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.

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