Digging Donner history
In a sun-dappled section of Alder Creek meadow, archaeologists from around the country are reading Truckee’s most intriguing story one rusted musket ball and bone fragment at a time.
The artifacts tell the tragic tale of the Donner Party, and recent finds – located by highly trained sniffing dogs – have pinpointed what archaeologists believe is the exact location of the 21-member makeshift camp. The four-month-long camp was where 11 members of the Donner expedition died of starvation and cold during the brutal winter of 1846-1847. Previous digs and local speculation had marked the Donner camp at several different spots around the meadow.
The George and Jacob Donner families were marooned by a broken wagon axle at the creek while the other members of the 81-person party made camp at Donner Lake. While historical accounts reveal that members of the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism at the Donner Lake camp and further over Donner Summit, whether the Alder Creek party ate their dead to survive is still a matter of speculation.
Funded by grants from the Truckee Tahoe Community Foundation and the University of Montana, archaeologists have uncovered fragments of bone, wagon parts and porcelain. Experts hope to do DNA analysis on the bones to determine whether they are from the deceased Donner members. All indications point to the bones being from animals, the researchers said Wednesday, but they are hoping for a human bone that they can verify with DNA analysis.
“We’ve been digging here for two weeks and it will probably take another year to analyze it,” said Forensic Anthropologist Shannon Novak.
The pieces of bone, flint and porcelain are often very small, broken down over the 157-year lapse by the acidic soil of the pine forest.
“We are dealing with just crumbs of artifacts,” said Julie Schablitsky, a University of Oregon Archaeologist.
Their biggest find is the remainder of a hearth that investigators believe marks the center of a camp that was improvised from quilts, brush and sticks.
“We are very excited to find what we think is ground zero for the campground,” said Schablitsky.
The trained eyes of the researchers also see what they believe are the markings left by melting snow that ran off of the pioneers’ tent.
“We are actually stepping back 150 years in time and seeing what it was like for them,” said Schablitsky.
Lochie Wilder Paige, the great granddaughter of Elitha Donner Wilder, a Donner Party survivor, was at the meadow Wednesday to talk about her personal connection to the site.
While Paige emphasized the persevering pioneer spirit of her ancestors, she said “It’s very emotional.” She said the dig would raise the old questions about the measures the pioneers took to survive.
“We are aware that this will create more speculation about cannibalism,” said Paige.
She also referred to her great, great grandparents’ decision to send their children to safety, while they themselves remained at the camp to die.
“We know what they find here … will tell the story of those who gave so dearly so we could live,” she said.
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