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Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  2,673 ratings  ·  299 reviews
In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year's westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published January 1st 2008 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published February 4th 2007)
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May 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: kindle
I love survival stories. Love them. Fiction, non-fiction. I don't care.

Survival stories leave me in awe of what humans are capable of enduring. I wonder what I would do in the situation. Would I be as strong? Or would I be the first one to give up? Especially when reading non-fiction survival stories like this one, I am captivated by the will of people to survive. I am fascinated by the psyche of the survivors as they go from one bad situation to another and still find the will to live. I am of

"If you take shortcuts, you'll end up like the Donners!"

Many years ago, when a teacher scolded our class for being a bit lazy, all I could think about was learning more about these so-called Donners. Did they live nearby? Why were they supposed to be a lesson for us? This book does a pretty decent job of explaining the entire disaster to the reader, although some of it ended up being a bit grisly for me.

This is a very comprehensive review of the Donner Party, stretching back to when they first s
Mar 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Chrissie by: Lynne
Shelves: usa, audible, bio, bad-trip
An excellent reportage of the travail of this doomed trek. All the where, when, who, why and how questions are, if not definitively answered, thoroughly analyzed. Some questions still today cannot be conclusively answered. Over the years opposing views have been voiced. Who were the real heroes, who the villains and who the cowards? Why did this expedition go so tragically wrong? The push westward to Oregon and California over the plains and the mountains during the years of the 1840s-1860s, a 2 ...more
Sabrina Resendiz
Dec 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage, tells us, with much detail and historical evidence, the story of the Donner Party, a large group of families including the Donner and Reed families who take upon the perilous journey to have a better life. This book is set America, late 1840s, when many families sought to travel to the recently acquired land of California. Traveling West for a better shot at life is not easy for the Donner Party since the land hasn't been thoroughly explored and the Natives with ...more
Jun 30, 2010 rated it it was amazing
When we think about the Donner Party, most of us think about just one thing -- the horrible tragedy that resulted in cannibalism. In this beautifully written, and quite emotionally engaging account, so much more is revealed -- the range of personalities involved in this story, the complex motives that propelled them forward, the role of fate and the difference a single action or decision might make. The Donner Party episode is also so much more complex than I imagined -- we think today that if w ...more
An interesting and well researched book on the Donner Party. I guess my only qualm with the Donner Party is that these people were duped by a man who claimed going through Utah (through the Salt Lake) and then heading through a thin pass over the Sierras would get them to California quicker. They lost so much marching through the vast salt lake desert that by the time they reached the Sierra Mountain "pass" they had virtually nothing left. I don't really know what I would have done given that si ...more
Mar 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
“Nature’s Toll on Human Nature”

This 21st century expansion on George R. Stewart’s Ordeal by Hunger proves surprisingly readable—entrancing armchair historians seated comfortably by a friendly hearth--the wind and wolves at bay—despite our foreknowledge of the grim 1846 battle for survival in a geographically-hostile environment. Rarik’s literary style presents a meticulously-researched chronological account of the doomed Donner Party’s agonizing crossing of the American Midwest and the forbidd
Nov 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best books I've ever read!

I couldn't put it down. It truly brought history to life. And I found a couple of wonderful heroes to look up to.

The first half of the book takes you into the lives of people on the westward trail. You learn about individuals who were drawn to take their families to a new land out west. Then you see what life was like upon the wagon trail and the decisions they had to make along the way. It's a very engaging account.

I found myself wondering how *I* wo
Kelsey Hanson
Oct 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book provides a more in-depth look at the Donner Party and all that the settlers had to go through. Before reading this book, my knowledge of the Donner Party was basically that they were a group of settlers who after a series of poor choices wound up stuck in the winter and had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. While that is an accurate summary, it's hardly the whole story. This book offers some insight about why they made the choices they made and how they survived. The most i ...more
Oct 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Desperate Passage offers a straightforward account of the Donner Party's disastrous trek west in 1845. Rarick keeps the narrative going with engaging storytelling, and throughout the sad tale, emphasizes its thoroughly human elements--the miscalculations, pride, and risk taking that puts us all in bad situations from time to time. Unfortunately, for the Donner party, their mistakes happened to collide with perfect storm of external circumstances that ended up stranding them in early Sierra Nevad ...more
Terry Tyler
May 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I was gripped by this book all the way through. It tells the story of a party of pioneers travelling from Illinois to California in 1846, to start a new life. But they made 3 fatal mistakes: they set off too late, they travelled too slowly, and, instead of taking the traditional route up into Oregon and down into California, they took a short cut, the 'Hastings Cut-Off', little knowing that Lansford Hastings, who was trying to lure more Americans into Mexico-owned California, had never actually ...more
Oct 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
I would not call Mr. Rarick a great writer, but he's a thorough and responsible historian and he handles the sensational subject matter of "Desperate Passage" as . . . um . . . tastefully as possible. Particularly valuable is his description of the climate conditions that stranded the Donner party just east of the Sierra Nevada mountains over the winter of 1846-1847, which reinforces the point he makes in the chapter about the startlingly common practice of cannibalism among stranded travelers, ...more
Jun 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
"...the Donner Party is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous." True indeed. This was an engaging and interesting book about the travails of the Donner Party. Anyone who lives in or has been to California has likely heard of or driven across Donner Pass, which is of course near Donner Lake. (There's even a roller derby team named The Donna Party.) A lot of focus in other stories rests on the cannibalism and so forth, but to judge their decisions from our comfortable p ...more
Thalia Barbosa
Veryyy slow start. Interesting account of the depths that people go to survive.
Nov 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Nice info.
Erin Kelly
Dec 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Well-researched and well-written, with an objective POV that puts everything in context in a textured, respectful, practical way.
Nov 13, 2018 rated it liked it
If you want to know about the Donner party this book is a good one to read.
Mimi Vo
May 31, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book takes us back to 1846, a time where there were no such things as smart phones and automobiles. It tells us about a group of nearly 90 emigrants who attempt to make a long journey westward to California with the hopes of acquiring a better future and easier living. This group, known as the Donner Party consisted of men, women, and many children. At this time, many Americans were traveling westward with the intentions of fulfilling their "Manifest Destiny" which is the philosophy that Am ...more
Mar 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Just about everyone has heard of the Donner Party, the ill-fated wagon train that got trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in October 1846, and the fact that many of the survivors had to resort to cannibalism in order live long enough to be rescued. However, their story is so much more than just their gruesome method of survival, and this book covers it all.

The author does, of course, discuss the cannibalism that was necessary for survival, but he does so without any sensationalism or gory det
Damon Lively
Mar 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic and captivating book. For a stab in the dark at picking a book to analyze and explain in detail the Donner Party tragedy - I could not have asked for much more. This book is a page turner and is written in a manner that makes it difficult to put down. With each page I was mesmerized by parts of this story I had not realized before, the scope of human endurance and ability (fight) to survive, and to another extent the heartfelt sickness at poor decisions that lead to loss of innocent li ...more
Carolyn Klassen
Aug 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016
Desperate Passage was better than I expected. This was really engaging, not dull or plodding in its pacing, and, at times, even moving, emotionally rich, and well-written. I'm not a good gauge on public interest in history books; as a history major I probably like history books more than most people, so I can't say that anyone would like this or that it's a good choice for someone delving into books on American settler history for the first time. However, if you're already interested in the Donn ...more
May 31, 2013 rated it really liked it
After driving over Donnor Pass on my way to California, I was curious about the Donnor Party, what really happened? I had read a book in high school about it, but forgot most of the facts.
Searching on my nook later at the hotel, I came across Desperate Passage.
I really like the way Ethan Rarick researched the whole story, the book starts at the beginning of the Donnor Party journey and tells the whole story. Many things lead to the end result, delays, poor advice followed, pride and lack of know
Mar 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
Good, quick, easy read about the tragedy of the Donner Party and I guess more accurate than previous books on the topic, though it seems less detailed (and much shorter) than other books on the topic. I still prefer Stewart's Ordeal By Hunger-- it really did a better job of giving the reader a full understanding of the severe trials the emigrants faced not only at their winter at the lake, but almost from Day 1 of the trip (the horrific crossing of the Great Salt Lake desert, for instance). Desp ...more
Apr 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical
When I started this, I wasn't sure what to expect. My knowledge of the Donner Party tragedy was mostly based on heresay and a horribly morbid movie called "Cannibal: The Musical."

I thought this was an excellent introduction to the events that unfolded in the winter of 1846 in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Much more emphasis is placed on the journey itself and the people in the party than on the atrocious events that occurred that winter. While the subject matter isn't for the squeamish, this book
Apr 28, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
A fairly light read for such a horrifying topic.

This may be overly picky of me, but I hate it when nonfiction books get into "reasonable speculation" (as the author of this book calls it in the Author's Note). This book has a lot of relevant but unimportant speculative "details" about, for example, how a certain person loved riding horses and feeling the wind whip through her hair. Unless there's something from a primary source to back up that sort of detail, I really don't care.

At any rate, th
Dec 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a work of non fiction, and I would recommend it whether you already know the gist of what happened to these people or whether you only think you know, Whether you have heard very little about it other than cannibalism was involved, or whether you have watched documentaries on the subject this is by far the best and most detailed account of events that I have come across. The Donner/Reed Party is an important part of American history. “Of the eighty-one people who had been trapped by the ...more
Jun 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
While I have read other books on this subject, they all seemed to focus on the obvious desperate acts the Donner Party is known for. This book took the journey from the beginning, detailing finely the members of the party, as well as the journey, and the uninformed men who led them to their desperate ends. Nowhere have I seen such detail as here. One gets to know all the families involved, person by person, child by child, wagon by wagon. The reader understands why they did what they felt they h ...more
Jenny Maloney
A good introduction to the Donner party tragedy -- but it seems like some sections are sped through because there's a lack of detail. This book reads more like a summation of the other books that have come before it: McGlashan, Stewart, Hill, etc. There aren't any real new insights or POVs added.

But if you've never read anything about the Donner party, this is a good place to start. It covers all of the general bases and does have a few additional pieces of information regarding our current und
Dec 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
I have owned this book for a really long time, and finally got around to reading it.

It is a non-fiction account of the Donner Party's journey west to California in 1846, and the winter spent on the eastern side of the mountains as they did not make the mountain pass before the first major snow fall. It is a testament to what humans are capable of doing to survive when they have no other options.

the book appears to be based on sound research, and not fabricated fillins, like some non-fiction bo
This proved to be quite a lively, detailed and sympathetic but honest account of the entire journey west of what came to be infamously known as The Donner Party. Granted, before reading this I had only been exposed to the sketchiest of details regarding the Donner Party, so I can't truly attest to its accuracy, but given the documents and sources he cites throughout the book, I think it's definitely safe to say the author did his research! At times it became a little difficult to keep track of a ...more
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Ethan Rarick is associate director of IGS and the director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service, a component of IGS that seeks to interest undergraduates in public service through internship programs, public events, and the presence of distinguished visitors on campus. A former political journalist, he is the author of California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown an ...more

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“They could neither go back nor remain in place. Like their wagons, they had no brakes, no way of stopping the high-stakes journey on which they had wagered their lives and fortunes.” 2 likes
“Clyman trying to warn Reed about the desolation he had just seen in the Great Salt Lake Desert. Remembering the conversation years later, Clyman said he told Reed to “take the regular wagon track, and never leave it—it is barely possible to get through if you follow it, and it may be impossible if you don’t.” 2 likes
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