firm footing or a meeting of the minds as to who Indians were (are) or how they fit into the American landscape; the ongoing debate over the name of Washington's football team pinpoints this quite succinctly.  New cultural approaches encourage greater open-mindedness in the search for and acknowledgment of greater agency in Native American cultures.  But has Hamalainen gone too far in an effort to accomplish this?  By elevating the Comancheria to the echelon of empire, he detracts from the reality of an industrious people who redeveloped their culture, suffered losses and enjoyed successes, and left an imprint on their times.  Raising the Comancheria to empire status inevitably leads to an overemphasis on their denouement:  the Comanche's dramatic fall from grace when Euro-Americans overran the West, the end of the bison economy, and the crumbling of the foundations of their indigenous "empire."

      Reading The Comanche Empire, I preferred to focus more on Comanche accomplishments and errors than on Caesarian or Hitlerian ideologies of grand empire.   The haphazard sprawl of the Comancheria across the Southwest, for instance, did not include definitive, defendable borders of empire -- nor did the tribe appear to need them.   By absorbing people of other cultures to increase their numbers, the Comanches evolved into an "ethnic melting pot" rather than retaining distinct Comanche traits (360).  They participated in the destruction of their environment; the environment destroyed them.  They were diplomats and fearsome warriors who "reshape[d] their economic strategies and social traditions" (348).  

      The Comanches were a complex tribal group with a complex history, worthy of Hamalainen's in-depth study. He centralizes their nation in American history, awarding them with the recognition they deserve.  However, the description of Comanches as deliberate empire builders, a tribe vastly superior to other indigenous people, somehow seems aggrandizing and unnecessary, detracting from Comanche heritage.