Tales of The Donner Expedition
Daniel W. McCarthy
About this work:
In the year 1846, many families traveled west to California in search of a new life. George Donner, a German immigrant, organized one such expedition of 89 men, women, and children leaving Springfield, Illinois on April 16, 1846. The Donner party was to follow the California Trail nearly 2,000 miles across unpopulated prairies, up endless rivers, and through the Rocky Mountains over the Continental Divide. The more prudent immigrants swung north through present-day Idaho, though that was the longer way west. But the Donner Party, braver or more foolish than the rest, chose an untried route that would shorten the distance. They struggled through shortening days and chilling nights, and reached the brink of their destination, the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Then disaster struck.
For thirty years, the blizzard snows of winter had never came to the Sierra Nevada until the middle of November. In 1846, the blizzard came early for the first time in memory. Behind the Donner Party lay hundreds of miles of wilderness, seventy miles ahead lay California; in between, the canyons were buried in snow that soon piled thirty feet deep. They had food for a month, but it would be seven months before the snow thawed, and relief was far away.
What followed is an unforgettable story of terrible hardship and awesome courage: the suffering of men, women, and children, starvation, cannibalism, and madness. It is the story of humankind in their bleakest hour--a story that increases the understanding of what kind of people made this nation and the full, immeasurable price they paid.
I. Westward Ho! read George Donner’s advertisement in the Sangamon Journal (Sangamon County, Illinois) that appeared twice in March and April of 1846. “Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? You can have as much land as you want without costing you anything. The Government of California gives large tracts of land to persons who move there!”
II. Midwest: Plains and Valleys - The party spends thirty days of travel through the plains and valleys of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. The land yields grudgingly. Several deaths in the party are a portent of what is to come.
III. Of Dog Meat and Hide - The party reaches the Great Salt Desert and many cattle are destroyed in the salt storms. The reality of hunger proves too much for some people. Several parties have turned back. As supplies of all kinds dwindle, the parties begin to eat their oxen as well as stray dogs. The expedition begins to slow as there are fewer and fewer oxen to pull the trains. It is now deep autumn and the weather worsens. As time goes by, the only food remaining is bone marrow and boiled oxen hide. Hunger is now a major problem.
IV. Children Play, Children Die - The parties have made camp in several places at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Some are now thinking they will never be able to reach California and may have to settle permanently in these camps. Others think of turning back after the winter while some want to press on before the winter snow comes. Cold and hunger take its toll among the elderly and sick. Many have died and grief stricken families bury family members, mainly infants, along the trail, never to visit the graves again.
Amidst this desperate situation, there are accounts of children playing. A boy breaks his leg in a game of hide-and-seek but is afraid to tell his parents that he has been hurt. In a week the child is racked with fever and the severity of his injury is discovered. Gangrene has set in and a butcher attempts to amputate the child's leg. Maggots are crawling in his flesh. Before the amputation is complete, the boy dies.
Donner Program notes, page 2
V. The Lake - Deep winter has set in and the Donner Party builds several fragile cabins by a lake in a small canyon in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is bitter cold and the snow is dangerously deep. There is no food. Many women and children can not go on. The storms of snow and wind would seemingly never cease and hunger would soon drive some to madness. The camp by the lake would eventually become a camp of cannibals.
Because of the bitter cold and the depth of the snow, the survivors find that they can be protected from the elements by burying themselves under the snow. Upon the discovery of one of these camps, a relief calls out to the survivors. They see the remainder of the party emerge from the snows like the dead rising from snowy graves. A two-year-old child is found crying, clinging to her half-eaten mother.
VI. The Forlorn Hope - Despite the horror by the lake, some still vow to pass through the mountains and bring relief parties back for the survivors. Knowing that they may never see their loved ones again, a last desperate attempt was made to reach civilization. Despair, hunger, and grief weighed heavily on the part. They named themselves, “The Forlorn Hope.”
Version: Woodwind Quintet
Year composed: 1995
Ensemble type: Chamber or Jazz Ensemble, Without Voice:Woodwind Quintet
Instrumentation: 1 Flute, 1 Oboe, 1 English Horn, 1 Clarinet, 1 Bassoon, 1 Horn in F
Instrumentation notes: Available form: Dorn Publications, P.O. Box 206, Medfield, MA 02052
dornpub.com/ChamberMusic.html, PH: (508) 359-1015
FX: (508) 359-7988, e-mail: email@example.com