Downplaying the Donner Party's gruesome tale

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Schuman
Globe Correspondent / June 13, 2004

''We were full of hope and did not dream of sorrow."
Donner Party survivor, 1891

TUCKEE, Calif. -- Whoever concocted the overused adage that comedy is tragedy plus time was on to something. The Donner Party disaster was a true horror, yet it isn't hard to emit a warped chuckle nowadays while roving the roads of California's Sierra Mountains and encountering a sign reading: ''Donner Camp Picnic Ground."

Those who are fascinated by such tragedies -- and face it, many of us are -- will be interested in the story of these settlers heading west, lured by tales of good weather and productive farmland, who became snowbound in these majestic mountains of northern California, then froze, starved, otherwise died, or resorted to eating human flesh to survive the winter of 1846-47. Reliable statistics put the size of the whole party at 89, of which 81 became trapped, and 41 died. (But in different tellings and calculations, the party's size can range from 81 to 91 and the casualties from 36 to 42.)

There is no National Park Service site commemorating and explaining this catastrophe as there are at divergent venues such as Johnstown, Pa., and Oklahoma City, where the heartache caused by floods and terrorism are memorialized. There is, however, a California state park with a sufficient, if not outstanding, visitors center museum, and historic markers and monuments are scattered around the immediate region.

History aside, the first thing a visitor here will notice is the striking landscape. The waters of Donner Lake are a brilliant blue and the lake is girded by pine-studded forests and mountains rugged and ragged. If there is a God's country, this has to be part of it.

According to park rangers, many visitors who come to the 6,000-foot-high Donner Memorial State Park eschew history and contentedly spend their days fishing for trout, walking the 2 miles of nature trails, camping, swimming in the latter part of the summer when lake temperatures can approach 70 degrees, and snowshoeing or skiing the roughly seven miles of groomed and ungroomed areas during the long winter.

Still, chief ranger Greg Hackett says most do at some time set foot in the visitors center's Emigrant Museum, the best place to begin for anyone intrigued by the area's history. The park site does have a historic connection, since it occupies the piece of real estate where the Breen and Murphy parties, but not the Donners, set up their camps during that winter.

It is within the museum's walls that the abridged story of what has for over a century and a half been referred to as the ''ill-fated Donner party" is told in a 26-minute introductory film.

The Donners and their migrating companions, including the Breens and Murphys, were early migrants to the West. When party captain George Donner and his group left Springfield, Ill., in April 1846, the Mormons had yet to make tracks for Salt Lake City, and the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill near Sacramento was more than a year in the future.

The party was matched with misery almost from day one. Party member Virginia Reed Murphy wrote that her biggest fear at the start of the trek was Indians, but it turned out that the biggest problems came from within. There were fights and feuds. Virginia's father killed a man probably in self-defense, but was found guilty of murder by an ad hoc jury of party members and banished into the wilderness. Along the way, people died of disease and fatigue. Then in midsummer the party leaders made a fateful decision.

They decided to take a shortcut south of the Great Salt Lake, a tip offered by one Lansford W. Hastings, a self-described guide who had written ''The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California." Hastings's shortcut turned out to take the Donner party six days instead of the promised two, however. According to a display in the museum, the party lost 36 valuable head of oxen and four wagons in the pitiless desert.

The emigrants didn't reach the Sierras until the last week of October, with almost no food or possessions. Snow was falling. According to the film, ''At no time over the next 100 years would there be a winter as severe."

It was March when the last person from the stranded party left the mountains. The months in between were hell. Hackett says, ''If one word sums up the party's time here, it is 'desperation.' "

According to a museum display, the families huddled in makeshift tents and cabins, physically unable to travel either forward or back. One blinding storm after another swept through the mountains. Their animals became buried in snow. Visitors can read here that by Christmas, party members were forced to eat boiled ox hide strips to survive. They became emaciated, and many died.

Adults were not the only victims. Infants Louis Keseberg Jr., Harriet McCutcheon, and Margaret Eddy all starved to death. Mary Graves, a 19-year-old nursing mother, handed her crying baby to a companion, then fell dead. The infant and her siblings survived the winter, but arrived in Sacramento as penniless orphans.

And, yes, there was eating of their fellow humans, but Hackett says not to call it cannibalism, for the party members did not deliberately kill others for food, but ate only those already deceased.

As winter wore on, the Donner Party were doing anything to survive. On New Year's Day, the Reed family's beloved pet dog was killed for sustenance. Shortly afterward, frail and feeble Sarah Graves Fosdick could only watch as her dead husband was carved . Patrick Doolan, an Irish bachelor; Antonio, a hired hand; Mary Graves's father; the 12-year-old brother of Harriet Murphy Pike and Sarah Murphy Foster -- all were casualties whose flesh fed the others.

This aspect of the tragedy is downplayed in the Emigrant Museum. The courage of the emigrants who had left their homes to tackle the long and rough road west is celebrated here. Display cases highlight relics from the Donner Party: a pair of eyeglasses, a three-tined fork, a pocket watch, wooden remnants of what once were wagons, and the muzzle-loading rifle used by William Eddy to kill an 800-pound grizzly bear . (Eddy survived the winter.) A fully-stocked covered wagon like those used by the Donners and other emigrants stands as a symbol of 1840s pioneer transportation.

In one case is a little doll, an emblem of one of the few heartwarming stories to come out of the Donner debacle. The doll is a duplicate -- the original is in a Sacramento museum -- of one owned by 8-year-old Patty Reed. The girl, fragile and near death, was rescued and found the strength to encourage others not to give up. After reaching safety, she was seen around a campfire relating to the doll a narration of her ordeal.

Before leaving the visitors center, look at the message board posted by the information desk to see what happened on that particular date in Donner Party history. When we visited last July 14, we read that on July 14, 1846, ''An eastbound traveler brings an open letter from Hastings promising to wait at Fort Bridger to guide the emigrants through his shorter route." History shows that was a promise Hastings didn't keep.

Remnants or representations of Donner history are scattered about the park. Just outside the visitors center is the Pioneer Monument, dedicated in June 1918, with bronze figures standing on a towering pedestal (22 feet high), which itself is on a 6-foot-high base. The bronze characters represent an anonymous emigrant family, the father leading the way, his hand placed horizontally along his forehead, scouting the way ahead. The monument was constructed on the site of the Breen cabin, the first one uncovered years after the tragedy.

The site of the Donner camp is three miles north along Route 89, and there is indeed a picnic ground today near the spot where the Donner family cabin stood. The cabin's location is marked with two historical plaques embedded in a stone wall.

The only remaining piece of any of the party's cabins is about a 250-yard walk from the visitors center. Visitors stroll past white firs, willows, and alders to reach a massive granite rock that formed the north end and served as the fireplace of the Murphy cabin. Embedded in this wall is another plaque, this one listing all members of the Donner Party, divided by survivors and deaths. Engraved is the following: ''The face of this rock formed the north end and the fireplace of the Murphy Cabin. General Stephen W. Kearny, on June 22, 1847, buried under the middle of the cabin the bodies found in the vicinity."

Nowhere, however, is there any mention of the irony of how such exquisite country can be so deadly.

Michael Schuman is a freelance writer who lives in Keene, N.H.

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