17 October 2011

What the Donner party ate

Excerpts from a column at Discovery News:
A new book analyzing one of the most spectacular tragedies in American history reveals what the 81 pioneers ate before resorting to eating each other in a desperate attempt to survive. On the menu: family pets, bones, twigs, a concoction described as "glue," strings and, eventually, human remains.

The book, "An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp," centers on recent archaeological investigations at that campsite near Truckee, Calif., where one quarter of the 81 emigrants spent their nightmarish winter of 1846-47...

Co-editor Kelly Dixon, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at The University of Montana, told Discovery News that she and her colleagues "are emphasizing the fact that the historical and archaeological sources present a complicated story about humans doing whatever possible, including eating hide and strings as well as consuming their dogs, before making the desperate decision to cannibalize..."

Dixon and co-editors Julie Schablitsky and Shannon Novak identified rodent, canine, deer, rabbit, horse and oxen/cattle bones within the over 16,000 bone fragments...

The historical record, consisting of letters and journals kept by members of the Donner Party and rescue groups, as well as the memories of some survivors, supports that the trapped members first ate all of their animals, including captured mice and the family dogs, as well as wild game.

Of the family dog "Cash," emigrant Virginia Reed Murphy wrote, "We ate his head and feet -- hide -- evry thing about him."..

Johnson reports that James Frazier Reed, who left and then returned with men to help at Jacob Donner's camp, "found a gruesome scene."

Hair, bones, skulls, and the fragments of half-consumed limbs were said to be around the fire. Jacob Donner's body was found with his heart and liver removed and his limbs and arms cut off. Another account describes children having blood on their faces, after trying to consume such flesh.
Top photo credit Ṁ‽ǩ€ §ρ!и@ķ.
Small embed: "A 19th-century portrait of a family dog, possibly Nero, which was likely eaten." Credit: American Antiquarian Society.


  1. Stan, you are from Minnesota, so this may be up your alley...

    As I understand it, the location where the Donner Party was stranded was ON A FROZEN LAKE, and it is my contention that if they had had ONE person who knew how to ice fish, they would have possibly all survived.

  2. . . . . TD, what I've read and seen on maps shows that Lake Tahoe is about 10 miles away, and Donner Lake just a couple miles away, but they were not stranded on the lake itself. When their remains were found in the spring, the tops of the trees at the site had been hacked off for fuel. Those hacked-off tops were 10-20 FEET IN THE AIR, offering mute testimony to the depth of the snow accumulation. They would have had to traverse snow of that depth to the lake, then dig down to the ice and try their hand at fishing. It would have been a Herculean task.

  3. They actually did try to ice fish; cutting a hole in the ice, they had no luck. It is rather had to fish without bait, fish don't normally nip at empty hooks.


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