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Teaching The Grim Reality Of The Donner Party


The story of the Donner Party is a tragic story of American westward migration that over the years has become a cautionary tale and often even the subject of jokes - grim jokes. In the spring of 1846, a wagon train left Illinois headed west. It was led by two brothers, Jacob and George Donner. They tried to find a shorter route to California but got ground to a halt by treacherous terrain and heavy snowfall in the Sierra Nevadas. To survive, the group reportedly ate the bodies of those who died from starvation or sickness. More than 40 people survived and made it to California. But, of course, many more didn't make it. The name of the Donner Party lives on as a signature American tale. Tom Fay is a descendent of one of the Donner Party members. Just last week, he gave a presentation at his child's elementary school. He joins us from our studios at NPR West. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM FAY: You're welcome, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And what's your relationship to the Donner story?

FAY: Patrick Breen Sr. is my third great-grandfather. One of his sons, Patrick Breen Jr. is my second great-grandfather.

SIMON: How did you learn about the story?

FAY: In my first year at Berkeley, I actually went to the Bancroft Library and checked out the diary, and they actually handed me the real one. They're not supposed to do that. And it just kind of kept snowballing into an interest.

SIMON: Was it a difficult thing for people - members of your family to talk about?

FAY: I know it was for those that survived it as they settled in San Juan Bautista to talk about it. They didn't particularly care to. Being just four generations away from that, it probably became easier but still wasn't talked about a great deal.

SIMON: What do you tell your fourth graders?

FAY: I address some curriculum points that the fourth graders are required to study at that age. And it has to do with Manifest Destiny, coming west, geography, Native Americans, the missions. I do try to keep it to that and not really dwell a great deal until towards the end when it's applicable to cannibalism, the sensationalized portions of the story.

SIMON: Yeah.

FAY: But I also try to do it in a light that they really consider the hard choices that are being made and not that it was just willy-nilly done for the sake of sensationalism.

SIMON: Right. It was done out of desperation and for survival.

FAY: Indeed.

SIMON: And what do we know about Patrick Breen?

FAY: He settled his family in the Mission San Juan Bautista area. The Castro House - General Castro had a house that he stayed in when he was in the area. When Patrick Breen and his family arrived in San Juan Bautista, they actually stayed at the mission for a while and farmed the mission orchard. Eventually, General Castro loaned them the house, and he had a room set aside for him when he was in the area, but the Breens were allowed to stay there. When gold was discovered at Sutter's Fort, the gold, on its way to Monterey, actually spent the night in the Breen's house - well, General Castro's house. And great-great Uncle John went to the gold fields and came back with sufficient money to buy the house and some land around the area - farmland and ranchland. The house is now a museum since 1933, when it was donated to the state park system. And you can tour it and learn more about Patrick Breen. He was the first postmaster in the area. They became very well-established in the San Juan Bautista area. And Breens live there to this day.

SIMON: Tom Fay speaking with us from NPR West. Thanks so much.

FAY: You're very welcome. Thanks again for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.