Saturday, November 26, 2011

Eating crow

Ah, the joys of writing! No matter how hard you try, errors inevitably creep into your work. It's dishearteningly easy to make dumb mistakes, and even if you catch them, your edits don't always make it into the published book. My copy of
An Archaeology of Desperation has become a correction copy, with penciled notes scattered here and there throughout my contributions to the book. So you dedicated Donner fanatics can make the following changes to your copies:

p. 8, Figure 1.1: The symbol representing Mary Blue, George Donner's first wife, is defined as "female, divorced"; it should be "female, deceased." This error I deny having made -- evidently it's the result of a miscommunication somewhere along the line -- but it's attributed to me, so I'll correct it.

p. 20, Table 1.1: Sarah Keyes should not be listed.
p. 33: The Donner Party "parted from the other emigrants to Fort Bridger to rendezvous with Hastings"; this gibberish should read "parted from the other emigrants to rendezvous with Hastings at Fort Bridger."
p. 39: "Dorothea Wolfinger, about twenty" should be "about twenty-nine."
p. 56: Jacob Donner's family left Springfield "in April 1847" (tch!) should be, of course, "in April 1846."
p. 57: "in utero" should be italicized.
p. 63: the Fourth Relief left the cabins "on April 17, 1847" should be "on April 21, 1847."
p. 299: "the last three months of 1847" should be "the last months of 1847."

There are no doubt more goofs I haven't noticed yet, and I'd change a lot of other things if I could; I had to leave out many details for lack of space, for instance, and admit I could have worded some passages better. In addition, the editorial staff at the U of OK Press did some tinkering with the citations and bibliography that I don't necessarily agree with. It's possible that the other contributors may have corrections, too, I don't know. But hey, the book is out at last; it is what it is.

So there you have it -- I'm taking my lumps in advance of any reviewer's criticisms. Remember, you read it here first!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Donner Party horror flick

Last May I
blogged about a new Donner Party movie in the works, a horror film to be called Donner Pass. Well, it's finished and is being shown today at the Eerie Horror Film Festival in Erie, Pa., according to an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The directory, Elise Robertson, claims,“The script is so rich in character detail – each of our teens has a complex and surprising arc – all adding up to a meaningful commentary about human nature.”

From the description, it sounds like a typical unsupervised-teens-meet-killer-creature scenario. As in 2010's Necrosis, a group of young people go to the Sierra for a ski trip, get snowed in, and run into a murderous Donner Party revenant. The Arroyo Films press release states, "A legend persists that the Donner Party fell victim to an evil curse, a hunger that remains in those mountains to this day – even that George Donner himself is still out in those woods, still hunting."

If you can't make the screening today, you can watch the trailer at the movie website. The film will appear in wide release in January, and shortly thereafter will be available on DVD.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Radio interview

On Thursday, October 20, Jeffrey Callison interviewed three of the authors of
An Archaeology of Desperation on Capital Public Radio (KXJZ) in Sacramento. Book editors Drs. Kelly J. Dixon, co-director of the dig, and Shannon A. Novak, a bioarchaeologist who examined the bone fragments recovered, and I were on the air for about 20 minutes. You can listen to the show here.

Naturally, there was much discussion of cannibalism. A lot of people seem to think that the goal of the Donner Party Archaeology Project was to prove or disprove cannibalism, but it started in 2003 as a brief dig funded by television program; the goal was actually to continue previous work in the area and look for a hearth. The results were so promising that the archaeologists came back the next year.

True to form, the Sacramento Bee's coverage of the program asserts that "cannibalism continues to be an unsettled question," but "many experts... continue to believe it did occur to some extent." Oh, yeah? Find me an expert that says it didn't happen.

Oh, well, perhaps somebody will read (and understand) the book.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Book!

Yesterday the University of Oklahoma Press officially released the new Donner Party book, An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party’s Alder Creek Camp. Call me biased, but I think it's quite a contribution to the literature of the Donner Party, with lots of new and interesting perspectives on the entire episode, and I hope that readers will agree.

Naturally, it's too soon for reviewers to have plowed through it yet, but you can get an idea of what the book is like from the galley of the introduction, which is available here. DiscoveryNews ran an article about it last week, and the University of Nevada has also issued a press release, since several people associated with the university worked on the project.

You can order it directly from the publisher or at, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What the -- ?

Okay, so I find a "Donner Party" hit on YouTube and open this "video" by The Donner Party:

Now, I'm not at all au courant with this sort of thing, so would be obliged if some more with-it reader could explain to me what this is all about.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bill Maher and the Donner Party

Back in November 2008, when the election was over, I blogged about the frequent use of the Donner Party as a metaphor for the parlous state of national politics. Both liberal and conservative commentators have referred to the other side as a Donner Party ruthlessly savaging their companions in a desperate attempt to survive. One entrepreneur had even made up a Donner political party logo, available on t-shirts, canvas bags, mugs, etc., at

Last week, humorist/political commentator Bill Maher took it up a notch. On August 5's Real Time, inspired by the recent Congressional debt ceiling debate, he proposed that, like the Republican's Tea Party, the Democrats should have their own radical party-within-a-party, the "Donner Party" -- "We will literally eat each other before we give an inch." He had a lot of fun with the concept, and one fan has even proposed himself as the Donner Party candidate for President. The segment has been posted on a variety of websites, including this this complete version, but caveat viewer: Maher's opinions and language will undoubtedly offend some people.

While I can appreciate the humor of the analogy, it's obvious that none of these people have any clue as to what the real Donner Party was actually about.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fifteenth Anniversary

Fifteen years ago this month, Utah State University Press published my book "Unfortunate Emigrants": Narratives of the Donner Party. This is a collection of previously unanthologized Donner Party primary sources, some well known, some less so, and a few "new" ones, which I had struggled to locate in my own research. I edited them, annotated them, wrote introductions and biographical sketches, found portraits and a cartographer, and with the help of USU Press's editorial staff (thanks, John!), put together what I considered a respectable contribution to Donner Party scholarship.

My, how things have changed! In 1996 Internet was in its infancy, home computers were far less common, and there was no Google God, no Wikipedia, no instant access to a world of information in palm of your hand. Many of the documents
that had been so hard to find can now be found online for free at places like Hathi Trust, Project Gutenberg, and Google Books; sites like Abebooks (my favorite), Alibris, and eBay make it possible to find original editions; and there are a number of print-on-demand outfits that can provide facsimile reprints relatively inexpensively.

The state of Donner scholarship has changed, too. In 1996, Joseph A. King's
Winter of Entrapment (1992) was the latest word on the Donner Party, and a number of people so were taken with its revisionist claims that they ignored its bias and innumerable errors. Unfortunate Emigrants was, in small part, a response to King's book, but in a relatively understated way. Back then, Winter of Entrapment was the only significant history of the Donner Party since George R. Stewart's Ordeal by Hunger (1936; rev. 1961), but now we have Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage (2008) and Daniel James Brown's The Indifferent Stars Above (2009) and can kiss both Stewart and King good-bye.

Unfortunate Emigrants is in print (as print-on-demand) and still sells a dozen or so copies each year. I still consider it a worthwhile compilation, but in the intervening 15 years we've learned much more about the Donner Party, and there are documents I'd like to add, to say nothing of typos to fix, errors to correct, and passages to rephrase. The state of scholarly publication is pretty precarious and a second edition is out of the question for the foreseeable future, but someday...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Archaeology book news

Guess what! An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp is now available for pre-order at, Barnes&Noble, and, no doubt, other fine emporia. The publisher is the University of Oklahoma Press, the ISBN is 1806142103, and the release date is October 20, 2011.
Dr. Kelly Dixon is just checking the last set of galleys, and then that puppy's going to bed!

This isn't a trade book, so Amazon and B&N aren't offering any discounts off
the list price of $34.95. But it's worth it (IMO) for a hefty tome (~350 pages), with a lot of variety (10 chapters, 18 contributors), and a lot of new and exciting information. Here's the table of contents:

  • Sufferers in the mountains: the Donner Party disaster / Kristin Johnson
  • The aftermath of tragedy : the Donner camps in later years / Kristin Johnson
  • Historical perspectives on the archaeology of the Donner Party / Donald L. Hardesty
  • An archaeology of despair / Kelly J. Dixon
  • A family in crisis : archaeology of a survival camp / Julie M. Schablitsky
  • What remains : species identification and bone histology / Gwen Robbins and Kelsey Gray, with contributions by Guy L. Tasa, Ryne Danielson, and Matt Irish
  • Man and beast : skeletal signatures of a starvation diet / Shannon A. Novak
  • The delicate question : cannibalism in prehistoric and historic times / G. Richard Scott and Sean McMurry
  • Under watchful eyes : Washoe narratives of the Donner Party / Jo Ann Nevers and Penny Rucks, with contributions by Lana Hicks, Steven James, and Melba Rakow
  • "All remember the fate of the Donner Party" : history and the disaster at Cannibal Camp / Will Bagley and Kristin Johnson
  • Concluding thoughts / Kelly J. Dixon and Julie M. Schablitsky
Plus there are illustrations, maps, tables, etc.

A note on the cover: the illustration first appeared on the New Yorker of April 24, 2006, which contained Dana Goodyear's article, "What Happened at Alder Creek? Investigating the Donners."

Standard disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the book, alas. Although it will probably sell well (for a scholarly book), there are so many contributors that a division of the royalties would net each author a mere pittance, so the proceeds are being donated to an archaeological organization instead.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New museum

At last work has begun on the new museum at Donner Memorial State Park. The planning started back in 2002 or earlier -- the old museum, which opened in 1962, had become too small for current operations and is not structurally sound or ADA-compliant. The federal grant and the state parks bond that provide the funding have been in place for some time and cannot be used for anything else, so despite California's parlous economic climate, construction has begun.

The present museum will be open during construction.

To read more about the project, see the
Sacramento Bee article of June 13, 2011. There's also a concise overview here, but if you like exhaustive details, see the PDF of the General Plan and Environment Report.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Long time, no blog

It's been quite a while since I last blogged -- I came down with an acute attack of RLS (Real Life Syndrome) and got out of the habit. I haven't given up on the Donner Party, though -- all sorts of things have been going on.

Back in October I visited Alder Creek for the first time in ages. It was great to be back! John Grebenkemper and I -- mostly John, actually -- have been checking out some new leads that might help locate the missing Donner camp.

As y'all are aware, the 2003-04 digs at Alder Creek established the presence of a hearth in the meadow, some distance from the "George Donner Tree." The artifacts recovered date it to the mid-nineteenth century, indicate that it was not an Indian or transient camp but a Euro-American domestic camp, occupied for some time, and that the residents were starving. In other words, it can only be a Donner Party camp. Although we don't know if it was George's or Jacob's, one of the brothers' camps remains undiscovered. (There's no good evidence that a third camp, the so-called "teamsters' wigwam," ever existed.)

At any rate, armed with new evidence, John thinks he knows the general area where the missing camp was located. We'll be publishing our findings eventually, and with any luck we might interest another set of archaeologists in excavating at Alder Creek some day.