NCFM Chicago Chapter President Tim Goldich, “‘Arrows’ #4: The Donner Party”
Many years ago I watched a documentary on the Donner Party, an ill-fated group of pioneers headed across country to settle in the old west. The historian David McCullough narrates with his usual mesmerizing ease. But when the camera focused upon him, there was a recurring theme to his commentary.[i] It was an “arrow” that pierced me over and over again.
“Arrows” come in many forms and fly in all directions. Everyone’s a target. Some “arrows” irk and sting like pinpricks. Some enrage and embitter like spears through the heart. Because the “men have the power/women are the victims” gender belief system has proven impervious to fact and logic, I’ve written these “arrows” essays as a means of emotional persuasion.
Of the 81 members comprising the Donner Party—15 women, 25 men and 41 children—22 of the men perished while all but 5 of the women endured. In relaying these facts—and in what I regarded to be a rather smug, self-satisfied manner—McCullough invited the viewer to join with him in admiring the greater apparent strength and resilience of the women who managed to survive as compared with the apparently weak and relatively frail men who, under identical conditions, mostly all died off. If those are the facts of the matter, then why didn’t I take my medicine like a man? Because, contained within the documentary itself, was evidence enough to suggest that the men had essentially sacrificed themselves so that the women and children could live. For additional background, among other sources, I read George R. Stewart’s classic, Ordeal By Hunger.[ii]
The ordeal began in May of 1846 with the endless trek across the Great Plains. The men walked plying the whips that kept the oxen moving. “Driving oxen was man’s work. The women sat in the front seats of the wagons knitting.”[iii] What Stewart’s book makes clear is that all the work, all the physically arduous work, was man’s work.
With no road to travel on, the men had to build their own. “It was exhausting . . . the unceasing labor rapidly wore them down both in body and in temper.”[iv] Both the book and the documentary describe endless campaigns through intractable stretches of wilderness: “they struggled as if still in the nightmare, to open about six miles of road, cutting timber and hacking through brush, digging down side-hill, rolling out boulders, and leveling for creek-crossings.”[v] And from the documentary: “Time and again the hostile terrain brought them to a standstill while the men cursed and toiled and hacked a road through the dense undergrowth.” They hacked their way through dense thickets, pulled wagons sunk up to their axles in mud, hauled heavily laden wagons up embankments with block and tackle and cut down trees with axes; this they did hour after hour, day after day, week after week for months on end.
Men cut timber to mend the wagons and replace broken axles. On one such occasion, “a chisel slipped, and the blood spurted from a long gash across the back of 62-year-old George Donner’s hand. It was bound up, and he made light of it; there were other things, he said, more to be worried about than a cut hand.”[vi] We don’t know the half of men’s sufferings because men make “light” of them and keep their vulnerability hidden. All bravado notwithstanding, before the advent of antibiotics, cuts of this kind frequently led to infections that resulted in amputation and/or death.
By October, six of the settlers had died. Not surprisingly, all but one was male. The 81 remaining travelers made it as far as the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains when they were trapped by record snowfall. With hands numbed by the cold, men labored for hours to cut firewood, suffering frostbite, while women and children stayed warm burning the firewood inside their makeshift camp.
It was men who undertook the nearly hopeless efforts to cross the snow-covered mountains on foot in order to seek and bring back help. Many died in the effort while others, thwarted by impossible conditions, hobbled back to camp nine-tenths dead. For the rare man who made it all the way to California and safety, “Honor, no less than love, demanded his return, for no man could have held up his head in the West of those days who had left his wife and child and was not ready to risk his life to bring them out.”[vii] And this they did. Men are, and have always been, honor bound. The bindings of honor are, in their own way, as real as bindings of rope. In not complaining but making light of his pain and suffering, such a man is effectively bound and gagged.
Because his family was starving, William Eddy was given a little coffee. “This he prepared in a hot spring and gave to Eleanor and the children, stubbornly refusing to keep any of the scanty supply for himself. It was sufficient joy to see the children revive.”[viii] Later: “Eddy had not eaten for forty-eight hours. Eleanor was almost as badly off, and even the babies had had nothing but the sugar and some coffee since leaving the sink.”[ix] If they shared food equally, then why was his wife Eleanor almost as badly off?
In life and death situations, the children come first. Whatever’s left goes to the women, and if there’s anything left after that, it goes to the men. Just as the men of the Titanic sacrificed themselves so that most of the women and children could survive, evidence suggests that the same basic principle held sway within the equally mortal dangers faced by the Donner Party.
Nevertheless, reverence for the women reverberates throughout the documentary. “Somehow, Margaret Reid had managed to keep all her children alive. So had Peggy Breen and Tamsen Donner.” Somehow? I don’t believe in magic. Pure female superiority alone could not keep children from starving. Consumption of calories must have had something to do with it. And why no such reverence toward the men who had miraculously kept the women and children alive? How about the two men who had earlier rode on ahead, crossed the mountains and returned with other men and seven mules bearing food?
Only when conditions became utterly desperate did women join with men in attempting to cross the mountains on foot. The “Forlorn Hope,” as they called themselves, consisted of nine men, one boy of 12 and five women. In the aftermath, “Only 2 of the 10 men had made it through. All five women had survived.” In this way the viewer is led over and over again to conclude that the women were stronger than the men. But didn’t this documentary just get through making it clear that the women survived by eating the men who died? A little later we’re told that: “Two thirds of the women and children made it through. Two thirds of the men perished.”
The documentary is relentless on the matter, and, without further explanation, what else can the viewer conclude but that the women survived out of superior female strength while the men died owing to inferior male weakness? I guess we are to believe that even children are stronger than men.
But what really happened?
A more recent (2003) Discovery Channel documentary[x] shed light on the matter by exposing two men to the same conditions that the Donner Party had endured. To glean more detailed information, the men had scientific instruments attached to them, and their exertion, heat loss, and calories burned were measured. “And from that [data] we can estimate how long they would have until they starved.”[xi]
The Discovery Channel documentary makes no mention of the ratio of dying men/surviving women with which McCullough seems obsessed. How could it? Having established the connection between exposure/exertion/calorie burn and starvation, mention of the much higher male mortality rate would have made the male sacrifice much too obvious to pass the gates of political correctness.
If the Donner men even allowed themselves an equal portion of food throughout the ordeal (rather than chivalrously refusing even that much), then with their larger size and muscle mass, the men would, of course, tend to starve faster than the women. Additionally, men’s bodies burned precious extra calories to stave off the freezing cold they were more often subjected to. And men exhausted their fuel burning countless thousands of calories in grueling unceasing labor.
There is no mystery why more men than women died of injury, exposure, and starvation. Even in dying, the men’s bodies provided sustenance the women and children could feed upon. Despite McCullough’s insinuations, the men did not die of male inadequacy. They died of heroism. The women did not survive out of female superiority. They survived out of chivalry.
In arguing that It All Balances Out, there are more than just facts to consider. There is also the emotional component. Whatever monopoly feminists may presume to have on feelings of moral outrage, I can assure you that aware men can match those feelings note for note.
As I watched, I felt like reaching right through the TV screen and choking that smug feminist male to death. With what that historian knew of the whole story, how dare he cast women in the light of strong heroic survivors and men in the light of inadequate, dying weaklings?
But my rage extends beyond the neutered academics who champion the female chauvinist party line. I admit to being angry with the feminists themselves. Their self-righteous rhetoric is omnipresent in our world and is, after all, the source of the misandry that surrounds us. It is feminist ideology that has created a cultural environment where the knee-jerk impulse to flatter the female and shame the male is expressed automatically. I very much doubt that McCullough and company harbored any anti-male agenda. Nevertheless, whatever their intentions may have been, these “arrows,” these media injustices are torture to endure, and they are everywhere!
I can’t begin to convey the wounding of such staggering injustice toward my kind (and it doesn’t help to know what laughter it inspires). It disgusts me. It is evil. Even when men are taking on the very worst of it, even when they are shielding women to the point of sacrificing their very lives, it is still against some absolute law of political correctness to say anything positive about males, ever. Accusing men of frailty—disparaging their toughness, strength, and courage—cuts men to the core. It was to maintain their masculine image that those men took on those extra hazards and hardships. In return, men ask only for fair acknowledgment, but we will not give it to them. Though 99 percent of firefighters are male, we will not call them firemen.
To add further insult to injury, there is the wound that comes of fighting an uphill battle against those (both female and male) who would suppress this very writing. It is all well and good for a man to writhe in agony over the cruelty of such injustice, but he must remain “strong and silent.” God forbid a woman should suffer the slight upset that may come should a man reveal his pain to her. To be an aware male is to suffer outrage upon outrage!
One of the reasons we so concern ourselves with women’s vulnerable emotions is that women make no effort to hide those vulnerable emotions. Upsetting a woman results in an emotional outburst, tears and tirades that leave men puddles of shame. One of the reasons we concern ourselves so little with men’s vulnerable emotions is that we don’t fully embrace the truth that men have such emotions. And that’s partly because men make every effort to hide those emotions. Part of the point of these “Arrows” interludes is simply to reveal my own male emotional vulnerability. I cannot ask other men to show their vulnerability if I’m not willing to risk the same ridicule.
I am a logical man. I do not vent just to be self-indulgent. And my point, ultimately, is always the same: It All Balances Out. Both women, and men, suffer sexism (women suffer it along the respect axis; men suffer it along the love axis). The emotional reveal displayed here is everywhere expressed within the feminist literature. But, unlike women, men have a deep aversion to “victim.” Men may be loath to express the kinds of feelings I’m expressing, but only women complaining creates the illusion that only women have anything to complain about. That’s wrong. But the only way to prove it wrong is for men to own and to express their true hurt and pain.
Author of – Loving Men, Respecting Women: The Future of Gender Politics
 Of course, women also suffer “arrows,” lots of them. The difference is that women are invited to protest, are inclined to protest, and do protest. Meanwhile the vast majority of men, hanging their heads in shame, do not protest. But they should.
[i] The American Experience: The Donner Party, WGBG Educational Foundation, WNET/Thirteen and Steeplechase Films, (1992), Directed by Ric Burns, PBS Paramount, DVD video. Note: the first time I saw this Ric Burns documentary, I saw it on TV as an episode of The American Experience. As such, short sequences hosted by David McCullough were filmed to take the viewer in and out of breaks for “station identification.” So, when I first saw it, these added sequences added even more references to women characterized as strong survivors as compared to the weak dying men (thus adding to my torment). I do not quote from those added sequences because they were not included in the DVD source cited above.
[ii] Stewart, George R., Ordeal By Hunger: The Classic Story of the Donner Party (New York: Pocket Book edition, 1971)
[iii] Ibid., pp.8-9.
[iv] Ibid., p.26.
[v] Ibid., p.29.
[vi] Ibid., p.67.
[vii] Ibid., p.77.
[viii] Ibid., p.59.
[ix] Ibid., p.61.
[x] Unsolved History: Donner Party. Produced by Termite Productions for the Discovery Channel, Discovery Communications, Inc., 2003.
[xi] Ibid., Pottgen, Paul, a representative from LifeCheck Corp.