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
รถkull 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!