What is the project history?

       This site is located on the Tahoe National Forest, Truckee Ranger District. The project is authorized by special use permit by the Tahoe National Forest. The Forest has long-term goals to manage and allow research at the Alder Creek Site. Archaeological research at this site began in 1990 through the University of Nevada, Reno. Inspired by Dr. Don Hardesty and Dr. Susan Lindstromís research at the Alder Creek Camp in 1990, Dr. Kelly Dixon and Dr. Julie Schablitsky returned to the area in August 2003 to search for information that would help address the question of whether the site did, indeed, represent one of the Donner Family campsites that lay over six miles away from the three encampments at what is today Donner Lake. The Discovery Channelís Unsolved History provided the archaeologists with funding to conduct preliminary research here. It was then that they unearthed numerous historic artifacts, such as ceramic tableware and a clothing buckle. They discovered these items buried within a thin layer of gray-colored ash. At first, this ashy area had the appearance of a fire hearth, but it became clear that it was merely the clean-out from a hearth. In regard to the artifacts unearthed at the site 14 years ago, Dr. Hardesty noted that a hearth would provide those objects with the context of a campsite, emphasizing that such a feature would solidify the siteís affiliation with the Donner Party (Hardesty 1997:110-111).

Why are you returning to the site this year?

       Inspired by the finds of the previous field season, the research team is looking for remnants of a campsite that can help them answer questions, such as: Are these actually the artifacts of Donner familiesí encampments? Do these artifacts hold the clues to understanding the layout of the camp?
       The research team plans to excavate the area adjacent to the ashy stain (noted above) discovered in August 2003. They think this may represent the edge of a fire hearth area. If they can find a hearth and additional artifacts that date to1846-1847, they may be able to compile enough evidence to support the theory that the area truly is the conter of one of the Donner family encampments.

Is there evidence of cannibalism?

       At this point, the research team has not been able to determine this. During August of 2003, the archaeology team recovered numerous small bone fragments (approximately 181 fragments). They do not know if the bone is human. It is too small to say anything more than it represents a mammal. DNA tests may help us determine whether it is human or non-human.

Will there be DNA testing?

       Yes, they are considering this but the testing is very expensive and there is limited funding.

What methods are you employing?

       The research team reopened the excavation units from August 2003 and plan to extend a series of excavations to the north, south, and east. This will result in what archaeologists refer to as an "area excavation," which consists of a large block of contiguous excavation units that should reveal a view of the campís layout and/or a view of the artifact concentration. Mesh screens are used to catch tiny artifacts from the excavation units. A field lab has been set up to sort and process the finds as they are recovered.


How do you know this is an emigrant campground instead of the remains of other historical uses of the area such as logging camp?

       First, manufacture dates of artifacts indicate mid-19th century (as opposed to later logging activities, post 1868 in the Truckee region). Additionally, itís not always what you find but what you donít find Ė e.g., there is an absence of industrial, logging-related artifacts. Instead, the artifacts include broken dishes, fragmented food and wine bottles, gun-flints, and musket balls. These are the signatures of pioneers, not loggers.


Who is funding this?

       Grants were received from the Truckee Tahoe Community Foundation and the University of Montanaís Office of Research as well as additional support from professional colleagues (volunteers, equipment, vehicles): Jones and Stokes, Inc.; Institute for Canine Forensics; Far Western Anthropological Research Group; Past Forward, Inc.; URS Consultants; Bureau of Land Management; Summit Envirosolutions; and MacTech.
       Private donations in any amount would be gratefully accepted, as there is still much processing and lab work to be completed. Please contact Dr. Kelly Dixon at the University of Montana (


What do you hope to learn?

       The research team hopes to determine the layout of the camp and living conditions.

What will happen to the collection after analysis?

       The USFS will provide for permanent curation and will explore local options for an exhibit.

Will the research results be made available to the public?

       Yes but only after analysis of the artifacts is complete. The initial findings will be shared on media day, to be held July 14, 2004.

Who is the research team?

       The team consists of many experts from various universities, a Donner Party historian, and the Truckee Ranger District archaeologist. They include:

Dr. Kelly Dixon, Co-Principal Investigator, Archaeologist
University of Montana, Department of Anthropology

Dr. Julie Schablitsky, Co-Principal Investigator, Archaeologist
University of Oregon, State Museum of Anthropology

Dr. Guy Tasa, Human Osteologist/Archaeologist
University of Oregon, State Museum of Anthropology

Dr. Shannon Novak, Forensic Anthropologist
Idaho State University, Department of Anthropology

Dr. G. Richard Scott, Bioarchaeologist
University of Nevada, Reno, Anthropology Department

Kristin Johnson, Donner Party historian
Salt Lake City, Utah

Carrie Smith, Archaeologist
Truckee Ranger District
Tahoe National Forest


To learn more about the Donner Party, we recommend the following references:

McGlashan, C. F.
1947      History of the Donner Party, A Tragedy of the Sierra. Reissue of the 1880 edition. Stanford
              University Press.

Houghton, Eliza P. Donner
1997      The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate. Reissue of the 1911 edition.
              University of Nebraska Press.

Johnson, Kristin (editor)
1996      Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party. Utah State University Press.

Hardesty, Donald L.
1997      The Archaeology of the Donner Party. University of Nevada Press, Reno.

Mullen Jr., Frank
1998      The Donner Party Chronicles. A day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train 1846-
. A Halcyon Imprint of the Nevada Humanities Committee.

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