Donner Party News
Sundry bits of information, with the latest at the top. (The date is when the item was posted on the webpage.) Use your browser's <Back> key to return to this page.
I've been doing some experimenting and have decided to try using a blog instead of this page for brief announcements. Check out my Donner Blog at Blogger.com -- it's pretty rudimentary, but I think it'll work. I'll keep the News page up, at least for the time being, until I see how this works out.
October 27, 2006. It's been a crazy month. The Donner 2006
bus tour from Independence to Truckee, October 7-15, was an amazing
experience. I made a great bunch of new friends, was delighted to meet
up with some old ones, and ran into various acquaintances and e-mail
correspondents. I learned a lot, saw a lot, talked a lot, and had a
September 17, 2006. Well, Jo Ann and I have been at it again! I recently got some excellent plat maps of Sangamon County, which finally allowed us to nail down where George Donner really lived near Springfield, Illinois. The Donners arrived in the area about 1825 and over the years Captain George Donner, his father (another George Donner), and his son William bought various tracts of land. But where did George live just before he left for California? The new maps, Tamzene Donner's letters, and various bits of information Jo Ann and I had culled over the years settled the matter once and for all: the location mentioned by Homer Croy in Wheels West is incorrect. Captain George had owned that parcel, but he gave it to his son William in 1841 and went to live on his father's farm, an 80-acre tract about 2 1/2 miles east of the old state capitol in Springfield. He sold this farm in March 1846, just a month before he headed west.
September 16, 2006. A couple of weeks ago Frankye Craig, the organizer of the Donner 2006 events, invited me to join the bus tour as an on-board guide and circumstances magically rearranged themselves so that I can go. Frank Mullen, the author of The Donner Party Chronicles, trail historian Ross Marshall and I will cover different aspects of the trip.
July 21, 2006. Some time ago it occurred to me that several of the items on the old "Brief Myths" page weren't actually myths but mysteries, and that some very basic questions about the Donner Party were still unanswered after all these years. I decided to rename the page "Some Donner Party Myths and Mysteries in Brief" and to add two new "mysteries" -- When did the Donners and Reeds leave Springfield? and How many were in the group? In one sense, these questions don't actually matter a whole lot -- knowing the answers wouldn't make much difference to our understanding of the story -- but in another it's annoying not to have precise answers.
July 20, 2006. Carrie Smith, an archaeologist for the Truckee Ranger District, kindly sent me a link to an article about the upcoming archaeological investigations at Donner Memorial State Park.
July 17, 2006. Visited Donner Spring on the Utah-Nevada border with this year's "Discovery Trails" group. Accessible Arts, Inc. and the Kansas State School for the Blind coordinate a summer program for visually-impaired teens; this year they were studying the Donner Party and the Cherokee Trail. (Regarding the latter, in 1849 and 1850 a number of California-bound emigrants, some of them Cherokee Indians, traveled Hastings Cutoff; three Cherokees who died of "diarear" (possibly cholera) were buried near Donner Spring. For more information, see A. Dudley Gardner's The Cherokee Trail site.)
May 26, 2006. Frankye Craig has announced her new book and upcoming Donner events. See Donner Party 2006 for details.
April 26, 2006. This morning's RadioWest program, broadcast on public radio station KUER in Salt Lake City, was titled "What Happened at Alder Creek?" It featured Dana Goodyear, author of the recent New Yorker article about Alder Creek, anthropologist Shannon Novak, and historian Kristin Johnson in a three-way interview hosted by Doug Fabrizio. The program is can be heard at the KUER website.
April 21, 2006. On Thursday, April 27, at 7:30 P.M., there will be a staged reading of "Angels Among the Trees: The Story of the Donner Party," by British playwright Jonathan Holloway, at the Museum of Art and History, Santa Cruz, CA. There may be additional readings in May and/or June.
April 21, 2006. Good news for all the people who've written asking how to get a copy of Disney's One More Mountain -- it's been released on DVD with additional material for educators at $59.95; the VHS is available for $49.00. See the Disney website for details.
April 17, 2006. This week's New Yorker magazine (cover date April 24, p. 140) contains a lengthy article by Dana Goodyear about the Donners at Alder Creek and the results of the archaeological digs there. Dana started on this article back in July, if not sooner, and did a fine job.
April 9, 2006. The Breen family's former residence, now part of the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, has been a museum for some decades. In March, after a three-year closure for restoration, the Castro-Breen Adobe reopened. The downstairs exhibits feature seven different local history themes, while the upstairs rooms are furnished in period style, with many items from the Breen and Castro families.
February 25, 2006. Last weekend's Sutter's Fort exhibit was, I hear, well attended. The venerable Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, is closed until 2008 while it undergoes expansion and seismic upgrading, but the collection is still available to researchers in a temporary location. UC is celebrating the Bancroft's centennial with an exhibit, "The Bancroft Library at 100: A Celebration 1906-2006," at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2626 Bancroft Way, until December 3. Among the many treasures of California history on display is Patrick Breen's diary. Cost is $8 for adults. The exhibit is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays. Phone (510) 642-5188 or visit the website for more information.
February 25, 2006. A graphic novel for children about the Donner Party has just come out -- see Recent Books for details.
February 17, 2006. This just in: tomorrow, Saturday, February 18, from 10 AM to 4 PM, Sutter's Fort State Historic Park will display important California relics, including James F. Reed's hand-drawn map of his journey from Iron Point to Sacramento, the Miller-Reed diary, and relics from the Donner Lake camp. The park is located at 2701 "L" Street in Sacramento. Admission: $6 (general) and $4 (youth ages 6-16). (916) 445-4422.
January 16, 2006. Alder Creek results officially announced January 14. Well, I'm back from the SHA conference, after having a blast reconnecting with many people I'd met and meeting others I'd only corresponded with. My warning to the public is, don't believe everything you read! The Alder Creek headlines sound sensational, but read what the doctors really say: the bone evidence doesn't confirm cannibalism at Alder Creek. I emphasize these points because I've been reading all sorts of nonsense on the Internet, implying that there is proof than no cannibalism occurred in the Donner Party at all, which is false. There's more testing to be done and more than bones to be tested; the preliminary lack of evidence from Alder Creek doesn't mean that no cannibalism occurred there or at other Donner Party sites. See Donner Party Bulletin No. 15 for more information.
December 1, 2005. Alder Creek results to be announced January 14. The Donner Party Archaeology Project will formally present the results of the 2003 and 2004 Alder Creek digs at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference on Saturday, January 14, 2006, in Sacramento, California. Organized by Drs. Kelly Dixon and Julie Schablitsky, the lengthy presentation will begin in the morning and continue into the afternoon. The presenters are: Kristin Johnson, Donald L. Hardesty, Carrie Smith, Mark McLaughlin, Kenneth Kamler, James Reed, Julie Schablitsky, Kelly J. Dixon, Donna Randolph, Guy Tasa, Shannon Novak, Gwen Robbins, G. Richard Scott, and Ripan Mahli.
August 26, 2005. The Toronto rock band Truckee Lake will be performing at the University of Montana in Billings, where Dr. Kelly Dixon of the Donner Party Archaeology Project is a professor. The proceeds of the concert will go to support the work at Alder Creek. Thanks, guys!
June 11, 2005. This week I was privileged to
meet 15 visually impaired teens who had followed the Donner Party's trail
from Kansas City to Salt Lake.
May 25, 2005. The latest Overland Journal is a gem!
This issue of OCTA's quarterly features Al Mulder's article "Luke and
John, Where Are you?" A Search for the Burial Sites of Luke Halloran and
John Hargrave." Luke Halloran
of the Donner Party died and was buried somewhere in the Tooele Valley
alongside John Hargrave, a member of the so-called "Harlan-Young" party
who had died a few weeks previously. Al identifies emigrant routes
across the valley and the location of Twenty Wells, features which have
been altered or destroyed by 150 years of settlement. Al took me on a
tour of these sites two years ago during his
research, and the resultant article is the first comprehensive study of
the problem in decades. This paper has been needed for a long time and
I'm delighted to see in in print.
May 4, 2005. Plans to build a new museum at Donner Memorial State Park have been withdrawn. The original proposal would have located the $6 million facility and parking lot near the eastern shore of the lake, but intense local opposition has forced the planners to rethink the project. The existing museum may simply be expanded, but alternative sites are also being considered.
April 15, 2005. Alder Creek findings to be announced. The Donner Party Archaeology Project will formally present the results of the 2003 and 2004 Alder Creek digs at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference to be held January 11-15, 2006, in Sacramento, California. The lengthy presentation will consist of statements from the various experts describing the results of their work, and there will be separate (and shorter) press conference. The DPAP is also planning a book about the excavations; no publication date has been set.
April 15, 2005. The Los Angeles Times published Eric Bailey's article about the Alder Creek dig on the front page of the April 12 issue. Bailey interviewed the scientists evaluating the finds and turned out a pretty creditable article, to everyone's great relief. To read it, a Google search on "Deeper into the Donners" "Eric Bailey" will bring up several hits.
March 27, 2005. On February 15, the Chicago Tribune
published Trine Tsouderos' article about the Alder Creek dig, which over
the past six weeks has found its way into dozens of news outlets across
the country and even abroad. Unfortunately the piece is extremely
sensationalistic; one would think that the archaeologists' goal was
to prove that cannibalism happened at the Donner family camp, which is
not the case. Members of the archaeology project were disappointed by the coverage.
February 24, 2005. Alder Creek update: The news is, there's no news yet. The thousands of fragments of bone and other artifacts recovered during July's dig are still undergoing examination and analysis. It will be some time before results are back and announced.
February 11, 2005. Next month North Lake Tahoe's Snow Festival will include such events as the crowning of a Snow Queen, a "Mr. Tahoe" competition, and, on March 13, the "I Dida Run" Match Race, in which sled dogs will pull "sleds decorated as covered wagons from the time of the ill-fated Donner Party." (Oh, my heck!, as we say here in Utah.) For more information, click here.
February 11, 2005. Dr. Donald K. Grayson, whose 1990 article about Donner Party mortality statistics won considerable acclaim, is the first anthropologist ever awarded the Desert Research Institute's Nevada Medal -- not just for his Donner Party work, of course. Read the story here.
January 15, 2005. This season's weather has been a forceful reminder of just how dangerous a Sierra Nevada winter can be. When a huge snowstorm trapped hikers and campers last October, reporters and news commentators were quick to point out the analogy to the Donner Party, caught in a late October blizzard 158 years previously. Later storms have also created havoc. For history of Donner Pass weather, see Mark McLaughlin's Reign of the Sierra Storm King: a Weather History of Donner Pass. (Note: this is a PDF file; you'll need Adobe Reader to read it, available here as a free download.)
November 13, 2004. Connie Ganz has just published The Man Behind the Plow: Robert N. Tate, Early Partner of John Deere containing many references to Eleanor Graves McDonnell and her family. (Robert Tate was her husband William's stepfather).
August 21, 2004. The dedication of the new monument at the grave of George Donner Jr. (Jacob's son) at San Jose's Oak Hill Memorial Park on August 15 was a great success -- click here to see the stone and read the inscription. An estimated 150 - 200 people attended, including descendants of Donner Party members and other 1846ers; members of E Clampus Vitus (who behaved themselves admirably), Native Sons of the Golden West, and the San Jose Argonauts; assorted Donner Party buffs; and many others. Oak Hill did a marvelous job on the monument and in setting the scene for the dedication. Particular thanks are due to Bill Clark of San Jose who pulled the whole shebang together in about two months. During the course of researching this monument, the names of so many other early pioneers turned up that another one is being planned.
July 27, 2004. The date has been set. At noon, Sunday, August 15, 2004, the new marker on the grave of George Donner Jr. (Jacob's son) at San Jose's Oak Hill Memorial Park will be dedicated. The verso of the monument lists other early pioneers of San Jose buried at the cemetery: Donner Party members William H. Eddy, William McCutchen, and the Reed family, other emigrants of 1846, and members of the Townsend-Stephens-Murphy Party of 1844. Speakers will include Lorie Garcia, Jamie Matthews, and Kristin Johnson.
July 16, 2004. Alder Creek update: Added the Project Overview of this year's dig -- this is the text of a handout the archaeologists distributed on "Media Day" (July 14). The story has appeared in hundreds of newspapers around the country. Most of the articles are reprints of Scott Sonner's Associated Press article, but there are some unique ones by Bill Lindelof in the Sacramento Bee and by David Bunker and Gordon Richards in Truckee's Sierra Sun.
July 14, 2004. Well, the news is out -- Drs. Julie Schablitsky and Kelly Dixon returned to Alder Creek earlier this month and resumed excavation at the Donner Family Camp site. The results were similar to last year's dig -- hundreds of fragments of bone, broken glass and china, some buttons, lead shot, a gunflint, and so on. The most important discovery was a well-defined hearth area. On a personal note, I was at Alder Creek on July 8, 9, and 10 and spent several enjoyable hours tweezing small bits of calcined bone and glass from the screen. I found a small nail, too, swollen with rust, and got incredibly dirty shaking the sifter. More detailed reports will be forthcoming, but I would like to thank the doctors and Carrie Smith, the Truckee District archaeologist, for a wonderful experience. You can read more about the dig in the Reno Gazette-Journal article, but ignore what it says about ground penetrating radar, which did NOT influence this year's dig.
June 14, 2004. E Clampus Vitus, a fraternal order dedicated to California history and carousing (not necessarily in that order), has begun plans to erect a monument on the unmarked grave of George Donner III (Jacob's son) in San Jose's Oak Hill Cemetery. Also, Donner descendant Don Springer has petitioned to erect a monument to Revolutionary War veteran George Donner, Sr., the father of George and Jacob of the Donner Party, in Oak Hill Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.
January 1, 2004. Disney has removed One More Mountain from its website, but you may still be able to order copies through vendors of A-V materials for schools.
December 18, 2003. The August archaeological dig at Alder Creek made number 96 in the "100 Top Science Stories of 2003," as rated by Discover magazine. There's a brief article on page 72 of the latest (December 2003) issue.
December 7, 2003. Dr. Julie Schablitsky's new website features a page on the Donner Party Archaeology Project.
December 7, 2003. The Marysville Appeal-Democrat of November 27 reports that sculptor Phil Sciortino would like to create a bronze statue of Donner Party survivor Mary Murphy Covillaud, to be erected in the town named after her -- Marysville, California. Click here to read the article.
October 18, 2003. Drs. Kelly J. Dixon and Julie Schablitsky are writing a research proposal to continue the work at the Donner Party camps. They estimate their funding needs at $174,000 and are requesting support from several organizations, but would welcome donations from the private sector. For more information about the Donner Party Archaeology Project and how to help, click here.
October 18, 2003. The verdict is in: Discovery Channel's Unsolved History program on the Donner Party was not a resounding success. Most correspondents thought it had a jarringly split personality. The first part featured reenactment experiments, the second the archaeological discoveries at Alder Creek. Both parts were interesting, but there was little continuity between the two and many found the emphasis on cannibalism in the second section sensationalistic and offensive. The professionals involved weren't enchanted with the show; see the Oregon Daily Emerald article of October 13.
October 5, 2003. At long last Discovery Channel's Unsolved History segment on the Donner Party will air this week on Wednesday, October 8 -- check your local listings for times. "Researchers attempt to mimic the harsh conditions faced by the Donners - extreme isolation and severe temperatures - in order to probe what must have been their very fragile state of mind. Experts in the lab test the physiological - and, maybe more importantly, psychological - effects of subsisting on nothing but boiled rawhide, shoe leather and human flesh." The program will include coverage of last August's archaeological discoveries at Alder Creek.
September 14, 2003. The Peteetneet Museum in Payson, Utah, is displaying what it claims are Donner Party artifacts. Sometime in the 1930s, John Patten, a Christmas tree salesman, had gone to the Sierra to get a large tree for San Francisco. After cutting it down, he noticed a bulge in the ground and dug into it, unearthing a cache of artifacts. The items, which include an ox yoke, livestock bells, horse bits, iron hooks, a pulley, and ox shoes, have never been examined by experts, their age has not been determined, and the exact location where they were found is unknown. Patten died in the mid-1980s; his heirs, who donated the items to the museum, said that he believed his find belonged to the Donner Party because of the artifacts' age and because they were found in Donner Pass. Thousands of emigrants crossed the pass between 1844 and 1869, however, and the find's association with the Donner Party is dubious.
August 31, 2003. Donner Memorial State Park is undergoing a major renovation of its water system and the park's campgrounds and day use areas will be closed until next year. The project, which will replace restroom and shower facilities at various campgrounds in the park, will not affect the operation of the Emigrant Trail Museum, which will continue to be open to the public year round.
August 18, 2003. Today the Reno Gazette-Journal broke the story of new archaeological discoveries at Alder Creek where the two Donner families camped in 1846-47.(Read the Gazette-Journal article.) The results of the four-day dig, which started August 5, were so promising that the archaeologists will seek funding for further investigations. The recent dig was undertaken as part of the upcoming Discovery Channel Unsolved History program to be aired October 8, 2003.
August 16, 2003. Belated news: Last April, Donner Memorial State Park expanded to three times its former size with the acquisition of a 1,923-acre parcel of land on Schallenberger Ridge south of Donner Lake. Valued at $3.1 million, the purchase was made with the help of the California's Habitat Conservation Fund, the state Department of Fish and Game, Placer County, and private donations. The addition will be used for recreation and wildlife habitat.
July 27, 2003. The New Light on the Donner Party website received an unprecedented number of hits this week after PBS stations around the country reran Ric Burns' 1992 documentary, The Donner Party.
July 27, 2003. More new books on the way: Roger Wachtel's The Donner Party (The Children's Press) and Terry Del Bene's Donner Party Cookbook (Horse Creek Publications), both due out later this year.
June 28, 2003. New book on the way: Utah Crossroader Jeff Carlstrom has written The History of Emigration Canyon: Gateway to Salt Lake Valley, including a chapter on the Donner Party. It will be published by Utah State University Press later this year.
June 20, 2003. Just found this on the 'net: Dave Oester and Sharon Gill of the International Ghost Hunter Society are organizing a Haunted Donner Party Ghost Conference October 17, 18, and 19, 2003. They will be lodging in Reno and traveling up to Truckee for their investigations. Click here for more information.
June 19, 2003. Dan Gagliasso and crew from Termite Art Productions have been hard at work on their Discovery Channel Unsolved History program. They've recently filmed at Sutter's Fort, Utah's Wasatch Mountains, and Fort Bridger, Wyoming.
June 5, 2003. Teri Harpster and Michael Bitterman have completed their Donner Party musical, "Forlorn Hope." Click here for more information.
April 12, 2003. Termite Art Productions has begun work on a Donner Party episode for the Discovery Channel's Unsolved History program. It will be aired in the fall.
December 14, 2002. This isn't strictly about the Donner Party, but it's such good news I have to publish it somewhere: the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) has announced the release of a portion of its Census of Emigrant Documents (COED) database on CD-ROM. For years OCTA volunteers have been analyzing trail diaries and other sources to compile a database about overland emigrants and emigration. (See the COED page for more details about the project.) If your ancestors were among the thousands of people who crossed the plains in the 19th century, you may be able to find out more about their journey on the COED CD-ROM. Find out how to order at the OCTA bookstore. (Disclaimer: this information provided solely as a public service; I have no financial interest in the product.)
October 19, 2002. Some time ago I reported that the home of S. O. and Eliza Donner Houghton was being threatened by redevelopment. I'm happy to report that the house is now listed on the National Register and is safe from demolition, although its final fate is uncertain; it may have to be moved to another location. For now, at least, the house is still located on the corner of Third and Julian Streets in downtown San Jose.
October 15, 2002: Brigham Young University recently put up a great new website called Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869, sponsored by the Utah Academic Library Consortium (UALC). Using materials from various institutions in Utah, Nevada, and Idaho, the website is "a collection of the original writings of 49 voyagers on the Mormon, California, Oregon, and Montana trails... Accompanying the original diary images and their searchable transcripts are 43 contemporary maps; seven trail guides; 82 photographs, watercolors and art sketches; four essays on the Mormon and California trails, maps and trail guides; "Suggested Readings" for further discovery; and brief biographies of 45 of the 49 diarists." Not too surprisingly, there's rather a Mormon emphasis, but the site offers a lot of valuable material about the overland experience, though not much specifically about Donner Party. Don't miss the interactive maps!
October 15, 2002: Mike Haller's and Tony Johnstone's Donner Party websites have bitten the dust. I waited a while to see if they'd simply been moved, but they seem to be permanently gone. Mike published the full texts of C. F. McGlashan's History of the Donner Party and Edwin Bryant's What I Saw in California; Tony had some good illustrations and links. I'm sorry to have to remove my hyperlinks to these sites.
Tom Gualtieri of New York City has completed The Garden of the Earth, a three act, three hour long play about the Donner Party. A public reading took place at 3:00 PM on July 16, 2002, at the Actors Playhouse, 100 Seventh Avenue South You can contact the author at: TGTomkat@aol.com
Last fall Scholastic published The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds: The Donner Party Expedition, by Rodman Philbrick. This is a fictional account, again intended for children, about the imaginary "Douglas Deeds, a fifteen-year-old orphan," who "keeps a journal of his travels by wagon train as a member of the ill-fated Donner Party." It's part of the Dear America series.
Scott Werther's The Donner Party, a children's history, is out. It's a small book of 48 pages that explains the tragedy in simple language for younger readers.
KRON-TV (Channel 4, San Francisco) aired a new documentary, "Death in the Sierra: The Donner Party," on Tuesday, January 15, and Sunday, January 27, 2002. The response was very favorable, but unfortunately KRON doesn't sell its programs to other stations or release them on video, so only those who live in the Bay Area were able to see it.
Marilyn W. Seguin's One Eternal Winter: The Story of What Happened at Donner Pass, Winter of 1846-47 is yet another children's/young adult book (fiction) focusing on Virginia Reed. It incorporates some new information from Marian Calabro's book; the map, however, is inaccurate. The book was released in May 2001.
James D. Houston's Snow Mountain Passage is out. The publisher, Knopf, seems to have great expectations for this novel; the first printing is supposed to be 50,000 copies and Houston is going on an 8-city author tour. Wish I could recommend the book, but I was very disappointed at its many historical inaccuracies.
Marian Calabro's The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party was featured on a National Public Radio program called "The Looseleaf Book Company" during the week of March 26. A transcript of the program (Episode 01.40, "Common Sense") used to be available at the Program Archives at the Looseleaf website (http://www.looseleafbookcompany.com/archives/archives.html), but the site appears to be defunct.
On March 20, I received a message that New Light on the Donner Party had been chosen to be featured in bigchalk.com's directory of exceptional educational sites on the Web. "Out of more than 110,000 sites reviewed, we found yours to be in the top 2% based on your rich content and its academic relevance."
In November 2000 The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party was honored with the Beatty Award from the California Library Association as the best Young Adult book on a California subject.
There has been a great deal of controversy about the plans of Trails West, a California trails marking organization, to relocate trail markers in the Reno area which were placed by another group many years ago. For more information read the articles by Frank Mullen in the Reno Gazette-Journal and by Martin Griffith in the Nevada Appeal.
Good news/bad news: Disney has finally released One More Mountain on video; however, it costs $99.
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