Never mind that most of the group members were not Donners; or that the family itself camped about six miles away from most of the other families; or that the chosen route that had led to the party's despair was not selected by the Donners, but by James F. Reed, who, coincidentally, survived the tragedy.
Cannibalism accepted as fact
For a century and a half, the American public has essentially labeled the Donner Party, and, by extension the Donner family, as cannibals. The sensationalized media reports that first emerged after the rescue of the Donner Party became widely accepted with time, although they were based mostly on unreliable first-person reports and gossip (Donner cannibalism, 2006). In fact, Eliza Poor Donner Houghton, a member of the party, recalls how Donner Party members would read supposed first-person accounts in newspapers and become shocked with how remarkably accurate information was interspersed with wild fabrications and innuendo (Houghton, 1911).
Descendants of Donner Party members bemoan how, to this day, the first thing that comes to the minds of many Americans when they think of the Donner Party is cannibalism (Candiotti, 1996). "We get tired of the focus on the cannibalism. it's not a big part of the story. The strength it took to survive and the contributions they made to the settlement of California are more important," said Joseph Williamson of Corte Madera, great-grandson of survivor Nancy Graves (Candiotti, 1996).
The Donner family link to stories of cannibalism caused surviving members of the family, and their descendants, to face a degree of ostracism, even though survivors and their forebears insist that the Donner family never participated in cannibalism (Bailey, 2006). In fact, there is some growing evidence that supports the Donner family claims. According to findings announced by a University of Oregon and University of Montana research team in 2006, there was no evidence found at the Donner family campsite that suggested the family ever resorted to cannibalism (Donner cannibalism, 2006).
The research team studied bone fragments and other debris from the site, looking for tell-tale evidence such as bones cut by tools or bones that developed a polish from being boiled - no such evidence was found. Dr. Julie Schablitsky, one of the leaders of the research team, said the stories about the Donner Party had fallen victim to "sensationalized media accounts," as well as "false assumptions and oversimplifications" (Donner cannibalism, 2006). Donner family descendents said they were pleased by the research, pointing out that relatives had steadfastly maintained that no one from the Donner family had ever engaged in cannibalism.
Of course, Schablitsky herself admits the research is not perfect, and that there are not enough surviving bone fragments to make a definitive analysis that there were no instances of cannibalism at the Donner family camp site (Donner cannibalism, 2006) but, at any rate, before we label the Donner family as cannibals, we ought to have some scientific proof, and that proof is non-existent.
It is impossible to say for sure that no members of the Donner Party ever engaged in cannibalism. The first-hand reports may be unreliable and, at times, inconsistent, but they do exist. Members of the Donner Party and the crews that rescued them both claim that cannibalism, at least at some level, occurred. However, it is important to remember that there were several different families that comprised the Donner Party. It is possible that some of the families resorted to cannibalism, but not others. What is clear is that members of the Donner family have steadfastly maintained that they did not engage in cannibalism, and science so far has backed up their claims.
The story of the Donner Party has the power to elicit emotions of both admiration and dread. On one hand, it is a story of great loss and survival under unbelievably difficult odds. but, at the same time, the difficulties inherent to the struggles of the Donner Party may have led to extremes, such as cannibalism.
It may be the fate of the Donner family to have its name forever linked to both the best and the worst that the story of the Donner Party represents. It is an interesting circumstance, given that the party could have just as easily have been named the "Reed Party." After all, James Reed arguably had been the leader of the party and it was certainly his idea to pursue a shortcut that had dreadful consequences (Burns, 1997). If it hadn't been for Reed's off-putting demeanor, he perhaps would have been elected captain and would have had his family name forever linked to the events of that terrible winter.
Instead, the decision to name George Donner captain forever made the Donners the face of a both great and terrible story of human survival. Donner's captaincy of the group, along with sensational media reports of cannibalism that eventually were accepted as fact, conspired to link the Donner family with acts of cannibalism it may have never committed.
The evidence so far is not conclusive. What we do know is that Donner family members have steadfastly maintained that they never resorted to cannibalism, despite what any of the other families may have done - and, at this point, science supports their claims. Until such time as it can be definitively proven that the Donner family resorted to cannibalism, it is to some degree an injustice that the family name remains linked to these infamous acts. It is an injustice that history, science and time may one day resolve, undoubtedly with thanks from this famous - and, to some degree, notorious -- American family.
Map of Donner Party route from Independence, Missouri
Bailey, Eric (2006). "No proof found of Donner cannibalism." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 13, 2006.
Burns, Ric (1997). "American Experience: The Donner Party." Retrieved Oct. 9, 2006 at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/donner/maps/index.html
Distressing news (1847). The California Star. Feb 13, 1847. Retrieved Oct. 10, 2006 at http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist6/donner.html.