University scholars publish book on the secret lives of the Donner Party

“An Archaeology of Desperation” features collaborations between University of Nevada, Reno students, alumni and professors

10/20/2011 | By: Rachel Sa-Onoy  |

The Department of Anthropology announces the publication of a new book, "An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp." The book is a collaboration between anthropology scholars from the University of Nevada, Reno and other academics.

Little is known about the truth of the starving travelers in the Sierra Nevada, but this new book tries to dissect one of the tragedies in American history. "An Archaeology of Desperation" focuses on recent archaeological investigations at the campsite near Truckee, Calif., where emigrants spent their horrific winter of 1846-47.

Integrating the approaches of archaeology, biology, ethnohistory and social anthropology, this new perspective challenges the myth and the folklore that has long surfaced from the mysteries and inconsistencies of the story of the Donner Party.

Microscopic investigations of small bone fragments and oral testimonies from both survivors and observers were assessed by multiple contributors to the book to get a richer dimension to the historical narrative.

Among the book's contributors is University of Nevada, Reno doctoral candidate Sean McMurry, who will complete her degree this December. McMurry co-wrote a chapter, "The Delicate Question: Cannibalism in Prehistoric and Historic Times," with University professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, G. Richard Scott.

Professor Emeritus Don Hardesty, another Nevada scholar and long-time pioneer of historical archaeology, wrote the chapter, "Historical Perspectives on the Archaeology of the Donner Party." University alumna Kelly Dixon contributed to numerous chapters in the book and served as co-editor.

Dixon, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Montana, is the author of "Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City." That book began as her Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she directed the historic archaeology of an African American saloon.

Other scholars involved in research featured in the book include Will Bagley, Kelsey Gray, Kristin Johnson, Jo Ann Nevers, Gwen Robbins and Penny Rucks. The other two editors of the book are Julie Schablitsky and Shannon Novak. Schablitsky is a senior research archaeologist at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, University of Oregon, and the editor of "Box Office Archaeology: Refining Hollywood's Portrayals of the Past." Novak is associate professor of anthropology at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, and author of "House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre."

In a concluding chapter, Dixon notes that the contributors did not find any unbroken skeletons at the exaction sites. "Beyond the cannibal tale," she writes, "this hero saga reminds us of our own fragility, mortality and resilience in the face of unfamiliar circumstances and less-than-predictable futures."

"An Archaeology of Desperation" is available now from online booksellers, in bookstores on Oct. 20, and directly from the University of Oklahoma Press.


For more news on the University of Nevada, Reno, follow @unevadareno on Twitter.

Get Nevada Today in your Inbox!