Monday, December 8, 2014

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."

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