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 -- every 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.

Addendum:  My thanks to  Phillip Sexton, District Interpretive Coordinator for the Capital District of California State Parks, who reviewed this post and offered the following information [boldface added by me]-
I’ve attached a screenshot [bottom] from Google Earth showing the relationship between the George/Jacob Donner campsite , a USFS facility that I had connections with and Donner Memorial State Park. The Donner family was actually not at the lake; they never made it that far because one of their wagons broke an axle at this point. If I recall correctly, George Donner was limbing a lodgepole pine (common in this area) for a new axle and cut his arm quite badly, so they were stuck. Eventually, George developed Gangrene and died. Tamsen Donner, his wife, remained with George even after rescuers arrived. She sent her children to safety and they survived, but Tamsen died sometime after George.

A German immigrant, Lewis Keesburg, was part of this party and if memory serves, he and Phillipa, his wife, were camped at the Donner lake site. Keesburg admitted to cannibalism of (I think) both George and Tamsen as a way to survive.

Keesburg was not well liked in that party, and of course his admission of cannibalism didn’t help him fit in with early Sacramento society. When he arrived at Sutter’s Fort in the spring of 1847, Sutter hired him as a clerk of some sort. Later on, in an incredibly poor business decision by someone in 1850s Sacramento, he was hired to manage a restaurant in a building that still exists in Old Sac, called the Lady Adams building. Newspaper accounts state that he was followed down the street by children and presumably others who would taunt him. The restaurant of course, failed.

This all sounds quite awful, but Keesburg was not a nice man. His grave is unknown because when he died in the charity hospital he was interred in an unmarked grave. Later on, McKinley Park was developed on the site, and charity interments were disinterred and I’m told put into a mass grave in the old City Cemetery on Broadway in Sacramento. Phillippa, his wife, is buried in this cemetery. She divorced her husband due to his physical cruelty toward her, which, for this to have been a reason in the 19th century, had to be awful, and quite well documented.

Oddly enough, I found comments that I made in a Google Earth forum in 2006 that comment on the discoveries that were made by the Discovery TV show crew, which probably shot there in 2005.  The most significant discovery was that the actual Donner campsite where a lean-to was built against a tree, was not where everyone since the 1920s had thought it was. I won’t share the exact location, but it’s about 100 yards from where it was thought to be. This was confirmed due to an ash/midden pile where many of the bones referenced were found. The 1920s location was determined by an amateur historian named Patrick Weddel, who mapped, mostly accurately but with some bad assumptions, the trail. The Donner diaries describe the leanto against a large “wolf” tree, and Waddel found a very large Jeffery pine that was of the right age and it had a fire scar, so that was his determination. Good guess, and the science wasn’t developed then, but he wasn’t correct. Close but no cigar.

In 2006 when this all came out at an Archeological meeting, the whole thing was somewhat misconstrued, I think due to the passion that people have for history. It clouds some people’s judgement, so you started seeing assertions that cannibalism did not happen, such as at this link. The report actually says no such thing; the discoveries made in 05 indicated that their diets were more complex than previously known, but there were admissions by participants (such as Keesburg) that they consumed human flesh.

The comment by your reader “TD” is simply a bomb thrown by an ignorant person. Members of the group did in fact try fishing as well as setting traps, and they were remarkably unsuccessful, which leads me to one of my grand theories that I throw out only for thought, but it fits my grand theory of life:

The Donner Reed party, when you look at the sum total of their experiences, made nearly every single stupid decision that they could have made, from starting late, taking Hastings cutoff, pausing to rest when it was late in the season, ultimately camping in three disparate locations near the lake (there is a third known site basically on I-80 today) and so forth. They also chose a very poor leader. George Donner was affable and friendly, but was not a leader. James Reed would have been a far better leader, but his arrogance and hubris prevented that, so the entire party suffered mightily. All of this was known of pretty quickly in the spring and summer of 1847 and stories spread around the US and around the globe. Also, I want to emphasize that I’m not demeaning these people or criticizing them. All of us have had things go south and then later on thought “what was I thinking?” At the time, the decisions they made seemed to make sense, and I can understand that.

In the same year that the Donner Reed party emigrated, a man named T.H. Jefferson also was an emigrant, and in fact he interacted with the Donner Party. Many people feel that he was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, but its not known. He drew a remarkable map in four sheets, of the emigrant trail, that was published in 1848. Jefferson’s map is remarkable, and it was essentially the AAA map of its day. It has mileage between campsites and very helpful notations. On the LOC map, zoom in on the sheet showing the crossing over the Sierra and read the very prescient notation about the Donner-Reed party and conditions crossing the mountains.

But I digress. Between stories of the Donner-Reed party and exemplars like the Jefferson map, I really believe that the stories and information about the Donner party helped save the lives of perhaps thousands of hapless people who came overland to CA but who were tenderfeet. The Donner experience served as a list of things NOT TO DO and in a karmic sense, I think served a greater good in the long run, but of course that’s just my personal opinion.


  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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