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2014 Spur Finalist: Donner Party Cannibalism

By Kristin Johnson 
Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 05, 2014 
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The party of unfortunate immigrants lost three weeks of travel time on the Hastings Cutoff and ended up snowbound in California's Sierra Nevada, low on provisions and desperate to survive. What they did next has intrigued and horrified generations of historians and readers. (Map by Joan Pennington)
The party of unfortunate immigrants lost three weeks of travel time on the Hastings Cutoff and ended up snowbound in California's Sierra Nevada, low on provisions and desperate to survive. What they did next has intrigued and horrified generations of historians and readers. (Map by Joan Pennington)

At the door of the Murphy cabin lay a corpse with most of the flesh missing; inside were partially eaten limbs and scattered bones

Editor's note: Western Writers of America has named Kristin Johnson's "Donner Party Cannibalism: Did They or Didn't They?" a 2014 Spur Award finalist in the short nonfiction category. The story was published in the December 2013 Wild West.

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In early October 1846 James F. Reed was banished from George Donner's wagon train and set out across the Nevada desert for California, reaching Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley three weeks later. Nothing further was heard from the company he left behind until late January 1847, when a skeletal figure staggered into Johnson's Ranch, 40 miles north of Sutter's. The first news of the Donner Party to reach the world beyond the snowy mountains that trapped them was a sensational tale of starvation, death and cannibalism.

Cannibalism has been the Donner Party's hallmark ever since.

Right-minded historians and history buffs have downplayed the Donner Party's most memorable feature. Cannibalism was the "last extremity," the short-lived culmination of a long chain of events, they insist; the real story is the human drama—the combination of personalities and events, of good intentions, questionable decisions and sheer bad luck that created a situation in which the unthinkable became reality.

Recent reports of archaeological findings from the Donner Party camp at Alder Creek have given rise to a startling new perception: There was no cannibalism in the Donner Party. After more than 160 years it's finally time to drag cannibalism from beneath the rug, dust it off and take a good hard look at it.

The people who comprised the Donner Party were a mixed bag—native-born and immigrants, of both genders and all ages, of various occupations and social backgrounds—but most were American-born farming folk who set out from states bordering the Mississippi River. There were 10 family groups of various sizes and nearly a score of single people, mostly teamsters working their passage across the Great Plains by driving the wagons of others.

Prominent among them were three well-to-do citizens of Springfield, Ill.—farmer George Donner, his brother Jacob and businessman James F. Reed—along with their families and employees, 32 people in all. They set out for California on April 14, 1846, and on May 19, just west of the Missouri River, they joined a large wagon train led by William H. Russell. For the next two months they enjoyed a typical journey across the Plains.

On July 19 several emigrant parties camped at the Little Sandy River in what would become Wyoming. Some of the travelers decided to take the new Hastings Cutoff, said to shave 300 miles from the journey, or about three weeks' travel. They formed a separate wagon train and elected George Donner captain. On July 31 the Donner Party left Fort Bridger, where the cutoff began, and soon ran into difficulties. They had to hack a road through the Wasatch Mountains and nearly perished of thirst on the desert west of the Great Salt Lake, finally rejoining the California Trail on September 26 along the Humboldt River in present-day Nevada. The cutoff had added three weeks to their journey.

The trek along the Humboldt was another disaster. Provisions were low, the overworked cattle suffered from poor water and grazing, and Paiute raiders decimated their livestock. The emigrants jettisoned property and abandoned wagons. They grew exhausted and anxious; time was running out if they were to cross the Sierra Nevada before winter.

The 70 original members of the Donner Party had acquired and lost companions along the way. Travelers joined them, and a baby was born; five men died, and four went ahead to California, including James Reed, exiled for killing a teamster in a fight. One man came back with provisions from Sutter's Fort and two of Sutter's Indian vaqueros as assistants. By late October, as they neared the foot of the pass over the Sierra, the Donner Party numbered 81 (79 emigrants and the two vaqueros). Three-quarters of them reached the west end of Truckee (Donner) Lake and attempted to scale the snow-covered boulders to the summit, but a heavy snowfall forced them to retreat to the east end of the lake.

The Breens occupied an existing cabin, against which Louis Keseberg put up a lean-to for his family. The other emigrants erected more solid structures. The Murphys and Eddys built a cabin against the east face of a large boulder about 200 yards south of the Breens' cabin; half a mile to the east a double cabin housed the Graveses and the Reeds.

The rest of the Donner Party was back up the trail, camped alongside Alder Creek some six or seven miles northeast of the lake. The snow came on so fast that they pitched tents, one for each family, some distance apart. The tents sheltered 16 Donners and six others.

The emigrants had only a few oddments of food left besides the animals they slaughtered and buried in the snow. As time passed, they felt the effects of meager rations and knew they had to get help. On December 16 a party set out over the mountains on improvised snowshoes—nine men, five young women and a 13-year-old boy.

The "Forlorn Hope," as the group was later dubbed, completed its mission, but at a price. Only seven survived—two men and the five women—and all but one of the dead had been cannibalized. The survivors had shot Sutter's vaqueros for food. The remnants of the tattered, emaciated band reached Johnson's Ranch on January 18, 1847; it had taken them 33 days to travel approximately 100 miles. After hearing their dreadful tale, the settlers rallied and outfitted a rescue party, the First Relief, which left for the mountains on February 5.

Meanwhile, back at the camps, the Donner Party weakened from hunger. By the time the First Relief reached the lake camp on February 18, nine of the emigrants there had died, and a tenth died soon after. The rest were gaunt with famine; most had been subsisting on boiled hides and bones. At Alder Creek four emigrants had died. Outnumbered, the seven Californians selected the strongest emigrants from both camps to accompany them and doled out a little flour and dried meat to each person left behind—so little, in fact, that the Donners told the rescuers they would have to start on the corpses buried under the snow. The First Relief left on February 22; on the way down they met James F. Reed leading the Second Relief up to the camps.

Funded by donations, the San Francisco–based relief efforts had been organized in early February with naval officer Selim E. Woodworth in charge of the expedition. Reed rounded up men, horses and supplies from the area north of the bay. When Woodworth failed to rendezvous with him at the appointed time, Reed set out, believing the Navy man was right behind him. When Reed arrived at the lake on March 1, he discovered what desperation had wrought during the week between the First Relief's departure and his arrival. At the door of the Murphy cabin lay a corpse with most of the flesh missing; inside were partially eaten limbs and scattered bones. The other two cabins were free of such sights.

At Alder Creek, Reed found grisly scenes centered on Jacob Donner's tent: human bones at the hearth, the snowy grave containing Jacob's mutilated body. George Donner was too weak to leave; his wife and youngest daughters would wait for Woodworth. Reed took 17 emigrants when he set out for California on March 3, leaving three men at the camps to care for those left behind and get them strong enough so that they could leave with the next relief.

The Second Relief and their charges endured a two-day blizzard in Summit Valley at the top of the pass; when it ended, the party was completely out of food. Reed wanted to leave, but most of the refugees could not or would not move; they would wait for Woodworth. Unable to budge them, Reed and his men took three children and left. In a few days they reached the Woodworth camp, but Woodworth and his men declined to go after the emigrants, for reasons that remain murky.

Leading the Third Relief were William Eddy and William Foster, survivors of the Forlorn Hope who returned to the mountains to rescue family members still at the lake and who managed to persuade five of Woodworth's men to join them. At the camp in Summit Valley the Third Relief found 11 survivors, three mangled corpses and human remains boiling in a pot over the fire. Three of the rescuers stayed to help the refugees out of "Starved Camp" while the rest continued.

On March 13 the Third Relief arrived at the Breen cabin, where the remaining emigrants had moved. Eddy and Foster's sons had died, but Levinah Murphy (Foster's mother-in-law), her youngest boy and Louis Keseberg were still alive. The rescuers also found George Donner's wife, Tamzene (Tamsen), and her three little girls; two of the men Reed had left behind had agreed to rescue the children but instead abandoned them at the Breen cabin and fled. Tamzene had left George in his sickbed and trudged to the lake in time to meet Eddy and Foster. Mrs. Murphy was too weak to travel, Keseberg had an injured foot, and Tamzene refused to abandon her husband, so the relief, with no time to spare, took the four children and left only a few hours after having arrived.

William Fallon led the seven men of the fourth and last relief—actually a salvage expedition to bring in the Donners' property. The lake camp was deserted when they arrived on April 17 and found, Fallon wrote, only "human bodies terribly mutilated, legs, arms and sculls scattered in every direction." Alder Creek was also devoid of life. Some of the men busied themselves preparing and packing goods while others returned to the lake to find Keseberg at the Breen cabin. He told the relief that Tamzene Donner had come to the cabin after George's death and died the same night; he had eaten her body. The Fourth Relief left on April 21 carrying heavy packs while Keseberg shambled after them. When he reached Sutter's Fort on April 29, the rescue of the Donner Party was complete; all of the trapped emigrants were either alive in California or dead in the mountains. Of the 81 people snowbound at the beginning of November, 36 had died: 14 at the lake, eight at Alder Creek and 14 while trying to escape the snow. Twenty of the 45 survivors had not resorted to cannibalism.

In June 1847 Brig. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny went east overland by way of what is now called Donner Pass. When he and his entourage reached the lake camp, they were horrified at what they found. One of the party, Edwin Bryant, wrote: "Strewn around the cabins were dislocated and broken bones—skulls (in some instances sawed asunder with care for the purpose of extracting the brains)—human skeletons, in short, in every variety of mutilation. A more revolting and appalling spectacle I never witnessed."

The general ordered the remains buried. Five of the men gathered them into the Breen cabin and set it afire, but it was only partially consumed. In September 1847 travelers noted that human remains again littered the ground at the lake camp, presumably dragged about by scavengers. Over the next five years passersby recorded gruesome sights at "Cannibal Camp"—scattered limbs, bones smashed to access the marrow, skulls sawn open. Some stopped to rebury the remains; others took pieces as souvenirs.

As for Alder Creek, Kearny's party stopped there as well. According to Bryant, the men found George Donner's body wrapped in a sheet and buried him, although another member of the party claimed the general did not order any such burial. The Donners' flimsy shelters did not last long, and they were some distance from the trail; with only two or three exceptions, travelers did not mention them.

Reports of Donner Party cannibalism date from the earliest accounts of the disaster published in 1847 and were related by the survivors themselves, rescuers and officials connected with the relief efforts. Other accounts based on survivors' testimony appeared in published accounts in 1848, 1849 and 1856. In the 1870s survivors and rescuers began writing their own reminiscent accounts. Truckee newspaperman C.F. McGlashan corresponded with and interviewed survivors and others while researching his History of the Donner Party (1879), and Eliza P. Donner Houghton collected information from Alder Creek survivors for her Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate (1911).

According to the historical record, there were four foci of cannibalism in the Donner Party: among the Forlorn Hope, at the lake camp, at Alder Creek and at Starved Camp. In each instance cannibalism was the last resort. The emigrants waited until there was nothing else to eat before they began on the bodies of the dead. Except at the lake camp, cannibalism lasted only briefly: about 15 days for the Forlorn Hope, about nine days at Alder Creek and about three days at Starved Camp. Residents of the lake camp engaged in cannibalism for varying lengths of time, from approximately five days for the Donner girls to nearly two months for Louis Keseberg.

At times commentators have cast doubt on the historical sources, claiming that much of the testimony is hearsay or otherwise would not stand up in court. This is a false analogy. The bar of history is not a court of law, and historians are not bound by legal strictures; they may look at all the available evidence, using their own judgment as to its reliability. Granted, there are many problems with Donner Party sources, but there is also a great deal of agreement among them. One cannot simply dismiss them out of hand.

In January 2006 the codirectors of the Donner Party Archaeology Project held a press conference regarding the results of their 2003–04 digs at Alder Creek, announcing they had recovered no evidence of cannibalism at the Donner family camp. The media responded with a wave of articles that soon inflated "no physical evidence at Alder Creek" into "no cannibalism among the Donner Party," period.

There was another eruption in spring 2010 when a scientist reporting on the Alder Creek bone analysis made some unfortunate off-the-cuff statements about the Donner Party. This created another, more widespread "no Donner Party cannibalism" flap. In its wake many people seemed ready to dismiss Donner Party cannibalism as practically a myth. Among the stated reasons were that the survivors had denied cannibalism; contemporary journalists had sensationalized the story to sell more papers; and, most important, the present-day researchers had turned up no physical evidence.

The claims that Donner Party survivors had fiercely denied cannibalism are puzzling, given the number of survivors who said it did in fact happen; several of them—William Eddy, Mary Graves, Sarah Graves Fosdick, Georgia Donner, Frances Donner, Nancy Graves, Mary Donner and Louis Keseberg—wrote or stated they themselves had eaten human flesh.

Granted, a few survivors did make denials in later years. In 1884 Jean Baptiste Trudeau told Eliza Donner Houghton no cannibalism had occurred at Alder Creek; but in 1847 he had described his own acts of cannibalism in sickening detail, and rescuers had seen him carrying a dismembered human leg over his shoulder. Other survivors denied only that they had participated in cannibalism, not that it occurred.

The sole blanket denial occurred in June 1879, when Elitha Donner Wilder's husband sought an injunction to stop the publication of C.F. McGlashan's history, alleging its descriptions of cannibalism were false and defamatory. They were false with regard to Wilder's wife—she had been rescued before cannibalism began at Alder Creek—but not when it came to others. (A judge refused to grant Wilder's injunction.)

The idea that newspapers had sensationalized the Donner story to sell papers is absurd. This was not a case of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst battling for readers among the teeming masses of New York City. In 1847 California was very sparsely settled and had only two newspapers; the Donner Party story was a sensation in itself and required no exaggeration. The 20 articles that appeared in San Francisco's California Star were mostly straightforward, with only an occasional purple passage here and there. A notable exception was an untitled and unsigned account relating lurid and false scenes of cannibalism that appeared on April 10, 1847. A second article, William Fallon's Fourth Relief diary, is problematic on many counts and may well have been exaggerated, but other sources corroborate many of its shocking details. One of the three articles about the Donner relief that appeared in the Monterey Californian included sensational details apparently taken from the April 10 Star article.

When the Eastern press got hold of the story later in the year, they reprinted many of the Star articles, along with two or three accounts from other sources, but not the scurrilous piece printed on April 10, although one of the independent accounts referenced it in part. Some of the papers did sensationalize the Donner Party to a degree, but it is doubtful whether this could have augmented sales. Out of more than 300 newspaper articles about the Donner Party published in 1847, the most common headline is a variation of From California; the fairly tame Sufferings of the California Emigrants is also frequent, but only 34 headlines contain such adjectives as "distressing," "dreadful," "extreme," "horrible" or "thrilling," and a mere seven contain the word "cannibalism." These headlines are of normal size, and most appear on inside pages. If any newspapers sensationalized the Donner Party story, they did so discreetly.

When people eat animals, including other humans, the bones of those animals exhibit signs of having been processed for food—cuts, chops, scrapes, saw marks, bones broken to get marrow, skulls opened to extract the brains, edges smoothed from boiling ("pot polish"), charring and so on. Animal bones with many of these marks have been recovered from Donner Party sites, but only a very few human bones, and none bearing the cannibal's signature.

In his 1879 investigation of the Breen cabin site, C.F. McGlashan found part of a human toe that had been burnt, possibly when General Kearny's men fired the cabin in 1847. Scientists apparently have never examined it. During the 1984 dig at the Murphy cabin Donald L. Hardesty's team recovered three fragments of human bone, so small and badly deteriorated that they provided no information about possible cannibalism.

At Alder Creek in 2003–04 the archaeologists found more than 16,000 pieces of bone, 86 percent of them under one-quarter inch in size. Some of the larger pieces were in good enough condition to be tested; cattle, horse or mule, deer, dog and rodent were identified, but not human. There are a number of possible explanations for this, but the most likely scenario is that human bone was treated differently.

Members of the Donner Party ate the meat from their animals, boiled the hides into a barely edible glue and charred or boiled the bones to eat. All the bones recovered at Alder Creek were calcined—that is, they had been boiled so much that they lost their organic constituents, leaving behind only minerals. Since there was no organic content in the calcined fragments, the bones did not decompose.

When the Donner families started eating their dead companions, they had meat again; they did not have to eat the bones, so the human bones were not boiled repeatedly. They did not become calcined but retained their organic content and decomposed.

A point supporting this theory is what was not identified among the bones from Alder Creek. In March 1847 rescuer Nicholas Clark killed a bear cub for food. As with human flesh, bear was eaten only briefly at the end of the Donner ordeal, and bear bones would not have been boiled repeatedly. Bear bones, like human bones, are absent from the Alder Creek bone assemblage, and probably for the same reason.

There is, in fact, evidence that human bones decomposed at Alder Creek. Before the 2004 dig a team of experts—historic human remains detection dogs—examined the area. These dogs are trained to alert only at the scent of decomposed human remains, which can linger in the soil for centuries after the body has disintegrated. At Alder Creek the dogs alerted at several spots, including one that proved to be the hearth. Human remains at a hearth certainly sounds like cannibalism, but final proof—actual bones—is lacking, so the "dogumentary" evidence remains suggestive but inconclusive.

Based on the historical record, there can be little question members of the Donner Party practiced cannibalism. The lack of confirmation in the archaeological record may mean physical evidence has disappeared through natural processes or human interference, but it may also reflect the possibility that archaeologists simply have not discovered it yet. Statements that cannibalism occurred came from the survivors themselves, augmented by the testimony of their rescuers, who saw emigrants preparing and eating human flesh and the evidence of their having done so.

Librarian Kristin Johnson of Salt Lake City has been researching the Donner Party for more than 20 years. She was the historian for the Donner Party Archaeology Project, is the editor of the 1996 book "Unfortunate Emigrants": Narratives of the Donner Party (Utah State University Press) and has written extensively about the Donner Party on her website "New Light on the Donner Party." Also suggested for further reading on the Old West's most famous bad trip: An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp, edited by Kelly J. Dixon, Julie M. Schablitsky and Shannon A. Novak; The Archaeology of the Donner Party, by Donald L. Hardesty; The Indifferent Stars Above, by Daniel James Brown; Desperate Passage, by Ethan Rarick; So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1812–1848, by Will Bagley; and The Far Western Frontier, 1830–1860, by Ray A. Billington.


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