Letter From Wild West – December 2013

The Donner Party Meal Plans Went Awry

The Donner Party tragedy of 1846–47 is one of the Wild West’s most grisly legends, thanks in no small part to the cannibalism involved. Of the 81 emigrants trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada, 36 perished. The others survived by eating oxen, deer, dogs, mice and, yes, dead people. Eliza Poor Donner, who was 3 in April 1846 when her father, George, captained the arduous trek from Illinois, arrived in California an orphan and more than half a century later published an account of her family’s ordeal. “Like fated trains of other epochs whose privations, sufferings and self-sacrifices have added renown to colonization movements and served as danger signals to later wayfarers,” she writes, “that party began its journey with song of hope, and within the first milestone of the promised land ended it with a prayer for help.” In the introduction to a 1997 Bison Books reprinting of Eliza’s tale, Kristin Johnson suggests: “The Donner Party became a legend, not because of the emigrants’ sufferings but because of the dire extremity to which some of them had been reduced. The specter of cannibalism haunted the survivors for the rest of their lives.”

Pardon the tasteless wordplay, but the nation continues to feast on this juicy saga, which has embedded itself in popular culture (e.g., Terry Del Bene’s 2003 book Donner Party Cookbook: A Guide to Survival on the Hastings Cutoff and Nathan Hale’s 2013 graphic novel Donner Dinner Party) and overshadowed most other 19th-century overland journeys. Truth is, though, it wasn’t the worst such catastrophe. As master of trail writing Will Bagley points out, the 1856 Mormon handcart tragedy resulted in more than 200 dead, but it is not as well known today as the Donner Party, perhaps because these Mormons were not known to have eaten their dead fellows. Next is the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormons, not bad weather, claimed some 120 emigrant lives (no, not for food). And in 1845 the first and hardest journey on the Meek Cutoff led to nearly 50 deaths (but no meek emigrant is known to have cut off and devoured another’s body part). That is not to say there was one big communal feast at Donner Pass. “Twenty of the 45 survivors had not resorted to cannibalism,” Johnson writes in her cover article.

Johnson was the historian for the 2003–04 Donner Party Archaeology Project, which turned up “no physical evidence” that cannibalism took place at Alder Creek, one of the Donner Party campsites. Many people interpreted this to mean the cannibalism must be a frontier myth. They are dead wrong, insists Johnson, who argues that cannibalism was surely part of the not-so-pretty picture at Alder Creek and the other sites. She names nine survivors who wrote or stated they themselves had, out of desperation, eaten human flesh. “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,” she writes. Makes sense—just consider what happened in Jamestown. It wasn’t until spring 2013 that archaeologists excavated a trash pit at the site of that Virginia colony and found the first physical evidence of cannibalism—cut marks on the skull and skeleton of a 14-year-old girl suggesting that her fellow colonists had, after her death, removed and presumably devoured her flesh and brain during the 1609–10 “starving time.”

Louis Keseberg was the most notorious of the Donner Party members who resorted to cannibalism. He resorted to it—including cannibalizing Tamzene Donner, wife of George and mother of Eliza—for nearly two months. It kept him alive and healthy. In 1879 Keseberg tried to set the record straight about his role as the last survivor of the Donner Party. “It has been told that I boasted of my shame—said that I enjoyed this horrid food, and that I remarked that human flesh was more palatable than California beef,” he said. “This is a falsehood. It is a horrible, revolting falsehood. This food was never otherwise than loathsome, insipid and disgusting.” By 1879 Keseberg was a widower, unsuccessful in business and destitute. Did he get his just desserts? It’s hard to say. Those were tough times. Today he might have opened a fast-food restaurant.

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