Monday, May 27, 2013

John Snyder's grave

As Donner buffs will recall, John Snyder was the Graves family's teamster who got into a fight with James F. Reed and was stabbed to death. Snyder was buried near where he fell and Reed was banished from the train. There has been some confusion about where the fight and burial took place, but trail historians are agreed that it happened at Iron Point, Nevada.

John Grebenkemper is involved with the Institute for Canine Forensics, which uses Historic Human Remains Detection (HHRD) dogs specially trained to search for the scent of decomposed human remains, which can remain in the soil for centuries. It sounds incredible, but the dogs have had had some remarkable successes and are being used by "cultural resource management firms, archaeologists, American Indian tribes, construction companies, federal, state and local agencies, cemetery preservation foundations and families looking to locate lost family cemeteries," according to the ICF website. Back in 2003 or so, my friend Ken Dunn told me about these animals, I told the archaeologists, and the upshot was that a team of dogs investigated the Alder Creek site before the July 2004 dig -- you can watch a video about it here.

 In 2011 John and ICF founder Adela Morris turned to another Donner Party site, John Snyder's grave at Iron Point. To make a long story short, their border collies Kayle and Rhea alerted to human remains scent in one specific area only, in the road at the bottom of the "steep sandy hill." The three of us wrote up the results in "Locating the Grave of John Snyder: Field Research on a Donner Party Death" (Overland Journal 30:3 (Fall 2012), p. 92-108). John and I did the history, and John and Adela wrote about the dogs. We've gotten some nice feedback and it looks like John and Kayle are going to be busy this summer.

However, it also looks like nobody is going to try to dig John up any time soon. As I understand it -- and I hope somebody will let me know if I'm wrong -- archaeological laws prohibit disturbing known or suspected graves without good cause. If the site is threatened by construction, for instance, if remains have been exposed by erosion, or if they turn up as part of a larger dig, that's one thing, but digging up a possible grave just to see if it really is a grave (mere curiosity, in other words) is a different story. On public land, at least, you'd be extremely unlikely to get permission, and there are restrictions with regard private property, too. But never fear, there are other possible Donner Party sites to investigate...