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The plight of the Donner Party during the winter of 1846 is one of the most tragic and well-known stories in the history of Western expansion. These stranded and snowbound emigrants, facing insurmountable odds, quickly exhausted their food rations and were driven to cannibalism in a desperate attempt for survival.
Or so the story goes.
And it has been told this way since the first rescue party brought back word in spring 1847 of bone fragments and mutilated human remains discovered in the places where the Donner Party camped.
than a century and a half later, visitors can hike to the Donner family
site in the Tahoe National Forest to see "The George Donner
Tree" -- the exact spot where the family experienced the harshest
living conditions imaginable.
Over the years, details surrounding the Donner Party developed out of collective memory, folklore and myth. There is no tangible evidence to prove what actually occurred during the winter of 1846 while the group was crossing the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The questions surrounding the events of the Donner Party during their four-month stay in the Sierras remain one of the greatest mysteries of the 19th century.
That is until now.
University of Montana anthropology Assistant Professor Kelly Dixon is uncovering the mystery behind the Donner Party by excavating and looking for artifacts she hopes will lead her and her research team to a better understanding of a somewhat controversial past.
"You have to take historical events with a grain of salt," Dixon says. "Everyone has their own memories and often they are contradictory."
According to history, the Donner Party, consisting of 81 people, made its way from Illinois to California in 1846 in search of gold and land. On its way, the group took a shortcut through the Sierra Nevada mountain range -- a decision that cost half the people in the group their lives.
When a blizzard curtailed the journey, the Donner family had no time to build a shelter. They resorted to pitching a tent against a large tree six miles behind the rest of the group. However, over the years, the forest grew in and the Donner camp was lost, Dixon says.
The first archaeologist to excavate the Donner Party camps - Alder Creek and Murphy's Cabin -- was Don Hardesty, a professor at the University of Nevada in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He confirmed that members of the Donner Party lived at the Murphy Cabin site. However, when Hardesty excavated near the "George Donner Tree," he found very little evidence humans had ever lived there. After expanding his research to nearby areas, he discovered human artifacts in a dense area 200 meters away. Unfortunately, Dixon says, Hardesty ran out of time and money and never intended to come back.
"I knew there was something to be had here," she says. "We'll use this opportunity to see what they were on the edge of finding decades ago."
Dixon, 33, specializes in historical archaeology in the American West. She earned her doctoral degree at the University of Nevada and was one of Hardesty's students. Her research areas include the archaeology of frontiers, boomtowns, landscapes, and mining and logging industries in the West.
For five weeks this summer, Dixon and colleague Julie Schablitsky, a research assistant at the University of Oregon, will lead a team of physical anthropologists and forensic specialists in researching whether the newly discovered campsite is truly that of the Donner family. The History Channel is funding the project.
Dixon excavated the site during a five-day test run last summer. The project was sponsored by the Discovery Channel, and Dixon appeared in the television program "Unsolved History: The Donner Party."
During the trial excavation period, Dixon found glass from a medicine bottle, mirror fragments and musket balls. Pieces of a ceramic dinner plate that were uncovered can be traced back to a popular pattern used in the middle of the 19th century. Also, pieces of salt and pepper shakers were found.
"These were things that were used trying to make things taste better," Dixon says. "They were boiling leather, eating string, trying everything they had."
However, it was only after Dixon found pieces of a lantern that she was convinced she was on to something.
"I just kept thinking
that this miserable environment of starvation
was made a little more warm by the light
of a lamp," she says. "Archaeology
is important to recover tangible evidence
to use as a tool for uncovering the past.
These artifacts don't lie."
"I don't care about cannibalism," she says. "What I care about is recreating the four-month time period at the most difficult time of these peoples' lives."
While cannibalism is not her main focus, Dixon and her colleagues did discover a small bone with cut marks on it and bone fragments mixed in ash. DNA tests will be performed to determine whether the bone is animal or human.
"Historically it's been said people resorted to cannibalism, but it's yet to be proven through archaeology," says Jack McShane, a UM graduate student in anthropology and a member of this summer's research team. "It's possible cannibalism never happened." Depending on the DNA results, this bone could be the first piece of tangible evidence that cannibalism ever occurred at the Donner site.
McShane currently is working on his master's thesis to compare the artifacts Dixon found with those Hardesty found. His analysis concludes the well-known "George Donner Tree" is not where the Donner family camped. Once scientists can prove where the Donner family stayed, they can begin to examine what actually occurred there.
"I live and breathe Donner Party," McShane says. "In a way, we are rewriting history."
But before that can happen, Dixon and her research team have a lot more excavating to do. Her goal this summer is to find the remains of a hearth and to identify gender-based material. Connecting the artifacts with specific individuals in the Donner Party will make the material more meaningful and strengthen her argument, she says.
"This (research) tells us something about ourselves," she says. "Not only do we need to have respect for the environment, but it's a reminder of what humans are capable of if pushed to this contingency."
-- By Chelsi Moy