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.