Donner - Reed Tragedy by Ted Davidson

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Photo Courtesy of Tom Bauer, Missoulian, Missoula, Montana

Ted Davidson was a professor at El Camino College in California where some of his varied interests were manifest in the anthropology courses and screenwriting workshops he taught. Based on his anthropological research in prison, he wrote Chicano Prisoners: The Key to San Quentin, which describes the prisoners' own illegal, brutal culture as revealed to him by the Mexican Mafia. Before moving to the Bitterroot Valley in Montana to write full-time, he undertook an enormous, multi-year project.

To become an expert on the Donner Party, he read reams of books, dug through original documents at the Bancroft Historical Library, 4-wheeled out the Donner trail from the Continental Divide two times, hiked or 4-wheeled the trail over the sierra many times, snowshoed across Donner Pass atop snow over twenty feet deep, and vicariously lived and re-lived the experiences of the principal characters in order to empathize with them and accurately bring them back to life.



When I set out to make myself an expert on the Donner Party, it was my desire to take one of American history's most gruesomely fascinating tragedies and set it in a framework that would sustain the tension required of sound, moving, dramatic prose. I hoped to bring the immense number of true, often overwhelming events to life. I wanted to create concise verbal pictures of the vast beauty, desolation and horrors of the west to heighten the reality faced by the individuals and families--their encounters with life and death; courage and cowardice; starvation, madness and murder; love and hate; cannibalism and survival.

 At first I thought I could in some way refuse to fictionalize and insist on complete historical accuracy--only presenting the immense quantity of actual, exciting incidents. I thought that this story about one of the most tragic slices of American history dealt with incidents so shocking that they could stand alone, without being fictionalized.

 However, reality set in. I soon became aware that I could not accomplish my earlier goal. I realized that Donner-Reed Tragedy must be written as a novel in order to breathe life into the experiences that occurred.

 I soon discovered that most writers have been unable to maintain the incredible tension inherent in the disastrous twists and turns of the Donner tragedy. They have either lost focus by following too many individuals or mistakenly concentrating on George Donner--following a misconception that arose from the naming of the party.

Other than being elected to the nominal position of "captain" and having the party named after him, George Donner was not the real leader of the party. He never was a pivotal individual who personally took action or assumed a true leadership role when the entire party faced critical predicaments. And, other than leading the two Donner families, he was not involved in any of the crucial events the larger party faced after it was trapped by the snow. He never reached the lake, peak and pass named for him.

A fictional technique that I employed was to have my principal focus be on a few key individuals who were critical to most of the major events the party faced. If I had tried to follow each and every individual--using the plethora of detail in the historical record--it would have resulted in losing focus and overwhelming the reader with facts that would not have been crucial to an engaging, dramatic telling of the entire party's story. This is why I chose to have my principal focus be on Jim Reed, his wife, and Bill Eddy.

Another fictional tool I used was the creation of dialogue--which was never recorded by members of the party. I logically believe that something quite similar to the conversations I have created must have been spoken.

Also, unlike a nonfictional historical work, I chose to use informal names, nicknames, or alternate versions of identical first names to avoid confusing the reader. For example, there were seven men and boys formally named "William" in the party and three among the rescuers.

With utmost regard for those involved in the actual events, at no point do I intentionally depart from or attempt to distort--in either a positive or negative manner--the history that is preserved in the writings of those who died or survived the tragic ordeal. I have profound feelings for them.


Bitterroot Valley, Montana

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