Friday, June 12, 2015

The Donner Expedition: Living with the consequences

Having finished The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate, by Eliza Donner Houghton (1843-1922), the book is not at all what I expected.  The story of the Donner Party's tragedy is just the first quarter or so of the book.  The remainder is about the Donner daughters being scattered as orphans who would not be together again for many years.  Eliza and her youngest sister end up at a German family, where they are raised speaking German, dressing like little German girls, imbibing a German work ethic and eventually translating German correspondence.  The German mother speaks to her Swedish neighbor in French.  Later the girls are sent to boarding school where they have Spanish speaking classmates, while one of the Spanish nuns was formerly engaged to a Russian officer who died before their marriage.  News of Eliza's father's grave is brought to her by a Cherokee Indian (from the East Coast of America), so we have a story of displaced peoples from all over being thrown into the California crucible during the Gold Rush.  This is entertaining and informative in a completely different way from the story of the wagon trains pushing west.

Yet it is still about the Donner Party, because these girls are tormented by the awful rumors of what happened in the snowy mountains in '46-'47.  They hope to be anonymous, but can't escape, because someone always lets out the secret about their past.  The worst of the rumors is from the last "Relief" effort that was sent to rescue those from the wagon train.  Actually it was a salvage operation in which those who went were promised half of what they brought back, and they were disappointed to find a lone survivor, having made no provision for bringing back any survivors.  This was the man who saw Eliza's mother last, and he was accused of killing and eating her.  He was accused by those who were engaged in the salvage operation, and it was their testimony that made it into the papers.  Later in life Eliza was finally able to meet the poor old man who had been accused and who went through the rest of his life as a pariah.  Eliza went through all the documents and testimony that she could, and finally convinced herself and another writer that the old man was innocent and the accusations falsely made by those who lusted for the wealth of the Donner family, since they brought considerable sums of money and valuable goods with them to California.  What the complete truth of the matter is will remain a secret until the final judgment.

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