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.


jfreelancer said...

Kristin, your website is remarkable! I'm writing about the early history of Calistoga and some of its characters. I wanted to verify the membership in the Donner party of a Lavinia Graves (sometimes posted under variations of that name, like Lovina, etc.) and I had run into some oddities. For example, I could find no Lavina, but I did find a Lovina Murphy who was part of the Graves party that joined the Donner/Reed party later. I started off thinking that since Lovina Murphy was a widow that the married Mr. Graves when the two survived, but alas, that was too simple. The Lavina Graves I was looking for had to be one of the eight children I had been unable to identify, until your website seemed to verify that.

Amazing job! You are to be commended!

Jean Graves said...


Kristin Johnson said...

I've never heard that before. The Donner Party Graveses go back to Thomas Graves, who was born in England and settled in Connecticut about 1645.

Jim Cooper said...

Could you please provide a reference where Major Stephen Cooper is alleged to have warned the Donner Party? I'm fairly familiar with just about everything written about him (he's a relative of mine), and I've never seen such a claim before.

Kristin Johnson said...

The story appears in an obituary of Amos Roberts, who married Cooper's daughter Martha, in the San Francisco Call, March 26, 1906, p. 6. Please note, I'm not criticizing Cooper but a story told about him years after his death.

Jamilah Vittor said...

Do you have more information about Wellington Gregg's claim to have met the Donner party? I have an obit for him from the Daggett collection which states that one of the survivors of the Donner party was friends with the family (they don't name the survivor). The obituary headline reads "Wellington Gregg Sr. Came to California with Donner Party" but that seems to be just a figure of speech, because the article goes on to say that he and his parents "crossed the plains to California with an emigrant train in which were nearly 1000 persons." I am always looking for new sources, so if you have more to share about W. Gregg I'd love to see it!

Kristin Johnson said...

Hi, Jamilah--

I have the same or a similar obit whose headline describes Gregg as a Donner Party member. It goes on to say, "Gregg lived for years at Napa where one of the survivors of the Donner party and Frank Leach, former Director of the Mint, were members of the family circle." I think somebody saw the statement about Gregg crossing the plains and the phrase "Donner Party" and made up a story. He's one of a very long list of false Donner Party members. Sorry I can't tell you anything more about him.

Kristin Johnson