Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: Ain’t No Party Like a Donner Party

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 31•14

imageWhen I was in high school, my sister participated in history day (which was like a science fair, only with history). Her project was based on the Donner Party.

The movie Alive, about the soccer team that crashed in the Andies and had to resort to Cannibalism had just come out, so cannibalism was on everyone’s minds. (Much like recently, with the discovery in Jamestown of Jane, the cannibalized skull from the starving time).

But this isn’t a post about cannibalism, even though I think the way we sensationalize taboo subjects is an interesting, yet morbid part of human nature. Instead it’s about how archaeology can give us new insights into historical events. Especially ones we think we already know everything about.

Take the Donner Party. In 2003, a group of Archaeologists went back to Donner Pass to explore the site. One of the things they thought to do (that hadn’t been tried before) was to ask local Native American tribes if their oral histories held any accounts of the Donner Party.

As it turned out, there were Washoe tribesmen living in the mountains at the time. These natives tried to help the starving settlers out of pity. Unfortunately the settlers shot at the natives who were trying to help them. Later the Washoe say they saw the settlers eating their own dead, and stayed away out of fear.

This same 2003 archaeological study collected artifacts from the Donner site, including hundreds of bone fragments from around one of the campsites. Microscopic studies failed to find human bone among those fragments. But an earlier survey that used archaeological cadaver sniffing dogs (and before today I didn’t even know that was a thing) indicated the presence of human remains around one of the old hearths, so it may just be that any cannibalized human remains have decomposed.

On a less gruesome aspect of the story, IO9 reports that the storm that stranded the Donner Party may have been a cyclical Pineapple Express storm. I like to end on that (slightly less morbid) note. It’s always nice to have a little context to tie an event into the wider tapestry of history.

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