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.