History

What the Donner Party Ate in Final Days

what the Donner party ate in the final days. Learn what the Donner party ate in the final days in this article.

THE GIST

- Evidence reveals what the Donner Party ate during their final days of being snowbound in the Sierra Nevada.

- After eating the family dogs and other animal meat, some members ate bones, hides, twigs and string.

- Human bones were not recovered but researchers believe some Donner Party members resorted to cannibalism.

They had endured months of cold and hunger. The Donner-Reed party had set out for California in 1846 in a journey that normally took four to six months. But after trying a new route, called Hastings Cutoff, rugged terrain left the group snowbound in the Sierra Nevada.

Now a new book analyzing one of the most spectacular tragedies in American history reveals what the 81 pioneers ate before resorting to eating each other in a desperate attempt to survive. On the menu: family pets, bones, twigs, a concoction described as "glue," strings and, eventually, human remains.

The book, "An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp," centers on recent archaeological investigations at that campsite near Truckee, Calif., where one quarter of the 81 emigrants spent their nightmarish winter of 1846-47.

No human bone was identified in the fragments analyzed from the extensive bone sample at Alder Creek, but the researchers conclude that "some Donner Party members participated in cannibalism" during the last week of February 1847.

NEWS: Donner Party Ate Family Dog, Maybe Not People

Co-editor Kelly Dixon, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at The University of Montana, told Discovery News that she and her colleagues "are emphasizing the fact that the historical and archaeological sources present a complicated story about humans doing whatever possible, including eating hide and strings as well as consuming their dogs, before making the desperate decision to cannibalize. Thus, the bone remains at the site indicate an avoidance of cannibalism ... but not necessarily the absence of it."

Dixon and co-editors Julie Schablitsky and Shannon Novak identified rodent, canine, deer, rabbit, horse and oxen/cattle bones within the over 16,000 bone fragments.

The historical record, consisting of letters and journals kept by members of the Donner Party and rescue groups, as well as the memories of some survivors, supports that the trapped members first ate all of their animals, including captured mice and the family dogs, as well as wild game.

Of the family dog "Cash," emigrant Virginia Reed Murphy wrote, "We ate his head and feet -- hide -- everything about him."

Another member of the group, Patrick Breen, reportedly shot his dog and dressed its flesh. The Donner's dog Uno, itself hungry enough to eat a child's shoe, may have also been consumed.

"When the meat gave out, the emigrants turned to the hides of the slaughtered animals, which, when scraped, cut into strips, and boiled, yielded a thick glue," according to Kristin Johnson, a Salt Lake Community College librarian who has studied the Donner Party for nearly two decades.

"The emigrants also discovered that bones, if boiled long enough or roasted, could be eaten," she added.

Johnson continued that, based on the historical record, some members tried to eat "a decayed buffalo robe, but it was too tough and there was no nourishment in it."

The members even tried eating pine bark and twigs, with Solomon Hook later saying that at one point he "went two weeks without food, chewing only pine pitch."

With nothing else left to eat, the historical record indicates some of the snowbound victims resorted to consuming the bodies of others who perished.

Johnson reports that James Frazier Reed, who left and then returned with men to help at Jacob Donner's camp, "found a gruesome scene."

NEWS: Humans Still Eating Humans

Hair, bones, skulls, and the fragments of half-consumed limbs were said to be around the fire. Jacob Donner's body was found with his heart and liver removed and his limbs and arms cut off. Another account describes children having blood on their faces, after trying to consume such flesh.

In human history, several different types of cannibalism exist. Exocannibalism is when a culture, group or tribe consumes members of another group, while mortuary cannibalism is the practice of eating deceased relatives for ritualistic purposes.

There is little doubt that Donner Party members who resorted to eating human flesh exemplified "survival cannibalism."

Dixon and Schablitsky, in a "Concluding Thoughts" chapter of the book, mention that they did not find any intact skeletons at the excavation site. But they add, "If the Donner families consumed only flesh and organs, as would be expected from comparative cases of survival cannibalism, then only soft tissue would have been cooked over a fire or boiled in a pot."

They conclude, "Beyond the cannibal tale, this hero saga reminds us of our own fragility, mortality, and resilience in the face of unfamiliar circumstances and less-than-predictable futures."

"The Donner Party—A Day in November" is a painting inspired by the recent archaeological work at Alder Creek and painted by James Schablitsky.

Extreme weather events, financial collapse, political unrest: With today's overabundance of apocalyptic worry, now is a good time to start thinking about what you’ll do if and when the bottom falls out. In a survival situation, shelter, fire and clean drinking water should be your top priorities, said Tom Brown, founder of Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School. And, even though people can survive for up to three weeks without food, Brown said, extreme hunger can make you crazy. So it's worth stocking up on canned foods and other non-perishables. Read on to find out what else you can -- and really shouldn't -- eat when the cans run out.

DO: Pet food People end up eating pet food often enough -- and sales tend to go up during recessions -- that FDA standards require food made for animals to be suitable for humans to eat too, said Cody Lundin, founder and director of the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, Ariz. In an episode of the Discovery Channel show "Dual Survival", Lundin eats dog food cooked over a campfire -- and while he expresses hope that they'll catch raccoon for breakfast, he lived to tell the tale.

DO: Rodents It's easy to catch rats and other rodents, said Brown, author of "Tom Brown's Guide to City and Suburban Survival." Simply bury a five-gallon bucket in the ground up to its edges. Cover the mouth of the container with sticks and wood scraps, and wait for a startled mouse or chipmunk to scramble under the jumbled objects. The animal will fall right into your trap. Next, burn the hair off your prey, skin them, gut them and throw them into a stew pot with water and any grains, vegetables or flour you might have on hand. "Don't even bother filleting them or getting rid of the bones," Brown said. "Bone marrow is high in nutrition and protein."

DON'T: Leather During their infamous struggle against starvation, the Donner Party ate a wide variety of unappetizing objects, including leather, which is made from animal hides. Long ago, people used the tannins in oak tree bark to turn animal skins into leather, making it a safe food item. But modern leather products are tanned with chemicals that are surely poisonous, said Lundin, author of "When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes." Your belts may look as good as fruit roll-ups when you're really hungry. But it's best to leave them in the closet.

DO: Bugs Grasshoppers, cockroaches, ants, tarantulas: Virtually all insects are edible. Just make sure to cook them well enough to kill the wide variety of diseases they can carry, Brown said. You can even eat bees and scorpions as long as you remove their stingers first. One easy way to catch insects is to fill a sink with a little water and some food crumbs. Hungry bugs will go for the bait and either drown or get stuck in the tub. Ounce for ounce, Brown added, insects have up to four times more usable protein than other animals. Instead of a pound of beef, a quarter-pound grasshopper burger will do the same job.

DO: Weeds "Food plants grow everywhere," said John Kallas, director of Wild Food Adventures, an educational company, and author of "Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate." "All you need to do is go out in your backyard." You also need to build up some detailed knowledge about botany before all hell breaks loose because eating the wrong plants or the wrong parts of plants can kill you. Common vitamin-rich weeds include wild spinach, cattails, field mustard, garlic mustard, nipplewort and dandelions. No matter how hungry you are, Kallas warned, only eat a little amount of any one kind of vegetation at a time. "Dandelions have some vital chemicals that are great for you in small amounts, but too much will give diarrhea," he said. "That's what you don't want in a survival situation."

DON'T: Cardboard and Paper Cardboard boxes may seem appealing because they contain cellulose from wood pulp, which is used as a thickener, stabilizer and source of fiber in a variety of food products. And along with paper, cardboard can counter hunger pains by taking up space. But people cannot adequately digest the cellulose in cardboard and paper, Brown said. Also, many of these products are treated with chemicals that can be toxic.

DO: Acorns Like any nut, acorns can be delicious and filling, but you can't just pop them in your mouth like cashews. To make acorns edible, Brown advised, first take them out of their husks. Next, drop them in a pot of just-boiled water and let them steep for a couple hours. Drain and repeat this process two to four times until all of the bitter tannic acid is gone. At last, you can eat the acorns plain. You can roast them. Or you can grind them into flour that will accentuate your rodent stew. Play the "Dual Survival" challenge, featuring survival experts Cody Lundin and Dave Canterbury.