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May 5, 2009

Snowed In
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:30 AM * 78 comments

Today I’m going to talk about Daniel James Brown’s book, The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride

Long-time Making Light readers will recall my comments on his last, Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894.

The review at Booklist says:

The story of the ill-fated Donner party, a group of nineteenth-century settlers en route to California who became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains and resorted to cannibalism to survive, remains an iconic moment in American history. Given the story’s inherent elements of horror and heroism, it is surprising that this account, told from the point of view of a young bride who survived the tragedy, is finally such an uninteresting book. Part of the problem is the author’s inability of incorporate his copious background material into the flow of the narrative (readers probably don’t need to know about 1840s-era birth control methods). Even the author’s treatment of the tragedy itself, however, feels dully reportorial, without any of the you-are-there drama that Piers Paul Reid brought to Alive!, his account of history’s second-most-famous cannibalism-survival story, concerning the famous 1972 airplane crash in the Andes. So why bother with this Donner party treatment when so many other, more compelling works exist? The premise itself sets this book apart, and while it’s not handled particularly effectively, it will still interest those fascinated by the subject.

Yeah, “uninteresting” in a can’t-put-it-down kinda way.

The events of the Donner Party expedition, a group of illegal immigrants heading from the United States to Mexico, are well-known (though surrounded with contradiction and lurid speculation, dating to before they’d even come out of the mountains). The story is naturally dramatic enough:

…One warm August afternoon in the summer of 1849, Wakeman Bryarly, a twenty-eight-year-old doctor from Baltimore, found himself near what was then still called Truckee Lake in the high Sierra. Like so many other ambitious young men that summer—a summer when a whole world of young men seemed to pour across North America and into California—he was on his way to the goldfields. His party had encamped just east of the lake, and, with an afternoon to kill, he decided to take the opportunity to indulge in a cold bath. On his way to the lake, he hoped also to find something else that hundreds of other travelers that summer had sought out—a local tourist attraction of sorts.

He set off on foot, and just 150 yards down the road he found the first evidence of what he was looking for. In a dusty meadow full of whirring grasshoppers, dry grass, and foot-tall plants with broad gray leaves called “mule ears” stood a weathered but neatly fashioned log cabin. The cabin was surrounded by some unusually tall stumps, the remains of pine trees that had been cut off ten feet or more above the ground. He examined the cabin and found that it had two entrances and two living chambers separated by a log partition. In the dirt floor of each chamber, there was a shallow depression, the remains, perhaps, of fire pits or burial pits of some sort. Poking about in the dry grass among the stumps outside the cabins, he found some charred logs. And then, nearby, he found what he’d been told he would.

Half hidden in the grass were piles of bones. At first most of them seemed to be the bones of cattle, but then, just to the left of these, he found a nearly complete human skeleton sprawled out on the ground with grass growing between the ribs. He stooped and examined the remains. Then he noticed that in the grass nearby there were bits and pieces of broken wooden boxes and some faded articles of clothing. He picked up a child’s stocking and felt something rattling around inside it. He carefully turned the stocking inside out and dumped its contents into his hand—the small and perfect foot bones of a child.

Young Dr. Bryarly is about to make far worse discoveries, and record them in his diary.

Partly this is straight history, with the focus being on one of the young women, Sarah Graves Fosdick, who survived the entire affair. Part of what happened to her was bad luck: the snow in the Sierras came early and piled up deeper than usual. Many of the decisions that ultimately led to disaster were reasonable at the time, with the information they had. But part of it was bad judgment. As the group pulls away from St. Joe, Missouri:

…Nobody, it must have seemed to them, could be better prepared for the journey ahead.

However, they had neglected one critical piece of advice. Of all the many tips, encouragements, admonitions, and suggestions that Lansford Hastings dispensed in The Emigrants’ Guide to California and Oregon, the best of them had to do with timing one’s departure. On this he was both honest and correct when he said that the emigrants must “enter on their journey on, or before, the first day of May; after which time they must never start, if it can possibly be avoided.” On the consequence of not doing so, he was even more pointed: “Unless you pass over the mountains early in the fall, you are very liable to be detained by impassable mountains of snow until the next spring, or perhaps forever.”

On the day that Sarah, Jay, and the rest of the Graves clan stepped aboard the ferry at Parrott’s Landing, May Day was already more than three weeks in the past.

Brown sure knows how to write a chapter end.

Part of what may have put off the Booklist reviewer is that when an author reads too much Victorian primary-source material, the style seeps into his own prose. But the Victorians really did talk that way: They could say “No, gentlemen. I will not abandon these people. I am here on a mission of mercy, and I will not half do the work. You can all go if you want to, but I shall stay by these people while they and I live,” as did John Stark (age 20) of the Third Relief, and mean it. (Stark carried a group of the children out, quite literally on his back.) Many heroes, large and small, stand out. There aren’t any real villains (aside, perhaps, from Louis Keseberg). I expect nearly everyone wants to know about field-expedient birth control. It’s even relevant; archeology of the Graves cabin on Truckee (now Donner) Lake turned up a tin of Oil of Hemlock belonging to Mrs. Graves, and you’d probably want to know what she planned to do with that. Contraception also explains why young Mrs. Fosdick wasn’t heavily pregnant by the time she came to walk out of the camp on snowshoes (that party taking 33 days and 50% casualties in what they thought was going to be a six-day hike).

In a way we can see this as a case of early adopters debugging the system. They were testing California Trail Beta 0.9, following a guidebook written by a man who had never, personally, taken the route he recommended, and didn’t know anyone who had. He recommended a shortcut that looked fine on the map

Interwoven with the narrative of Sarah Fosdick and her adventures on the California Trail, Brown talks about his own retracing of her journey. From the middle of the Hastings Cutoff:

Finally, after another thirty minutes of climbing and gasping, I fought through some brush to a spot where the ridgeline fell away to the east. From somewhere very near there, Lansford Hastings had pointed out to James Reed his “better route” though the Wasatch. Looking out at the confusion of green mountains and purple canyons below me, it struck me with full force—in a way that it could not have if I hadn’t seen it for myself—that only a madman, or a serious salesman, could look at that landscape and propose taking a party of heavily laden wagons through it.

Interwoven, too, are descriptions of other disastrous wagon trains of the past and yet to come as the Donners went west, of the Black Hawk War (with anecdotes both amusing and horrifying), of the Mexican War, the creation of California, 19th century attitudes concerning Christmas, the relations between the sexes, death and dying, modern understand of meteorology, the physiology of hypothermia and starvation, and the psychology of survival and post-traumatic stress. So yes, it’s discursive. If you didn’t want to know about the three grades of flour available in St. Joseph to the emigrants, what they contained, and their relative prices, this probably isn’t the right book for you.

Brown belongs to the Endless Trivia school of historians rather than the Sweeping Generalization school. Lots of material for the novelists among us to mine.

Is this the best Donner book? Dunno. It’s a different one, and brought up material new to me. Go, read it.

Mr. Brown gives a good list of websites concerning the Donners and other matters touched on in his book, but not all in one place, and he doesn’t link to them from his website. Here are some:

And many more besides.
Comments on Snowed In:
#1 ::: Antonia T. Tiger ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 11:12 AM:

As somebody scribbling away at very alternate history 1930s pulp fiction, it can be surprising how many details from the Donner Party period have barely changed.

The BBC broadcast a series on a Victorian Farm, and my father ploughed with horses.

Of course, some things do change. Not even Wolf Baginski would be walking around with a vacuum-tube iPod.

#2 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 11:19 AM:

See also Ric (Ken's brother) Burns' documentary on the Donner Party for The American Experience.

#3 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 11:44 AM:

I first learned about the Donner Party when reading my mother's copy of DeVoto's 1846: Year of Decision in my early teens. Even in the limited space DeVoto was able to spare for it, it was a riveting story.

There's even been an epic poem about the Donner Party.

#4 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 12:00 PM:

Thanks, Jim. Like I needed to add another book to my reading list?

Oil of Hemlock? Huh.

#5 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 12:12 PM:

Which one of the survivors was quoted as saying "The lesson of the Donner Party is that you shouldn't take shortcuts, and move smartly along"?

#6 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 12:31 PM:

#7 (& #6)

That was Virginia Reed, in a letter to her cousin Mary Keyes back in the United States:

O Mary I have not wrote you half the truble but I have Wrote you anuf to let you now what truble is .... Don't let this letter dishaten anybody never take no cutoffs and hury along as fast as you can.

#7 ::: Wyman Cooke ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 12:36 PM:

James @ 2: Oh yes, I saw that. It handles with tact a frightening chapter of American history. I glad I saw it and I don't want ever to see it again. Downbeat subject matter makes me too downbeat. I would like to avoid or at least lessen my depressions.

#8 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 12:47 PM:

I saw that documentary. One of the Reeds, I think Mary, also claimed that her family was the only one that did not eat human flesh.

Yet they lived, when others starved. When others, including some who did eat human flesh, starved to death anyway.

Either the Reeds started out really, really fat (ALL of them), or they were hiding food from the others. If the latter, I see no moral superiority in their having done that rather than eat human flesh. A Victorian would, but the Victorians were...not a model to emulate in that regard.

#9 ::: shadowsong ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 01:00 PM:

On a lighter note, I heartily recommend "Cannibal: the Musical" to any of you incapable of taking things too seriously.

#10 ::: Sarah W ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 01:00 PM:

Our library has a copy of Indifferent Stars coming in, and I've just placed a reserve on it.

While I'm looking forward to all the 'extraneous details' (am I right to assume that hemlock oil was for external use only?), I'm particularly curious to see Mr. Brown has to say about the Black Hawk War. I'm currently sitting about three blocks from the treaty that ended it.

#11 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 01:04 PM:

Great. I think I shall have to, someday, seek this out.

Because I am of the trivial school of history; that I can make my own sweeping generalisations.

#12 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 01:14 PM:

Has anyone seen Kazuo Hara's 1987 documentary The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On? I just watched it last night, and not to spoil things too much, it's very apropos to this thread.

#13 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 01:14 PM:

Sarah W @12:

The "hemlock oil" was probably from the evergreen tree of that name aka Tsuga canadensis, not the poison plant. I'm fairly certain one would not want to consume it...

Poison hemlock is Conium maculatum, which looks a lot like wild carrot or Queen Anne's Lace. Which leaves me wondering if there have been any accidental poisoning due to its appearance.

#14 ::: Kristen ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 01:25 PM:

I remember learning about the Donner Party for the first time in grade school. I is a very tragic story. However, Cannibalism has been practiced for centuries. I just read a book about ancient Native Americans called Cannibalism, Headhunting and Human Sacrifice in North America by George Feldman. This is a book about terror, but it is about terror with a purpose, whether performed by indigenous peoples, or their invaders.

#15 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 01:28 PM:

Oh, man. All this time I thought the poison of which Socrates is the most famous victim was from the tree. So there's really no irony in Tolkien having Beren "peer between the hemlock leaves" at Luthien? I thought they were representing the veil between the realms—which they kind of are, being evergreen, but clearly I was reading too much in.

#16 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 01:37 PM:

My father was fascinated by Alferd G. Packer and, once I learned the story from him, so was I. Only afterward did I learn of the Donner Party.

In high school, I toyed with writing a musical play about Packer, but did nothing about it.

Decades later, I learned that famous sons of Colorado had the same idea, creating Alferd Packer: The Musical while in college. Haven't seen it, but I'm sure it's every bit as tasteful as their later TV show.

#17 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 01:48 PM:

Poison hemlock is Conium maculatum, which looks a lot like wild carrot or Queen Anne's Lace.

Interestingly, the seeds of Queen Anne's Lace can be used as a contraceptive as well--take a teaspoon or so a day, and it prevents fertilized eggs from implanting. Useful trick, that.

#18 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 02:04 PM:

never take no cutoffs and hury along as fast as you can.

It seems obvious now, and perhaps it did then to many people:

O Mary never click no email links, and upgrade your antivirus as quick as ever you can.

#19 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 02:05 PM:

I recently read a fictionalized treatment of the Stephens-Townshend Party— the ones to first blaze that particular route through the Sierras— and just about cringed when I read about their coming to the eastern foot of the range in October. Truckee snows in a normal year remain at eight- to fifteen-foot levels, and I do mean remain. Quite often the snow sticks around until June.

Now the Stephens-Townshend Party is quite an interesting story as well. They were only a year or two before the Donner Party, and one of the cabins they built for shelter when they got stuck— see the trend here?— was the first of those used by the Donner Party. It was the only thing left, as the local tribes got to the rest of the stuff they had left behind.

But the scary part is the "pass." There's an interstate over it now, so people dismiss how difficult it was, but there was no easy way over the 7000+ foot elevation; you pretty much had to winch your wagons and any remaining cattle up a cliff.

Here's a photo of the memorial plinth. The plinth is the depth of the snow. For reference, Evil Rob is six foot even.

Someday, if I get the money and time, I would like to do a documentary series about the Oregon Trail (and the California Trail.) I'd like to film at each location at the approximate time the emigrants would hit it.

Did you realize most emigrants walked the entire way? There wasn't room (or reason) for most people in the wagons aside from the driver. And probably related is the #1 cause of death— getting run over by a wagon wheel (and other varieties of getting run down.)

#20 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 02:12 PM:

Lori Coulsen: I'd say poison hemlock looks more like wild fennel; and yes, there are semi-regular poisonings where the two grow wild (Sonoma, Napa, parts of Montery, riparian areas of SoCal).

Carrie S. A lot of the Apacaeae (prev. Umbelliferae) have toxic properties, to one degree or another. There are a few bugs which (like the monarch and the milkweed) exploit this, e.g. Curly Parsley, which is rarely afflicted by insects, because it kills them, save for a few which can metabolise the toxin, and so are protected from most predatory insects up the chain.

#21 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 02:16 PM:

The NYTimes review, while also finding weaknesses in the book, is kinder:

"'The Indifferent Stars Above' is an ­ideal pairing of talent and material. In 'Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894,' Brown showed himself to be a deft and ambitious storyteller, sifting through the copious and often conflicting details of dozens of survivor and eyewitness accounts to forge a trim, surging minute-by-minute narrative.

"He takes more side trips here with snow than he did with fire. In almost every chapter, he steps away from the events at hand to provide historical or medical context. With a few exceptions, it’s engrossing stuff. Brown delves into the primitive morality of feral tribes and the psychology of extreme trauma. He covers birth control and hygiene on the pioneer trail, the latter surely contributing to the former: 'They smelled not just of sweat but also of urine and excrement and menstrual blood and yeast infections and halitosis and tooth decay.' The science of starvation and of hypothermia is well-traveled terrain, but Brown manages to bring new (to me, anyway) offerings to the table. I knew, for instance, that people throw off their clothes in the final minutes of hypothermia, but hadn’t known there was a name for it ('paradoxical undressing') or why it happens (when the body gives up and stops hoarding blood for the vital organs, blood suddenly rushes back into the extremities and skin).

"Brown isn’t a showy writer, and that’s probably for the best. With tragedy of this scale, an unadorned telling of the events speaks loudest. Consider the phrase 'they loaded their packs with their blankets and what remained of their former companions. . . .' The understatement of simple circumstance delivers the wallop all by itself."

I think I saw some documentary on the Donner Party, or maybe an episode of The American Experience. I don't remember not knowing _about_ the Donner Party, though I know few details. The book sounds fascinating if potentially upsetting (I'm a sensitive soul); the Times review made me want to read it already and this only helps.

#22 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 02:18 PM:

B Durbin @ #21, I've been there and driven on that interstate. In a 4-cylinder car you can replicate the feeling of dismay anyone with an ox-pulled wagon must have felt.

Don't forget George Stewart's "Ordeal by Hunger," written in 1936.

#23 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 02:42 PM:

Bill, #18: And of course there's the Alferd Packer Grill at UC-Boulder...

#24 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 02:52 PM:

Linkmeister @24 I was just about to mention Ordeal by Hunger as well. I think it was the first attempt to chronicle the entire series of events and Stewart tries to show the snowballing of events that led to the party becoming trapped in the mountains. I loaned my copy to someone who had never heard of the party and I have just realised I never got it back.

I'm adding both to my wishlist right now. How long until Christmas?

#25 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 03:02 PM:

Kristen's post @16 about old-school cannibals reminds me of reading Dream Park and learning about the cannibalistic Fore and kuru, a disease apparently linked to prions and similar to Mad Cow. Moral: don't eat brains, and don't eat animals fed brains. (Is brain-eating a zombivoric diet, or is 'zombivoric' a diet composed of zombies? Either way, not recommended.)

On an upbeat note, there's a YouTube video of "A Tale They Won't Believe" by Weddings, Parties, Anything. It's a musical retelling of the story of Alexander Pearce.

#26 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 03:06 PM:

Xopher@#10: If I recall the documentary correctly, Mary Reed was a child at the time of the incident. What I remember thinking, when I heard the reading of her account, was that if I had been the mother of that family, under those circumstances I'd have had absolutely no compunction about lying through my teeth and telling my kids that what was in the stewpot was old boots and a buffalo robe.

#27 ::: Sarah W ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 03:10 PM:

Lori @ 15: Thank you for reassuring a non-botanist. I'm not sure I'd want to use Tsuga canadensis oil as a topical, either, but I'll wait for the book before passing judgement.

#28 ::: Torrilin ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 03:25 PM:

I seem to recall that the primary source evidence strongly suggests that the mothers *did* in fact lie through their teeth if that was what it took to keep their children alive. Makes sense, and is deeply practical.

#29 ::: PixelFish ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 03:59 PM:

Sure, I don't NEED to know about 1840s birth control methods, but I personally find that sort of tidbit extremely interesting.

Incidentally I just finished reading The Great Influenza (another Macdonald recommendation) and found a review where the reviewer complained too much about the life stories of the individuals involved in reforming medicine in the United States, when that was the material I was finding fascinating. (Specifically he complained about a focus on Paul Lewis, even though quite a lot of space was devoted Welch, Flexner, Williams, and Park.) Seemingly he missed the point about how this entire circle of physicians and scientists changed the face of medicine in the US and made it possible for them to try combat the influenza, or how their policies were ignored by the Army or Woodrow Wilson. I guess it wasn't the narrative the reader was hoping for, but I found it terribly engrossing. These are the details that keep me on the track when reading historical non-fiction.

#30 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 04:02 PM:

In #25, Lee writes:

Bill, #18: And of course there's the Alferd Packer Grill at UC-Boulder...

Where I have dined. It's one of the first things my dad told me about Mr. Packer.

#31 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 04:09 PM:

One big difference between the Hinckley firestorm and the Donner disaster was the timescale. At Hinckley, the event took only a few hours; by the next morning strong men with locomotives were on-scene, bringing trainloads of relief supplies. Even the fastest-moving of the events with the Donners, on the other hand, took place over weeks-to-months, and one day was very much like another.

As for the Reeds and cannibalism: Very likely they didn't.

The major cannibalism events were in the Snowshoe Party, at Starved Camp, and at the lake after the Second Relief departed.

Margret Reed had four children with her (and they were nearly destitute, having lost all their cattle). James Reed had gone ahead to California, some five months before. None of them went with the Snowshoe Party. The First Relief arrived at Truckee Lake before supplies had entirely run out (though they were by then boiling hides and bones), and before anyone there had turned to cannibalism. Margret Reed and two of her children walked out with the First Relief, which had cached supplies along the way and soon enough ran into the Second Relief. The other two Reed children stayed at the Breen cabin.

The Second Relief, led by James Reed, arrived at Truckee Lake, before supplies ran out entirely and before anyone there had needed to resort to cannibalism (though the Donner encampment at Alder Creek, five miles on, had not been so fortunate).

Reed took his remaining two children with him when the Second Relief left and, when that party was trapped by a storm and split up on the pass, and those too feeble to go on remained, Reed took his children with him when he went. The ones who remained there, though, made up Starved Camp where, again, those who died fed the living. By then, though, Reed and his last two children were already below the snow line, traveling west and moving fast.

Things got bad at the lake after the Second Relief left, and by the time the Fourth Relief arrived, there was only one man living at the lake from the Donner Party--Louis Keseberg, certainly a cannibal, and very likely a murderer as well.

#32 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 04:28 PM:

Pixelfish @ #31, I recommend Gina Kolata's book "Flu", which tells the story of the attempts to sequence the virus's DNA from tissue samples of victims (shards frozen in Alaska and stored for years by the government). It almost fits the genre of thriller.

#33 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 04:32 PM:

There are actually three poison hemlocks, not counting the tree: Comium is the European genus, Cicuta the American, and Oenanthe the east Asian. They are all in the same family, they all look like parsnips, and all are quite poisonous; indeed, Wikipedia alleges that Cicuta (water hemlock) is the most poisonous plant in North America. (Your, uh, dosage may vary.) Various sources claim that Tsuga isn't poisonous, but here we have an old NYT story which begs to differ. OTOH, Oregon State says it's used as a food additive. The various herbalist shops claim it is useful for "menstrual cramps", which I seem to recall is a code phrase for an abortifacient. Hmmm... Millspaugh confirms the latter use.

#34 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 04:32 PM:

Lori Coulson @15 -- yes, but the one time I saw a poison hemlock grow (it was a volunteer in a friend's garden) it got well over six feet tall -- not common for carrots -- and was a single stalk -- not common for QAL; and the spotted stem (maculatum) was a dead giveaway, if you'll pardon me. That also makes it pretty easy to tell from fennel (and the leaf structure looks very different to me, again from one example). Hemlock's apparently a very nasty way to die, too.

FungiFromYuggoth @#27 -- another WPA fan here! Thanks for pushing me to check YouTube for more of them.

#35 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 04:46 PM:

"The Donner Party" is my favorite of all the great films I've seen on The American Experience.

I'd also like to recommend the early John Wayne film The Big Trail (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1930). Not about the Donner party, but about "wagons west." The way they filmed it was to build a bunch of Conestoga wagons (three-quarters scale) and put them on the trail. Crossing rivers? Up and down hills? The actors and crew had to do it. The plot is very ordinary, but the documentary aspects of it are fascinating.

#36 ::: JDC ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 05:02 PM:

I have this if-I-had-a-million-pounds fantasy of opening a kebab shop called "The Donner Party". And in the weeks before easter we will sell some sort of green coloured soy-burger product.

#37 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 05:12 PM:

the spotted stem (maculatum) was a dead giveaway

My 5th-grade class spent some time studying the local plants (this was back in 1980, when they could afford to spend time on things like that instead of high-stakes testing). The teacher explained that hemlock was easily confused with wild anise and Queen Anne's lace, and that it was important to know what you were looking at. "You can tell hemlock apart because it has red spots on its stem. Red... like blood... because it will KILL YOU DEAD. So look for the spots!"

Today, 27 years later, I am still in no danger of confusing hemlock with anything else. Heh.

#38 ::: Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 05:59 PM:


The tree was originally called 'hemlock fir', because its branches were supposed to look like hemlock (ie, Conium) leaves.

Later, when the fashion was to restrict the names 'pine' and 'fir' to Pinus and Abies species, the named was shortened to become even more misleading.

It's even worse than using 'mountain ash' for both rowan and Eucalyptus regnans.

#39 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 06:33 PM:

A bad joke we used to say way back when, while waiting to be called to a restaurant table -- they would announce "Johnson, party of 4" and other names that weren't us, and we'd say "Donner, party of 8." Another name would be called, and we'd reply "Donner, party of 7."

Well, it seemed funny back in our youth.

#40 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 07:37 PM:

Long-time Making Light readers will remember many survival axioms made manifest in the Donner story:

1. A non-survivable situation is just that. Try to stay out of non-survivable situations.

2. In a survival situation you live as long as your feet do.

3. Hypothermia and dehydration can kill you deader'n dirt by this time tomorrow.

4. Never ignore a warning.

5. Groups acting together can accomplish things that individuals can't.

6. Be aware of the situation and stay interested in what's going on around you.

#41 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 08:11 PM:

Interstate 80 goes through the pass now (as B. Durbin mentioned) and there are ski resorts all over the area. Might make a nice side trip from the 2011 Worldcon.

#42 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 08:17 PM:

Xopher @17: So there's really no irony in Tolkien having Beren "peer between the hemlock leaves" at Luthien? I thought they were representing the veil between the realms—which they kind of are, being evergreen, but clearly I was reading too much in.

Actually, Tolkien did explicitly identify those particular hemlocks as the non-treeish kind. The first two lines of the "Lay of Leithan" version published in FOTR are:

The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair

--although the ultimate reasons may've been personal rather than symbolic.

Extract from letter #165 (to Houghton-Mifflin in 1955):

Lúthien Tinúviel and Beren arose from a small woodland glade filled with "hemlocks" (or other white umbellifers) near Roos on the Holderness peninsula - to which I occasionally went when free from regimental duties while in the Humber Garrison in 1918.

Extract from letter #340 (shortly after the death of his wife, Edith, to their son Christopher in 1972):

I never called Edith Luthien-- but she was the source of that story [...] first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire[....] In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing-- and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.

#44 ::: Karen ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 09:12 PM:

4. Never ignore a warning. I respectfully suggest that this is not like the other five elements in your set, and not particularly good advice. Unless you qualify it as "never ignore the appropriate warning" and tell us how to spot those in advance. The other five are memorable and useful out of the box.

#45 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 09:38 PM:

Xopher @15:

So there's really no irony in Tolkien having Beren "peer between the hemlock leaves" at Luthien? I thought they were representing the veil between the realms—which they kind of are, being evergreen, but clearly I was reading too much in.
You might have misremembered your evergreens and crossed up yew and hemlock. Yew, Taxus baccata, is used to symbolize life and death, is often grown in European churchyards, is highly toxic, and was the poison of preference for suicidal Celts. Hemlock, Tsuga ssp., likewise a needly evergreen tree, happens to share its common name with a highly toxic umbellifer that was the poison of preference for suicidal Greeks.

#46 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 09:40 PM:

Karen @44, I foresee an Explanation in your future.

#47 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 09:54 PM:

Teresa @ #46 writes: Karen @44, I foresee an Explanation in your future.

Now that's good use of a capital letter! It's got grave import and foreshadowing all in one.

#48 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 10:15 PM:

FungiFromYuggoth (#25): Cerebrovore?

C. Wingate (#33): The various herbalist shops claim it is useful for "menstrual cramps", which I seem to recall is a code phrase for an abortifacient.

Really? A code phrase that is pretty much mutually exclusive with the intended purpose seems dangerous indeed.

#49 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 10:19 PM:

Let me elaborate:

Never ignore a warning, even if it makes no sense.

The fact that a warning exists is a red flag. It is reason to take a second look. If a warning has come to you in any manner or way, it means that something is not right, and it would behoove you to find out exactly what that thing is. This includes, but is not limited to, place names, rumors, and sideways glances by total strangers.

Warnings that come to you in dreams are enough, or should be enough, for you to get vigilant and recheck your current situation and your future plans.

#50 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2009, 10:25 PM:

I think that incident might have been the source for George Stewart's Storm. (Which I'd also recommend; it's also somewhat less harrowing than the Donner story.)

#51 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 12:50 AM:

I've had the remarkable experience of riding horseback through much of the country under discussion. The Western States ride starts up by Lake Tahoe and crosses the Sierras until you drop down into Auburn, CA. It's...boggling. Even all these years later, looking at the pictures on my walls, I'm sort of stunned at the magnitude of the task. And I can say firsthand, riding through Squaw Valley in August (right under chair-lifts, part of the way) there are still snow fields when you go over Emigrant Pass (discovered by Mormon settlers after the Donner Party disaster).

#52 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 01:09 AM:

Emigrant Gap that should've read. There's an Emigrant Pass, as well, but I think I've conflated the two.

#53 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 01:25 AM:

When I worked at summer camp, we'd always get calls as to whether Emigrant Gap Trail was open. (It was easier for Folsom-area Scouts to take that than to go by way of 88.) It was rarely snow-free before the 4th of July. (Minor road; no snowplowing.)

As to 2011 WorldCon, the Truckee Diner is nice but not worth a trip in and of itself. Perhaps as part of a day trip, though.

#54 ::: Torrilin ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 07:13 AM:

I'll also note that even today, the bike community keeps a *close* watch out on people doing transcontinental American and Canadian trips. The Appalachians will make the biker wish they could die. The Rockies can kill you, and many of the publicized routes have stern warnings about which passes to take and when... and local residents will post warnings if there are late snowstorms, or if their pass is staying closed even a day later than usual.

And this is for people who mostly can go 40 miles in a day when lazing about. The Donner party was mostly doing 10-15.

So if you do what the average biker does and consider what can go wrong, think about possible solutions, and have a backup plan... I'd say you're not ignoring a warning. And reevaluate things often. If you'd planned on 40 miles a day, and are going 80, it can be just as bad as planning on 20 and doing 10.

#55 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 09:22 AM:

The Snowshoe Party was aiming for Emigrant Gap, but they missed it, because the only member of their party who knew where it was had died (Charles Staunton, the first one to die; when the rest broke camp one morning he said, "I'll catch up to you in a bit," or words to that effect, and was last seen sitting and smoking his pipe). Instead they went down the North Fork of the American River, through incredibly difficult terrain.

#56 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 11:06 AM:

debcha @48: C. Wingate is right. Most of the emmenagogues can bring on a miscarriage. The difference here is the dosage. Enough to start a "late" period is much less than that to produce an abortion.

The big problem is that a dose that will cause a miscarriage can be enough to kill the unfortunate woman who uses it.

#57 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 11:21 AM:

The small difference between a lethal and a therapeutic dose is a common problem in many drugs (e.g. curare).

#58 ::: Kristin Johnson ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 11:49 AM:

The foregoing is another example of a reader's -- in this case, the blogger's -- overlooking an author's use of MAY HAVE and turning it into WAS. Daniel James Brown wrote that oil of hemlock had numerous medicinal uses, ONE of which was as an abortifacient, and that Sarah's mother MAY have had that use in mind. There is no evidence that Sarah used it or anything else. The fact that she did not conceive is not evidence of contraception. Fertility is chancy at best, and while some women get pregnant on their wedding nights, this is by no means the rule. Ovulation in women is linked to body fat levels and several months of strenuous activity -- crossing the plains was no picnic -- might very well have affected Sarah's fertility.

As for the comments about "Mary" (actually Virginia) Reed lying about not resorting to eating human flesh: Every witness, rescuers and survivors alike, agree that when the First Relief left with the Reeds and others, there had been no cannibalism at Donner Lake. Cannibalism did not start there until the last week of February 1847, after the Reeds' departure. If anyone is interested finding out more, please see my FAQ page at

#59 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 11:54 AM:

The foregoing is another example of a reader's -- in this case, the blogger's -- overlooking an author's use of MAY HAVE and turning it into WAS.

The blogger did no such thing.

#60 ::: Kristin Johnson ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 12:50 PM:

?? Did you not write, "Contraception also explains why young Mrs. Fosdick wasn’t heavily pregnant by the time she came to walk out of the camp on snowshoes"? You didn't say "contraception may explain," or "contraception would explain," you say "contraception explains" -- i.e., that Sarah did use it.

AFAIK, Dan mentions hemlock oil only once in his book (p. 70) and suggests merely that Mrs. Graves *may have had* its use as a contraceptive in mind. Is there another passage where he states or implies that Sarah used it?

#61 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 01:02 PM:

Kristin @60
"Contraception explains" isn't at all the same thing as "Contraception is the only thing that explains" and I doubt any of the regulars in the discussion would read it that way.

Nice Donner FAQ, by the way.

#62 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 01:12 PM:

Karen #44:

I offer up the following common Texas road sign: "Observe Warning Signs State Law".

#63 ::: Kristin Johnson ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 01:57 PM:


"Contraception explains" isn't at all the same thing as "Contraception is the only thing that explains": I tend to disagree; it certainly doesn't acknowledge the existence of other explanations, but I'm willing to let the matter rest.

Glad you like the FAQ page! If you want so see why I'm so picky, check out my "Brief Myths" page, which lists several examples of suggestions and interpretations becoming entrenched "truths" of the Donner Party:

#64 ::: Joe McMahon ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 02:14 PM:

Tom @ 36 - Yep; I remember reading an account of a poisoning in a book on poisonous wild plants back when I was in junior high; I had hit on Euell Gibbons and was investigating the local wild edibles. The description was vivid and grisly enough that I stayed well away from anything that even looked like it *might* be poison hemlock.

Socrates had it easy compared to the kid in the description; from what I remember of it, it sounded as if he was experiencing multiple organ failure over about 24-hour period while conscious for all of it. Grim indeed.

#65 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 02:20 PM:

A tangential point: much to my astonishment, not only did it transpire that HarperCollins publish "The Indifferent Stars Above" as an ebook, but it's available in a variety of formats including (hurray!) one that I can crack the DRM on, thus disinhibiting me from buying it. (The price is a somewhat sucky 80% of the hardcover retail, however.)

I think I know what my trans-Atlantic non-fiction reading is going to be, now.

#66 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 02:36 PM:

Kristin @63

Yep - I saw the mythbusting link when I was perusing your page late last night. I was delighted, as well, to find so much primary-source material (the Relief party diaries, etc.)

There's a remarkable thing about dramatic historical events that are well (or even sketchily) documented: they give us a series of snapshots, that--humans being inclined towards narrative explanations--we assemble into a story, to explain the hows and whys of those events. And a blog full of novelists, editors, and voracious readers may be especially inclined towards that kind of narrative activity. :-)

#67 ::: Lisa L. Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 03:01 PM:

Xopher in #15 wrote:

So there's really no irony in Tolkien having Beren "peer between the hemlock leaves" at Luthien?

That's because Tolkien was remembering watching his beloved wife dancing in a hemlock glade when they were courting. He was Beren to her Luthien, and are thus identified on their tombstones.

#68 ::: Kristin Johnson ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 03:04 PM:


You're bang on: it's SO tempting to fill in the gaps, construct people and events from the scraps of information we have about them. Many a time I've wished I were a novelist so I *could* state inference as fact -- but then I think how often I've proved myself wrong after doing more research.

For instance, years ago I felt sorry for Sarah's brother William C. Graves -- no family, no success in life, just an obscure blacksmith; no wonder he felt bitter toward Reed the rich man. Then I started finding out more about ol' Billy and decided he wasn't so pathetic after all.

It's very interesting to read all the ideas people have about the Donner Party, not just here but all over the web. A folklorist would have a field day!

#69 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 03:48 PM:

Lori Coulson, #56: Most of the emmenagogues can bring on a miscarriage. The difference here is the dosage. Enough to start a "late" period is much less than that to produce an abortion.

Ah. I normally think of menstrual cramps as occurring during menstruation, in which case an abortifacient wouldn't exactly be useful. So it wouldn't cross my mind that 'relieves menstrual cramping' would be code for 'induces miscarriage.'

I'm kind of a fan of clear, non-coded warnings ('Relieves menstrual cramps. Warning: Not for use if you are or may be pregnant, as it may induce miscarriage. Exceeding recommended doses may result in death.') But I guess that might be seen as tacitly encouraging abortion (in kind of the same way as it encourages suicide, I guess). Le sigh.

#70 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 04:53 PM:

debcha, #69: Not only that, but your "clear, non-coded warning" could get a woman into a whole shit-pot of trouble in many historical periods and social milieux.

#71 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 10:02 PM:

And a correction to #50, which was intended for last night when things went poof:

I take that one back: Storm is from 1941. It's still worth reading. (Apparently it was the inspiration for giving names to storms, so you can blame him for Katrina.)

#72 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 10:52 PM:

P J @ #71, yeah, that's the one my mother remembers. To my astonishment, when I showed her my copy of Stewart's "Ordeal" she told me he'd been one of her literature professors at Berkeley in the early 1940s.

#73 ::: Gillian ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2009, 08:46 PM:

North of Truckee on highway 89 there's a picnic area, the Donner Camp Picnic Area, at Alder Creek. It's a really beautiful spot, especially in the fall. There's no way to tell where the actual camp was, and they keep it that way as they don't want to lose anymore evidence if there is any.

There's more than one Donner Pass too, I think there's two that were used before the rail and road went through, there's the one the train goes through, and there's the one highway 40 went through (anyone read Earth Abides by George R. Stewart?) and the one interstate 80 goes through now.

There's a bunch of Donner stuff to look at if one takes a side trip up there, and just plain gorgeous scenery.

#74 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: May 11, 2009, 05:49 PM:

Gillian @ #73 I own two copies of "Earth Abides," not because I loved the book (although it's very good) but because I tend to forget what I've already got when in used bookstores.

#75 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2009, 06:15 PM:

I interpreted "never ignore a warning" as being similar to Gavin DeBecker's comment that "fear always has your best interest in mind." Neither means that you have to run in panic every time someone says something admonitory, or every time something makes you uneasy; it just means "pay attention".

#76 ::: Elaine ::: (view all by) ::: May 31, 2009, 01:58 PM:

I finished it yesterday, and found it digressive, detailed, and a fascinating account of what happened. Even though I knew what was going to happen, and how it was going to end, Brown's understated writing style made it an unsettling, even upsetting, read.

There's a terrible sense of inevitability as the book goes on, especially as Brown discusses the later lives of the survivors. McGlashan's book (which I read thanks to makes their respective endings a little lighter in tone; Brown's account feels far darker.

#77 ::: Paul Dellechiaie ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2011, 11:09 AM:

A plant called Sylphium was used in antiquity as a contraceptive. The prized species grew in a limited geographic range in, IIRC, north Africa. The plant was highly profitable to the cities that traded it and thus so revered that its likeness made its way onto their coinage. It was apparently foraged to extinction circa 100 BCE.

Enter Queen Anne's Lace/ Wild Carrot (hereafter abbreviated QAL). Its seed had also been used as a contraceptive in ancient times. It wasn't widely used until Sylphium became unavailable as it was recognized as an inferior substitute due to higher toxicity and lower efficacy. It was, by default, the mainstay during the middle ages. Other Sylphium species apparently weren't even as usable as QAL.

As far as I can tell, both were consumed as seed and chewed, rather than being pressed for oil. (I'm guessing that the lack of small, sealable containers for liquid was the issue.)

I'll have to research when and where hemlock oil came into use. I also haven't been able to find any info on modern Carrot cultivars in this context, but I also haven't looked that hard. Both were late enough to be beyond the scope of the research that led me to the info on Sylphium and QAL. (If anyone is really interested in what lead me to that research, email me at pauld60258aolcom.)

The toxins in this family of plants are generally terpenoids, broadly speaking members of the family of chemicals responsible for, among other things, the odor of turpentine and the general awfulness of creosote. It is thought that the terpenoid contraceptives act by hindering the embryo's ability to implant itself in the uterine lining.

#78 ::: Paul Dellechiaie ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2011, 10:08 AM:

"Donner Camp Picnic Area"? Am I the only one who thinks that someone in the parks department (or whatever they call it) had a really sick sense of humor?

That "Donner, party of 8... 7..." gag is an old standby in geekly circles for those interminable waits in restaurant lines. The irreverent part of my mind wants to guess that the first time it was used was before the ink was dry on the original newspaper accounts. The part of my mind that knows something about history is pretty sure that there was nothing quite like the informal atmosphere that often surrounds restaurant dining today, especially the sort we SFnal types seem to prefer, and that the first time was therefore likelier sometime in the mid-to-late 20th century.

-- Paul

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