INSIDE Chico State
0 April 26, 2001
Volume 31 Number 15
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The Donner Party:

Donald Grayson
Donald Grayson

(Photo by Barbara Alderson)

Sex and Death on the Western Emigrant Trail

The story of the Donner Party, stranded and dying in the Sierra Nevada winter of 1846 - 47, leaves an indelible image of the hardships of the pioneers¹ journey to California. To Donald Grayson, zooarchaeologist, this tragedy is also the predictable story of human biology.

Grayson, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington, studies the interaction between humans and animals. His research interests include the Pleistocene (Ice Age) Native Americans of the Great Basin, the Donner Party, and the Neanderthals in Europe. Grayson presented his research to the CSU, Chico community April 2 - 7 as part of the Visiting Scholars Program.

The Donner Party, 53 males and 34 females, took the unproven Hastings shortcut through Utah, and became stranded by October snows near present-day Donner Lake. Five people died on the trail, and 35 died in the Sierra Nevada encampments. Grayson asked, "If the party consisted of 53 males (boys and men) and 34 females (girls and women) ranging in age from 1 to 65 and traveling in family groups of vastly differently sizes, can we predict who should have died and who should have lived just from our knowledge of human biology? That is, can we learn anything from treating this horrible experience, and it was a horrible experience, not as history but as biology?"

In human populations, mortality varies by gender, age, and the size of social networks. Males die younger and more often than females across age categories, and "males die at greater rates of everything you can think of except for things from which males can¹t die," said Grayson. Under conditions of famine and cold, males, compared to females, are biologically disadvantaged by their greater size, higher basal metabolisms, and higher core body temperatures, which require greater energy to combat cold. Females, because they have more subcutaneous fat, are better insulated against the cold. In times of famine, if resources are shared, males are less likely to meet their energy needs than females.

Mortality rates are normally higher for people aged 1 to 5, after which they drop. "They begin climbing again at about the age of 35 and then climb higher and higher and higher until everybody, in fact, is dead," said Grayson. People with larger social networks‹family and friends‹live longer. Married men live longer than single men. It is reversed for married and single women, explained Grayson.

Grayson applied these biological predictors to the Donner Party. "Human biology leads us to expect a lot of things," said Grayson. "It leads us to expect, first thing, that deaths should have fallen most heavily on the youngest and the oldest. It also leads us to expect that deaths should have fallen most heavily on the males, and it also leads us to expect that males probably die before females die, that is, that they die sooner than females. In fact, all that came to pass." The five trail deaths were males, as were the first 14 Sierra Nevada deaths.

Twice as many males died as females, and 60 percent of children aged 1 to 4 died. Older people died early on, with the exception of George Donner, 62, who cut his hand with a chisel trying to fix his wagon. He lasted longer only because his wife, Tamsin, 45, nursed him and refused to leave with rescue parties without him. George died on March 26, 1947; Tamsin died the next day. "George Donner lived as long as he did only because Tamsin Donner took care of him," said Grayson.

Men cut wood, built roads, fixed wagons, found lost cattle. "Because they performed these tasks, it was these prime-age males whose energy stores were more rapidly and thoroughly depleted. By the time they got stuck in the Sierra Nevada, these men were energetically spent and died quickly," said Grayson.

Grayson also examined the Mormon handcart experience. While most handcart companies made it to Salt Lake City without problems, two companies were stuck in the snow for several weeks. Grayson was able to chart mortality rates according to human biology. "What these groups teach us is what happens when human groups are largely stripped of their cultural means of defense against cold and famine while at the same time retaining the ability to share resources within family groups," he said. Grayson¹s research supports his theory that human biology can explain virtually every aspect of who lives and who dies in these settings.

Barbara Alderson
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