Treasure Story 4
Hunting for the Donner Party
Some treasure hunters are more interested in discovering information about past events than in locating an actual object. Perhaps they want to explore a battlefield or the site of an old fort--not to recover a treasure, but to determine what exactly happened at these sites, especially if there's any controversy surrounding the historical events.
One such controversy pertains to the Donner tragedy. In mid-August 1846, when many pioneers were heading for California, a group of eighty-nine people known as the Donner Party chose to take a short cut in their journey. This decision, which required them to cut a thirty mile road through Utah's Wasatch Mountains, would spell doom for almost half the emigrants.
In early September, as they crossed the eighty-mile long flats of the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah, most of their cattle and oxen died; wagons and possessions had to be abandoned; and men and women were forced to carry their young children. By the end of October, six of the emigrants had died. Still, most of the group managed to reach Truckee Lake, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. They tried to cross the mountain pass and reach Sutter's Fort before winter set in. But the disastrous short cut and desert crossing had delayed them too long; the snow was already three feet deep, so they stayed at Truckee Lake, where they found one cabin from a previous wagon train and built two others to shelter themselves from the winter.
The other members of the party, including the Donner family, had lagged behind and become separated from the main group. On November 3, they were forced to stop when a wagon axle broke at Alder Creek, about six miles from Truckee Lake (since renamed Donner Lake). There, they were only able to set up makeshift tents, using branches and animal skins, before a heavy snowfall blanketed them.
According to all accounts, those at Alder Creek suffered the most that winter, although a shortage of food and a lack of cooperation plagued both locations. At its worst, the snow was twenty-two feet deep, which only complicated the emigrants' desperate situation. Both groups were rescued eventually, but not before thirteen at Truckee Lake and nine at Alder Creek had died of starvation and exposure to the cold - and a few of the survivors had reportedly turned to cannibalism. Fourteen others died attempting to cross the mountain pass, leaving only forty-seven survivors to tell the story.
The Donner Trail has since been identified for its historical significance. The Truckee Lake and Alder Creek campsites now belong to the National Forest Service and are part of the Donner Memorial State Park. Many people - treasure trackers and archaeologists alike - are fascinated by the Donner tragedy and the many legends that surround it.
Some are interested in tales of lost gold. It was rumored that some members of the party buried gold and jewels as they abandoned their wagons on the salt flats. Such an idea was begun by Virginia Reed, a young girl traveling with her family in the Donner Party. She asserted that one of the Reeds' wagons, named the Pioneer Palace, was buried along with many valuable possessions in the desert sand. During the 1980s, archaeologists Bruce Hawkins and David Madsen explored the site of the wagon burials and concluded that Virginia Reed had been mistaken. Wagons and household goods were buried, they discovered, but nothing of great value. In their explorations, the archaeologists found metal and wooden wagon parts, animal bones, and the charcoal residue from the pioneers' fires. They also found wagon ruts, most likely from the Pioneer Palace, almost 150 years after it set out for California.
Others are interested in studying the Donner Lake and Alder Creek campsites for historical information. For example, in April 1879, the Donner Lake cabin sites were informally excavated by some survivors and author C. F. McGlashan, who later wrote a book on the subject.
McGlashan noted that
many of the leading citizens were present and assisted in searching for the relics. . . . A great many pins have been found, most of which are the old-fashioned round-headed ones. A strange feature in regard to these pins is that although bright and clean, they crumble and break at almost the slightest touch. . . . One of the most touching relics, in view of the sad, sad history, is the sole of an infant's shoe. The tiny babe who wore the shoe was probably among the number who perished of starvation.
A more recent excavation of the Alder Creek area took place during the summer of 1990. A group of archaeology professors and students from the University of Nevada in Reno, headed by Dr. Don Hardesty, explored the theory that the actual location of the tents at Alder Creek was misidentified. How could this have happened? First, fewer people survived that location. Second, their flimsy tents would have deteriorated quickly, leaving no permanent record. What's more, when Peter Wedell marked the Donner Lake and Alder Creek sites for historical purposes during the 1920s, he had to guess at the actual site of the Alder Creek tents. He based his decision on the location of some tall tree stumps and a partly burned ponderosa pine tree. The Donner Lake sites, on the other hand, were easily identified by the foundations of the three cabins.
Professor Hardesty wanted to set the record straight. What is interesting about his "treasure hunt" is that he was accompanied by a team of three treasure hunters, equipped with metal detectors. Although archaeologists and treasure hunters usually do not mix well, this time they teamed up to produce important results. First, the detectorists scanned the area with their machines. Every time they heard a signal, they placed a stickpin flag at that location. Then the archaeologists dug carefully at each flag location and removed any objects they found. When something important was uncovered, they placed it in a plastic bag and filled out forms about the location of the discovery.
During June and July 1990, the team covered the official" tent sites at Alder Creek and found no remnants of the Donner families. Nearby, however, they turned up many artifacts, including tools, wagon parts, coins, china fragments, and upholstery tacks. Was this the real location of the Alder Creek tents? Even these facts cannot definitely prove that the Donners had camped at that site. According to William Lindemann, curator of the Emigrant Trail Museum at the Donner Memorial State Park, people are unaware that over a period of many years, moles and other rodents have a habit of moving and thereby scattering artifacts that have been left behind. Pinpointing the location will take years of exacting study. Nonetheless, Professor Hardesty hopes to provide a conclusive result and, when that occurs, to request that the regional archaeologist of the National Forest Service correct the error. If that happens, Professor Hardesty will have found the treasure he sought: the correction of history.
In the meantime, should you wish to visit the Alder Creek site, take Route 89 north until you see the National Forest Service sign: Donner Camp Picnic Site. You will find two trails that form a loop through the site. To see the misidentified location, take the left-hand trail and follow the signs. To see Hardesty's location, take the right-hand trail and, as the trail curves to the left, look for the small area of broken ground on the left. A few clumps of dirt may not look important, but the artifacts they reveal may change a small piece of history.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Taken from How to Hunt Buried Treasure (Houghton Mifflin, 1994). All rights reserved.
Hawkins, Bruce R., and David B. Madsen. Excavation of the Donner-Reed Wagons: Historic Archaeology along the Hastings Cutoff. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990.
McGlashan, C.F. History of the Donner Party. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1947.
Molnar, Tom. "Detectors on Donner Summit." Treasure, January 1991: 38-40.
Sterling, Mick, and Arlene Amodei. "Locating the Donner Families' Camps." Western & Eastern Treasures, December 1990: 37-38.
Stewart, George R. The California Trail. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
_____. Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.