The story of the Donner Party, trapped in the Sierra Nevada during one of the worst winters on record (1846), is too well known to require retelling. However, after reading the latest account of their journey by Ethan Rarick, which includes some new research, I realized that the story of the Donner Party’s ordeal contains some useful life lessons that are worth sharing. Unlike accounts of almost superhuman daring-do by mountain men such as Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith, the story of the Donner Party is about ordinary people and how they reacted to extraordinary events.
In my experience as a financial planner I have noted that most big problems don’t suddenly appear all at once, without any warning. There is usually a long history of small dysfunctional behaviors, the effects of which finally reach a tipping point. Similarly, the Donner Party started their journey in Independence, Missouri, later in the year than most emigrants, and rather than trying to make up for lost time, wasted many days by dilly dallying and taking time off from traveling. Since they had to cross the Sierras into California before the onset of winter, towards the end of their journey they found themselves under more pressure than most to do something to make up for their lost time.
What they decided to do was to take a short-cut through the Great Salt Lake Desert, which was suggested to them by Lansford Hastings, an unscrupulous con man. While, the route was, in theory, shorter, it was also totally devoid of any form of life and consequently unsuitable for livestock that required grass and water. The Donner Party had two warnings that this cut-off was unsuitable but they chose to ignore both of them. They were warned by James Clyman, an old explorer they met, who was credible because he was an old friend of the Donner Party’s unofficial leader at that time, James Reed. Clyman tried to alert Reed to the desolation he had just passed through in the Great Salt Lake Desert but Reed chose to ignore his advice. Finally, Hastings himself promised to wait for the Donner Party at Fort Bridger, to personally lead them on his new and untested cut-off but when needed he was nowhere to be found. Following this proof of Hasting’s unreliability, the Donner Party could have decided to backtrack to the main trail but instead, they decided to push on, following a trail that did not exist through terrain they did not know.
James Reed has to take much of the responsibility for these bad decisions. He was a bombastic, headstrong figure who influenced others by his sheer force of will. Unfortunately, like other charismatic figures, he lacked the ability to take sensible and prudent decisions that were in the best interests of the group as a whole. Like many others before and after it the Donner Party decided to follow a charismatic but incompetent leader. Most people do the same every time they vote in a presidential election and the conseqences are very similar.
During difficult and perilous times, acts of extreme bravery are sometimes seen. Rarick has done a service by highlighting the actions of John Stark, one of three rescuers sent to help the stranded party. While, the other two rescuers, grabbed one child each and fled down the mountain, convinced that nothing could save the starving and emaciated group of nine people they had found (mostly children), Stark single handedly took the entire group down safely. However, in the main, the story of the Donner Party is one of “hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous.” Individuals showed an unsurprising mixture of qualities including both generosity and selfishness. Those who had food hoarded it when they had good reason to and shared it when they thought they could. A stranger stayed to help the Donners as long as he could and left when he thought he might die. Tanzene Donner chose to orphan her daughters by refusing to be rescued so she could comfort her dying husband. Margret Reed refused to have two of her children rescued because they were needed to care for the other two. Neither all good nor all bad, members of the Donner Party simply did what they had to do to survive.