Cover

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Preface

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pp. xi-xii

The story of the Donner Party of 1846 has been told by novelists, poets, filmmakers, and scholars, and it continues to fascinate because it's the American dream turned nightmare. En route to California, Tamsen and her husband, George Donner (the leader of the Donner Party), their five daughters, and eighty other pioneers were trapped by early snows ...

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One

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pp. 1-4

Roger came home from work one day in 1973 and there, sitting in our driveway, was a cherry red Honda 350 motorcycle. “I just felt I had to know what riding feels like,” I said. Roger apparently shared the feeling. He promptly got on the bike, rode up the hill of our driveway, realized he didn’t know how to stop, ...

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Two

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pp. 5-12

The year before I bought the motorcycle, summer 1972, I went to Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, nervously bearing a thin sheaf of poems. At age 33, I was away from home alone for the first time since I had married ten years before. My children were 9, 7, 5, 2, and 10 months. I weaned the baby from breastfeeding in order to go. Many strange things happened on that mountaintop, and this was ...

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Three

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pp. 13-17

Cannibalism is the first and often the last thing most people associate with the Donner Party. To eat human flesh, feed on one’s own kind, is a straight shot, an involuntary shudder, to the sensibilities. Three hundred thousand pioneers went overland, yet it’s the Donner Party that continues to seize the attention, imagination, and fears, show how slender and malleable the line is between ...

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Four

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pp. 18-20

1841 was the first year that families went on the Oregon Trail. Before that, when men went off alone into the wilderness, it was only adventure, but when men, women, and children went, they were making a civilization. After that first covered wagon went West in 1841, a few more families went every year, but 1846, the year the Donners went, was “the year of the families,” with twelve hundred men, women, and children going

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Five

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pp. 21-24

Tamsen Eustis Dozier and George Donner reached their common road in Illinois probably in 1838, maybe even early 1839. Courtships moved quicker then. They married May 24, 1839. She was 37, he was “around” 53, give or take a year. Both had already lived full lives. George’s road had wound from his birthplace of North Carolina to Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois to Texas (which was Mexico at that ...

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Six

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pp. 25-29

Due for dinner and to spend our first night on the road at the home of friends in Bloomington, Indiana, July 1, a six-hundred-mile drive away, it was July 2 and we hadn’t left Buffalo yet. The night before, Gabriella and Charity lying conked out on the couch, Maria, Jennifer, and Ursula continued working at heart attack pace with Roger and me until 1:00 ...

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Seven

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pp. 30-32

The Donners, prosperous solid people, made solid preparations for their trip. Reading groups were common then—it’s thought that Tamsen had one at their farmhouse—and in some circles in 1845, the year before the Donners left, Charles Dickens and Margaret Fuller would have given way to John Fremont’s Topographical Report of California and Oregon. ...

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Eight

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pp. 33-38

Tamsen Donner had the 1840s, a decade of unrest, change, and turbulence, and I had the years that people call the ’60s, although they started deep into that decade and spilled over into the next. The ’60s started for me Easter Sunday, 1967. Maria, 3, Jennifer, 2, and Ursula, 5 months, dressed in brand-new Easter clothes, carrying their Easter baskets, ...

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Nine. Illinois

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pp. 39-45

In my research for a novel on Tamsen Donner, I read in a book (Wheels West by Homer Croy) that your farm was once owned by George and Tamsen Donner. In July, my family (husband and five daughters) and I will be retracing the old Donner Trail to Donner Pass. We should be in Springfield around the 3rd of July, and it ...

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Ten

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pp. 46-51

I didn’t want to leave the Weilands’ house and dawdled as long as I could, not realizing that an Easterner’s tolerance for dawdling was probably much lower than a Midwesterner’s. “People don’t have time to visit anymore,” Leonhard said twice, but I was many months away before I heard him. “With the horse and buggy, we never traveled so ...

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Eleven. Missouri

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pp. 52-58

All through May and June, I had written authors, museum curators, genealogists, and librarians. “A trip like this will probably be wonderful in retrospect,” I said to Roger as we walked to the mailbox to mail a fresh stack of letters. “What I can’t fathom is the doing of it.” He laughed but I wasn’t joking. I particularly wanted to talk with authors of books ...

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Twelve

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pp. 59-61

When I say that our children had been perfect at the Weilands and the Hoopers, that’s not an exaggeration. Behind closed doors, they horsed around, cut up, vied for attention, fought, yelled, but out in public, they were expected to be perfect. From the time they were tiny, I had taught them that perfect behavior was the price of admission to the adult ...

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Thirteen

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pp. 62-64

We headed for Independence, Missouri, which—with St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1846, and later other towns along the Missouri River, Westport, and Council Bluffs, Iowa—was a “jumping off place” for the pioneers. They came from all over to Independence, spending days or weeks buying supplies, repairing wagons, shoeing animals, attending meetings, ...

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Fourteen

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pp. 65-71

I told Tom Hooper that, and for years, I was always saying or thinking that, as if there was some mystical tie between Tamsen Donner and me. But, other than the five daughters, what were the parallels? She was a dedicated schoolteacher; after teaching one year, I had peeled down the highway June 1, yelling, “School’s out!” and cashed in my teacher’s retirement. ...

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Fifteen. Independence, Missouri, the “Jumping Off ” Place

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pp. 72-75

I can give you no idea of the hurry of this place at this time, Tamsen wrote Betsey. We walked around Independence, Missouri, looking at old houses and restored areas, trying to see the town through Tamsen’s eyes. Independence now bustled in such a thoroughly modern way that I found it difficult to imagine the kind of colorful chaotic bustle ...

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Sixteen. Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas

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pp. 76-80

Even today when I think of the Oregon Trail trip, the first thing I think of is the graves. For the two thousand miles of the California branch of the trail, Merrill Mattes, in The Great Platte River Road conservatively estimates the number of deaths at twenty thousand, or an average of ten graves to a mile, nearly one a block. But I didn’t know that when ...

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Seventeen. Kansas

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pp. 81-87

The next day started with blue skies. We drove up and down lush green and rolling hills—Dorothy would never have gone to Oz had she seen this part of Kansas. We stopped on a dime at every one of those roadside markers you usually speed by and, if it in any way concerned the Oregon Trail, read it as carefully as if it were a personal message left ...

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Eighteen. Nebraska

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pp. 88-92

Driving a small right angle in the northeastern corner of Kansas, we headed up to Nebraska on Route 77. Nebraska was just a slide in my mind from all that corn to a cornball state, a place of farms, hicks, squares, out of it. We had visitors from there once, schoolteachers, one wore a corsage, talked with a nasal twang or maybe it was a flat, ...

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Nineteen

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pp. 93-99

Only a week out that already felt timeless, things were shaking down into a kind of routine. If we had stayed in a motel, we got up and repacked the car; if we had tented, we broke camp and repacked the car: the chore of repacking the car omnipresent and onerous. Once at a motel, too tired to face the unpacking, we slept in our underwear. At ...

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Twenty

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pp. 100-103

The writer Sheila Ballantyne said, “We create the family because we need it and then we’re always trying not to have it swallow us up.” Tell it, sister. I wanted to be with the family, in the family, yet I wanted to have my separate identity, I wanted us to stay separate together. I wanted to be Mom to five people and only five people; I didn’t want to be Mom ...

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Twenty-One

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pp. 104-108

Before we started on our trip, I bought seven journals. At nooning stops Tamsen Donner might have sat on a wagon tongue, a rock, an overturned bucket, with her journal balanced on a cracker box, a board, her knees if she was crouching close to a wildflower to sketch it, probably most often on her lap. She probably wrote in pencil, intending to recopy it ...

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Twenty-Two

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pp. 109-114

At Ogallala, Nebraska, we turned off U.S. Route 30 to U.S. Route 26 to a series of Oregon Trail landmarks that were famous to the emigrants— Ash Hollow, Windlass Hill, Courthouse Rock, Jail Rock, Chimney Rock, Castle Rock, and Scottsbluff. Everybody knew about these landmarks from those who had gone before and eagerly awaited them. ...

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Twenty-Three

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pp. 115-123

A little jog east of Bridgeport, Nebraska, on State Road 92 took us to Courthouse Rock and its companion, Jail Rock, and then, a little south, to Chimney Rock: enormous rocks that, depending on a pioneer’s imagination and desire, resembled the old courthouse and jail back home. Even if you were a person to whom rocks didn’t mean much ...

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Twenty-Four

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pp. 124-128

The Donners on the trail just about where we were now, Tamsen wrote a friend in Springfield, Illinois, possibly Allen Francis, the coeditor of the Sangamo Journal. Her letter was published in the newspaper on July 23, 1846, about five weeks after she wrote it—pretty good travel time since emigrants “mailed” letters by giving them to someone they passed who was ...

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Twenty-Five. Wyoming

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pp. 129-135

Along with shiny trinkets to distract Indians en route, and bolts of laces and silks to ease the Mexican land negotiations out in California, many of the emigrants of 1846 carried something else from home: a copy of Lansford Hastings’s Emigrant Guide, which mentioned, almost in passing, an alternative route. With the alchemy of gossip and desire, a single ...

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Twenty-Six

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pp. 136-140

Register Cliff, just before Guernsey, Wyoming, on Highway 26, and farther on, Independence Rock on Highway 220, were where the pioneers signed in on their way by. They were the autograph books of the Oregon Trail. At the foot of Register Cliff, under a profusion of signatures, were three nameless pioneer graves with an iron fence around them. Nearby, at ...

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Twenty-Seven

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pp. 141-144

Where Highway 220 forked into 287, we swung right. Exactly 9.4 miles west of Jeffrey City was a historical marker telling about the Ice Slough, a peat bog that in pioneer times yielded chunks of ice in the middle of summer. “We gathered several buckets of ice, from which we had mint juleps in abundance,” Dr. T. wrote in 1848. All who passed dug ...

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Twenty-Eight

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pp. 145-148

An 1856 diarist wrote about one handcart company: “There were old men pulling and tugging their carts, sometimes loaded with a sick wife or children, women pulling along sick husbands, little children six to eight years old struggling through the mud and snow. As night came on the mud would freeze on their clothes and feet.” A second marker tells of another Mormon party and thirteen persons ...

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Twenty-Nine

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pp. 149-155

Roger drove in the Oregon Trail tracks for a half mile or so, the children alternating walking with me and hopping into the slow-moving car. I was secretly shocked by his driving our Chevy in the ruts. That was the Catholic in me: already the ruts had become relics to be wondered at, revered, not touched. Yet the Oregon Trail was a road and what tracks ...

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Thirty. Little Sandy, Wyoming, the Campfire of Decision

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pp. 156-159

Highway 187 south took us to Farson, Wyoming, and a little northeast on Route 28 was Little Sandy, a shallow tributary of the Green River, where the men of the Donner Party voted to take the controversial Hastings Cutoff. This was the shortcut debated at campfires from Independence on and that Jim Clyman had warned James Reed against ...

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Thirty-One

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pp. 160-162

From Little Sandy, the Donner Party swung southwest toward Fort Bridger to meet Lansford Hastings to lead them on his cutoff. We shot directly south to I-80 East so we could take the route used by my modern characters on the motorcycle and I could see country we wouldn’t see coming home. At Rock Springs, Wyoming, we spent the night in ...

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Thirty-Two

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pp. 163-171

It took the Donners eight days to make the hundred miles from Little Sandy to Fort Bridger, their twelve and a half miles a day good time, the average covered wagon making ten to fifteen miles a day, twenty if they really pushed, but they weren’t pushing yet. They were surprised to find that Lansford Hastings had left Fort ...

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Thirty-Three. Utah

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pp. 172-177

Think of a geographic triangle, I told the children, the regular California trail going around two sides, Hastings Cutoff going across the bottom. On paper and to the mind, the cutoff was the logical route, and if the cutoff had been as logical in reality as it looked on paper, Lansford Hastings, instead of an operator, might have been the first ...

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Thirty-Four

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pp. 178-182

On August 23, 1846, the Donner Party reached the banks of what is now called the Jordan River. We reached the banks of the river Jordan, Salt Lake City, on July 24, the day the Mormons reached them in 1847: Pioneers Day, a state holiday with a grand parade, a rodeo, and many festivities. “It’s our 4th of July,” people kept saying, bristling me, sounding ...

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Thirty-Five

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pp. 183-187

We went to North Carolina the next year partly to look for Tamsen Donner, but mostly because my novel had again been rejected. My agent—my third in a series of enthusiastic but revolving agents— believed that the novel only needed what she called a V.S.E., a Very Sensitive Editor. We had gone through all the V.S.E.s and started on the S.E.s. “I have a feeling that Ms. Burton could write a fascinating novel ...

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Thirty-Six

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pp. 188-192

We were wandering around, driving down a desolate dirt road in Utah looking for Twenty Wells, a Donner Party campsite with extraordinary symmetrical wells of apparently bottomless, cold, pure water. In the front yard of a weathered wooden house, a man with a broken arm was standing by a panel truck. We asked him if we were on the right road. ...

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Thirty-Seven. Great Salt Lake Desert, the “Dry Drive”

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pp. 193-196

The Donner Party found the second note from Hastings tacked to a board in a meadow, but birds, wind, the sun had shredded it. Eliza said that they all scrambled around on the ground gathering scraps, and her mother pieced them together like a puzzle. No matter in what order Tamsen arranged them, the message was the same: “Two days ...

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Thirty-Eight. Nevada

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pp. 197-204

James Reed’s fine herd was reduced to one cow and one ox, two of his wagons left in the desert with two others belonging to George Donner and Lewis Keseberg. The company splintered, morale shattered, they banded together enough to spend nearly a week on the edge of the desert at the base of Pilot Peak, Nevada, recouping, repairing, every day some of ...

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Thirty-Nine

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pp. 205-211

Nobody knew for sure, but the best available estimate placed the site of Hardcoop’s abandonment ten miles southwest of present-day Winnemucca, Nevada. Nobody knew Hardcoop’s first name nor his exact age either. In his sixties, he was always referred to as an old man. Certainly he was old for the trail, but so was George Donner, and he was ..

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Forty. The Second Desert

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pp. 212-217

Crossing Nevada, pioneers followed the Humboldt River and then the Truckee River. As the California Trail paralleled the Humboldt and the Truckee, so later did the railroad track, and then Highway 80, following the rivers as the pioneers, the trappers, the Indians, and the animals had. From earliest times, rivers were the natural highways, but the Humboldt ...

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Forty-One

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pp. 218-224

... the sign said as we drove into the city. We passed a motel named Donner Inn, and I was thinking with pleasure, Somebody remembered, when I was bowled over. Motel after motel, each with a shrieking sign; it was a burlesque, a parody, maybe a sacrilege: ...

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Forty-Two. California

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pp. 225-230

And then just suddenly we were there, climbing the mountain thruway to Donner Pass, up, up the magnificent curving road, 80 West and 80 East running parallel for a while and then one or the other ascending, descending, appearing and disappearing amidst pines and granite, looking down on a perfect pastoral scene, Donner Lake—Truckee Lake it ...

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Forty-Three

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pp. 231-235

The first instance of cannibalism occurred December 27 on the Forlorn Hope. They had thought it would take them six days to walk to Bear Valley, below the snowline. On the sixth morning out, Charles Stanton, snowblind, stayed by the campfire smoking his pipe when the others left. They never saw him again. ...

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Forty-Four

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pp. 236-242

Four rescue parties came from California. “Are you men from California or do you come from heaven?” Levinah Murphy asked the First Relief. Levinah may not have been sure what she was seeing, but it wouldn’t be so far afield to place many of the rescuers in the ranks of angels— men of exceptional courage and strength who, altruistically, put their ...

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Forty-Five

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pp. 243-247

Ready to be moved by the massive monument to the Donner Party near the lake camp, four bronze figures atop a twenty-two-foot-high pedestal, I felt let down. The figures—a short woman, carrying a baby, hunched into the armpit of a tall man standing ramrod-straight, shielding his eyes and peering into the distance, a child crouched behind his ...

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Forty-Six

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pp. 248-252

The huge rock that formed part of the Murphy cabin was in the middle of a pine forest. Sunlight filtered through the pines, played over the rock, cast shadows. Cathedral pines, shadows, and sun: the solemnity of the place felt almost tangible. The bronze tablet in the middle of the rock listed the bodies buried there. Historian Kristin Johnson has ...

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Forty-Seven

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pp. 253-261

Alder Creek—once good-sized, now siphoned off and reduced to trickles and marsh, its path diverted for a large resort hotel—was frozen during Tamsen’s months, spring-thawing that April night when she went to Keseberg’s cabin. The area where it was thought in 1977 that the three shelters were, roughly a triangle, was spongy, my feet ...

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Forty-Eight

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pp. 262-268

Tamsen’s books cached in the desert, the old Donner farm buried in Springfield by the expressway, the actual changing of the land, reservoirs and damming and flooding to alter and erase that which once was: after a while, it all became a grave; we were driving and walking on bones our whole way across the United States. The weight of the deaths, the few ...

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Epilogue

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pp. 269-274

If we count Sarah Keyes and Luis and Salvador, forty-two members of the Donner Party perished, forty-eight survived. More of the members died within a year of rescue. Some bore physical scars their whole lives from frostbite (crippled feet, amputated toes) and burns (insensate limbs fallen too close to the fire), and in that pre-Freudian time, all ...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 275-278

It’s all very well for parents to hope that our children will absorb some of our words until they become their own, but it’s quite a different matter for writers. This book has been long in the making: more than thirty-five years of reading, writing, thinking, and living. In the bibliography I have tried my best to attribute credit to the many sources ...

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Letters of Tamsen Donner

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pp. 279-310

There are seventeen extant letters written by Tamsen Donner that range in date from about 1819 to 1846. The Huntington Library acquired seven of them, Nos. 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, and 16, in 1935 and 1937 from Eliza P. Houghton, Tamsen’s granddaughter. They are part of the Papers of Sherman Otis Houghton, 1831–1914, HOU 1-152. ...

Further Reading

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pp. 311-314