The Donner Party: Was It Fate?; A Historiographical Assessment of the Donner Party Tragedy and its Implications upon the West

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Donner Party, American West, American Frontier, social history


Family, Life Course, and Society | Place and Environment | Social History | United States History | Women's History


"Nearly a century and a half after it happened, the story of the Donner Party remains one of the most riveting tragedies in U.S. history. The Donner Party began as just another nameless trek to California, but it came to symbolize the Great American Dream gone awry," wrote Jared Diamond in his essay "Living Through the Donner." Historians have just recently begun to understand why a greater number of females survived the western tragedy of the 87 member Donner Party than did males. Since the very young and the very old members were at the greatest risk, and because most of the males fit into these categories, age was certainly an important component for those who survived and for those who did not. Gender was also a determinant factor that separated many of the survivors from the victims. Females had certain physiological advantages over males. Because they tended to have more fat reserves than males and because they were typically much smaller than males, they did not need as much food for sustenance. In fact, males in the Donner Party began to starve almost two months earlier than females. Also, since men were more prone to physical violence than women, and since men most likely exerted more energy than women by hunting and building shelters, gender was a critical element to understanding why more Donner Party females outlived males. As integral as age and gender components were to the survivorship of the Donner Party, kin groups were an intrinsic factor that particularly helped to explain why females survived the Donner tragedy more than males. Two-thirds of the males in the Donner Party perished, yet two-thirds of the females managed to stay alive. Age, gender, and family relationships were determinant factors that gave females advantages over males, ultimately distinguishing the victims from the survivors.

Department 1 Awarding Honors Status


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