Sunday, October 06, 2013

Donner Party cannibalism article


The latest issue of WildWest magazine to hit the stands might interest readers of this blog -- it features an article called "Donner Party Cannibalism: Did They or Didn't They?" by some bimbo named Kristin Johnson (that would be Moi). How did that happen? Well... It was work. A lot of hard work. The hardest thing I've had to write so far, because, despite all the revision, it's still much less than satisfactory. There's only so much you can shoehorn into 3,700 words. Special thanks to Greg Lalire at WildWest, who put up with my angst and vaporings while (apparently) remaining relatively sane.

George R. Stewart wrote long ago that, in a sense, cannibalism is actually a minor part of the Donner saga, and he was right. Once you get over the initial horror and look at the larger picture, cannibalism was the culmination of a lengthy series of events and, for almost all of the emigrants compelled to it, lasted a relatively short period of time.

I've downplayed the cannibalism for years because I just don't find it all that interesting; once the shock wears off, there's nothing to sink your teeth into, so to speak. It's the human drama (who were these people? what happened to them afterward?) -- and the historical research (how do we know what we think we know? are there any more sources out there?) that have engrossed me.  However, over the last several years the  notion that Donner Party cannibalism is a myth seems to have gained credence in some segments of the general public, especially the online crowd. It's become such an annoyance that when the opportunity arose to confront it, I did.

Most of the information in the article will be old news to attentive readers of this blog, New Light, or An Archaeology of Desperation; what's different is that it pulls data scattered about in many different sources together in one place to make what I believe is a convincing argument. I haven't had any feedback yet, good or bad, but time will tell. Meanwhile, why don't you take a look and tell me what you think?

[Disclaimer: I get no royalties from sales of the magazine and will derive no financial benefit from your purchases, darn it.]

PS  Don't overlook the "Donner Party connections and intersections" on page 8.

Monday, May 27, 2013

John Snyder's grave

 
As Donner buffs will recall, John Snyder was the Graves family's teamster who got into a fight with James F. Reed and was stabbed to death. Snyder was buried near where he fell and Reed was banished from the train. There has been some confusion about where the fight and burial took place, but trail historians are agreed that it happened at Iron Point, Nevada.

John Grebenkemper is involved with the Institute for Canine Forensics, which uses Historic Human Remains Detection (HHRD) dogs specially trained to search for the scent of decomposed human remains, which can remain in the soil for centuries. It sounds incredible, but the dogs have had had some remarkable successes and are being used by "cultural resource management firms, archaeologists, American Indian tribes, construction companies, federal, state and local agencies, cemetery preservation foundations and families looking to locate lost family cemeteries," according to the ICF website. Back in 2003 or so, my friend Ken Dunn told me about these animals, I told the archaeologists, and the upshot was that a team of dogs investigated the Alder Creek site before the July 2004 dig -- you can watch a video about it here.

 In 2011 John and ICF founder Adela Morris turned to another Donner Party site, John Snyder's grave at Iron Point. To make a long story short, their border collies Kayle and Rhea alerted to human remains scent in one specific area only, in the road at the bottom of the "steep sandy hill." The three of us wrote up the results in "Locating the Grave of John Snyder: Field Research on a Donner Party Death" (Overland Journal 30:3 (Fall 2012), p. 92-108). John and I did the history, and John and Adela wrote about the dogs. We've gotten some nice feedback and it looks like John and Kayle are going to be busy this summer.

However, it also looks like nobody is going to try to dig John up any time soon. As I understand it -- and I hope somebody will let me know if I'm wrong -- archaeological laws prohibit disturbing known or suspected graves without good cause. If the site is threatened by construction, for instance, if remains have been exposed by erosion, or if they turn up as part of a larger dig, that's one thing, but digging up a possible grave just to see if it really is a grave (mere curiosity, in other words) is a different story. On public land, at least, you'd be extremely unlikely to get permission, and there are restrictions with regard private property, too. But never fear, there are other possible Donner Party sites to investigate...

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Historic McGlashan site up for grabs




In 1893, newspaper editor, lawyer, and Donner Party historian C. F. McGlashan completed a remarkable building on a hillside in Truckee, California. White, with numerous tall windows and columns all around, the Rocking Stone Tower overlooked the town.

The tower was built was a 30-foot-high boulder with a flat top, at whose center perched a smaller rock (only 16 tons) so perfectly balanced on edge that a slight push would make it move gently, then rock back into place. Worried that the locals who scaled the base and larked about with the rocking stone might unseat it, McGlashan bought the property and built the circular tower, which housed his "museum" -- Donner Party relics, his butterfly collection, Washoe artifacts, and various other curiosities, including the rocking stone itself. 

Several years later, he completed a house close to the boulder and attached to the tower by a bridge. The house and tower became a landmark, even appearing in postcards, such as the one the image above is taken from. Until his death in 1931, McGlashan made his home in the "castle" on the hillside. Nearly four years after his passing, however, the house met its own fate. At 3:15 A.M. on October 18, 1934, a watchman discovered the blaze in the kitchen and was seriously burned attempting to douse it. The house burned to the ground, but the tower and its contents emerged unscathed. In 1939, the tower became Truckee's Veterans Hall Memorial Building.

Now the local Powers That Be have determined that the site is "surplus property" and have put it on the chopping block, with no publicity or input from residents. See the Sierra Sun article "Our Turn: Truckee history for sale" for more details about this latest development. For more about McGlashan's home and tower, see Give Me a Mountain Meadow, by M. Nona McGlashan.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Distressing News


On Friday I received a phone call out of the blue from Bill Springer, a fourth great-grandson of Capt. George Donner, to inform me that his brother Don died last month. 

Donald Donner Springer, a life-long resident of Springfield, Illinois, was an avid collector of Donnerana. He amassed a quantity of documents and other items related to his family history, gave talks to local historical and genealogical groups, and had a memorial erected to George and Tamzene Donner, along with other relatives whose graves are unknown, in the family plot at Oak Hill Cemetery in Springfield.

When JoAnn Brant Schmidt and I visited Springfield in 1998, Don put us up for a week, took us on a tour of Donner sites, and shared his remarkable knowledge freely. Don and Jo Ann were distant cousins, he being descended from George's son William and she from George's daughter Sarah -- naturally they had a lot to talk about! Don was a hell of a nice guy, friendly, generous, and a great host. 

If Don's passing weren't bad enough, Bill also told me that Jo Ann died over a year ago, and her husband of 59 years, Gil Schmidt, passed away in October, less than a year after Jo Ann. 

In addition to being sharp, funny, and having a great outlook on life, Jo Ann was an amazing genealogist. She's the one who cleared up the mystery of Sarah Donner (Capt. George Donner's daughter, not sister); found George Donner Sr.'s Revolutionary War service (North Carolina militia, not Continental Army), thus enabling any number of descendants to apply for membership the DAR and SAR; identified George Sr.'s wife Mary (surname Huff, though Jo Ann was always careful to say that while the inference was quite clear, she hadn't yet found any direct documentation); uncovered a collection of documents relating to the Donners back in Kentucky; and much, much more. A lot of information about the Donners in the family trees at Ancestry.com stems from her research, though she's rarely credited. Neither Jo Ann nor I had been working hard on genealogy for a while, so we hadn't been in touch lately, which I very much regret. 

I'll try to find something more upbeat to post about next time.


Monday, January 21, 2013

I'm ba-a-ack!


It's been over a year since I last posted, but it's not for lack of things to post about or lack of interest in the Donner Party. During my sabbatical of wrestling with boring offline, real life stuff, I've continued to research and correspond about the Donners, so I have a lot of news to share about all sorts of events, places, and people. For example (in no particular order):

  * John Snyder's grave
  * French book about Mary Graves
  * Canadian article about John Baptiste Trudeau
  * Selim Woodworth
  * Charles Cady
  * California Trail Interpretive Center
  * Threat to Hastings Cutoff
  * Patty Reed descendants
  * Genealogy
  * Article by Elitha Donner Wilder descendant
  * Donner Party songs
  * Donner Party musical (!)
  * and more

Over the next weeks I'll be writing about these and other topics -- stay tuned!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Happy 2012


The New Year is a promising one for Donner Party buffs, with a new movie, books, and an anniversary or two, plus there's some exciting new research coming out. I'll be reviewing and blogging about these as I view, read, or write them up.


Best wishes for a Happy New Year to all.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Eating crow


Ah, the joys of writing! No matter how hard you try, errors inevitably creep into your work. It's dishearteningly easy to make dumb mistakes, and even if you catch them, your edits don't always make it into the published book. My copy of
An Archaeology of Desperation has become a correction copy, with penciled notes scattered here and there throughout my contributions to the book. So you dedicated Donner fanatics can make the following changes to your copies:

p. 8, Figure 1.1: The symbol representing Mary Blue, George Donner's first wife, is defined as "female, divorced"; it should be "female, deceased." This error I deny having made -- evidently it's the result of a miscommunication somewhere along the line -- but it's attributed to me, so I'll correct it.

p. 20, Table 1.1: Sarah Keyes should not be listed.
p. 33: The Donner Party "parted from the other emigrants to Fort Bridger to rendezvous with Hastings"; this gibberish should read "parted from the other emigrants to rendezvous with Hastings at Fort Bridger."
p. 39: "Dorothea Wolfinger, about twenty" should be "about twenty-nine."
p. 56: Jacob Donner's family left Springfield "in April 1847" (tch!) should be, of course, "in April 1846."
p. 57: "in utero" should be italicized.
p. 63: the Fourth Relief left the cabins "on April 17, 1847" should be "on April 21, 1847."
p. 299: "the last three months of 1847" should be "the last months of 1847."

There are no doubt more goofs I haven't noticed yet, and I'd change a lot of other things if I could; I had to leave out many details for lack of space, for instance, and admit I could have worded some passages better. In addition, the editorial staff at the U of OK Press did some tinkering with the citations and bibliography that I don't necessarily agree with. It's possible that the other contributors may have corrections, too, I don't know. But hey, the book is out at last; it is what it is.


So there you have it -- I'm taking my lumps in advance of any reviewer's criticisms. Remember, you read it here first!