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WHEN WINTER COMES

A story of the Donner Party

In October 1846, a small group of emigrants travelling from the east coast of America to California arrived at the shores of Truckee Lake (now renamed Donner Lake) in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  Only a few miles from the pass that would take them through the mountain and into California, they were stopped in their journey by a blizzard.  The storm did not abate and within days they were trapped in their makeshift camp by snow that, in places, reached twenty feet in height. By the time help arrived in March of the following year, only a handful of survivors remained, and had done so by resorting to cannibalism.

 

The Donner-Reed party – to give it its full name – was composed of five large families; the Breens, Graves, Donners, Murphys and Reeds. There was a handful of smaller families, a few domestic servants, some cattle hands and a few single men accompanying the family wagons on horseback. But the reality was that more than half of the party was composed of small children, most under the age of five years; and many of the men were elderly, or not in good health.  Deciding to take a short-cut over untried ground, this small band left the safety of the much larger wagon train heading along the known route, and set out on a journey that took them through virtually impassable mountain ranges and across blazing deserts. The sheer physical hard labour of the journey fell more and more onto the shoulders of the small number of fit young men, the women and the older children. Their progress grew slower and slower, and by the time they arrived at the pass that would take them across the final mountain and into the safety of California, it was too late; winter had set in.

Travelling with only a minimal amount of household goods and light clothing, their food supplies virtually exhausted, most of their cattle lost and the remainder close to death, the last great gasp of hard work was to construct three makeshift cabins to provide shelter from the never-ending snowfall. The families crammed in together, as best they could, to wait out the six months of ferocious winter, and hope against hope that help would come. None did. At last, some of the strongest men and women decided to strike out on a desperate mission to obtain help. Leaving their starving children, taking with them enough food for just two days, and wrapped in a selection of thin quilts and blankets to protect them from the sub-zero temperatures, they set off.

It was several weeks before a tiny handful of survivors – all that was left of that heroic band – finally staggered down off the mountain and into California.  Finally, months after the members of the Donner Party arrived at what they thought would be an overnight camp, a rescue party set out to find them.   

When the survivors of the Donner Party eventually made it to the safety of California, the account of their suffering hit the headlines. Newspapers right across America picked up the story of this terrible tragedy, and embarked on a frenzy of speculation and accusation. The most reviled of all the Donner Party members was Louis Keseberg, the final person to be rescued in the spring of 1847. Contemporary accounts tell of him being found gloating over a pot of human flesh, and, although perfectly fit and healthy, refusing to leave with the rescuers, preferring to stay with his gruesome feast, surrounded by the bodies of his dead companions, and with his pockets full of the gold he had stolen from them.

'When Winter Comes' is narrated by a young woman now living in a small town in California, who reflects on her travels as companion to the Keseberg family.  It recounts the story of her flight from her abusive family in Cincinnati, embarking on a journey that moves from delight to despair, as the wagon train winds its way across the heartlands of America towards the ultimate goal of California.  

 

Although told in a fictionalised form, the novel is closely researched, and examines the evidence in relation to the character of Louis Keseberg, one of the most reviled characters in American history.  It poses the question, was Keseberg misunderstood, or a monster?  Was he demonised by malicious gossip? Or was he merely the scapegoat for a series of poor decisions made by the leaders of the party, George Donner and John Reed?