Cannibal! The Mythology

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I remember sitting in Outback when my brother first made a joke similar to the one depicted in the meme above. Being me, I had to know what the Donner Party was. My dad’s answer: a group of people who got trapped in the mountains and resorted to cannibalism. That pretty much sums it up. Some memes also joke about the Donner Party being the initial beta testers (A person who uses a computer program first in order to test for glitches) for maps. Based solely on memes, the Donner Party seems to be a group of covered wagon pioneers who took a new route, got lost, and everyone resorted to cannibalism. From reading Greek mythology, one can learn that any good myth, while partially based in fact, grows into an untamed, and usually slightly improbable Lore. My question is this: What really happened at Donner Lake that snowy winter? Is the myth true to life, or has it begun to reach Trojan War status? I will try to answer those questions using journals and anthropological digs along with reparable historical sites, then I will try to uncover why this myth is so pervasive in American society.
A newspaper clipping from the New York Tribune confirms that the Donner Party was a group of westward immigrants heading to California in 1846[1] . Upon arriving in Fort Bridger, Wyoming[2], the group decided to take a short cut called the “Hastings Cut-off”[3]. Crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake, however, turned out to be much more treacherous than the original trail and cost the group almost three weeks of travel time[4]. Because of the delay, the group got trapped in a mountain pass when heavy snow fell in late October[5].
The only definitive source from this point until the rescue parties arrived comes from Patrick Breen’s diary, which he kept from mid-November 1846 to March 1, 1847. From this source, we can glean the desperation of the Donner Party upon arriving at the pass. In his first entry he discusses how they became snowed in on the 31st of October, and snow continued falling for eight days[6]. By the point he begins his journal, they have killed practically all of their cattle, accepting that they might have to stay for the winter. A group of 22 parted from the camp at what is now Donner Lake in order to find help. They returned just two days later, unsuccessful[7]. Breen tracks the snow fall and conditions of food, stating that by December 1st there was 6 feet of snow, and many cattle and oxen were assumed lost in said snow. After a group of snowshoers left the lake to find help, Breen mostly continues documenting the weather, continued lack of food, and deaths[8]. By mid-January, it had grown nearly impossible to acquire wood due to harsh snow storms and an estimated 13 foot snow pack. The end of January marks more deaths, living solely on hides, and increasing illness. On February 5th, the group begins stating their fear of starving to death. The first relief party arrived February 19[9] , leaving five days later with 21 members of the party[10] . While it is never explicitly stated in sources, it is alluded to that the rescuers only took people they knew would survive the trek out of the pass. As the rescue party was leaving, they confided in Breen that The Donnos family, another family in the party, was going to start cannibalizing the dead if they did not find their buried cattle, and almost impossible task. Breen kills his dog for food, only to comment three days later that Mrs. Murphy was ready to eat a fallen party mate. The most important thing for me to note here is that Breen makes sure to state that he and his family were still eating dried cow hides while the others “will not eat them” and chose instead to eat human flesh. Whether this is a way for Breen to set himself apart or his refusal to admit to his own acts is unknown. Breen and his family are finally rescued on March 1st, and his diary ends[11] .
When the second relief arrived, they found mutilated bodies, further perpetrating the rumors of cannibalism[12] . They left just two days later with 17 survivors in tow[13] . The third relief party arrived at the Donner Campsite on March 12th to find a group of eleven survivors, without food except for the human remains which they were eating[14] . Three anthropological digs performed between 1984 and 1990 took bones from the hearth of the Cabin at Donner Lake and found charred human bones mixed with various animal bones, confirming that human remains were cooked for food[15].
The rescue party left behind five people, including the dying leader George Donner, his wife Tamsen, and Louis Keseberg[16] . When the final relief arrived in April, they discovered only one survivor, Louis Keseberg[17] . Upon questioning him about the mysterious disappearance of Mrs. Donner, he admitted to eating her, but claimed she died of a fever caused by falling in a river[18] . To this day, it is believed that Keseberg killed Tamsen for the $10,000 which she had hidden but was never found. This fact of course is pure conjecture.
On December 13, 15 snowshoers left the camp at the lake to find help[19] . This subset, now called the Forlorn Hope, is known to have eaten human flesh[20] . While there are rumors that a member of the group, William Foster, murdered three people for food[21] , there are only firsthand accounts that he actually killed two dying Indians[22] . This act was not considered a crime because Indians were seen as having less rights than white people, and the men were going to die anyway[23] . The one fact that there is no question on is that the heroic actions of this group led to the rescue of those trapped at Donner Lake[24] . In total, there were 47 survivors, just over half of the original number.
We know that most of the myth of the Donner party is true since some of the members did resort to cannibalism, but why is this story so popular in modern culture? I believe that there are two main reasons behind its popularity. One is that Americans hold strongly to the idea of the “pioneer spirit,” which is a willingness to endure any hardship for the sake of exploration[25] . This idea can also be seen in the celebration of pilgrims and the popularity of the Little House Books. The pioneer spirit gives the feeling of strength. Secondly, humans in general are attracted to tragedy. The increase of “dark tourism,” or the visiting of sites where deaths occurred[26] , supports this fact. Basically, I believe that the Donner Myth is popular because Americans like stories of tragedy and perseverance.
In short, the Donner Party kind of holds up to the myth. While it is true that they were a group of pioneers who got trapped in the mountains because they tested a new route, there is not enough evidence to suggest that ALL of the members resorted to cannibalism, as the myth implies. This evidence of cannibalism is lacking for the 21 members of the initial rescue party as well as the Breen family. So yes, cannibalism occurred, but the question remains: did the members of the Donner Party use cannibalism simply as a means of survival, or did something more sinister occur at that little cabin on Donner Lake?

[1] Donner, George. 1846. “Westward Ho! -For California and Oregon.” New York: The New York Tribune, April 7.

[2] History.com Staff. 2010. Donner Party. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://www.history.com/topics/donner-party.

[3] Misc. 2015. Hastings Cutoff. February. Accessed October 29, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hastings_Cutoff.

[4]  History.com Staff. 2010. Donner Party. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://www.history.com/topics/donner-party.

[5] Breen, Patrick. 2009. “Patrick Breen Diary.” Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California.

[6] Breen, Patrick. 2009. “Patrick Breen Diary.” Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California.

[7] Breen, Patrick. 2009. “Patrick Breen Diary.” Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California.

[8] Breen, Patrick. 2009. “Patrick Breen Diary.” Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California.

[9] Breen, Patrick. 2009. “Patrick Breen Diary.” Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California.

[10] Utah State. n.d. 1846: The Donner-Reed Party. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://ilovehistory.utah.gov/time/stories/donner.html.

[11] Breen, Patrick. 2009. “Patrick Breen Diary.” Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California.

[12] Destination Media Solutions Corp. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Last Chapter – April 17, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-last-chapter-april-17-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Near the End – March 12, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-near-end-march-12-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Rescue #2 – March 3, 1847. March . Accessed October 25, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-rescue-2-march-3-1847.

[13] Destination Media Solutions Corp. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Last Chapter – April 17, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-last-chapter-april-17-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Near the End – March 12, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-near-end-march-12-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Rescue #2 – March 3, 1847. March . Accessed October 25, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-rescue-2-march-3-1847.

[14] Destination Media Solutions Corp. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Last Chapter – April 17, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-last-chapter-april-17-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Near the End – March 12, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-near-end-march-12-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Rescue #2 – March 3, 1847. March . Accessed October 25, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-rescue-2-march-3-1847.

[15] Hardesty, Donald. n.d. “New Archaelogical Perspectives on the Donner Party Saga .” scahome.org. Accessed September 2015. https://scahome.org/publications/proceedings/Proceedings.05Hardesty.pdf.

[16] Destination Media Solutions Corp. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Last Chapter – April 17, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-last-chapter-april-17-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Near the End – March 12, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-near-end-march-12-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Rescue #2 – March 3, 1847. March . Accessed October 25, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-rescue-2-march-3-1847.

[17] Destination Media Solutions Corp. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Last Chapter – April 17, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-last-chapter-april-17-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Near the End – March 12, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-near-end-march-12-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Rescue #2 – March 3, 1847. March . Accessed October 25, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-rescue-2-march-3-1847.

[18] Destination Media Solutions Corp. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Last Chapter – April 17, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-last-chapter-april-17-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Near the End – March 12, 1847 . Accessed October 29, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-near-end-march-12-1847.

—. 2015. Donner Party Tracker: Rescue #2 – March 3, 1847. March . Accessed October 25, 2015. http://tahoetopia.com/news/donner-party-tracker-rescue-2-march-3-1847.

[19] Breen, Patrick. 2009. “Patrick Breen Diary.” Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California.

[20] Lewis, Daniel. n.d. The Donner Party. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://raiboy.tripod.com/Donner/id16.html.

[21] 2009. The Donner Party. Directed by T.J. Martin. Performed by Crispin Glover, Clayne Crawford, Michele Santopietro, Mark Boone Junior and Christian Kane.

[22] Miscellaneous. 2013. William McFadden Foster. April 17. Accessed September 2015. https://localwiki.org/yuba-sutter/William_McFadden_Foster.

[23] Lewis, Daniel. n.d. The Donner Party. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://raiboy.tripod.com/Donner/id16.html.

[24] Miscellaneous. 2013. William McFadden Foster. April 17. Accessed September 2015. https://localwiki.org/yuba-sutter/William_McFadden_Foster.

[25] 2015. Collins Dictionary. Accessed November 15, 2015. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/pioneering-spirit#pioneering-spirit_1.

[26] Paris, Natalie. 2013. Travel. December 17. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/10523207/Dark-tourism-why-are-we-attracted-to-tragedy-and-death.html.

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