The Archaeology of the Donner Party

By Kolb, Charles C. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of the Donner Party


Kolb, Charles C., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The Archaeology of the Donner Party. Donald L. Hardesty, with contributions by Michael Brodhead, Donald K. Grayson, Susan Lindstrom, and George L. Miller. Reno and Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, Wilbur S. Shepperson Series in History and the Humanities, 1997.

Among the events of the day being reported in the popular press one hundred fifty years ago this year was the tragic saga of the Donner party-the loss of life and rescue of the emigrant survivors of that illfated overland migration-from the sudden and early, but not especially heavy, snows that fell during the harsh winter of 1846-1847 in the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada near what is now Truckee, California. The popular, vivid image of the Donner party is the alleged practice of cannibalism of the dead at the mountain camps and during the survivors' escape attempts. Trapped by snow and short of supplies, the party of 81 men, women, and children attempted to subsist by eating the boiled hides of their oxen, their pet dogs, rodents, and any other edibles, and finally resorting to the selective consumption of their dead.

This slender volume is simultaneously an exposition in popular culture, an exercise in field research in historic archaeology, and a careful analysis of documentary evidence; and it employs specialized artifact analyses, biomedical studies, and historic climatological data. The book has been prepared by an interdisciplinary team including an archaeologist, historian, material culture specialist, and paleoecologist who evaluate the historic record and newly recovered artifacts in order to provide insights about this tragic episode in the history of the American West. The team also called upon other specialists such as forensic scientists and a dendrochronologist. Secondary histories began to appear within months after the event, and relic and souvenir hunting at the site dates as early as the 1870s, so that this scholarly work assists in separating and documenting fact from fiction, and investigating cause-and-effect relationships, and the perpetrators and the victims in this "whodunit."

Senior author, Don Hardesty, writes that "the Donner party rapidly became a symbol of America's westward expansion, and the story soon found its way into fiction, poetry, theater, film, folklore, children's literature, and American popular culture" (3). The major first-hand accounts include Eliza P. Donner Houghton's The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1911), although Eliza was but three years of age at the time. The primary synthesis is George R. Stewart's Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, rev. ed., 1960) and Joseph King's reanalysis Winter of Entrapment: A New Look at the Donner Party (Toronto: P. D. Meaney, 1992). To place this event in an an appropriate perspective, I should remind the reader that the California Trail had been opened only since 1841, but that guidebooks, such as one written by Lansford W. Hastings entitled Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California (1845), had been published and professed to show the best routes to the West. Indeed, the Donner party possessed a copy of the Hastings guide but, unfortunately, it would deviate from the established trail. In 1847, the literate public was reading about the romance and adventure of westward expansion while the public at large sought information about the war between Mexico and the United States.

Hardesty (Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada at Reno) is a specialist on ecological anthropology and an major contributor to the literature on historical archaeology. He and his colleagues have provided a vivid and up-to-date interpretation of the history of the Donner party on the basis of recently discovered artifacts and a meticulous assessment of the faunal and human remains. Brodhead (an historian with the National Archives and Records Administration) contribues a chapter, "The Donner Party and Overland Emigation, 18401860," in which he assesses the previous written accounts-the memoirs, diaries, and letters of the survivors-and reinterprets the historic events of that era.

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