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Better angels

by Harry Porter | January 2, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

I recently watched a very interesting documentary about the Donner Party. The Donner Party was a group of pioneers who formed a wagon train to travel to California from the Midwest in 1846. Due to a variety of mistakes and misfortunes, the party was snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Many were lost to starvation, disease and cold. Some of the group resorted to cannibalism to survive. Eighty-seven people started the trip west. Only 48 survived to see California.

The tragedy of this chapter in history cannot be denied. However, there was one portion of the story that struck me as a testament to the greatness that can reside in each one of us. If we choose to allow the greater good to reign.

Charles Tyler Stanton was a 35-year-old bachelor who joined the Donner Party to have a fresh start in California after many failed business ventures in Chicago. Stanton traveled alone and had no family with him on the journey. At the base of the Sierras, the Donner Party was exhausted and almost completely out of provisions. Stanton volunteered to traverse the mountains to Sacramento, California, for provisions while the exhausted and hungry Donner Party camped on the eastern side of the mountain range.

Stanton crossed the 14,000-foot Sierra Nevada Mountains to arrive safely in California only to gather supplies, turn right around, and return to his companions. Three weeks from the time, he initially left the party Stanton returned with two guides, seven mules and vital provisions that helped many in the Donner Party survive.

Upon his return, he found the wagon train completely snowbound and unable to move as a unit. They spent the next few weeks rationing supplies and hoping for a break in the weather. The break never came.

In mid-December, Stanton attempted to lead a small party, known as "The Forlorn Hope," over the mountains on snowshoes. Six days into this attempt, he was struck with snow-blindness. He told the other members of the expedition to go on without him. He froze to death. His body was later discovered by rescuers and identified by his clothing and his pistol.

Stanton had given his life in an endeavor to save others. If he had stayed in California after crossing the first time, he would have survived. Stanton had no relatives or close friends among the group. Thusly, he did not have to return to the camp. He could have stayed safely in California. He did not have to risk his life to return to his stranded fellow travelers. Stanton only returned because he was a man of his word. His only obligation to the Donner Party was a moral one.

As we enter a new year, what would our society look like if our moral compasses were more like Stanton's? If we put our own wants and desires aside for the greater good. If we sacrificed, just a little for our neighbor who has less. Obviously, the Stanton example is a unique one but I think it illustrates what the human race is capable of when we surrender to "the better angels of our nature."

"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

-- Abraham Lincoln

Print Headline: Better angels

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