Brown (Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894, 2006) delivers a skillful, suspenseful study of the Donner Party, narrated from the point of view of a newly married woman.
In April 1846, 21-year-old Sarah Graves embarked with her family and new husband, 23-year-old Jay Fosdick, on a wagon-train migration to California from Steuben Township, Ill. Armed with Lansford Warren Hastings’s newly published The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, they set out with other families, unaware of how disastrously perilous Hastings’s “shortcut” to California—via Wyoming to the south end of the Great Salt Lake and then through the impassable Wasatch Mountains—would prove. Burdened by their heavy loads, the parties moved slowly and faced increasingly dire conditions such as parched land, limited water, deteriorating sanitary conditions, Indian raids on their cattle and indecision regarding which way to go. Snow began falling in late October when they reached the cliffs of the Sierra Nevada. Halted at Truckee Lake, those able to walk—including Graves—were determined to make a pass over the mountains and find help, while the mothers and small children stayed at the lake camp. Starvation, hypothermia and dementia plagued both groups, and at some point the wanderers decided to eat the bodies of the dead, including Graves’s father and husband. Some even conspired to kill those still alive, such as the two native Miwok boys who accompanied them. Of the 87 “official members of George Donner’s company,” 47 died, mostly men. Wading through the many previous accounts of the ill-fated journey, Brown creates a thorough and unique narrative.
A moving man-against-nature tragedy that still resonates today.