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Auction 12: The Zamorano 80 Collection of Daniel G. Volkmann Jr.

Lots 53 & 53A

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Item 53. McGlashan’s History of the Donner Party—“The first detailed narrative history of this horror in the snow which still must be regarded as the beginning point for any serious study pertaining to this most controversial of all overland episodes” (Kurutz).

53. McGLASHAN, C[harles] F[ayette] (1847-1931). History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierras. Truckee: Published by Crowley and McGlashan, (Proprietors Truckee Republican), [1879]. 193 pp. 8vo, original full sheep, gilt-lettered dark green morocco spine labels, marbled endpapers. Some stains on lower cover and binding worn (upper joint cracked, lower joint beginning to crack, spine rubbed, lower spine label chipped, corners bumped with some board exposed, one small void approximately 1 cm in diameter on back cover), interior fine other than occasional mild staining. Overall a very good to good copy in the rare and fragile sheep binding. Contemporary ownership inscription on front flyleaf: “Mrs. D. W. Willard, Jany 28th 1880.” Slightly later pencil inscription erased (Mrs. H. A. Keller). A few faint old mathematical calculations on lower endpapers.
First edition. Bennett, American Book Collecting, pp. 149-50. Blumann & Thomas 2208. Cowan I, p. 148. Cowan II, p. 406. Graff 2610. Holliday 728. Howell 50, California 627: “Still regarded as the definitive book on the subject.” Howes M102: “Best account of the most harrowing of all overland disasters.” Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 53. LC, California Centennial 94. Libros Californianos, pp. 40, 43 (Powell commentary); p. 66 (Hanna list): “An essential item for the student of the California story.” Mintz, The Trail 318. Norris 2275. Paher, Nevada 1195. Rocq 6004. Streeter Sale 2964. Zamorano 80 #53. ($600-1,200)

53A. McGLASHAN, C[harles] F[ayette]. Terrible! Thrilling! True! History of the Donner Party. A Tragedy of the Sierra [view, with “Photo Eng. Co. White” at lower right corner] Price, Paper, - - $1.00. Sent Prepaid to any Address on Receipt of Price, by the Author C. F. McGlashan, Truckee, Cal. Sacramento: H. S. Crocker & Co., [1879]. Broadside advertisement printed on heavy paper in blue with red and green decorative border (27.7 x 35.5 cm; 11 x 14 inches). Fine.
Promotional for McGlashan’s book. Scarce ephemeron. ($300-600)


The tragedy of the Donner Party is, without doubt, one of the most sensational events in the history of the American West, rivaling the fall of the Alamo and Custer’s last stand. C. F. McGlashan, the editor of the Truckee Republican and earlier author of a series of articles on the emotion-charged Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah, wrote the first detailed narrative history of this horror in the snow which still must be regarded as the beginning point for any serious study pertaining to this most controversial of all overland episodes. McGlashan had the advantage of timing. He was distant enough from the event to have perspective and yet close enough in time to have access to the primary sources. In preparation for this book, he interviewed twenty-four out of the twenty-six living survivors, wrote and received over two thousand letters, read virtually every printed account, read manuscript diaries including the famous Patrick Breen diary, and thoroughly inspected the scene of the disaster while still in a relatively undisturbed state. His thoroughness in gathering documentation was nothing short of remarkable for a journalist of the 1870s not trained in historical method or archaeology. McGlashan succeeded in gaining the confidence of many of the families including Graves, Murphy, Reed, Breen, Donner, and Tucker, and from them pieced together this heart-rending history. Furthermore, McGlashan followed up his chronicle of tragedy with a review of the subsequent recriminations, rumor mongering, and demonizing of Lewis Keseberg, and how individuals and families were faring in the 1870s. By and large he was able to separate fact from mythology. Regrettably and tragically for history, McGlashan burnt much of his Donner archive shortly before his death in 1931.
To preview the sad, distressing subject of his book, McGlashan opened his preface with the following spine-tingling sentence: “The delirium preceding death by starvation is full of strange phantasies.” In this preface, he contrasted the horrible event with the peaceful mountain site not far from the railroad tracks, writing: “More thrilling than romance, more terrible than fiction, the sufferings of the Donner Party form a bold contrast to the joys of pleasure-seekers who to-day look down upon the lake from the windows of silver palace cars.” The chapter subtitles warn the squeamish that this is not going to be an “everybody lived happily ever after” story. “A Poem Composed while Dying,” “Starving Children Lying in Bed,” “The Sleep of Death,” “Living upon Snow Water,” and “The Flesh of the Dead,” to name just a few, indicate the horror that awaits the reader.
When published, the book sold out in less than two weeks, an unprecedented sale for the time period. McGlashan issued a broadside to promote the book with the attention grabbing words “Terrible! Thrilling! True!” serving as the headline. The book, selling for $1.00, was a work in progress. After the first edition appeared, the author revised, expanded, and corrected the text, and added illustrations and portraits. By 1940, when Stanford University Press printed a new edition, the book had already been reprinted twelve times. McGlashan’s book has been criticized for its biases, florid language, and kid-glove treatment of those who supplied him with information. For the second edition published in 1880 by A. L. Bancroft in San Francisco, McGlashan deleted or revised passages that disturbed Eliza P. Donner Houghton, the Reed women, and William Murphy. Bliss McGlashan Hinkle, the author’s daughter, and her husband, George H. Hinkle, wrote the foreword to the Stanford edition. Both were trained historians specializing in the Sierra and did not mince words about the shortcoming of the elder McGlashan’s book: “Its language is saturated with sentiment, and great stretches of the narrative are written in the pressed-flower-and-keep-sake style of a young lady’s album of the period.” Even with its flaws, The History of the Donner Party remains a respected work. Joseph A. King, in a recent study (1998) of the many interpretations of the ordeal, offered this assessment: “An historian today, attempting to write a history of the Donner Party, could work without [J. Quinn] Thornton [Oregon and California in 1848], [Eliza P. Donner] Houghton [The Expedition of the Donner Party], and [George R.] Stewart [Ordeal by Hunger], but could not do without the McGlashan book.”

——Gary F. Kurutz

Additional sources consulted: George H. Hinkle and Bliss McGlashan Hinkle, Foreword to History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1940); Joseph A. King, Winter of Entrapment (Lafayette, California: K & K Publications, 1998), pp. 185-86.

Item 53 & 53A. McGlashan’s History of the Donner Party, the definitive account of the overland tragedy, with the rare advertising poster.

Item 53. Selected chilling text from McGlashan’s riveting History of the Donner Party.

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