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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Rethinking the Donner Party Tragedy

Anthropologist sheds new light on 1847 story

Aug. 2, 2011, by Jim Reilly

Shannon Novak spends a lot of time staring at bones, but what she’s really trying to see is the story of the people who left them behind.

Novak, associate professor of anthropology in The College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School, specializes in human osteology—the study of bones—as a way to study social behavior, including gender violence, burial practices, and politics. She has worked on prehistoric burial sites in Utah’s Great Basin, mass graves in England from the 15th century War of the Roses, and Croatia from more recent conflict. But for much of the past decade, she has focused on unearthing the truth beneath layers of earth, myth, unreliable social memory, and decaying physical artifacts of two of the most bone-chilling events of the 19th century American West: the Donner Party tragedy and the Mountain Meadows massacre.

Most Americans have heard the Donner story: Emigrants headed west for California in 1847 got snowbound in the Sierras and ate their dead to survive. Fewer have heard of Mountain Meadows, but the story is equally thin: In September of 1857, Mormon militiamen slaughtered more than 100 Arkansas emigrants—men, women, and children, in an infamous spot called Mountain Meadows in southern Utah. Both narratives are oversimplified, Novak says, and neither does justice to the people who lived them. She has spent years “slowing down the narrative” and fleshing out the stories through painstaking examination of tiny bits of bone and piecing together the physical record, historical accounts, and social theory.

Her book, House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (University of Utah Press, 2008), focuses on the lives of the Arkansas emigrants, ending with their massacre.  A forthcoming book will examine how the bones and their identities have been used as a political resource in different social contexts over 150 years. “The first book was about the people in the grave; the next is about their kin, the Mormons, and competing narratives of this violent event,” Novak says.

Novak’s most-recent publication, “Men, Women and Children Starving: Archaeology of the Donner Family Camp” (American Antiquity, July 2010), sparked controversy when she and her fellow researchers stated they found no physical evidence for cannibalism in the Alder Creek site, the camp occupied by George and Jacob Donner and their families. “It’s like we’re saying it didn’t happen,” Novak says. “Every time we present our findings, we’re called ‘revisionist historians!’ Which we’re not.”

Novak is a scientist and her conclusions are based on what the evidence supports.  After years of collecting and examining more than 16,000 bone fragments, her research team found no evidence of chopped, cut, or cooked human bone at the Donner family’s hearth. This may be because the bones are elsewhere, Novak says, or because the women sliced flesh from the dead to feed to their children, the only Donner survivors. Cannibalism among the more diverse group camped at Donner Lake is well documented, and Novak and her colleagues believe the Donners ultimately succumbed to cannibalism during the last weeks of their four-month ordeal. But the physical evidence shows how hard they must have struggled—first eating pine needles; animal hides; shoes and shoelaces; and leather book covers;  as well as cutting, smashing, boiling, and burning animal bones to extract any nutrient. That’s why the bone fragments are so small. “I’ve never seen bone processed down to this level,” Novak says. “To me, the evidence says desperation. Utter desperation.”