Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Unsolved History" episode available

Five years ago, Termite Arts produced an episode about the Donner Party for the Discovery Channel program "Unsolved History" which aired on October 8, 2003. As I wrote at the time, it was "not a resounding success. Most correspondents thought it had a jarringly split personality. The first part featured reenactment experiments, the second the archaeological discoveries at Alder Creek. Both parts were interesting, but there was little continuity between the two and many found the emphasis on cannibalism in the second section sensationalistic and offensive."

Despite its flaws, however, the episode is a must-see for dedicated Donner buffs and several people have written me hoping to find a copy. It was briefly available for purchase at the Discovery Channel website, but hasn't been listed there for the last several years. Now you can buy a copy at for $14.95. Not a bad price, and just in time for your Christmas gift-giving... (Obligatory disclaimer: No, I have no financial interest in the sale of this item.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The slate from Alder Creek

When I got to Alder Creek in July 2004 I was eager to learn if anything had turned up at the dig yet, so I stopped a likely looking woman in the parking lot. Yes, she said, she was with the dig, they had indeed been finding things, and mentioned pieces of broken writing slate. When I heard that, I got chills -- Tamzene Donner had been a school teacher and took school supplies to California! That was leaping to a conclusion, of course, and I knew that it didn't necessarily have anything to do with Tamzene, so I talked myself down.

After the dig, however, some of the team rhapsodized about the slate, envisioning how Tamzene tried to "normalize" the situation by teaching the children. This is a heckuva lot of assumptions. For one thing, it isn't at all certain which camp was excavated. The evidence, to me, suggests that it was more likely Jacob Donner's than George's; if so, Tamzene Donner is much less likely to have been involved with any artifacts found there. In addition, there was no proof that the slate had been used at all, let alone by whom, and there are many other ways the slate could have been used besides as a writing surface. As a flat, smooth, heatproof, waterproof object, a "writing" slate would make a dandy tray, trivet, spoon rest, cutting board, platter, plate, etc.; the fact that the fragments of slate were found near the hearth might suggest some of these uses. (Then again, if it had been used for writing, the fire would have been a source of light.)

At any rate, Molly Swords, one of Dr. Kelly Dixon's students, has completed the results of her study of the Alder Creek slate in the form of her master's thesis, A Clean Slate: The Archaeology of the Donner Party's Writing Slate Fragments. She was unable to bring up any traces of writing on the fragments, but has written an extensive history on the uses and types of school slates which is interesting in its own right. The thesis is available at the University of Montana's website as a PDF file.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Archaeology book

My frequent long silences don't mean that nothing is going on on the Donner front -- au contraire! I've been so busy, I don't know where to start.

I've sent in the first draft of my contribution to the Donner Party archaeology book, which was quite a relief, but now I'm working on revisions. Some interesting things have come up that I need to shoehorn in somehow.

Also, I worked with Will Bagley on his contribution to the book, and some prolonged digging revealed patterns in how the news of the Donner disaster reached the rest of the world. Ships carried files of the California Star and The Californian to Oregon and Hawaii, then to Boston, whence the story fanned out along the eastern seaboard. In the meanwhile, eastbound travelers had brought copies of the California newspapers overland to St. Louis, which became another vector. The first garbled hints reached the States in May 1847, but it wasn't until summer that the horrid truth became known. Between July and October 1847, paper after paper reprinted various articles from the Star and elsewhere.

The other contributors have been sending in their work, too, but the publication date is still up in the air, as far as I know.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Politics and the Donner Party

I hate politics, so it's a relief to get the election over with. What's really interesting is how the Donner Party kept popping up in the commentary.

This is nothing new; for instance, in 1998, one commentator wrote, "... even the staunchest defenders of the GOP are wondering how much progress there is in moving from the Republican to the 'Donner' party," and in 2005 another wrote, "Howard Dean is taking over the bloody reins from Terry McAuliffe, who had a hand in turning the Democrats into politics' answer to the Donner-party crossing." The 2008 election, however, has sprouted a bumper crop.

In February 2007, Barack Obama announced his candidacy at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, a building with several ties to an earlier president from the same state. Chicago Tribune writer Patrick T. Reardon described the senator as "wrapping himself in the mystique of Abraham Lincoln," and noted that the site has "less attractive" associations. Among other examples, he cited a nearby plaque honoring the departure of the ill-fated Donner Party in April 1846.

In March 2008, columnist Timothy Egan's Op-Ed article in the New York Times, "Donner Party Democrats," presented an extended analogy of the political process, ending, "These modern Dems press on, tearing into each other, crawling to get to the summit, still five months away... They are now ravenous with hunger, and it is starting to show. "

And then there was Jay Leno's quip on October 31: "It was on this day in 1846 that the Donner Party left for California. You know what happened there. Everything went wrong. They wound up eating each other.
Kind of like what's going on in the McCain campaign right now." (Ooops, Jay-- it was the same day in 1846 that the Donner Party got bogged down in the snow -- which, under the circumstances, is an even more apt analogy.)

Obviously, this is an equal opportunity analogy -- it can describe Democrats and Republicans -- but the people at this site have come up with the most unusual, if not tasteful, spin on the Donner Party and politics.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Modern poetry

A good friend and Donner Party buff was inspired by the last blog entry to compose a poem of his own:

There once was a boy name of Donner
Who feared he would soon be a goner.
So he munched on his Pa
And made lunch of his Ma
But kept mum as a grim point of honor.

Needless to say, he wants to remain anonymous.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Another verse version

Shana Youngdahl's Donner: A Passing has just become available from Finishing Line Press -- I haven't read it myself yet, but Cynthia Reeser and blogger Amy think it's great. I'll take their word for it because I'm not into modern poetry. Youngdahl isn't the first to write a verse interpretation of the Donner Party story -- Julia Altrocchi took it on in 1936 with Snow Covered Wagons, George Keithley in 1972 with The Donner Party, and Ruth Whitman in 1977 with Tamsen Donner: A Woman's Journey -- so it will be interesting to see how Youngdahl compares.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

And another thing...

Remember a few posts ago I mentioned Rush Spedden's Overland Journal article about the Donner Party's route across the Salt Lake Valley? Well, as I expected, the latest issue has a response in a letter to the editor by Roy Tea, arguing that the Korns-Morgan hypothesis is correct and Rush is mistaken. I don't have an opinion myself, but if you're interested, check out Overland Journal 26:2.

New museum delayed

Dedicated in September 1962, the Emigrant Trail Museum at Donner Memorial State Park is now aging and inadequate, and is scheduled for replacement. However, the construction of the new High Sierra Crossing Museum, slated to begin last month, has been pushed back a year due to a delay in matching federal transportation grants. The new museum is now expected to open in 2010.

In the meantime, the old museum will continue to operate. It presents the history of the Donner Pass area, including natural history, Native Americans, overland emigration, the Donner Party, the transcontinental railroad, and more.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Goings on

Lots going on on the Donner Party front, mostly writing: two articles in the last issue of Overland Journal, a review of Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage for the next issue of OJ, co-authoring a chapter for the upcoming Donner Party archaeology book with Will Bagley, an article about the remains of a man found in 1847 and 1849 above Donner Lake for Crossroads, reviewing two manuscripts of Donner Party books, correspondence with Donner buffs, and oh, yeah, trying to finish my own chapter for the archaeology book. None of this would be particularly onerous in itself, but with the concomittant research, and coming all at once, it eats up an astonishing amount of time.

Other people have been busy, too. For instance somebody just posted these photos of the historical marker commemorating Johnson Crossing, near the site of Johnson's Ranch. The ranch was a landmark on the old emigrant trail, being the first American settlement on the western side of the Sierra Nevada; it was the staging area for the Donner relief parties. Johnson's Ranch is also commemorated by another marker in a Wheatland park, but this monument is some distance away from the actual ranch site.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

By the way...

Those who're interested can purchase Overland Journal 26:1 (Spring 2008), which contains three Donner Party articles, from the Oregon-California Trails Association. Phone (888) 811-6282, toll-free, to make a credit card purchase. $5.00 per copy, plus postage. (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in sales of the issue.)

Donner, Donner everywhere (updated)

So much has been happening on the Donner Party front this spring that it's hard to know where to start.

Yesterday I was surprised and pleased to hear of another book in the works, this one with a very different approach. In 1973 Gabrielle Burton was bitten by the Tamzene Donner bug. Over the years she's pursued Tamzene, traveling to Newburyport, Mass., Elizabeth City, N.C., Springfield, Ill., and of course, the Donner Lake area, in her search, often with her family in tow. Next year the University of Nebraska Press will publish Searching for Tamsen Donner, which chronicles Gabrielle's quest, tells Tamzene's story, and includes the texts of Tamzene's letters. Sounds great!

Over the years, we've heard so much about the Donners and the Reeds (and more recently the Breens) that other Donner Party members have been slighted. I've tried to remedy this in my own research by concentrating more on the other families and single men, and am therefore pleased to report on projects involving the Murphy and Graves families.

Marysville, Calif., was named for Donner Party survivor Mary Murphy Covillaud; her sisters Sarah and Frances also lived there for several years, and their brother William was a prominent citizen of the town. I've been working with three Marysville ladies, all active in local history circles, who have developed a novel approach to presenting the story of the Murphy family: Sarah Murphy Foster (Kathy Sedler), Harriet Murphy Pike Nye (Sue Cejner-Moyers), and Mary Murphy Covillaud (Karen Compton) each take a turn to speak about part of the family's experience. The Three Murphy Sisters have been very well received and have gotten several requests for future presentations.

I was delighted to learn from Daniel James Brown that he's finished the first draft of his Donner Party book, Seeking Sarah (what is it with these missing Donner Party females?), which focuses on Sarah Graves Fosdick and the Graves family. I very much look forward to seeing it, because, although I try not to play favorites, I have a particular affinity for the Graveses -- five of the six surviving children of the family lived in the area of Northern California where I grew up, and descendants live there to this day. I've gotten to know several of them and they're fine folks. The Graves family's story, filtered through most histories' pro-Reed bias, has yet to be told adequately, and I'm confident that Dan will do them justice.

And then there are the movies. Necrosis, which wrapped in February, is a horror film: six friends, trapped by snow in an isolated cabin in the Sierra Nevada, are haunted by the ghosts of the Donner Party. Not a bad premise, really, but the creators perpetuate the tiresome canard that the Donner Party slaughtered one another a hunger-induced frenzy.

The filming of The Forlorn has just ended -- see previous blog entry called "The movie that couldn't be made." From the title and the dramatis personae, it's obviously about the Forlorn Hope -- the snowshoers who set out from Donner Lake in mid-December 1846 to seek help. More details coming soon!

Saturday, March 08, 2008

New Donner Party documents!

The latest issue over Overland Journal, the quarterly of the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA), is full of Donner Party material, including some new primary documents.

First are three letters by rescuer Selim E. Woodworth. Two were written while he was on the trail to Oregon in 1846, the third on February 6, 1847, the eve of his departure to the mountains to rescue a party of "unfortunate emigrants" starving in the mountains.

Then there's my article about survivor Sarah Graves Fosdick and the Graves family, followed by another "new" (i.e., previously unknown) letter that Sarah wrote to relatives in Indiana to inform them of the disaster. Sarah wrote on May 23, 1847, a day after her sister Mary wrote to Sarah's father-in-law back in Illinois, and the two letters are very similar (Mary's letter is in Unfortunate Emigrants, p. 129-131).

These new primary documents are pretty minor and certainly don't revolutionize our knowledge of the Donner Party, but they're still very interesting. Woodworth's trail letters help fill a gap in our knowledge of the emigration of 1846; Sarah's is a real gem not so much because of its content but because of the personal angle -- it's her only account of the Donner Party, written soon after the tragedy, and one of the very few documents by her known to exist.

In addition to these articles, this issue of OJ also has a piece by Rush Spedden, "The Donner Trail Across the Salt Lake Valley." In this detailed inquiry, Rush argues that the Donners crossed the Jordan River at 3300 South, over half a mile from the location (2700 South) posited by Dale Morgan and Roderick Korns in West from Fort Bridger. Rush make a pretty good case and it'll be interesting to see how the experts respond.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Another new Donner performance

Ruth Whitman's poem cycle Tamsen Donner: A Woman's Journey has inspired yet another artistic interpretation, described as an "operatorio in one act."

On March 14 and 15 the Seattle EXperimental Opera (SEXO) will present Tom Baker's Hunger: The Journey of Tamsen Donner at 8:00 PM at the Chapel at Good Shepherd Center in Seattle -- see Tom's website or the press release for more information. Anybody who attends, please report back and let us know what you thought of it.

Friday, February 22, 2008

New Light URL change

The URL for New Light on the Donner Party has been changed, for some mysterious reason. It's now However, the old one still seems to be functioning, too. Very strange.

The movie that couldn't be made (updated)

Over the years there have been several plans to make a feature film about the Donner Party but none has ever been completed. Previous flutters about Donner movie projects have followed a predictable pattern: an initial announcement, sporadic follow-up reports, and then a deafening silence. Why? I can't say for certain, but suspect that these projects' demise can be attributed to the ever-tricky issue of cannibalism, the expense of producing historical epics, and/or the overall decline of the Western genre's popularity. And, as has been pointed out, the difficulty of condensing the story into a 2-3 hour movie.

But hope springs eternal. Just about every year since 1995 I've met, been contacted by, or heard of at least one person who's working on a Donner Party screenplay. Some of these folks have become good friends and long time correspondents, others I never hear from again, one or two have sent me scripts to peruse. But never has any movie resulted.

This might be about to change, according to recent reports on the 'net, but you can't believe everything you read. This is the real deal, according to producer John E. Moore: Anacapa Entertainment has a feature film in active development called The Forlorn. It focuses on "the 1846 tragedy of the Donner Party, a wagon train forced by the worst blizzard in recorded history to survive the winter trapped in Sierra Nevada Mountains." ("Worst blizzard in recorded history"?! Tch! That's Hollywood...) Producers are John E. Moore, Mark Costa, and Ted Meyer, with TJ Martin as the writer/director. Negotiations to cast Crispin Glover are underway but not finalized; shooting is expected to begin in March in the Tahoe area. It will be interesting to see what happens this time around.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

New book released

Well, Ethan Rarick's new book on the Donner Party is officially out. Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West (Oxford University Press) has been available at for about a month now, but today's New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, and other papers have published reviews, generally favorable. At last we have an up-to-date narrative history of the Donner Party that incorporates the latest research (much of it mine), and overall I give the book a thumbs-up. Experienced followers of the Donner saga are unlikely to find any startling new information and Donner fanatics might find much to quibble with, but for more casual readers, it's a worthwhile addition to the literature.