"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.

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