Deceived The Story of the Donner Party
Peter Limburg 1998 249 pages

There are so many books about the Donner Party (see our book review web pages for examples) that one can hardly imagine how another book could add to the telling of the story.   Nevertheless our editorial team saw the title, “Deceived,” and thought maybe here was another variation with a different emphasis - something new, and the title certainly grabs you and raises your expectations.

There follows the prologue which cements the grab.  Titled, “Christmas Day 1846” it takes the reader into the camp of the Forlorn Hope. Only twelve are alive of the fifteen who started for California. They were going for help and were the strongest of the Donner Party but they were hungry, exhausted and despairing.  Their leader had died four days before and two others had just died. A man became delirious pulling off his clothes.  The others tried to restrain him.  He lapsed into a coma and died.  The survivors partly cannibalized him.  

What a start.

Just before the prologue is a nice series of maps to orient the reader to the story and especially see the Hastings Cutoff which is central to any retelling of the Donner Party.  Part of that series is printed here.

There follows a retelling of the story with no new analysis such as other modern books like Donner Party, Weathering the Storm, Donner Party Chronicles, or Desperate Passage (see the book review page on our website or the April, ’16, February, ’17, and May, ’14 Heirlooms respectively).  There is a list of Donner Party members, a section on going to California, an introduction to main characters, a summary of Lansford Hastings’ book, Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, background to the Black Hawk War in which some characters participated, general information about how wagon companies worked, general routines, wagon types, how people lived on the trail, etc.  There are some useful tips in case you go traveling like how to cook with buffalo chips and what to do when your wagon wheels shrink in the dry climate.

Some of those details are not to be found in other books. There is also a nice collection of photographs and drawings.  At the end Virginia Reed’s letter to her cousin is printed and there is an extensive bibliography.

Even though we know the story, the story is still compelling reading as the Party struggles through the Wasatch and then the desert, have oxen run off or shot by Indians, makes bad decisions, abandons wagons, and experiences bad luck, perfidy, personality issues, murder, accident, bad faith, etc. It’s an amazing story and Limburg chooses good quotes from various sources to illustrate the story, some of which you can see here.

Given that the book is called, “Deceived the Story of the Donner Party” the reader would expect to see deception as a major theme in the book. Certainly one would expect a comparison of the various causes of the tragedy that would point to deception as a major cause.  There is none of that though.  Deceptions are just one of many causes.  Certainly there was deception with Lansford Hasting’s deceptions at the top of the list.  Those are followed by other deceptions but in Deceived… those are given no more attention than any of the other elements that went into the tragedy.  So the title is kind of a deception too.

There are errors.  Limburg has apparently not been to the area and confuses Donner Pass with Roller Pass (pg 102) and because of that got the process of crossing the pass wrong.  Limburg has the Donner Party, or parts of it, trying to go up what is clearly Roller Pass when in actuality the Donner Party attempted to go up Donner Pass.  Later Limburg has one of the rescue parties camping at the headwaters of the Yuba in Summit Valley five miles from the pass and five hundred feet below it.  That might be true if the Donner Party was using Roller Pass but not Donner Pass.  It’s not five miles and Donner Pass is not 500 feet above Summit Valley.  It’s a small thing but one of the great heroes of the Donner Party tragedy was John Stark, not John Starks.   It’s not a simple “typo” because the error is repeated a number of times.  To be fair Jesse Quinn Thornton in Oregon and California in 1848 refers to Mr. Stark as “Starks” but that just goes to show Limburg’s over reliance on Thornton (see below).  A careful checking with other sources would turn up “Stark” however.

A larger complaint beyond deceptions and some errors is offhand comments Limburg makes.   For example when talking about the rescuees being led along Donner Lake, “This day, too, the survivors took their time, as if they were on a pleasure outing.”  There is no evidence for the “pleasure outing” slight at the end of the sentence.  The survivors did move slowly but they were tramping through snow and must have had little energy because they were starving (pg 182).   At what would become Staved Camp in Summit Valley Limburg delves into the rescuees’ inner thoughts, “The parents moaned about the cold but didn’t lift a finger to help get firewood. Why should they?  The rescuers were getting paid to do it, weren’t they? Chances were, that smart alecky rich man Jim Reed, with his superior ways, was getting more money than all the rest of them!”  Really?  The storm was howling, the people were starving, exhausted, and exposed to the elemental fury of the storm. They had no energy having expended what they had slogging through the snow climbing a thousand feet from Donner Lake to the pass.  Would the survivors really refuse to help gather firewood to save their lives to spite James Reed and the rescuers?  They were not thinking clearly as happens with hunger which can be validated by the fact that some stayed behind when James Reed led part of the group on after the storm passed. Would they have put so much thought into analyzing things and then refuse to help save their own lives?  Just a bit later Limburg says, “Reed lay unconscious and near death.”  Really?  This is the same guy who would get up later and lead the group out of the mountains.  How close to death could he have been? Reed did go blind for a time.  Perhaps part of the issue is Limburg’s heavy reliance on Jesse Quinn Thornton’s book Oregon and California in 1848 which, along with his booklet Camp of Death, were among the very first tellings of the story.  Just being first and a primary source does not mean accuracy.  Just a bit further down the page from the above, Limburg, in an unattributed quote from Thornton’s book has a hysterical Mrs. Breen going into a “vicious tirade” accusing Reed of luring her family away from their comfortable cabin at the lake to freeze. This is the same Mrs. Breen who would refuse to leave Starved Camp with Reed to saver her life.  Was Thornton’s rendition correct that Mrs. Breen would rather really freeze?  Mr. Thornton did exaggerate things a bit for the sensational.  So his writing should not be taken completely literally.

In Thornton’s short book, Camp of Death (reviewed in the July, ’17 Heirloom) Thornton accused Keseburg of “devouring a child before morning” rather than eat beef.  Then he devoured another child before noon the next day.  Quinn continued saying, “A man is a fool who prefers poor California beef to human flesh.”  Keseburg did eat human flesh but could he have devoured one child one day and another the next? That strains credulity, put into question a lot of other things he said and  shows that primary sources are not necessarily the best sources.

There there’s a just plain stupid quote about Starved Camp, “Bones and other repellent remains of a human dinner lay scattered about, for Mrs. Breen’s housekeeping had become very lax.” If one was writing a tasteless parody of the Donner experience that sentence might have a place but in a serious work?

There are quite a few other problematical quotes or “insights” such as (pg 213) saying the John Sutter started a joke about Lewis Keseberg’s boat passengers being afraid he’d eat them if they went aground.  “It was the kind of thing that was his idea of a joke.”  Another insight has Keseberg eating Tamsen Donner “in some warped spirit of admiration, hoping to gain her good qualities by devouring her.”  There’s no evidence for that.

Then there’s a final insight about why more men died than women (pg 220).  The men were indoctrinated with the philosophy that a real man should be able to conquer every obstacle and provide for his family.  When it became painfully clear that they could not do this, many lost self-confidence and the will to live.”  That kind of “analysis” should be backed up with analysis of who died when.   It’s not and other authors have noted that the men who died first were all single with no families.

I still think Desperate Passage is the best Donner Party book.

“it would have taken a determined man to induce the party to leave the fire. Had I been well, and able to push ahead over the ridge, some, if not all, would have followed, As it was, all lay down upon the snow, and from exhaustion were soon asleep. In the night, I felt something impeding my breath. A heavy weight seemed to be setting upon me.  Springing up to a siting posture, I found myself covered with freshly fallen snow.  The camp, the cattle, my companions, had all disappeared. All I could see was now everywhere. I shouted at the top of m my voice. Suddenly, here and there, all about me, heads popped up through the snow.  The scene as not unlike what one might imagine oat the resurrection, when people rise up out of the earth.  The terror amounted to panic.”

Lewis Keseberg  (pg 109) quoted about the Party at the west end of Donner Lake at the bottom of the pass and why they did not immediately attempt to cross upon arrival.

“With heavy hearts we turned back to a cabin that had been built… two years before… and prepared as best we could for winter.” Virginia Reed  (pg 111)

‘The survivors looked like living corpses – barely living. As Thornton later wrote, they were emaciated and ghastly pale, and their skin seemed to have dried tight on their bones. To the appalled rescuers it seemed as if their shout had awakened the dead from their tombs in the snow.  All of the survivors, had, in fact, expected to die.” (pg165)