Ordeal by Hunger

Stewart, George

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Annotated by:
Willms, Janice
  • Date of entry: Apr-08-2002


This is one of several histories or collections of documents concerning the ill-fated Donner Party westward trip of 1846-47. The wagon train of inexperienced and irregularly prepared families and individuals were California-bound from Illinois. Their misfortunes seem to have begun when they chose to follow the directions of a man who suggested a "short-cut."

Following upon a dreadful passage through the Wahsatch [sic] Mountains and then across the salt flats west of the Great Salt Lake, the group attempted the Sierra Nevada mountains too late in the fall to precede the snow and the cold. For the months of November through March, the party ( now cast asunder and without leadership) made various attempts at wintering over versus futile assaults on the pass.

From the diaries and other records surrounding this misadventure, the historian puts together a summation of the horrors of the cold, starvation, and growing hopelessness of being trapped and ill-prepared for a winter in the wilderness. Based on some of the diary entries, a sense of the extent of desperation that resulted in cannibalism is made available to the reader of today.


Although flawed in terms of structure and sometimes demonstrating a contemporaneously unacceptable level of racism, this tense "page-turner" looks squarely at the levels to which stressed humans may rise and the depths to which they may fall under extreme circumstances. In this work there are men who refuse water to parched children; others who risk their own lives and limbs to try to carry veritable strangers to safety. Heroic acts and savage inhumanity exist side by side in this painful chronicle. For the medical humanities reader, Ordeal by Hunger is a powerful example of the extremes to which mankind can be pressed and the many forms of response that may be anticipated and studied.


First published: 1936


Houghton Mifflin

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