I don’t know what normal people read over their holiday break, but I dove into a book about the Donner Party– the infamous wagon train that got stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1846 and resorted to cannibalism.
I’m weird like that.
I needed an audiobook to help pass the 15-hour drive to visit my family over Christmas. And the story seemed strangely fitting as we rolled across Montana in the middle of a blinding snowstorm at 1am.
I love reading historical accounts– not just because I love history, but for how they shine a light on our modern lives, too.
And through the gruesome tale of missteps, tragedy, grit, and extreme survival, one thing kept sticking out to me about the people in the Donner Party:
They were just like us.
It’s easy to assume that historical characters were somehow extra special or extra evil or extra brave.
But I think that’s a mistake.
The periods of history that we love to romanticize were filled with normal, everyday people. The more you look at the past the more apparent this becomes.
The Graves family had an adventurous spirit, both in their original home in Illinois and as they set out on the trail. They reminded me of people today who are eager to think outside the box of modern culture.
James Reed seemed more driven by ego the others, which complicated matters and resulted in him being exiled from the group early on. His tendency for acting without thinking reminded me of our own modern tendencies to rush to conclusions.
Lansford Hastings, the one who encouraged the party to take the fated “short cut” that eventually led to their demise, desired fame at all costs, even if it meant spreading bad information. He reminds me a bit of some social media influencers today…
And Jim Bridger deliberately concealed information that would have helped the group take a safer, more proven path, since he was concerned about losing business at his trading post. We see this mirrored often in modern corporations.
Even through the tragedy of this story, acts of humanity and bravery shine through… of men who did whatever it took to rescue the survivors, even if it meant sacrificing themselves, of incredible resilience, and of touching selflessness.
While the tale of the Donner Party is definitely not one that any of us seek to replicate, listening to the account made me think of so many other stories from that era. Of mountain men and explorers and adventurers and people who were willing to step into callings we cannot possibly fathom.
I’m inspired that while the settings of our stories are different, there are still plenty of opportunities to step into adventure… yep, even in this modern world. We just have to be willing to look.
Right now, our personal adventures are looking like:
Homesteading in a location far from town in a place with extreme weather.
Renovating and running an old restaurant in a town of 175 people.
Working to help start a charter school, even though the opposition from a few individuals has been…. interesting.
Granted, our adventures aren’t quite the same as trekking west in a wagon, but they’re still filled with highs and lows, “good guys” and “bad guys.” And it keeps life exciting.
So no, people back then weren’t special, they were just like us.
Their environments simply forced them to step up.
And even in our modern world, the opportunity to step up is still there– we just have to choose it.
What will your next adventure be?
Peace, Love, and Mason Jars,
P.S. The book is The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown. It’s incredibly well written and I highly recommend it, although it’s not something you’d want to read aloud to small children. The author weaves together accounts from the survivors and keeps it very factual, but sometimes those facts are gruesome.
Bonnie Schwartzengraber says
Thanks so much for the reference. I just ordered this book and I am very much looking forward to reading it.
I completely agree, and appreciate you posting this. You are spot on, they were ordinary people, so are we– on extraordinary adventures; if we choose to step up and out.
I listened to that book last year. It was so good! It also made me really think about resilience and where we are missing the mark with the current generation. I want to teach me kids to be more resilient.