Dinner with the Donners

Just what was on the menu, anyway? Thanks to new research, we’re getting closer to the truth

These artifacts—bone fragments, a metal buckle, bottle glass, ceramics and lead shots—were pulled from excavation units during the August 2003 dig at Alder Creek, the suspected site of the Donner’s winter camp.

These artifacts—bone fragments, a metal buckle, bottle glass, ceramics and lead shots—were pulled from excavation units during the August 2003 dig at Alder Creek, the suspected site of the Donner’s winter camp.

Courtesy Of Julie Schablitsky

When George Primrose was young, family members would joke about the flavor of human flesh. Tastes like chicken? Pork? Beef? Now white-haired and built like a quarterback, Primrose is related to the long-dead Jay Fosdick, a member of the 17-person “Forlorn Hope Party” that attempted to hike out of the Sierra Nevada on Dec.16, 1846. Donner lore suggests Fosdick’s heart and liver were once served as lunch.

“When I was little tad, I found out I was a relative,” said Primrose, who lives in Pleasant Hill, Calif. “[My grandmother] used to tease me about the fact that there were cannibals in the family. She’d say that if I didn’t behave myself, I would end up the same way.”

Young or old, people pay attention when they happen upon the visceral tale of the Donner Party’s tribulations. It’s like a car crash. Onlookers crane necks, gawk and search for blood. Call it morbid curiosity. A hunger of sorts.

The story has been ravenously romanticized. Some assume that many or even all of the 44 survivors must have dined on human remains. This, like many other misconceptions, isn’t true.

“You have to recognize that cannibalism and the Donner Party formed a black humor in the mid-19th century, and a lot of people played that up,” explained Don Hardesty, a University of Nevada, Reno anthropology professor. “It was barroom humor, and to this day, we don’t have a good sense of how much cannibalism really occurred.”

We know more now than we used to, however, because of the many archaeological digs and research done in the past 14 years.

The 16-member Donner family wasn’t alone in the Sierra during the winter of 1846-47. There were 65 others traveling with them, including the Donners’ Springfield, Ill., neighbors, the Reed family.

Brothers George and Jacob Donner, both over 60, were virile men with large families. George, a brood of seven. Jacob, a brood of nine.

The Reeds were made up of James Frazier, his wife, Margaret, and their four issue, plus some servants and teamsters. They started out the wealthiest family on the trip, but by journey’s end, they weren’t worth much more than the skin on their emaciated backs.

On April 15, 1846, the Reeds and Donners traveled from Springfield to Independence, Mo., the starting point for all those brave souls who risked the journey west for land and later for gold. By May 12, 1846, they were on their ill-fated way.

Along their journey, the group would congregate with the Breen family, an Irish-Catholic clan with seven children, from Iowa. Although they were the poorest family in the group, the Breens possessed the most goods, food and livestock by the time they were trapped by Sierra snow.

Also joining the caravan were the Murphy family, a 37-year-old widow and her seven children (the two eldest daughters had small families of their own) for a total of 13 people; carriage-maker William Eddy, his wife and two young babes; Lewis Keseberg, a 32-year-old wife-beater from Germany, his spouse and their 3- and 1-year-old children; Jacob Wolfinger and his wife; William McCutchen, his wife and tiny-tot daughter; and a host of single men.

The last bunch to join the Donners was the Graves family, which overtook the Donner-Reed wagon train on Aug. 16, 1846, in the bush- and tree-dense Wasatch Mountains. The Graves numbered 13: Franklin, his wife and their nine children, the youngest a 9-month-old infant; the Graves’ eldest, 21-year-old Sarah, accompanied by her new hubby, Jay Fosdick (whose great grandfather was Primrose’s great-great-great-great grandfather); and their second-eldest, Mary Ann, and her wagon-driving fiancé, John Snyder.

Along the way, six individuals left the party—a few died, and James Frazier Reed was ousted on Oct. 6 for murdering John Snyder. (Many eyewitnesses agreed, however, that it was self-defense resulting when Snyder lashed out at Reed and his wife with a bullwhip after a petty squabble over entangled oxen.)

Of the original party, 81 members found themselves caught in what was long thought to be the worst winter the Sierra Nevada had ever seen.

In years to come, immigrants refused to follow in the Donners’ footsteps. Tall tales about ravenous, crazed and bloodthirsty “headhunters” would silence and spook wagon trains. Travelers would find more comfortable routes.

“There are accounts of settlers coming out and referring to it as ‘the camp of death,’ “ said Gayle Green, an employee of Donner Memorial State Park who specializes in separating Donner Party fact from fiction. Green’s dripping with degrees in anthropology, history and archeology. She participated in a Donner site excavation in 1990 and was present during the most recent archaeological dig this past August.

"[When later parties came], they would note that they passed through the area, but they didn’t stay very long. I think a lot of them changed routes, found an easier way to go. I don’t think it was so much to avoid it, because I hate to say it, there was and still is a lot of curiosity to seek out the macabre.”

Archaeologists excavate a plot of land during the recent one-week dig at Alder Creek.

Courtesy Of Julie Schablitsky

Before its entrapment, the party made dozens of wrong turns. Later, regrets over poor choices must have gnawed and nibbled, Hannibal Lecter-like, at the travelers’ brains for the rest of their lives.

If only the Reeds hadn’t hauled along the extra-large and cumbersome but cozy “Palace Wagon” for Margaret Reed’s mother, the consumptive Sarah Keyes, who died only 17 days into their journey. Without it, the group would have made better time, getting over the pass in early October.

If only the party had listened to George Donner’s wife Tamsen’s intuition that warned not to take the Hastings Cutoff, a hardly traveled “shortcut.” Rumored to subtract 350 to 400 miles from the trip, the shortcut actually added 125 miles and at least a month’s worth of travel time.

If only they hadn’t wasted days in the salt flats looking for stray oxen that were never found. If only the party hadn’t rested for three days—and some families more—in the welcoming Truckee Meadows. If only the group hadn’t been already malnourished before heading into the Sierra.

“There are a whole lot of serendipitous reasons that [the Donner Party] met the fate that they did,” said Don Hardesty, who participated in Donner excavations in 1984 and 1990.

Bad choices plus a healthy serving of chance elements were the recipe for the Donners’ entrapment. Call it karma, kismet, destiny.


Cannibalism was the last resort for people who were still alive. It should also be noted that, as far as we know, nobody killed anybody. Adored family dogs, mules, horses, book covers, reportedly awful-tasting glue made from boiled hides, shoes and toasted bits of animal pelts were all sparingly consumed before the familial flesh frying began.

“Flesh,” though, may not be the correct word, since by the time such desperate measures were warranted, the dead offered little muscle meat; the innards, such as the hearts and livers, were the only substantial parts.

After finding safe haven, Keseberg (the wife-beater, remember?), the very last person to leave the Sierra accompanied by the fourth and final rescue party, described (as quoted in Frank Mullen’s book, The Donner Party Chronicles) partaking of human protein:

“When my provisions gave out, I remained for four days before I could taste human flesh. There was no other resort—it was that or death. … The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it!”

Keseburg attempted to open a restaurant some years after reaching safety. Needless, perhaps, to say, it was unsuccessful.Although history is larded with anecdotal stories from Donner descendants, friends of descendants, members of rescue parties, friends of members of rescue parties and military personnel involved in the “cleanup,” there still is no physical evidence that cannibalism actually occurred. The 44 survivors who reached the Sacramento Valley gave 44 different accounts of what happened, and newspapers at the time exaggerated and sensationalized the stories to their own advantage.

This lack of validation even has some researchers doubting that cannibalism occurred. For most historians and historical archaeologists, though, the description of events as they have been passed down over the years is a pretty clear indicator that human meat was the main course of a Donner meal or two, or 20.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Primrose said. “I was told back when I was a kid that [Jay] had been eaten. I remember asking how they ate him: ‘By boiling him?’ I had vision of a big kettle and them boiling the meat off his bones. I have heard that Sarah [his wife] refused to eat any part of him. She may have partaken from her father, but she wouldn’t eat her husband.”

Cannibalism is suspected to have occurred in the snowshoe escape party (aka the Forlorn Hope Party) and at Murphy’s cabin, near what is now Donner Lake, where the Murphy and Eddy families stayed. The third camp where it seems cannibalism must have transpired is the Donner camp. It seems impossible that the Donners could have survived if they had not engaged in the ghastly practice.

Unfortunately, at that camp, in a pretty valley now known as Alder Creek miles away from the other camps, nobody kept a journal. So we know very little about what transpired there.

“Archeology can fill in the gaps where the written record leaves off,” said Julie Schablitsky, an archeologist with the Oregon Department of Transportation and a research associate with the University of Oregon. Schablitsky participated in the excavation at the assumed site of the Donner family camp in August of this year, along with her partner Kelly Dixon, from the University of Montana.

“All we have are small children’s recollections, which can be inaccurate. Memories evolve over time. We’re there to support or challenge what has been written.”

In just a week, the Schablitsky-Dixon crew found a significant amount of material that indicated they had found the long-disputed site of the Donners’ makeshift homestead.

Why weren’t the Donners with the rest of the campers?

Julie Schablitsky, co-directing archaelogist of the August Donner dig, and archaeologist Stacy Schneyder-Case find artifacts only a few inches below the ground’s surface.

Courtesy Of Julie Schablitsky

Before heading into the mountains, George Donner’s severely sliced his hand as he tried to repair a broken axle. He became ravaged by an infection that slowed down the party and eventually killed him. The Donner group was already behind the others, as they had dallied in the mild valley that would be the future home of Reno. By the time the leaders of the group, the Breens, and most of the others had reached the snow-swamped lake area, the Donners and their trail hands were at least 10 miles behind and were forced to make camp when the blizzard became too unyielding.

While the people near the lake had just enough time and energy to build a couple of cabins—the Breens actually hunkered down in a cabin that was already standing as a result of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party that crossed the Sierra in 1844—the Donners were forced to make-do with lean-tos and improvised tents.

Recent discoveries seem to verify that the site is in the middle area of a trail loop off Highway 89 North, eight miles away from the Donner Lake cabin sites. It was here that the Donner family lived and died between Oct. 31, 1846, and March 28, 1847, the day on which Tamsen Donner, the last of the Donners to succumb, died just two days after the death of her husband on March 26 (three of her daughters had left the Sierra with rescuers on March 14).

It is amazing, considering their pathetic shelters, that any of them made it out alive; the ones who did were primarily women and children. Women fared better than men, on the whole. Two-thirds of them survived, while two-thirds of the men died.

“The issue of the survival rate, and the fact that it was mostly the women and the children that were the survivors—and that two whole families survived—is something a lot of people don’t know,” Green said. “Either there was a strong religious background, for example the Breens, or a strong family background, like with the Reeds. Those two families ended up together in one cabin, and they were the ones who made it out in total. The ones who were single and didn’t have a lot of ties seemed to be the ones who perished.”

The aims of the recent dig were to establish the location of the Donner camp, which seems to have been accomplished, and to find proof that the stranded campers did in fact dine on their dead, which they may have done.

“Cannibalism is evidenced if you actually find a post-mortem fragment that suggests how the bone was broken or torn apart,” Schablitsky said. “You can also look for pot polish. If you have a wrought-iron pot and are throwing bones in the pot, the bone will pick up residue from the pot, so you can see where the bone has rubbed against it.”

An excellently preserved bone was discovered in August, in the last several hours of the last day of the dig. It is indicative of a human-sized mammal and has clear chop marks on it. A forensic anthropologist concluded that the marks came from a cleaver-like blade and that there were actually two chops, one coming down right inside the other. There is also thermal damage to the cut areas that were not protected by flesh, suggesting that the bone was cooked.

The fact that the bone was only a foot away from a discovered hearth—another very exciting find that indicates this Alder Creek location is the correct Donner camp site—also suggests that it was used for food. Either the bone is human and was being trimmed for a recipe that might find its way into a Dining with Dahmer cookbook in years to come, or the bone belonged to an animal—and wouldn’t that be boring?

The bone won’t undergo osteon analysis—a procedure in which the shape of microscopic bone features called “osteons” are determined; if they are found to be round, the bone is human, if they are ovular, the bone is deer—until another dig is done and more bones obtained, perhaps next summer. So it may be a couple of years before we know whether the bone is man or critter. Most scientists speculate the former.

“It’s already been discovered as a medium-to-large mammal, which means deer, human or small bear,” Schablitsky said. “If this is indeed the Donner camp, it was unlikely that deer and bear would be walking around. The bear would be hibernating, and the deer would be at lower elevations where they could find food.”

If the bone is determined to be human, DNA testing will be done comparing the bone DNA to that of living descendants in hopes of determining whose unlucky body was cut, cooked and chewed. This sort of technology (mitochondrial DNA analysis), as well as the field equipment that was used at the site (ground penetrating radar), indicates how advances in science are helping put together a more accurate archaeology-based history of events.

Professor Hardesty has been involved in Donner excavations since he was asked to participate in an excavation at the Murphy cabin site in 1983. It was thought that the Murphy cabin was the site of a mass burial that took place when Gen. William Kearny, leading a Mormon battalion, went through the area in June of 1847.

“Independent military records were kept by Kearny, who on the way back from California passed through both Donner Party camps,” Hardesty said. “He was absolutely dismayed by what he saw. He described human remains lying around. So he ordered his men to round them up and bury them in the floor of one of the cabins and ordered it burned.”

Hardesty and company’s excavation proved that there were no bone remains at the Murphy cabin site, leading him to assume that it must have been either the Breen or the Graves cabin where the interment took place. Permission would be needed from California State Parks and from the descendants before more attempts could be made to find the burial site and exhume the bones for testing.

"[These places] are sacred sites for the Donner Party descendants,” said Green, who participated in the 1990 dig with Hardesty.

Hardesty has determined, partly through working with dendrochronologists (scientists who do comparative tree ring analysis), that the 1846-47 winter was not the worst the Sierra Nevada has ever seen, as previously thought.

“The dendrochronologists said the size and characteristic of the tree rings, while they suggested a good winter, did not suggest an abnormal winter, based on the amount of growth that took place during that year,” Hardesty explained. “U.S. Navy ships anchored off the San Francisco coast [in 1846 and 1847] kept logs that detailed very precisely what weather conditions were like every few hours. They literally documented the storms that were coming off the coast. If you look at those records, it was a solid winter, but it was not one that stood out.”

Believe it or not, scientists say that humans may be predisposed to resort to cannibalism in extreme situations. Certain genetic markers found in people from the Sierra Nevada to Lick Fork, Va., to Long Eaton, England, suggest that our earliest ancestors were cannibals. Apparently, we all carry a gene that evolved to safeguard us from brain diseases contracted by eating human flesh.

Yet, there is still fairly limited evidence of cannibalism occurring even in prehistoric cultures. However, in starvation conditions, the idea of cannibalism might grow on a person.

“I think for [the Donner Party] it was a means of survival," George Primrose said, remembering the ordeal his ancestor Jay Fosdick went through. "Once you get past the psychological end of it, it’s all food. I’d have to get awfully damn hungry before I did it. But you either curl up and starve and die, or you eat it. It’s protein, and it’ll keep you going."