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.

1 comment:

Kenneth D said...

Holy Horseburgers, Kristin! I read these articles this morning and went ballistic!

I've tied a noose in my mouse cord and propped up the tongue of my wagon. Now, if someone will bring that so-called reporter to me, I'll teach him a thing or two about the Donner Party.

Did the reporter not pause to wonder why DP survivors would have admitted to cannibalism if such a thing never happened?

This exact same mistake was made by reporters covering Kelly & Julie's dig. The headlines implied that the cannibalism had been disproved. Wrong! It has everything to do with how uncooked bones disintegrate differently than cooked or calcined bone. I believe the theory that suggests that cannibalism coincided with the arrival of the various rescue parties and, therefore, it never became necessary to cook the human bones (as had been the case with the animal bones before the survivors were forced to cannibalism).

How deliciously ironic that the reporter blames "print journalists" for distorting DP history. Sheesh.

Kenneth Dunn