Thursday, October 12, 2006
Rename Donner Pass
Lately I've been doing a lot of research about California (my home state) and the emigrants who made their slow, miserable way across the Great Salt Flats in the 1850s. After reading quite a few books, I'm puzzled by one thing: Why is Donner Pass named after the Donners, the murderous, quarrelsome and (some would say) stupid group of people who left too late, brought way too much stuff, took an ill-advised 'shortcut' and wound up marooned in shanties in the Sierra Nevada, where they were forced to eat axle grease, dogs, mice, coyotes, rawhide, and, eventually, each other? It's not just the fact that Donner party behaved in reprehensible ways. On top of all this, they were not the first emigrants to cross the pass that bears their name. A homely -former blacksmith and fur trapper named Elisha Stephens crossed the same pass a full two years before the Donners clawed and gnawed their way across it. In fact, Stephens did not lose a single man, woman or child in his wagon train while half the Donner Party died of starvation and exposure. Stephens got very little glory for his role in all this. He ended up a beekeeper in Bakersfield and died alone and obscure. It's strange, how people who make a mess of things can become household names. Sometimes, doing your job properly, and quietly, confines you to the dustbin of history.