The Donner Party revisited in “The Indifferent Stars Above”

Originally Posted January 19, 2010

As another three feet of snow settle into the Sierra Nevadas and the same storm wends its way toward Colorado, it is a good time to discuss Daniel James Brown’s newest book, “The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride” HarperCollins Press, 2009.

While Brown discusses the entire party, from beginning of the trip to their various ends, he focuses his story on Sarah Graves Fosdick, a 21 year old woman, married in April just before she and her family started their journey toward California. On January 17th, Sarah, now a widow, and six others of the party of eighteen who had set out from Truckee lake a month before made it to Johnson’s Ranch, their originally intended destination in California. Their arrival spurs no less than four different attempts to go back in to Truckee Lake and rescue the remaining party members.

 What makes Brown’s book so memorable is the amount of effort he goes into describing the conditions- the weather, the amount of snowfall regularly had in that area, and how it was an el nina year, adding more snow than normal. Brown describes the conditions of the body, already starving, striving to hike in the snow without adequate food or clothing. He describes snow blindness, and hypothermia and hyperthermia, both of which affected the party. He describes the efforts taken to keep warm, and survival decisions that had to be made, both by the party attempting to go for help, and by those who remained encamped at the lake. He tells the story of a very similar recent event, letting us know that even with our modern world, clothing and technology, it could easily be us. As you read the book, safe in your warm home, you reach for a blanket and you can feel in yourself the bone numbing cold that must have been standard for the party.

His descriptions of the people brings to mind the nearest photographic documentation we have of similar starvation – the survivors of the prison camps in Germany at the end of World War II. It is easy to envision Sarah and the other survivors looking the same as they came down out of the mountains.
Brown takes a step further that other books have not – he traces the survivors and what became of them and their families, discussing marriages, births a and deaths among the party members. He went into not only the documentation of the event found in the news, but the journals of the party – survivors and not, and the journals and diaries of the people who met them and knew them after the event.
Mr. Brown even goes as far as to travel, as closely as possible, their roundabout route from Illinois up through Nebraska and into Wyoming, down through Utah and Nevada to California. He stands at the top of Donner Pass and looks down at the lake; he sees how twisting the mountains are and how easy it was for the snowshoe party to miss the pass that would have shortened their route.
The depth of detail Mr. Brown puts into his book in describing the events along the way, to help the reader now far removed from the time and lifestyle understand the efforts, effects and desperation of the party to survive is what makes “The Indifferent Stars Above” outstanding among the reams of other books on the same topic. It is an engaging read, bringing humanity and empathy to an event from long ago. In his prologue, Brown states that he wishes to show the real people, to take them out of the “mythologizing” of westward emigrant and show that “each of them was, of course, an individual, as unique and vital and finely nuanced as you or me.”

Copies of this book can be found in many of the Denver area libraries, including in the Western History and Genealogy room in the Denver Public Library.

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