IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Doubt cast on Donner family cannibalism

Two scientists say they see no physical evidence that links the actual members of the Donner family with the "Donner Party" saga of desperate cannibalism in 1846-47.
Archaeologists Mike Kelly and Mark Hale dig down to the "culture-bearing deposit" at the site of what is thought to have been a Donner Party camp near Truckee, Calif. Kelly and Hale were among the scientists who set out to prove or disprove tales of cannibalism by members of the legendary Donner Party.Debra Reid / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

There’s no physical evidence that the family who gave the Donner Party its name had anything to do with the cannibalism the ill-fated pioneers have been associated with for a century and a half, two scientists said Thursday.

Cannibalism has been documented at the Sierra Nevada site where most of the Donner Party’s 81 members were trapped during the brutal winter of 1846-47, but 21 people, including all the members of the George and Jacob Donner families, were stuck 6 miles (10 kilometers) away because a broken axle had delayed them.

No cooked human bones were found among the thousands of fragments of animal bones at that Alder Creek site, suggesting Donner family members did not resort to cannibalism, the archaeologists said at a conference of the Society for Historical Archaeology in Sacramento, Calif.

“The Donner family ended up getting the stigma basically because of the name,” said Julie Schablitsky, one of the lead authors. “But of all the people, they were probably the least deserving of it.”

The sawed and chopped animal bone fragments, recovered during an archaeological dig over the past three years, do suggest “extreme desperation and starvation,” the study said. One of the animals eaten was a pet dog — presumably “Uno,” mentioned in some of the children’s later writings.

“The Donner Party’s experience was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as everybody’s been told,” said Schablitsky, a historical archaeologist at the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Distinction between sites
The findings by Schablitsky and Kelly Dixon, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Montana, don’t necessarily disprove the accounts of cannibalism told by rescuers and survivors stranded in a fierce winter storm in the mountains southwest of Reno and north of Truckee, Calif.

If cannibalism did occur at the Alder Creek site, in what is now the Tahoe National Forest, bones were not burned or boiled along with the flesh, the authors said. Such bones endure in the ground a very long time, while unburned or unboiled bones turn to dust in a relatively short time.

“We thought for sure based on all the accounts in the diaries and the relief journals and people’s memories that among the other animal bones, we’d definitely find other human remains” at Alder Creek, Schablitsky said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “So the most significant find is really what we didn’t find.”

Donner descendants heartened
Descendants of the Donner family say the findings bolster claims they have made for years — that cannibalism was not as rampant as portrayed in sensational contemporaneous newspaper accounts of the ordeal, which only about half the pioneers survived.

“We are thrilled and relieved,” said Lochie Paige, the great-granddaughter of Eliza Donner, daughter of George Donner.

“Their findings, in my mind, completely exonerate her from having any part in cannibalism,” she said from her California home Thursday.

G. Richard Scott, a bioarchaeologist who studies cannibalism in the Anthropology Department at the University of Nevada, Reno, is participating in the conference symposium this week but said he has not yet seen the papers presented by the two scientists. He suggested it was premature to draw any specific conclusions.

“We have looked at all the historical documents that allege this, that and the other (in regard to cannibalism) but we have reached no specific conclusions on just what happened at Alder Creek,” he said in an e-mail Thursday night.

History reassessed
Dixon and Schablitsky led a team that found a campfire hearth at the Alder Creek site in the summer of 2004, establishing for the first time that part of the Donner Party spent that fateful winter there.

The main group, which primarily set out from Independence, Mo., spent the winter along what is now called Donner Lake, bordering Interstate 80 just west of Truckee.

The new research documents a menu at Alder Creek that included deer, rabbits and small rodents, along with the family’s oxen and livestock.

The researchers also found lead shot, apparently cast at camp, that was of very poor quality. “So that may have accounted for some of their problems,” Dixon said.