Another great Amerian Myth has bitten the dust (pun intended). Evidently the survivors of the Donner Party did not dine on their less fortunate colleagues.
“…Research conducted by Dr. Gwen Robbins, an assistant professor of biological anthropology at Appalachian State University, finds there is no evidence of cannibalism among the 84 members of the Donner Party who were trapped by a snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the mid-1840s.
Remains from the Donner party’s Alder Creek campsite were excavated by a team of archaeologists from the University of Montana and the University of Oregon Museum. A sample of bones from the campsite hearth was analyzed by Robbins and Kelsey Gray, an Appalachian graduate. They will present the results of this project this week at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, N.M.
During the excavation of the Donner Party’s campsite, 16,000 burned, fragmented bones were found. Many of the bones also had butchery and boiling marks. Robbins, an osteologist who specializes in bone biology and microstructure, examined the bones with three questions in mind: Are there any human bones in the hearth, which would provide material evidence for cannibalism? What kinds of other animals are present in the assemblage of bone fragments? and, What did the starvation diet look like?…So, what did the Donner family eat during that winter? Robbins’ team identified the remains as cattle, deer, horse and dog. While the historical record had indicated that cattle were the principle means of subsistence during that winter, there was previously no record that the Donner family also successfully hunted deer despite the 20 to 30 feet of snow on the ground that winter. The historical record does indicate that relief parties in February brought horses to the camps and that a few were left behind. There was no record of the horses being consumed and no mention of eating dog.
The legend of the Donner party was primarily created by print journalists, who embellished the tales based on their own Victorian macabre sensibilities and their desire to sell more newspapers. In all, 47 people lived to tell the tale: 11 men and 36 women and children. The survivors fiercely denied allegations of cannibalism and one man even filed a defamation suit immediately upon reaching Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento. Although the court ruled in his favor, he was forever known to local residents as Keseberg the Cannibal. The voices of the survivors of the Donner Party ordeal have long been overwhelmed by the spectacular imagery of a legend that swiftly took on a life of its own. Their descendants are still today affected by the stigma of this tale……”