Sunday, March 08, 2015

Donner Party Later On...

NOT the Breens

The latest issue of the East Bay Monthly (out of Berkeley) contains my article about J. Ross Browne, a famous-but-lost-to-time author who dined with members of the Breen family after their rescue from what is now called Donner Lake. His imagination got the best of him and he imagined his hosts as blood-thirsty cannibals, which is actually very sad when we consider that they were not ghouls but people pushed to the outer limits of hunger.

How can any of us predict how we would act in the same circumstances? The urge to live is strong, and the Donner Party people lived under the hope that rescue was imminent if they could just hold out one more day. All accounts show how desperate and shamed the people were who had to partake in human flesh. Definitely not their first choice!

The article can be found here.

One unexpected bonus of this article is that I was contacted via email by a descendant of the Breens. She very graciously and diplomatically pointed out that the photo that ran with the article, identifying Patrick and Margret Breen, was not in fact of a photo of them. I thanked her profusedly, offered to collect an oral history, and let her know that I would pass the information along to the magazine. The magazine will be running a correction. In the meantime....I'm so excited to have had email contact with someone with a true connection to the Donners. She is my version of a celebrity!

J. Ross Browne's lithograph of a sperm whale hunt

The photographs and illustrations that ran with the story (including a great lithograph of a sperm whale surfacing, about to be harpooned: J. Ross Browne's harrowing stories of whale hunting inspired no less than Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick)  were under the magazine's art direction, and it'd be hard to fault them for using that photograph. That photograph is circulated everywhere with the misidentification of the couple depicted; it reminds me of another situation, in which a portrait has been repeatedly shared on the web as depicting Mary Bliss Parsons. It's not. There are no known portraits of Mary Bliss Parsons, my ancestor accused of witchcraft on at least two occasions. Here's my blog post about that particular situation. 

Anyway, I think it's important to remember that some people's lives continued after the disaster in the Sierra. Marysville, California, for instance, is named for Mary Murphy, another Donner Party survivor, and many went on to become important town leaders wherever they settled. Louis Keseberg: another matter.

Speaking of other matters, my friend Lynn Carthage's book Haunted: The Arnaud Legacy launched last week, and I've been watching her progress with interest. The book is a young adult neo-Gothic thriller (a fancy way of saying "haunted mansion story") and I highly recommend it.

Members of local Historical Novels Society help Lynn Carthage launch her novel. From left,
Erin McCabe (I Shall Be Near to You), Susan Spann (Blade of the Samurai),
Jennifer Laam (Secret Daughter of the Tsar), and Lynn Carthage.
Three other HNS folks were at the reading but unfortunately departed before
photo time: Mark Weideranders, Kathy Boyd Fellure, and Pam Munn.

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