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.