- Searching for Tamsen Donner
In the cultural cosmology that has grown up around the Donner Party, the universe revolves around Tamsen Donner. The story of the spunky schoolteacher who chose to stay in the mountains with her dying husband, George, rather than walk to safety with her young daughters and who may have been murdered and cannibalized has reached mythological status. Multiple novels and poems attest to her role as legendary heroine and saint. Gabrielle Burton, a Tamsen Donner devotee and writer, whose projects include a film and an award-winning novel, details her own obsession with the woman who suffered the loss of her daughter through miscarriage and the death of her first husband and her son from influenza only to die in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in winter 1847. In Searching for Tamsen Donner, Burton invites us on a series of road trips with her husband and five bonneted daughters to discover the soul of the woman who "became entwined, warp and woof, with [her] struggle" to balance being a woman, a mother, and a writer (12).
A cryptic comment by writer William Lederer at the Vermont Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in 1972 sparks Burton's ongoing interest in the woman who, for many, embodied the myth of "womanhood at its finest" (16). As a metaphor for Burton's own fear of "emotional cannibalism," Tamsen Donner "was almost tabula rasa. I could reject all the virtues men had written on her, and search for her. I could write myself on her, make her up, give myself permission to be adventurous. She was a blank page I could write my own story on" (232, 69).
Scholars will appreciate Burton's inclusion of all seventeen extant Tamsen Donner letters, but for general readers, she offers a self-described [End Page 99] "personal odyssey" (161). Reminiscent of William Least-Heat Moon in Blue Highways (1982), Burton takes her readers from Tamsen's birthplace in Massachusetts along the Oregon Trail to the site of her mountain camp near Alder Creek, outside Truckee, California. Her enthusiasm is genuine, her prose often lyrical; though some scenes seem overdramatic, such as when she decides to quit smoking (a lifelong habit) while spending the night away from the rest of her family near the Donner campsite and finds a bone fragment that she convinces herself is human. (Later tests reveal it is an animal bone.) Yet her sincerity perfectly captures the heartfelt struggle of women in the late 1970s to hold fast to their dreams of independent careers while nurturing their families.
As she weaves their stories together, Burton introduces us to those who serve as caretakers of historical memory and highlights the changes modernity brings to hidden historical sites. Her discoveries reveal how stubbornly myths resist redefinition. Even after thirty-five years, Burton laments that she "still knew hardly anything about [Tamsen] except what [she] wanted her to be" (263). Perhaps her book's greatest strength is its ability to capture the essence of every woman's search for self-fulfillment. Through the persona of Tamsen Donner, Burton reaffirms how historical characters continue to resonate in our minds today.