Thursday, December 09, 2010

Donner and Reed documents up for auction

R. R. Auction of Amherst, New Hampshire, is offering two early documents bearing the signatures of Donner Party leaders.

The first is a petition dated February 16, 1840, asking the Sangamon County Commissioners to extend the Jacksonville Road, signed by George Donner and 37 others. The other document, undated, protests the annulment of the Bloomington Road, and is signed by James F. Reed and over a hundred others.

Bidding opens on December 27 and ends January 12. For more information about the auction, click here.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tour at Donner Memorial State Park

On Sunday, October 31, Donner Memorial State Park interpreter Gayle Green will guide visitors on a tour of the state park and the Alder Creek campsite. The event will begin at 10:30 and last about two hours. No fee is mentioned in the
Sierra Sun article. You can also visit the state park website or call
(530) -582-7892 for more information. The date was chosen because it was when the Donner Party (or some of them) arrived at the lake, not because of Halloween, but ask Gayle if she knows any Donner Party ghost stories anyway.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Upcoming October events

In case anybody is interested (not that I expect them to be), I'm going to be on internet radio next Monday night, October 4. Ron Miller is going to interview me on his program
The Chosen, which covers a variety of unusual topics such as UFOs, the paranormal, conspiracy theories, and so on. (Cannibalism is sufficiently outré to merit inclusion, I'd think.) Ron got the idea after last spring's "no-Donner-Party-cannibalism" brou-ha-ha, did some research, and contacted me. The interview is to cover cannibalism, the Donner Party, and the archaeology flap, and will take place Monday night, 8:00 Eastern, 7:00 Central, etc., online at Talktainment Radio. There's a toll-free number you can call during the broadcast to comment or ask questions, and if you don't make the live event, it'll be archived on the website so you can listen at your convenience.

I've been meaning to write about this for ages and now it's pretty late: October 9-10 is the 18th Annual Donner Party Hike in Truckee, California. On Saturday there are six guided hikes exploring different areas of Donner Summit, and on Sunday there'll be a guided visit to Alder Creek. There's a $45 fee for each hike and a $15 fee for the Alder Creek tour. For more information, visit the Sierra Nevada Geotourism or Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce websites.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It's been a while...

Things have been a mite slow on the Donner Party front lately. I continue to research -- has just added the 1852 California State Census to their online databases, so I've been tracking down Donner Party survivors and rescuers, or trying to -- some of them are pretty darn elusive. Some are right where you expect them, while others show up in surprising places. Baptiste, for instance, was living in Sonoma in 1852, or maybe he just happened to be there the day the census-taker came by. George Donner was over in Solano County -- he was there in the 1860 census, too. I found Philippine Keseberg and her two girls in Sacramento, but Louis isn't listed with them. Same with Flavilla Eddy -- she and the kids were in Santa Clara County, but where was Will? And Patrick Dunn, an obscure member of the Second Relief, was down in Santa Barbara County making a living as a monte dealer.

You may also have seen the Donner Party around the web lately -- the political metaphor has been making the rounds again, this time equating the Tea Party and/or Republicans with the Donner Party. This is a vile slander. I don't care about the political parties, they can fend for themselves, but I detest the image of the Donner Party as bunch of maniacs ripping at each other in a frenzied struggle to survive. Didn't happen, folks!

Friday, August 20, 2010

50 years ago

Fifty years ago today, construction crews working on Interstate 80 along the north side of Donner Lake inadvertently started a huge wildfire on Donner Ridge. Whipped by winds, it roared eastward. Firefighters stopped the blaze from destroying the historic Donner family camp at Alder Creek, however, by bulldozing a line in time to protect the area. Consequently, when three years later Highway 89 was completed and the site had become the Donner Camp Picnic Area, the (alleged) George Donner Tree still stood, and continued to stand until its top fell off about 1996, leaving the snag that remains today. (See the article in today's
Sierra Sun for more about the fire.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Lincoln Muster Roll

This morning, July 19, 2010,
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln has announced the discovery of a new Lincoln document, a muster roll of Captain Jacob M. Early’s militia company from the Black Hawk War. The document is interesting because of its early date (1832), unusual nature (Lincoln filled out only part of the document – the rest is in another hand), and especially because of its history: the muster roll survived the Donner Party.

In the summer of 1832, Early commanded a company of volunteers from Sangamon County, Illinois, which included Abraham Lincoln (Private No. 4 on the list) and James F. Reed (No. 5). At some point after the unit disbanded, the roll came into the possession of Reed, who was a friend of Early’s and an administrator of his estate.

The story of the roll’s subsequent history is pieced together from two separate newspaper articles published 10 years apart. According to what Patty Reed Lewis told their authors, her father took a number of documents with him when he set out for California, including the roll and other papers from the Black Hawk War. In September 1846, after the disastrous crossing of the Great Salt Lake Desert, Reed was compelled to abandon two of his wagons. He cached their contents, but his wife saved the papers and other heirlooms, carrying them in a small carpet bag. The following February, when the First Relief rescued Margret Reed from the Donner Lake camp, she again saved the documents, this time carrying them in her bosom. These details are from a 1909 article about Lincoln by Edwin A. Sherman and from Evelyn Wells' 1919 series of articles about the Reeds and the Donner Party. Both appeared in the San Francisco Call and used facsimiles of the Reed papers as illustrations.

I first learned of the muster roll's existence about 1995, when I discovered the Wells article. It was a great story, but was it true? I had no idea, so I filed the information away for future reference. Over the years more details turned up: the roll was not among the Reed papers at Sutter’s Fort, as I'd assumed; I found the the Sherman article; discovered that the elusive Black Hawk War documents were at the California State Library; and eventually stumbled on the Papers of Abraham Lincoln website. Last February, around Presidents Day, I started to blog about Lincoln and the Donner Party and revisited the Lincoln papers website. There’s a form you can fill out online to report possible new Lincoln documents, so I gave as much information as I could and hit “send.” After a few weeks I got a phone call acknowledging receipt of the information, and a few weeks after that a call from Dan Stowell, the director of the project. After due investigation and analysis, the roll passed muster – the handwriting, or rather, part of it, was identified as Abraham Lincoln’s. Dan told me that this is one of the oldest Lincoln documents in existence and that only about a dozen predate it.

But I never did finish that blog about Lincoln and the Donner Party.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Catching up

It's been a while since I posted, but that doesn't mean there's nothing new on the Donner front. I've turned up a lot of info on Louis Keseberg, for instance: a little bit on his ancestry, quite a bit about his life after the disaster, and a fair bit about some of his descendants.

Also, there's a big push to get the archaeology book wrapped up by the end of the month -- eeep! I've been tweaking my contributions -- vital, must-be-included details keep popping up at the last minute -- and there are issues with illustrations and charts and such that need to be resolved, but I think we'll make it. Last I heard, the book should come out in the fall of 2011.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Oh, brother...

Well, the amended "there was too cannibalism in the Donner Party!" statement from the archaeologists didn't get nearly as much attention as the earlier gaffe it sought to retract, but at least the retraction is out there. Anyway, the flap had calmed down and I was taking a breather, but Ken Dunn got me back to the blog when he alerted me to a new "independent horror film currently in development" called Donner Pass. The premise is a doozy:

"There are those who say the Donner Party was no accident. They say George Donner brought those people there on purpose." (Snort. ) "They say that by eating them, he could steal their life energy, and gain near immortality. They says he's still up there, still ravenous, still hunting for his next victim."

Ya know, that's pretty pathetic, gaining immortality only to spend it trapped in the mountains. What's the point? Heck, if I were immortal I'd want to travel, study, learn -- see and experience all the world has to offer, not just hang around one place!

The plot revolves around a group of teens who go on a ski weekend, get snowed in, and start dying in gruesome ways. Sounds kinda familiar, doesn't it? No word on when this is supposed to be released, but the website promises a "powerful twist ending," making the film "an elegant and terrifying modern-day take on the Donner legend." We'll see.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Donner Party cannibalism is still true

Two articles rebutting the latest "no-Donner-Party-cannibalism" flap were published today, Ethan Rarick's in the Los Angeles Times (Donner Party cannibalism -- it's still true) and Frank Mullen's in the Reno Gazette-Journal (Researcher: Donner Party did cannibalize the dead after all). Maybe they'll do some good; the LA Times is a major paper and Frank is an AP reporter, so hopefully other outlets will pick the story up.

Also,, a Spanish news site, picked up the latest brou-ha-ha last week in La prensa se come a la ciencia, but instead of repeating the "news," reported on the US media's misinterpretation of the story. Ouch.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Spoke too soon...

In my last post, I wrote that the latest flap had died down. Well, it hadn't, it just went into remission to gear up for another spurt (not unlike what Eyjafjallaj
ökull may be up to) and there was another flurry of the no-Donner-Party-cannibalism "news" for a few days. Now Appalachian State University has published a revised press release about Dr. Gwen Robbins' work on the bones from Alder Creek, with some corrections and without the sensational claims and misinformation. A rather peculiar statement came out in yesterday's New York Post, too. I'm afraid they're too late to do much good, but we can hope...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

In other news: Donner Party horror flick

Well, the latest flap seems to have died down, and not a minute too soon, either. This is exactly what happened in back January 2006: archaeologists report that they found no evidence of cannibalism in the bone fragments at one Donner Party site, and the idiot media turns it into "Donner Party cannibalism a total myth!" Gabrielle Burton, the author of two recent books about Tamzene Donner, confronted the nonsense in a Huffington Post article, and I hope it has an effect.

But now another myth has reared its ugly head again. Back in 2007, there was some buzz about Necrosis, a horror film with a Donner Party theme. Well, it's finally being released next week.

According to the official website, during the winter of 1846 a wagon train was trapped in the Sierra Nevada. "As days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, the members of the Donner Party slowly dissolved into madness, eventually turning on each other in what became a desperate, cannabalistic slaughter."

Statements like the above, and the perennial comments likening the Democrats or Republicans to a "modern Donner Party," demonstrate the all-too-common misconception that the Donner Party was a feeding frenzy and the trapped emigrants turned upon one another in a savage bid to survive. This faulty premise is the basis of what happens in Necrosis: More than a century later, six friends arrive at a Sierra Nevada cabin to spend a weekend in the snow; ghastly revenants of the emigrants return to slaughter the hapless young people -- or do they? Here's a trailer.

The film didn't get good reviews, and after kicking around in limbo for a year or so, it's finally coming out as a straight-to-DVD release on Tuesday, April 20. Not having seen it, I can't recommend it, but dyed-in-the-wool Donner Party fanatics can pre-order a copy at or from the movie website.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Caveat lector

Sigh. It's astonishing, and disheartening, how academics -- people who ought to know better -- can distort and thoroughly misrepresent simple facts.

I just read an article from Appalachian State University News about the Alder Creek dig, reporting on Dr. Gwen Robbin's work on the bone remains found at Alder Creek during the 2003-04 digs. Now, you'd think that a statement issued by a university about a professor's work would be reliable, right? In this case, wrong.

The article describes Dr. Robbins' work and reports that no evidence of cannibalism could be detected in the bone fragments recovered from the digs. No quarrel from me on this point.

Unfortunately, however, the article falls apart at the end. Somebody came up with this gem:

The historical record does indicate that relief parties in February brought horses to the camps and that a few were left behind. There was no record of the horses being consumed and no mention of eating dog.

Nope. The relief parties did not bring horses, mules, burros, or any other animals with them, hence had none to leave behind. And while there are no direct references to eating horses, Baptiste described killing and gutting horses and burying their remains in the snow for future consumption. Eliza Donner Houghton also mentions that the family dog "disappeared," and while the poor animal's fate isn't specified, I was not entirely stunned to learn that dog was one of the species identified in the bone assemblage.

But it gets better: The legend of the Donner party was primarily created by print journalists, who embellished the tales based on their own Victorian macabre sensibilities and their desire to sell more newspapers.

Nope. There were only two newspapers in California in 1847 and a tiny, thinly spread population to read them; making up sensational news to sell papers was simply not an issue. Second, "print journalists" did not write up the Donner disaster; instead, the California Star and the Californian primarily reprinted letters from people directly connected with the relief efforts reporting on the latest developments. Yes, the California Star published a few articles commenting on the disaster, including a sensational one printed on April 10, 1847. Edwin Bryant reprinted it in his What I Saw in California, but he can hardly be accused of publishing it solely to sell his book.

The survivors fiercely denied allegations of cannibalism and one man even filed a defamation suit immediately upon reaching Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento.

Survivors did not "fiercely deny" cannibalism in 1847; in February of that year Patrick Breen recorded in his diary that Mrs. Murphy and the Donners had spoken of their intention to eat human flesh; Mary Graves Pyle, Sarah Graves Fosdick, and Virginia Reed all wrote about it in May; Baptiste, William Eddy, and James Reed wrote and/or spoke of it in 1847 as well. Over the years several other survivors wrote and spoke of cannibalism. Keseberg's defamation suit was not about the charge of cannibalism, but the charge of having killed Tamzene Donner.

The voices of the survivors of the Donner Party ordeal have long been overwhelmed by the spectacular imagery of a legend that swiftly took on a life of its own.

No, the voices of the survivors of the Donner Party have been not been heard because some people -- like the author of this article -- refuse to read any of their writings.

Their descendants are still today affected by the stigma of this tale.

I wonder how many descendants of the Donner Party the author actually knows. I'd say that yes, they're affected by the fact of cannibalism, but most of them are at peace with it. Several have told me, "Hey, if they hadn'ta done it, I wouldn't be here today."

Addendum: In January 2006 there was a similar media flap alleging "No Donner Party cannibalism!" Here's a link to my report on it: Donner Party Bulletin No. 15.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Donner descendant to speak

Don Springer, a fourth great grandson of George Donner, will be speaking in Springfield, Illinois, this month. Don is a descendant of George's only son, William, who remained in Springfield when his father headed west in 1846. Don's branch of the family still owns part of William's farm, which originally had been George's. (George and Tamzene sold it to William for "1 dollar & natural love & affection" in 1841.) Don's talk, "
Springfield’s Donner Family: Trials of the Pioneer Trail, 1846," is a presentation of the Sangamon County Historical Society and will be given at the Brookens Library, University of Illinois Springfield, April 20, at 7:00. For more about Don and his presentation, click here.

Personal testimonial: Don is a great guy, knowledgeable about Sangamon County, and a great preserver of family lore, documents, and artifacts. In 2006 he erected a stone monument to George Donner, Sr., and his wife Mary in the Donner family plot at Oak Hill Cemetery in Springfield. The stone also memorializes Captain George Donner, Jr., and his wives Susannah Holloway, Mary Blue, and Tamzene Eustis Dozier. None of these individuals' resting places are known or marked, and Don did them all proud, with fine marker and ceremony that included Sons of the American Revolution in full Continental Army uniform. Good job, Don!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Book news

Just a few odds and ends.

First, Gabrielle Burton's Impatient With Desire, a novel about Tamzene Donner, has been out for a couple of weeks now. It's a quick, enjoyable read and I'm glad to say that the reviews I've seen are positive.

Second, I've been reading Will Bagley's So Rugged and Mountainous, a history of the overland trails from 1812-1848, and it's great. For Donner Party fans, the general information about the overland experience -- background, wagons, draft animals, routes, and so on -- places the DP squarely in its historical context, and Will uses recently discovered and lesser known sources to impart freshness to his Donner coverage.

Third, the Alder Creek archaeology book (working title: The Archaeology of Desperation) is moving along. It's nearing (note I said nearing) the final stages of editing -- with over a dozen contributors and such a technical subject, these things take time -- and hopefully will go to press late this year.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Donner diversion in S.F.

Well, this looks, um, different... "
Bootie With the Donner Party" is part of the wild and wacky nightlife of San Francisco this weekend. "John! John! and the Wagonistas" are going to provide a history lesson via a "live stage show and DJ set" tonight at the DNA Lounge, 375 11th Street, at 9:00. I have no idea what this might be all about, so if anybody goes, please report back! And see if you can snag me a poster. Thx.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Great news, trail fans!

In a previous post I mentioned Will Bagley, whom I've been pestering for years with questions about the trails, Lansford W. Hastings, and western history in general. Will is known in Utah for his incisive writings on Mormon history, but more importantly (to me, anyway) he's also an authority on the overland trails. For years now he's been working on a mammoth 4-volume history of the western migration called Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trails, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, and the first volume is coming out now. It covers the Donner Party era and should be of great interest to Donner aficionados, buffs, and diehard fanatics alike. While other historians have told parts of the tale, this is the first to tackle "the complete story of three decades of overland emigration or [present] such a compelling analysis of how “the Road across the Plains” became the engine that transformed the American West between 1840 and 1870."

The volumes in the series are:

1. So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon-California, 1812–1848.
2. With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails and the Creation of the Mining West, 1849–1852. Coming in 2011.

3. To Begin the World Anew: Trails and the Transformation of the American West, 1853–1860.

4. The War for the Medicine Road: Trails and the Conquest of the American West, 1861–1912.

(Standard disclaimer: I have no financial interest in plugging these books.)

If you're in Utah, Will is having a reading and signing tonight at Ken Sanders Rare Books, 268 South 200 East, Salt Lake City, at 7:00.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New book

Heads up! Gabrielle Burton's new novel about Tamzene Donner, Impatient with Desire, will be coming out on March 9. Read more about it at Gabrielle's website; you can pre-order a copy at, Barnes & Noble, etc.

Friday, February 19, 2010

History Channel repeats itself

Once again, the History Channel has chosen the Donner Party for its "This day in history" feature for February 19 (see last year's blog entry). Although headed "Donner Party rescued," the column points out that the First Relief, which reached Donner Lake about sundown 163 years ago today, was the first of several and the rescue wasn't complete until April.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Snark attack!

[Note: Some of you might notice I've toned my initial response down. I decided there's enough negativity in the world without my adding quite so much.]

Well, I just received a rude response to my previous blog entry, "Director Responds." Anonymous commented,

Why don't you post the paragraph where he consulted you about the script prior to filming? I find it interesting that you go to such lengths to torpedo a small indie film that is the ONLY feature drama made about your subject of fascination. This film was not a documentary. Get over it already and move on with your life.

If you are going to present yourself and this site as a FORUM, let people speak their mind and stop editing information to suit your own ridiculous ego.

I did leave out the first paragraph of the e-mail TJ Martin sent me on February 4. This is what it said:

Kristen, [
note misspelling]

My name is T.J. Martin and I wrote and directed the movie. You may remember me. Years ago, while I was researching the script I called you twice and sent you a copy of the script for notes when it was completed. The original script was called "The Forlorn" and it was a closer depiction to the actual events then the final film portrays. Our talks were spirited and you were supportive of the idea to focus on the "Forlorn Hope" as it would contain the vast story.

To address Anonymous's comments:

Why don't you post the paragraph where he consulted you about the script prior to filming?

I didn't include it because I thought it was addressed to me personally, it didn't add anything to TJ's defense of his film, and the post was long enough without it. (In case anybody's wondering, when TJ says he consulted me years ago about this project, I'm sure it's true, but I have only the faintest recollection of it.) Maybe I should have left it in; if TJ is upset about it, I'll apologize, but I don't think it's a huge deal.

I find it interesting that you go to such lengths to torpedo a small indie film that is the ONLY feature drama made about your subject of fascination.

"Go to such lengths"?! Oh, man. If only you knew. It could have been much, much worse, believe me.

This film was not a documentary.

I never thought it was. I'd have been willing to accept
The Donner Party as an effective film if it had been true to the spirit of the Forlorn Hope, if it had presented the members of the Donner Party sympathetically. It did not.

Get over it already and move on with your life.

I am over it, have been for quite some time, and have "moved on"; I was working on a new post on an entirely different topic when your comment came in.

If you are going to present yourself and this site as a FORUM,

This is not a forum nor do I present it as one. This is a
blog -- my blog. It's where I present my opinions, musings, and news reports about the Donner Party.

let people speak their mind and stop editing information to suit your own ridiculous ego.

I moderate all comments. Nothing appears in the Comments section unless I OK it, and I OK almost everything. I published TJ's response and your comment -- how is that not letting people speak their mind?

As for "editing information to suit [my] ridiculous ego," I'm perplexed. What did leaving out a non-essential paragraph have to do with suiting my ego?

And as for my ego being "ridiculous," all I can say is, why do you care what I think? If my opinion matters, then my ego is not unmerited and therefore not ridiculous.

It's interesting that you know the entire content of a private e-mail sent me over a week ago. Did you see
my response to TJ, in which I wrote, "I'm very sorry I can't like your movie"? I meant it sincerely -- I truly wanted to like The Donner Party.

You sound hurt and angry and I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm passionate about the Donner Party and am very disappointed that the first feature film to be made about it didn't turn out better.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Director responds

TJ Martin, director of The Donner Party, which I slammed in my last post, responded with thoughtful response detailing the history of the project and how it evolved into its final form. It's too bad he didn't get a chance to make the film he wanted to make. With his permission, here's his email:

I write this letter because I thought you and your readers might be interested in knowing why we made some of the changes. I also wanted to address some of your concerns with the movie by explaining our process to you.

The producers and I originally had this project set up at with an Oscar winning production company at a much higher budget. We got to the point where we had 2 well known actors in the lead roles and we were ready to shoot. One of the actors even shed 20 pounds in preparation. Suddenly, the production company pulled the money from us.

So instead of quitting, my producer raised as much funding as he could with limited time. Most people thought were were crazy to try to shoot it at this budget and within a 12 day schedule, but we had already put so much time into it and the alternative would have been to abandon the project and our dreams of making the movie.

So we forged ahead. Our new budget and schedule meant major script changes. First we would have to do it without the bigger name actors. We had to lose Lemuel and William Murphy, even though the children were a major part of the original script -- there simply wasn't time or money to have children on set. (SAG has very clear rules about how much time they can work) We had to condense the number of characters and lose the extensive costume changes that would have showed the wear of the clothes through the journey. New actors were cast, actors who did not have time to shed weight. (I considered hitting the streets and methadone clinics to get people with the right look, but it was obvious I needed people who could act and I think our cast delivered amazingly well)

We hoped the audience would take the leap with us despite not having the means to accurately depict the severity of the physical look. It was more about getting the tone right for us anyway.

As far as making Foster the leader and this was in the script from the beginning. I wanted to explore the theme of false leadership and the resentment many teamsters felt towards the captains. It was a theme that was echoed across the rest of the journey and just because I was focusing on the "Forlorn Hope" I didn't want to lose it. Other choices were creative, some done in editing to make the movie flow better. The bottom line is that we were more interested in making a movie that worked. We never set out to make a documentary, Ric Burns already made an excellent one.

So what about the title change? "The Donner Party" was strictly a business choice made by the distributor. (This also explains the error filled synopsis on the back cover) I was not consulted and I was angry about the change at first, but I understand it. If you are an average Joe picking up a movie for a weekend are you going to rent "The Forlorn" or "The Donner Party?"

I don't write this letter to make excuses for the movie. I stand behind it and the cast and crew who worked so hard to get this done under severe restrictions. I'm relieved that we got it done and I'm glad people are talking about The Donner Party.

I never saw this as be all and end all of movies about the subject. I think to properly tell the entire story you would need a "Band of Brothers" mini-series style production. I encourage you and your readers to try to write it and then convince Steven Spielberg to put 200 million behind it, because I will be the first in line to see it.

"The Donner Party" a.k.a "The Forlorn" is my first movie and it's simply my take on a small part of the Donner Party experience. I am proud of the all of the hard work people put into it and I hope it continues to spark interest and debate into a fascinating dark corner of American History.

T.J. Martin

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Okay, so I watched the movie

Well, all you aspiring screenwriters can take comfort: there's still no Donner Party movie. At least, not one that you need to worry about competing with.

As you probably all know, Anacapa Entertainment's new film, The Donner Party, was released on DVD on January 26. I got my copy yesterday and have watched it twice. I don't quite know what to say, but that won't stop me from saying it.

Donner Party fans will notice a certain similarity between the movie and the story of the "Forlorn Hope" snowshoers who set out from the lake camp in December 1846 to seek help. While reference is made to a wagon train stuck in the Sierra Nevada snow, to someone named Hastings who misled them, and to other emigrants camped elsewhere named Donner and "Kessyberg," the story centers on characters named Foster, Eddy, Graves, Fosdick, Stanton, etc., who set out on snowshoes to California to get help; some people die and are cannibalized. Sound familiar? Good. Because not much else will.

I could go on at length about all the discrepancies, but it would take ages and I don't want to rag on the producers too much. I've talked to enough screenwriters over the years to know how hard the Donner story would be to capture on film: large cast; quantities of animals; wagons; costumes; number of sets; varied terrain (prairie, desert, mountain); varied weather conditions (thunder, searing heat, snow); length and complexity of the story; and so on. Obviously, some liberties have to be taken and events telescoped.

What I don't get, however, is the necessity to butcher the plot. Why? Why not stick closer to the truth? Why, for instance, make Foster the rich fop and Eddy his teamster? Why make up an imaginary cache of provisions left along the trail? The truth just isn't dramatic enough? While he lay dying, Franklin Ward Graves besought his daughters to use his body for food, but apparently that's far too tame. This Mr. Graves (the least gaunt person in the flick) kills himself so his daughters -- his clean, well-kempt, full-fleshed daughters -- will have something to eat.

This leads me to my major beef with the movie: there's no real desperation, no real suffering. There's no cabin full of thin, crying children, no reference to mothers whose milk has dried up from starvation watching helpless as their babies die a slow, agonizing death -- no sense of the real fear that motivated the snowshoers.

Nor of their subsequent trials. There's no Christmas blizzard huddled under blankets, no raving Patrick Dolan, no Sarah Foster comforting her dying little brother in her lap, no powder horn blowing up or axe getting lost. There's some violence but little enough gore for a movie about cannibalism: somebody dies or is killed, then there's a scene of people eating -- which was actually a pretty good way to handle it, IMO. But there's little sense of their growing weakness, the toll the journey has taken on them:

""[Eddy] staggered like a drunken man; and when he came to a fallen tree, though no more than a foot high, he had to stoop down, put his hands upon it, and get over it by a sort of rolling motion. They were under the necessity of sitting down to rest about every quarter of a mile. The slightest thing caused them to stumble and fall. They were almost reduced to the helplessness of little children in their first essays to walk. The women would fall and weep like infants, and then rise and totter along again." -- J. Quinn Thornton, Oregon and California in 1848, II, 151.

This just doesn't come across in the movie.

When the real Forlorn Hope finally reached the settlement, they were skeletal and nearly naked because their clothes had fallen apart; their trail was marked by blood from their frostbitten feet. In Anacapa's parody, the Forlorn Hope was a bunch of well-fed, spiffily dressed day trippers who offed one another the first time their tummies rumbled. With no depiction of their physical and mental deterioration, they come across as depraved, not desperate.

The film does get a few things right. For instance, the pioneers' use of "Mr." and "Mrs." instead of first names, and the emigrants eying each other around the campfire. I also liked the version of "Barbara Allen" sung during the closing credits. On the whole, however, it's a shame for the producers, the viewers, and the memory of the Donner Party that the film didn't turn out better.

Monday, January 11, 2010

More gore

Well, matters move apace! Anybody willing to risk driving up into the Sierra in the dead of winter can attend a special screening of Anacapa Entertainment's new flick, The Donner Party, at the Sugar Bowl's Judah Lodge this weekend. It's showing at 7:00 P.M. on Sunday, January 17, $10 at the door. Director T.J. Martin and several cast members will be there, and there'll be a Q-and-A session after the showing. If anybody reading this goes, let the rest of us know what you think.

Here's website with a photo gallery of stills and a different trailer showing a bizarre plot twist:

The more I see of this movie, the less I like it. Anybody else have a problem with it, or is it just me?

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I've been slaving away at Donnerpedia and it's getting closer to being ready for prime time -- no launch date in sight, though -- and in reviewing New Light and all the information I've collected over the years, I have to say it's my readers who have helped me the most.

Oh, sure, I've pestered my share of historians, researchers, librarians, archivists, and sundry other victims over the years, and they've all been helpful, some of them exceptionally so -- Will Bagley, for instance, has been putting up with me since about 1993.

But really, as a group, it's been readers who have helped the most, often in unexpected ways. Readers have supplied me with information and photos, blown my mind with new ideas and insights, asked terrific questions, pointed out errors, inconsistencies, and typos, given me praise and encouragement, and generally kept me going. Oh, sure, there's an occasional crank, jerk, or weirdo, but on the whole it's been good.

I just wish I could remember everyone. I've moved into new computers twice and had a couple of hard drive crashes, so I've lost a lot of the e-mail I'd hoarded over the years. However, a few people stand out. Jo Ann Schmidt, for instance, is the Donner Genealogy Queen, as far as I'm concerned, and then there's Gabrielle Burton, and Marilyn Acuff, and Anne Trussell, and then there are all the descendants, Donner Party buffs, historians, students, novelists, dog handlers, genealogists, reporters, documentarians...

I could go on. However, the one person I really want to thank is Ken Dunn. He's corresponded with me for years, listened to me whine and wonder and rhapsodize, answered questions, asked questions, helped with research, alerted me to news, and much, much more. Most of all, he's a bouncer -- not a chucker-out, an idea bouncer. Ken knows his stuff when it comes to the Donner Party, and when I need to really thrash something out, I write to Ken. Answering questions all the time gets a bit wearing, so it's a relief to have somebody knowledgeable to talk to. Thanks, guy.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

And we have a winner!

Last night as I went to bed after posting my quiz, I thought, "Dumb idea-- nobody's going to answer." This morning I get up and not only is there an answer but a winner. Eric Baumgartner identified the three errors in the blurb describing the new Donner Party movie :

Based on the harrowing true story, The Donner Party picks up after William Hastings steers a group, nicknamed "Forlorn Hope," off course by promising a shorter route to California through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Eric posted to the comments section:

(1) Hastings' first name was Lansford, not William.
(2) The group that he led astray was not the "Forlorn Hope," but the Donner Party, of course.
(3) Hastings steered them to a shortcut through the Wasatch and across the Utah salt desert.

Absolutely correct! So, Eric, if you'll e-mail me (there's a link at New Light on the Donner Party) and send me your address, I'll mail you your postcard.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New Donner Party film clip

Check out this newly available clip from the film The Donner Party. Franklin Ward Graves goes bugeye crazy and takes his son-in-law down. And pipe the snowshoes -- guess the Forlorn Hope did their outfitting at Cabela's. "We don't need no stinkin' oxbows..."


Identify three errors in the following blurb:

Based on the harrowing true story, The Donner Party picks up after William Hastings steers a group, nicknamed "Forlorn Hope," off course by promising a shorter route to California through the Sierra Nevada Mountains."
First one to answer correctly gets a vintage postcard with a Donner Party theme.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy 2010!

It looks like 2010 will start off with a bang for Donner Party buffs -- the long-awaited
movie is scheduled to be released on DVD on January 26. You can pre-order a copy at

A lot of people have written me asking about this film, but I've had a very busy fall so haven't tried to keep up with it. Here's what I know, with some opinions thrown in:

This film, the first production of Anacapa Entertainment, started out with the title The Forlorn. It's about the "Forlorn Hope," a party of 15 emigrants who set out from the Donner Party camps in December 1846 on snowshoes to seek help for the stranded wagon train.

The film premiered at the Austin Film Festival in October, with two results: the producers decided against a theatrical release but to send it straight to DVD, and they changed the title to The Donner Party.

I can't say much about the straight-to-DVD decision; it strikes me as unfortunate and must have been a disappointment to the producers, but that's not my call. I do wish, however, they hadn't changed the title. The Forlorn is much more evocative, to say nothing of accurate, while The Donner Party is trite, inaccurate (it's not about the Donner Party, only a fraction of it), and already taken (by Ric Burns' documentary, to say nothing of myriad books and articles).

However, the website bills the movie as "a true story of survival," which I take exception to. It changes the facts, the cast of characters, their names, their relationships with one another (it has Eddy as Foster's teamster, for instance), their motivations, leaves out a lot of details, and presents the "desperate" emigrants as well-fed, well-dressed urbanites who step out of a bandbox to tramp through the mountains.

Of course, the foregoing criticism is unfair because I haven't seen the movie yet and I don't give a rat's about much besides historical accuracy. The film may have all sorts of redeeming features that capture the drama of the Forlorn Hope despite the historical deficits. I hope so, and I'm looking forward to finding out.

Some links:

Preview -- (There's also a clip on the official website but I can't get it to load no matter what browser I use, so I'm including this one; it may or may not be the same.)
Reviews from the Austin Film Festival -- Click on the "Reviews" tab to read all of them.