Here lately I’ve developed this odd craving for history. So much so that I’ve returned to yet another serving of “Nightmares” an old paperback of some pretty doggone dark short stories. Spine torn, ripped, cracked cover, curled pages, its been on my nightstand for years. After reading the stories for the umpteenth time, Daughter of the Golden West by author Dennis Etchison, stuck in my head and I wondered if there was maybe some truth to this story so I googled some of the names and places mentioned.
Let me just say truth is stranger or in this bit of California lore, more gruesome than fiction. The story centers on three high school boys, although one is already dead, his mutilated body having already been found by a roadside way on the outskirts of town. The remaining two, Don and David, decides to go looking for the last person their friend was with, a girl that had transferred to their school toward the end of the school year.
First, they had to go to the registrar’s office to get her current address, because strangely enough, she got out of dodge once school was out. David lies that he’d loaned her a book and needed it back. That was enough to get them on the right track. She lived with her sister some hour and a half drive away in a town called Sunnydale.
Cathy was her name and she’d been helping Bob with his term paper. Don and David had obtained the paper from the history teacher. Don starts reading the draft, which was far as Bob had gotten. “He was really into something strange,” he notes as they head out of town. The something strange or grim, depending on how you look at it, had to do with The Donner Party or Donner-Reed Party.
Back in the day, apparently folks from the East took wagon trains to California to settle. At the time, most followed the already established Oregon Trail, a route that usually took around four to six months. April 1846, these families and their employees left Springfield, Illinois with no clue they were headed toward what would become one of the grimmest tragedies in the history of westbound migration.
Short story shorter, the Donner-Reed party left the Oregon Trail and took a lesser known route called Hastings Cutoff. This would turn out to be a big huge gigantic mistake. In August they crossed the Wasatch Mountains and Great Salt Lake Desert. By November they were hopelessly snowbound in the pass above what was then Truckee Lake, now Donner Lake. Eighty-seven souls trapped high up in the Sierra Nevada.
Mid-December, fifteen of them, dubbed the “forlorn hope group”, went in search of help. Of the fifteen, seven survived by eating the ox hide in their snowshoes and wait for it, their fallen comrades.
Meanwhile, those left behind were dying of exposure, mal-nourishment, starvation and other ailments. It would be months before help arrived. One family having eaten everything, even the ox hide rug and covering on the roof, resorted to eating the family dog.
Side Note: It’s been said the lake were not frozen over when the parties first arrived. Supposedly, they were too ill-equipped to catch the fish. As such they lost a potential source of food that could’ve been life-sustaining, or at the very least could’ve saved them having to resort to eating one another.
By all accounts, those people turned to cannibalism. Daughter of the Golden West was implying of course this Cathy was a descendant of The Donner-Reed Party. Don and David arrived just in time for dinner and guess what or who was on the menu? Bon appetite.
Would love if this could be made into a great movie or a series like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful or something.
Just thought of something. Imagine being on a show like Who Do You Think You Are or doing a family tree search and find out you’re a descendant of cannibals…