Those who know a little about the ordeal of the Donner Party usually find the tale repulsive. A group of pioneers struggling their way to California in 1846 became trapped by heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Truckee Lake, California. Ill-prepared to survive a harsh winter, they ran out of supplies, many succumbed to starvation and the survivors eventually resorted to cannibalism. George R. Stewart’s recounts this sad episode of American history in “Ordeal by Hunger”.
Most with whom I’ve discussed this story react the same way when the cannibalism comes up: “I would never do that” they exclaim. Perhaps not. But understanding the plight of the Donner Party forces contemplation. The scope of this tragedy wasn’t limited to the Donner family, but to several families who joined their fortunes together on the trail. It was a group of almost 90 souls in over 60 wagons by the time they reached present-day Utah in August of 1846.
Their story is a cascading bad luck tale, the result of bad information and faulty assumptions. Taking the word of Lansford W. Hastings about a route to California was the root cause of their troubles. Hastings published a book describing a “better” route, but the Donner Party was the first to attempt it with wagons, literally blazing the trail. Some of the terrain was too rugged for passage by wagons. In places, trees were felled to cut a path through forested areas, slowing the group’s progress to a crawl.
Stress was high and tempers flared. During a dispute, James Reed killed another member of the party. Reed was his family’s patriarch and not popular among his fellow sojourners. While unfortunate, the death was not a premeditated act. Frontier justice was dispensed and Reed was banished from the party, leaving his family and wagon behind. This seemingly dark moment may actually have been the salvation of the survivors. Reed pressed forward on horseback, arriving in California well ahead of the group’s anticipated arrival date.
The group had been told that the mountain pass above Truckee Lake (near present-day Lake Tahoe) remained open through early November. Delays along the trail left the group little margin for error when they reached the foot of the pass at the end of October. As they arrived, it began to snow heavily. An attempt was made to reach the top of the pass, where the journey was literally downhill from there. But the snow was already so deep and the going so tough that they turned back to wait out the storm. Camp was made on the shores of Truckee Lake among a group of cabins left by previous travelers. I have no doubt the group was travel weary, but clearly they did not understand the consequences of stopping on the wrong side of the summit while waiting for the storm to pass.
They waited, consuming all their supplies in the process. Eventually they slaughtered their draft animals and ate them, an act necessary for survival but one that eliminated a self-rescue option. They started eating leather goods. Then people began to die, and the unthinkable occurred – they began consuming the flesh of their dead comrades. It is a mistake to view this as a barbaric act committed by unscrupulous people – it was a desperate act of survival. And they did it with as much dignity as possible, implementing a system where no one would eat the flesh of a family member.
In the end, it was the banished James Reed who knew something was wrong. When the long-overdue wagon train failed to arrive, Reed mounted a rescue attempt. Rescuers reached the remnants of the party in late February 1847, and were shocked with what they found. Two-thirds of the men in the party had perished, and one-third of the women. The survivors did make it to California and went on to lead a normal existence, even thriving in many cases.
There is something here for us if we hope to metaphorically prevent history from repeating itself:
- How much risk are you willing to take? The Donner Party’s goal was to reach California, not to blaze a new trail. They were at the tail-end of a string of wagon trains headed west and gripped with a sense of urgency to find a shortcut. In today’s fiercely competitive business climate, I’m all for taking risks to gain an advantage. But are you willing to risk the company and lose it all? Risks are good. Calculated risks. Risks that are soberly assessed and into which all the constituents buy-in. Enter into them, but not lightly. Recognize that stress and pressure takes objectivity away when making decisions.
- When circumstances are truly desperate, what will you do? It’s easy to say that we would never resort to desperate measures, but then again, when was the last time you were trapped in the Sierra Nevada winter with nothing to eat? Would you do what you had to in order to survive? The only way to know what you can or will do when the going gets really rough is to live in difficult circumstances. What you can do is be principles-driven, not circumstances-driven. Establish principles about how you will live and work now and hope that you have the moral strength to hold them inviolate when circumstances don’t favor you.
- Where will your strength come from? Call it sexist, gender-bias or whatever you will, but most who are unfamiliar with this story wouldn’t guess that two-thirds of the Donner Party women survived, but only one-third of the men. In a crisis, your strength may come from an unexpected source. Liabilities often turn into assets and assets into liabilities under pressure.
Even though you’re tired and weary of the journey, you may never have a better chance of reaching your goal than when you’re struggling toward it with the summit in sight. Saying “whoa” at that moment may lead to a long, cold and hungry winter.