Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party

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As the water molecules evaporate to the surface or flow to a new location, the scent is also moved to that location and released. Burrowing animals, such as ground squirrels, as well as some insects, create channels in the soil that also promote the release of scent to the surface. The slope of the terrain and locations where the rodent holes open to the surface will move the scent.

Other environmental conditions that break down scent are sunlight, heat, and wind.

Donner, George and Jacob

As expected, intact, undisturbed graves have more scent available for the dogs than disturbed, scattered graves or bones that have been exposed on the surface. If the bodies or parts were moved to different locations, snow and rain runoff would carry the decomposing scent to many additional locations. Bones and other remains might be moved by animal scavengers, and each new location would contain scent.


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Small bone fragments that had been scattered or buried, and remains that were charred, cooked, and then discarded in the cooking hearth, would all contain scent detectable by the human remains detection dogs and would leave a diffuse pattern. How the Dogs are Trained Historical Human Remains Detection dogs are imprinted and trained on the soils from human graves, human bones and teeth, artifacts related to graves, and on historical cemeteries. The imprinting scent is paired with positive rewards and experiences. Dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarded in a positive way and will avoid negative experiences.

A solid foundation is very important to detections dogs. Starting with a young dog helps ensure you are molding the dog to be solely focused on a specific task.


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Dogs with minimal early training will develop their own agenda and habits, which may be counterproductive for detection work. Detection dogs have been trained to give a specific trained response to the scents on which they have been imprinted.

Therefore, with training, a dog can search an area of interest and alert on locations containing human remains scents and provide vital information on historical archeological sites that may not be available using traditional methods. Time was critical, as it had already started to snow as they attempted to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains near modern day Truckee, California.

The 21 immigrants that stayed with George Donner soon became trapped and were doomed to spend the winter of — in their makeshift shelters at Alder Creek. Only half survived. Of the eleven that died, three died trying to cross the mountains to get to safety, and eight died at Alder Creek.

The second relief party, lead by James F. The party also reported that other graves were seen, but that nothing remained in them but a few fragments of half-consumed limbs. Nothing is known about the burial of Elizabeth Donner, Jacob's wife. One witness states that General S.

Unfortunate emigrants : narratives of the Donner Party

Another member of that same party said that no burials were ordered at the Alder Creek camp. Finally, no records have been found describing any burials of the remaining bodies or disarticulated remains after their snow-graves had melted. Where Are the Remains? Conflicting accounts exist regarding the burial of George Donner, and several descriptions of the camp describing the bodies being mutilated, disarticulated, and scattered in every direction have been documented.

The remains of eight cannibalized bodies buried in the snow or left at the hearth would have easily been scattered by animal scavengers. The remains could have easily been dragged off long distances, or remained in place to decompose, and over time would be covered with plant growth and soil. The taphonomy of human remains dictates how the scent is preserved for the dogs to locate. If bones decompose with the soft tissues, as in a typical grave, the scent available to the dogs will be much more localized and stronger compared to bones that have been scattered after the tissue has decomposed or removed by carnivores.

The date was chosen early in the year to take advantage of cooler temperatures and the moisture in the ground. The daytime weather consisted of overcast and cloudy skies, with temperatures in the mids. The soil was moist from recent rains. Assignments were made to cover several locations. It was important to search sites that were historically thought to be camp locations.

Areas covered were the Donner stump, Donner tree, the open field behind the Donner tree, and the large meadow. The dogs started to show interest only when they got to the far southeast end of the open field, where in a bone fragment with cut marks had been located. The areas were double-checked by having a second dog work the same area.

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The interest and alerts the dogs showed were inconsistent with behaviors seen when searching an organized, historical Christian-style cemetery, but were consistent with defused scent or scattered remains. Although the dogs did pinpoint several different locations, they did not have the pattern of commitment to exact locations as seen with whole, intact graves. This time, two additional dogs were added that had not worked the site previously.


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All the dogs indicated the same locations, but because of the heat and drier conditions, they had difficulty in getting scent during the heat of the day. Searches in the cooler morning hours were more effective. Ambient air temperature at P. Not all alert locations were excavated, as this would have taken time away from the main area of interest to the archaeologists.

Of particular interest to the dogs was an area identified as the hearth.

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