Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Donner Party

Fig 1: The first of many traffic jams in California history.
Of all the parties thrown in the world, none ended so calamitously, not even my sixth birthday when that kid nearly choked to death on a noisemaker, than the Donner Party did in the winter of 1846-7. Even though the Donner Party is just one letter away from "Dinner Party," it certainly was nothing of the sort. Several families left the midwest pioneer-style for greener pastures and better fortunes out in California. Led by George Donner, the party 87 strong made it to Wyoming without a hitch, but somewhere along the line they made a wrong turn at Albuquerque, and they were forced to camp out for the winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains with no food or sustenance...except each other!

*cue the dramatic music*

Fig.2: Obviously not the way to go...
The trip started out well enough, just like any other trek along the Oregon Trail. Donner first decided to be a farmer from Illinois instead of a banker from Boston or carpenter from Ohio, bought plenty of food, clothing, oxen, ammunition, and spare parts from Matt's General Store, and left Independence, Missouri right at the perfect time in May. Sure some thief store 14 pounds of food early on, a guy named Doofus got dysentery and died, and they really should have hired an Indian guide instead of caulking the wagon across the Green River (fig.2), but they made it to Fort Bridger in Wyoming by July with good health and filling rations.

But then they got some bad advice from an explorer named Lansford Hastings, who proposed that the party should ignore their GPS and diverge south of the traditional trail, claiming it would take 350 miles off their journey. Donner and another man in the party, James Reed, agreed and the group headed through the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. It turned out to be a pretty bad idea, with the trail covered in mountains, boulders, deserts, Natives, and annoying parakoopas. There wasn't even any buffalo to shoot and then not be able to carry all the meat home! Instead of the two-week-journey claimed by Hastings, the party wasted six whole weeks trekking through Utah, which is five weeks, six days, and twenty-three hours longer than I'd ever want to trek through Utah. And this, ladies, is why men never want to ask for directions.

Fig.3: Charles Stanton, one of the casualties of the "Forlorn Hope," and a rather tasty-looking morsel, if I do say so myself...
By the time they reached the Sierra Nevada mountains in October, snow began to block the path, so the party decided to camp by Truckee Lake for the winter. As luck would have it, it was one of the worst winters in years, as the snow would reach as deep as 22 feet! Luckily George Donner's wife, Tamsen, was the Wimbledon champion from the previous year, and brought with her a bunch of tennis rackets that could be used as snowshoes. Some folks decided to venture ahead to find help, a journey later historians would pleasantly dub, "The Forlorn Hope." After two whole days without food of any sort, not even sharable appetizers, they began to entertain the notion of eating the first man to die on the trek. When Patrick Dolan died of hypothermia, no one wanted to take the first bite, and utilized the ancient sacred practice of "nose goes" to settle the issue. It was eventually concluded that human flesh "wasn't too bad" and had a "roast-beefy-aftertaste." When more people died, their muscles where cut up and stored for later consumption. They even labeled the tupperware as to whose remains they were, just so people wouldn't have to eat their own relatives. Cause, you know, that would just be too weird...

Back at the camp, things weren't going much better. George Donner developed gangrene in his arm, the oxhides that served as roofs to their makeshift cabins had to be eventually eaten, and James Reed's wife, Margret, broke a nail fashioning herself a new hairpin. Many began to die, but no one came up with the bright idea of eating the bodies just yet. A rescue party in California was difficult to muster since most able-bodied men were in Mexico kicking butt on the battlefield and teaching them to play baseball (which they would eventually come to kick our butts in). Eventually, a seven-man rescue party reached Truckee Lake on February 18, 1847 to find 56 men, women, and children still alive. They were able to take 23 people back to the nearest village of Sacramento; before they left the remaining party, the rescue team joked, "Now don't you guys start eating each other, ya hear?" The Donner Party laughed awkwardly, but the idea was put into their heads.

Fig.4: It's a downward slope from 
eating manflesh to becoming 
full-fledged orc.
The rescue party returned on March 1, but while no one died in the intervening two weeks, they did find the ghastly scene of corpses stripped of their meat half-buried in the snow, men marinating human thighs and legs over an open flame, and children suckling on tibiae as if they were toothpicks! The rescue team was all like, "What did we tell you guys?" and the Donner Party was all like, "We're sorry," in hushed, monotone voices while staring down at the ground. Before they evacuated 17 more survivors, they made the 16 who remained promise not to eat anyone else. Unfortunately, many had their fingers crossed, because once you tasted manflesh, you just gotta have more (fig.4). On the arrival of the third rescue team on March 14, even children who died were promptly consumed; although their meat was not nearly as tender as good old aged adult flesh, it had quite a savory, even nutty, flavor to it. Sorry, but I think it is my duty as an carnivore to gross out any of my vegetarian readers out there.

In the end, 48 of the 87 who began the journey survived. Among the dead were George and Tamsen Donner, who are memorialized by forever having their last name associated with cannibalism. Many of the survivors, including the Donner children, went on to do interviews and write their own accounts of the journey, which has been sensationalized over the years. Quite frankly, the Donner Party, with its 55% survival rate, is a rather insignificant episode of American westward migration, as other large pioneer groups have been completely wiped out due to weather, disease, attacks from Native Americans, and not waiting an hour to swim after eating lunch. But it is the admitted details of cannibalism that make the Donner Party the most known group of pioneers in American history. The site of their camp in the Sierra Nevada is now Donner Memorial State Park, Truckee Lake has been renamed Donner Lake, and for what I can only see as a slap in the face, they built Interstate 80 right through the pass that was snowed in and prevented the completion of their journey to the coast (fig.5).

Fig.5: If only this four-lane highway was built 100 years earlier, no one 
would've been eaten. Thanks a lot, Alan S. Hart...whoever you are...
The allure of cannibalism lives on through the Donner Party, continuing the fascination of the subject with tons of academic books, an insanely creepy villain, and even a musical made by the South Park guys before they were famous. Perhaps their biggest legacy is that many people make restaurant reservations under the name "Donner," just so they can hear the hostess say, "Donner, party of four!" It sure warrants a chuckle every time!

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