No Cannibalism Among the Donner Party?

When I say “Donner Party,” you say what?

If you said anything other than “cannibalism,” I’d be surprised. In my mind at least, the connection is so strong that several times in past years when I was typing “Donner Party” it came out “Dinner Party.”

Well, that association may be changing. Gwen Robbins, an anthropologist at Appalachian State University, has found “no evidence of cannibalism among the 84 members of the Donner Party who were trapped by a snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the mid-1840s.”

Robbins is hardly the first scholar to assert that the Donner Party cannibalism story was perhaps just a story. As the A.S.U. press release puts it: “The legend of the Donner party was primarily created by print journalists, who embellished the tales based on their own Victorian macabre sensibilities and their desire to sell more newspapers.”

Here’s more from the press release; it is (as Tyler Cowen might say) interesting throughout:

Remains from the Donner party’s Alder Creek campsite were excavated by a team of archaeologists from the University of Montana and the University of Oregon Museum. A sample of bones from the campsite hearth was analyzed by Robbins and Kelsey Gray, an Appalachian graduate. They will present the results of this project this week at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, N.M.

During the excavation of the Donner Party’s campsite, 16,000 burned, fragmented bones were found. Many of the bones also had butchery and boiling marks. Robbins, an osteologist who specializes in bone biology and microstructure, examined the bones with three questions in mind: Are there any human bones in the hearth, which would provide material evidence for cannibalism? What kinds of other animals are present in the assemblage of bone fragments? and, What did the starvation diet look like?

The Donner Party has long been infamous for reportedly resorting to cannibalism after becoming trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California for months during the winter of 1846-1847. The party, originally 84 men, women and children, became stranded after a series of bad decisions and misfortunes caused numerous delays on their westward migration route and left them attempting to cross the mountains into California just as the first snows were falling in early October 1846.

In 2003, archaeologists Kelly Dixon (University of Montana) and Julie Schablitsky (then of the University of Oregon Museum) uncovered a hearth during the excavation of the Donner family’s campsite. Within the hearth, they found thousands of tiny burned fragments of bone, most measuring less than a quarter inch in diameter.

In 2004, Robbins, who was then a graduate student completing her PhD at the University of Oregon, was asked to determine whether the bones were human. A preliminary analysis of the bones was completed in 2006, after Robbins returned to the United States from dissertation research in India. This early analysis of 30 specimens indicated that there were no human bones from the hearth.

Upon joining the faculty at Appalachian, Robbins continued her research on the remains. With a team of undergraduate students, she pored through the tiny fragments looking for remains that could withstand further testing. The majority of bone fragments were so small and so delicate that they would crumble if subjected to thin sectioning, but there were about 250 larger, sturdier pieces of bone that showed evidence of cutting, chopping and boiling. Of these, 55 additional fragments were studied.

The team produced thin sections from these specimens and examined them using a microscope, measuring each basic structural unit and characterizing the tissue types. From this work, they determined that humans were not among the food refuse examined. A power analysis indicated that, statistically, Robbins and Gray can be 70 percent confident that if cannibalism made up a small fraction of the diet (less than 1 percent) at the site in the last few weeks of occupation, and if humans were processed in the same way animals were processed, at least one of the 85 bone fragments examined would be human.

So, what did the Donner family eat during that winter? Robbins’ team identified the remains as cattle, deer, horse and dog. While the historical record had indicated that cattle were the principle means of subsistence during that winter, there was previously no record that the Donner family also successfully hunted deer despite the 20 to 30 feet of snow on the ground that winter. The historical record does indicate that relief parties in February brought horses to the camps and that a few were left behind. There was no record of the horses being consumed and no mention of eating dog.

The legend of the Donner party was primarily created by print journalists, who embellished the tales based on their own Victorian macabre sensibilities and their desire to sell more newspapers. In all, 47 people lived to tell the tale: 11 men and 36 women and children. The survivors fiercely denied allegations of cannibalism and one man even filed a defamation suit immediately upon reaching Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento. Although the court ruled in his favor, he was forever known to local residents as Keseberg the Cannibal. The voices of the survivors of the Donner Party ordeal have long been overwhelmed by the spectacular imagery of a legend that swiftly took on a life of its own. Their descendants are still today affected by the stigma of this tale.

The archaeological record provides a new picture of the party’s activities. In the trash and debris left around the hearth in the spring of 1847, archaeologists found pieces of slate and shards of broken china. These pieces of slate and crockery around the hearth suggest an attempt to maintain a sense of a “normal life,” a family intent on maintaining a routine of lessons, to preserve the dignified manners from another time and place, a refusal to accept the harsh reality of the moment, and a hope that the future was coming.

Robbins’s research will be published in the July issue of the journal American Antiquity. The archaeology team also is finishing a book manuscript for University of Oklahoma Press to be released in 2011.

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  1. brazzy says:

    When you say “Donner Party”, I say “Huh??”

    Not everyone had a class called “American History” in school…

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  2. Eric M. Jones says:

    “Feb 1847. The snow won’t quit falling. Ran out of food a month ago. Ate the horses. Kids in the back of the wagon keep whining ‘Are we there yet?…’, Martha keeps bugging me saying, ‘Can’t we just stop and ask directions?’ I swear to God I’m going to eat somebody…”

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  3. Chris Dircks says:

    Or, that once they were done eating the humans they didn’t toss them in the food waste heap, but did something else with the bodies.

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  4. scottk says:

    All this does is emphasize the repsonsibility of the press to portray information accurately and not sensationalize. It is the reason we have such a blurry history. In this case, having done the obligatory school report in the Donner Party back in high school, I am upset that there is a sense of attempting to re-write history.

    It is better to know the truth, but to exptrapulate that 150 years plus later from limited evidence smacks of a disturbing lack of repsonsibility as much as the journalists that originally reported the cannabalism.

    Journalists will be the ultimate recorders. We have put this trust on them that has turned into the National Enquirer. Scientists take bits of data and provide a theory based on that assembled data, in spite of the holes in the information.

    Who do we trust anymore? Both of have a responsibility that even on this little story shows story demonstrates a lack thereof.

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  5. Kristin Johnson says:

    I’m the historian for the Donner Party Archaeology Project and I do not endorse this article. I do not criticize Dr. Robbins’ professional expertise or the description of her work; nevertheless, the article contains several factual errors. “The voices of the survivors of the Donner Party ordeal” are not heard because people continue to ignore what those voices actually said.

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  6. kip says:

    @brazzy: I also said “huh?”, even though I did take a class called “American History.” This isn’t really something that would merit a mention in most history courses. I wonder what percentage of Americans would even have an inkling who the Donnor party was? My guess would be a pretty small percentage, especially among younger people.

    On the other hand, now that I know this, I think “Donner” would be a good name to use when waiting for a seat at a restaurant. “Donner party of 4, your table is now ready”. :)

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  7. Doug Knoop says:

    I’m nobody really, but have had a keen interest in the Donner-Reed party in the past, and tangentially with other survival-canabalism tales. What this study did was to look at the bone remains from one hearth across a widely dispersed camp area at Truckee Lake. Bone remains that were obviously used, and reused by boiling. Not one of the recounts, sensationalist headlines, or oral histories ever mentioned making stew or performing any kind of extensive butchery of the deceased as would be done with animals. This seems to be an opportunistic study of remains that happened to be on hand, far from comprehensive and seemingly in ignorance of the rather massive historical record of the events.

    What does this prove? That one hearth near Alder Creek did not contain fragments of heavily butchered humans. As has been said, and the record shows those who were consumed so that the others could live were, for the most part, treated with dignity and respect rather than being processed like a deer.

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  8. nottom says:

    @Kristen
    So what did the voices actually say?

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