No. 15

Donner Party Bulletin


The News Is Out -- Or Is It?

     Late on January 12, just as I was going over my paper for the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) conference, I found that the beans had been spilled. The co-directors of the Donner Party Archaeology Project (DPAP) had given a brief news conference earlier that day, and now there were suddenly three or four articles on the Internet to the effect that cannibalism at Alder Creek had been disproved. Over the next three days the news spread: No Donner Party cannibalism!
     At least, that's what the headlines implied. But if you read the articles carefully, you'll see that Drs. Dixon and Schablitsky actually said that the bone evidence from the site doesn't support cannibalism -- quite a different proposition.

Physical Evidence and Historical Evidence

      Even before news of the Alder Creek results hit the news, I'd noticed a puzzling trend: online articles, e-mail from readers, and the amateur editors of the Donner Party entry at Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, doubting that cannibalism occurred in the Donner Party at all. Apparently the authors misunderstood what members of the DPAP had actually said about the archaeological digs. 
      The archaeologists said that if bone fragments recovered from the 2003 and 2004 Alder Creek digs turned out to be human, it would be the first physical evidence of cannibalism in the Donner Party. The operative word is  physical; there's plenty of documentary evidence. The absence of physical evidence for an event does not necessarily mean that the event never happened. 
        For example: According to the Gospels, Jesus was brought before the Roman governor of Judea, one Pontius Pilatus (Pilate). This individual is also mentioned by three other Late Classical authors (Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, and Tacitus), but there was no physical evidence for Pilate's existence. Did this mean that there never was such a person? No. But the

the 1961 discovery of a stone at Caesarea with an inscription referring to the praefectus (governor) Pontius Pilatus, was very exciting; physical evidence is extremely powerful. Nevertheless, the inscription didn't prove anything, it merely corroborated what was already known from historical sources.
       This is the same situation as the "question" of Donner Party cannibalism: the historical record tells us that cannibalism occurred, but the archaeological record has not yet confirmed this. There are compelling reasons to believe that the evidence of cannibalism might not have survived. In addition, much of the material from the digs remains to be analyzed and further reports may yield different interpretations. Until then, cannibalism at Alder Creek is attested only by documentary sources.

Cannibalism at Alder Creek: The Historical Sources

     In November 1846, 22 members of the Donner Party camped in the Alder Creek Valley, about seven miles away from the other emigrants at Donner Lake. By April 1847, 11 of the 22 had died, including all four adults in the two Donner families. The oldest survivor was Dorothea Wolfinger, about 20, who evidently spoke little English. The remaining 10 survivors ranged in age from about 16 down to four.
     The earliest references to cannibalism at the Donner Party camps in the mountains come from the diary of Patrick Breen. On February 26th, 1847, he wrote,

The Donnos told the California folks that they [would] commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow...

    When James F. Reed arrived at Alder Creek on March 1, two of his men told him that they had seen Jacob Donner’s children eating their father’s half-roasted heart and liver and Baptiste carrying a leg over his shoulder, sent by the George Donners to "borrow" the meat from Elizabeth Donner.

Donner Party Bulletin No. 15: Alder Creek Issue

 While their testimony is second hand, Reed himself saw Jacob’s mutilated corpse and the other graves with their fragmentary contents.
     Jacob Donner’s daughter, Mary, 7 years old, was one of those the Second Relief had to leave at Starved Camp. When she heard that her brother Isaac had died, she urged Mr. Breen to cut some meat from his body. "O child! Sure you wouldn’t eat your own brother!" Mrs. Breen exclaimed. Mary answered yes, that they had eaten her father and uncle back at the cabin.
     Mary’s feet were so badly injured by fire and frostbite that she was taken to San Francisco for medical treatment. The woman she boarded with there recalled what Mary had told her.
...two of her little brothers died, and she told me, with tears running down her face, that she saw them cooked, and had to eat them; but added, as though fearful of having committed a crime, ‘I could not help it; I had eaten nothing for days, and I was afraid to die.

     In the spring of 1847, Jean Baptiste Trudeau told a naval lieutenant, H. A. Wise, of cannibalism at Alder Creek:

...he told me that he ate Jake Donner and the baby, "eat baby raw, stewed some of Jake, and roasted his head, not good meat, taste like sheep with the rot; but, sir, very hungry, eat anything."—these were his very words.

     In 1879 Georgia Donner Babcock, age 5 in 1847, wrote historian C. F. McGlashan

When I spoke of human flesh being used at both tents, I said it was prepared for the little ones in both tents. I did not mean to include the larger (my half sisters) children or the grown people, because I am not positive that they tasted of it.
Georgia was quite correct – her older half sisters Elitha and Leanna had left

with the First Relief, before any cannibalism occurred at the camps. She continued,

Father was crying and did not look at us during this time, and we little ones felt that we could not help it. There was nothing else. Jacob Donners wife came down the steps one day saying to mother "What do you think I cooked this morning?" Then answered her own question herself, "Shoemaker’s arm."

Georgia also wrote that while she and her sisters Eliza and Frances were at the Murphy cabin by the lake, they were given human flesh to eat – and there's no question that cannibalism did occur at the Murphy cabin.
     Admittedly, there are problems with many of these sources. Some are the memories of young children, some were recorded long after the event, some are second hand, and many contain minor errors of fact. Nevertheless, the first denial of Alder Creek cannibalism was not recorded until decades later, when Eliza Donner Houghton met Baptiste again. As a small child Eliza had been traumatized by horror stories about the Donner Party. In 1884, contrary to his earlier statement to Wise, Baptiste assured her, with tears in his eyes, that no cannibalism had occurred at the Donner family camp. It was exactly what Eliza wanted to hear. She took pains to emphasize it in her book,
The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate.
      Despite the problems with the sources, it's pretty clear that cannibalism occurred at Alder Creek after the end of February 1847, and that some of the youngest Donner children participated in cannibalism there and at other locations.

Conference Report

     I arrived at the Sacramento Hyatt on the afternoon of Friday, January  13, checked in, and registered for the conference. I checked out the book room, then the displays. There was a large panel about Alder Creek with Mallorie Hatch, a "B (for bone) Team" member working with Dr. Shannon Novak, standing by to answer questions.

Donner Party Bulletin No. 15: Alder Creek Issue

      On the other side of the Alder Creek display was information about cadaver dogs. Ken Dunn, a former PI and Donner Party buff, first suggested the use of these dogs to the DPAP back in 2003. They're trained to alert when they detect the scent of human remains, which can remain in the soil for centuries. A number of dogs had worked the meadow at Alder Creek on, I believe, three separate occasions and alerted to the presence of human remains at many spots. One of the dogs, a friendly chocolate-and-tan Doberman named Twist, was there with her equally friendly human, Shirley Hammond.
     The awards banquet Friday night provided a chance to schmooze with more of the DPAP team. Dr. Donald L. Hardesty, whose digs at Donner Party sites are only a fraction of his work, was awarded the SHA's highest honor, the J. C. Harrington Medal, in recognition of his many achievements.
     "The Donner Party: A Collaborative Approach" presenting the results of the 2003 and 2004 digs at Alder Creek was scheduled to run from 8:00 AM until 2:00 PM on Saturday the 14th, with a one-hour break at noon. There were 14 speakers, each allotted 20 minutes, but it was hard staying within the time limit.  I was the first to speak and gave a general overview of the Donner Party story, a more detailed account of the Donners at Alder Creek, and a discussion of the historical sources, including the evidence for cannibalism. (I hadn't intended to spend much time on the latter, but altered my presentation after the news about the bones came out.)
     Don Hardesty followed me, describing his earlier digs at two Donner Party sites, the Murphy cabin in the 1980s and Alder Creek in the early 1990s. Carrie Smith,
the Truckee Ranger District Archaeologist, spoke about managing and interpreting the Alder Creek area. Sierra weather expert Mark McLaughlin talked about the winter of 1846-47. A medical doctor, Ken Kamler, spoke about the physiology of cold and starvation; Dr. James S. Reed (no relation to the Donner Party guy) discussed the psychological effects of events on the trapped emigrants. Project co-directors Julie Schablitsky and Kelly Dixon addressed different aspects of interpreting the dig and reconstructing life in the camp. Adela Morris of the Institute for Canine Forensics described the detection dogs' work. Guy Tasa was unable to attend in person, so his discussion of the bone assemblage from the two digs was given by Richard Scott. Shannon Novak reported on

the bones and the different processing marks on them (slices, chops, saw marks, pot polish). Gwen Robbins described how the different species represented in the assemblage were identified. Richard Scott discussed different types of cannibalism. Finally, Elitha Donner Wilder's great granddaughter, Lochie Wilder Paige spoke, reminding us of the human dimension of our work by her account of her life as a Donner descendant.

Some of the Evidence

    Of the more than 16,000 bits bone recovered, all were calcined, that is, they had been cooked until all or most of the organic content was destroyed, leaving only the mineral constituents. None of the fragments was over an inch in size, and 86% were smaller than 1/4 inch. Shannon Novak of the "B Team" told me it was unprecedented in her experience to find so much bone in that condition. Many of the pieces of bone show various processing marks and "pot polish," a smoothing of the edges that occurs with boiling.
     Only 30 of the largest pieces were examined to determine the animals represented. Cattle, horses, deer, dog, rabbit, and rodent were identified. "Rodent" is interesting, given Eliza Donner Houghton's statement, "The little field mice that had crept into camp were caught then and used to ease the pangs of hunger." She also wrote that their dog "disappeared," but the presence of canine bone in the faunal assemblage no doubt means that Uno, like the Reeds' Cash and the Breens' Towser, wound up in the cooking pot.
     The famous "bone with the cut marks," found at the very end of the 2003 dig, turned out to be deer. The presence of deer and rabbit bone is interesting because we have no record of successful hunting at Alder Creek, except for the bear cub killed by Nicholas Clark in March 1847.
      Lead shot of various sizes was found also. Many of the balls were badly made -- the sprues (artifacts of casting) were untrimmed, leaving rough edges on the balls that would make them fly inaccurately. This made me wonder if someone had sat making bullets simply as a way to kill time, not caring if the balls were made well or not, rather than from need. Maybe it was a way to keep the boys occupied and out from underfoot. I say "boys"

Donner Party Bulletin No. 15: Alder Creek Issue

because we have no idea whose camp we found, George's or Jacob's. George Donner had no sons with him, but Jacob had six boys, including two stepsons aged 14 and 12 -- old enough, one would think, to be trusted with a bullet mold and lead. Tempting as it is to speculate, however, it appears unlikely we'll ever be able to identify which camp it was.

Is This Really a Donner Party Camp?

     The general area excavated by the Donner Party Archaeology Project in 2003 and 2004 has been identified as the Donner family camp for over a hundred years. In the summer of 1879 rescuer Nicholas Clark visited Alder Creek with historian C. F. McGlashan and  identified the camp; McGlashan shared this information many years later with P. M. Weddell, who traced and marked the emigrant trail from the 1920s into the 1940s.
     More recently, however, some trail historians have asserted that the traditional site at Alder Creek can't be the correct location for the Donner tents because it's "too far off the trail." This is, however, merely an opinion; it has not been bolstered by any real evidence, and evidence to the contrary has been ignored. Two early travelers, Nathaniel V. Jones (1847) and John A. Markle (1849), noted that the camp was about seven miles from the lake and a mile or two off the road.
     The results of the DPAP digs point to the meadow location as a Donner Party site. All of the artifacts date from the mid-nineteenth century. They are not typical of a lumber, railroad, hunting, or prospectors' camp but are instead domestic; the piece of broken school slate suggests the presence of children. The number and distribution of the artifacts indicate a lengthy occupation in a small area, not a few nights' lay-over by an emigrant party. The camp's inhabitants were so famished that they were eating horse, dog, and rodent, and cooking bones until they were reduced to bits.
     To sum up, we have a mid-nineteenth century group of starving European Americans, camped at a site that has been associated with the Donner Party for more than a century.  What more evidence could one want?

The Question of Cannibalism

     Since January 12 the media have played up the absence of proof for cannibalism at Alder Creek. Some headlines have been accurate ("No Proof of Donner Cannibalism," "Research Doesn't Support Cannibalism by Donner Family"), others irresponsible ("Science crashes Donner Party," "People weren't on the Donners' menu scientists claim").
     Here's the deal:
no human bone was found among the thousands of fragments found at Alder Creek site, but this doesn't mean that no humans were cooked there.
     How could this be? Well, all of the bone found was calcined -- cooked down to its mineral content. Calcined bone resists decomposition, but bone that retains its organic content readily dissolves in acidic soils like that at Alder Creek.
     We know that the Donner Party ate everything else they could until they finally had to turn to the bodies of the dead. Cannibalism didn't start at Alder Creek until the last week of February 1847 and may have lasted only a week or two; almost certainly less than a month.
     On March 3, the Second Relief left, taking three children from Alder Creek. Eleven people remained there: eight Donners, Baptiste, and two men Reed left behind to look after them. Over the next ten days, the three little Donner girls were taken to the Murphy cabin, Baptiste and the rescuers abandoned the camp, and Elizabeth Donner and one or both of her remaining sons died, leaving only George and Tamzene Donner and possibly a nephew still alive at Alder Creek.
     Before he bailed, however, Clark had killed a young bear. This might have provided enough meat for the two (or three) people remaining at Alder Creek to live on, without further recourse to cannibalism, until George died in the last half of March. As the spring advanced, the bodies of animals buried under the snowdrifts would have been exposed, providing more food. Whatever the case, the bones of those who were cannibalized would not have been cooked repeatedly, would not have become calcined, and thus would not have survived.

Donner Party Bulletin is edited by Kristin Johnson, Salt Lake City, UT. E-mail: Kristin Johnson

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