Saturday, December 09, 2006

80 years ago

Eighty years ago this month, newspapers across the country reported another drama in the snow:

Pioneer Methods Used in Rescuing Tourists

Tonopah, Nev., Dec. 1. (AP) -- Rescued from the fate which befell the Donner party in the winter of 1846-47, passengers of thirty-one automobiles trapped in snow drifts in Montgomery Pass in the Sierra Mountains between here and Southern California, were recovering today from frost bite and hunger.

Heroic measures of the old West were resorted [to] in effecting the rescue, but the telephone, unknown when the Donner party was trapped, was used to summon rescuers. Of the 88 in the Donner party, 42 perished in the deserts of Utah and Nevada and the mountains of California.

Montgomery Pass was sought by the tourists, men, women and children, because the Sierra [Donner] Pass, above Truckee, 200 miles to the north, was blocked for the winter. Huge drifts of snow trapped their automobiles and the tourists set about fighting off cold and starvation as best they could until help should come...

Their plight was made known throughout the mountain region by telephone. Soon Dan Haskin, veteran stage driver, was on the way from Tonopah with four horses and an automobile stage. He was accompanied by Bill Farrington, old time musher. They virtually dug their way to the summit of the pass, the snow blotting out their tracks as they fought through the drifts.

They found the refugees blue from cold and suffering from a two day fast. The cars were pulled out one by one and sent along a fairly clear road to the little resort of Benton, where the tourists were given aid.
--Salamanca (N.Y.) Republican-Press, December 2, 1926, p. 1

The following week an article debunking the story appeared, but got little or no attention:

Snow Yarn is Called Silly
"Stranded" Motorists Assert Story was Fantastic

A news story emanating from Tonopah last week to the effect that occupants of 31 automobiles stranded on the Montgomery pass during a snow storm were saved "from a fate similar to the Donner party" and were rescued "suffering from frostbite and hunger" has been branded as "fantastic" and "ridiculous by some of the "survivors."

Mrs. May Shepherd, proprietress of Shepherd's store at Mt. Montgomery at the top of the Nevada-California pass, sent word to Secretary W. M. David of the Nevada State Automobile Association yesterday that the "two-day fast" of the "entrapped motorists," at least, was not founded on fact.

She declared there is plenty of "eats" and accommodations at Mt. Montgomery and there was at the time the modern Donner party arrived.

Mrs. Shepherd's contention also is borne out by Mis Helen Lusich of Reno, a member of the party in one of the machines. She declares that when the string of California-bound cars and the Nevada-bound contingent met at the top of the pass there was a general celebration and neither hunger not intensive cold was encountered. Those headed for Nevada were invited to remain for supper and partake of five of the Shepherds' turkeys, but time was precious and the did not tarry. It is presumed by the Nevadans , however, that the following Californians consumed the birds.

A trainman employed on the Southern Pacific line from Mina to Bishop, which the highway parallels and once crosses through the pass, also scouted the "harrowing experience."

He declares there was much hilarity and, although there were plenty of shovels and tools and plenty of man power in the machines to cut a way through the snow, many of the potential now shovelers preferred to sit on the station platform, swing their legs and "let George do the work."

-- Nevada State Journal (Reno), December 12, 1926, p. 8.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Kim family

The analogy to the Donner Party is unavoidable -- a family stranded in the snow with little food, coping with their situation for as long as they could until finally one of them left the others to go for help. Like many others, I watched the story of the stranded Kim family unfold with great concern, rejoicing when Kati Kim and her daughters were found alive, praying for her still missing husband, and grieving when he was finally found dead.

I remember thinking, "I just hope they don't start badmouthing the family, they way they did the Everest expeditions of 1996." (The Donner Party has come in for a lot of abuse and ridicule, too.) It's bad enough that people suffered and died; do we need to make matters worse for the survivors? I was consequently heartened to hear a member of the Oregon State police state emphatically on television this morning, "James Kim did nothing wrong."

Interestingly, the officer's name was Hastings.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Comment on this blog

OK, I've turned on the "Comments" option, just to see what response I get. I enjoy hearing from my readers but had to remove the guest book from New Light on the Donner Party because of all the spam it was getting, so I'm hoping this will be a good substitute. We'll see how it goes. Note: I reserve the right to moderate comments -- gross or obscene posts will get yanked.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Donner lore

Old newspapers are a gas. It's fascinating to see how people wrote back in the 1800s and early 1900s, how they thought and what they bought. And it may sound ghoulish, but obituaries can be particularly useful, not only for genealogical information but also because they preserve personal tidbits that might otherwise go unrecorded. Unfortunately, however, newspapers also generate and repeat falsehoods and folklore, of which the following are examples.

Take phantom Donner Party members. It's astonishing how many people, or their descendants, claimed membership in the DP. Many, like Lillace Daniels, John Hargrave, Mary Hargrave Swift, Jeremiah Fallon, Michael Murray, Frances Grayson Crane, and A. W. Finley,
were actually 1846ers and their obits generally state that the deceased was in the Donner Party but separated from them and took another route. Other individuals, however, clearly could never have even met the Donners en route: Wellington Gregg, emigrant of 1847; George Hinton and Joseph Dennett, emigrants of 1849; and Rhoda Ann Hillebrand, born in Salt Lake City.

And the garbled stories that crop up! An obituary of '46er Minerva Jane Harlan says that her father-in-law, George Harlan, "met the Donner party at Truckee, but separated from them, Harlan refusing to adopt their route which he thought to be dangerous. Later events showed how true were his fears." (The Donners were at least two weeks behind the Harlans.)

This "I told you so" theme shows up elsewhere -- other travelers claimed, after the fact, that they'd told the Donners not to go that way or to hurry. James Clyman's famous warning to James F. Reed was recorded many years after the event and was likely colored by hindsight. The Cyrus family passed down the story that they sent their eldest son back to warn the Donners about the snow.

Another alleged warning came from
"Major Stephen Cooper, whose train of prairie schooners was a part of the famed Donner Party. After crossing the continent in 1846 Major Cooper and Donner disagreed regarding the route, and the members of the Donner Party decided to go to Oregon. [!] Despite the warning of Major Cooper that a storm was impending, the Donner party went to the northward, toward a body of water now known as Donner Lake. The next day the Donner party became snowbound and entered upon the innumerable sufferings that are now a part of history." (The Donners were at least two weeks behind the Coopers, too.)

Oh, and let's not forget the Booths, who claimed that the Donner Party refused to help build a road over the pass, then tried to take cuts ahead of them. (See Donner Party Bulletin No. 1 for more details.)

Usually there's a grain of truth to these stories, but some are gruesome falsehoods. Among his other tall tales, "Old Joe Gray" claimed to have been one of the rescuers of the Donner Party. According to him, the survivors included "Mrs. Smith," "Mr. Logan," and a Norwegian. The latter, it was discovered, "had concealed under his coat the remains of a babe that he had killed and partly eaten." In the 1860s or '70s Truckee was home to a bogus Keseberg. This "wretched Dutchman" claiming to be the Donner Party survivor horrified listeners with "recitals of his fiendish, ghoul-like exploits" and "tales of ghastly feasts on quivering human flesh."

I'll post more Donner myths and fables as they surface.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Sarah Keyes photo update

The real problem with the Sarah Keyes photo is the dress worn by the woman in the photo -- it doesn't have the long, pointed bodice typical of the 1840s but the straight, natural waist more typical of the 1850s and '60s. However, older women often don't follow the latest fashion trends and other photos from the 1840s show women wearing dresses with a natural waistline. We'll see what some clothing experts have to say.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Minnesota starvation experiment I

In the fall of 1944, 36 volunteers arrived at the University of Minnesota to take part in an audacious year-long experiment: they agreed to starve to save others.

The project was the brainchild of Dr. Ancel Keys, the physiologist who had invented of the K-ration. It had become obvious that with WWII winding down, something would have to be done to save the millions of starving people who had lived through the war. In order to understand how to rehabilitate the starving, however, Dr. Keys first needed to know more about the process and effects of starvation itself, and so the experiment was born.

The participants, healthy young conscientious objectors carefully selected from a pool of applicants, underwent a three-month control period, six months of starvation, and three months of rehabilitation. During the starvation phase, the men were fed about half of their daily caloric requirement and lost about a quarter of their body weight. Throughout the study the men underwent a barrage of tests to monitor the physical and psychological effects of starvation and refeeding; they also recorded their experiences in diaries, another important source of data.

One of the researchers wrote a pamphlet with suggestions on how refeed the starving which came out in 1946 (the centennial of the Donner Party), but the study's results weren't completed until four years later. In 1950 the University of Minnesota Press published The Biology of Human Starvation in two honking volumes of over 600 pages each, chock full of huge indigestible chunks of data (charts, graphs, statistics) amidst the text passages. This work is hard to get hold of and a hard slog to get through, at least for a layperson. Now, however, there's a reasonable alternative. Todd Tucker's recent The Great Starvation Experiment: The Story of the Heroic Men Who Starved so That Millions Could Live (New York: Free Press, 2006) is a fascinating history of the study, focusing primarily but by no means exclusively on the human guinea pigs.

"So what does this have to do with the Donner Party?" you ask. A lot! I have long believed that it's impossible to understand the Donner tragedy without taking into account the physiological and psychological effects of stress and starvation on human beings. The Minnesota experiment made monumental strides in advancing our knowledge of starvation and Tucker's book, in turn, makes the Minnesota study available.

More later.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Recent archaeology

The proposed expansion of the Emigrant Trails Museum at Donner Memorial State Park requires a preliminary environmental survey of the area, so an archaeological team has been digging near the museum for the past few weeks. According to a recent article in the Reno Gazette-Journal by Frank Mullen, "So far, the archaeologists have found rusted round and square nails, broken plates, tin cans, metal cups, arrowheads and scatters of basalt chips, a rock used for tools by ancient Indians." Even if some of the non-Indian artifacts can be confidently dated to the mid-nineteenth century, it would be impossible to tell whether they're associated with the Donner Party. Frank quotes Jeff Brooke, an associate state archaeologist: "An artifact would have to say 'Donner' right on it for us to be sure." It'll be interesting to see what turns up.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

William H. Eddy

William Eddy's third marriage has been a mystery. All anybody knew about his third wife was that her name was A. M. Pardee or Pardoe and that she was from St. Louis. I've been doing some poking around and am pretty certain that her name was actually Ann M. Purdy and that she married Eddy in St. Louis in April 1854. After Eddy's death in December 1859, Ann returned to her family in Missouri and lived the rest of her life there. This identification still needs to be verified, but it's a working hypothesis, anyway.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

New Book

Marc McLaughlin's new book has just come out. The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm "focuses on how extreme weather challenged the emigrants and their heroic rescuers." I've seen some of the chapters and this looks to be a fine addition to our understanding of the Donner tragedy. Visit Mark's website at for ordering information.

Good deal

I just visited the Patrice Press website and was vexed to discover that Greg is offering Maps of the California Trail at half price -- this after I paid full price for it a couple of weeks ago! It's a great resource for trail enthusiasts, consisting of topo maps with the trail clearly marked, and historical quotes, too. Donner buffs will be particularly interested in the maps of Hastings Cutoff and the Truckee Route. Visit for details. Disclaimer: This is a public service announcement; I have no financial interest in promoting this or any book I didn't write myself.

Grandma Keyes photo flap

The November 2006 issue of folio, the newsletter of the Patrice Press, details a lengthy e-mail exchange about the authenticity of the photograph of Sarah Keyes at Sutter's Fort. In "Who Is This Lady?" Greg Franzwa and his correspondents discuss a wide variety of topics including daguerreotypes, 19th century women's costume, Grandma Keyes, her burial, and Alcove Spring. Well, I think the photo's genuine and am writing a letter to the editor detailing my reasons. Greg thrives on controversy so I think he'll enjoy my response, even if he doesn't agree.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

George Donner, Sr., Memorial

On September 3, 2006, a monument honoring George Donner, Sr., was dedicated at Oak Hill Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, by the local chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. Don Springer, a 5th great-grandson and Springfield resident, organized the creation of the monument after his distant cousin, Jo Ann Brant Schmidt, a 4th generation descendant of the honoree, proved George's record of Revolutionary War service.

George Donner was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1752. About 1770 he moved to North Carolina, where he maintained a jail for British prisoners on his property during the Revolutionary War. George married Mary Huff, with whom he had several children, including George and Jacob of the Donner Party. The Donners moved to Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, arriving in Sangamon County about 1825. George Sr. died there in 1844 at the age of 92. The location of his grave is unknown, so the stone erected to his memory was placed in the Donner plot at Oak Hill. Also included on the stone are the names of his wife Mary Huff Donner; his son, George Jr.; and George Jr.'s wives Susannah Holloway, Mary Blue, and Tamzene Dozier, none of whose graves are known or marked.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bus tour

It's hard to believe that a week ago I returned from the Donner 2006 bus tour. I looked forward to it for a long time, enjoyed it thoroughly while it lasted, and now it's over. Sigh.

It was a great experience -- an interesting group of people, lots to see, lots to learn. For some it was pilgrimage, visiting sites read about but never actually seen; others had been on one of the previous tours in 1998 and 2000. But whatever the case, it was fun to spend time with folks who share your obsession and can talk intelligently about it.

The tour itself was well managed, with comfortable lodgings and good meals. Frankye Craig, the organizer, did a great job making the arrangements and keeping us us on schedule without being tyrannical about it. For instance, in the greater Kansas City area, where approximating the Oregon Trail meant taking our enormous tour bus down narrow residential streets, she insisted we go around the block so we could come back and stop at a child's lemonade stand, much to his, and the neighborhood's, amazement.

Eric, our driver, put up with a lot on this trip, yet remained unnaturally goodhumored. I don't know what they're paying him, but he deserves a raise. Or hazardous duty pay.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Here goes!

Well, I did it. I've been thinking about creating a Donner Party blog to present my research in a more informal fashion, so here goes! Watch this space as I learn just how this blogging thing works.