Sunday, October 06, 2013

Donner Party cannibalism article

The latest issue of WildWest magazine to hit the stands might interest readers of this blog -- it features an article called "Donner Party Cannibalism: Did They or Didn't They?" by some bimbo named Kristin Johnson (that would be Moi). How did that happen? Well... It was work. A lot of hard work. The hardest thing I've had to write so far, because, despite all the revision, it's still much less than satisfactory. There's only so much you can shoehorn into 3,700 words. Special thanks to Greg Lalire at WildWest, who put up with my angst and vaporings while (apparently) remaining relatively sane.

George R. Stewart wrote long ago that, in a sense, cannibalism is actually a minor part of the Donner saga, and he was right. Once you get over the initial horror and look at the larger picture, cannibalism was the culmination of a lengthy series of events and, for almost all of the emigrants compelled to it, lasted a relatively short period of time.

I've downplayed the cannibalism for years because I just don't find it all that interesting; once the shock wears off, there's nothing to sink your teeth into, so to speak. It's the human drama (who were these people? what happened to them afterward?) -- and the historical research (how do we know what we think we know? are there any more sources out there?) that have engrossed me.  However, over the last several years the  notion that Donner Party cannibalism is a myth seems to have gained credence in some segments of the general public, especially the online crowd. It's become such an annoyance that when the opportunity arose to confront it, I did.

Most of the information in the article will be old news to attentive readers of this blog, New Light, or An Archaeology of Desperation; what's different is that it pulls data scattered about in many different sources together in one place to make what I believe is a convincing argument. I haven't had any feedback yet, good or bad, but time will tell. Meanwhile, why don't you take a look and tell me what you think?

[Disclaimer: I get no royalties from sales of the magazine and will derive no financial benefit from your purchases, darn it.]

PS  Don't overlook the "Donner Party connections and intersections" on page 8.


Kenneth D said...

I will rush to my local newsstand for a copy in the morning!
I'm not sure, however, if I can get my head around seeing your name and the word 'bimbo' in the same sentence. Vous?


Kristin Johnson said...

On peut rigoler, n'est-ce pas?

Well, I can say it, but nobody else better. Hope you like the article!


juliemcc said...

Hi, Kristin,
Just wondering if you're familiar with Ethan Rarick's new book, Desperate Passage. It's REALLY good because of the most recent archaeological and other scientific uncoverings which are included and woven into the narrative. There's also the fact that he's an excellent writer. He participated in the 2013 Annual Donner Party Hike in Soda Springs area and gave the keynote address Saturday afternoon. I'm enjoying your blog. Keep up the good work. -Julie McCalister

Kristin Johnson said...

Hi, Julie!
Yes, I know Ethan; we've corresponded some and have met in person a couple of times. I don't agree with him on everything; for instance, I think he's often unreasonably critical of the Donner Party and James Reed in particular, but he's entitled to his opinion. Certainly Desperate Passage is about the best narrative history of the Donner Party available, with the possible exception of Daniel James Brown's Indifferent Stars Above. Both are well written and uptodate but take different approaches, so it's hard to pick between them. Glad you got a chance to meet Ethan and hear him talk-- I bet it was really interesting.
Thanks for writing!

Erika M said...

I'm going to track down WildWest magazine and get that article. I so completely agree with you that cannibalism isn't the most interesting aspect; it's just what initially draws one's morbid curiosity. Excited to see a recent blog post: yay! :)

Kristin Johnson said...

Oh, good, I'll be interested to hear what you think. Such a lovely, gruesome topic for this spooky time of year, too!

Anonymous said...

just a minor point, it does you no good and lessens your credibility to refer to yourself as bimbo. it's a thing women do, to make light of their accomplishments - but it does harm to all of those in an academic field. how can others take seriously if we don't ourselves seriously.

now before you tell me to lighten up, it wasn't serious, that is the same thing men have telling women for years when we are too intense for them to handle.

just my two cents worth.

Kristin Johnson said...


You're certainly entitled to your opinion and I hear what you're saying, but you flatter me -- I'm not all that influential. I doubt I've set the course of women's rights back with this one little blip.

This is an informal blog with a limited readership; a fair number of my readers are old friends or long-time acquaintances. To anybody who knows me, "bimbo" is hilarious because it's wildly inappropriate.

Rest assured, I take myself and my research seriously. As I told Ken above, I can call myself a bimbo, but nobody else better!

Thanks for writing.

Kristin Johnson

Chet said...

I'll have to track down a copy of this article. The way you describe your interest in this topic is in perfect parallel to my own, and I appreciate the attention to detail and your labor to endeavor to be as accurate as possible in all the information you share. These recent references questioning whether cannibalism actually took place or not are a completely ludicrous marketing ploy to spur interest. One may as well suggest their wagons were drawn by unicorns instead of oxen. In any case, I agree completely with the cannibalism aspect being the the least interesting and compelling part of their struggle. For me, part of that disinterest is due to the total inability to identify with such a decision or action. Most other challenges these people faced are much closer to home for most people in some way shape or form. The key delays met in the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake desert hold my attention the most. This is where realization dawned that they and their children were in real mortal danger; and the decisions they made in the face of this realization and their ever-mounting hardships are truly compelling and relatable in my book. Thanks for all your work Kristin -