Return to
Home Page

Some Donner Party Myths and Mysteries in Brief

This page discusses problems with what we think we know and still don't know about  the Donner Party. Even after 160 years there are  unanswered questions, and many well-known "facts" about the Donner Party don't stand up to close examination

  When did they leave? | How many from Springfield? | George & Jacob Donner | Reed & Donner | Pioneer palace car | Abandoned in the desert 
Lansford W. Hastings | Hastingsí Guide | Harlan-Young Party | Uncle Billy Graves | Lecturing in the East | Jacob Wolfinger | Dutch Charley | Old Mrs. Murphy
 Murphy cabin plaque | Tamzene Donnerís body |
Keseberg's languages | Keseberg's restaurant | Perry McCoon | Stantonís wigwam | Gravelly Ford
Slowness | One day too late | Forlorn Hope | Eddy and the deer | Packaging human flesh

 

When did the Donners and Reeds leave Springfield?

       This most basic of questions has had historians scratching their heads for decades. Members of the Reed family, when they give an exact date, consistently state that the Donners and Reeds left Springfield on April 14, 1846. Eliza Donner Houghton, however, wrote that it was "Thursday, April 15, 1846." Eliza's statement creates three problems:
       First, it contradicts the date given the Reeds.
       Second, it contradicts itself. In 1846, April 15 fell on Wednesday, not Thursday, so either the day of the month or the day of the week is wrong. Did Eliza mean Wednesday the 15th or Thursday the 16th? Historians have assumed she meant the former.
       Third, Eliza's scenario doesn't ring true. According to her, the three families left their homes on the 15th, rendezvoused at the green in front of the state capitol in Springfield, camped there for the night, and left town the following day, April 16th. But would they really have camped in downtown Springfield?
       Virginia Reed Murphy, however, makes no mention of camping in town. She wrote of her family's leave-taking, "Never can I forget the morning when we bade farewell to kindred and friends. The Donners were there, having driven in the evening before with their families, so that we might get an early start." After they left, she says, "Many friends camped with us the first night out." Another source puts the Donners' and Reeds' first campground in the Iles Addition. This location, closer to the edge of town, sounds more probable.
       So who's right? It's possible that both sides are partially correct and partially mistaken. Perhaps the Reeds are right, that the emigrants left their homes on the 14th, and Eliza is right, that they camped in or near the outskirts of town, then left the area on the following day, the 15th. This is just a guess, however; it's impossible to know for certain, and we can only hope that some other source will surface that will settle the question once and for all.

How many were in the group that left Springfield?

       The exact number of Springfielders in the Donner Party has also been in question. Virginia Reed Murphy wrote that there were 31; Eliza Donner Houghton said 32; and on April 23, 1846, the Sangamo Journal reported, "The company which left here last week, for California, embraced 15 men, 8 women, and 16 children," or 39 people. But how many were there really? Can we account for the numbers given in the newspaper?
       We know for certain that the following individuals lived in the Springfield area: George and Tamzene Donner and five children; Jacob and Elizabeth Donner and seven children; James and Margret Reed, four children, and Grandma Keyes; hired hands John Denton, Milt Elliott, Noah James, Hiram Miller, Baylis Williams, and Eliza Williams. This totals 29 people: 8 men, 5 women, and 16 children, or ten people short of the number given in the newspaper.
         Some of the "missing" men men must have been teamsters. We know that four of the single men who traveled with the Donners (Charles Stanton, Antonio, Baptiste, and Luke Halloran) joined them further along the route, so we can exclude them. There is reason to believe that Reed teamsters Walter Herron and James Smith were members of the Springfield group, and although we don't actually know when the Donners' hands Charles Burger and Samuel Shoemaker joined the expedition, there's no suggestion that they weren't among the Springfielders, so it's not unreasonable to include them. These four bring us to a total of 33 people, of whom twelve were men.
       We're still three men short short of the newspaper tally, however. The missing men are probably relatives who accompanied the wagon train out of town but had no intention of going to California. Virginia Reed Murphy wrote that her uncles James and Gershom Keyes traveled with the wagon train for some distance after it left Springfield, and an indenture in the Reed papers confirms that Gershom, at least, traveled with them as far as Independence, Missouri. As for the third man, Eliza Donner Houghton wrote that her half-brother William, George Donner's son by his first wife, also accompanied the group for a while. The addition of these three brings us up to fifteen men, just like the paper said.
       But what about the three missing women? There's nothing to suggest that there were ever more than five women in the group that left Springfield. I can only surmise that it's a typographical error, since the numerals 5 and 8 resemble one another. (Naturally this brings up the question as to whether we can rely on the newspaper at all.)
       My best guess is that there were 36 people in the caravan that left Springfield, Illinois, in mid-April 1846: 33 emigrants (15 men, 5 women, and 16 children), plus three relatives. Once again, this is only a suggestion based on the available evidence; hopefully more information will turn up one day.

George and Jacob Donner: Who was older?

     On March 8, 1879, C. F. McGlashan published some corrections to a previous installment of his history of the Donner Party then being serialized in the Truckee Republican. "The names of the Donner families, as furnished by Mrs. Eliza P. Houghton" included "Jacob Donner (younger brother of George)." This statement, that Jacob was the younger brother, did not appear in the book form of McGlashanís history. Consequently, when Eliza Donner Houghton contradicted herself in The Expedition of the Donner Party many years later, her earlier statement was long forgotten. In her 1911 book Mrs. Houghton reported that at the time of the Donner Party her father George was 62 and that Jacob was his older brother. George R. Stewart elaborated on Mrs. Houghtonís statement and gave Jacob Donnerís age as 65. Thus, in nearly every book or article about the Donner Party published since Stewartís Ordeal by Hunger came out in 1936, George and Jacobís ages have been given as 62 and 65, respectively. But how old were they really?
        It
ís only in Donner Party sources dating after 1911 that Jacob is said to be older than George; earlier independent genealogical sources indicate that George was born first. In their uncle’s will George Donner is referred to as his father’s eldest son, and genealogies of the Donner family contradict Eliza and Stewart: George Donner’s year of birth is given as "about 1786," Jacob’s as "about 1790," making them approximately 60 and 56, respectively, at the time of the Donner Party. Since George and Jacobís brother John was born on 19 April 1790, itís virtually impossible that Jacob was born that year; it was probably 1789 or 1791. (There was yet another Donner brother, Tobias, born about 1788.) Eliza Donner was a child of three when her family left Illinois, making her a less than reliable source for this information. Jacob Donner was not as robust as his brother and likely was perceived as older than he actually was.
     In George Donner’s case the difference between 60 and 62 is not a major discrepancy, but in Jacob’s the difference between 56 and 65, nine years, is significant. At present it is impossible to verify exactly how old the brothers were, but the ages usually given are evidently wrong.

James F. Reed and George Donner were old friends.

     There is simply no information about the relationship between the two men. Since both were prominent members of a small community, itís reasonable to assume that they were acquainted with one another, but how well? After all, the Reeds lived in town, the Donners on a farm in the country. Years later Virginia Reed wrote that she had never met the Donner children before their families left Springfield.
     When you think about it, what exactly did Reed and Donner have in common, anyway? Not their ages, not their backgrounds, not their occupations, not their personalities. Their decision to travel together may have been the result of their alleged friendship, but thereís actually no evidence that it was anything more than an arrangement of mutual convenience between two acquaintances. It’s interesting to note that the Donners do not refer to the Reeds in their letters home, nor do the Reeds mention the Donners. This is a minor issue, but it’s an excellent example of how reasonable-sounding assumptions can become "facts."

The "Pioneer palace car"

     Common knowledge has it that the Reed family rode in an enormous wagon, so heavy that it slowed the Donner Party down and indirectly led to the tragedy in the Sierra. This wagon, known as the "Pioneer Palace Car" or the "Palace Wagon," has become so much a part of Donner lore that it comes somewhat as a shock to discover that it doesnít appear in the history books until 1930.
     The basis for this legend is Virginia Reed Murphy’s 1891 memoir, Across the Plains in the Donner Party. Although she describes the wagon in detail, never does she say that it was huge, though itís easy to see how someone might get that impression. Charles Kelly did. In 1929 he discovered the remains of a large wagon on the Great Salt Lake Desert and assumed that it was the Reed family wagon. George R. Stewart, who had read Kellyís Salt Desert Trails and corresponded with Kelly, published the story of the enormous wagon in Ordeal by Hunger (1936), and the myth was born.
    
Stewart was not entirely wrong; Virginia wrote that the wagon was larger than the others, but how much? Certainly Stewart's claim that it loomed over all the other wagons and made the Donner Party readily distinguishable from every other wagon train on the prairie is unsubstantiated. If something is remarkable, people remark on it. No one who saw the Reed wagon remarked on its size, and no one criticized Reed for slowing the Donner Party down. Of all those writing in 1846, only J. Quinn Thornton and Reed himself mention the wagon at all.
     Virginia claimed "without fear of contradiction" that nothing like the Reed family wagon ever crossed the plains, but this boast is as untrue as it is naive. Other emigrants reported seeing or traveling in wagons sharing many features with the Reed family wagon. For instance, in 1849 Bathsheba W. Smith came to Utah in a comfortable wagon with projections over the wheels, a side entrance with steps, a platform in the back for a bed, a mirror hanging on the inside, and seats in the center where the family could ride, just like the Reed wagon. True, the Smiths had only chairs to sit in, not spring seats like the Reeds, and they didn’t have a stove, but the Smiths’ wagon was carpeted while the Reeds’ was not.
     Incidentally, "palace cars" were first-class railway carriages with comfortable seats, lavish decor, and many amenities, unlike "immigrant trains," which were the railroad equivalent of steerage. When Virginia wrote that the wagon might be called a "Pioneer palace car, attached to a regular immigrant train," she was making a modest joke, understandable to her contemporaries, about its comparative comfort. Several writers have inferred that the wagon was named the "pioneer palace car" in 1846, but this is false; Virginia did not coin the phrase until 1891, and palace cars themselves did not exist until after the Civil War. The Reeds called the wagon they rode in their "family wagon."

The Reed family wagon was abandoned in the Salt Desert.

     In crossing the desert west of the Great Salt Lake the Reeds lost most of their oxen, which meant that they didnít have enough animals to pull all three of their wagons. They selected only the most necessary items, loaded them into one wagon, and left the other two, along with rest of their property. They continued on their journey, but finally had to abandon their last wagon along the Humboldt River in October. But which wagon was it?
     In her 1891 memoir, Virginia Reed Murphy wrote that the Reeds left their family wagon on the Great Salt Lake Desert. Sure enough, Charles Kelly found the remains of a large wagon on the salt flats and automatically identified as the Reeds.í Kelly, however, didnít have access to documents indicating that Virginiaís recollection was wrong. Her stepfatherís earlier testimony contradicts her.
     In his diary entry for September 9, 1846, James F. Reed wrote that other emigrants lent him enough oxen that he could "bring his family waggon along." Also, in his 1871 memoir, Reed wrote that he placed his goods in "the wagon that had been used by my family" and left the other two in the desert. These statements, made by an adult writing at the same time as the incident and twenty-five years later, are more credible than the statements of someone who had been a child at the time and writing forty-five years later.
     There are other reasons to disbelieve Virginiaís account. In the
1879 version of her memoir, she merely mentions that the wagon had to be abandoned. The statement that it was left behind on the Salt Desert doesnít appear until 1891 in her Century Illustrated Magazine article, which was either ghostwritten or very heavily edited. Also, she wrote that she wondered what the Indians who found it would think of the large mirror left in the wagon. This would make little sense if the wagon had been abandoned on the Salt Desert, because the Donner Party had not encountered any Indians there. However, the emigrants did have several brushes with Indians along the Humboldt River, where the Reeds abandoned their last wagon. Of course, Virginia was not entirely mistaken; the "palace car" was abandoned on the Salt Desert but only temporarily.
     As for the remains that Kelly found, they very likely represent the "big wagon" carrying John Rankin Pyeatt's blacksmith tools, which he abandoned while crossing the Salt Desert in 1849.

Lansford W. Hastings

     When a tragedy occurs, there’s a natural tendency to look for causes and assign blame. Several early writers condemned the members of the Donner Party themselves, charging that their own stupidity, selfishness, or contentiousness led them to disaster. C. F. McGlashan’s History of the Donner Party (1879) countered this attitude and won a great deal of sympathy for the emigrants. After about 1930 it became customary to portray the Donner Party as victims of Hastings’ unscrupulous empire-building schemes. In 1955 Homer Croy went so far as to write that Hastings became "the most hated man in California" because of his role in the tragedy, which is simply not true.
     It’s consequently interesting to note that this opinion is not expressed by Donner Party survivors themselves; they hardly mention Hastings, except in passing. After all, he was only a name to most of them. James F. Reed, who went ahead to get Hastings’ advice about the route, was the only survivor known to have laid eyes on the man, at least en route. (Stanton and Pike, Reed’s companions on this mission, died later in the Sierra.)
     The only early references to the Donner Party cursing Hastings come from the pen of J. Quinn Thornton, who had taken the Applegate Cutoff to Oregon. Like those who took Hastings Cutoff, Thornton and his companions had been told that the new route was practicable, then ran into trouble, and like the Donner Party, the Oregonians were trapped in the mountains, came near to starving, and had to be rescued by parties from the settlements. There were some deaths and Thornton, along with many others, arrived in Oregon destitute. Thornton never forgave Jesse Applegate for misleading the emigrants. I believe that Thornton projected his animosity towards Applegate onto the Donner Party, assuming that they must have felt as bitter against their so-called guide as he felt against his.

Hastings’ Guide

     A common misperception is that Hastings promoted his cutoff in The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California. This is untrue. The Guide, published in Cincinnati in 1845, devoted only one sentence to describing a possible alternative route:

The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall; thence bearing west southwest, to the Salt lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of St. Francisco...

The book was propaganda, but the intent was to entice overland emigrants to California, so that by sheer numbers American settlers could dominate the region and create a California Republic or annex new territory to the United States. People have confused Hastingsí promotion of California with promotion of the cutoff, but it was not until the late spring of 1846 that he began to actively tout the new route to emigrants already on the road.
     
For information about Hastingsí involvement in the conspiracy to conquer California, see Will Bagleyís articles "Lansford Warren Hastings: Scoundrel or Visionary?" Overland Journal 12:1 (1994): 12-26 and "'Every thing is Favorable! And God Is on Our Side': Samuel Brannan and the Conquest of California." Journal of Mormon History 23:2 (1997): 185-209. For genealogical information, see Lansford W. Hastings at Hastings Family Genealogy.

The "Harlan-Young Party"

          In July 1846 Hastings left Fort Bridger to conduct some 60 to 80 wagons on his shortcut to California. The emigrants who took Hastings Cutoff ahead of the Donner Party are generally referred to as the "Harlan-Young Party" (a usage begun by Charles Kelly), but, strictly speaking, no such party ever existed.
          Consider the Bidwell-Bartleson, Townsend-Stephens-Murphy, Bryant-Russell, and Donner-Reed parties. These are all instances of a single company named after its most prominent members. The documentary record shows, however, that Hastings led several independent groups on his cutoff, including one headed by George W. Harlan and another by Samuel C. Young. These men were not joint leaders of a single party, as the name "Harlan-Young" implies. Although they are recorded once as camping near one another on the plains, there is no indication that Harlan and Young joined forces before, during, or after their journey on Hastings Cutoff. Harlan sources donít mention the Youngs, and Young sources donít mention the Harlans. "Harlan-Young Party" is a convenient way to refer to "the emigrants Hastings led across the cutoff ahead of the Donner Party" but it's deceptive. A few historians have called this group the "Hastings Company" and hopefully this term will prevail.

"Uncle Billy" Graves?

          In 1866 Philip Lynch, the editor of the Gold Hill News, wrote about the Donner party, mentioning that he had known "Uncle Billy" Graves back in Illinois. Based on this statement, George R. Stewart often referred to Franklin Ward Graves of the Donner Party as "Uncle Billy" in Ordeal by Hunger, and many subsequent writers have followed his lead. True, "Franklin Ward" going by the nickname "Uncle Billy" might be an example of frontier humor, but family sources indicate that the Donner Party Graves was called "Uncle Ward." He had a brother named William who lived in the same general area of Illinois, so it’s possible that the newspaperman simply confused the two brothers.
          On the other hand, Thornton referred to Mr. Graves as "Wm. Graves, Sr." Also, in a letter to C. F. McGlashan, Virginia Reed Murphy expressed surprise on learning that Mr. Graves’ name was Franklin; she had always been under the impression that it was William. So maybe F. W. Graves really was called "Uncle Billy," after all. It’s hard to say, but no known source from 1846 uses this nickname.

W.C. Graves "lectured in the East on the Donner Party."

          Consider this scenario: On September 11, 2001, you happen to be in Manhattan when planes hit the World Trade Center towers. After many delays you finally make it home to your small California town. Everywhere you gowork, school, church, the grocery store, the post officeyou run into people who ask you all about the disaster. You get tired of talking about it: "Man, I musta told the story about a thousand times!"
          Now ask yourself this: Does this mean that you "lectured in the West on the 9-11 terror attacks"? Of course not. Telling a story is not the same as giving a lecture, and "in the West" means that you spoke in several places over a large geographical area, not just one town.
          In 1879 William C. Graves wrote C. F. McGlashan that he remembered the Donner story so well because in 1847 he had returned to Illinois and "told the story so many thousand times." Joseph A. King turned this simple statement into "lecturing in the East."

"Jacob" Wolfinger?

          Historians sometimes speculate, and when they do, they are (or should be) careful to identify their remarks as speculations. What the public reads into their statements is another matter.
         Very little is known about
Mr. Wolfinger of the Donner Party. In Winter of Entrapment (1994 ed.) Joseph A. King suggested that he may have been a certain Jacob Wolfinger who emigrated to the United States in 1830. The problem is, King had absolutely no evidence of any connection between the two individuals; apparently he simply found "Jacob Wolfinger" in an index of ship passengers and thought him a possible candidate. King's Jacob Wolfinger would have been 26 at the time of the Donner Party, about the right age to be the husband of Doris Wolfinger, who we know was about 20. This coincidence of age and surname, however, is not enough to go on. Women frequently marry men much older than themselves, the index does not list every single person who ever came to the United States, and there are several variant spellings of the name "Wolfinger."
          Now there is confirmation that King was mistaken. Correspondent Robert A. Jarrett is descended from the same Wolfinger family King names. He writes that the family settled in Lancaster County, Ohio; Jacob Wolfinger lived there until 1869, when he moved to Galena, Illinois. This individual is obviously not the Mr. Wolfinger who died in Nevada in 1846.
          To his credit, it should be noted that King properly reported that Mr. Wolfinger of the Donner Party may have been this Jacob Wolfinger, but far too many readers have overlooked the "may" and assumed that Mr. Wolfinger was named Jacob. This pseudo-fact has been repeated more than once—most regrettably in literature published by Donner Memorial State Park—but since the connection has been disproved, Jacob Wolfinger should not be listed as a member of the Donner Party.

"Dutch Charley" Burger

     We know very little about some members of the Donner Party, particularly the single men who were hired as teamsters. Louis Keseberg had two wagons; presumably he himself drove one, but who drove the other? Stewart suggested that it was Charles Burger, or "Dutch Charley." However, an 1847 letter by Lilburn W. Boggs—a source unknown to Stewart—refers to "a little chunky Dutchman by the name of Charly that drove one of Geo. Donna’s wagons." Preserved among the Reed Papers at Sutterís Fort are two notes from the Donners regarding Charles Burger, indicating a connection between them. And in a letter to C. F. McGlashan, William C. Graves wrote that Burger "belonged with the Donners." So it looks like Boggs was right. But this leaves us with the question that Stewart tried to answer: who drove Keseberg’s other wagon? The most likely candidate appears to be Mr. Hardcoop.

"Old Mrs. Murphy"

     In 1877 W. C. Graves published a memoir which included a roster of the Donner Party listing Mrs. Murphy’s age as 50. Other survivors’ letters to McGlashan sometimes refer to her as "Old Mrs. Murphy," seeming to confirm that she was about that age. The Murphys were also known to have come from Tennessee, so in several novels about the Donner Party Mrs. Murphy appears as kind of hillbilly granny. Genealogical sources indicate, however, that Levinah Jackson Murphy was born in South Carolina in 1809 to a prosperous family and moved to western Tennessee, not Appalachia, about 1834. Four years later, at the age of 29, she was left a widow with seven children. Perhaps the struggle to support her family aged her prematurely, but "Old Mrs. Murphy" was only 37 when she died in March 1847.

The Murphy cabin plaque

       After viewing the monument and going through the museum, visitors to Donner Memorial State Park generally walk along the nature trail to the granite boulder against which William Foster and William Eddy built the cabin where the Murphys and Eddys spent the winter of 1846-47.
       In 1919 the Native Sons of the Golden West placed a large bronze plaque on the almost vertical eastern face of the rock listing the names of Donner Party members. The heading reads

The face of this rock formed the north end and the fireplace of the Murphy cabin. General Stephen W. Kearny, on June 22, 1847, buried under the middle of the cabin the bodies found in the vicinity. Following is a complete list of the members of the Donner Party who occupied the various cabins and tents.

       Unfortunately, this plaque is rife with misinformation. First, the rock formed the cabin's western, not northern, wall. A second point, perhaps a mere quibble, is that Kearny didn't bury anyone; he simply gave the order and left his quartermaster, Maj. Thomas Swords, to oversee the Mormon Battalion veterans who actually performed the interment. Third, the lists of "Perished" and "Survived" include the names of eight members of the Donner Party who did not occupy "the various cabins and tents" because they had died or left the group before it reached the mountains: Sarah Keyes, Luke Halloran, William McCutchen, James F. Reed, Walter Herron, Mr. Hardcoop, Mr. Wolfinger, William Pike.
       The fourth and most significant problem is that the burial did not take place at the Murphy cabin. In 1847 Edwin Bryant recorded that the men cleared a pit that had been dug in the floor of one of the cabins, gathered the human remains into it, and set the cabin on fire. In 1879 historian C. F. McGlashan assumed that the burial had taken place at the Murphy cabin, published this in his History of the Donner Party, and the myth was born. However, the reports of gold rushers who passed the lake camp make it clear that it was the Breen cabin which was burned.
       On August 20, 1849, John A. Markle recorded that Graves
í and Fosterís [i.e., Murphyís] cabins were the only ones still standing. Since Markleís party was led by William C. Graves, we can accept his identifications.
       Three weeks later, on September 10, Augustus Ripley Burbank described seeing the remains of a burnt cabin a quarter of a mile away from a still standing cabin built against the east side of a large rock. The latter can only have been the Murphy cabin, so the former, the burnt cabin, must be the Breens
í, even though the distance between them, as given by Burbank, is about twice the usual figure.
       And to clinch the matter, in 1984 Dr. Donald L. Hardesty of the University of Nevada-Reno conducted an archaeological dig at the Murphy cabin site. Instead of the expected mass grave, he found only small fragments of bone, almost none of which were human, nor did he find any evidence that a grave had been there.

"Tamzene Donner’s body was never found."

     Eliza Donner Houghton believed this, and C. F. McGlashan did not dispute her statement. Apparently he didn’t notice or forgot a detail in an article from the Nashville Whig sent him by William G. Murphy. In September 1847 the Whig reprinted Patrick Breen’s diary from the California Star, along with the remarks of a Mr. Peterson. The latter had been one of the civilians with General Kearny’s party and had witnessed the burial of the bodies at the Lake Camp. Peterson reported that Baylis Williams, Lemuel Murphy (a mistake for Landrum), Mrs. Murphy, and "Mrs. Donner" were among those buried. But which Mrs. Donner? Since Elizabeth Donner had died at Alder Creek, this Mrs. Donner can only have been Tamzene, who had died in the Breen cabin where the burial took place.
     But can Peterson’s identifications be trusted? How would he know the names of the people who were buried? We donít know for certain, but Kearnyís party included survivor William C. Graves and diarist Edwin Bryant, either of whom might have provided the information.

"Keseberg spoke four languages."

     Not at the time of the Donner Party. In 1848 Heinrich Lienhard noted that Louis Keseberg spoke German and French, that his English was excellent, "considering the amount of time he had spent in the country," and (after a year in California) that he "also understood and could speak a few words of Spanish."

Keseberg's Restaurant

     On December 23, 1851, George McKinstry wrote Edward Kern, by then living in Philadelphia, a gossipy letter detailing what had befallen old friends and acquaintances in California. The letter reads in part, "Old Keseberg, the Man-eater, has made a fortune and is now keeping a Restaurant in K St., Sac City. I would like to board there, I wouldnít!" Ric Burns' PBS documentary The Donner Party popularized the ironic story of the cannibal turned restaurateur, but it isnít quite true: Keseberg ran the Lady Adams Hotel (not Restaurant) for only a year or so before returning to his usual profession, brewer and distiller.

Perry McCoon and Virginia Reed—Not!

     This is another myth created by George R. Stewart. He read a letter of Virginia Reed Murphy’s in which she recalled how a "young man" assisting the relief parties had proposed to her on the way out of the mountains; she had put him off, laughing. In the letter she remarked that her suitor had married another Donner Party survivor and had been dragged to death by a horse. Stewart assumed that the young man was Perry McCoon, who married Elitha Donner and was killed while demonstrating his riding skills. In a subsequent letter, however, Virginia wrote that the man was Mary Graves’ first husband. Stewart evidently missed this reference or was not aware that Edward Pyle, Jr., had been also been dragged behind a horse and killed.

Stanton’s Wigwam

     This myth was created by Joseph A. King, who had read a letter by Mary Graves describing the inhabitants of the cabins at Donner Lake. Since she did not mention Stanton and the Indian vaqueros Luis and Salvador, King assumed that they "must" have constructed their own shelter, much as the teamsters had done at Alder Creek. King, regrettably, did not survey the sources before publishing this scenario in the first edition of his Winter of Entrapment. Not only is there no reference to such a structure, but Virginia Reed’s published memoir states explicitly, "Stanton and the Indians made their home in my mother’s cabin." And if that were not enough evidence, in their letters to McGlashan Virginia mentioned once, and Patty Reed Lewis twice, that the three men stayed in the Reed cabin.

Gravelly Ford

     One of the oldest myths in the Donner story is that James F. Reed killed John Snyder at Gravelly Ford, near present-day Beowawe, Nevada. Way back in 1879 C. F. McGlashan made a mistake which persists 120 years later.
     The historical record states the emigrants were ascending a difficult sandy hill near the Humboldt River when a fight broke out that resulted in Snyders death. In reporting this incident, McGlashan used survivor testimony, including the 1877 memoir of William C. Graves. Graves had written, "Then we had no more trouble till we got to Gravelly Ford, on the Humboldt, where the Indians stole two of fathers oxen and in two days they stole a horse; but we pushed on." The next incident Graves relates is the killing of Snyder. McGlashan missed the references to stolen livestock and believed that the "trouble at Gravelly Ford" was the Reed-Snyder fight.
     This identification is clearly impossible, as anyone who has visited the site can attest. At Gravelly Ford, the Humboldt River and the California Trail are in a wide open valley. Theres plenty of room to travel along the river and fording it would have been relatively easy; the banks are not steep. The emigrants would have had to go some distance out of their way to climb a totally unnecessary hill if the fight had occurred near Gravelly Ford. According to historical sources, Snyders death happened several days’ journey afterward. The only reasonable candidate for the site is Iron Point, about 80 miles west of Beowawe, where the terrain forces the trail to ascend a "difficult sandy hill" as described.
     Even though Stewart pointed out the error and its source back in 1960, even though trail historians concur that Iron Point must be the correct location, the myth of Gravelly Ford persists. In 1996 reporter Frank Mullen wrote a series of articles detailing the Donner Partys journey 150 years previously for the Reno Gazette- Journal. When he got to the Reed-Snyder fight, many readers wrote in to correct his "error" in locating the event at Iron Point.

The Donner Partyís legendary slowness

     The 1996 comedy My Fellow Americans depicts two former U.S. presidents (played by Jack Lemmon and James Garner) on the run from a White House plot. After a series of misadventures and setbacks, one snaps at the other, "The Donner Party moved faster than this!" Everyone knows that the Donner Party was the last wagon train of 1846, so obviously they must have been a lot slower than everybody else, right? Wrong. The Donner Party was delayed by taking the shortcut across Utah, but they pushed on as fast as they could. By the time they reached the Sierra they had almost caught up with the party ahead of them.

One day too late!

     In his 1992 documentary The Donner Party, Ric Burns recounts the emigrants attempt to reach California before the onset of winter, only to arrive at the last push "one day too late" to cross the Sierra. This statement is certainly dramatic, but is it strictly true?
     For one thing, the Donner Party had broken down in to smaller groups. The snow caught the Donners back at Alder Creek, Stanton and a few others reached the summit before turning back, and the majority were straggling behind Stanton. An extra day might have allowed many, even most, of the Donner Party to cross, but what about the others? Secondly, the statement implies that simply crossing the pass would have prevented the disaster, but this is not necessarily the case. Would the emigrants really have been better off trapped at the top of the mountains?
     Years later, some emigrants of 1846 recalled that they crossed the Sierra only two days ahead of the Donner Party. This may be an exaggeration after the fact; after all, it emphasizes the other groups narrow escape, as well as implying that they were smarter than the Donners. At any rate, Jotham Curtis and his wife were the last of the emigrants ahead of the Donner Party to arrive in California. They had been caught by snow in Bear Valley, perhaps 30 miles west of Donner Pass, where they abandoned their wagons and walked out with Reed and McCutchen. Based on their experience, it looks like it would have taken two more days at least for all of the Donner Party to get over the pass, and even then it would have been hard going to reach Sutters. Not nearly as exciting a statement as, "They were one day too late!"

"They called themselves the Forlorn Hope."

     They did nothing of the sort. The fifteen snowshoers were given the name "Forlorn Hope" thirty-three years later by C. F. McGlashan in his History of the Donner Party (1879). The term never appeared as a proper name before his usage. Ric Burns mistakenly assumed that the name was contemporary with the Donner Party in his 1992 documentary and many others have repeated his error.
     Incidentally, "forlorn hope" is a military term, from the Dutch "verloren hoop," meaning "lost group." It refers to a small detachment of soldiers sent on a particularly dangerous mission.  

Eddy and the Deer

     At several points in his Winter of Entrapment, Joseph A. King derides William Eddy's veracity. As evidence of Eddy's alleged untruthfulness, King claimed that Mary Graves "tacitly denied" that Eddy killed a deer during the Forlorn Hopes escape from the mountains. Certainly the episode as described by J. Quinn Thornton in Oregon and California in 1848 is melodramatic and perhaps not entirely accurate, and King is right that Marys brief letter of May 22, 1847, makes no mention of the deer incident. Not mentioning something, however, is by no means the same as denying it, and Mary did in fact relate it to another writer. She was one of the informants for Eliza W. Farnhamís 1856 account of the Donner Party, which records of the Forlorn Hope that "a skeleton deer came in their way and was shot." In addition, Mary's sister and companion on the snowshoe trek, Sarah Graves Fosdick, backs her up. In describing the Forlorn Hope, Sarah wrote, "One of the men killed a deer... which lasted us four days."

Packaging human flesh

     Theres no question that the Forlorn Hope took flesh from their dead companions to sustain them on their journey when they left Camp of Death. However, in Ric Burns documentary The Donner Party we are told, "The 10 surviving members of the ''forlorn hope'' butchered what remained of their four dead friends, wrapped and carefully labeled the pieces so that no one had to eat their kin, and staggered on through the wilderness..."
     I am staggered by this statement. C.F. McGlashan wrote simply, "no person partook of kindred flesh"; George R. Stewart elaborated this into "they observed only one last sad propriety; no member of a family touched his own dead." How these statements turned into "wrapping" and "labeling" parcels of human flesh is a mystery, but nevertheless some unwary writers have repeated the story.

  When did they leave? | How many from Springfield? | George & Jacob Donner | Reed & Donner | Pioneer palace car | Abandoned in the desert 
Lansford W. Hastings | Hastingsí Guide | Harlan-Young Party | Uncle Billy Graves | Lecturing in the East | Jacob Wolfinger | Dutch Charley | Old Mrs. Murphy
 Murphy cabin plaque | Tamzene Donnerís body |
Keseberg's languages | Keseberg's restaurant | Perry McCoon | Stantonís wigwam | Gravelly Ford
Slowness | One day too late | Forlorn Hope | Eddy and the deer | Packaging human flesh

Return to top of page

| Home Page | Chronology | Roster | Rescuers | Statistics | Documents | Myths | Recent Books
|
"Unfortunate Emigrants"Bulletin | Site Updates | Guestbook | Links | FAQ | Utah Crossroads |
Student Page | Sources | Donner Party News

E-mail to Kristin Johnson

Revised: 31 Jan 2006

Original content copyright ©1997-2006 by Kristin Johnson. All rights reserved.