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Thursday, July 3, 2014 12:01 am

Promised lands

Looking back while going over the Donner Pass

James F. and Margaret (Keyes) Reed, who were members of the Donner Party.


During four Junes since 1994 I’ve moved to and from Illinois and the West Coast. On that first trip, orange and yellow U-Haul and Penske rental trucks settled on the big roads by the hundreds, like migrating ducks lighting on an interstate drainage pond. This trip they were many fewer. The footloose American, once legendary, is becoming a myth. As I noted in “Stuck in Illinois . . .” (see the percentage of the U.S. population that moved from one state to another was only half as large in 2010 as it was in 1990 – 1.5 percent compared to nearly 3 percent.

People often stay put even when they dislike where they are because they like moving even less. And it is true that uprooting oneself to a new home a couple of thousand miles away used to be a trauma. But while packing remains a trial, moving today is more an inconvenience than a trauma, thanks to Internet and cell phones and national hotel chains and better engineered vehicles and ubiquitous store chains that make it possible, indeed necessary, to shop in the same stores, buy the same foods, enjoy the same entertainments as at home.

Moving to a different state, in short, is about as unsettling as painting your dining room a different color. That so few do move owes to the dimming of the promise of the frontier, the faith that there must be a better place somewhere out there because, well, because this is America! I reflected on that now-tarnished hope while lumbering back toward Illinois after a brief sojourn in California, a trip that took me across the Sierra Nevada via a pass at 7,056 feet known today as the Donner Pass.

Nearby is the spot where the Donner Party’s doomed trek to California met its end – a trek that began, as any Springfieldian ought to know, from the Old Statehouse square in April of 1846. It can be a struggle to get over that pass even today. The rented diesel truck that served as my covered wagon and into which I had crammed 10,000 pounds worth of everything I own labored to do 35 as I neared the top. The Donners’ wagons were pulled by oxen who made, at best, two miles per hour, and they did it without a road.

The Donner Party (sometimes called the Donner-Reed Party) comprised three families that, with those of their employees, set out for the West in a wagon train. Bad luck and bad judgment found them entering the mountains much later than planned, and they were trapped near the summit by snow. (Annual snowfall there averages 34 feet.) Thirty-six of the 81 persons in the party died. Rescuers did not reach survivors until starvation had forced some to cannibalism to survive.

Among those who died there was leader George Donner. He was born for the saddle, having moved from his birthplace in North Carolina to Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois in turn; as so many Illinoisans still do, he even tried Texas for a time. Such itinerants are often now flattered with the phrase “pioneers,” but in fact most were losers, seekers, misfits. Historians have gushed about such pioneers having been driven to people the great West to fulfill God’s plan for America. Closer examination usually reveals that they were drawn there by some hustler’s plans for himself. You’d think that a man like George Donner, having sought so many promised lands and found each of them wanting, would eventually quit believing in promises, but Donnerites believed, fatally, one last time. Lansford Hastings had written a book describing an easier route to California, a route Hastings had never traveled. His larger aim was to spur settlement of California in the hope that an overwhelming American presence would justify stealing that territory from Mexico and establishing an independent Republic of California, and that these grateful newcomers would elect him their leader.

There are still Hastings out there trying to woo the unsettled to their gimcrack republics; Texas governor Rick Perry comes to mind. Calamities of the sort that befell the Donners by following them are, happily, less likely. Today there is a highway rest stop on I-80 at the Donner Summit. It is a handsome building of some size, done in the style of a Lake Tahoe lodge. In June it is an idyllic spot, the kind of place vacationing millions spend money to take their pleasure in. The Donners’ story told by the informational sign seems made-up, not just from another time but from a different place.

Oh, disaster still lurks on the road too, as I realized as I rattled down the backside of a mountain at 75 miles an hour carrying 8 tons of furnishings behind me. (It took the Donners weeks to die; disasters, like everything else, happen faster these days.) But disappointment and debt are more likely fates for any Springfieldian unwise enough not to know that promised lands are made, not found.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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