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“Men, Women, and Children Starving”: Archaeology of the Donner Family Camp

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Kelly J. Dixon
Affiliation:
Department of Anthropology, The University of Montana, Missoula, Montana, U.S.A. 59812
Shannon A. Novak
Affiliation:
Department of Anthropology, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, U.S.A. 13244
Gwen Robbins
Affiliation:
Department of Anthropology, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, U.S.A. 28607
Julie M. Schablitsky
Affiliation:
University of Oregon, Museum of Natural and Cultural History, Eugene, Oregon, U.S.A. 97403
G. Richard Scott
Affiliation:
Department of Anthropology, University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada, U.S.A. 89557
Guy L. Tasa
Affiliation:
University of Oregon, Museum of Natural and Cultural History, Eugene, Oregon, U.S.A. 97403

Abstract

In spring of 1846, the George and Jacob Donner families and some 80 traveling companions began their overland trek to California. When the party ascended the Sierra Nevada in late October, a snowstorm forced the group to bivouac. At this point, the train became separated into two contingents; the larger party camped near Donner Lake and the smaller group—including the Donner families—settled at Alder Creek. Though written accounts from the Lake site imply many resorted to cannibalism, no such records exist for Alder Creek. Here we present archaeological findings that support identification of the Alder Creek camp. We triangulate between historical context, archaeological traces of the camp, and osteological remains to examine the human condition amid the backdrops of starvation and cannibalism. A stepped analytical approach was developed to examine the site’s fragmentary bone assemblage (n = 16,204). Macroscopic and histological analyses indicate that the emigrants consumed domestic cattle and horse and procured wild game, including deer, rabbit, and rodent. Bladed tools were used to extensively process animal tissue. Moreover, bone was being reduced to small fragments; pot polish indicates these fragments were boiled to extract grease. It remains inconclusive, however, whether such processing, or the assemblage, includes human tissue.

Resumen

Resumen

En la primavera de 1846, las familias de los George y Jacob Donner y 80 compañeros de viaje comenzaron su camino a pie hacia California. Cuando el grupo ascendió el Sierra Nevada en Octubre, una tormenta de nieve le forzó a pasar la noche a la intemperie. En ese punto, el conjunto se tuvo que separar en dos contingentes; el grupo más numeroso acampó cerca del Lago Donner y el más pequeño -incluyendo a las familias Donner- se asentó en el Arroyo Alder. Aquí presentamos hallazgos arqueológicos que apoyan la identificación del Arroyo Alder. Triangulamos entre el contexto histórico, indicios arqueológicos del asentamiento y restos osteoarqueolóicos con el trasfondo de la inanición y canibalismo. Para examinar las fragmentarias muestras óseas del yacimiento (n = 16,204) se desarrolló un enfoque escalonado analítico. Los análisis macroscópicos e histológicos indican que los emigrantes consumían ganado bovino doméstico, caballo y perro, y obtenían algo de caza silvestre, incluyendo ciervo, conejo y roedores. Las armas afiladas fueron utilizadas para trabajar el tejido animal. Además, el hueso fue reducido a pequeños fragmentos; la cerámica pulida indica que estos fragmentos fueron hervidos para extraer la grasa. Queda inconcluso, sin embargo, si tal proceso, o la muestra, incluye tejido humano.

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Articles
Copyright
Copyright © Society for American Archaeology 2010

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