On every side, and at every hour of the day, we came up against the relentless limitations of pioneer life… Anna Howard Shaw


Study for "Westward Ho!" showing figures with wagon train from "Westward the course of empire takes its way"

Study for “Westward Ho!” showing figures with wagon train from “Westward the course of empire takes its way”

Desperate passage: the Donner Party’s perilous journey West Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press, 2008 Ethan Rarick Overland journeys to the Pacific, Donner Party Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. 288 p., [8] p. of plates: ill., map; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [273]-279) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Wagon train of women, men, and children, moving through the mountains.

Wagon train of women, men, and children, moving through the mountains.

In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year’s westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is known: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival. But until now, the full story of what happened, what it tells us about human nature and about America’s westward expansion, remained shrouded in myth.

Teams on the Summit, Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road, Placer County

Teams on the Summit, Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road, Placer County

Drawing on fresh archaeological evidence, recent research on topics ranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters and diaries made public by descendants a century-and-a-half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner party and their unimaginable ordeal: a mother who must divide her family, a little girl who shines with courage, a devoted wife who refuses to abandon her husband, a man who risks his life merely to keep his word. But Rarick resists both the gruesomely sensationalist accounts of the Donner party as well as later attempts to turn the survivors into archetypal pioneer heroes. “The Donner Party,” Rarick writes, “is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture of generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity.”

 A Chief [standing on horseback] forbidding the passage of a [wagon] train through his country

A Chief [standing on horseback] forbidding the passage of a [wagon] train through his country – an object lesson in what happens when you don’t control your borders!

A fast-paced, heart-wrenching, clear-eyed narrative history, A Desperate Hope casts new light on one of America’s most horrific encounters between the dream of a better life and the harsh realities such dreams so often must confront.

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