New evidence found at supected Donner Party camp
August 21, 2003
Archaeologists searching the area near Alder Creek think they might have found evidence of the Donner Party camp.
The archaeologists uncovered artifacts in a meadow near Alder Creek that are presumed to date from the winter of 1846-47, the time the Donner Party camped in the area.
Basing their search on the location of artifacts found in the region in 1990, researchers from the state of Oregon, the University of Montana and the US Forest Service uncovered bone fragments, lead shot, ceramic pieces, a buckle from a belt or harness and a small brass chain link among other items.
Able to dig during the first week of August, the scientists involved in the project have now returned the artifacts found at the Alder Creek site to laboratories for further study.
One bone fragment had two cut marks in its surface researchers believe could have been made by a sharp metal ax.
Identified by archaeologists in the field as a bone from a medium-to-large-sized mammal, the fragment has been sent to the lab of Dr. Guy Tasa, an archaeologist and human osteologist at the University of Oregon, for analysis.
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According to Dr. Julie Schablitsky, an archaeologist for the state of Oregon, “the bone pieces were so small that we don’t know exactly what they are.”
Dr. Tasa will be able to tell researchers whether the bone fragment is human or possibly that of an oxen the Donner Party had at their camp.
If human, the fragment will be analyzed using mitochondrial DNA testing, a technique that is relatively new in the field of archaeology.
“Within the past 10 years, technological advances in forensic science, such as DNA analysis, allows us to extract evidence from artifacts like crime scene investigators,” said Schablitsky.
Any DNA recovered from the bone fragments can then be compared to DNA from living descendents of the Donner Party survivors, allowing researchers the chance to stifle any doubt that the Alder Creek site is where the Donner Party members spent the winter.
The small brass chain link found at the site was another exciting discovery for the archaeologists involved in the dig.
Believed to be a remnant of a piece of jewelry, the artifact indicates the presence of women at the campsite. Archaeologists involved in previous excavations had found a number of artifacts that were consistent with a camp full of men; however, until now nothing had been found that could be linked to the women who were known to have been in the Donner camps.
Plans for the artifacts found at the site are still being worked out. In the immediate future, all the artifacts found in the most recent excavations will be taken to the University of Montana, where Dr. Kelly Dixon, who was also involved in the excavation, will oversee the cleaning and cataloguing of the pieces.
Ultimately, the entire collection will be returned to the Tahoe National Forest, at which point Carrie Smith would like to see them put on display.
“We would like to turn this into something that’s beneficial to the public,” said Smith, the district archaeologist for the Truckee Ranger District office of the U.S. Forest Service.
Smith has been a member of the Truckee community since she was 5 years old. She graduated Truckee High and then attended the University of Nevada, Reno, where she received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a specialization in archaeology.
She joined the Truckee Ranger District in 1988 after attaining her master’s degree, also in anthropology, from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
In charge of coordinating the permitting process required for the Donner camp excavation, Smith provided oversight and logistical support for the scientists involved in the project as well as equipment used in the excavation.
According to Smith, the toughest part of her job as it pertains to the Donner Party campsite excavation has been dealing with the public interest in the story.
“The Donner Party is such a pivotal event in Western history-the expansion of the U.S. to California,” she said. “It is like ‘the’ event that people know about.”
Ongoing research at the site and in the laboratory is dependent on the scientists involved getting further funding, either from private sources or through scientific grants.
“Funding for this type of research is really hard to come by,” Smith said. Fortunately for those involved with the Donner Party meadow project, there has recently been a lot of interest in using forensic techniques such as DNA analysis in doing archaeological research. Smith mentioned the possibility of applying for National Science Foundation grants to continue the research at the Alder Creek site as well as at the Murphy cabin site located in Donner State Park.
Members of the public interested in seeing the area where the Donner Party are thought to have camped can check out the site at the Donner picnic site. There are picnic tables and an interpretive walking trail that gives visitors an overview of the tragic events that took place during the winter of 1846-47.
The site is located off Highway 89, approximately three miles north of Truckee, the Donner picnic site is open to the public for day use.