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Tracking Down the Truth of What Happened to the Donner Party

May 11, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

TRUCKEE, Calif. — O Mary I have not rote you half of the truble we have had but I have rote you anuf to let you now that you dont now what truble is but thank god we have all got throw and the only family that did not eat human flesh.

--Donner party survivor Patty Reed, 12,

writing to her cousin in 1847.

At about the age when children are most attracted to scary stories, they're apt to hear one in fourth-grade history class that tops anything whispered at a slumber party or summer camp.

It's the saga of a band of 82 emigrants reduced to cannibalism when they were trapped at Donner Lake by a 22-foot snowfall in the winter of 1846-47.

While some tales lose their power to captivate over time, people can't seem to forget the Donner party, which set out from Springfield, Ill., 140 years ago last month on what should have been a demanding but routine trip west. The episode, which has been called the most spectacular disaster in the history of Western migration, continues to captivate researchers, descendants of party members and amateur collectors of Donnerana who spend their free time exploring the mysteries and controversy that still surround the event.

"There are so many questions that remain to be answered," said Susan Lindstrom, an archeologist who recently aided an excavation at the site of a Donner party cabin.

Some of the questions are not isolated to the Donner situation, but have applications for families and individuals in crisis today, Lindstrom said. For instance, "What happens to people in the necessity of the moment? And at what point does the culture we think inbred in us break down?"

There's a card file at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee that contains names of people who have visited the park claiming to be descendants of Donner party members. The 45 survivors (32 were children) and their descendants settled in San Juan Bautista, Hollister, San Rafael and other Northern and Southern California communities.

"Once in a while they (Donner descendants) come through and make a little remark, but generally they don't have much to say," supervising ranger Warren Beers said. He explained that these visitors could still be stung by early exaggerated accounts of the tragedy, which had caused many of their ancestors to deny being Donner party members. "It (the tragedy) didn't happen that long ago," Beers said.

New developments may relieve Donner descendants from some of the lingering stigma of the episode.

Nona McGlashan, granddaughter of C. F. McGlashan, the newspaperman who was the first to interview the Donner party survivors, is currently editing 450 hand-written letters from 24 Donner party survivors describing events at Donner Lake during that grim winter. The correspondence, discovered recently among C. F. McGlashan's legal papers, was long thought either to have been burned along with the reporter's home in Truckee, or destroyed by him out of respect for the secrets of Donner party members.

Excavation of the Breen cabin site is also shedding light on exactly what went on in the lake-side camp. In a project funded by the National Geographic Society, Lindstrom and researchers from the University of Nevada attempted last summer to locate the human remains that were supposedly burned and buried by a horseback party led by Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny in June, 1847. Kearny reported that the campsite looked like the grisly aftermath of a massacre when he arrived. He said that he and his men tidied up the area to protect the sensibilities of future travelers.

The excavators did uncover a pit in the spot Kearny specified, but they found only a small amount of charred and crushed bone. They won't know until chemical tests are complete whether the bones are human or animal, Lindstrom said, but in any case, "There was not enough (human remains found) to jibe with Gen. Kearny's story about cleaning up the whole area. We substantiated that Gen. Kearny did not do what he said he did in his journals."

This discovery could give credence to the argument of some Donner party descendants that cannibalism was not as big a part of the story as most people believe. Lindstrom said, "We might find out that things weren't so sensational as early reports said, or things could have been even more terrible than we imagined."

Mary Tamsen Newlin is the great-great-granddaughter of Donner party leader George Donner. A 71-year-old retired schoolteacher living in Santa Barbara, Newlin has had a lifelong curiosity about her namesake, Tamsen Donner.

Tamsen Donner was the third wife of 62-year-old George Donner (Mary Newlin is descended from Donner's first wife), a well-to-do farmer from Springfield, Ill. "When she reached California, Tamsen wanted to open a girls' school," Newlin said. "She came from a very fine background. She must have been a very ladylike person."

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