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.