One of the enduring (and horrific) tales of the expansion of the American Republic westward is the story of the ill-fated Donner Party. A group of more than 80 emigrants to California, the Donner Party set out for the West Coast in 1846, but made the mistake of following what was known as the “Hastings Cutoff.” As with so many shortcuts, the Hastings Cutoff turned out to be problematic. In this particular case, it meant that the wagon train of the Donner Party ended up snow bound in a pass in the Sierra Nevada, where they attempted to survived the winter. Slightly more than half of the expedition’s members made it.
That much is not in dispute.
What is in dispute is what happened to the remains of those who died before the rescue parties finally arrived. The accepted version of what happened is that once the expedition’s animals had been eaten, the living began to consume the dead. Survivors later admitted to cannibalism, but the disputes have arisen over the amount of cannibalism (if any) actually occurred. The emmigrants had split into two encampents–one consisting largely of members of the Donner family, and the other consisting of others in their party. In the 1980s, Donald Hardesty of the University of Nevada found human bone fragments mixed in with those of butchered cows at the second of these sites, leaving little doubt as to what happened there. However, what happened at the Donner family camp has long been in dispute, largely because the testimony of survivors from that part of the expedition has been conflicting.
In an article in the April 24 edition of the New Yorker, Dana Goodyear offers a compelling narrative of the work of two historical archaeologists–Kelly Dixon of the University of Montana and Julie Schablitsky of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Oregon. Dixon and Schablitsky’s excavations at the site of the Donner family encampment found 16,000 bone fragments, almost all of which showed signs of butchering, but none of which could be identified as human.
The analysis of those fragments is what is so intriguing. Read the article to get a sense for the techniques they used–it was all very CSI and must have cost a fortune just in electron microscope time. But the lesson for historians is that if the artifacts can be extracted from the ground, our colleagues in archaeology departments (or crime labs) can help us answer historical questions. One suspects that many more such analyses will appear as the years go by and the costs of these technologies drops.
For more information on the Donner Party, all of which take the cannibalism as fact, not as something in dispute, see:
– The Donner Party Diary, which is the number one link appearing following a Google search;
– The PBS episode on the Donner Party on American Experience;
– New Light on the Donner Party, a website maintained by a librarian in Utah;
– the Wikipedia entry. This last item is especially interesting, because it likewise offered cannibalism as a fact. I edited the entry on April 28 around 11:00 am EST to reflect some doubt about what actually happened. It will be interesting to see how long that edit survives. Given that the Wikipedia is where most of our students will go first to find out what happened to the Donner Party, I’ll be particularly interested to follow the fate of this entry.