Traces of the Donner Party

  • By Susan K. Lewis
  • Posted 07.01.07
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Few stories of the American frontier are as infamous as the legend of the Donner Party. But archeologist Julie Schablitsky cautions that you can't take newspaper accounts describing "mothers eating their children" at face value. In this slide show, Schablitsky shows artifacts she uncovered at the Donner family campsite and describes what evidence there was—and wasn't—for cannibalism.

Launch Interactive

Archeologist Julie Schablitsky describes what she and colleagues discovered at the Donner family campsite.


Traces of the Donner Party

Posted: July 1, 2007


JULIE SCHABLITSKY: The Donner Party is a victim of being over-sensationalized over time. It's a very morbid tale. It's a cautionary story about the trials and travails about heading west 160 years ago. So you really have to be careful with what you read.

We don't want to just rely on newspapers, for example, because you can take an event where people did participate in cannibalism and create these graphic stories about mothers eating their children and fathers eating their sons, then they're going to go ahead and do that. They take those creative liberties.

The reason that archeologists needed to go back to the location where the Donner Party camped was to learn more about those four months. What we really want to get behind is the daily lives, the daily activities. What did they do during those times? Where was their campsite? Where were the structures located? What about the campfire? What were they eating? How were they dressed? All those questions were not answered in the newspapers or other historical documents or journals, but it's something that archeologists can reveal.

In addition to the scientific interest that we had in finding out more about how the Donners lived those four months trapped in the mountains, we also had more of a personal agenda, and that was to bring closure to one of the great granddaughters of George Donner. Her name is Lochie Paige. Her and her family were told from their great grandmother, Elitha Donner, who was a daughter of George, that they never cannibalized in the mountains, that they didn't participate in that, and for all those years, Lochie Paige had to live with that stigma that her family participated in that when she believed, and her great grandmother had told her, that they weren't a part of that. So part of our mission was to try and bring closure and answer that question.


JULIE SCHABLITSKY: The Donner Party consisted of a dozen families, all from different backgrounds. Some were German. Some had Irish heritage. Elderly people, as well as adults and young children.

There was a well-blazed trail that went from Missouri all the way to Oregon and California, but when the Donner Party arrived at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, they were told about a different trail known as the Hastings Cutoff, and although it wasn't a proven route, they were sold on the idea that the shortcut could save them a lot of time, and that's when they ran into some real trouble.

Along the Salt Lake Desert a lot of their oxen were lost. They were thirsty, and if you don't have grass and water for your oxen, you don't get very far. And when they reached the Sierra Nevadas in late October, they were very, very far behind schedule.

At that point on October 28th, the snow began to fall, and they were stranded. Of the 81 people who arrived in the mountains that fall, only half of them survived.


JULIE SCHABLITSKY: One thing that people don't realize is that the Donner Party split into two separate locations, six miles from each other. One group wintered at Donner Lake in three cabins and a lean-to. The remaining party included the George and Jacob Donner families, as well as teamsters and the widow Mrs. Wolfinger. Those 21 people camped at Alder Creek. There, they weren't as fortunate and had to quickly erect lean-tos and other brush shelters.

Everybody knew the approximate location ever since it had happened, but we didn't have that hearth, ground zero. That's what we were looking for, a place where they would have sat around eating, talking, socializing, normalizing a terrible situation. When we returned to Alder Creek in 2003 and 2004, what we found didn't surprise us, but it amazed us. Chunks of charcoal, a large number of artifacts as well as dozens and dozens of cut bone emerged from that fire hearth.

We became very excited because we knew that we were at the epicenter of this site and that anything that we found at that location could reveal the way that the Donners lived for those four months in the mountains.


JULIE SCHABLITSKY: When you pick up a piece of a plate that no one has held for 160 years, and you think to yourself, "I wonder who held this last," but more interesting, "I wonder how it got broken and why it was left behind." Those are the things that really make us think and try and piece together what happened hundreds of years ago.

One sort of artifact I can remember finding is the fragment from a slate writing tablet. When I saw this, I immediately envisioned Tamsen Donner, the mother, sitting around the campfire with her children, teaching them arithmetic and spelling. So it really showed me that the Donners weren't just up there huddled together, freezing to death, starving, but that they did daily activities and normalized the situation. And so it created a complexity to the story that I had not formerly envisioned.

The discovery of the slate fragments, buttons, parts of a mirror all remind me that these weren't animals that were eating each other in the mountains, but instead, it humanized the people.

While we excavated around the hearth, there seemed to be a high number of nails concentrated right in the center of the hearth. Initially, that didn't make a lot of sense, but after we received the charcoal analysis back that showed that oak had been used in the fire, it all began to make sense. We knew that the Donners were throwing in woods from their furniture as well as their wagon, their only means of escape from the mountains.


JULIE SCHABLITSKY: I was almost positive that we would find evidence of cannibalism, or if not cannibalism, then we'd at least find human bone around that fire hearth.

The bone was handed off to four different individuals, specialists in different disciplines and sub-fields, and one of the most important individuals was Gwen Robbins, who looked at the osteons, which are the microscopic structure of the bone. And by looking at osteons, you can tell by the shape and size what species it is. We could tell that, not only did the Donners consume their oxen, horse and the family dog named Uno, but they also consumed and supplemented their diet with wild game, something no one else was aware of before in that particular campsite. So we found deer. We found rabbit. We found rodent. And it really is a testament to the human spirit of how they went out into the woods, they cast their own bullets, they took their guns, and they were successful at bringing down deer and rabbit.

Another one of our experts, Shannon Novak, looked at the macroscopic and microscopic images of the bone to determine how the bone was butchered and processed before consumption. When bone is subjected to boiling water in a cast iron pot, and when it boils, it picks up a sort of sheen from tumbling over and over in the pot, and what this tells us is that the Donner Party were trying to extract every bit of nutrient they could from the waste bone.

All these different chopping and sawing and cutting marks on the bone, it shows that they did everything in their power to avoid the unspeakable – cannibalism. And by boiling the bone, by chopping it, by reusing all of their waste bone, they were able to survive weeks longer.


JULIE SCHABLITSKY: I was really shocked that the one thing we expected, which was human bone, was missing, but after I thought about it and I went back to the historical documents, the reports from the rescue salvage party members didn't recognize or note cannibalism at that particular location until very, very late in the entrapment. At least half the people that were still surviving at Alder Creek had gotten out, and only several members were left behind, which means that perhaps only several members participated in cannibalism.

And so what I think happened is that when cannibalism did take place, the soft tissue, the organs were consumed, but they were rescued before they had to resort to the chopping up of the human bone and treating it to the fire, which would have then allowed it to survive. And just because you don't have a body doesn't mean that a crime didn't occur in this case. I think cannibalism happened, but I think it happened in a much smaller scale than everyone believes.

I believe our work on the Donner Party has brought closure, both to the scientists and to the family members. It is probable that Elitha Donner and some of the Donner Party members never participated in cannibalism. It just never got that bad until the very, very end. So we were able to reveal to Lochie Paige that it's very unlikely that your great grandmother did participate, and when she claimed that she did not participate in cannibalism, it was probably the truth.



Produced by
Susan K. Lewis
Edited by
David Levin
Interview by
Susan K. Lewis


Chapter 1

(late 1870s historical account)
Courtesy Domain
(1847 newspaper, excavation site)
Courtesy Julie Schablitsky
(Donner party survivors)
Courtesy California State Parks, Sutter's Fort Archives
(Elitha Donner)
The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate by Eliza P. Donner Houghton

Chapter 2

(James and Margret Reed, William George Murphy, Sarah Keyes, Mary Murphy with daughter and niece)
Courtesy California State Parks, Sutter's Fort Archives
(1845 Emigrants' Guide)
Courtesy Julie Schablitsky
(period wagon train)
Courtesy Denver Public Library
(blizzard strikes the wagon train)
Courtesy Domain

Chapter 3

© Courtesy Julie Schablitsky

Chapter 4

(Julie Schablitsky with ceramic shard, plate and cup shards, writing slate fragment, glass, iron, and bone artifacts, excavating the hearth)
Courtesy Julie Schablitsky
(period wagon train)
Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers, San Francisco, Gift of Florence V. Flinn

Chapter 5

(Donner Party members and recovered bone, bone fragments, oxen bone, bone fragments, bone with pot polish, cut marks on butchered bone)
Courtesy Julie Schablitsky
(bone microstructures)
Courtesy Gwendolyn Robbins/Appalachian State University
(winter in the Sierras)
Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers, San Francisco, Gift of Florence V. Flinn

Chapter 5

(Alder Creek site, researching historical documents)
Courtesy Julie Schablitsky
(George Donner Jr., period lithograph, "Camp of Death")
Courtesy California State Parks, Sutter's Fort Archives
(Elitha Donner)
The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate by Eliza P. Donner Houghton

Related Links


You need the Flash Player plug-in to view this content.