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No More Secrets

Used to be Donner party descendants hid their lineage. Now they're gathering to examine the legacy of that ill-fated trek.

July 19, 1996|ANN JAPENGA | Special to The Times

The fine focus is gone from the memory now. All Pat Ramsey can recall is an indistinct image of a picture hanging in her grandparents' house in Sacramento. "I remember somebody saying that behind the picture frame was something my grandfather didn't want to talk about," says Carmel resident Ramsey, 68.

In Mary Murray's case, it was not a photograph but a book she wasn't supposed to discuss. In fact, her grandmother told Murray, 93, that she'd disown her if she ever read this particular book--a history of the Donner party.

Murray's grandmother, Leanna Donner, the daughter of the party's original leader George Donner, and Ramsey's great-great-grandfather, Lewis Keseberg, were members of the tragic band of 90 emigrants who set out from Independence, Mo., in April 1846, only to be trapped by a 22-foot snowfall in the Eastern Sierra, a few days' journey from their destination.

In what was to become the most sensational episode of the Westward movement, nearly half the party succumbed to starvation. The 48 survivors resorted to cannibalism and even to killing. When help finally arrived more than three months later, rescuers found dismembered human limbs and broken skulls strewn around the snow, bodies with flesh stripped from the bone and a carcass with the heart and liver cut out. The survivors seldom spoke of the horrors they'd seen, and forbade their progeny from talking of it. But time has a way of unearthing even the most entrenched taboos. Now, 150 years after the Donner party erected their makeshift shelters at Donner Lake, descendants of the party members are finally getting together to share their family legends.

More than 200 descendants of George and Tamsen Donner are expected at the first of two Donner party events this summer, on Saturday and Sunday. The second, the Donner Party Sesquicentennial, will be hosted by the California State Parks Department on Aug. 15-18. Organizers expect some 300 descendants representing all of the 11 families on the ill-fated wagon train. Both events will be held at Donner Lake, now a popular recreation area between Truckee and Soda Springs northwest of Lake Tahoe.

"The descendants are still searching for answers," says the park department's sesquicentennial organizer Frankye Craig. "What about the cannibalism? Was it as bad as it was made out to be? And who actually took part? Many of them say: 'Our family didn't but we know the others did.'

"And they all want to know: Did Lewis Keseberg kill Tamsen Donner? We're going to hold an inquest to address the question."

It's not only family members who are obsessed with the Donner story. The public, also, has an appetite for the constant stream of new books, papers, plays, novels, TV movies and documentaries on the subject.

Aside from the timeless appeal of disaster, the story fascinates because it's a reminder about what happens when social bonds break down. Historians speculate that if the Donner party had pulled together, members might have made it over the Sierra before the snow fell.

Historians say feuding was fueled by the decision in July to take an untried shortcut to California, the so-called Hastings Cut-Off around the south side of Great Salt Lake--a fatal mistake that delayed the party's arrival in the mountains until October. As the party lost time on the tortuous desert crossing, tempers snapped and human decency crumbled. An old man couldn't keep up with the group and was left behind to die. James Frazier Reed was attacked by an overtaxed wagon driver. Reed stabbed the man to death with his hunting knife.

Everyone began looking for someone else to blame for their troubles. "Each pulled into their own family," says James Frazier Reed III, the 60-year-old great-great-grandson of Reed.

"All the bickering was the cause of the tragedy, when you get right down to it," says 85-year-old Nona McGlashan, a writer and authority on the Donner party. "They would stop and haggle and it delayed them."

The disputes continued in camp, one family accusing another of not sharing food and water, others arguing over which man should lead them out. The survivors packed the bickering and blame-casting out of the mountains with them. Over the following generations, some of the incidents were forgotten, but the generic grudges were passed on leading to one of the most stubborn intra-family spats in California history.

"I think these kinds of family feuds can be carried on generation to generation easily," says Reed. "Look at Bosnia. Look at Ireland."

Reed hopes this summer's get-togethers will begin to heal the rifts. "Maybe we can bring together some families who were pushed apart by history," he says.

When the Donner party survivors reached safety at Sutter's Fort, they quickly dispersed, going to work as farmers and laborers throughout the Sacramento Valley. The three orphaned Donner girls, Frances, Georgia and Eliza, all younger than 7, were adopted.

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