Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Historic California, Part 2 - Donner Pass

Warning: The following post is not for the weak of stomach, it involves topics such as cannibalism, murder and those hats that are made out of a raccoons.

This story also takes place in the mid-1800s with a caravan of people headed to California to take advantage of the boom after the discovery gold. I’ll summarize, but I highly recommend the book “Ordeal by Hunger” by George R Stewart. The story itself is fascinating and shows that there can be some true heroes in horrible situations. It's when life or death decisions are on the line that shows what type of person you really are.

I’ll summarize the important facts: A caravan leaves Illinois in April 1846, George Donner is the leader. A lot of these people are not prepared for hard travel (i.e. are pretty wealthy and bring things like a piano for their house in California. This sort of thing slows them down because the huge heavy wagons are slower and get stuck more often.) They try a “shortcut” which ends up costing them three weeks. Rather than turn back and wait the winter out in a fort, they decide to race the winter to the Sierras – and they almost make it.

It’s late October, a blizzard hits and they are trapped. They split up into three groups and either build cabins or try to head down the mountain on snowshoes. Historians’ best guess is that the snow got up to 22 feet (that’s almost 7 meters for those on the metric system.) This is where the meat of the tragedy begins. Some try to get down the mountain to form a rescue team for supplies, which results with some people dying and others not able to convince anyone to go back uphill in the monstrous weather. The ones that stay are completely out of food and with people dying from cold and sickness resort to cannibalism. It’s important to note here that during this time period murder is illegal, but cannibalism is not. A lot of the conjecture of what happens revolves around whether or not someone “helped” someone’s passing in order to sustain themselves.

In any case, when February rolls around, relief efforts come to get them. Battle hardened men are getting sick left and right. One camp in particular only has one survivor, fit and healthy, which is suspicious under the circumstances. It’s obvious he turned predator during the winter, but they can’t prove murder so he walks away a free man. He ends up moving down to San Jose and opening a successful restaurant, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

I visited Donner State Park where one of the cabins was built. There is a big statue there with a description of what happened and a list of survivors. I can’t think of it as anything other than a monument to lack of planning, horrible decisions and the depths one can sink to in a crisis.

My friends in Europe always wonder why I start snickering when we go to a kebab restaurant. It’s because of this story and the item known as the “Doner Kebab”. It makes me want to start screaming “It’s made out of people!”

Next up – a Native American burial site!

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