Today someone sent me a joke about cannibalism. The timing wasn't good.
I just finished Ordeal by Hunger, the late George Stewart’s gripping account of the Donner party. The year was 1846, and the tragedy was one of the most spectacular of frontier history.
Murder, abandonment, old age, and disease had already accounted for 5 deaths when the party reached Truckee (now Donner) Lake at the end of October. There, just east of the pass a snowstorm trapped the remaining party of 84. One remarkable member though made it to the Sacramento Valley and brought the news to the local community and beyond, where a heroic rescue was organized.
The rescuers were dogged by horrific storms and 12-foot snow drifts, and the snow-bound emigrants ran out of food. It was impossible to rescue everyone at the same time. Some families didn't want to be separated; others were too weak to travel.
So the rescue had to be staged as weather allowed, emigrants started to die of starvation, and the ordeal by hunger led to the inevitable.
Before I could finish the book I was searching Google maps to find the three cabin sites, and trying to figure out the rescue route to the Sacramento Valley.
And I found that there’s still a great deal of interest in the story, not to mention several dedicated websites, here and here, and a blog by a librarian's librarian. (There's a lot more than this, so check the links if you are interested.)
Recent archeological work has also unearthed a few denialists. That cannibalism took place is undeniable, even among the Donner's themselves.
I can understand the sense of stigma such a family's descendants might feel, but Stewart’s words took me beyond that.
“For though despair is often close at hand, it never triumphs, and through all the story runs, a sustaining bond, the primal force which humanity shares with all earthly creatures, the sheer will to live.”