Not a lot in the way of controversy is often said about Patrick Breen. His claim to fame is that he maintained the only diary we have of the Donner Party’s time at the lake. I’ve never heard anyone really categorize him as a villain or a hero. But he was always someone who left me a little…unsettled. Here’s what we know about him.
1. 100% of his family survived. That’s no small accomplishment. Of the large family groups traveling, only the Breens and the Reeds had this complete survival rate.
2. He was pious. You only have to read his journal to see that.
3. When the snow fell while the party was on the mountain, and they were forced to turn around and go back down to the valley below, somehow Patrick Breen and his family ended up taking the one cabin that already stood for shelter. (It was built by a party the year before when they were forced to leave their supplies and wagons behind with a teenager named Moses Schallenberger to watch over for the winter before they’d return in the spring to retrieve them.) So the Donner Party gets back down the mountain and the Breens take the cabin that’s already built while everyone else has to start from scratch. How was that decided? Why did Patrick Breen get it? Was that an advantage for the Breens? Maybe he was very busy helping other families with their shelters…maybe there was no advantage, I don’t know. It just feels…advantageous, doesn’t it?
4. He seemed to be under the radar, frankly. Not taking on a leadership role like James Reed or Franklin Graves or George Donner. And maybe in the end, that’s what saved Patrick Breen. Living under the radar with no controversy. It seems to be a strategy on reality survivor tv shows, right?
5. His diary—while it paints a picture of him being helpful, pious, hard-working, impartial to others’ squabbles…we have to remind ourselves that he wrote it. And at some point, he passed it on to someone else to have and read. Meaning he approved of people reading it. And why wouldn’t he? There’s no record of him hiding food from others that he wasn’t sharing or…
6. He mentions in his diary that one day a Native American came by the camp and shared with him some roots and other edibles. Did Breen share them with others? I don’t think so. And we can’t blame him for this, no doubt. But once again, I have to wonder how much of an advantage this cabin gave him. If it was closest to a path traveled by Native people who might have offered up a little help that only the Breens received…
Patrick Breen. Another complicated, mysterious character.