Lessons From The Donner Party

The Tragic Fate of the Donner Party, 1847

The following is a true historical account of the Donner Party incident of 1847. With some added Gooner reflections…

In mid April 1846, eight families, gathered at Springfield, Illinois, with a common goal – to find a better life beyond the Rockies. Numbering about thirty-two members that ranged in age from infants to the elderly, the expedition pointed their nine brand-new wagons west on a journey that would lead them into history.

This strikes me as being much like the journey Arsenal embarked upon when striking out to build their new stadium, The Emirates, another “fateful” decision. 

The trek had been organized by James Reed, a businessman who hoped to prosper in California. George Donner, a sixty-year-old farmer was chosen as the wagon train’s captain and the expedition took his name. They estimated it would take four months to accomplish their objective. As they traveled to the Mississippi River they joined other adventurers with the same goal until their caravan stretched for two miles while under way. Although tedious, their journey was uneventful until reaching the small trading post at Fort Bridger in modern-day Wyoming in mid-July. Here a fateful decision was made. Before leaving Illinois, James Reed had heard of a newly discovered route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that promised to cut as many as 300 miles off their journey, much as the club believed that Arsenal’s stadium revenue would allow the club to challenge the largest clubs in world football.

It was at Fort Bridger that some eighty-seven members of the wagon train, including the Donner brothers and their families, decided to separate from the main body and travel this new route west. Among them was a happy, positive, and united family group. They were known as the Gooner Family.

All of those who traveled the old route ended their journey safely. This was not the case with those who took the alternative path. The culprit was snow. As the Donner Party approached the summit of the Sierra Mountains near Truckee Lake, they found the pass clogged with new-fallen snow up to six feet deep. I believe this unexpectedly heavy fall of snow to be a metaphor for the unexpected largesse of the Sheikhs and Oligarchs who bought their way into the Premier League.

It was October 28, 1846 and the Sierra snows had started a month earlier than usual. They retreated to the lake twelve miles below where the hapless pioneers were trapped, unable to move forward or back. Shortly before, the Donner family had suffered a broken axle on one of their wagons and fallen behind. It would have been around now that the whore, Adebayore, would have done a runner.

Also trapped by the snow, they set up camp at Alder Creek six miles from the main group. Each camp erected make-shift cabins and horded their limited supply of food. A metaphor for Arsene promoting youth players, no doubt. The snow continued to fall, reaching a depth of as much as twenty feet, or between $1 Bn and $2Bn in dosh getting pissed away at City and Chelski. Hunting and foraging were impossible and soon they slaughtered the oxen that had brought them from the East. And the Gooners sold Fabregas and Nasri.

James Reed and His Wife

James Reed and his wife Margaret
Note: The resemblance to van Persie and Nasri is uncanny

When this meat was consumed, they relied on the animals’ tough hides. But it was not enough. Starvation began to take its toll. With no other remedy at hand, the survivors resorted to cannibalism. Also, the Gooner Family was mean to each other, and blamed each other & the manager and any fucker whose opinion disagreed with theirs on twitter.

On Christmas Eve, as a 23-year-old man named Antoine, a bachelor, slept in a heavy stupor, he stretched out his arm such that his hand fell into the fire. A companion pulled it out at once. When it fell in a second time, however, no one intervened–they simply let it burn. Antoine died, then Franklin Graves, then Patrick Dolan, then Lemuel Murphy. The others cut off and roasted flesh from the corpses, restrained only by the rule that no one would partake of his or her own relative’s body. (That’s an actual FFP rule.) When the corpses were consumed, the survivors began eating old shoes. (Please! He wasn’t very good but that’s no way to talk about Gervinho.)

On January 5, 23-year-old Jay Fosdick died, only to be cut up and boiled by Mrs. Foster over the protests of Mrs. Fosdick. Soon after, the frenzied Mr. Foster chased down, shot, and killed the two Indians to eat them. That left 7 of the original 15 snowshoers to stagger into the first white settlement in California (Bloody Wenger always did cut his small squad sizes too small, and once again we all suffer for it), after a midwinter trek of 33 days through the snow.

On January 31 the first rescue team set out from the settlement for Donner Lake. It would take three more teams and two and a half months before the ordeal was all over. Think “Nike, Puma and Emirates deals.” During that time many more died, either in the winter camp or while fighting their way out with the rescue teams. There was never enough food, and by the end of February, cannibalism had established itself at the lake, funnily enough, just in time for the annual end of season slump.

William Eddy and William Foster returned, (they were the original “LANS”) having gotten out with the snowshoers, and reached the lake with the third rescue team on March 13 to find that Keseberg had eaten their sons. The Foster child’s grandmother accused the starving Keseberg of having taken the child to bed with him one night, strangling him, and hanging the corpse on the wall before eating it. Keseberg, in his defense, claimed the children had died naturally. To be fair, that’s the line I’d have gone with too.

When the rescuers left the lake the next day to return to California, they left Keseberg behind with just four others: the elderly Lavina Murphy, the badly injured George Donner, his 4-year-old nephew Samuel, and his healthy wife Tamsen, who could have traveled but insisted on staying with her dying husband. Yes, they left Keseberg (the Darren Dein of this story) alone with four other living people (players.)

The fourth and last rescue team reached the lake on April 17 to find Keseberg alone, surrounded by indescribable filth and mutilated corpses. George Donner’s body lay with his skull split open to permit the extraction of his brains. (Fabregas got sold to Barcelona.) Three frozen ox legs lay in plain view almost uneaten beside a kettle of cut-up human flesh. Near Keseberg sat two kettles of blood and a large pan full of fresh human liver and lungs. (Ahaa. Park Chu Young finally explained.) He alleged that his four companions had died natural deaths, but he was frank about having eaten them. As to why he had not eaten ox leg instead, he explained that it was too dry: human liver and lungs tasted better, and human brains made a good soup. (Good to know.)

As for Tamsen Donner, Keseberg noted that she tasted the best, being well endowed with fat. (Charming. But perhaps that’s why we kept Arshavin in such Veal-like shape.)

In a bundle held by Keseberg the rescuers found silk, jewelry, pistols, and money that had belonged to George Donner. (Agents don’t work for free.)

After returning to Sutter’s Fort, one of the rescuers accused Keseberg of having murdered his companions, (“Who, me? Never!”)

This prompted Keseberg to sue for defamation of character. In the absence of legal proof of murder the court verdict was equivocal, and the issue of Keseberg’s guilt remains disputed to this day. However, Tamsen Donner’s death is especially suspicious since she had been in strong physical condition when last seen by the third rescue team.

Thus, out of 87 Donner Party members, 40 died: 5 before reaching Donner Lake, 22 in their winter camp at the lake, and 13 (plus the two Indians) during or just after efforts to leave the lake. (This was probably the last bunch you want to hang with, if you’re an Indian.) 

Why did those particular 40 not survive? The worst toll was among the young and the old. Without exception, everyone over the age of 50 died, as did most of the children below the age of 5. Surprisingly, children and teenagers between the ages of 5 and 19 fared better than did adults in their prime (age 20 to 39): half the latter, but less than one-fifth of the former, died. (PS: And the Indians died because they were Indians.)

Somewhat surprisingly, Diaby was fine. Not a scratch. Came out unscathed and stating that he was in the shape of his life and looking forward to the next season.

By looking at the effects of age and sex simultaneously, the advantage the women had over the men becomes even more striking. Most of the female deaths were among the youngest and oldest, who were already doomed by their age. Among those party members aged 5 to 39–the ones whose ages left them some reasonable chance of survival–half the men but only 5% of the women died. On the plus side, this was the one year that Arsenal did not top the Injury League Table . The Donner Party crushed it.

Also, on the plus side, those who didn’t get eaten by their own families, got to stick around and return to the relative comfort of 1840’s life. Or for surviving Gooners, the FA Cup. Good times. I always like a story with a happy ending.