by Vince Devlin
Kelly Dixon never set out to prove or disprove cannibalism within the famed Donner Party, the group of Illinois emigrants trapped the winter of 1856 in the Sierra Nevada, a mere 150 miles from their destination, present-day Sacramento.
The UM assistant professor of anthropology, along with Julie Schablitsky of the University of Oregon, led a team that excavated the Donner campsite. Their goal: to reconstruct the four months that cost half of the approximately eighty members of the Donner Party their lives.
It’s a large team including a range of experts—from a physician who wrote a book titled Surviving the Extremes: A Doctor’s Journey to the Limits of Endurance to a meteorologist who could reconstruct the fierce winter weather the party faced. When one of the team members presented a paper to the American Society for Historical Archeology that reported Dixon’s team had uncovered no evidence of the alleged cannibalism the Donner Party is famous for, her phone rang off the hook.
The Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN, the BBC, and radio stations from across the country were calling. “It was a media explosion,” Dixon says. “Out of the whole report they heard two words: no cannibalism.”
Understand, the team member never said Donner Party members had not eaten their dead to survive. They just mentioned that their research had not come up with evidence that would prove or disprove if cannibalism had occurred. The experience taught Dixon two things. There’s a fine line between the truth and what people perceive as the truth.
And there is great interest in the type of work she does.
Whether she’s helping folks in Lolo locate the grave of the man the town is named for, or turning Hollywood’s depictions of frontier saloons on its ear, Kelly Dixon’s investigations of the past have a way of resonating with people.
Her fascination with the American West began half a world away in, of all places, Jerusalem. Whille attending Friends World College there, Dixon served as a tour guide for a foreign correspondent, showing him around the West Bank, and it dawned on her that’s how reporters had to operate.
“They would come for one or two weeks, get their coverage for a story, and go,” Dixon says. “I thought, you have to know the history of this place to write about it. You have to know the people, the cultures.”
That led her to anthropology, the study of humankind, from its beginnings millions of years ago to the present.
The American Anthropological Association explains the field this way: “Though easy to define, anthropology is difficult to describe. Its subject matter is both exotic (e.g., star lore of the Australian aborigines) and commonplace (anatomy of the foot). And its focus is both sweeping (the evolution of language) and microscopic (the use-wear of obsidian tools). Anthropologists may study ancient Mayan hieroglyphics, the music of African Pygmies, and the corporate culture of a U.S. car manufacturer.”
Dixon specialized in cultural anthropology in the Middle East, but when Saddam Hussein and the first President Bush squared off in the Persian Gulf conflict—and Hussein was threatening to bomb Israel in retaliation—“I got booted,” Dixon says, for her own safety.
She landed in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in her home state of Minnesota, working and camping with archaeologists studying the area. “Being transplanted from the stress of the Middle East to the quiet of the Minnesota forest put me on a different career path,” Dixon says. “I like science. I like being outside. And I liked being someplace that was not a constant war-torn environment.”
She earned her master’s degree at Michigan Tech, writing her thesis on Norwich, Ohio, and the Ohio Trap Rock Mine. Her first job was with the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, and from there she went to the Tahoe National Forest in California.
“Everything was leading me closer to Reno,” Dixon says. That’s where the University of Nevada and Donald Hardesty are headquartered. Dixon had become familiar with Hardesty’s work on mining and mining culture while writing her master’s thesis. He had done work at the Donner Party campsite.
Dixon first met Hardesty at a mining history conference in Nevada City, California. Later, working for the Comstock Historic District Commission in Virginia City, Nevada, she joined with Hardesty and Ron James to form the Comstock Archaeology Center.
Her work with the man whose writings she had studied at Michigan Tech inspired her to return to college to work toward a doctorate, with Hardesty as her adviser. Hardesty and his students had excavated two Irish-owned saloons in the most disreputable part of Virginia City, known as the Barbary Coast. Dixon undertook two more in the historic community with differing clienteles—one located under an opera house and the Boston Saloon, an African-American establishment.
“People ask why,” Dixon says. “Everything there is to know about Virginia City has been written in the history books.” But history is written from old newspaper accounts, Dixon says, and old newspapers had a tendency to ignore or marginalize large segments of the population, be they the women of the frontier, the Chinese who built railroads, or the blacks who came West as Buffalo Soldiers or to work as cowboys.
In research for his book The Roar and the Silence, James, one of Dixon’s mentors, had discovered that blacks in Virginia City did not—as one might assume in the Civil War era—live in one section of town.
“They were integrated,” Dixon says. “They lived in boarding houses all over town, in mixed ethnic neighborhoods. Which is a great story, but bad for archaeologists,” who can’t excavate a particular site knowing that what they find can help them reconstruct the life of African-Americans in Virginia City. While there were African-American businesses in Virginia City, most were only open for a few months before moving, closing, or changing hands—typical of a boomtown economy.
“It was hard to find an archaeology site with any longevity,” Dixon says. That’s why the Boston Saloon excited her; there are accounts of it being in the same location in 1866 and in 1875. Here was a business with appropriate longevity for an archaeological dig.
What are they looking for? Buttons. Bottle fragments. Bullet casings. Pipe stems and bowls. Poker chips. Piano keys. Trombone mouthpieces. Ceramic plate fragments, beer mugs, faucets, bones, wallpaper remnants—whatever they find. And what do these things tell us? Well, they can challenge our assumptions about an era and its people.
Aside from O’Brien and Costello’s Saloon and Shooting Gallery exca- vated by Hardesty, where there is plenty of archaeological evidence that guns were fired often (at targets, as a form of entertainment), there is little or no evidence of gunplay at the three other sites excavated. The most expensive cuts of meat of the four, meanwhile, were served at the Boston Saloon, the black-owned establishment. DNA testing on a pipe stem recovered from the same site reveals the pipe belonged to a woman.
“No evidence of violence or gunplay, but you’ve got a woman smoking a pipe in an African-American saloon in the 1860s?” Dixon says. “Hollywood needs some new material.”
Dixon did her doctoral dissertation on her work in Virginia City and combined her findings with Hardesty’s to write her first book, Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City. “The very notion of archaeology evokes images of a field excavation, with people in brimmed hats bent over a gulf of contiguous pits,” Dixon begins the book. “On hands and knees those dusty individuals delicately wield tools that are ridiculously out of proportion to the amounts of earth they excavate. Their mission: to discover long-lost and unexpected antiquities.”
The day she delivered the manuscript to the University of Nevada Press in 2003 was the same day she left Reno. Dixon had been hired at UM.
Missoula? She had passed through town only once, en route to a vacation in Glacier National Park. It was the summer of 2000, and smoke from dozens of forest fires clogged the valley. “I don’t remember anything but smoke and the highway,” she says.
Already her work at UM has been noticed on the national level—not just by the media—and Dixon has had other job offers. “People say, ‘Don’t you want to go elsewhere?’” Dixon says. “But the people who ask that haven’t been here. If I couldn’t work at the University for some reason, I think I would still stay here, even if it meant being a dog-walker or pouring coffee.”
It seems highly unlikely she’ll have to make that choice. Dixon is busy preparing to excavate a Montana ghost town with her students and continues to catalog the artifacts found at the Donner campsite. The mystery of what went on in the Sierra Nevada 160 years ago has long fascinated many people, and the alleged cannibalism no doubt contributes to it. To begin with, there were two encampments in the mountains, about six miles apart. The smaller camp of twenty-one people that contained the team’s leader, George Donner, was believed to be located in a meadow near a tree scarred by fire. “Obviously, someone assumed that the tree had been scarred by the campsite’s fire,” Dixon says. “So they put up a sign that said this was the spot.”
Hardesty spent five weeks excavating the site, finding some artifacts but not as many as one would expect. “And he couldn’t find a fire hearth,” Dixon says. “Don Hardesty said, ‘Without a fire hearth, I don’t have a campsite.’”
If not there, where? Dixon says the meadow is about the size of four football fields. Hardesty’s team had spent the bulk of their time deter-mining that the site wasn’t where everyone thought it was. In their remaining time, they located an area out in the meadow that held a concentration of artifacts that could indicate a campsite.
But still, no fire hearth.
In 2003, when Kelly Dixon and her team launched their investigation at the site—it’s located in the Tahoe National Forest near a sign that reads Donner Camp Picnic Ground, which draws a chuckle if you think about it—they, too, came away with plenty of artifacts but no fire hearth.
In 2004, the team located the hearth. “That sealed the deal,” Dixon says. They recovered bone fragments—more than 16,000 of them, many tinier than a dime. Dixon says the tiny fragments often have twenty to thirty cut marks on them, indicating someone had all but tried to suck the marrow out of them to get to every last piece of nutrition they might offer.
Gwen Robbins, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon and member of the team, will do osteon analysis of the fragments to determine their origin. “Bones contain blood vessels that are essentially a fingerprint of our species,” Dixon says. “We’ll be able to say, ‘This was a cow, this was a deer, this was a horse, this was a dog.’”
And, yes, they’ll be able to tell if any were human.
The fragments were carefully removed; it’s their layering that will help Dixon and Schablitsky re-create the Donner Party diet as the winter wore on. The bottom layer will probably be from cattle or deer; the upper layers might reveal that a family pet had to be killed for food. “If there were humans,” Dixon says, “they would come next.”
Shannon Novak, a team member and assistant professor at Idaho State University, will examine the fragments to determine what made the cut marks.
“Should we go back and dig more?” Dixon says. “I’m leery to, because we have lots of information to sort through already. Ideally, you always leave parts of the scene unexcavated. There will be better technologies for future anthropologists, and it’s selfish for us to try to get all the data for ourselves. We’ll wait to decide, but we already have so many materials to work with.”
Dixon would love her team to be the one to discover the remains of George Donner and his wife, Tanzene. George died in his wife’s arms. (One of the many never-proven stories of the Donner Party is that she then ate her husband’s remains and went mad.) Tanzene is believed to have hiked to the other campsite, where another member of the party, Lewis Keseberg, said she died that night. (Others believe Keseberg, who was accused of killing others in the party, murdered Tanzene Donner and ate her.)
Keseberg vehemently denied killing or cannibalizing anyone, sued for slander after being the last survivor to be rescued, and won, although the court awarded him just $1 in damages.
The Donner Party remains more mystery than history. But it is people like UM anthropologist Kelly Dixon who can change that.
Vince Devlin is a writing fool. An award-winning contributor to the Montanan, he also writes for other UM publications while working full time for the Missoulian. He has two children in college.
this article in Montanan