Searching for Tamsen Donner
Westward expansion meets the women’s movement in Gabrielle Burton’s Searching for Tamsen Donner, a memoir about a mother’s journey West in the path of the doomed Donner Party pioneers of 1846-7. Most people associate the Donner Party legacy with cannibalism. The pioneers spent a horrific winter stranded in the Sierra Nevadas with no supplies; forty-two died and many of the remaining members survived on the remains of their friends and family.
Tamsen Donner, wife of the party’s captain, stayed behind with her dying husband as the last relief party left with her children. Her name has gone down in history as a paragon of traditional womanly virtue, a loyal wife who sacrificed her own life to be with her husband in his last moments. In Searching for Tamsen Donner, Burton seeks to show a different side of Tamsen, one that showcases her many roles as wife, mother, schoolteacher, botanist, letter writer, and traveler against the background of the Donner Party legend. As William Lederer tells Burton at a Bread Loaf writer’s conference in 1972, “Most people survive by eating each other. You’re going to write a book that shows a better way.”
Five years later, Burton sets off en route to California from New York with her family, weaving together the history of Tamsen Donner through pioneer gravesites and memorials, museums, maps, scholarly research, and surviving letters and diaries from the Donner party. Burton’s memoir charts her own participation in the feminist movements of the sixties and seventies, and her decision to become a writer while caring for a husband and five daughters. Burton’s struggle to balance career with family is a central tension of her journey. “I was afraid the summer would go and we’d find we had piddled the trip away in side trips to snake farms and Stucky shops,” she writes, these family diversions suggesting that, “I was not a writer at all but always and exclusively a mother.”
Burton’s family is supportive, however, and their cooperation and support efface the home/career divide that underscores popular images of successful women. With Tamsen in the foreground, Burton reminds us that history is filled with strong women—women who juggled domestic duties and personal aspirations long before movements for political equality had met with any success. Searching for Tamsen Donner is also a road story, and much of the pleasure of reading Burton’s memoir lies in the plucky characters she meets throughout her journey. These characters straddle history and modernity, blending tales of local life with their own struggles as farmers, small business owners, and casino employees. They also tell the story of the careless destruction of American landscapes—of highways built over historical markers, vandalized memorials, and toxic government testing sites. These acts of destruction present a very different picture from the serene visual landscapes described by Tamsen in her extant letters, all of which appear in Burton’s memoir.
Burton’s emphasis on pioneer history occasionally seems to leave unquestioned the frontier mythology of discovery, the manifest destiny that masks nineteenth-century imperialist narratives of westward expansion. Burton’s self-identified focus on Tamsen shows that a more complete depiction of pioneer history and its displacements and dispossessions are beyond the scope of her memoir, but sometimes one wishes for a less peripheral depiction of Native and Mexicans populations in her retelling of Tamsen’s journey West. Burton’s quibbles with the Mormon Church and culture, too, may seem a bit strident to third wavers. But Burton’s account of her journey and Tamsen’s are (second wave) at its best, and her story is an inspiration to all women seeking to balance personal ambitions, adventure, and family.
Arriving just in time for summer road trip planning, Searching for Tamsen Donner is a moving exploration of a legendary American woman through the eyes of a modern heroine.