The tragedy of the Donner party constitutes one of the most amazing stories of the American West. In 1846 eighty-seven people -- men, women, and children -- set out for California, persuaded to attempt a new overland route. After struggling across the desert, losing many oxen, and nearly dying of thirst, they reached the very summit of the Sierras, only to be trapped by blinding snow and bitter storms. Many perished; some survived by resorting to cannibalism; all were subjected to unbearable suffering. Incorporating the diaries of the survivors and other contemporary documents, George Stewart wrote the definitive history of that ill-fated band of pioneers; an astonishing account of what human beings may endure and achieve in the final press of circumstance.
Best known for his 1949 post-apocalyptic thriller Earth Abides, George R. Stewart (1895-1980) spent a lifetime wandering the American landscape and writing books about its geography and history. An English professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the exceptional scholar-author penned some of the most remarkable literary works of the 20th century, inventing several types of books along the way--including the road-geography book, micro-history, micro-novel, place-name history, ecological history, and the ecological novel. By weaving human and natural sciences and history into his books Stewart created works with a multi-disciplinary perspective on events and places that influenced numerous other writers, artists, and scientists, including Stephen King, Greg Bear, and Page Stegner. This volume considers George R. Stewart's rich oeuvre while chronicling a life-long quest to uncover the deepest truths about the man and his work.
In 1841 and 1842 small groups of emigrants tried to discover a route to California passable by wagons. Without reliable maps or guides, they pushed ahead, retreated, detoured, split up, and regrouped, reaching their destination only at great cost of property and life. But they had found a trail, or cleared one, and by their mistakes had shown others how to take wagon trains across half a continent. By 1844 a great migration was in progress. Each successive party learned from those who went before where to cross rivers and mountains, when to rest, when to forge ahead, and how to find food and water. Increased experience was translated into better wagon designs, improved understanding of climate and terrain, and better-supplied and -organized caravans. George R. Stewart's California Trail describes the trail's year-by-year changes as weather conditions, new exploration, and the changing character of emigrants affected it. Successes and disasters (like the Donner party's fate) are presented in nearly personal detail. More than a history of the trail, this book tells how to travel it, what it felt like, what was feared and hoped for.