are taken from James M. Deem's How to Hunt Buried Treasure
Some treasure hunters are more
interested in discovering information about past events than in locating an
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
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
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
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
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.
wanted to set the record straight. What is interesting
about his "treasure hunt" is that
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.
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.
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.
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, 1881. 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, 1962. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
_____. Ordeal by Hunger: The
Story of the Donner Party, 1936. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
ŠJames M. Deem.
Originally published in How
to Hunt Buried Treasure (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
1992). All rights