Research by ASU Professor Suggests No Cannibals in Famous Donner Party

I suppose most folks have heard of the story of the Donner Party, a group of pioneers, 87 in number, who set out to California by wagon train from Missouri in the spring of 1846, only to be delayed by an untried shortcut through the virtually impassible terrain of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas.

Stranded in those high mountains during the winter of 1846-47 and short on provisions, many of the party starved to death, and at least some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism in order to survive — or so it has long been believed. 

The consumption of human flesh has leant a sensationalism to the Donner Party tale which continues to fascinate even today.  And thus it has become one of the most enduring tragedies in the history of the Old West.     

But check out this interesting article on research by Appalachian State University anthropologist Dr. Gwen Robbins, who has studied bone fragments from the site in the Sierra Nevadas where the Donner Party was encamped and found no human bones.

So, is the cannibalism of the Donner Party myth or reality?  Perhaps this is a case where historians, who rely upon documentary sources, such as memoirs, correspondence, and newspaper articles, will never quite see eye to eye with their colleagues in the hard sciences.  For some of these documentary sources, such as the diary of Patrick Breen, do indeed suggest that cannibalism took place (see entry for February 26th, 1847).  On the other hand, those citing a lack of physical evidence for the consumption of human flesh have suggested mid-19th century yellow journalism as an explanation for the more lurid side of the Donner Party tale.     

If you’d like to learn more about the tragic story of the Donner Party, Greensboro Public Library may have some books which will interest you.  Try some of these:  Desperate Passage:  The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick (2008); The Donner Party by Scott P. Werther (juvenile); and Ordeal by Hunger:  The Story of the Donner Party by George Rippey Stewart (1936/1960).  

A recent (2010) fictional account from a feminist perspective is Gabrielle Burton’s Impatient with Desire:  A Novel, which, according to Publisher’s Weekly “reimagines the tragedy through the eyes of Tamsen Donner, 45-year-old wife of George Donner, the leader of the party.”

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