Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The slate from Alder Creek

When I got to Alder Creek in July 2004 I was eager to learn if anything had turned up at the dig yet, so I stopped a likely looking woman in the parking lot. Yes, she said, she was with the dig, they had indeed been finding things, and mentioned pieces of broken writing slate. When I heard that, I got chills -- Tamzene Donner had been a school teacher and took school supplies to California! That was leaping to a conclusion, of course, and I knew that it didn't necessarily have anything to do with Tamzene, so I talked myself down.

After the dig, however, some of the team rhapsodized about the slate, envisioning how Tamzene tried to "normalize" the situation by teaching the children. This is a heckuva lot of assumptions. For one thing, it isn't at all certain which camp was excavated. The evidence, to me, suggests that it was more likely Jacob Donner's than George's; if so, Tamzene Donner is much less likely to have been involved with any artifacts found there. In addition, there was no proof that the slate had been used at all, let alone by whom, and there are many other ways the slate could have been used besides as a writing surface. As a flat, smooth, heatproof, waterproof object, a "writing" slate would make a dandy tray, trivet, spoon rest, cutting board, platter, plate, etc.; the fact that the fragments of slate were found near the hearth might suggest some of these uses. (Then again, if it had been used for writing, the fire would have been a source of light.)

At any rate, Molly Swords, one of Dr. Kelly Dixon's students, has completed the results of her study of the Alder Creek slate in the form of her master's thesis, A Clean Slate: The Archaeology of the Donner Party's Writing Slate Fragments. She was unable to bring up any traces of writing on the fragments, but has written an extensive history on the uses and types of school slates which is interesting in its own right. The thesis is available at the University of Montana's website as a PDF file.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Archaeology book

My frequent long silences don't mean that nothing is going on on the Donner front -- au contraire! I've been so busy, I don't know where to start.

I've sent in the first draft of my contribution to the Donner Party archaeology book, which was quite a relief, but now I'm working on revisions. Some interesting things have come up that I need to shoehorn in somehow.

Also, I worked with Will Bagley on his contribution to the book, and some prolonged digging revealed patterns in how the news of the Donner disaster reached the rest of the world. Ships carried files of the California Star and The Californian to Oregon and Hawaii, then to Boston, whence the story fanned out along the eastern seaboard. In the meanwhile, eastbound travelers had brought copies of the California newspapers overland to St. Louis, which became another vector. The first garbled hints reached the States in May 1847, but it wasn't until summer that the horrid truth became known. Between July and October 1847, paper after paper reprinted various articles from the Star and elsewhere.

The other contributors have been sending in their work, too, but the publication date is still up in the air, as far as I know.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Politics and the Donner Party

I hate politics, so it's a relief to get the election over with. What's really interesting is how the Donner Party kept popping up in the commentary.

This is nothing new; for instance, in 1998, one commentator wrote, "... even the staunchest defenders of the GOP are wondering how much progress there is in moving from the Republican to the 'Donner' party," and in 2005 another wrote, "Howard Dean is taking over the bloody reins from Terry McAuliffe, who had a hand in turning the Democrats into politics' answer to the Donner-party crossing." The 2008 election, however, has sprouted a bumper crop.

In February 2007, Barack Obama announced his candidacy at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, a building with several ties to an earlier president from the same state. Chicago Tribune writer Patrick T. Reardon described the senator as "wrapping himself in the mystique of Abraham Lincoln," and noted that the site has "less attractive" associations. Among other examples, he cited a nearby plaque honoring the departure of the ill-fated Donner Party in April 1846.

In March 2008, columnist Timothy Egan's Op-Ed article in the New York Times, "Donner Party Democrats," presented an extended analogy of the political process, ending, "These modern Dems press on, tearing into each other, crawling to get to the summit, still five months away... They are now ravenous with hunger, and it is starting to show. "

And then there was Jay Leno's quip on October 31: "It was on this day in 1846 that the Donner Party left for California. You know what happened there. Everything went wrong. They wound up eating each other.
Kind of like what's going on in the McCain campaign right now." (Ooops, Jay-- it was the same day in 1846 that the Donner Party got bogged down in the snow -- which, under the circumstances, is an even more apt analogy.)

Obviously, this is an equal opportunity analogy -- it can describe Democrats and Republicans -- but the people at this site have come up with the most unusual, if not tasteful, spin on the Donner Party and politics.