Earliest Published Account of the Donner Party
Colton’s large 1849 Map of California, Oregon, Texas
140. THORNTON, J[essy] Quinn. Oregon and California in 1848: By J. Quinn Thornton, Late Judge of the Supreme Court of Oregon, and Corresponding Member of the American Institute. With an Appendix, including Recent and Authentic Information on the Subject of the Gold Mines of California, and other Valuable Matter of Interest to the Emigrant, etc. With Illustrations and a Map. In Two Volumes. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 82 Cliff Street, 1849. Vol. I: ix , -393 [3, blank] pp., 6 plates, large folding map. Vol. II: 379 [1, blank], 8, 4, 4 (ads) pp., 6 plates. Total: 12 woodcut plates, folding lithographic map within botanical border, original hand coloring (pink outline color, gold regions with highlighting in yellow): Map of California, Oregon, Texas, and the Territories adjoining with Routes &c. Published by J. H. Colton, No. 86, Cedar St., New York, 1849. Ackerman’s lith. 120 Fulton St. N.Y. (52.3 x 45.8 cm; 20-5/8 x 18 inches). 2 vols., 12mo, publisher’s original green ribbed blind-embossed cloth, spines gilt-lettered. Bindings lightly rubbed, spine of Vol. II slightly damaged and two ink stains near bottom. Scattered light foxing to text and plates. Large folding map with light soiling to outer blank margins and with four-inch closed tear at book block juncture (no losses). Overall a very good copy, much better than usually found, with contemporary pencil inscription.
First edition, containing “the first printed account of the Donner Party” (Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 74). Braislin 1783. Cowan I, p. 230. Cowan II, p. 638. Graff 4143. Hamilton, Early American Book Illustrators and Wood Engravers 794a (citing the book and giving a short biography of English engraver J. Halpin): “An early view of Fort Laramie appears at p. 112.” Holliday 1091. Howell, California 50:232. Howes T224. Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 632a. Mattes, Platte River Road Narratives 204. Mintz, The Trail 466. Plains & Rockies IV:174:1. Rocq 16107. Sabin 95630. Smith 10219. Streeter Sale 3155. Wheat, Books of the California Gold Rush 208: “Prints some of the earliest reports of the gold discoveries.” Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West 593 & III, p. 75. Wheat, Maps of the California Gold Region 73. Zamorano 80 #74 (J. Gregg Layne): “Thornton was one of the real pioneers of Oregon and California, arriving in Oregon in 1846. He has always been considered a good authority and this work is among the best of the times.”
Colton’s large and handsome Map of California, Oregon, Texas, and the Territories Adjoining with Routes &c. is among the best of the commercial maps rushed to press in 1849 to meet the clamor for details on the route to California and location of the gold fields. Typical of this genre of map of the period, two earlier maps were combined (1848 Frémont and 1848 Tanner), and the gold regions were highlighted. The engravings in the book, the first of the Donner Party, were the work of English artist J. Halpin (fl. 1849-1867), whose father was an engraver for the Staffordshire potteries. After working in Russia and Nova Scotia, Halpin came to the United States in the late 1840s and engraved landscapes and portraits for publishers in New York City. Halpin engraved some of Timothy Cole’s landscapes and a noted portrait of George Washington. His original artworks were exhibited at the National Academy in 1850 and 1854. Later Halpin removed to Cincinnati. See Fielding.
Kurutz notes from the Volkmann Zamorano 80 Sale, Item 74:
From the viewpoint of California history, the most important feature of Thornton’s work is his lengthy, dramatic history of the Donner Party tragedy. The first volume features Thornton’s overland trek to Oregon in 1846 and a general description of the territory. His journal is characterized by its eloquence and flowing literary style. The second volume records the author’s trip to California by sea from Oregon in November 1847; it includes a description of San Francisco and its environs and California west of the Sierra and a report on the climate and resources of the region.
Thornton, beginning with chapter 7 of the second volume, tells the story of the Donners. It is the earliest published account in book form and, until the publication in 1879 of C. F. McGlashan’s narrative history, served as the primary source of information on this gruesome, heart-sickening saga. Thornton’s interest in this affair stems from the fact that he met many of the ill-fated California emigrants on the Overland Trail in July 1846. Thornton headed to Oregon while the Donner, Reed, and Eddy group “headed left” to meet Lansford W. Hastings and follow a new route to California. That route, as they soon discovered, proved disastrous. When Thornton later came to California he reported that he met many of the survivors, and they, in turn, asked him to write a history of the journey based on eyewitness information given to him in order to correct errors in the California Star and squelch a “multitude of floating rumors.” Their chosen author lived up to the task, writing in a gripping, spellbinding manner that matched the drama of the dreadful situation. His description of cannibalism, the murder of the two Indian guides for their flesh, and the ravenous appetite of Lewis Keseberg will send shivers up the spine. Thornton’s narrative included the heroic efforts to rescue the starving, snowbound emigrants and a concluding chapter on “The Sensations and Mental Condition of the Sufferers.” The stylized engravings based on drawings by J. Halpin are the earliest published illustrations of the tragedy, and, naturally, have been reproduced innumerable times.
Although Thornton’s account has been generally accepted by George Stewart, Bernard De Voto, and others, these historians, not surprisingly, question many of the details. In particular, the damning of Keseberg by Thornton has been judged as unduly harsh. Joseph A. King, in his recent study Winter of Entrapment: A New Look at the Donner Party, strongly disputes many of Thornton’s claims. King deduces that the author relied primarily on the account of William Eddy and not on several eyewitness accounts as Thornton originally stated. King called Eddy a “boaster and liar” who used Thornton “to construct many tall tales...which have badly distorted the factual record.” Furthermore, King asserts that Thornton obtained much of his information “from secondary sources, especially the wild accounts appearing in the press.”
Thornton’s two-volume work appeared at the time of the Gold Rush, and wishing to take advantage of the situation, he added an appendix entitled: “The Gold Regions of California.” Thornton wrote: “While the first portion of this work was passing through the press the world was astounded by a rapid succession of the most wonderful narratives of the discovery of boundless treasures.” Because of the need to go to press as quickly as possible, the appendix consists mainly of early accounts of the Gold Rush from other well-known observers such as Thomas O. Larkin and R. B. Mason. Thornton added letters from A. Ten Eyck from San Francisco dated September 1, 1848 and Walter Colton, August 29, 1848, and a description with letters from The Californian of San Francisco dated August 14, 1848. The last segment is “Practical Directions to Persons about to Cross the Isthmus of Panama.” The folding lithographic map of the gold regions, western territories, and routes by J. H. Colton is one of the most famous from the Gold Rush era.
(2 vols.) ($2,500-5,000)
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