"Donner Party" Hearth Yields Bones; DNA Analysis Planned

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
July 22, 2004
In July 1846, some 81 men, women, and children known as the Donner party set out from Illinois by wagon train, bound for California with dreams of land and a new life.

That October, an early snowfall on California's Sierra Nevada stopped the would-be settlers in their tracks. Four months later, rescuers returned with tales of desperate campers who cannibalized their cabin mates as snows settled in and food ran out.

Now a team of archaeologists working near Truckee, California, has discovered a 158-year-old cooking hearth, evidence that may pinpoint the fate that befell this legendary group of pioneers during the winter of 1846-47.

Researchers say DNA analysis of artifacts and bones found in and around the hearth may help uncover what the Donners ate and whether there is truth to stories that the group resorted to cannibalism to survive the winter.

"Memories do evolve over time. So you have to use archaeology to determine what's myth and what's truth," said Julie Schablitsky, an archaeologist investigating the site. Schablitsky is based at the University of Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene.

Donner Party History

As the Donner party inched their wagons through the mountains, George Donner's wagon broke an axle. Twenty-one of the pioneers, including Donner and his brother Jacob, their families, and several teamsters stopped at Alder Creek. The mountain meadow lies three miles (4.8 kilometers) north of present-day Truckee. The rest of the wagons, meanwhile, pushed ahead.

This second group stopped at Donner Lake, a small body of water tucked beneath snow-covered peaks six miles (9.6 kilometers) southwest of Alder Creek. Here, the stranded pioneers built cabins and hunkered down for the winter.

Forty-seven of the 81 settlers survived the winter. At Alder Creek, George Donner was slowly dying from an infection of a wound he received while fixing his wagon's problem axle. His wife, Tamsen, stayed with Donner as both watched rescuers take their children down the mountain.

Schablitsky said excavations of the cabins, together with journals and accounts from the settlers encamped at Donner Lake, have revealed much about the events that transpired that winter. But little is known about the Donner families stranded at Alder Creek.

The fate of these families has taken on a mythic quality. One yellow pine tree, called the George Donner tree, became known as the site where the Donners built a lean-to to shelter themselves during the winter.

"We knew the general location of the Alder Creek campsite," Schablitsky said. "But you couldn't put an X on the ground and say, Here's where they were." In 1990, Don Hardesty, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, began excavating the Alder Creek site near the George Donner tree seeking signs of the ill-fated group.

Scouring the area around the tree for evidence of shelter, Hardesty found nothing. However, the scientist's metal detectors picked up wagon hardware and lead shot 200 meters (656 feet) away from the George Donner tree.

Archaeologist Kelly Dixon, now at the University of Montana, studied with Hardesty. She has now picked up the trail of her former instructor, who suggested the remains of a hearth could confirm the sites Donner Party link.

Last summer, Dixon and Schablitsky spent five days at Alder Creek site. They resumed the search at the spot where Hardesty left off 13 years before.

"Just when we thought we weren't going to find anything more, we came across a burned, ashy stain," Dixon said. The stain might ultimately provide persuasive evidence that the site was indeed the location of Donner family camp.

Summer in the Sierra

Earlier this month, the researchers began excavating the area with small trowels, soft brushes, and dental tools. They sifted dirt through fine screens to uncover any trace of the past. The archaeologists followed a rivulet that ran from the circular stain—the result of melting snow during the spring of 1847—to a fire hearth. There, large pieces of bone rested on top of charred wood, and then, powdery ash.

The team mapped and photographed larger artifacts at the Alder Creek site. They wore gloves and used forceps to place items slated for DNA analysis in individual envelopes that were sealed with paperclips, not licked shut, as saliva could contaminate samples.

To learn more about the people who lived at the Donner campsite, researchers can follow human mitochondrial DNA. This special form of DNA is present in the energy-producing mitochondria found in human cells and is passed onto children only by their mother.

Researchers can compare mitochondrial DNA from Donner Party descendents to any samples collected at the Alder Creek site to get a direct line on who camped there.

The scientists note that bones aren't the only items that could contain this crucial piece of evidence. Schablitsky and Dixon have experimented with retrieving human DNA from other artifacts found at the site, like syringe needles and tobacco pipe stems. The process that could shed even more light on the Donner Party's daily life.

Through such analysis, the archaeologists hope to learn who lived at the campsite, what people ate, and, perhaps, whether the persistent rumors of cannibalism are true.

The researchers say, however, that the sensational aspects of the pioneers' story pale in comparison to what they hope can be learned about daily life during that infamous winter.

Pieces of hand-painted teacups, beads, and slate fragments are giving the archaeologists a better picture of how the snowbound families persevered each day. Tamsen Donner, a schoolteacher, likely used the slate to continue her children's lessons, even in the midst of winter. "You can almost recreate their life," Schablitsky said.

For four long months, men, women, and children did what they could to survive one of the Sierra's worst winters. "It's the story of how humans adjust their behavior and adapt during a crisis," Dixon said. "That's something we could learn from today."

For more archaeology news, scroll down.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.