Thursday, January 12, 2006

Honey, I ate fewer of the kids than is widely believed

My lovely, lovable, weird family is slightly obsessed with the Donner Party (and survival issues in general). Several of us have read more than one book on the subject. This doomed expedition is a fascinating story because of the intense drama and the way that their choices kept racheting down, from bad into worse, and then into inconceivably bad. This is ultimately more interesting than the specifics of the cannibalism — the most common association with the Donner Party. This is because the cannibalism was itself an absolute measure of how bad their decisions and their choices actually were.

The details are amazing. For instance, there are many survival stories recorded in print. There are few such where the guy who went for help had to first join in to fight the Mexican-American war for several months before he could get a rescue party together. Here's a short, modern summary of the events of that winter. Here is a contemporaneous account, a letter by John Sutter (of Sutter's Mill fame.)

The Donner-Reed expedition had split up by the time the heavy snows fell, trapping both parties for most of the winter. The larger group definitely resorted to cannibalism to survive. The smaller group, where the actual Donner family was, apparently did not, according to an analysis of the physical evidence.

This is bracing news to the descendents of people in that second camp.
Descendants of the Donner family say the findings bolster claims they have made for years — that cannibalism was not as rampant as portrayed in sensational contemporaneous newspaper accounts of the ordeal, which only about half the pioneers survived.
I'm sympathetic to the family's feelings, while simultaneously hoping that no paragraph ever written about my family, my ancestors, or my descendents has a sentence in it like "the cannibalism was not as bad as first reported."

Incidently, you may be unaware of Cannibal! The Musical, which is basically a movie that Trey Parker and Matt Stone made instead of going to their college classes. The film is very loosely based on the true story of Alferd Packer, a notorious guide in Colorado who either killed and ate five men he led on an expedition, or alternatively, he just ate them.

Unfortunately, it's really not a very good movie, essentially a student musical. But it is funny, and there are some good songs, most of which you can hear on the movie's web site. I found myself humming "It's a shpadoinkle day" more than once afterwards. Parts of it were casually professional, such as having leitmotives for different characters.

If you do see this movie, I recommend seeing it with friends who can appreciate camp and bad movies. Being South Park fans would be a plus. The enthusiastic application of any mind-altering substances you have at hand would be more than appropriate. Also, stay put for at least the first five minutes, the movie will not be what you think.

(public domain image from


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