Local historian hesitant to write Donner book
October 31, 2006
Mark McLaughlin decided to keep the chapter on cannibalism light when writing his new book on the Donner Party titled, “The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm.”
The book chronicles the story of the Donner Party from a weather perspective, painting a picture of the powerful snow storms of 1847 that trapped 81 emigrants in the Sierra Nevada.
For almost 20 years, the Carnelian Bay author and weather historian has been compiling information to write a book on the weather history of the Sierra Nevada.
After presenting his research and weather analysis during the Society for Historical Archaeology Donner Party conference in Sacramento in January, McLaughlin developed his findings into a book.
Don Schmidt, Donner Memorial state park ranger, said the tale of the Donner Party remains popular today, over a century later.
“I’m sure the cannibalism has a lot to do with it,” Schmidt said. “I think as we get closer to this time of year with people dealing with the snow … and there’s a lot of people that still have a connection to their past.”
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McLaughlin said discussing the Donner Party without the conversation focusing on the shock value of cannibalism has made it more challenging to get his point of view across. With a plethora of other books dedicated to the topic, McLaughlin said he didn’t want his weather research to fall into the same category.
“I swore I’d never write a book on the Donner Party,” he said.
As the 160th anniversary of the Donner Party approaches, McLaughlin’s book reveals new discoveries about the conditions the pioneers endured.
People were trapped by early snow storms in October, with snow levels at least five feet deep, he said, but the amount of snow and precipitation was not as monumental in 1847 as once believed, McLaughlin said.
A diary describing snow levels from Patrick Breen, a member of the Donner Party, is the only evidence which indicates the severity of the weather, Schmidt said. On Jan. 13, 1847 the snow was more than 13 feet deep, according to Breen’s diary entry.
McLaughlin studied the tree ring climate on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. He was able to get a better idea of the weather conditions by counting and examining the circular rings on tree stumps. The evidence suggests the snow levels were 80 percent of normal, McLaughlin said, debunking the theory the Donner Party encountered “the biggest storm in years.”
The winter of 1847 had very cold storms with a lot of powdery snow, but it wasn’t a wet year, said McLaughlin.
“If they had had enough food they would have been able to survive the winter,” he said.
“Weathering the Storm” also looks at the weather conditions in surrounding areas in California of the same year. McLaughlin said it snowed in Monterey, Calif., that March, according to an American naval surgeon’s daily journal.
So, what’s in store for this winter?
Although McLaughlin doesn’t predict the weather, he said to expect drier than normal winter conditions with warmer temperatures because of the effects of El Nino.