Of all guests list we might like to make, the Donner Party is not one. Notorious for its admitted cannibalism, the group of would-be 1846 pioneers were led across the American west toward promised abundance in California by George and Tamsen Donner, an aging Missouri farm couple. As is often the case with our best-laid-plans, nasty weather, poor choices, and ill fortune conspired trapping the travelers in the Sierra Nevada mountains at the height of the winter storm season. Beleaguered and desperate, some turned to an apparent, if macabre, source of much needed calories – the dead or dying amongst themselves.
Retold in American high school history classes, the story is used to illustrate the spirit that drove folks, under risk of considerable peril, to move west and populate the largely then open land. But, Donner also is a cautionary tale of terrific hubris and misplaced trust.
Local Hoosier Karl Ahlrichs, a direct descendent of Donner, recently appeared in a lengthy, nationally televised documentary retelling the account of the infamous wagon train. He talks insightfully of the qualities, good and bad, that inspire we humans to both to follow and, at times, to lead.
In the program one learns that fellow settler James Reed was the more qualified to head the expedition but lacked what today might be called “soft” skills. He was tough and single-minded while the notably more mature Donner was the more consensus driven and likable of the men. Reed was expelled along the route for killing another traveler in a fight. Against all odds, he vowed to return to his wife and young children. He did – all survived and went on to find success in California. Conversely, Donner, along with 40 others, succumbed on the trail. One wonders, when is grit required and when is it simply an abrasive?