Most school children have heard the story of the ill-fated Donner Party, the small group of pioneers who became stranded in the Sierra Nevada pass (now termed “Donner Pass”) and resorted to cannibalism to survive. This month’s Archaeology Magazine highlights a new and previously unexplored source on the Donner Party tragedy – the local Native Americans.
The Route Taken by the Donner Party
Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky incorporated oral traditions handed down by the Washoe people to learn more about what happened during the tragic winter of 1846-1847.
Their oral tradition recalls the starving strangers who camped in an area that was unsuitable for that time of year. Taking pity on the pioneers, the northern Washoe attempted to feed them, leaving rabbit meat and wild potatoes near the camps. Another account states that they tried to bring the Donner Party a deer carcass, but were shot at as they approached. Later, some wel mel ti observed the migrants eating human remains. Fearing for their lives, the area’s native inhabitants continued to watch the strangers but avoided further contact. (Archaeology Magazine, Schablitsky).
School children all know the story of the Donner Party (sometimes called the Donner-Reed Party); the ill-fated group of settlers that were caught in the Seirra-Nevadas and ultimately resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The gruesome story has figured in to many of our ideas about human survival. General Stephen Kearny, was charged with burying the remains and destroying the “spectacle” (including burning two of the cabins):
A more revolting or appalling spectacle I never witnessed. The remains here, by order of Gen. Kearny collected and buried under the superintendence of Major Swords. They were interred in a pit which had been dug in the centre of one of the cabins for a cache. These melancholy duties to the dead being performed, the cabins, by order of Major Swords, were fired, and with every thing surrounded them connected with this horrid and melancholy tragedy, were consumed. The body of George Donner was found at his camp, about eight or ten miles distant, wrapped in a sheet. He was buried by a party of men detailed for that purpose.
A new book looks at the experience of the Donner Party, including their menu which included family pets, twigs, and string before finally resorting to human flesh. The book examines remains, letters, and journals, including one gruesome entry about a family pet, a dog named “Cash”:
“We ate his head and feet — hide — evry thing about him.”