People weren’t on the Donners’ menu
RENO – They ate the family dog, but the latest research into the Donner Party found no conclusive evidence of cannibalism by the Donner family at a Sierra Nevada campsite where several of the pioneers died in the winter of 1846-47, two scientists said Thursday.
“I think this has the potential to revise the way people look at the Donner Party,” said Kelly Dixon, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Montana and one of the lead authors who presented the findings at a conference of the Society for Historical Archaeology in Sacramento.
Sawed and chopped animal bone fragments recovered during an archaeological dig at the Alder Creek campsite over the past three years suggested “extreme desperation and starvation,” their study concludes.
But there’s no physical evidence members of the Donner family themselves resorted to the ultimate survival tactic that became synonymous with their name for a century and a half, the authors told The Associated Press.
“The Donner Party’s experience was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as everybody’s been told,” said Julie Schablitsky, the other lead researcher who is a historical archaeologist at the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
The findings don’t necessarily disprove the accounts of cannibalism told by rescuers and survivors stranded in a fierce winter storm in the mountains southwest of Reno and north of Truckee.
But the absence of any cooked human bones among the thousands of fragments of bones of livestock and wildlife at the Alder Creek site suggest Donner family members may not have succumbed to the desperate temptation to resort to cannibalism, the archaeologists said.
If cannibalism did occur at the Alder Creek site in what is now the Tahoe National Forest, it took place during the last few weeks of their entrapment, by fewer than 12 individuals and the bodies were not processed to the bone, they said.
Of the 81 members of the Donner Party who set out primarily from Independence, Mo., for California, 60 of them from the Reed, Breen and Graves families among others spent the brutal winter at a site where cannibalism has been documented, along what is now called Donner Lake bordering Interstate 80 just west of Truckee.
The other 21 members, including all the members of the George and Jacob Donner families, were six miles away at Alder Creek having been delayed by a broken wagon axle.
“We thought for sure based on all the accounts in the diaries and the relief journals and people’s memories that among the other animal bones, we’d definitely find other human remains” at Alder Creek, Schablitsky said. “So the most significant find is really what we didn’t find.”
It means the Donner family members themselves may only have been “guilty by association,” she said.
“The Donner family ended up getting the stigma basically because of the name,” Schablitsky said. “But of all the people, they were probably the least deserving of it.”
Descendants of the Donner family say the findings bolster claims they have made for years – that the cannibalism was not as rampant as portrayed in sensational newspaper accounts of the time.
“We are thrilled and relieved,” said Lochie Paige, the great-granddaughter of Eliza Donner, daughter of George Donner.
“Their findings, in my mind, completely exonerate her from having any part in cannibalism,” she told AP from her home in California on Thursday.
Dixon, who was at the University of Nevada, Reno at the time, and Schablitsky led a team that found a campfire hearth at the Alder Creek site in the summer of 2004, establishing for the first time that part of the Donner Party spent that fateful winter there.
Contrary to the popular story that the Donners ate their own partly because they were such poor hunters, the new research documents a menu that included deer, rabbits and small rodents along with their oxen, livestock and a dog – presumably “Uno,” mentioned in some of the children’s later writings.
“We get a picture where they are coming back to camp with arms full of venison and rabbit,” Schablitsky said.
They also found lead shot that the Donners apparently cast at camp. It was of such poor quality that it “probably wouldn’t true,” Dixon said. “So that may have accounted for some of their problems.”
Shannon Novak, an assistant professor of anthropology at Idaho State University who examined the bone fragments, said the presence of “pot polish” suggests the animal bones were boiled in water to maximize the food value – an indicator of starvation.
She said many of the bones were sawed, chopped and cut, “suggesting extreme desperation and starvation among the group.”
Paige said Thursday she has become “very passionate about the story and the sensationalism that has gone along with the cannibalism aspect of it.
“I do believe that cannibalism was part of the story. I just don’t think it was the most important part of the story.”
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