In Search of Desperation: Archaeology Revisits the Donner Party


Background and Purpose of the Project

Stranded and snowbound on the rugged slopes of the eastern Sierras during the winter of 1846-47, survivors of the well-known "Donner Party" endured starvation and were surrounded by the deaths of their companions and loved ones.  Written accounts indicate that many peoples’ survival depended upon their cannibalization of the dead.  This tragic story has since become one of the most widely known events in western history, with collective memory of the event fueled by a mosaic of folklore, conjecture, and historical facts. 

Forensic and historical archaeological research holds the keys to go beyond sensational myth by unlocking details of the events that took place during that ill-fated winter in the Sierras.  While meant to serve as a testing springboard for future research, the latest phase of this project was rapidly touted one of Discover Magazine’s “Top 100 Science Stories of 2003” (Discover, December 2003).  The testing took place during August 2003 when archaeologists unearthed the remains of a hearth surrounded by artifacts and bones from the Donner family campsite, including a bone with butchery-type cut marks.  The latter is the first of its kind to be recovered -- or seen -- from any of the Donner Party sites.

Problems and Issues

Such successful archaeological testing inspires a revisit to the Donner family campsite, and we hope to return for a two-year field and laboratory research project using forensic recovery and testing techniques, such as Ground-Penetrating Radar, osteon tests on bone, genomic and mtDNA analyses on bone and/or artifacts, and nutritional stress and trauma studies on bone.  We see a problem in that collective memory has continued to focus on the more fantastic aspects of the Donner Party story, on cannibalism rather than  humanity.  In response to this, we hypothesize that forensic applications can create a richer awareness of the desperation and "starvation diet" these people endured before resorting to the societal taboo of cannibalism.  This more detailed portrayal of the story will create an understanding of human adaptation to new landscapes and survival in some of the harshest living conditions imaginable.  Additionally, mtDNA analyses will help address another problem by attempting to link human remains from these sites with descendants.  This will associate, once and for all, the archaeological remnants of an emigrant-era camp with the Donner family and will provide closure to descendants who have endured the brunt of sensational myth that continues to hover around this misfortune of western history. 

Finally, this project captured the attention of a large audience (local, regional, national, and international), inspiring us to develop a research program dedicated to public outreach and education.  For example, we are currently in negotiations with PBS’s Nova series to develop a documentary that overviews the various phases of our ongoing research.  Our research goal has thus become dedicated to archaeological investigations as means to an educational end, namely to demonstrate how science and history can be synthesized to overcome the power of myth and memory. 

Estimated Budget and Period of Time for Project

As groundwork for this dual charter dedicated to research and public education, $174,000 is necessary to ensure excellence in our field and laboratory investigations.  While we plan on conducting research at the various Donner encampments for several years to come, the amount noted above is intended to cover one year of work at the Donner family’s camp site.  This includes one summer season (two months) of fieldwork and ten months follow-up laboratory analyses.  We are requesting funding from several organizations, expecting that most may want to contribute to this project in smaller amounts than our total budget.

Organization and Principal Investigators

There are two principal investigators overseeing the project:  Dr. Kelly J. Dixon of the University of Montana’s Department of Anthropology and Dr. Julie Schablitsky of the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural History.  Both institutions are dedicated to research and education and both investigators led the recent testing at the Donner site that received national acclaim.  The University of Montana has a Foundation that manages donations to the Department of Anthropology for the Donner project.

Drs. Schablitsky and Dixon specialize in historic-era archaeology in the American West and both have incorporated forensic research with their analyses, including pioneering efforts to recover ancient DNA from historic artifacts.  Drs. Schablitsky and Dixon have also assembled a collaborative research team, including physical anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, human osteologists, geneticists, and ground-penetrating radar experts.  Curriculum vitae for the team will be provided upon request.

For information about Drs. Dixon and Schablitsky and their recent work at the Donner Party encampments, please see the links below:

University of Montana Contact for Donations:

Dr. Kelly J. Dixon, Assistant Professor
University of Montana,
Department of Anthropology
Telephone: 406.243.2450
Fax: 406.243.4918

Please make checks payable to The University of Montana, with “Donner Party Archaeology Project” in the memo.

To see a later release about the project, click here.

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