Fake news’ stalks the Donner Party; myths formed over 175 years

Wildly inaccurate and sensationalized reports of the Donner Party tragedy appeared in a California newspaper in 1847, even as the first emaciated survivors reached the settlements.

Many of the myths and misinformation propagated by amateur journalists 175 years ago persist to this day, despite efforts of scholars to correct the record. Other tall tales and errors, added over the decades, also cloud the story of those “unfortunate immigrants.”

The Donner Party were a group of wagon train pioneers entrapped in the Sierra Nevada during the terrible winter of 1846-47. Of the 81 people stranded in the snow at their high camps, just 45 lived to reach Sutter’s Fort in what is now Sacramento. Some of those survivors cannibalized the bodies of their companions in order to stay alive.

The true experiences of those star-crossed families had more drama and tragedy than anything a fiction author might have envisioned. Yet, when the early accounts of the emigrants’ entrapment appeared in the fledgling California Star newspaper, their already terrible circumstances were embellished to make the events seem more horrific, even depraved.

The newspaper, published in Yerba Buena (soon to be renamed San Francisco), was just a week old when a single paragraph on the front page of the Jan. 16, 1847 edition noted that a party of emigrants was known to be trapped in the mountains. The story misidentified the pioneers as being from “Independence, Missouri,” but otherwise offered a brief, relatively accurate, account of their plight.

The day after that item appeared, one of the survivors of a desperate snowshoe party (later known as the Forlorn Hope group) had reached the edge of California settlements. Rescue efforts were mounted. As those relief parties returned with survivors – and accounts of cannibalism at the high camps – more stories appeared in the Star.

The things they described were so bizarre and terrifying, the reports should have been printed in red or purple ink. The unsigned stories recounted scenes from hell: families tearing the bodies of dead relatives apart; wives feasting on their husband’s remains while their children looked on; blood relatives turning on each other; and an account of one party member eating toddlers like they were salted almonds.

It was mostly fantasy, but the fake news of 1847 wound its way down the centuries to be repeated in articles, books and TV documentaries. Here’s one of the most lurid excerpts from those stories, which was published in the California Star on April 10, 1847:

“A more shocking scene cannot be imagined, than that witnessed by the party of men who went to the relief of the unfortunate emigrants in the California Mountains. The bones of those who had died and been devoured by the miserable ones that still survived were lying around their tents and cabins. Bodies of men, women and children, with half the flesh torn from them, lay on every side. A woman sat by the body of her husband, who had just died, eating out his tongue; the heart she had already taken out, broiled, and eat! The daughter was seen eating the flesh of the father — the mother that of her children — children that of father and mother. The emaciated, wild, and ghastly appearance of the survivors, added to the horror of the scene.

“… After the first few deaths, but the one all absorbing thought of individual self-preservation prevailed. The fountains of natural affection were dried up. The cords that once vibrated with connubial, parental and filial affection were rent asunder, and each one seemed resolved without regard to the fate of others to escape from the impending calamity.

“So changed had the emigrants become that when (rescuers) arrived with food, some of them cast it aside and seemed to prefer the putrid human flesh that still remained. The day before the party arrived, one of the emigrants took a child of about four years of age in bed with him, and devoured the whole before morning; and the next day eat another about the same age before noon.”

The news story also assigned blame: “It is thought that several more of these unfortunate people might have been saved, but for their determination not to leave their property. Some of them who started in, loaded themselves with their money and other effects to such an extent, that they sunk under them and died on the road… They were principally from the neighborhood of Independence, Missouri.”

The Reed and Donner families crossed the Missouri River at Independence, but were from Springfield, IL. The other families were from other parts of the country, including Chicago and Iowa. A child did die in party member Lewis Keseburg’s bed, but there’s no testimony from survivors that he was killed, eaten “before morning,” or that another child shared that fate.

The only woman who was with her husband when the third rescue party arrived was Tamsen Donner, and her husband, George, was still alive at the time. Family structures did not fall apart; people did not try to escape loaded down with needless possessions.

The corrections go on and on, yet those early sensational accounts continue to be repeated, including on some TV documentaries. As the decades passed, further misinformation was added to the tale and repeated by other authors and feature writers. In many cases, the inaccuracies were inadvertent, owing to the difficulty in piecing the story together as the tragic events faded into history.

Family photos were misidentified. Incidents and details that were hard to pin down became subjects of speculation, and then theories drifted into books as fact. Statements made by survivors were misinterpreted – or sometimes excluded from narratives written by authors who didn’t want to show their sources in a negative light. Even something as basic as the location of the Alder Creek camp of the Donner families, about 6 miles from the main Donner Lake camp, became a matter of debate.

That campsite had been marked for a century when, in the 1990s, a pioneer trails group declared that Alder Creek was the wrong site. The group theorized that the actual Donner family camp probably had been submerged under Prosser Reservoir. The group wanted to remove the site’s historical marker, but some Nevada historians and trail buffs fought the plan, going as far as filing a lawsuit in federal court. The sign, made of railroad iron, was left in place and remained in guidebooks. In 2003 and 2004, archeologists unearthed a fire pit and a hoard of 1840s artifacts at the spot, which now is a U.S. Forest Service Picnic Area. The marker was accurate after all.

Fake news about the Donners is still being minted. Boiled bone fragments found during the 2003-2004 dig at Alder Creek were analyzed at an Eastern university and none were found to be human. That fact led to headlines like “No cannibalism among Donner Party” and “Donner Party Cannibalism Claims Questioned.” But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Contemporary accounts of the rescuers, as well as survivors’ statements long afterward, confirm the desperate practice.

Subsequent news reports in 2006 (including some I wrote) debunked the inaccurate conclusion about cannibalism. But I’m still asked about the initial “no-cannibalism” report nearly every time I deliver a lecture about the Donners.

If I’ve learned anything about history in researching the Donner Party for more than a quarter century, it is that no “fact” is ever carved in stone or cast in bronze.  History flows like a river, and has many twists and turns, tributaries and backwaters, and always opens new channels. What we think we know about a long-ago event often changes like the seasons. As more archaeology is done, lost documents are found, and efforts like the Forlorn Hope and Donner Relief Expeditions look for the truth on the ground, more of the story will continue to emerge at its own placid speed.

Frank X. Mullen is the author of “The Donner Party Chronicles: a Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train, 1846-47” (as Frank Mullen Jr.). His career as a newspaperman spans four decades. He is the editor of the Reno News & Review.