In November 1846, the Donner party--a wagon train of 81 settlers headed west across the Sierra Nevada--became hopelessly snowbound. Trapped for months during an exceptionally harsh winter, about half the party survived, and historical documents speak of cannibalism at the end. ("I could not help it; I had eaten nothing for days, and I was afraid to die," 7-year-old Mary Donner said after being rescued.)
More than a decade ago, scientists excavated the site where 59 members of the party camped near a lake. Now archaeologists have discovered the exact location, near Alder Creek 11 kilometers away from the lake site, where 22 other settlers, including the families of George and Jacob Donner, hunkered down.
The team, which described its findings last week at a symposium held by the Society for Historical Archaeology in Sacramento, California, found no human burials or signs of cannibalism such as cooked human bones. (Uncooked bones would be eaten away by the acidic soil.) But other signs of suffering were plentiful. Scattered around the campfire were nails from furniture and wagon parts that were burned. Bones from cattle, horses, and even the family dog had been chopped into small pieces and boiled to extract the last bits of fat.
Yet the excavation at Alder Creek also reveals that the party hadn't entirely lost its humanity. Pieces of china had been unpacked from wagons and presumably used to serve food, showing that the families were "being proper and ... trying to normalize the situation," says Julie Schablitsky, an archaeologist with the University of Oregon, Eugene, who co-led the excavations. "They were doing everything possible to avoid cannibalism." In addition, fragments of writing slates suggest that Tamsen Donner, a schoolteacher, may have given the children lessons during the months-long ordeal.
The discoveries "will provide a more detailed story of what took place there," says Donald Hardesty an archeologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, who excavated the other Donner site.