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Impatient with Desire

by Gabrielle Burton

Hardcover, 248 pages, Hyperion Books, List Price: $22.99 |


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Book Summary

In the spring of 1846, Tamsen Donner, her husband, George, their five daughters, and eighty other pioneers headed to California on the California-Oregon Trail in eager anticipation of new lives out West. Everything that could go wrong did, and an American legend was born.

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Excerpt: Impatient With Desire

Impatient With Desire



Copyright © 2010 Gabrielle Burton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4013-4101-5

Chapter One


Imagine all the roads a woman and a man walk until they reach the road they'll walk together.

I never intended to marry again after Tully died. It wasn't for lack of chances, but that's nothing to boast about. In Ohio, and in Illinois, even an outspoken woman like me has her pick of men. Most of the men were barely older than my Thomas would have been had he lived. Some women marry those boys, and I say to each her own, but young or old were not for me. I thought I had buried my heart with Tully.

I met George Donner in a cornfield, and the beginning wasn't auspicious. I had stripped an ear of corn for my students, discovered a larva, and put it on my finger for them to see.

"Corn borer larva," I said. "It's the larva of a moth. If unchecked, this little thing will feed on and destroy the hardiest crop of corn, potatoes, or beans."

As my students examined the tiny worm crawling on my finger, I looked up to see a tall gentleman in his fifties watching me intently. When I met his eyes, he said, "You need permission to be in this field, ma'am."

How many tall gentlemen have hectored me about one thing or another in my lifetime? I drew myself up to my full height, forcing myself to speak civilly because of the children.

"I am the teacher, sir. My students are gathering botanical specimens."

He considered that a moment, then said, "I'll still need to know when you're here, ma'am. When the corn gets taller, I may have to send in a search party for you."

My students snickered. I am hardly taller than some of them, but I've never equated height with strength or virtue, and certainly not with good manners. I was about to give this gentleman a piece of my mind when I noticed how his eves crinkled as he smiled, how benign and good-natured he looked, and yes, how handsome he was.

"Never underestimate the power of small beings, children," I said, and not breaking gaze with him, I squashed the borer between my fingers.

His smile grew broader, and he made a small bow.

"George Donner, ma'am."

I smiled and bowed back.

"Tamsen Eustis Dozier, sir."

Here in the mountains surrounded by snow, I have had occasion to remember that golden day, the corn rustling, the sun shining on all of us, the giggling children looking from me to him and back again as we smiled at each other, really one could not help smiling at this genial man. I remember writing my sister, Betsey, soon after we married, "I find my new husband a kind friend who does all in his power to promote my happiness & I have as fair a prospect for a pleasant old age as anyone."

The first part remains true to this day; there has never been a time I wasn't happy to see George walk in the door.

He always told the story of our first meeting the same way. "She came into my fields looking for specimens," he said and, after a pause, "and I'm the specimen she found."

For both of us, time stopped for a moment that day.

Now time has stopped in quite a different way. Instead of a golden moment being suspended, each day is relentlessly endless, relentlessly the same. During the day I move in ceaseless activity. I have never had less to do and each day it takes me longer to do it, and still there are hours left over to fill. At night when everyone sleeps, I try to make sense of it all. Try to retain hope. Try to pass the time.

I must sleep. Sitting here at the table thinking or writing hour after hour while the others sleep or lying on my platform listening to their sighs and groans and caught breaths, it seems I never sleep. But then I awaken with dread, and it is morning with another day of interminable hours of unbidden intimacy.

We came here November 2nd, 1846. The day before, we were trying to outrun a sudden fierce snowstorm, my sister-in-law, Elizabeth, and I and our older children walking ahead of the wagon to spare the oxen, our eves on the looming mountains. My little Frances was bravely trudging along, and I said to her, "Every step we take gets us closer to California." The huge flakes fell faster, thicker, and suddenly a sharp crack rent the air, I turned, saw the broken axle, the wagon heaving sideways, started running, screaming, "The babies," but George and Jacob were already pitching things out of the overturned wagon. They reached Georgia first, screaming, scared, but unhurt. Then Jacob uncovered Eliza and put her limp body in my arms. For a terrible second I thought she was dead, and I thought, I will not be able to bear it. Then she opened her eyes and began screaming. We all laughed with relief.

It was November 1st, my 45th birthday, and I gave thanks that Eliza was unhurt, and I did not have to hold a dead baby in my arms a third time.

All my life I never had enough time, and now I have nothing but time. My senses have become very acute. Several times here late at night, it seems I can even recall the precise sound of the corn rustling.

November 1846

Nov 9th 1846, Sierra Nevada Mtns, still snowing

There are twenty one of us here at Alder Creek in three shelters.

IN OUR SHELTER.: George Donner, 60 Tamsen Donner, 45 Elitha Blue Donner, 13 Leanna Blue Donner, 11 Frances Donner, 6 Georgia Donner, 4 Eliza Donner, 3 Doris Wolfinger, 19, from Germany (Her husband disappeared in the second desert-Oct 11-12?, 1846) Uno, the children's dog

IN JACOB & ELIZABETH'S SHELTER: Jacob Donner, 58, George's brother Elizabeth Donner, 38 Solomon Hook, 14 William Hook, 12 George Donner, 9 Mary Donner, 7 Isaac: Donner, Samuel Donner, 4 Lewis Donner, 3

IN THE TEAMSTERS' SHELTER: Samuel Shoemaker, 25, our teamster from Springfield, Illinois James Smith, 25, the Reeds' teamster from Springfield, Illinois. Joseph Reinhardt, 30?, from Germany (Augustus Spitzer's partner?) Jean Baptiste Trudeau, 16, joined us at Fort Bridger-we say he's our factotum, because he can do anything

The second time I saw George Donner, he walked into my classroom with two other gentlemen. My thirty students, ranging in age from 6 to 12 years old, were reciting their times tables or working industriously on various projects. I was at my desk knitting. Mr. Donner, a step behind, looked reluctant, a little embarrassed; the other two men bustled with self-importance. The School Board Members. I had been waiting for them ever since my landlady told me that slanderous gossip about me was going around town.

"Children, we have visitors."

My students stood up. "Good morning, sirs." They sat down, folded their hands, and waited expectantly. I continued knitting.

The two officious school board members looked at each other with smug satisfaction. A smile played on George Donner's face.

"Is there anything you'd particularly like to see, gentlemen?"

Mr. Greene, a gentleman originally from the East who puts on airs and generally makes himself ridiculous, stepped forward and said, "We have heard that you knit during school hours, Mrs. Dozier."

"Well, now you can trust your eyes as well as your ears," I said pleasantly. "Please ask the children anything you wish. 13 times 7. The capital of Delaware. The inventor of the cotton gin. The main export of Brazil, the author of The Last of the Mohicans, the process of photosynthesis-"

Mr. Donner put on his hat and tipped it to me. "Thank you, Mrs. Dozier. Sorry to have taken up your time. Good day, children." He steered the flummoxed board members out. Later, he told me that he said to them, "I told you hounds you were howling up the wrong tree. I think she deserves an increase in salary, and I'm going to propose it next board meeting."

And he did. The first of many promises he has kept. George Donner is a man of his word, I was told by more than one person in Springfield before I even met him.

Nov 15th 1846

Jean Baptiste came back from the lake camp last night. He had been gone so long we thought he might have been lost. He said that when he arrived, a group of fourteen were just starting out to cross the pass and he joined them. They had to turn back at the end of the second day. He was very disappointed that they didn't even reach the end of the lake. He said it's much more difficult to walk in deep snow than he imagined.

They had more time to build their shelters so they're better housed than we, but other than that, Jean Baptiste says their situation is pretty much the same as ours. He says that everyone is confident that James Reed and "Big Bill" McCutchen will lead rescue to us soon. Their wives and children wait anxiously for them.

At the lake camp, there are sixty in three shelters.

The Breens moved into an existing cabin where an emigrant from the Stevens Party of '44 spent the winter. Jean Baptiste said that Mr. Breen calls it their "shanty."

IN THE "SHANTY": Patrick Breen, 51, from Ireland via Iowa Margaret Breen, 40 John Breen, 14 Edward Breen, 13 Patrick Breen, Jr., 9 Simon Breen, 8 James Breen, 5 Peter Breen, 3 Isabella Breen, 1

IN A LEAN-TO BUILT AGAINST THE "SHANTY" Lewis Keseberg, 32, orig. from Germany, most educated man in our company Philippine Keseberg, 23 Ada Keseberg, 3 Lewis Kescberg, Jr., born on the trail

ALSO: Charles Burger, "Dutch Charley," 30, from Germany, our teamster Augustus Spitzer, 30, from Germany (Joseph Reinhardt's partner?)

About 150 yards away, Jean Baptiste said the Murphys and Eddys built a cabin against a large rock. In this cabin

THE MHRPHYS: Levinah Murphy, 36, a widow from Tennessee, Mormon? John Landrum Murphy, 16 Mary Murphy, 14 Lemuel Murphy, 12 William Murphy, 10 Simon Murphy, 8

MRS. MURPHY'S MARRIED DAUGHTERS & THEIR FAMILIES Sarah Murphy Foster, 19 William Foster, 30 George Foster, 4 Harriet Murphy Pike, 18 (her husband, William, 32, accidentally killed, Oct, 1846, along the Truckee River) Naomi Pike, 2 Catherine Pike,

THE EDDYS FROM BELLEVUE, ILLINOIS: William Eddy, 28 Eleanor Eddy, 25 James Eddy, 3 Margaret Eddy, 1

A third cabin was built a half mile away, a double cabin for

THE GRAVESES: Franklin Graves, 57, from Vermont Elizabeth Graves, 45 Mary Ann Graves, 19 William Graves, 17 Eleanor Graves, 14 Lovina Graves, 12 Nancy Graves, 9 Jonathan Graves, 7 Franklin W. Graves, Jr., 5 Elizabeth Graves, Jr.,

ALSO, A DAHGHTER AND SON-IN-LAW: Sarah Graves Fosdick, 21 Jay Fosdick, 23

THE REEDS: Margret Reed, 32 Virginia Reed, 13 Martha "Patty" Reed, 9 James Reed, Jr., 6 Thomas Reed, 4 Milt Elliott, 28, from Springfield, the Reeds' teamster Eliza "Lizzie" Williams, 31, the Reeds' cook Baylis Williams, 25, Lizzie's brother, the Reeds' handyman

THE MCCHTCHENS: Amanda McCutchen, 25, joined us at Fort Bridger (Her husband, "Big Bill," went ahead with Charles Stanton in September i846 to Sutter's Fort for help) Harriet "Punkin" McCutchen, 1

ALSO: Charles Stanton, 35, from Chicago, traveling with us Luis and Salvador, Indians, "vaqueros," who came back with Mr. Stanton in October I846 from Sutter's Fort with mules and food

We're not sure yet which of the three shelters the others are in:

John Denton, 28, from England, traveling with us, carved Sarah Keyes's gravestone in Kansas Noah James, 16, from Springfield, our teamster Pat Dolan, 35?, originally from Ireland, friend of the Breens, most likely in their "shanty" Antonio (?), 23?, our herder, joined us at Fort Laramie

* * *

Altogether, eighty-one of us are trapped in the mountains. Here at Alder Creek, we are six men, three women, and twelve children. At the lake camp shelters, there are seventeen men, twelve women, and thirty-one children.

George and I have often talked about how the explorers went westward for knowledge or glory, the missionaries for converts, and the mountain men for adventure and fortune, but we of '46 have thought of ourselves from the beginning as bringing a civilization. We are the first year of the families on the Trail: a responsibility and a privilege that we have borne eagerly, indeed with pride.

When we were trying to hack our way through the Wasatch Mountains, we became aware of the liabilities of so many children, but that fact remained unspoken. Here in our grim shelter, the numbers laid out starkly on the page, there is no denying or ignoring their heart-sinking reality. As George and I worked out the ages of each for this list, we exchanged more than one look of dismay.


Let me describe our shelter as for years I always described my current surroundings to you, Betsey, faithful to your instructions to "be particular with detail." We are in a clearing, three shelters in all, each at roughly the point of a triangle. When the storm forced us to seek cover, we put our largest tent against a great lodgepole pine to form the west side of our shelter. Then we drove posts into the ground and covered them with oxen hides. Erected in haste, it has served us remarkably well.

Inside at one end, we scooped a hollow in the ground, which serves as our fireplace. An opening at the top vents the smoke, but never all of it. There's always a smoky haze, and we're growing accustomed to our chronic throat clearings and coughs. It's night now, but night or day, along with the smoky haze, there are shadows, silhouettes, dark corners. When we go outside, the light hurts our eyes at first; then when we come back, we squint for a few moments until things become clear again.

At the other end of our shelter, posts and poles hold up crude wooden platforms we built out of weathered wagon boards. These platforms lift us off the wet earth, and we covered them with pine branches and blankets.

We divided one platform into two by hanging a blanket in the middle to give Mrs. Wolfinger privacy. Doris Wolfinger is a young German widow we took into our wagon after her husband disappeared in the second desert. She may as well be a hermit in a remote cave for all she is with us.

We made a rough table and two benches from wagon boards and put them close to the fire. We eat there, I lave and dress George's wound there, Elitha sometimes reads her Dickens there. I sit there now, and most nights, writing. A giant pinecone, lit, is my "lamp."

Around the edges of the shelter we have several bowls filled with melting snow for our water. Close to the door, we have our slops and empty it outside daily' except in the worst weather.

We almost always wear our coats inside over many layers of clothes, which I'm sorry to say, have not been washed for some time, a state I fear will continue. I suppose we are fortunate that it is too cold to sustain vermin.

Jacob and Elizabeth's shelter across the clearing is pretty much the same as ours except smokier and more pungent, although Jean Baptiste and I do our best to keep the vent open and empty the slops.

"The Indians do it this way," Jean Baptiste told George, and he instructed the men in making the teamsters' shelter, a kind of tepee, by covering triangulated poles with hides. Jean Baptiste is a godsend, and as good to the girls as if he were their brother. When the weather permits, he takes Georgia and Eliza outside and spreads out "Old Navajo," his colorful Indian blanket, on the ground. Eliza plops down and grabs one side, Georgia the other, and they begin rolling inward until they meet in the middle like two sausages. Jean Baptiste picks them up and props them against a log, where they watch him probe the snow looking for cattle or climb a tree looking to the west for the rescuers to come or simply talk to themselves in a private language they have made up. I could not manage without him. He finds firewood for all three shelters. He's of short stature, only five inches taller than I, but very strong. Jean Baptiste Trudeau is his full name. He is not sure where he was born. His father was French Canadian, a trapper, who was killed by Indians. His mother was Mexican and apparently, died when he was very young. He says he doesn't remember her. I feel very tender toward him. He is a good boy, and his eagerness makes him seem younger than his 21 years-"almost 22," he said at Fort Bridger, where he begged George to hire him. "A dollar a day," George said, "and all the food you can eat."

Your sister