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Possible Donner items seen

Museum shows artifacts dug up by a tree cutter

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PAYSON — A museum is displaying livestock bells, an ox yoke and other items it says was recovered from the doomed Donner Party that got trapped in California's Sierra Nevada mountains by the harsh winter of 1846.

The collection at the Peteetneet Museum includes bits for draft horses, iron hooks, a metal pulley and three oxen shoes.

The artifacts have never been examined by Donner Party experts or historians, and the man who found them died without leaving a record of the discovery.

Utah historian Robert Carter said the authenticity of the items is in doubt and could come from pioneers other than the Donner Party.

"Thousands and thousands of people came through" the Sierra Nevada mountains near Truckee, Calif., he said. "There is a chance this stuff is from the Donner Party, but it is an outside chance."

Dale and Gloria Barnett donated the items recovered by his great-uncle, John Patten, who sold Christmas trees. Patten and his crews cut up to 40,000 Christmas trees a year and went to Donner Pass in the 1930s to get a large tree for San Francisco.

"When he cut it down he could see there was a bulge in the ground underneath," Gloria Barnett said. "It looked like something was buried there, and so he started digging and these are the things that he found. He knew they were from the Donner Party because of the age and because they were in the Donner Pass."

It wasn't known if John Patten's find was from the same area as a campfire pit that archaeologists announced last month could have been used by Donner Party.

The pit was uncovered using ground-penetrating radar in the area of Alder Creek near Truckee, Calif. Scientists also found a bone fragment of a large mammal that bears the butcher marks of an ax. If human, it would provide the first physical evidence of cannibalism linked to the Donner Party.

Patten, who died at 96 in the mid-1980s, never wrote down the story of the artifacts and didn't inform relatives of his find until he moved into a rest home.

"He knew that we were interested in collecting things and so he left these things to us," Gloria Barnett said. "He said 'These are from the Donner Party' and told us how they came to get them. He lived in a trailer and he just had all this stuff outside in boxes being rained on. He tried to cover it up with tarps."

With Patten's death, the exact location of his excavation will likely never be known, she said.

Nearly half of the 81 men, women and children of the Donner Party died of exposure and starvation.