Chautauqua presentation offered tonight
Family and a faith in God helped an Irish family of seven, part of the Donner Party, survive the rough winter of 1846 in the Sierra Nevada, according to a woman who will portray the mother at Western Nevada Community College tonight.
Doris Dwyer, a 56-year-old history professor at WNCC in Fallon, portrays Margaret Breen at the Carson City campus from 7-9 tonight as part of “Nevada Revisited: A Celebration of Silver State History.”
Also performing will be Juanita Westbrook, who portrays civil rights pioneer Alice Smith, who founded the Reno-Sparks National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Space is available on a first-come, first-served basis. The women’s portrayals, known as chautauqua, or education through performance, will be in Marlette Hall of the Cedar Building at the campus at 2201 W. College Parkway in Carson.
Dwyer has performed in chautauquas throughout the country for the past 10 years. She chose to play Breen when Donner Lake State Park staff asked her to develop a character for the 150th anniversary commemoration at the park in 1996.
“She was an extremely strong woman,” Dwyer said. “She had an incredible devotion to her family. I really feel that the people who survived did so because they had a family unit there and were connected with a family. (The Breens) had a tremendous faith in God and they contributed their survival to those two things.”
The Breens joined the Donner Party in the group’s expedition about halfway across the country. Earlier, the Donner Party split off from a larger party to take a much-talked of alternative called Hastings Cut-Off, which was to save them 300 or 400 miles. It was more trouble than they bargained for.
“They had to build the trail,” Dwyer said.
The Donner Party broke apart when the group reached the Truckee Meadows in October. Many spent five days in the meadows, catching up on water and grass for their animals and burying a man who died in a firearms accident.
The Breens were the first family to reach the lake and tried to make it across Donner Pass before the winter became too rough.
“On Oct. 31, they tried to cross the summit,” Dwyer said. “They got within two miles of the pass and had to turn around. If they had gotten there earlier, they would have made it through.”
Forty people in the 87-member Donner Party died that winter. Some reportedly resorted to cannibalism. Young men without families died first, Dwyer said.
“Margaret Breen always maintained that no one in her family ate humans,” Dwyer said. “That was important to her for people to know.”
Dwyer’s and Westbrook’s presentations are sponsored by the Nevada Humanities Committee, which hosts the Great Basin Chautauqua in Reno at San Rafael Park every July. That chautauqua is the most highly attended of 22 annual events across the country.
“(The committee) tries to provide humanities programs throughout every part of the state,” Dwyer said. “They thought this particular character was very timely, because the Donner Party was stranded at the lake on Oct. 31.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Nevada Revisited: A Celebration of Silver State History”
When: 7-9 tonight
Where: Marlette Hall in the Cedar Building at Western Nevada Community College, 2201 W. College Parkway.
Contact reporter Maggie O’Neill at mo’email@example.com or 881-1219.