About Me

My photo
Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

No cannibal jokes today, please

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.”


Beverly said...

You never cease to amaze me.

Ain't the internet GRAND?

Still...not as good as a good book, me-thinks. Thanks for the suggestion!


Beverly said...

Isn’t it interesting that one website says probably 39 people and the other states about 90 people! That’s a pretty good disparity! I’m sorry to say the link to the librarian’s blog doesn’t work for me…

I have found online copies of some of the diaries before…it’s fascinating stuff. I have a James Reed some distance back…and a picture of him with his wagon that was some sort of big deal. It kind of gives me the heebie jeebies; I wonder if I come from Donner-party stock. Would you think families would pass that kind of information down to younger generations?

I’m a 5th generation Californian…my g.g.grandfather founded the town of Myrtle Point, in Oregon (Christian Lehnherr) and started their lumber mill and other ventures, before the rest of us moved on to California.

Camera Trap Codger said...

Thanks Beverly. Let me try to dig up Kristin Johnson's blogsite and get that fixed. The party started out with numbers in the 80s, and another family joined up along the way, I believe. But nearly half perished. I think I'll make you my official link checker. Dang, I thought I had them right this time!

Anonymous said...

also a great ric burns pbs documentary