Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for ... Wendigo

The story of the Donner Party contributes an altogether distressing footnote to the history of Western migration in the United States. Great numbers of pioneers set out in the 1800s to colonize the West; many of these subscribed to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, believing that God had ordained this land for them much as the Bible tells He had ordained Israel for the Jewish people. Of course, these pioneers found that God had already populated the area with humans, just as the first settlers discovered the Algonquian natives already living blameless lives on land they foolishly believed to be as much theirs as anybody else's.

Most of the wagon trains that forged westward from Independence, Missouri, followed the Oregon Trail for a period of several months before reaching safe haven in California, in the vicinity of Sutter's Fort - founded as New Helvetia in 1839. The Donner Party deviated from this trail to take a 'shortcut' through Fort Bridger that took them the long way around the Great Salt Lake and through the Great Salt Lake Desert, an inhospitable and dangerous trek that added a month to their travel time and was to have horrific consequences. This 'shortcut' was proposed to them by an adventurer named Lansford Hastings. The Hastings Cutoff seemed on paper to make good sense as a straighter alternative route to the Oregon Trail; but Hastings advanced it as such without having traveled it, and so the perils of the desert, and of the Wasatch Mountains, were not taken into account.

When the Donner Party, including several other families as well as George Donner, his wife Tamsen, and their five children, arrived at Fort Bridger following after a wagon train led by Hastings, they were assured by Jim Bridger that the route was easy and would cut 350 miles from their journey. This was blatantly untrue, although it encouraged the party to stay at Fort Bridger and enrich its proprietor. One might charitably assume Bridger, not having followed Hastings Cutoff himself, was unaware of how misleading his information was - except that Bridger had been left in possession of letters written by one Edwin Bryant, who had traveled ahead far enough to ascertain that the journey was anything but easy. Bridger never gave these letters to the Donner party, who were hardly survivalists - they were used to comfortable living in Missouri, and included few men with the skills necessary to succeed at an arduous journey through barren terrain. Of the 87 members of the Donner party, only 27 were adult males, and several of these were advanced in years: George Donner himself was 62 years old when the party set out.

The sufferings endured by the Donner Party defy description. They had already lost several members to disease, trauma, and at least one instance of alleged murder when two wagons became entangled and James Reed stabbed a man to death, by the time they came to the Sierra Nevada. The month's delay occasioned by Hastings Cutoff meant the snows arrived at the same time. Riven by dissent, riddled with disease, starving, inexperienced, with the last of their cattle and horses already perished, and trapped by snowdrifts on all sides in bleak mountain country, the Donner Party confronted the horror of their circumstances with a solution no less horrific: they resorted to cannibalism. Efforts were made to keep family members from eating their own relatives, a macabre courtesy to the dead; and there is no unequivocal evidence that anybody was deliberately killed for meat. Certainly, there was no need: the elements did a brutal job of supplying dead bodies to sustain the survivors. Originally trapped on October 20, 1846, the last survivor of the party - Lewis Keseberg, over whom a cloud of suspicion hung for the rest of his life since he admitted sharing a cabin with Tamsen Donner but could not adequately account for her whereabouts - was rescued almost six months later, on April 10, 1847.

Although the desperate plight of the Donner Party renders the desperate measures they resorted to for survival understandable - if still morally murky - to Western minds, the Algonquian people could account for it another way. Hearing how party member Patrick Dolan urged his companions to sacrifice someone so that the others might feed - before this became the inescapable necessity it evidently did become for others - and that when his notion was rejected he tore off his clothes and fled into the wilderness, the Ojibwe Indians would recognize the malign influence of one of the more powerful manitous of their folklore - the ravenous and deceptive Wendigo, a spirit capable of possessing men that hungers constantly for human flesh. According to Algonquian legend, the Wendigo is perpetually emaciated, even when feeding on human meat; some tribes believe that as it feeds, it grows larger, so that it is never sated. Cases of so-called wendigo psychosis - when people become convinced they are possessed by a Wendigo and become ravenous for human flesh - are documented in anthropological research; during times of famine, Algonquian tribes perform Wendigo dances to ward off the spirt. The Oji-Cree shaman Jack Fiddler was imprisoned by Canadian authorities in 1907 as a murderer; he maintained that he was releasing people from the terrible Wendigos that had enslaved them.

It is tempting to bask in our cultural imperialism and deride tales of the Wendigo as superstitious; we can rationalize them as enforcing taboos against cannibalism, and encouraging cooperation during times of hardship and strife. And certainly, the Donner Party were in the direst straits imaginable when they broke that ultimate taboo. But still, the ghoulish fascination with Donner Pass lingers...

1 comment:

Heather Henry said...

I read a book about this. Very interesting and creepy. I think there is always the thought that, I would never resort to this, but I think it's hard to say what you would do when truly desperate. Who really knows? I would certainly hope I wouldn't. I'm kind of picky!