Reports from Donner Party Buffs

Raoul Delmare’s Visit to Alcove Springs

In 1997, Raoul L. Delmare returned to his family home in Marysville, Kansas, and visited Alcove Springs with his aunt.

My aunt ... took me driving, one lovely afternoon . She knew that I would be interested and pleased that Alcove Spring had been re-opened to the public. So, we drove out there. You see, my mother’s father, Mr. Roy Lewis, Grandpa, had always spoken of Alcove Spring . As a small child, I listened many times to the story of how the names of members of the Donner Party were carved in the rocks , along with the date of their visit there.

Alcove Spring is half way between Marysville and Blue Rapids. Due to a series of vandalisms it had been closed for perhaps 25 years. My visit there was magical . It was a pleasant drive, several miles on a country road, through mostly pasture land. Or, at least that’s how I remember it. There were some fields of grain crops. But there were also many places that sometimes get flooded by one of the creeks, or that the Big Blue River might back up into, when things really get wet. These places are quiet, and darkly shaded, even on a sunny afternoon. These places remain small pieces of the way the land has always been. The land is sometimes thin, in these creek bottoms, with its boulder - bones clearly visible. The gnarled and twisted trees may include an occasional sport, some species of fruit or nut, some descendant of someone’s homestead plantings. But by and large, these are the small woods, just as they have been, since the end of the most recent Ice Age.

We pulled off the gravel road onto a small gravel parking area. We got out and we read the marker from The Daughters Of The American Revolution. Then we took the trail over the hill.

My aunt knew just where to lead. I was surprised at how athletic she was. We climbed up and down the trail. She reminded me that Grandpa had also spoken of seeing wagon wheel tracks cut into the land since this was a spur of the Oregon Trail.

We arrived at the Spring. It is so tiny . As a science teacher / perpetual student, I recognized that the spring had formed a small cave many thousands of years ago, which had collapsed. The water flows out of a cool, green hollow about 10 or 12 feet deep. The trough - shaped hollow is the remains of a small ancient cave and is closed at the end where the water emerges. As I walked over the top of the closed end of the hollow and down the far bank, I looked at the old boulders with their coverings of lichens and mosses. I wished that I could have could have been here in my grandfather’s time when the names were still visible.

There was a small wooden sign saying Please Do Not Walk On Rocks With Names. But there were no carvings visible.

Then I saw it. The name and the date were so clear! The lichens and mosses grow so slowly, and had grown around it so nicely, that this had to be what it indicated it was. My aunt explained that the man who had carved his name there was the other name in the Donner - Reed Party. A portion of the date had eroded away, but clearly the month, the date and the year had been inscribed by the hand of Mr. Reed.
On the return walk, I took a side path. My aunt called to me from the main trail and said that the top of that rise, the one on which I was standing, was where Grandpa had said he’d seen the wagon track cut into the land.

I called back and down to her and said that I could plainly see where the trees had left room for what looked like a very old trail. I said that it would probably be easy to follow from a low flying airplane. Then I walked down the other side of the small rise.

There, almost back on the main footpath, cut into the easy slope by iron - shod wheels, was the wagon trail. It was only visible for perhaps ten feet. But it was plainly cut into the flinty soil. The soil was more rock than dirt, almost like concrete, which is why it was there at all. At that one point, following the flow of the land in a heavy wagon, all traffic would have to squeeze through the same bottle - neck. It would be easy to turn a wagon, once on top of the rise. But right there, it was one lane only. Cut down about four inches into the Kansas soil and rock were the sharp sides of a trail that was exactly a wagon width wide. I knelt down and gently put my hand to the side of one of those miniature cliffs. I did not disturb a single pebble or grain of rock or bit of velvet moss. I left with a deepening sense of wonder.

It was magical. ...

If you ever have the time , Marysville has more history - in - its - original - condition than just perhaps anywhere you’ve ever seen. It was mentioned in the writings of Samuel Langhorne Clemens and Laura Ingalls Wilder. And just a handful of miles up the road is Home Kansas.

Really, there is no place like Home. Check your map.

You’ll find it there.

Arlene Amodei’s Metal Detection at the Donner Family Camp

Arlene Amodei and her son assisted Dr. Hardesty in the 1990 excavation of the Donner Family Camp near Alder Creek.

My interest in the Donner story is of long duration. I live in Sierraville and worked with Dr. Hardesty on the family camp excavations. Maybe some day we will find the true sites and gain more insight into that winter. ...

As to the 1990 dig. Dr. Hardesty speaks of using metal detectors to help. At the beginning of the dig I begged to be allowed to use my detector to help. Susan Lindstrom,(field director and well known archeologist) and Carrie Smith (archeologist for Tahoe National at Truckee), were anxious to try me out. Hardesty was not keen on the idea—not scientific enough I guess, but he finally said yes, but with qualifications. My son, Buck, and I could detect, but we always had a student with us. Initially, we could not dig, only flag targets. The students did the digging. Eventually another detectorist, Mick Sterling was allowed to join us. It was Mick who made all the significant finds at the site. Mick flagged the first musket balls and the two coins. I spent most of my time spotting for the students as they dug up Mick’s flags. Mick and I also wrote an article for Treasure magazine on the experience. Anyway, the upshot of the story is that I believe it was the first time detectors were used in an official dig, at least on the west coast. The experiment was so successful that in 1993 Dick Markley (Tahoe Nat’l Forest archeologist) advertised for volunteers, both from the FS and amateurs. He had to turn away many, but he got FS personnel from all over the west who wanted to learn how to work with metal detectors.

Needless to say, Mick, Buck, and I were right there, one on each of the three teams who scoured the Alder Creek site from west of Hwy 89 to the Prosser Reservoir water edge. As Dr. Hardesty states in his book, no new finds. However it certainly was a break through in the use of non professionals to help with the uncovering of history.

The FS did a great job with their video On the Trail of Tragedy. If you’ve walked Alder, you know about that penninsula that juts out from the Prosser campground hill, right? Well, I believe that [the Forty-Niner diarist] Markles’ comments (quoted by others) about coming to the valley where the Donners camped, going another mile until they were opposite the camp which was in a northerly direction,then going 6 more miles to the lake camps make perfect sense if first of all he is on the generally accepted trail-along what used to be hwy 89. However, once he enters Alder Valley from the north, he is opposite the camps all the way, at least as they are now marked, so why go another mile to half mile to get opposite them?

I think that penninsula was in the way, and he had to get further along the trail in order to look back and see the camps which were in a northerly direction (against the Prosser campground hill). Also, there is some evidence (according to Dan Johnson) to suggest that the George Donner tent was next to a hill, that allowed a kind of tree house to be built above the tent part. There is also no mention by the rescue parties of that camp being wet. Jacobs was reported as being flooded. Also all the rescue parties came to Jacob’s camp first. This leads me to believe that it was on or near the valley floor and George was higher up. The bad part of all this is that the old Hobart RR crosses just behind that penninsula and could easily have destroyed any signs even before the ground was cleared for the reservoir. I’ll have to put the metal detector to the area one of these days when the water is low.

Bill McDonnell’s Visit to Donner Memorial State Park

In 1997, Bill McDonnell of Philadelphia visited the Donner Memorial State Park. At the base of the monument, he found some flowers and a note, visible in the photograph of the monument, below.

Photograph of Flowers and Note

Photograph of Donner Monument

The note read:

Aug - 1997

Dear Grandpa George and Grandma Tamsen,

I am your 6th generation grand daughter. This is the 1st time I have been here and its beautiful. I give you lots of credit to come this way. My husband Robert and I are naming our 1st daughter after you, Grandma Tamsen. Your courage and strength has been an inspiration to us all.


Stephanie and Robert Thurman and entire family

If anyone knows the Thurman family, please let them know I posted their note here. Thanks to Bill for the photos and the transcription of the note.