George R. Stewart’s Ordeal by HungerSpencer J. Quinn
Hypocrisy there is in the story, and weakness, false pride and vaunting, deceit, poltroonery, ugly perversions, and baleful frenzies. But there is more also. Through the story runs the scarlet thread of courage and the golden thread of heroism. — George R. Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger
It may be trite to state that people show their true colors in extreme circumstances, but what better way is there? James Cameron certainly mocked the hubris of the Titanic true believers in the first half of his iconic 1997 movie, but the numbers of the disaster reveal a chivalry which speaks fairly well of the people who traveled and served on that ill-fated, immortalized vessel. In all, 52% of the 109 children and 74% of the 425 women onboard survived, with the vast majority of this latter group being 30 and under. Of the men, only 20% of the 1,690 onboard survived.
Prior to the Titanic, one peacetime disaster which captured the minds of Americans in a similar fashion was that of the Donner Party, which historian and novelist George R. Stewart impeccably depicts in his 1936 account, Ordeal by Hunger. This is the story of restless Midwesterners moving west to seek what’s best described as an even better return on the American promise. The year was 1846: pre-Gold Rush. Instead of glittering mines and the hope of instant cascading wealth, it was the mild West Coast weather, balmy ocean breezes, and year-long verdant grounds which enticed many adventuresome Americans to the take the tedious and well-worn trek to California. There was a spice of danger, yes. The Indians had not been entirely subdued in the Nebraska Territory and along the Oregon Trail. Wild animals would always be a problem, and traveling across mountains in inclement weather is never safe or easy.
Yet, year after year increasing numbers of optimistic Americans were setting off in their Canastota wagons and heading west. Among these, we had elderly George Donner and his wife Tamsen (as well as his brother Jacob and his wife Elizabeth), who were prosperous Illinois farmers. The aristocratic James Reed, a merchant and manufacturer, had endured some recent setbacks in Illinois, but remained wealthier, if somewhat less popular, than Donner. The Donners and Reeds made up the nucleus of the Donner Party, which consisted of 30 people when it embarked from Springfield, including children, teamsters, and hired help.
Others in the Party included William Eddy, an enterprising yet honest carriage-maker from Illinois whom Stewart describes as the best hunter and frontiersman of the group. He came with his wife Eleanor and two small children. The clannish and protective Patrick Breen brought along a family of nine, including himself. He was Irish, not terribly industrious, and harbored a distrust for anyone in the Party not of the British Isles. He looked out for this family first, and the Party sometimes not at all.
Another notable member was Lewis Keseberg, a tall, dashing German who came into the others’ bad graces early on when he attempted to rob an Indian burial place. All told, 87 individuals made up the Donner Party once Reed had convinced everyone to follow a new path to California discovered by adventurer and future Confederate soldier Lansford W. Hastings.
Hastings had published a book which reported his travels along a shorter route to California, southwest from the Little Sandy River in what is today Wyoming. This path would take them through the Wasatch Mountains, past Salt Lake City in the Utah Territory, and ultimately to San Francisco. Compared to the more traveled and circuitous route to the north, Hastings promised to save the emigrants over 350 miles of travel.
There were ominous signs, however, that the Hastings’ route was too risky, especially for the Donners, who were leaving the Little Sandy far too late in the summer to ensure a safe passage through the mountains before winter. A letter of warning was sent by a friend of Reed’s, but was never received. The occasional trapper or hunter they had met along the way gave them discouraging words. But who were these uneducated frontiersmen compared to the learned Mr. Hastings, who, after all, had written a book? If words were on a printed page they must be true, many in the Party believed. And 350 miles is 350 miles.
After initially swift travels, the Party eventually began to realize their mistake. The rocky, hilly terrain they faced often lacked a path wide enough for covered wagons, and weren’t level enough for horses and oxen. This forced all the able-bodied menfolk to cut, hew, and dig paths through the wild brush, slowing the Party nearly to a standstill. They progressed yard-by-yard through canyons and divides while snow gathered threateningly upon the mountaintops in the distance.
At one point in late August, the exhausted group realized that their trip would require yet another detour, and they nearly panicked:
They were plains-people of Illinois and Iowa used to half a universe of sky, but down among these mountains the sky narrowed to a mere slit above, and a person couldn’t get a good look around him. To go back was unthinkable, and the idea of carving their way ahead was more than they could face.
The Donner Party is best known as a wintertime disaster, but after crossing the Wasatch, they were forced to traverse the Salt Lake Desert, which was nearly as trying as what they yet had in store. The group nearly died from thirst and lost a good portion of their cattle and oxen to Digger Indians, who would shoot with arrows whatever animals they couldn’t outright steal. All the Party could do was follow the faint path of broken sagebrush left in the sand by Hastings’ party three weeks earlier.
At this point, the emigrants began consolidating or abandoning wagons and shedding all that was not absolutely necessary. Ribs were sticking out of the sides of the parched animals. Axles or wheels were breaking, forcing the men to tramp miles in the barren waste to collect wood from which to fashion suitable replacements. And food supplies were running perilously low. So was morale.
Ordeal by Hunger is not a long book — not even 300 pages — but by page 58, the journey of the Donner Party had already become an unadulterated catastrophe, and not in the way it has become famous for. There had already been five deaths, one — arguably two — by homicide, before the group could escape the desert. Stewart elucidates us with sparkling prose on the surreal hell the Donner Party was already walking into:
That day was a sheer horror. Across the heat-stricken sand of the sink naked mountains of rock, luridly sinister in brown, red, yellow and poisonous green, leered out at the straggling train like devil-haunted hills in a dream. The road was the mere scratching of wheel-tracks. The ash-like surface of the desert showed only the thinnest scattering of sage. The sand and dust were in places so light that horses sank almost to their knees. In other places, the trail crossed ridges of jagged volcanic rock, the sharp edges of which cut through moccasins. Hunger and thirst, heat, dust, exhaustion, and fear for the future combined to torture the emigrants.
The Eddys toiled in the rear. Night found them still on the desert. The parents ate nothing; the children had only the sugar to suck at, and grew more and more prostrated. An old moon rose at last, and finally (it was nearly daybreak) they struggled up to a place where the party had made a halt to rest the oxen.
It was a diabolical place, a very outpost of hell. From a hundred or more holes bitter, boiling-hot water oozed out, and from one of them a fountain of steam jetted spasmodically twenty feet into the air. The water was too hot for drinking, but if kept in a bucket until lukewarm, it relieved thirst in spite of its bitterness. Here one of the kindly Donner women gave Eddy a little coffee. This he prepared in a hot spring and gave to Eleanor and the children, stubbornly refusing to keep any of the scanty supply for himself. It was sufficient joy to see the children revive.
After the soul-rending crucible of the desert, frail sagebrush gave way to tall cottonwoods, and bubbling wells gave way to streams of fresh water. They had made it to the Truckee Meadows in western Nevada by late October, where they could be forgiven for deciding to rest for a few days, restock their supplies, and allow their remaining cattle to graze upon the grass. It was either that or push on immediately in the diminishing hope that they would clear the Sierra Nevada before winter with man and beast alike not dying of exposure, overwork, or malnutrition. At this point, hope was all they had in their race against time.
On October 31, just as they set camp near the mountain pass north of Lake Tahoe, snow was beginning to fall. Several days of rain and snowstorms forced them to abandon their wagons and climb the pass on foot with their children and meager belongings on their backs. But they failed. Snow was everywhere, ten feet deep in some places, in front and behind. The cold was bitter and unrelenting. They were forced to return to camp, where most of them would spend that tragic and infamous winter. It was where many of them would never leave.
I will curtail my review of the events here to save for most of you the pleasure of reading Ordeal by Hunger yourselves. This is the point in the story at which the going gets really good (or really bad, if you’re the Donner Party). What a find this book was! Stewart delivers such a gripping, nail-biting history that, as a reader, I was almost constantly counterbalancing the sheer elegance of his language against the abject horror of the story. And it must be said for those who don’t know: The Donner Party was trapped for months in the Sierra Nevada pass, suffered unspeakably in the unforgiving winter, and in some cases resorted to cannibalism. This is indeed what the Donner Party is most famous for. Stewart treats this taboo subject with delicate honesty, preserving the humanity of the principals as often as possible. (But in the case of the notorious Lewis Keseberg, perhaps it was never possible at all.)
Stewart also takes the decidedly non-academic tack of inserting the emigrants’ vernacular into his narration, even to the point of capturing a particular character’s thought patterns, like so:
The cattle were done up, and twenty-four hours wouldn’t put them on their feet, either. Twenty-four days, maybe. If the country didn’t get better soon . . .! No use sending back to Bridger’s, but they couldn’t be so far from Californy now, and people said that Cap’n Sutter always tried to help emigrants in a pinch. If they stopped to rest the critters, they’d be too late to get over the pass, account of the snow. Anyway, they’d just as likely starve before they got there. Hell!
According to the Donner Party’s Wikipedia bibliography, there have been further treatments of the Donner Party since my second edition paperback was published in 1960. Many of these are archeological in nature, and I’m sure quite fascinating. But, from a Dissident Right perspective, what Ordeal by Hunger has going for it aside from its prose and its author’s conscientious historiography is a politically incorrect — shall we say, Stoddardian — understanding of human nature. Throughout the book, Stewart reinforces ethnic stereotypes among the Europeans and their Indian and Mexican fellow travelers. He ascribes James Reed’s high birth to a banished Polish nobleman in his ancestry, and Patrick Breen’s seven children to his “true Irish prodigality.” He takes pride in the “fine old English names” of some of the lesser-known members of the Party. He notes that “communal sharing was not part of the westerner’s way of looking at things,” and pays two members of the Party the highest compliment when declaring that “their honor was white.”
Perhaps slightly less than scholarly, but accurate nonetheless.
Indians he describes as stereotypically stoic when helping the Donner Party, or as “naked savages” when harassing them. Regarding a pair from the former group, Stewart depicts their deaths as poignantly as any of the whites. He also feels the need to repeatedly identify certain characters by their ethnicity (“Antonio the Mexican, Burger the German”), reaffirming that ethnicity plays an important role in a person’s character.
Stewart also has it in for half-breeds, it seems. He initially describes Jean Baptiste Trubode as “a little frontier mongrel” for being half Mexican and half French (with suspected Indian lineage from both parents). Despite recording the man’s kindness to the Donner children, Stewart is less kind when describing his cowardly desertion of a dying George Donner, which could have resulted in the death of his four-year-old nephew Samuel. In the book’s final chapter, Stewart defends his use of the term “mongrel” when revealing what a boldfaced liar Jean Baptiste had become in the years after his rescue. Stewart shows his wit when declaring that he would prefer the company of an honest cannibal to that of a little mongrel.
As the opening quote tells us, Ordeal by Hunger has it all. All that is honorable and base in humanity, and all that is heroic and cruel, honest and dishonest, and petty and grand comes to the fore in the Donner Party’s story. More specifically, this is a microcosm of European history wherein bold men, both shrewd and foolhardy, take the road less traveled and stake their lives and the lives of their families on the wisdom of a singular decision. Why? In the case of George Donner and James Reed, were they in such a hurry west that 350 miles would have made a difference in the long run? Or were they possessed by the then-fashionable notion of Manifest Destiny, which suggested the inevitability of whites extending their North American civilization to the Pacific Ocean? On the other hand, were Donner and Reed merely puffed up patriarchs larping as Moses, intending to part the snow-shrouded mountains and lead their loyal flock to the promised land upon the breezy, sun-kissed shores of San Francisco?
Or maybe they took the road less traveled simply because it was the road less traveled? At the other end of that road awaited disaster, as they both soon discovered. But they must have also known in the backs of their minds that upon the road less traveled, and only upon that road, lay the slim possibility of achieving greatness.
* * *
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For a much better movie about the Titanic, try A Night to Remember from the 1950’s. It’s deeply moving, and closely based on fact.
And speaking of ethnic traits, the British stiff-upper-lip once was real, and very beneficial, as portrayed in A Night to Remember in multiple instances. You might have to search for it in the horror show that Britain has become.
Thanks for this great review, Mr. Quinn.
James Cameron’s Titanic is a morally hideous film. It completely subverts the heroism of the real story. The antagonist, who represents the Anglo-Saxon elite of that time period—the class of men who invented the ethic of “women and children first” and in real life laid down their lives for that ideal—is portrayed as cowardly, vicious, and depraved. It is maddeningly insulting. A proper Titanic movie would reaffirm the right that that class had to rule by showing how gallantly they sacrificed themselves to save others while the unwashed masses trampled each other below the deck. I’ll have to check out A Night to Remember.
+1. A higher percentage of women from steerage survived Titanic (something like 92%) than men from first class. But our fellow citizens get their history lessons from Hollywood.
Ordeal by Hunger is delightfully melodramatic, but it is error-strewn, as it is copied from a sensationalistic newspaper series (published in book form in 1879 as The History of the Donner Party, by Charles McGlashan). Patrick Breen was neither improvident nor 40 years old, as Stewart portrays him: this father of seven was 50, and had owned several farms and businesses in Ontario, Illinois, and Iowa. The “mongrel” Jean Baptiste Trubod was actually named Trudeau, and to judge by a surviving photograph he was not visibly a mongrel.
Cannibalism is the main drawing card in the story of the Donner-Reed Party, but the instances that Stewart retails from the McGlashan version are highly doubtful. We have the testimony of the Breens and Reeds (the two families that survived intact) that their own people did not indulge in human flesh, and many survivors likewise denied the accusation. Following Stewart’s version, cannibalism seems to have been done mostly by people who did not live to tell the tale! A notable exception to this is the main purveyor of cannibalism yarns, Lewis Keseberg, who seems to have dined out on his lurid campfire tales for years afterwards.
The corrective to this book, Winter of Entrapment by Joseph King, was published in 1992, and was used as the basis of that year’s PBS Donner Party documentary by Ric Burns.
Not only did the Breens and Reeds survive the ordeal, they became as wealthy as they had intended to become when they set out for California, and for generations owned extensive spreads in Santa Clara, Monterey and San Benito counties.
In all, 52% of the 109 children and 74% of the 425 women onboard survived, with the vast majority of this latter group being 30 and under. Of the men, only 20% of the 1,690 onboard survived.
The Titanic may represent the best of long Victorian British high culture. But a more fitting shipwreck for the one currently in progress might be the 1854 sinking of the SS Arctic.
The incident saw the ship’s crew — its technocratic elite — act as a cohesive outlaw gang, taking the chance to rape and pillage while drunk on booze if not power. All but the captain turned immediately to a bacchanal of savagery, reveling in atrocities that they knew the dead would never report.
When the ship’s deck began sinking below the water line, the whiskied crewmen slashed and smashed their way to the remaining few lifeboats, boarded and left nearly 400, mostly women and children, all aboard of whom died, to freeze and drown.
One might call it Superdome ethics by lifeboat.
Thank you, Antichomsky. You might be interested in this paper which confirms that the Arctic may be closer to the truth than the Titanic.
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