Desperate Passage

by Ethan Rarick

In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year’s westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is known: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival. But until now, the full story of what happened, what it tells us about human nature and about America’s westward expansion, remained shrouded in myth.