Wendigo: a shapeshifting, cannabalistic
monster/spirit of the northern forests, most active in winter, and
known to inspire an insatiable hunger for human flesh in those it
In 1846, a wagon train of ordinary families
that came to be known as the Donner Party set out from Missouri
on a journey of 2500 miles to California. Trapped by a storm in
a mountain pass, a mere 150 miles from their destination at Sutter's
Fort, the travellers became snowbound for many months as multiple
rescue missions were mounted. More than half of the original party
starved to death, and the survivors ultimately resorted to feeding
on the dead.
That much is taught in fourth grade
California history classes.
Today Donner Pass is a popular year-round
resort area, with summer fun revolving around Donner Lake, and winter
skiing. When we were children, it was a favorite snow destination:
we'd spend the day sliding down the slopes on cheap round plastic
saucers, and the evenings in our own little "kiddie cabin," where,
since there were no tvs or video games, we'd spend our time drinking
cocoa with too many marshmallows, telling the spookiest stories
we could concoct.
My youngest brother says this story,
based on Native American folklore (admittedly the white, kid version)
and the tailor-made history of the area, truly terrified him, though
both of us also recall his begging me to tell it over and over...
It is said that, on the journey to California
from Missouri, when the Donner Party still numbered 90 souls, and
even before the terrible heat of the desert and the bone-splintering
cold of the mountains, back when the wagon train travelled easy
in the vast grasslands, that Louis Keseberg attracted the attention
of the wendigo, by stealing a buffalo robe from the body of a Sioux
warrior, lying on his funeral scaffold.
Others say that it was the Spirit of
the Mountains who called the wendigo out of the darkest heart of
the earth, in order to protect the sacred lakes.
In school the teachers only talk about
the snowstorm that trapped the travellers high among the peaks,
unable to go forward or back, provisions and livestock already depleted
from the devasting trek through the desert, and the gauntlet of
rightfully hostile Paiute attackers.
And to be sure, there followed many months
of suffering, bright days of hunger and nights of bitter black cold.
But that is the wendigo's stock in trade, his tool, his favorite
The emigrants had already boiled and
eaten the hide covers that sheltered them, the leather boots that
would no longer fit on swollen, frostbitten feet; they had even
licked the last smears of rancid tallow from the axels of their
wagons, when the wendigo decended upon them like yet another, invisible,
storm, two days after Christmas, 1846.
"On the twenty-fifth, about four o'clock,
Patrick Dolan died; he had been for some hours delirious, and escaped
from under their shelter, when he stripped off his coat, hat and
boots, and exposed himself to the storm. Mr. Eddy tried to force
him back, but his strength was unequal to the task. He, however,
afterward returned of his own accord, and laid down outside their
shelter, when they succeeded in dragging him back inside...
On the twenty-sixth, L Murphy died, he
likewise being delirious, and was only kept under their shelter
by the united strength of the party... having been four entire days
without food, and since the month of October on short allowance,
there was now but two alternatives left them - either to die, or
preserve life by eating the bodies of the dead; slowly and reluctantly
they adopted the latter alternative...
On the twenty-seventh they took the
flesh from the bodies of the dead, and on that, and the following
two days they remained in camp drying the meat, and preparing to
pursue their journey..."
- from a statement written by John Sinclair, host to surviving members
of the Donner Party after their rescue.
Not all of the party were immediately
overcome by the malevolent spirit. Mrs. Fosdick stayed through a
bitterly cold night with her husband, and after he died, covered
him with their only blanket, then lay on the ground next to him,
hoping to join him quickly. But, finding herself alive in the morning's
light, she instead went to enlist aid in burying him. To her horror,
and despite her pleading and tears, her would-be assistants instead
cut out her husband's heart and liver, and severed his arms and
legs, returning with them to the group.
But, having crossed the boundary, reasonable
in the face of extremis, the wendigo took hold deeply in the travellers.
Less than two weeks later, on January 4th, they crossed another
border: when they had eaten the last of the flesh of their dead
companions, it was the wendigo, speaking through one of their number,
who proposed that they kill and eat two Native American guides from
Sutter's Fort. Terrified, the two boys fled in the night, but their
footprints, bloody from frostbite, were easily followed. They were
hunted, found, shot, and consumed two days later.
However, it was Keseberg, he of the
unforgivable desecration, in whom the wendigo found his most comfortable
roost. Louis was described as a "strange man" with a violent temper;
well before the first signs of real trouble on the journey, he had
been chastised by one of the party's leaders for beating his wife,
had abandoned a member travelling with his family and left him on
the trail to die, and was suspected of the murder of at least one
other who had died early on under suspicious circumstances.
After sending his wife and daughter with
the First Relief, Louis stayed behind in the camp, because, it was
whispered, he had developed a taste for human flesh. Rumor had it
that he preyed especially upon the youngest children, quietly suffocating
them as they slept so that he might feast on their tenderness. Dark
mutterings notwithstanding, in April 1847 the Fourth Relief found
Louis the only person alive at the Donner Party camp, and so he
became the last of the emigrants to be rescued.
"A more shocking scene cannot be imagined,
than that witnessed by the party of men who went to the relief of
the unfortunate emigrants in the California Mountains. The bones
of those who had died and been devoured by the miserable ones that
still survived were lying around their tents and cabins. Bodies
of men, women, and children, with half the flesh torn from them,
lay on every side... the emaciated, wild, and ghastly appearance
of the survivors, added to the horror of the scene... so changed
had the emigrants become that when the party that set out, arrived
with food, some of them cast it aside and seemed to prefer the putrid
human flesh that still remained. The day before the party arrived,
one of the emigrants took a child of about four years in bed with
him, and devoured the whole before morning; and the next day ate
another about the same age before noon."
- news article in the California Star, San Francisco, April 1847
The prodigious eater of four year olds
referred to in this very florid account is Louis Keseberg. The wendigo
relinquished his hold on Keseberg as he came at last into the Sacramento
Valley, and the demon returned to his place of origin deep in the
heart of the mountains. But Louis' monsterish reputation and disasterous
luck dogged him to the end of his unhappy days, and he died penniless
For a brief time, it seemed the wendigo
had accomplished his aims: as reports of the fate of the Donner
Party reached an ever-widening audience, interest in emigration
west diminished; but two years later, gold was discovered in Sutter
Creek, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Now the mountain passes lie subdued under
asphalt roads and ski lifts; casinos and resorts ring the sacred
lakes, and noisy speedboats skim their surfaces; all is desecration
and insult beyond even the wendigo's power to avenge...
...but still, he haunts the forest around
Donner Lake, ever searching the faces and hearts of happy campers,
looking for one who might cross the boundary...
Phoenix - February 2004
Source of Quotes
: Donner Party
by Daniel M. Rosen