Sunday, December 13, 2009

In other news...

Oh, yes, I've been meaning to mention: As regular readers might recall, I've been unable to edit New Light On the Donner Party for ages and have been investigating various alternatives: new software, new host, new format. Since late October I've been working on a new site, which I'm calling Donnerpedia, unless somebody can suggest a better title. Anyway, it's a reworked version of New Light, using Wikipedia-type software and navigation. I've been learning the software, experimenting, and editing like mad -- there's a slew of information to add and every page has to be edited. It will also have some graphics, unlike New Light.

There's no projected launch date yet. I hoped to have it up the first of the year, but it's taking forever to
translate everything into Wikinese. Keep watching the blog and I'll let you let you know when it's up and running.

New offering from Gabrielle Burton

Last year the University of Nebraska published Gabrielle Burton's memoir Searching for Tamsen Donner, in which she chronicles her quest to find the elusive heroine of the Donner Party. Next year Hyperion will publish Gabrielle's novel, Impatient with Desire, which tells Tamzene's story through an imaginative recreation of her lost diary. The book isn't due out until March 1, 2010, but can be pre-ordered through Amazon at a significant reduction of price. (Standard disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the book.) For more about Gabrielle and her work, visit her website:

Monday, November 30, 2009

Save your money

I got my copy of Allan W. Eckert's Dark Journey: The Tragedy of the Donner Party in the mail today, and it's... bad. Really bad. I haven't even read the book yet, just the notes, and perused the text here and there, and I'm telling you, folks, it's a train wreck.

First, despite the publisher's flowery obfuscations, it's a novel: Eckert makes things up. Now, history can be dull, and of course one wants to liven it up, recreate what people did and said. But a what point does reasonable inference turn into sheer fabrication? Wherever you draw the line, Eckert is on the wrong side of it.

Second, the book is poorly edited. I did a double take at "Russsell," for instance, and don't get me started on the internal inconsistencies, the maps, or the index.

Third, it's full of errors. Small, annoying errors, whoppers, howlers, and outright falsehoods. One particularly choice example: According to Eckert, although John Snyder was buried at Gravelly Ford, he was killed at Iron Point, "40 miles east." First of all, why would anybody haul a corpse for three days just to bury it? Second, there's the minor matter of geography: Iron Point is 80 miles west of Gravelly Ford. And third, the primary sources state that Snyder was buried the day after he was killed. This is in a "rigorously accurate" history? Clio help us. And this is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg.

I expected to like this book, having heard only good things about Eckert's work, and am sorry to have to write this.

P.S. It's very nicely bound, though.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Online archaeology video

Some time ago a reader kindly sent me a link to On the Trail of Tragedy: Excavation of the Donner Party Site, a video about the 1994 excavation at Alder Creek, which you can watch for free online. Check it out!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

New Book Available

I checked the Jesse Stuart Foundation website yesterday and Allan Eckert's new Donner Party book, Dark Journey, is available for purchase here. 334 p., $25.00. Haven't read it yet, but hope to soon.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

It's My Bloggy and I'll Crow If I Want To...

It suddenly occurred to me that I coulda mentioned this a coupla months ago: in August I was awarded the
Oregon-California Trails Association's Merrill J. Mattes Award for Excellence in Writing for my article "Survivor: Sarah Graves Fosdick," which was published in Overland Journal 26, no. 1 (Spring 2008). The award itself is a handsome engraved plaque on a walnut base and I have no idea what to do with it. Anyway, it's a thumping great honor and I was dumbfounded (and a bit teary) when they notified me. Thanks, OCTA, and everybody whose help and encouragement made it possible.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Demanding to be haunted

Since it's Halloween and all...

Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwrecks. --Robert Louis Stevenson

One would think that, of all places, the scenes of the Donner Party tragedy would be haunted, but there just aren't many Donner ghost stories, and with few exceptions the ones I've encountered are distinctly unsatisfactory. The paucity of stories is no doubt due to the fact that nobody actually lives at Donner sites to witness anything (if there's anything to witness at all, of course). Oh, sure, people "live" temporarily at the campground at the state park, but not at the actual cabin locations, and while the (shudder) development around Prosser Reservoir blights the environs of the Donner family camp, no one lives at Alder Creek. Whatever walks the meadow walks alone.

I've read a variety of "true" Donner ghost stories which are obviously based on peoples' faulty notions of what happened back in 1846-7, like the appearance of a woman in bloody, old-fashioned clothing (taken as "proof" that Louis Keseberg murdered Tamzene Donner). Pfft. I much prefer stories of vague, creeping dread that might -- or might not -- be due solely to the imagination of the percipient.

For example, back about 1997 I asked a Donner Memorial State Park ranger if she knew of any odd happenings. To my delight, she said yes. Occasionally when staff worked alone in the museum at night they would experience disquieting sensations of not being alone, of being watched, and would hear unexplained noises.

Then there was the woman who bought a Murphy cabin vial with tags signed by Frances Donner Wilder. The purchaser had never had any problems before, but after she displayed the vial in her home next to some old family memorabilia, odd things began to happen. She and her husband heard the sounds of a child's voice, her dogs whined and growled savagely when in proximity to the vial, a small rocking chair moved and rocked by itself, and so on. When they got the vial out of the house, the phenomena ceased.

Probably my favorite Donner "ghost" story comes from Alder Creek, where, in 1998, a young woman named Elizabeth toured the site. It was late afternoon and she was by herself -- no other cars in the lot, no other people anywhere around -- yet she was overcome with the sensation of not being alone, of panic, and depression as she walked the site. While using the women's restroom, she heard a sound like scuffling feet and a tinkering noise, as of someone sorting through a toolbox, coming from the men's room next door. She was relieved to get away.

When I related this story to a friend with whom I'd visited Alder Creek, she was taken aback. "Oh, wow," she said. "I heard weird noises from next door and got a really creepy feeling when I was in that restroom myself."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Another new book

Well, this one sneaked up on me -- I had no idea there was a new Donner Party book in the works when I stumbled on some buzz about
Dark Journey by Allan Eckert, published by the Jesse Stuart Foundation. You can read more about the book here. Sounds interesting, but it looks like we'll have to wait to order it -- I just visited the foundation's website and the book isn't listed yet. Keep checking!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Had to laugh...

Today my genealogy program told me that Noah James was the half-brother of the father-in-law of the brother-in-law of a second cousin of the husband of a great-granddaughter of George Donner.

I did not ask for this information.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

John Sinclair

Exactly 160 years ago today, San Francisco's Alta California published news of the death of John Sinclair, an early California pioneer who had participated in the efforts to rescue the Donner Party.

Sinclair arrived in California in 1834, obtained a land grant, and plowed the first furrow in the Sacramento Valley, according to the Alta. He settled at Rancho del Paso, 2-3 miles north of Sutter's Fort across the American River, and was serving as the alcalde of the Northern District in the winter of 1847 when the news of the Forlorn Hope's arrival at Johnson's Ranch reached him. He promptly sent a message to Washington A. Bartlett, the alcalde at San Francisco, soliciting aid, then hurried up to Johnson's to interview the survivors. Sinclair helped coordinate the rescue of the Donner Party, sheltered some of the refugees in his home, and later, in May and June of 1847, officiated at the marriages of five of the survivors.

Sinclair did well during the early days of the gold rush and amassed a considerable fortune. In the spring of 1849 he and his family set out for New York by the isthmus route. During the voyage he became ill (cholera, according to some, yellow fever according to others) and died aboard the steamer shortly before it arrived in New Orleans.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Wildfire on Hastings Cutoff

Skull Valley was full of smoke on the afternoon of on August 2, 1846, when the nine members of the Bryant-Russell Party arrived at Redlum Spring. They camped early and rose in the middle of the night to begin preparations to cross the Great Salt Lake Desert. At 1:30 A.M. on August 3, Edwin Bryant wrote, the nearly full moon* looked "like a ball of fire, and shining with a dim and baleful light, seemed struggling downwards through the thick bank of smoky vapor that overhung and curtained the high ridge of mountains to the west of us." The Donner Party, passing through the area a little over three weeks after Bryant, made no mention smoke or fire, one of the few misfortunes they missed on their disastrous trek west.

163 years later, the moon is full and Skull Valley is again filled with the smoke of a wildfire. A lightning strike near Iosepa on August 6, 2009, sparked the Big Pole Fire, which, fanned by the wind, has consumed more than 44,000 acres as it's raced north along the Stansbury Mountains on eastern side of the valley. BLM firecrews battled the flames all day Thursday and today; this morning the smell of smoke hung in the air in Salt Lake City, over40 miles away.

*The U.S. Naval Observatory website provides details of moon phases -- type in any year you like between 1700 and 2035 in the search box and click "Get data."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Back from California

In my last post, I described the new Graves family treasure I recently acquired, a collection of letters, photos, and other items from the family of Eleanor Graves McDonnell's daughter Mary Greene. Last weekend I made an all-too-brief visit to California to show some of the pictures to Graves family descendants in Sonoma County. Friday night we shared a great dinner, visiting and chatting, and then I hauled out the photos. Wish I'd had a tape recorder to capture all the stories and their variants ("Well, the way I heard it...") that were told that night!

The following afternoon, some of us made a pilgrimage to Knight's Valley, where Eleanor and William McDonnell homesteaded. It's on the eastern side of the county, near Mount St. Helena and southeast of the Geysers (now a geothermal plant). The ranch, sprawling over as many as 3,000 acres of rolling hills, passed down through the family for two generations, then was divided into several large parcels and sold. We visited the lot where the ranch house was located, with the owner's permission (it's on a private road). The original building is long gone, but the modern house occupies pretty much the same location. The well house, much modified, is still in the front yard, the garden where Uncle Will Graves grew vegetables he liked (but no one else did) is a bit further down, and a tiny private cemetery
perches atop a steep hill behind the house.

After a hot tramp around part of the property and up to the cemetery, we looked at photos again. The owner is very interested in the history of the property and was eager to see what the 1870 ranch house -- the one so many people remembered so fondly -- had looked like. As it turned out, there'd been no known photos of it until the Mary McDonnell Greene collection showed up this spring, and I was delighted to be able to display three close up views of the house taken at different times, and a fourth, taken from the road, that shows it with the hills behind. After a pleasant visit, we set off again.

Calistoga is in the upper Napa Valley about ten miles southeast of the old McDonnell place. Many emigrants of 1846 settled in the area, including the Ritchies, Tuckers, Kelloggs, and some of the Graves family. Eleanor lived there before moving up to Knight's Valley and her sister Lovina lived all of her adult life there. Their sister and brother, Sarah and William, also lived there for some years. (Louis Keseberg was a short term resident, too -- he was a partner in Sam Brannan's distillery
in the 1860s.) We stopped at the Pioneer Cemetery on Highway 128, where several of the family and their descendants are buried, and after poking around a bit, detoured past some other family sites. Then we headed back toward Santa Rosa via Kortum Canyon Road, which I'd never taken before, a marvelous narrow twisty road overhung with gnarled branches dripping Spanish moss... Ah, California!

Monday, May 11, 2009

New treasure

In March 1847 Mrs. Elizabeth Graves hid her family's wealth near Donner Lake. When the coins were rediscovered in May 1891, the story of the lost Graves treasure hit newspapers across the country. On Thursday I became the recipient of a new Graves treasure, a collection of photographs, letters, and other material from the family of Eleanor Graves McDonnell's daughter, Mary McDonnell Greene.

Mary grew up on her parents' ranch in Knight's Valley, Sonoma County. When she married Lester Downing Greene in 1878 she moved to his spread along the Sacramento River, but missed the hill country and spent her summers at her old home. Her children accompanied her and grew to love the area as well. Consequently the collection includes numerous pictures of the McDonnell place and Eleanor's side of the family. There are also many letters from various relatives to Mary. I haven't had a chance to read them, but there's at least one letter from Eleanor, one or two from her husband William McDonnell, several from Mary's siblings, and many, many more. At least half of the of the letters and photos are from Lester's family, the Greenes, Beals, Buckmans, and others, so it will take a while to sort everything out.

What does this have to do with the Donner Party? Well, nothing, really. I doubt I'll find out anything new about 1846-47! It is, however, fascinating to learn more about what happened to some of the survivors in later years, to see their faces and pieces of their lives, and I am grateful for the privilege. Thanks again, Ron!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Latest Donner book

Well, it's here! Daniel James Brown's The Indifferent Stars Above is now available. Mary Roach, in her favorable New York Times review, described it as "an ideal pairing of talent and material" and Brown as "a deft and ambitious storyteller, sifting through the copious and often conflicting details... to forge a trim, surging, minute by minute narrative." (Roach is no stranger to the Donner Party, having written about ghost hunting at Donner Memorial State Park in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.)

FWIW, I'm delighted with the book. While I care about all the members of the Donner Party, I've always been partial to the Graves family, and this is the first major book centered on them -- the Reeds and the Donners get most of the press. Dan works in a great deal of interesting information about the Graves family and about starvation, hypothermia, and other scientific aspects of the story. He also revises the Forlorn Hope's itinerary and gives a explanation as to how the snowshoers went astray. (I wish he'd included a map, but can't fault him for not doing so: finding decent cartography is a big problem for trail writers.)

Various reviews of Indifferent Stars have already appeared on the Internet. Some writers don't like the discursions, others do. Donner Party buffs will, I think, welcome the new information, new approach, and new things to think about.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Author news

James D. Houston, whose 2001 novel Snow Mountain Passage focused on the Reeds of the Donner Party, died in on Thursday, April 16, 2009. The house in Santa Cruz where he lived for many years had once been the home of Patty Reed Lewis. Read his obituary here.

On a cheerier note, Gabrielle Burton's Searching for Tamsen Donner has received some great reviews. I found it a delightful read, myself, and am glad the press has been positive. You can find out more about Gabrielle and her book at her new website.

I also heard from Daniel James Brown. His The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride -- the bride in question being Sarah Graves Fosdick -- will be out soon. I met Dan at the symposium at the end of the Donner Party tour in 2006 and know how much work he's put into this book, so
I'm really looking forward to reading it. If you visit his website at HarperCollins you can pre-order a copy.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Good news!

Gabrielle Burton's new book, Searching for Tamsen Donner, is available ahead of schedule from the University of Nebraska Press. I haven't had a chance to read much of the published version, but can tell you that it's quite a story. In the summer of 1977, bitten by the Tamsen bug, Gabrielle, her husband, and five daughters piled into their station wagon and set out from their home in Buffalo, New York, on the trail of Tamsen Donner, a two-month oddyssey that took them to Springfield, Illinois, Independence, Missouri, and across the country to Donner Lake.  Gabrielle weaves Tamsen's story into her own, and a fine tale it is. As a bonus, she publishes all of Tamzene's known letters at the end.

Today's anniversaries

One hundred sixty-two years ago today, on February 19, 1847, the first relief party reached Donner Lake, a factoid which appears in several "on this day in history" features, including Chase's Calendar of Events,, and in a number of blogs. It's gratifying to see so much recognition of this event, and amusing to read some of the comments

By an interesting coincidence, today is also the anniversary of the death of Eliza Donner Houghton, who died in 1921 at the age of 78 (a fact noted by at least one other blogger). She's buried in the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Friday, February 06, 2009

"The Forlorn" trailer

Today I got an e-mail from John E. Moore, producer of The Forlorn, Anacapa Entertainment's forthcoming movie based on the band of snowshoers (later known as the Forlorn Hope) who set out from the camp at Donner Lake in December 1846 to get help from Sutter's Fort. Anacapa's in the process of scoring/mixing the film; no release date has been set yet. You can view a trailer here. It's kinda hard to get a feel for the movie, but I must say I was surprised at how well groomed these "desperate" snowshoers look. Naval officer Joseph T. Downey had to say about other 1846 emigrants after they crossed the mountains:

"... such a mass was never seen before by mortal man. They were literally the rag tag and bobtail of all Creation. Here they came, some with coats and some no coats--some with deer skin trowsers and some with awful looking things in the shape of trowsers, some with moccasins, some with Boots, some with shoes and a great majority with no covering to their feet. In one thing however they were uniform: they had good rifles and shocking Bad Hats."

The Forlorn's Donner Party members, however, are clean, well-fed, and well-dressed. Musta spruced themselves up before they set out...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Necrosis" trailer

Last year I blogged about a forthcoming horror movie with a Donner Party theme, and now it looks like Necrosis is nearing release. From what I can tell, it has the usual plot: a group of young people goes off to have fun at some location or other that turns out to have a dark history; they are terrorized by a specter from the past that stalks them and strikes them down one by one. In this case, of course, the location is a cabin in the Sierra Nevada, haunted by some sort of horror left over from the Donner Party. Here's the trailer from YouTube. Ya know, the tall guy with with the axe does look rather like Louis Keseberg...

Thursday, January 01, 2009

2009 looks promising for Donner Party buffs

With two, hopefully three major books about the Donner Party coming out, 2009 will be a banner year for followers of the saga.

First there's Gabrielle Burton's Searching for Tamsen Donner, published by the University of Nebraska Press and due out on March 1. Gabrielle describes her personal quest for the elusive heroine and ends with the first publication of all of Tamzene's known letters.

And you won't have long to wait for the next one: Daniel James Brown's book focusing on Sarah Graves Fosdick, The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, is coming out on May 19. It's published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. Dan has done a great job on his research and contributes a lot of interesting new perspectives.

As for the Alder Creek archaeology book, it's still in the works with no word yet on a publication date, but may well be out before the end of the year.

Other news: Using new software, I've been working on the New Light on the Donner Party website and am hoping to get the revised version up in the not too far distant future. (There are a lot of technical details to master and fuss with, so don't hold your breath!) I'm editing typos, correcting other errors, adding details. I've turned up a lot of biographical info: added two new individuals to the "Rescuers" page, info about Charles L. Cady, the Donners, the Reeds, Noah James, Walter Herron, and others. I've also turned up a lot of info about peripheral issues, like Walter Herron's and Tamzene Donner's families, which is interesting but not exactly relevant to the Donner story so probably won't make it to the website.

Also, Ric Burns' 1992 documentary The Donner Party, is available for download at various websites, including Blockbuster, LimeWire, The Movie Downloads, and others.

That's all for now -- Happy New Year, folks!