Artifacts add to Donner Party story
TRUCKEE, Calif. – Newly discovered bone fragments and wagon train artifacts may help separate truth from myth in the Donner Party’s 157-year-old tale of starvation, cannibalism and redemption, according to a newspaper report.
Forest Service officials scheduled a news conference near Truckee Wednesday to discuss the latest findings of archaeologists digging and sifting soil this week at Alder Creek Camp on national forest land about 30 miles west of Reno.
They are investigating what is believed to be the camps of the George and Jacob Donner families that were trapped in the Sierra during the terrible winter of 1846-47. A Discovery Channel team last summer found the campsite by using ground-penetrating radar.
Although the Donner Party members are famous because starvation reduced them to eating their dead companions, both archaeologists and Donner family descendants said the project is focused on more than cannibalism.
“Cannibalism is part of their story, but it’s not the most important part,” said Lochie Paige, a Sacramento nurse who is a great-great granddaughter of George Donner.
The Donner Party families traveled west in the spring and summer of 1846 to claim free land in California. The party took an unproved “shortcut,” and were delayed on the trail in Utah and Nevada. The 81 men, women and children reached the Sierra in late October and were trapped in the snow at two camps, one at Donner Lake and the lower camp at Alder Creek.
About half the pioneers died and some survivors ate the flesh of their dead companions to stay alive. The last survivor, Lewis Keseberg, was brought down the mountain in April 1847.
Although contemporary accounts agree cannibalism occurred, archaeologists have found no evidence to date to prove it, such as human bones with butcher marks. A bone found last year with knife or cleaver marks was from a large mammal, scientists said, but the species couldn’t be identified.
The current excavation builds on the work of archaeologist Donald Hardesty of the University of Nevada, Reno. He excavated the Murphy Cabin site at Donner Lake and dug at the Alder Creek site currently under scrutiny in the 1990s.
The spade, Hardesty said, sheds light on the everyday life of the people at the camps and tell us what things they considered most important.
“In many ways the company’s baggage is a time capsule, reflecting the lifeways of American consumers on the eve of the Industrial Revolution,” Hardesty wrote in “Archaeology of the Donner Party.” The current dig is led by archaeologists Kelly Dixon of the University of Montana and Julie Schablitsky of the University of Oregon.
“We found the possible remains of a hearth, fire-cracked rock, pipe bowl fragments, fragments of bone, including charred bone, lead balls and ceramic fragments,” Schablitsky said after last year’s five-day effort.
She said pottery fragments, a link from a woman’s gold chain, bits of bottles and dishes, and other 1840s-era artifacts have been found at the Alder Creek site.
The Alder Creek team includes other anthropologists and experts, including Kristin Johnson, a Donner Party historian from Salt Lake City and editor of “Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party.”