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Cultural Ancestors

September 18, 2011

Under a blazing sun, pioneers gaze towards the far horizon.

Last month, my husband and I took a road trip from Seattle down to Reno by way of the Oregon Coast, Redwood Country and Lake Tahoe.

One of the things I particularly wanted to do as we crossed into Nevada was stop at Donner Memorial State Park, which hosts the Pioneer Monument and the Emigrant Trail Museum.

Having grown up in New England, the history of the settlement of the western United States was a low academic priority. All the early local events for which we had battlefield sites and museums to visit were covered in great detail, then the Civil War was addressed in some depth, with the discussion of Manifest Destiny left until just before finals. Then it was time for modern 20th century studies.

I’d never had personal motivation to look further on my own – my ancestors boarded ships in Europe and settled close to where they made landfall, and most of my family is still within a few hundred miles of there.

Chance was taking us within a few miles of this landmark, however, and I wanted to take the opportunity to learn about what happened in this place that had made such an impact and helped shape the identity of this part of the country I now call home.

The main feature of the museum is a 40 minute documentary, a simple voiceover relating the story of the Donner Party as the camera slowly scans over photographs and paintings and maps. It describes day after day of challenging travel, with very little information to go on and most of it bad, one decision leading to another without a clear point of no return. Exhausted almost past endurance, they took a few days to rest before tackling the greatest hurdle of the trip, a delay that trapped them in the middle of nowhere with almost no supplies and very few people with any skill in hunting, fishing or foraging. How bad the disaster was doesn’t seem to ever have been clear except in hindsight – it turned out to be the worst winter in fifty years, and a great many of the men in California who might have helped save the group were tied up in territorial conflict with Mexico. The rescue parties that were finally mustered were often delayed, or sometimes gave up, or only made it through with enough supplies for a few weeks, or could only bring the most able-bodied back with them, or consisted of men more interested in looting the goods of the settlers who had died than in assisting the ones who still survived. . .

The base of the monument is 22 feet high, the recorded depth of packed snow in the camps that winter.

My husband has asked me why I was so deeply moved by our visit to the museum. I am still trying to figure that out for myself. In part, it’s a sense of fellowship with people who set off for the far side of the continent in the hopes of a better life. The two of us drove across the country in 2001, in late October, the same season that saw the earlier emigrants stranded. We had to cross the Rockies and the Cascades, and we had neither snow tires nor chains. We decided to take the risk and go for the direct route rather than the detour that was likely to spare us bad weather. As it happened, for us there turned out to be only a dusting of snow in the high passes, rather than enormous drifts piled up by a blizzard, but that isn’t due to better planning or preparation on our part, just sheer dumb luck.

The situations are emphatically not parallel. I do not mean in any way to minimize the enormous difference between their dire circumstances and the many safety nets in place for us should things go wrong. The century and a half of technology and transportation infrastructure development between the trips meant that we were never truly in danger of anything greater than inconvenience, expense and delay. Nevertheless, I do feel a similarity at the core of the two journeys, as though our experience was somehow a faint, distant echo of theirs.

Something that has surprised me when talking to people about our visit to the museum is how uncomfortable the conversation tends to make them. Most of the time they’ll look away, shuffle their feet, and jokingly ask if there’s a cafeteria at the park and what’s on the menu. I have to admit I’m very puzzled, frustrated and disappointed by the juvenile and disrespectful attitude, especially when it comes from people I know to be intelligent and compassionate and interested in history. Maybe it’s me that’s out of step with what’s normal, though; perhaps I’ve been doing ancestor work for so long that I can’t really remember or imagine how it feels not to do it.

I believe that the bravery and terrible suffering of the members of the Donner Party should be honored, rather than made the punchline of a tasteless joke. These people deserve to be remembered as human beings no different in nature than ourselves, rather than caricatures or monsters. Thinking about how it must have felt for them to face the challenges they did and asking ourselves what we might have done in their places is uncomfortable, but it also seems to me that it is our duty. I’m not sure we can fully inhabit our own humanity if we don’t make the effort to understand and acknowledge the humanity of the people who came before us and made the life we live possible by their work and choices and sacrifices.

I intend to light a candle for the members of the Donner Party when I host Samhain next month, and to claim them as cultural ancestors, and honor them from this point forward. In choosing to move West, I chose to take on a debt to them as people who tread the path before me. There are innumberable others who have done so, of course; I can’t form a relationship with all of them, but when I come across people whose story calls out to me, I listen and thank them for what I learn, and strive to remember and share it.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2011 12:10 AM

    Very interesting…

    I think one of the things that prejudices a lot of us in talking about the Donner Party, particularly people of our generation, is that we learned about it in middle school or junior high, which is one of the most immature periods of life that there is for modern humans. We’re all so busy trying to fit in and not be freaks that it seems like this tremendous relief valve to be talking about something in history class that, first of all, isn’t “totally boring,” but secondly and more importantly, involves people acting in what seem like laughably inhuman manners and yet living through it (at least for some of them). It suddenly makes surviving junior high with nothing but bruised self-esteem seem rather fortunate, considering that people a century and a half ago had to eat their friends, pets, etc. in order to survive. So, of course, with the general tenor of life during the junior high period being sophomoric at best, all these jokes get made, because everyone would rather laugh at the Donner Party than to be laughed at themselves.

    I don’t say nor suggest that this excuses this kind of behavior, nor the disrespect for the actual humans involved that occurs–far from it!–but I think it goes a long way to demonstrating the “why” of it. It’s also a really good argument, I think, for not talking about the Donner Party when kids are that age, as it might be something better saved for a more mature, collegiate atmosphere and sensibility.

    I have not yet met anyone younger than me by more than five years who even knows who the Donner Party is, unless they’re extremely well-informed about U.S. history, and there just aren’t too many of those people around these days, alas. I wonder if they’ve pulled it from the curriculum in many places (this area included) because too many parents objected, or they thought it would traumatize kids these days, etc. I don’t know, honestly…I do remember humor about it being in shows in the ’80s, but definitely not since round about 2000 or so have I seen many references to it (joking or otherwise) in anything mainstream.

    • September 19, 2011 9:23 AM

      Thank you for that insight – it makes a lot of sense, but wouldn’t ever occur to me, Yankee as I am. *grin*

      I hope my own one-time classmates at least remember that no witches were burned at the Salem Witch Trials (that was a big middle school topic for us), and that Sarah Palin’s take on Paul Revere’s ride shows a mind-boggling ignorance of her own stupendous ignorance of US history. . .

      • September 19, 2011 6:02 PM

        That’s true–you’re a “proper” Yankee, ain’t ya? ;) I always rather resented that term, since my family wasn’t in the U.S. until after the Civil War, and they settled in a state that didn’t even exist during that time…But the Brits call a lot of Americans that, whether they like it or not. I tried to break them of the habit whenever/wherever possible…

        I don’t know if people think, along the lines of the Sir Bedevere scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that “witches” automatically means “burn!” in relation to Salem, or if they’re just totally ignorant of the fact that they hung them there. (That was something else we learned in 8th grade, a month or two before the Donner Party, that they happened to get right…?!?) I suspect general ignorance is probably the culprit once again.

        As for Parah Salin (for we do not speak her name around these parts), I think we can take her very existence as proof that not all humans are created equal, at least as far as having accurate perceptions and thought-processes about things which occur outside of one’s own head is concerned.

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