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Donner Party: Did They or Didn't They?

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Human flesh on the menu for the Donner Party or not? That burning question is back in the news again.

Americans have a hard time remembering last week's crook or celebrity, but we seem to have lasting fascination with the ill-fated pioneer party from 164 years ago. Well, at least the cannibal part. It's one of our shared cultural memories, a source of bad macabre jokes, that the Donner Party of 1846, trapped by early snows in the Sierra Nevadas for four months, turned to cannibalism to survive.

But did they?

News reports of a study by a team of biological anthropologists at Appalachian State University are creating a stir. Analyses of bone remains found at the Alder Creek Donner campsite in 2003-2004 digs show no evidence of cannibalism. In 2006, a preliminary report of this same study created a similar stir.

Because I've published two books on the Donner Party in the last year (a memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, and a novel in Tamsen Donner's voice, Impatient with Desire), I've been deluged with email links to newspaper, TV, and online accounts of the "new finding." Most are variations of:

New study says Donner Party didn't eat each other!

THE STUDY DOES NOT SAY THIS.

It says that, by using modern technological methods, researchers have identified bone fragments of cattle, horse, deer, and dog, but no human bone fragments. They're not saying cannibalism didn't happen there, they're saying they haven't found any PHYSICAL evidence of cannibalism, they haven't found evidence so far that confirms cannibalism.

Maybe they won't ever find physical evidence at Alder Creek where Tamsen and George Donner were, but certainly cannibalism occurred at one, two, or three of the campsites and in the open mountains on escape and rescue attempts. Credible rescuers wrote about and testified to seeing evidence at the camps; members of the party wrote and spoke about it at the time and later. We may never get archeological evidence but there's plenty of historical evidence.

At the end of February, 1847, trapped nearly four months, Patrick Breen wrote in his diary:

Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would commence on Milt & eat him. I don't think she has done so yet, it is distressing. The Donnos {Donners} told the California folks (the 1st rescue, a group too small to take everyone out) that they commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know spot or near it, I suppose they have done so ere this time.

I've always felt that people make too much of the cannibalism, while simultaneously not really getting it. The idea of cannibalism may be so emotionally laden that people automatically layer their own fears and revulsion on it, but rationally, cannibalism was a terrible yet natural progression for members of the Donner Party in their determination to keep themselves and their families alive.

After 160 plus years, bone fragments of cattle and other animals were there to be found in the archeological digs because those bones had been cooked long periods of time to make them edible. The hard facts are that, after the Donners ate the cattle flesh, they scraped the hair off the hides, cut them into strips, and boiled them into a gluey pulp. Then they boiled and burned the bones, crumbling them into bits to eat. They ate mice, pet dogs, shoelaces... until there was nothing left but dead bodies.

Any cannibalism at the camps would have occurred at the very end of the pioneers' entrapment, and would have lasted only a short period of time--until rescue or death, whichever came first. Because the period was short, the energy flagging, and the supply of dead humans plentiful, the even harder fact is that it's highly unlikely that humans would have been processed the way the animals had been. Only the flesh would have been cooked, not the bones. Since uncooked bone disintegrates quickly in acidic soil, the absence of human bones may mean only that they weren't there to be found in the digs.

Then why these headlines: Donners eat dog but not people...? Although the scientists aren't claiming they've proven there was no cannibalism, reporters are writing on deadline with pressure to grab the attention of a media saturated public.

I have a soft spot for the reporters. A lot of scientific writing is tedious and boring--it's that precision thing. In my early years married to a research scientist, I tried in vain to perk up his papers by eliminating all his pesky qualifiers--maybe, perhaps, theoretically... Not only was I unable to convince him to streamline his writing; somehow, slowly, sneakily, he taught me an appreciation of the precision science requires in its methods and language.

But none of this IS THE ISSUE. For people nearly unshockable, we're a bit obsessed by cannibalism. It's practically a shivery parlor game: Would YOU eat human flesh? Grossssssss.

Here's the real issue and it's dramatic and shivery enough. The story of the Donner Party is a HUMAN story of people who suffered greatly and tried mightily to survive. A story of people for whom the American dream--heading west for a better life--turned nightmare. A story of people who paid part of the heavy price to open up this country.

Of the 81 pioneers trapped in the mountains, a little over half survived. Even if it were provable that no one ever turned to cannibalism, why do people today care so much whether they did or didn't? If they didn't cannibalize, would that make them better people? Or just fewer survivors?

(If you're interested in the most accurate up to date information on the Donner Party, go to Kristin Johnson's Donner blog--http://donnerblog.blogspot.com/. She's passionate about telling the Donner Party story accurately, and she puts in all the qualifiers in an easy to read manner.)

Gabrielle Burton is the author of two recent books on the Donner Party, Searching for Tamsen Donner and a novel imagining Tamsen Donner's lost journal, Impatient with Desire.(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nina-sankovitch/heroic-mothers-tamsen-don_b_484358.html)