Abe Lincoln Doc Survived Donner Party Ordeal

Documents riding with the ill-fated Donner Party yield new clues about Lincoln's life.

You might have thought there would be more than a few degrees of separation between President Abraham Lincoln and the infamous Donner Party, the group of pioneers who, legend says, was forced into cannibalism to survive a harsh winter crossing the Sierra Nevadas in the late 1840s. No direct evidence of that has ever been found, but that's neither here nor there for this post.

Because ... surprising new facts released yesterday show that, cannibalism or no, a member of the Donner Party carried documents containing Abraham Lincoln's signature and a short note all the way to California, despite months of starvation, snow and hardship.

The new details about the manuscripts, which had been left untouched for about 40 years in the California State Library, were discovered by a Donner Party historian almost by accident, according to a CNN report.

The document is a "muster roll," a list of volunteers who fought in the 1832 Blackhawk War.

James Reed, one of the Donner Party organizers and Lincoln's former military comrade in the war, likely inherited the document from his military commander and kept it as a part of his personal history, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum told CNN.

Reed's name appears right below Lincoln's on the muster roll.

The document sheds more light on Lincoln's early life during military service. It lists the price of his horse, $85, and equipment, valued at $15. It also details an army-issue tent in Lincoln's possession, which was expected to be returned at the end of service.

Lincoln, then a private in the army, even penned a couple lines himself.

They read: "Muster Roll of Captain Jacob M. Earleys Company of Mounted Volunteers Mustered out of the service of the United States By order of Brigadier General Atkinson of the United States army on White Water Rivers of Rock River on the 10th day of July 1832."

Although Reed was expelled from the Donner Party for murdering another member, the documents still managed to complete the journey in the care of his wife, Margaret, who was rescued by the first of several relief parties.

"We often find documents that detail fascinating stories about Abraham Lincoln's life and times, but it is rare indeed for the document to have such an intriguing history after it was written," Daniel Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, told CNN.

A team of librarians, historians and handwriting experts all concluded that Lincoln's signature and writing were genuine.

It's a little-known fact that Lincoln actually had many legal dealings with Reed over the years, wrote Lincoln historian Erica Holst in her February blog, "Lincoln Footnotes."

"One wonders what Lincoln thought when reports floated back to Springfield of the harrowing Donner Party debacle," Holst wrote.

"We can imagine him reading the newspaper's lurid accounts of deep snow, exhaustion, exposure and starvation, and shaking his head to think that the man with whom he'd gone to war and gone to trial would one day come to such hardship," she added.

Image courtesy of Flickr.