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This is a story of cannibalism in a snowed-in mountain pass, from the American western pioneer days.

There are a number of websites and much historical lore in California advocating the theory that the ill-fated Donner party resorted to cannibalism.

However, there is also an article on Discovery News

Donner Party Ate Family Dog, Maybe Not People: Did ethnic prejudice spur the now infamous legend of the Donner Party's cannibalism?

So which is it? Did they eat the forbidden flesh or not?

Here is a large amount of background and accounts of cannibalism that I have picked through from the fairly long wikipedia article on the Donner Party.

From wikipedia:Donner Party

The Donner Party was a group of 87 American pioneers who set out in a wagon train headed west for California, only to find themselves trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada [in what is now known as Donner Pass elevation 2150m]. The subsequent casualties were extremely high, and many of the survivors cannibalized members of the party who had already died.

The wagons left Missouri for California in May of 1846.... They had planned to be in California by September ... but found themselves trapped in the Sierra Nevada by early November...

...Quickly, food stores ran out and a group of 15 men and women attempted to reach California on snowshoes in December, but became disoriented in the mountains, then succumbed to starvation and cold. Only seven members of the snowshoe party survived, by eating the flesh of those who had died ....

...No one at Truckee Lake had died during the interim between the departure of the first relief party and the arrival of the second relief party. Patrick Breen documented a disturbing visit in the last week of February from Mrs. Murphy, who said her family was considering eating Milt Elliott. Reed and McCutchen found Elliott's mutilated body.[126] The Alder Creek camp fared no better. The first two members of the relief party to reach it saw Trudeau carrying a human leg. When they made their presence known, he threw it into a hole in the snow that contained the mostly dismembered body of Jacob Donner. Inside the tent, Elizabeth Donner refused to eat, although her children were being nourished by the organs of their father.[127] The rescuers discovered that three other bodies had already been consumed...

Publication of Historical Accounts

In the last paragraph of the wikipedia article, three authors are noted to have produced written accounts of what happened:

Although some survivors disputed the accounts of cannibalism, Charles >McGlashan, who corresponded with many of the survivors over a 40-year period, >documented many recollections that it occurred. [he later wrote "History of the Donner Party" in 1879]

Eliza Donner Houghton, in her 1911 account of the ordeal, did not mention any cannibalism at Alder Creek. Archaeological findings at the Alder Creek camp proved inconclusive for evidence of cannibalism

Eliza Farnham's 1856 account of the Donner Party was based largely on an interview with Margaret Breen. Her version details the ordeals of the Graves and Breen families after James Reed and the second relief left them in the snow pit. According to Farnham, seven-year-old Mary Donner suggested to the others that they should eat Isaac Donner, Franklin Graves, Jr., and Elizabeth Graves, because the Donners had already begun eating the others at Alder Creek, including Mary's father Jacob. Margaret Breen insisted that she and her family did not cannibalize the dead, but Kristin Johnson, Ethan Rarick, and Joseph King – whose account is sympathetic to the Breen family – do not consider it credible that the Breens, who had been without food for nine days, would have been able to survive without eating human flesh.

The Discovery article "Donner Party Ate Family Dog, Maybe Not People: Did ethnic prejudice spur the now infamous legend of the Donner Party's cannibalism?" by Viegas (2010) provides its own summary:

THE GIST:

Analysis of bones discovered at the Donner Party campsite found no evidence for cannibalism The members did resort to consuming the family dog, cattle, deer and horses. Slate pieces and china shards reveal the members tried to live with dignity.

This portion also seems relevant:

Detailed analysis of the bones instead found that the 84 Donner Party members consumed a family dog, "Uno," along with cattle, deer and horses. Cattle, likely eaten after the animals themselves died of starvation, appear to have been their mainstay.

Isn't a bit late for an examination of bones and garbage from around the camp?

Did the Donner Party resort to cannibalism, or is that merely pernicious slander embellished to sell books and newspapers?

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Unless I'm thinking of some other incident, I thought they marked which body was which so that people wouldn't eat their relatives. –  Andrew Grimm Apr 13 '12 at 13:17
    
Having read through the wikipedia article, it seemed to suggest that accounts taken from some of the survivors indicated that they did feed some of the children on non-related human remains. Im not sure there is really a counter-claim other than you postulating that "it was just to sell books and newspapers" –  Jamiec Apr 13 '12 at 16:23
    
@Jamiec Did you see the article published in Discovery News that offered new academic evidence that it was not cannibalism? They assert, in the title and in a sentence somewhere, that prejudice motivated the accusations of cannibalisms and then it just grew. –  Paul Apr 13 '12 at 20:35
    
Towards the end of the wikipedia article it says that the bones subsequently analyzed were only the cooked bones and that the survivors would not have needed to cook human bones in order to eat the flesh. It can be eaten raw or cut off and cooked separately. –  user10703 Dec 14 '12 at 10:18

1 Answer 1

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Yes, there was cannibalism in the Donner Party. How do we know? Well, for one thing, a number of survivors -- William H. Eddy, Sarah Graves Fosdick, Mary Graves, Louis Keseberg, Georgia Donner, and others -- said they ate human flesh. In addition, rescuers found some of the emigrants preparing or consuming human flesh, and also saw the evidence of cannibalism in the form of mutilated corpses. Please see the recently published An Archaeology of Desperation (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011) for factual information about the Donner Party and the Alder Creek digs.--Kristin Johnson, historian for the Donner Party Archaeology Project.

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Thanks for taking an interest in this question, I was not aware of the recent book. Do you have any opinion as to why Dr. Robbins of App State came to the conclusion that only animals and a family dog were eaten (as reported by Viegas in the news article cited above -- link: news.discovery.com/history/donner-party-cannibalism.html )? Is it just faulty methodology, reexamining the site too late, or something else? –  Paul Apr 14 '12 at 8:26
3  
Welcome to the site, I've taken a look here: uonews.uoregon.edu/archive/news-release/2011/10/… and they claim the book says the opposite of what you cliam here... So the book is probably not a very good reference. However in your homepage you give better evidence - the diaries. Can you update your answer to include them? –  Sklivvz Apr 14 '12 at 10:50

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