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Professor’s research demonstrates starvation diet at the Donner Party’s Alder Creek camp

Research conducted by Dr. Gwen Robbins, an assistant professor of biological anthropology at Appalachian State University, has found physical evidence that the Donner Party who were trapped by a snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the mid-1840s consumed their livestock, supplemented their diet with wild game, and may have eaten the family dog.

Remains from the Donner Family’s Alder Creek campsite, one of two major Donner Party camps, were excavated by a team of archaeologists from the University of Montana and the University of Oregon. A sample of bones from the campsite hearth was analyzed by Robbins and Kelsey Gray, an Appalachian graduate. They will present the results of this project this week at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, N.M.

During the excavation of the Donner Party’s Alder Creek campsite, 16,000 burned, fragmented bones were found. Many of the bones also had butchery and boiling marks. Robbins, an osteologist who specializes in bone biology and microstructure, examined the bones with three questions in mind: Are there any human bones in the hearth, which would provide material evidence for cannibalism? What kinds of other animals are present in the assemblage of bone fragments? and, What did the starvation diet look like?

The Donner Party has long been infamous for reportedly resorting to cannibalism after becoming trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California for months during the winter of 1846-1847. The party, which included 81 men, women and children, became stranded after a series of bad decisions and misfortunes caused numerous delays on their westward migration route and left them attempting to cross the mountains into California just as the first snows were falling in early October 1846.

In 2003, archaeologists Kelly Dixon (University of Montana) and Julie Schablitsky (University of Oregon) uncovered a hearth during the excavation of the Donner family’s campsite. Within the hearth, they found thousands of tiny burned fragments of bone, most measuring less than a quarter inch in diameter.

In 2004, Robbins, who was then a graduate student completing her PhD at the University of Oregon, was asked to determine whether the bones were human. A preliminary analysis of the bones was completed in 2006, after Robbins returned to the United States from dissertation research in India. This early analysis of 30 specimens indicated that there were no human bones from the hearth.

Upon joining the faculty at Appalachian, Robbins continued her research on the remains. With a team of undergraduate students, she pored through the tiny fragments looking for remains that could withstand further testing. The majority of bone fragments were so small and so delicate that they would crumble if subjected to thin sectioning, but there were about 250 larger, sturdier pieces of bone that showed evidence of cutting, chopping and boiling. Of these, 55 additional fragments were studied.

The team produced thin sections from these specimens and examined them using a microscope, measuring each basic structural unit and characterizing the tissue types. From this work, they determined that humans were not among the food refuse examined.

A power analysis indicated that, statistically, Robbins and Gray can be 70 percent confident that if cannibalism made up a small fraction of the diet (less than 1 percent) at the site in the last few weeks of occupation, and if humans were processed in the same way animals were processed, at least one of the 85 bone fragments examined would be human.

So, what did the Donner family eat during that winter? Robbins’ team identified the remains as cattle, deer, horse, and a canine that may have been a dog. While the historical record had indicated that cattle were the principal means of subsistence during that winter, there was no direct historic evidence that the Donner family also survived on deer and dog, and only a suggestion that they consumed their horses.

The legend of the Donner Party was primarily created by survivor accounts and members of the relief parties. In all, 47 people lived to tell the tale: 11 men and 36 women and children. Survivors and relief parties reported that some members of the party resorted to cannibalism, though, in their later years, some survivors denied this.

The archaeological record provides a new picture of the party’s activities. In the trash and debris left around the hearth, archaeologists found pieces of slate and shards of broken teacups and dinner plates. These pieces of slate and broken dishes around the hearth suggest the Donner’s participation in daily activities such as food consumption and writing.  Robbins’ research will be published in the July issue of the journal American Antiquity. The archaeology team also is finishing a book to be published by the University of Oklahoma Press.