The familiar story of the Donner Party is one of misfortune, madness, and profound isolation. But archaeologists have come to believe that the Midwestern migrants who became trapped in the northern Sierra during the winter of 1846-47 were not alone.
While October snowfall represented a catastrophe for the pioneers' wagon train as they crossed the mountains, it would have been wholly ordinary to members of the local Washoe tribe, whose way of life had been adapted to the Lake Tahoe region for thousands of years.
During the warm months, the natives gathered stores of pine nuts, roots, and dried rabbit meat. In the winters, they wore cloaks of rabbit fur, ice fished, and huddled in willow huts with central fire pits. Three winters before the arrival of the Donner Party, the frontiersman John Fremont recorded an encounter with the Washoe. As his men struggled through deep snow, he wrote, three natives were seen, “circling around us on snow-shoes and skimming along like birds.” The tribesmen returned later with an offering of pine nuts.
According to Indigenous histories, Washoe scouts kept close track of strangers in their territory. The migrants, among the few whites they had ever seen, would have aroused intense interest. But Donner testimonies mentioned only a few encounters. In one, William Eddy, a carriage maker from Illinois, fatally shot a Washoe man who had fired arrows into their oxen. In another, a tribesman emerged from the wilderness and offered the foreigners a handful of edible roots.
But those almost certainly weren’t the only encounters. The 2011 book “An Archaeology of Desperation” introduced historical accounts overlooked in the popular telling of the Donner story: those passed down to the great-great-grandchildren of Washoe members present during the Donner encounters.
Numerous times, according to the oral histories, Washoe scouts brought the stranded migrants food — including a deer carcass, fish, and wild potatoes — but were met with hostility. On one occasion, an offering of fish was refused. On at least three others, the Washoe approached the Donner camps with food only to be met by gunshots, leaving one man dead.
When a scout saw the white people cannibalizing their dead, the tribe was said to retreat, afraid they too might be killed and eaten. From then on, the Washoe referred to the migrants as “not people.”
Of roughly 80 pioneers who set out for California from Missouri, only half survived. Their apparent distrust of the Sierra natives, even as starvation loomed, likely came from their experiences on the trail, historians say. During the three weeks before their arrival in Washoe country, members of the migrant train reported being shot at and robbed of horses and cattle. But native histories, supported by archaeological evidence, suggest the Washoe tried to help them, wrote Julie Schablitsky, an archaeologist who performed excavations at the Donner site in the early 2000s.
Once the migrant camps were deserted, tribal members returned to burn and bury objects left behind in a bid to drive away unwelcome spirits. But the Donner Party was only a harbinger of what was to come. Gold was discovered down the mountain range a year later. Before long the region was swarmed by prospectors, and the Washoes' way of life was put on a path toward oblivion.
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