Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fifteenth Anniversary

Fifteen years ago this month, Utah State University Press published my book "Unfortunate Emigrants": Narratives of the Donner Party. This is a collection of previously unanthologized Donner Party primary sources, some well known, some less so, and a few "new" ones, which I had struggled to locate in my own research. I edited them, annotated them, wrote introductions and biographical sketches, found portraits and a cartographer, and with the help of USU Press's editorial staff (thanks, John!), put together what I considered a respectable contribution to Donner Party scholarship.

My, how things have changed! In 1996 Internet was in its infancy, home computers were far less common, and there was no Google God, no Wikipedia, no instant access to a world of information in palm of your hand. Many of the documents
that had been so hard to find can now be found online for free at places like Hathi Trust, Project Gutenberg, and Google Books; sites like Abebooks (my favorite), Alibris, and eBay make it possible to find original editions; and there are a number of print-on-demand outfits that can provide facsimile reprints relatively inexpensively.

The state of Donner scholarship has changed, too. In 1996, Joseph A. King's
Winter of Entrapment (1992) was the latest word on the Donner Party, and a number of people so were taken with its revisionist claims that they ignored its bias and innumerable errors. Unfortunate Emigrants was, in small part, a response to King's book, but in a relatively understated way. Back then, Winter of Entrapment was the only significant history of the Donner Party since George R. Stewart's Ordeal by Hunger (1936; rev. 1961), but now we have Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage (2008) and Daniel James Brown's The Indifferent Stars Above (2009) and can kiss both Stewart and King good-bye.

Unfortunate Emigrants is in print (as print-on-demand) and still sells a dozen or so copies each year. I still consider it a worthwhile compilation, but in the intervening 15 years we've learned much more about the Donner Party, and there are documents I'd like to add, to say nothing of typos to fix, errors to correct, and passages to rephrase. The state of scholarly publication is pretty precarious and a second edition is out of the question for the foreseeable future, but someday...