The Archaeology of Hunger

From The New York Times:

DESPERATE PASSAGE: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West.

By Ethan Rarick.

Goodyear190 ……it is the tale of the Donner party — 81 men, women and children struggling for their lives against the elements in the Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846-47 — that forms the template for our reaction to all subsequent accounts like it. The pioneers, some of whom resorted to cannibalism, have been both praised and maligned for the decisions they made on the way from Missouri to California.

But Rarick’s account is not really about science; it is about humanity, and his major contribution is his choice to focus on the Reed family. In most tellings, the Donners, for obvious reasons, are at the emotional center of the story. Rarick, instead, finds a greater dramatic vehicle in James Reed — “a man with a full head of hair and a bit of a smirk and iron convictions, others be damned” — who traveled with his wife, Margret; her mother (she died on the trail); and four children. He emphasizes Reed’s championing of the party’s attempt at a new, supposedly faster route to California, a decision that caused significant delay and, in addition to exhausting the travelers and depleting their supplies, prevented them from crossing the Sierra before winter. Likewise, when Reed is banished en route for killing a teamster in a scuffle, and Margret and the children are left at the mercy of the rest of the group, Rarick sees a crucial setback for the Donner party, the loss of its “one true leader.” Reed rides ahead and eventually raises a rescue party; in moving scenes, he is reunited with his family, all of whom, miraculously, survived.

More here.