Updated April, 2010

DONNER PARTY ARCHAEOLOGY FACT SHEET

 

The recent press coverage of the Donner Party research project conducted by Kelly Dixon, Julie Schablitsky, Shannon Novak, myself and others has contained some errors in fact and interpretation. I am publishing this page to correct some of those misconceptions. Many many scholars have studied the Donner-Reed party from different angles and while it will never be possible to conclusively know the details of their experiences, it is certainly possible to characterize the evidence that is available. The historical record provides one perspective. Archaeology and biological anthropology another. Between the various sources, we can work to understand some aspects of life in the camps.

The following list is not exhaustive but it does clear up some of the recent misconceptions about the archaeological record.

 

1. Eighty-one people were trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter of 1846-47 in two camps.  One group wintered at Donner Lake in three cabins and a lean-to.  The other group wintered in tents at Alder Creek.


2.  Recent excavations have focused on the Alder Creek camp, where one-quarter of the emigrants wintered. They included 16 members of the George and Jacob Donner families plus 6 other individuals.


3. The historical record indicates that cannibalism began at Alder Creek during the last week of February 1847, and that it occurred there for only about one week.


4.  Over 16,000 very small bone fragments were recovered during excavations at Alder Creek.  Only 85 of these fragments were large enough and stable enough to be identified to species.  These 85 fragments were determined to be from rodent, dog or other canine, deer, rabbit, horse, and oxen/cattle. 

 

5.  Several bone fragments were submitted for DNA testing; however, DNA was not recovered due to the poor condition of the bone.  Intense burning of the bone and the moisture rich archaeological context likely caused the degradation of the DNA.


6.  Although some Donner Party members participated in cannibalism, no human bone was identified in the 85 fragments analyzed from the extensive bone sample at Alder Creek. 

 

7.  The reason that human bone was not identified at Alder Creek may be due to one or all of these reasons: small number of bone samples analyzed, limited excavation of site, complete decomposition of human remains, different processing strategies for human tissue.

 

8. Our work has focused on the analysis of both historical and archaeological sources to understand how the emigrants survived in the mountains for four months.  We have concluded that before resorting to cannibalism, they consumed their animals and supplemented their diet with wild game. 

 

9.  The results from Alder Creek reflect only what happened at that particular site.

 

10.  Quick links for additional information on the Donner Party:

 

            http://www.anthro.umt.edu/donner/default.htm