The Wendigo

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 posesses.

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...

The Donner Party

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 trick...

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 and despised.

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...

Lisa Phoenix - February 2004

Source of Quotes : Donner Party by Daniel M. Rosen