Monday, January 02, 2012

Happy 2012

The New Year is a promising one for Donner Party buffs, with a new movie, books, and an anniversary or two, plus there's some exciting new research coming out. I'll be reviewing and blogging about these as I view, read, or write them up.

Best wishes for a Happy New Year to all.


Naida said...

Hello Kristin! Happy New Year to you. I'm glad you're still chronicling the details of the Donner Party.You are remarkable! With the passage of time, I get the impression that ignorance about the DP grows and grows! Too many people read only tweets and media provides little soundbites . . .

I listened to your Jeffrey Callison interview with a sense of despair -- his questions all about whether or not there was cannibalism at the Alder Creek site, hinting that the actual evidence contradicts the historical record. He perfectly reflected what people most want to know, and the answer seemed to come out "undetermined" -- as the Bee reported. People don't want to hear about the purpose of the study. I meet such people every time I'm out speaking or signing my books. You must hear it too -- people who "learned" on the internet that history has been rewritten, that "No evidence of cannibalism was found" -- ergo "there was no cannibalism in the Donner Party." I find myself constantly defending the "weight" of historical evidence (I'm glad you had a moment to make that point during the interview). Nowadays I feel that I'm being accused of sensationalizing cannibalism in my book, though I believe I treated it correctly historically. Who would'a thunk?

You all did a good job on the radio, and you, Kristin, did address the illogical misimpression. The other two dwelled on the details of the research and unfortunately time was short, so it didn't come out that for 50 years many people knew exactly where the Donner's camp was (before it was lost in the 20th century amongst other trails), and everyone using that trail in the 19th century or just having fun in the summer collected every bone they could find on or near the trail so they could brag about having a cannibalized human bone from the DP -- no doubt horse, cow, deer, dog etc. It's obvious that identifiable human bones would have been gone 60-70 years before the study. Anthropologists forget to nail that point down. One of the scientists interviewed with you subtly mentioned that everything else was eaten first . . . . Perhaps too subtle. Oh well . . .

I'm revising River of Red Gold -- 3rd edition, 5th printing. I'm reformatting for ebooks and new print run, needed for my CA Gold trilogy boxed set. My newest book "Rest for the Wicked" contains some info about Elitha's later tragedy. Thank you very much for mentioning my "history novel" on your website.

I'd like to run this by you: an assertion by a historian (or history buff?) from Utah about Perry McCoon being buried alive by mistake --reportedly an obscure journal entry by a man who responded to Elitha's call for help. The story goes he helped relocate the coffin up the hill to get it out of the flooding river-bottom. The men looked inside the coffin and found fingernail scratches in the underside nearly a year after Perry's first burial. I scanned your update list but didn't see likely key words. If you know anything about this, I'd love to get the reference. The man who told me about it was in NV at the time (his home in UT) and couldn't recall the name of the journal-writer. Maybe it was Will Bagley. I recall talking briefly to him during that same conference, but years went by while I was writing books about other things, and I'm not sure of my memory now. Has he mentioned anything like that to you?

Naida West

Mike Fahy said...

History pops up in the strangest places! Rare Lincoln papers were snowbound with the Donner Party. An anniversary date remembered in Illinois >>>

February 19, 165 years ago -- At sundown on this day, the first rescue party reached the snowbound Donner Party in the High Sierras. “Are you men from California, or are you angels come from Heaven?” were the first words the rescuers heard.

Springfield, Illinois -- On April 15, 1846, George Donner (age 60) left his Springfield home in nine ox-drawn covered wagons with his brother (age 57), their wives, their twelve children, and the James Reed family to make a new home in or near the Napa Valley which was then part of Mexico during the Mexican War.

The Donner Party arrived in Donner Pass on October 30, and became snowbound there until the first of four rescue parties arrived at sundown on February 19. If the Donner Party had been one or two days earlier, they might have made it through Donner Pass before the first of several blizzards which dropped thirty feet of snow on them. The last of the survivors was brought to safety on April 29.

In Springfield’s Lincoln Square, a large bronze plaque marks the departure point of the Donner Party “for their ill-fated trip to California.” Lincoln’s law office is across the street.

Abe Lincoln knew members of the Donner Party, and a document handwritten by Abe Lincoln was carried to California by the ill-fated Donner Party. That Lincoln document was not discovered until 2010 (164 years after leaving Springfield). The 1832 paper is among the oldest surviving papers in Lincoln’s handwriting, written during the Black Hawk War near present-day Rockford which Lincoln describes as “on White Water Rivers of Rock River.”

Numerous works of history, fiction, drama, poetry, and film tell of these ordinary Americans who undertook an extraordinary enterprise. The horrific irony of the Donner story is that a prosperous Illinois prairie family’s hopes of greater prosperity, health, and a new life led them to squalor, starvation, death, and cannibalism only a few miles short of their 2,500-mile destination.

On March 27, nearly one year after leaving Springfield, George Donner died of gangrene which extended through his shoulder from a hand cut when his chisel slipped while cutting wood for a new wagon axle to replace the axle broken climbing up the steep side of Donner Peak. He is buried there in Donner Pass, alongside of Donner Lake, near Donner Peak, all named for him.

Tamzene Donner had elected to stay with her dying husband, George, rather than leave with the second or third rescue parties. One day after George Donner’s death, his wife Tamzene either died of hypothermia or, more likely, was murdered by cannibal Louis Keseberg, a German immigrant. Shortly thereafter, the fourth rescue party arrived.

George Donner’s five daughters were each rescued, and later birthed George Donner’s twenty-seven grandchildren.

His youngest child, Eliza, age 3, married and had seven children. She settled in San Jose where her lawyer husband was twice elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican. In 1911 Eliza published her authoritative book, "The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate." Eliza died on February 19, 1921, exactly 74 years to the day after the first rescue party reached Donner Lake.

I was snowbound in Donner Pass for 57 hours (Sun 11pm to Wed 8am, Dec. 14-17, 2008) when a howling, blinding blizzard dropped five feet of snow on that 7,000-foot-high pass, blocking I-80 in each direction. I am, no doubt, the only one ever snowbound in Donner Pass in a Corvette, especially a Corvette with a three-inch nail in one tire. But better than a covered wagon with a broken axle.

Mike Fahy, Chicago

Kristin Johnson said...

Hi, Mike--

I'm curious as to why you're posting this on my blog, especially when some of the information is dubious or inaccurate: the statement that Reed intended to settle in the Napa Valley, George Donner's date of death, Keseberg's guilt in Tamzene's death, the alleged authority of Eliza's book, that she died in 1921 (actually 1922)... I'm actually more interested in your getting stuck in Donner Pass during a blizzard -- I've driven some of our Utah canyons in near-whiteout conditions and can sympathize!

Thanks for writing.

Kristin Johnson

Mike Fahy said...

Curious Kristin, our above comment is a short abridgement of an account circulating in and about Illinois. We just thought you might be interested; we were wrong. The explanation of the five phrases you criticize as "dubious or inaccurate" follows.

(1) You say "the statement that Reed intended to settle in the Napa Valley" is dubious or inaccurate. We made no such statement. Our above comment says that the Donner Party left Springfield "to make a new home in or near the Napa Valley." The Reeds, whom you single out, lived in Yountville, and later in San Jose. Yountville is in the Napa Valley, and San Jose is near the Napa Valley.

(2) You say "George Donner's date of death" is dubious or inaccurate. Our source for the George Donner March 27 date of death is by Daniel M. Rosen which references your blog.

(3) You say "Keseberg's guilt in Tamzene's death" is dubious or inaccurate. We said that Tamzene either died of hypothermia or was murdered by Keseberg. How you can disagree with that is beyond me.

(4) You say "the alleged authority of Eliza's book" is dubious or inaccurate. No, we merely referred to "her authoritative book." Our source is you, Kristin; you said "she wrote authoritatively."

(5) You say "that she died in 1921 (actually 1922)." That was a typographical error on my part, but the day rather than the year of Eliza's death is the coincidental reason (as noted in our comment) for its inclusion on "the anniversary date remembered in Illinois."

Mike Fahy, Chicago

Kristin Johnson said...

This is the comments section of my blog. What you posted was not a comment. I could have simply deleted it, but was curious as to what it was all about, so I published it with a question and some brief remarks on it. I didn't abuse you, I wasn't rude, I simply listed some points. It's hardly sporting for you to give me no explanation as to what this is all about or what you expect of me, then get huffy because I don't respond as you wanted. Were you eliciting a critique, did you expect a pat on the head, or was it just a heads-up? You didn't say.

As for your responses, here are mine:

1. You're right. Your article said the families of George, Jacob, and Reed, and I said "Reed." My mistake.

a. However, in your response, you said the "Donner Party" left Springfield, etc. This is incorrect; the Springfield contingent was only part of the Donner Party, which didn't exist until July 19, 1846, when George Donner was elected captain of the newly-formed wagon train.

b. The article states they left "to make a new home in or near the Napa Valley." This strongly implies that they left with the intention of settling in the Napa Valley. This is false. It is dubious that anyone in Springfield had ever heard of the Napa Valley. Tamzene Donner wrote, "We go to California, to the bay of Francisco." James Reed was thinking of going even further, to Hawaii.

c. Yountville didn't exist in 1847; there was only George Yount’s ranch. The Reeds didn't settle there, they merely stayed with Yount for several months while they recuperated from their ordeal. James Reed had already laid claim on property in what is now Santa Clara County, where the Reeds moved about August 1847.

d. I grew up about 20 miles from Yountville. I certainly do not consider the Napa Valley "near" San Jose!

2. George Donner's alleged death date of March 27, 1846: I don't give that date on my blog or on my website. I don’t know where Dan got it -- perhaps from the Stanford edition of McGlashan’s History -- but not from me.

3. Keseberg and Tamzene: Your article states that Tamzene was more likely murdered by Keseberg. There is no information to prove or disprove his guilt; this is solely a matter of opinion, hence questionable.

4. Eliza "authoritative": I have never said that Expedition of the Donner Party is authoritative. You missed a very important word! On my website I wrote, "Although she wrote authoritatively, as though she remembered the events she described, most of her account of the Donner Party can be traced to [other sources]." I'm saying that despite her authoritative writing style, she was not an authority.

In your response, you refer to "we" and "our" -- is this a group effort? What group? You say that this account is circulating in Illinois -- where, exactly, and in what form? Newspaper? Magazine? E-mail? I'm still curious. If it hasn't been published yet, there are several more comments I could make...