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.