Bones of Contention | Donner Party Archeology

Courtesy Mark McLaughlin

The winter of 2016-17 represents the 170th anniversary of the Donner Party incident, when 81 California-bound men, women and children were trapped at Donner Lake and nearby Alder Creek in October 1846.

Due to severe storm conditions, the distraction of the Mexican American War and a lack of available manpower, no rescuers reached the mountain encampments for 3½ months. Thirty-six of the hopeful emigrants lost their lives due to starvation. Twenty-five of them resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The analysis of a small sampling of tiny bone fragments that did not turn up any human bones does not prove that the snowbound emigrants did not resort to human flesh for food. The historical record indicates rather conclusively that cannibalism did occur.

A decade ago, a Donner Party symposium was held in Sacramento, hosted by the International Society for Historical Archeology. A day’s worth of presentations provided an opportunity for researchers and scientists to share with the media and public a fresh look at this tragic story.

Two days before the symposium, the co-directors involved in a new Donner Party Archaeology Project, Dr. Kelly Dixon and Dr. Julie Schablitsky, released preliminary data from recent excavations at the Alder Creek site north of Truckee. The scientists stated that if knife-scarred bone fragments recovered there turned out to be human, it would be the first physical evidence of cannibalism in the Donner Party.

Courtesy Mark McLaughlin

After testing a small sample of the tiny fragments, however, they only identified cattle, horse, deer, dog, rabbit and rodent; no human bones. The results were hardly sensational, but their press release led to a nationally published Associated Press story with headlines such as “Findings Say Donner Party Didn’t Resort to Cannibalism” and “Lack of Cooked Bones at Campsite a Surprise.”

The analysis of a small sampling of tiny bone fragments – only 30 out of about 16,000 pieces were tested – that did not turn up any human bones does not prove that the snowbound emigrants did not resort to human flesh for food. The historical record indicates rather conclusively that cannibalism did occur at the Donner Lake campsite, as well as at Alder Creek.

The scientists involved in this ongoing study did not claim that cannibalism did not occur, yet the media did, setting the stage for more confusion and misinformation, a problem which has plagued descendents and historians for 170 years.

Archeological research at the Donner encampments has been an ongoing process for more than a century. It started with Charles McGlashan in the 1870s, an amateur but thorough Truckee historian who wrote the first comprehensive book on the subject. His endeavor led to the establishment of the towering emigrant monument at Donner Memorial State Park.

Learn more about the Donner Party history:
Lansford Hastings: Donner Party Villain?
17-year-old Moses Schallenberger survives alone
Lessons from the Donner Party

In this most recent endeavor, however, Dr. Dixon, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Montana, and her colleague Dr. Schablitsky from the University of Oregon, were following up on the earlier work of Dr. Donald Hardesty, a University of Nevada, Reno anthropologist. Also on Hardesty’s team was Dr. Susan Lindstrom, a noted Truckee-based archeologist. Dr. Hardesty led excavations at the Donner encampments in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the early 1990s, Dr. Hardesty excavated the ground at the base of the iconic Donner Tree at Alder Creek, which has since fallen down, but found no evidence that anyone had camped there for a prolonged period of time in the mid-1800s. The lack of physical evidence forced historians and the U.S. Forest Service to acknowledge that the revered tree did not indicate the location of one of the Donner campsites.

Hardesty’s crew expanded the search area and with the help of a metal detector survey soon discovered 19th Century human artifacts about 200 yards away from the tree. Unfortunately, the project ran out of time and money before Hardesty could pursue the new leads, but his extensive research resulted in the book “The Archeology of the Donner Party,” published in 1997 by the University of Nevada Press.

Jump to the summers of 2004 and 2005, when Drs. Dixon and Schablitsky led a team of anthropologists and forensic specialists in researching whether Hardesty’s 1993 discovery at Alder Creek was truly a campsite of the two Donner families. The project was funded by The History Channel. Dixon had previously appeared in a Discovery Channel program, “Unsolved History: The Donner Party.”

During the Dixon-led Alder Creek digs, the team discovered the remains of a hearth; an important find because it suggests a long-term stay. There was also pipe bowl fragments, tiny pieces of bone, including charred bone, lead balls of various sizes and ceramic fragments. The artifacts were dated to the appropriate time period and the evidence of a fire hearth led the scientists to conclude that this was most likely a Donner family campsite.

“This absolutely adds more credibility to the interpretation that this is where the Donner families camped,” Dr. Hardesty said. “The artifacts they found are similar to what we found in 1990 and 1993.”

New forensic processes may still lead the researchers into breakthrough territory.

“Ten years ago, we didn’t have the technology we have today. Ground-penetrating radar wasn’t common and DNA analysis wasn’t being used for archeology. We can do so much more now,” Schablitsky noted.

Shannon Novak, an assistant professor of anthropology at Idaho State University, examined the bone fragments and found many of them were sawed, chopped and cut, which she thought suggested extreme desperation and starvation among the group.

There are limitations, however, to what the new skills and equipment can reveal. Of the nearly 16,000 bone fragments recovered at Alder Creek, virtually all of them are smaller than a human fingernail. Most are just too small to study effectively with current technologies. DNA analysis is unavailable due to the breakdown of the bone material from temperature extremes, soil acidity and a climate pattern of very wet and very dry conditions at the site.

Scientists used scanning electron microscopes to study 30 of the larger pieces in a search for human bones that had been boiled, an indicator of cannibalism. They were able to identify bones from horses, oxen, deer and dog, as well as rabbits and rodents, but again, no human bones were identified. The variety of animal bones at the Alder Creek campsite does suggest that the stranded pioneers there may have had more food available than previously thought. The anthropologists admit that based on the accounts that they had read, they expected to find human remains among the animal bones, but to claim that no cannibalism occurred at the Alder Creek site based on these results is a conclusion that many find premature.


Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.