Sunday, October 26, 2014
7. California and Reconstruction
D. Michael Bottoms skillfully engages readers in California's racial turmoil in An Aristocracy of Color, Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850 - 1890 (2013). Nineteenth-century white Californians expended tremendous energy to 1) keep their various racial prejudices straight and 2) design multiple campaigns against specific non-white groups according to complex reasoning, rationalizations and lies.
African Americans seemed to come out marginally ahead of other minorities in California, thanks to the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments, resulting from the sufferings of the black race and grudgingly acknowledged (though not ratified) by Californians. Human nature can be wicked: California's blacks were unwilling to share the fruits of their long-fought battle with fellow minorities. Instead, they adopted whites' sense of superiority. Whites had systematically crushed California's Native Americans before the Civil War, leaving Indians in the unwanted position of being, to use a Pacific Northwest analogy, last men on the totem pole. White Californians rated their bias against the Chinese between blacks and Indians, creating a mythology about Asians that rivaled the inventiveness of Aesop's Fables. They labeled "Chinamen" subhuman, dirty and infectious. But the resourceful Chinese fought back, employing American law to their advantage, riding on the coattails of Reconstruction legislation. Nevertheless, California mirrored the nation well into the mid-twentieth century as they strived desperately to maintain white supremacy, regardless of the color or race of its minorities.
Because of my surname, I would be remiss not to mention Bottoms' Chapter 2, "The Apostasy of Henry Huntly Haight." (I checked with my husband's Aunt Ladonna, our family genealogist, who assures me that HHH and we perch on different branches of the family tree.). Haight became governor of California as the Civil War segued into Reconstruction. He vocalized the belief, as Bottoms explains, that "black suffrage was . . . the first step in the inevitable elevation of all nonwhites" (59). Under his leadership, California refused to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional Amendments, realizing they would pave the way to full citizenship not only for blacks but also for Indians and Chinese. It was Haight who unwrapped California's "simple binary racial hierarchy" of whites versus nonwhites to reveal "a more complicated and more ambiguous hierarchy . . . along three, or even four, axes" (59). Haight brought already-roiling prejudices into open controversies. By then, there was no stopping the downward-spiraling process.
Friday, October 24, 2014
Primary Sources: The Women and Girls of the Donner Party
It is unfortunate that the words "Donner party" and "cannibalism" have become synonymous in the lexicon of the West. They overshadow the otherwise courageous efforts of many of these pioneers. The women and girls in the group are of particular interest. Until the 1970s and 1980s when Women's Studies took its rightful place within the discipline of History, the Donner party women received little recognition for their heroic efforts. Using primary sources, I will examine the Donner "womenfolk" to uncover their backgrounds and to investigate contributing factors along the trail that influenced their dire choices during that long, harsh winter. I hope to draw conclusions about these women based on facts from primary sources other than the yellow journalism of the times.
The families of brothers George and Jacob Donner joined with that of James F. Reed in Springfield, Illinois in September, 1846 to head west. They were joined by several others in St. Louis. During the emigration, several people kept diaries, including Reed's daughter Virginia, age 13. In 1891 she published an article, "Across the Plains in the Donner Party (1846)," based on her journal entries of the transcontinental journey. In it, she makes no mention of cannibalism. Instead, Virginia recalls her beloved mother's courage in the face of adversity and her fears that her sister Martha, called Patty, age 8, would die of starvation. Virginia recalled Patty's tiny four-inch doll, "hidden away in her bosom, which she carried day and night through all of our trials." The doll is now an artifact of the Donner party, part of the Sutter's Fort collection. Virginia concludes the article optimistically, with a sublime description of California: "the blessed sun . . . smil[es] down
. . . as though in benediction. I drank it in . . . in thanksgiving to the Almighty for creating a world so beautiful."
George Donner's daughter Eliza was four years old when they emigrated. In 1911, at the age of sixty-eight, Eliza Donner Houghton published her memoir, The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate. "I was too young to do more than watch and suffer with other children," she writes, but had since completed "eager research for verification . . . with other survivors" to counter "the false and sensational details . . . about acts of brutality, inhumanity and cannibalism . . . spread by morbid collectors and prolific historians who too readily accepted exaggerated and unauthentic versions as true stories." In thirty-six chapters and 334 pages, she provides a feminine view of the Donner party.
Other primary sources include the "eight small sheets of letter paper" written by Donner party member Patrick Breen between November, 1846 and March, 1847 in the Sierra Nevada camp. Published in 1910 as The Diary of Patrick Breen, One of the Donner Party, he reports on the harrowing experiences and bravery of the isolated party, where women assisted and supported their neighbors. Another authoritative source is The History of the Donner Party, a Tragedy of the Sierra, by C. F. McGlashan, published in 1880. McGlashan, who was not a member of the Donner group, interviewed many of the (grown) children of the group in over 1,000 letters of correspondence. His book is a tribute to the bold pioneers who struggled and suffered over deserts and mountains to begin anew in California.
The saga of the Donner party is a story of human survival, in good part due to the heroism of the women and girls. This iteration is not about the lurid details of desecrating the dead at Donner Lake. Rather, it is a portrayal of wives, mothers and sisters who, in the face of devastating loss, did their best to keep their families alive and together.
|Martha "Patty" Reed|
Patty Reed's Doll
Editor. "Distressing News." California Star, February 13, 1847.
Houghton, Eliza Donner. The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate. Chicago:
A.C. McClurg and Co. (1911). http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009790435. Accessed
2 October 2014.
McGlashan, C.F. History of the Donner Party, a Tragedy of the Sierras. Truckee,
California: Crowley and McGlashan (1879). https://archive.org/details/historyof
donnerp01cfmc. Accessed 10 October 2014.
Murphy, Virginia Reed. "Across the Plains in the Donner Party (1846), a Personal Narrative
of the Overland Trip to California." Century Illustrated Magazine (1881 - 1906: San
Jose, California , XLII, 3 (July, 1891). American Periodicals, 409. http://search.proquest.com.mutex.gmu.edu/ameridicalperiodicals/dc. Accessed
14 October 2014.
Teggert, Frederick J., Ed. The Diary of Patrick Breen, One of the Donner Party. University
of California at Berkeley (July, 1910). http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id= uc1.
31822035083831;view=1up;seq=1. Accessed 18 October 2014.
Martha (Patty) Reed. "The Survivors and Casualties of the Donner Party." http://www.donner
diary.com/survivor.htm. Accessed 22 October 2014.
Patty Reed's Doll. "Sutter’s Fort Offers Visitor Enhancements & Return of Patty Reed Doll"
November 13, 2012. http://sacramentopress.com/2012/11/13/sutters-fort-offers-
visitor enhancements-return-of-patty-reed-doll/. Accessed 21 October 2014.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
6. American Capitalism Encapsulated: Chicago
For Chicago, the commercial successes of each era encouraged the growth of the next, at the same time creating rifts when one outbalanced the other. While city wheeler-dealers often tried to override the demands of country bumpkins, Cronon demonstrates that farmers and lumberjacks and cattlemen also displayed uncanny acumen to tip the balance in their favor. The constant give-and-take between city and hinterlands bolstered Chicago's vibrant, healthy economy. Cronon's dynamic industrialized West is a far cry from Frederick Jackson Turner's isolated, rural West.
Saturday, October 4, 2014
5. Buffalo, a Microcosmic Story of the Great Plains
Unveiling the mysteries of nineteenth-century Plains life, West appears to assign equivalent efficacy to vibrant plant life, varieties of animals, differences in people and cultural heritages (12). Naturally, the intervention of humans, steeped in goals towards their own ends and thoughtlessness of inevitable repercussions, complicated the evolution of the Plains. West gives equal footing to the responsibilities and actions of pioneers and Native Americans, clarifying their divergent motives and incentives as well as their intercultural exchanges. But he goes on to emphasize that humans alone could not produce the dramatic changes on the Plains in the 1800s. Man did not have authority over weather or wild plant life, or river sites or the instant availability of food sources. Here, West synthesizes interdependence among land, people and animals in a very non-Turnerian view of the region.
Being a cultural historian, I was tempted to skip ahead to chapters three and four about people. Nevertheless, I began reading from the Introduction. To my surprise, the story of short and long grasses quickly engrossed me, especially in relation to buffaloes. I came to observe bison as critical actors in a microcosmic progression (or regression) of western survival versus destruction, and of the connectedness of environment, human beings and animals.
West enlightened my pitiful knowledge of bison in many ways. How the odds were stacked against those bulky, scroungy foragers! I had not imagined buffalo herds heading east to find sustenance (towards oncoming settlers) or of neutral Indian zones acting as buffalo havens before intertribal peace treaties made the animals fair game -- literally (57, 61). Demon alcohol? There is anguish in the bleak correlation between its destructive effects on Indian families and the decimation of the buffalo population (67). Species packing, West notes, forces all living things to "compete for [limited] resources" (81). It appears that buffaloes paid the price for "evolving patterns of power" in Native American and white settler migration (71). Bison became the unwitting pawns of a natural environment in flux and of human avarice run amok.
I read The Way to the West with an increasing sense of humility regarding human frailty. Since time immemorial, people have greedily and unhesitatingly grasped for that which they desire. Those entering the Great Plains wanted it all, a replication of the comfort and reliability of known places in tandem with "finding simpler lives in land free of the past" (146). Life is rarely static; it demands decision-making. On the Great Plains, the fate of the buffalo was swept up in human error and natural calamity.