Using science to rewrite the Donner Party tale

By: Eric Bailey

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T he clues are covered by snow now, 158 winters removed from events that haunt these hills and the history books. Back before railroads and interstates and ski towns, the families of George and Jacob Donner hunkered here during the terrible winter of 1846-47, snowbound in a pine- ringed meadow a couple of miles north of the old pioneer trail now flanked by vacation homes.

Many know the Donner Party story --— or at least think they do. A wagon train of 81 emigrants is trapped in the Sierra. Desperate rescue attempts flag, nearly half die and many survivors resort to eating the dead. But the soil still holds secrets.

Those long-ago tales of cannibalism have endured for generations without scientific proof. Intent on bringing a full account of the Donner Party to light, a team of archaeologists has over the last two summers combed a 10-by-20-foot checkerboard of earth with the meticulous care of homicide detectives.

They’ve deployed ground-penetrating radar, turned to DNA tests more common in murder cases . Forensic tracking dogs sniffed the site . Call it CSI: Donner Party.

A bounty of evidence emerged, tiny fragments that look innocuous to the layman but unlock long-ago stories for archaeologists. They unearthed shards of 1840s hand-painted china, antique buttons and a chunk of slate from a child’s chalk board. A link from a woman’s gold chain surfaced. So did pioneer wagon hardware and pea-size musket balls, some dented as if chomped by teeth during a meal.

There has also been bone, thousands of beige crumbles no bigger than a bottle cap lurking amid the charcoal stain of an old campfire hidden by time and topsoil. The unsettled question, of course, is whether it is the butchered bone of humans.

That mystery, and more, lured Julie Schablitsky and Kelly Dixon to this pristine meadow beside Alder Creek.   The two archaeologists, both in their mid-30s, share a love of the hunt — and a studied wariness about the mix of truth and myth surrounding the Ol d West. The historical record of the Donner Party is a prime target, tangled by conjecture and the conflicting memories of survivors.

Put simply , Schablitsky and Dixon hope to reinvent the Donner Party.

 Cannibalism has dominated the story ever since the first lurid newspaper reports of 1847. While the search for ironclad proof remains a core aim of the present archaeologists, their overriding mission is to expand the historical narrative of those awful four months in the snow.

“Everyone talks of cannibalism, over and over,” said Schablitsky, of the University of Oregon. “We want them to hear the rest of the story.”

Watching from the sidelines of science is someone with a more personal stake. Lochie Paige is the great-great-granddaughter of George Donner, the farmer from Springfield, Ill., who lent his name to the ill-fated expedition. While she has long accepted her family’s tragic Golden State beginnings as a fact of life, Paige admits to a wistful sentiment: that modern archeology will prove her ancestors weren’t cannibals.

One recent day found her at Alder Creek amid late-winter snowdrifts. This scenic landscape, once a place of starvation and death, is today a picnic ground. Icy earth crunching beneath her feet, Paige glanced across the meadow she considers a sacred spot. She thinks not of death, but of survival.

“I know,” she says simply, “this is where my life started.” Survivors and their early descendants endured taunts and avoided mention of the ordeal, but the contemporary clan has emerged from that veil of shame. They’ve held two reunions in the last decade. Some even abide a few jokes among themselves (the reunion fare, one wag noted, didn’t include lady fingers).

Paige confronts the past in presentations to any audience willing to listen, be it the Native Daughters of the Golden West or the fourth-grade classes the 60-year -old registered nurse has adopted near her Sacramento, Calif., home.

Her ancestors’ key mistake, Paige and historians agree, came in taking a shortcut through the rugged Wasatch Mountains and the searing Salt Lake Desert, which squandered precious weeks and left five dead. Depleted and demoralized, the Donner Party hit the Sierra as winter struck.

When the axle broke on George Donner’s wagon, the clan fell behind the rest of the pack. A fierce storm pinned the bulk of the group — 59 ragtag settlers — just west of Truckee, beside what is now Donner Lake. The historical record is full of accounts of cannibalism at the lake camp as winter wore on.

Six miles back, George and Jacob Donner sought refuge for their families and hired hands in hastily erected lean-tos of pine boughs and canvas at Alder Creek. In all, 22 people dug in as snow buried the meadow, turning their world black and white. Though most of the children survived, all but one adult perished, and no diaries were discovered. The story of life and death at Alder Creek was largely lost.

Paige’s great-grandmother, Flitha Donner, talked little of that winter of starvation she endured at age 14. A few other survivors, as adults, insisted the dead weren’t eaten at Alder Discovery Channel, which provided the initial funding to launch the project. Interest was intense; one visitor from Korea slept overnight at the picnic area for a chance to visit the archaeologists.

The turf originally was pinpointed in the early 1990s by Don Hardesty of the University of Nevada, Reno. He found provocative artifacts, but never absolutely settled a nagging question: Did the Donner family winter at Alder Creek?

Dixon and Schablitsky returned to that vicinity intent on finding answers.

As on any dig, the crew plotted each item’s precise location. In archeology as in life, relationships matter.

The proximity of a bit of bone to a button made in England, the position of all remnant of charcoal from an antique cooking fire — just about everything can tell a story. The depth of the discoveries, about a foot below the moist meadow surface, suggested an age of about 150 years, as did shattered ceramic tableware featuring a hand-painted sprig pattern from that era.

Looking at the distribution of bone and artifacts, Schablitsk and Dixon noted that the debris abruptly ended along a precise line, as if drawn by a ruler. They theorize this is probably an edge of the family’s enclosure.

The biggest piece to the puzzle was the discovery o f a campfire. Over the course of the two summers, the scientists followed a gray layer of ash, the likely result of snow runoff from a winter fire . Eventually they found a circle of charcoal and bone . Schablitsky calls it “ground zero.”

By analyzing the types of bone pulled layer by layer from around the campfire, the team intends to reconstruct the Donncr diet. Did they start with the last of their oxen, the big bones buried deepest, then turn to wild game or their own pet dogs, settling on small rodents and then fiiially eating the dead?

For now, that question of cannibalism is a forensic puzzle.

All of the bone fragments went first to Guy Tasa, a University of Oregon osteologist. Tasa is the guy the Lane County medical examiner calls with an impossible ID case — a skeleton in the woods, a mysterious skull fragment in someone’s backyard.

Several pieces are etched with clues. The most tantalizing show up under Shannon Novak’s electron microscope. A forensic anthropologist at Idaho State University, Novak can spot tiny slice marks probably produced by a cleaver or a Bowie knife. The cuts are discolored where flesh was severed, exposing the bone to more intense thermal damage during cooking.

Several also have a huffed appearance on an end. Pot polish, it’s called, produced by tumbling around in a roiling cast-iron caldron over a fire. Historians say Donner survivors boiled bones in a broth to derive the last bit of nourishment.

The biggest breakthrough could yet come with a technique borrowed directly from the police: DNA analysis.

At Trace Genetics, a San Francisco Bay Area laboratory, several chunks of bone are being ground into dust and subjected to tests bent on recovering any DNA . If any genetic material proves to be human, the scientists will try to accomplish a true multi-generational feat of forensics: determine the identity of the long-ago victim.

Dixon and Schablitsky want to wrap this up, both for science and for descendants such as Lochie Paige.

After last summer’s dig, Paige invited the archaeologists to dinner at a lodge on Donner Lake. They drank port and Paige shared some old family secrets.

For their part, the archaeologists made a vow. If they identify human remains, they will turn them over to the survivors. Any remains will be ceremoniously buried, the first and last rites of the Donner Party.

Then the archaeologists will try to provide a more nuanced account of the pioneers’ struggle in the Sierra, buttressed by tangible proof, the whispers from the earth. We want to revise the narrative,” Dixon said. “We want to tell the story of their life over those final months, not just of cannibalism. We want to restore the real humanity to the members of that party — and to their descendants.”



Sunday, April 24, 2005

Personal Appeal - cover story.


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