Digging into Donner Lore
Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard
Using thousands of small, browned and utterly nondescript bone fragments, two University of Oregon archaeologists who helped excavate a Donner Party campsite are piecing together the most harrowing pioneer story to arise from the days of America's early westward migration.
If the stories told of the ill-fated wagon train are true, then among those bits of fire-scorched bone they will find some that came from a person. Only then will there be nearly conclusive evidence that the starving pilgrims in the end resorted to cannibalism in their desperate attempt to survive the brutal winter of 1846-47.
"That would be your smoking gun," said archaeologist Julie Schablitsky, who was joined by colleague Guy Tasa at the dig site in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Along with another colleague from the University of Montana, the pair just spent two weeks sifting through the remains of a campfire pit at Alder Creek Camp in the Tahoe National Forest just north of Truckee, Calif. They are convinced that it is the place where the smaller of two groups of Donner Party members sought meager comfort as they awaited rescue or reprieve.
Schablitsky said it will be another year - assuming that they find funding for the needed tests - before analysis of the finds is complete. But already the bits and pieces are helping add detail to the story.
It wasn't just bone fragments the team pulled from the fire pit. They also found bits of teacups and plates, a button, lead shot, glass from bottles that probably held medicine or condiments, and even pieces of slate, the type schoolchildren of the era used to write their lessons.
While it is the tale of cannibalism that has made the Donner Party story famous, the archaeologists say there's much more to it than that. They not only want to fill in the historical record but also to learn more about the lives of the pioneers who faced such hardship to move West and to understand how they tried to cope with the disaster before resorting to cannibalism, if they did.
Schablitsky said the finds paint a picture of people clinging to some form of normalcy in the face of terrible trials. In her mind's eye, she sees George and Tamzene Donner, one of the couples stranded while bringing their family west, trying to forge some semblance of home life as the snow piled up around their makeshift camp and food became more and more scarce.
"It creates a vignette of their life there," she said. …