Among the saddest episodes in the frontier history of the
West is the narrative of the Reed and Donner party of ninety
persons, which, in attempting to cross the Sierra Nevada
Mountains late in the fall of 1846, were overwhelmed in one of
the great storms peculiar to that section, and one half of them
perished. With this party were a family of emigrants from
Sparland, whose history we propose briefly to follow. From time
to time vague and unreliable accounts have appeared, made up
from rumors and "facts" supplied by the vivid imagination of
enthusiastic writers, but until the past year no authentic
history has ever been given. The experience was too dreadful,
the recollection of their sufferings too horrible to be dwelt
upon, and no persuasions could induce the survivors to recall
their superhuman sufferings. So much had been and was being told
that was false, and so little was really known upon the subject,
that for the benefit of correct history the survivors were at
last persuaded to unseal their lips, and give to the world their
awful experience. To C. F. McGlashan, of Truckee, California, is
due the credit of bringing this about, and to whom we are
indebted for the particulars which follow:
Franklin Ward Graves was a Vermonter by birth, who came to Putnam County in 1831, where a couple of half brothers resided. He spent some time looking up a location, and finally purchased a claim of the Indians where Sparland stands, erected a cabin near the present residence Dr. Tesmer, and moved into it probably in the fall of 1831. During the Black Hawk war he enlisted and served as Drum Major in Strawn's Regiment of Infantry, his family remaining most of the time in their cabin. Mr. Graves was a genuine backwoodsman and pioneer, who found his most congenial associations on the frontier. He despised the trammels of civilization, and loved the unshackled freedom of the red man. In summer he went shoeless, hatless and coatless, his long coarse hair his only protection. He was a man of large frame, good natured, hospitable and ever ready to do a kindness. Mrs. Graves was tall and thin, her good natured sunburnt face wreathed in smiles. She wore a blue calico frock, an old sunbonnet and a faded shawl, on dress occasions, and like her liege lord, went barefoot. It was her custom to cross the river daily in fair weather, laden with honey, wild fruits or soft soap, and dispose of them to the settlers of Columbia (Lacon). There was not a woman in the place but knew her and loved to see her kind face make its appearance. She would cross the river in .the coldest days and stormiest weather in her little canoe to convey some remedy to the sick or do a kindness. Mr. Graves was more hunter than farmer, but managed to secure a large tract of land and open up a considerable farm upon the bottoms. For some time before leaving he grew restless and longed to explore the then little known Pacific States, and sought a purchaser for his property, finding one in Geo. Sparr, to whom he sold 500 acres of land for $1,500. This was in the spring of 1846, and immediate preparations were made for departure. His family at the time consisted of himself and wife, and nine children as follows : Mary A., William C., Eleanor, Lovina, Nancy, Jonathan, Franklin Ward Jr., Elizabeth, and Sarah. The latter was engaged to Jay Fosdick, and did not design accompanying her parents, but when the time for departure drew nigh her heart failed, and she decided to go. Her lover chose to accompany his wife, and they were married a few days before starting. Along with them went John, Snyder, a tall, good looking young man afterward engaged to Mary.
Mr. Graves had an extensive outfit, and was equipped in the best
possible manner for the journey. He had three teams drawn by
oxen, and took along with him several head of cattle and cows
besides. The payment for his land was mostly in silver half
dollars, and for their safe conveyance he put heavy cleats in
the corners of his wagon box, bored holes from below with an
auger sufficiently large for the purpose, and then deposited
them. They journeyed leisurely to New Boston, where they crossed
the Mississippi, traversed Iowa and reached Independence.
There was a large emigration that year to Oregon and Salt Lake. One hundred miles west of Fort Bridger the Graves party overtook a company numbering one hundred or more, which from the leadership was known as the Reed and Donner party. Previous to this a man named William Trimble, traveling with their party, was murdered by the Pawnees, and his stock stolen. His family turned back. At Fort Laramie they celebrated the Fourth of July with appropriate exercises. Occasionally they were pestered by thieving Indians, but not often.
Once a party of friendly Sioux offered to purchase Mary Graves, and failing in this one of them laid hold of her bridle as though disposed to carry her off by force, but a rifle pointed in that direction caused the fellow to quickly drop the bridle. At Fort Bridger there was talk concerning a newly discovered route across the mountains, known as Hasting's Cut-off, said to be 300 miles shorter than the usual route by Fort Hall. A large number took the old route and got through safely, but the Donner party of ninety persons, at the earnest solicitation of Bridger and Vasquez, who had charge of the fort and were personally interested in the new route, concluded to adopt it. To these men is due all the disasters that followed.
The party traveled several days without difficulty, crossing Weber River at the head of the well known canyon. Here a long delay occurred until men could be sent forward to ascertain a proper route, when they concluded to take across the mountains in a more direct line to Salt Lake. Innumerable difficulties were experienced, and three weeks of precious time was spent making roads. When the party arrived at the outlet of the stream down which they had followed, it was impossible to proceed further, and the wagons had to be hoisted to the top of a steep bluff and then lowered upon the other side. The dreadful difficulties can never be described. Instead of reaching Salt Lake in a week they were thirty days in making the trip.
The terrible delays made possible the imminent dangers that awaited them on the Sierra Nevadas. From where they stood the great lake and the plains surrounding it were seen, and they hailed it with joy and gratitude as the end of their difficulties, looking forward to a prosperous and peaceful journey over pleasant roads for the remainder of their trip. Alas! there were trials in the way compared with which their recent struggles were insignificant. But for the fatal delay caused by the Hasting’s Cut-Off all would have been well, but now the summer was passed, themselves and teams well nigh exhausted, and their stock of provisions nearly consumed.
The valley of Salt Lake contained little of gladness for the Donner party. At this time the Mormon emigration had not arrived, and all was a vast solitude. It was the 3d of September when they arrived, but warned by the lateness of the season, stopped but a single day. Here one of the party died, a poor consumptive named Halloran, and was buried beside the road in a bed of almost pure salt. He left about $1,500 in cash, which he gave to Captain Donner. On the 6th of September they reached a valley called Twenty Wells, and laid in a supply of pure water, knowing they had a fifty mile desert to cross. It was a vast alkaline plain destitute of either water or grass, and instead of fifty was seventy- four miles wide. Long before crossing its wide expanse their supplies gave out, and after being on the plain two weary nights and one day, James Reed volunteered to ride ahead and, if possible, discover water. It was twenty miles away, and during his absence his eighteen oxen, maddened by thirst, wandered off in the desert and were never seen again, leaving himself and family of nine persons destitute in the midst of a desert eight hundred miles from California. When he returned the awful truth was disclosed, and the full horror of the situation dawned upon him.
But to remain here was death, and taking his child in his arms all started to walk the twenty miles. The sufferings of that dreadful night can never be told. Some of the children became so worn out and exhausted for want of water that they laid down on the bleak sands and would never have risen had they not been forced forward. During the night they were intensely frightened by the rush of a wild animal, that proved to be one of his lost steers maddened with thirst. Finally it dashed off in the darkness and was seen no more. At last they reached the welcome spring and found relief. For eight days they camped here all hands seeking Reed's cattle.
The outlook for him was gloomy enough. An ox and a cow was all he had left, but Mr. Graves and a Mr. Breen each lent him an ox, and hitching them all together and abandoning everything that could not be loaded on one wagon they started once more.
While here an inventory of provisions was carefully taken, and the startling discovery made that all their supplies would not take them through. And to render their situation still more terrible a storm came on and the hill tops were covered with snow. A council was held and it was decided to send two of the party forward to seek relief, and a couple of brave volunteers were found in the persons of William McCutchen and C. T. Stanton, the latter from Chicago.
Between Mary Graves and John Snyder, the young man who
accompanied the family, a love affair had grown up, which
ripened into a marriage engagement. He was about twenty-three
years of age, of manly carriage, erect, tall and muscular. On
the march and in camp, through hardship, toil and danger, he was
the life of the party, never cast down and never despondent. His
intended was about nineteen years old. She was tall and slender,
of graceful form and build, and had been better educated than
most persons in her station, having taught school before leaving
Of James Reed mention has before been made, and the deplorable incident we have to relate concerning these men shows how sudden passion makes deadly foes of warmest friends.
The train had reached Gravelly Ford on the Humboldt. Already they were beginning to eagerly scan the Western plains in hopes of relief from Sutter's Fort. Occasionally a wagon would need repairing or there would be a brief halt to recruit the jaded cattle. The Indians were troublesome and had stolen two of Mr. Graves oxen and one of the horses.
In traveling the party observed this rule, the team that led one day was obliged to take the rear position in the next, this system of alternating allowing each one to lead the train. On the 5th of October Franklin Graves was ahead, Jay Fosdick second, John Snyder third, and the team of J. F. Reed came fourth. Milton Elliott drove Reed's team. Arrived at a steep sandy hill they were obliged to double up, that is, hitch several yoke to each wagon. There was some difficulty in doing this, and Elliott and Snyder exchanged hot words, the origin of which is unknown. Snyder being nettled at some remark of Elliott's, declared his team could pull up alone, and made use of very bad language. It is probable the teams collided, but of this nothing now can be known. All parties agree that Snyder was greatly enraged, and was beating his team over their heads with the heavy end of his whip when Reed, who had been hunting, arrived and remonstrated with Snyder for beating his cattle, offering his own team to assist.
Snyder refused the proffered aid, and used very abusive language toward both Reed and Elliott. Reed attempted to calm the enraged man, but it only added fuel to the fire. Both were men of fiery, passionate dispositions, and angry words multiplied rapidly. When Reed saw that trouble was inevitable, he said something about waiting until they got up the hill and then settling it, but Snyder construed it into a threat and replied, "We will settle it now," at the same time striking Reed a heavy blow with the but end of his heavy whip-stock. This was followed by a second and third, each one cutting through the scalp, from which the blood flowed in streams. Mrs. Reed believing her husband was being murdered, ran between the parties, and the blow descended on her own head and shoulders. Again the whip was raised, when Reed, blinded by the blood and dazed by the shock of the fierce blows, rapidly drew his knife and struck Snyder in the breast, penetrating the lung. He staggered and fell into the arms of W. C. Graves, who laid him on the ground, his only utterance being, "I am a dead man." Reed's wife and daughters gathered about him and began to stanch the blood that flowed from his wounds, but he pushed them aside and went to the assistance of the dying man.
Snyder's death fell like a thunderbolt on the party, who immediately went into camp. Reed felt he had only acted in self-defense and in the protection of a wife he adored, nevertheless it was evident trouble was brewing among Snyder's friends that boded no good to him. The Reed family were in a bad situation. At the commencement they had the best turnout or outfit in the party. He had a fine horse, his daughter had a pony, on which she often rode beside her father, and was looked upon as "aristocratic." Mrs. Reed was so unmanned with grief and remorse that she could do nothing, and the wounded man came to his twelve-year old daughter to have the cuts dressed. They were wide and deep, and years after, when he lay in death, a gently stirring wind blew his gray locks aside, disclosing the ugly scars. A council was held to decide his fate, and they said he must die. John Snyder had been an unusual favorite, and they felt that nothing else could atone for his loss; but when they looked on his weeping wife and children, who would be left without a protector, they relented, and said he might live, but should be banished from the party.
When this was communicated to Reed he refused to comply. He had
only obeyed the dictate of self protection and would not accede
to an unjust punishment. Then came the wife's pleadings, and
long and earnestly she urged him to go. If he remained he would
be sacrificed to the deadly enmity of Snyder's friends, and if
he went forward he might reach the settlements and return with
provisions already needed in camp. Even if permitted to stay he
might be compelled to see those he loved so dearly perish of
starvation. The wife's counsels prevailed and sorrowfully he
prepared to go, first exacting a solemn promise from the company
that they would care for his family. It was their purpose to
turn him adrift without food or the means of procuring any, but
their intentions were frustrated by his faithful daughter who
smuggled to him his gun and ammunition and a few crackers. A man
named Herron also chose to accompany him. Sad and bitter was the
parting, for each felt a presentiment they were never to meet
again and the unhappy man sorrowfully departed.
Starvation now stared the emigrants in the face. Their provisions were nearly exhausted, the oxen were poor and scarcely able to drag the wagons. On the 12th of October they reached the sink of the Humboldt. Here the cowardly Indians ran off twenty-one head of cattle, and they were never recovered. All who were able had to walk, and many carried little children. Some had lost their entire stock and had to carry whatever of personal effects they had. The men, as a rule, became exhausted much sooner than the women. Only the sick, the little children and the utterly exhausted were allowed to ride.
On the 9th a death occurred. It was an old German named Hardcoop, traveling with a person by the name of Keseberg. He was nearly three score years; was sick, feeble and helpless, yet he was compelled to walk with the rest. He walked till his feet actually burst, walked until he sank exhausted, and then as the train pitilessly left him, tried to walk again. It was terrible to think of, for well he knew this abandonment meant death by exposure and starvation in its most dreadful form. Keseberg made no attempt to return and find the old man, and owing to the overwhelming dangers that now threatened the company they could not wait.
A few days later another tragedy occurred. This time it was a man named Wolfinger, supposed to be wealthy. He and Keseberg were walking in the rear, and when the latter came into camp he was alone. Several went back to search for the missing man but he was never found, and the supposition was strong that Keseberg had murdered him for his money.
On the 19th of October T. C. Stanton returned with five mules laden with flour and beef sent to their aid by Captain Butter. The welcome supply cheered all hands, and but for this the whole party would have perished. Here a great mistake was committed.
Instead of pushing forward as they should have done they laid by four days to rest their cattle before ascending the mountains. It was a fatal delay. Here, too, an accident occurred, costing one man his life and leaving a widow and two fatherless infants.
The clouds now began to wear an ominous appearance, and everything indicated winter was at hand. It was a month earlier than usual, but the mountains were covered with snow, and at Prosser Creek it was eight inches deep. The hapless emigrants struggled on and made desultory efforts to cross the barriers, but baffled, wearied and disheartened they turned back to the foot of the lake. Another determined effort was made. The wagons were left behind, the horses and mules packed with provisions, and all day long the men and animals floundered in the snow, breaking paths and forcing their way forward, but at nightfall an abrupt precipice was reached that could not be passed, and sorrowfully they re- turned. The next day it was decided to kill the stock, pack the meat, and cross the summit on foot, but to many the opportunity never came. That night snow began to fall at the Lake, coming down in large steady masses. All understood it meant death. The storm continued four days, and the cattle left to themselves strayed off and were lost in the drifts. The mules loaned by Captain Sutter were lost and never returned. Some of the cattle were afterward found and slaughtered; a Mrs. Breen, whose husband was an invalid, personally doing this, and storing up the meat for her family. Mrs. Reed had no cattle to kill and Mr. Graves gave her two from his store.
It was now apparent that the party must remain here during the winter, and preparations, such as were needed, were made. Mr. Graves built a cabin close by Donner Creek, and others were from one to six miles distant.
All knew that death speedily waited the company unless the mountain could be crossed and relief obtained from the other side, and it was resolved soon as possible the strongest and ablest should set forth. Accordingly, on the 15th of November, fifteen persons set out, among them being Mr. Graves, his two daughters, Mary A. and Sarah, along with her husband, Jay Fosdick. All day they toiled but did not get more than a mile from the cabins and at midnight they returned. The failure had a very depressing effect and many never rallied or afterward made an effort at release. On the 19th they killed a bear which gave a welcome supply of provisions, but what was that in a company of 81 persons. Things indeed looked dark. They could count on their fingers when their provisions would be exhausted, yet unless it came from themselves no relief could be expected.
Day after day with aching hearts and throbbing brows they gazed into each others faces in blank despair. Who would go out and seek a grave that those left behind might live. Who would be the forlorn hope of the perishing emigrants.
Once, a party led by Patrick Breen, tried to reach the summit and again the same parties, accompanied by Mrs. Reed and family and others, made an unsuccessful attempt. Still another party of men and women forced their way to Summit Valley but were forced to return.
About this time August Spitzer, weakened by long fasting, fell down never to rise again and was buried in the snow.
Finally a forlorn hope was organized and seventeen names enrolled, though two did not go, Mr. Graves making snow shoes for the party without which they could not travel. It was certain death to remain, it could be no worse to go.
Who comprised this party? Mothers whose babes would starve unless they went; fathers, whose wives and children would perish if the fathers did not go; children, whose parents could not survive unless the children, by leaving, increased the parents' share of food. It was indeed a forlorn hope. C. F. Stanton, as noble a man as ever lived, he who had returned laden with supplies furnished by Captain Sutter, was the first to volunteer. He said: "I will bring help to those famishing people or lay down my life." Franklin Ward Graves was the next. He was one of the noblest men that ever lived, and worthy of a monument. Of his nine children the youngest was but a babe. Generously had he parted with his cattle that others might live, dividing equally with those who had no food, when his own family was starving. Mary Graves and her sister Sarah resolved to accompany their father, and Jay Fosdick resolved to share with his wife, the perils of the way. Mrs. Foster and Mrs. Pike left their babes with their mother, she telling them what they ate would keep their little ones from starving.
Who can imagine the anguish with which Mrs. Pike bid her little Naomi, but two years old, and her nursing babe Catherine, farewell.
What bitter tears were shed by Mrs. Foster, when she bid her baby boy good bye. They knew it not, but it was a long, long farewell.
Among others who went was an Irishman named Patrick Dolan from Keokuk. He had a supply of meat stored away, and generously gave it to Mrs. Reed, going voluntarily into the wilderness to starve and die. Oh, the horror of the occasion, -- the heroism of the brave men and women in the party. As an appreciation of his services, Mrs. Reed gave him a gold watch and a Masonic emblem belonging to her husband and bade him keep them. Months after, when the snows left the valleys, they were found by the Indians and carried to Captain Sutter's fort and reclaimed by the owners.
The party took with them six days rations, if a piece of tough shriveled beef the size of one's two fingers, three times a day, could be called such. This, with a little coffee and loaf sugar, was all. They dare not take more from the dear ones at the cabins. They had matches, a hatchet, one gun, and a blanket for each. The first day they made four miles, pressing resolutely forward, without so much as daring to look back to the dear ones whose lives depended upon the horrible venture.
They camped in full view of the cabins, which seemed harder to the aching hearts of the poor mothers than the parting. The snow was from twelve to sixty feet deep. The next day they made six miles, and getting a few boughs kindled a fire on the snow, boiled a little coffee and ate their pitiful allowance of beef. The third day they walked four miles, dragging themselves wearily along, silently and with downcast eyes. No one spoke except when absolutely necessary, but on they struggled, sometimes at long distances from each other.
On the fifth day Stanton died. He had gone snow blind, and piteously besought them to lead him, but with food gone, hope lost, and only the blind clinging instinct of existence left, they could not aid him, and ceasing to importune he heroically met his fate. On that morning he sat by the camp-fire smoking, and as they were about to leave, Mary Graves went to his side and asked if he was coming. "Yes," he said, "I'm coming soon." They were his last words.
None can be blamed for abandoning Stanton. In twenty-four hours all were without food, except a Mr. Eddy, who in his sorest need found a small piece of meat his wife had robbed herself of and hid in his clothes with a note signed, "Your own dearest Eleanor." It saved his life.
That night the snow begun to fall, coming down in great fleecy flakes.
They were utterly discouraged and some proposed to go back, but the two Indians of the party said they would go on and Mary Graves said she would accompany them. For two days they had not tasted food, and some one proposed to cast lots to see who should die that the rest might live. It fell on Patrick Dolan, the generous Irishman who voluntarily gave his food that others might live. Who should take Dolan's life? With one accord they rose to their feet and staggered on, making two or three miles. The next morning dawned dreary, rainy and discouraging, but they started out as usual, the soft snow clinging to their feet in balls.
Mary Graves says instead of attempting to make a fire they crawled back to their old camp of the previous night and remained, the falling rain having changed to snow and sleet, which cut their pinched faces and made them shiver with cold. A good fire was finally made, which sometime during the night thawed the snow beneath and suddenly dropped out of sight. Their camp was made above a stream of water, which far below tumbled over its rocky bed. Here Patrick Dolan's life went out in demoniacal shrieks and frenzied appeals for food. About midnight Antoine ceased to breathe and W. F. Graves was dying. He had reached a point where iron nerves and a strong constitution would no longer sustain a man, and his end was at hand. Calling his daughters to his side he exhorted them for the sake of those left behind to bear up and strive to prolong their lives.
He reminded Mrs. Pike of her babies and all of the necessity of securing food and charged them when life was gone to save their own lives by using his body as food. His daughters had said they would never partake of human flesh and earnestly he pleaded that they rise superior to their natural instincts and prejudices and use the only means permitted to sustain life.
Was there not something noble and grand in the advice of this father? Was it not true heroism that all false delicacy be thrown aside and his body be sacrificed to save the starving emigrants. A sublimer death was never witnessed. With his last breath he urged that his flesh be used to prolong the lives of his companions. Truly a soul so noble had no need of the form of its mortal tenant, it had a better place prepared.
With their fires gone out, the fierce cold cutting to the bone and two of their number dead, some plan must be devised to secure warmth or all would perish. Lying down as closely as possible, Mr. Eddy spread blankets above arid crawling beneath all were soon covered beneath the swiftly falling snow. The next day ushered in a worse storm than had yet been encountered, lasting two days. When at last it abated and they emerged from their prison-house they were more dead than alive. Four clays they had passed without food and two without fire.
The horror of this "camp of death" can never be told. It was necessary to secure a fire or they would perish, yet for a long time their efforts were fruitless. Their matches were worthless and not until, Mrs. Pike tore open a mantle lined with cotton did they succeed in getting a fire from their flint lock gun. At last they succeeded and lighted the branches of a dead pine which afforded warmth. The weak, famished wretches had reached the last possible alternative and they must eat of the flesh of their dead companions or all perish. Oh, the supreme, the awful horror of horrors of the moment.
The men finally mustered courage enough to approach the dead. With averted heads and trembling hands they cut pieces of flesh from the inanimate forms and placed them on the coals. Human beings were never called on to undergo more trying ordeals. Dividing into groups, the members of each family were spared the pain of feasting upon their own kindred. One could not eat. This was Lemuel Murphy, a feeble boy of thirteen years, who succumbed to the great hardships and privations, and died with his head in the lap of his sister.
The four bodies were divested of their flesh and the same dried.
Although none partook of their own kindred the sights were blood-curdling. Can any one express the horror of Mrs. Foster when she saw the heart of her beloved brother broiling upon the coals? Yet did she endure it that she might succor her babies and her mother, who were left behind. The Indian guides would not partake of the revolting food but sat apart in mute dejection. Starved bodies possess little nutriment, and soon the supplies were exhausted. Then they ate their shoe strings and their moccasins. That night the Indians, hearing words that boded no good, became alarmed and fled. On the 4th, Mr. Eddy and Mary Graves, who were together, shot a deer, drinking its blood and feasting on its flesh, then waiting for the others to come up. It sustained the party several days. Next Jay Fosdick gave out, becoming too weak and exhausted to travel. That night he died, his wife staying by him until morning, and then struggling on to overtake her companions. Mrs. Foster's husband had given out and was perishing, and Mrs. Fosdick consented the flesh of her husband should be converted into food. It was the first time a woman had been called on to use the knife, but Mrs. Foster cut the withered flesh, and broiling it over the coals gave it to her husband and saved his life. Mrs. Fosdick would not touch the food, and but for the deer would have died. Head, feet, entrails, and all were eaten, and then they were without food of any kind. That night they felt would be their last, but when morning came they staggered on.
Soon they met freshly made tracks marked with blood. It was the tracks of the two Indians who for nine days had been without food. Starving, exhausted, with feet bleeding and frozen they staggered on until they reached a little streamlet, where they lay down to die. The starving whites came up and passed them, for famished as they were they could not think of depriving them of the little life left in their wasted bodies. Already the delirium that precedes death was upon them, and the fugitives sat down to wait their death. There were five women and two men left, and two of those must die unless help came at once. William Foster went back and told them he must take their lives. They neither moaned nor struggled, but with Indian stoicism submitted. The emigrants heard two reports of the gun and all was over.
Even this relief was but temporary. The flesh was carefully removed, saving it all, and they pushed on, until absolute starvation again stared them in the face.
At last they reached a valley where they beheld human tracks, and turning a point discovered an Indian Rancherie. Mary Graves, who tells it, says they ran fast as their uncertain steps could carry them. The Indians were amazed. Never had they beheld such pitiable human creatures who stood stretching out their arms for assistance. A moment they looked and then all turned and fled, but soon returned to aid the dying travelers. The women and children cried and wailed with grief at their terrible condition, and set before them such food as they had, which was bread made of acorns. The Indians did all they could to relieve them, but the food was insufficient for their weakened systems, and they knew something more nutritious must be had or they must die. So again they started, with their Indian friends as guides. Day after day they struggled until their strength was all gone, and they laid down feeling they could not rise again. W. H. Eddy had still some remaining strength, and with an Indian on either side he pushed on fifteen miles, to the cabin of a Mr. Tucker, where he found relief, and at once despatched aid to those behind who were brought safely in. Their names were W. H. Eddy, William Foster, Mrs. Foster, Mrs. Pike, Mrs. McCutchen, Sarah Fosdick and Mary Graves. It was thirty-two days since they left Donner Lake.
Meanwhile, how fared those left behind? About the time the fifteen left, William Baylies starved to death. He died in the Graves cabin, and was buried by W. E. Graves and John Denton. All the party were starving. Between them and death were only the hides of the cattle taken off in the fall and laid on the roof for protection. These were cut into strips, the hair singed off, and the sides scraped until clean, and then boiled and eaten without salt. It made a pulpy mass very much like glue, containing very little nourishment.
The cast away bones of the cattle were picked up and boiled until they crumbled in the teeth and could be eaten, and even rags were toasted and eaten.
The Donner party, at the foot of the lake, were if possible worse off. They ate everything from which nourishment could be extracted, and got so weak they could not make a fire.
Mrs. Murphy had charge of the little nursing babe of Catherine Pike, and all the nourishment she could give it was snow water mixed with a little coarse flour.
Jacob Donner was the first to die. He expired while sitting at the table in his tent, as if in deep meditation.
Patrick Breen kept a diary, from which these particulars are gleaned. He was a devout Catholic, and during the darkest hours prayers were regularly read. So impressive were these religious ceremonies that one beautiful girl made a vow that if God saved her family she would become a Catholic. He did save them and she kept her vow. She is to-day a devout Catholic.
Many attempts were made to cross the mountains, but all were failures, and the disheartened, starving emigrants each time returned. January 27 there was a death, and on the 31st another. February 4 and February 7 two children died. The snow being so deep out of doors one was buried in the Graves cabin. On the 8th and 9th three more deaths occurred. February 14, another death.
So soon as possible after the forlorn hope had got through, a
relief party was organized to go to the aid of those left in the
mountains, but it took ten or twelve days to get ready. It was
on the 5th of February they started, and three days later three
of them returned, unable to endure the hardships of the journey.
At the foot of the mountains the horses had to be abandoned, as the snow was so deep they could not travel; but the brave men, carrying fifty pounds each, made the journey on foot. What a spectacle met their gaze. The deep snows had almost concealed the cabins, and the inmates lived subterranean lives. They were like deep pits, down which icy steps led like going into a grave. Dead men and women were laying around, some without any covering and others partially buried in the snow. So weak had they become that it was a great effort to hoist the dead up the steps of snow that led to the cabins. All were reduced to skeletons, their eyes were sunken deep in their sockets and had a fierce maniac glare terrible to behold, their faces were haggard, woe-begone and sepulcheral. It was seldom a voice was heard, but when heard was weak, tremulous and pitiful. Food, there was absolutely none.
Wood was plentiful, but to these weak, starving creatures it was a herculean task to prepare it. Their numb, fleshless fingers could hardly guide an ax, and it was more than their feeble strength could do to wield it.
Milton Elliot died in the Bree cabin. There were no men about and Mrs. Breen and her daughter by tugging, pushing and lifting as best they could, got the body up the steps. And now it seemed Virginia Reed, the brave little girl who bound up the cruel wounds on her father's head, who braved the wrath of the infuriate men determined upon taking his life, and conveyed to him arms and provisions; who had been the life, the hope, the stay of the cabin and camp, must die. Her stomach had grown so weak that it could no longer endure the nauseating boiled hides, and they had nothing else to give. Good Mrs. Breen was the first to notice the signs of dissolution, and softly calling her mother, they ascended to the snow above to confer upon it away from the healing of the girl. Together they knelt and prayed, and were talking despairingly of the future, when an unusual noise was heard above them, and then the shout of a strong man. It was the relief party sent out by the forlorn hope. Virginia Reed's life was saved.
Captain Ileasin Tucker led the party, an old acquaintance of the Graves family, to whose cabin he hastened. Famished, indeed, they were. Anxiously Mrs. Graves asked about her dear husband, and Captain Tucker had not the heart to tell her the truth, and so he said they were well. So too they deceived Mrs. Murphy about her dead son.
Mrs. Graves was a noble-hearted woman, specially praised for her unstinted charity. She was generous to a fault, and no one was turned from her door without food while she had it to give.
The relief party started back in a couple of days, and twenty-three persons accompanied them, among whom were William C., Eleanor and Lovina Grraves. Mrs. Pike's child and Mrs. Kirby's child were carried by the party.
Before they had proceeded two miles two of Mrs. Reed's children showed such signs of weakness that it was not safe to proceed, and Aquilla Glover so informed her. Bitter was her grief, and to cherish her feelings Mr. Glover promised to return when he reached Bear Valley and take them over. Turning to him, she said: "Are you a Mason?" He replied, "I am." "Will you promise me upon the word of a Mason that you will come back and get my children ?" Mr. Glover made the promise, and the little ones were by him taken back to the cabins. In the gloomiest moment of her life the mother remembered her husband deeply revered the order, and she felt if her children must be left, she would trust this Brother to care for them. The party were placed on short allowance from the start, and each day it was cut shorter until they had for a day's rations but two pieces of meat the size of one's finger.
On the evening of the first day a death occurred. It was the infant child of Mrs Keseberg. Her only boy had starved to death at the cabin, and her grief was inconsolable.
When camp was pitched at night John Denton was missing. They went back along the route and found him lying on the snow, entirely exhausted and asleep. They roused him and took him to camp. He appreciated their kindness but declared he could not stand another day's travel. And true enough after walking a little way he gave out and sat down deciding that he could go no farther. His companions built a fire and leaving some food went on. Their necessities were too great for them to wait. Denton was a gunsmith and worked in metals, and the first one to discover gold in California. In the ashes of the Graves cabin he found a yellow metal which he declared was gold and retained the piece as long as he lived. The existence of gold in California at that time was not known but afterwards there were extensive mining camps in the vicinity, and since gold exists in the soil there, it is more than probable the statement is correct. The second relief party found his remains untouched, and beside him a memorandum book on one leaf of which was inscribed the following beautiful poem, and there too lay the pencil with which it was penned. It is inexpressibly sad and beautiful.
Oh after many many years,
How sweet it Is to come
Back to the dwelling place of youth,
Our first and dearest home ;
To turn away our wearied eyes
From proud ambition's towers,
And wander in those summer fields,
The scenes of boyhood's hours.
But I am changed since last I gazed
Upon that tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch elm
That shades the village green,
And watched my boat upon the brook,
It was a regal galley,
And sighed not for a joy on earth,
Beside tha happy valley.
I wish I could once more recall
That bright and blissful joy,
And summon to my weary heart
The feelings of a boy ;
But now on scenes of past delight.
I look and feel no pleasure,
As misers on the bed of death,
Gaze coldly on their treasures.
Just as their last provisions were exhausted, they reached a
place where Capt. Tucker had cached a supply, tied up in a tree.
To their inexepivssible grief and dismay they were gone. Some
wild animals had eaten the ropes and destroyed them. Death
stared them in the face, and the strongest man trembled at the
But soon they met James F. Reed, and the little party with him was laden with provisions for the sufferers. Taking just sufficient for their immediate wants tach passed on. The meeting between Reed and his family under the circumstances, was very touching, and after a simple greeting he continued his journey knowing full well that an hour's delay might cost a human life.
At Bear Valley Capt. Tucker had another cache of provisions, and these were safe. The small quantity distributed could not satisfy their hunger, and great care was taken that the starving people did not get too much. After a sufficient quantity was distributed, the remainder was hung up in a tree. During the night a boy named Hook climbed the tree and ate until his hunger was appeased. It was a fatal act. In the morning he could not move, and the camp went on without him. "William Murphy's feet were swollen and blistered so that he could go no further, and he, too, was left. A camp keeper likewise remained. When all had gone, William Murphy rose up and followed. For twft days he walked barefoot on the snow, his feet frozen and bleeding.
In marciung, the leader provided with snow shoes went ahead and the rest followed, stepping in his tracks. Little James Reed could not take such long steps and had to go partly on his knees, yet he got through with the rest.
Mr. Reed found the inmates in the cabins at the lake and on the creek in a sad condition, but overjoyed at the prospect of relief. Food was distributed sparingly that harm might not come from over eating. At Keseberg's cabin was Foster's and Reed's little children. They were in bed and crying incessantly for food. For fourteen days they had not risen or been moved from the bed.
The threatening appearance of the weather impelled Mr. Reed to at once return. With him went seventeen persons, among whom were Mrs. Elizabeth Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan, Franklin, and her daughter Elizabeth Jr. All were weak and emaciated and it was evident the journey would be slow and painful.
Mrs. Donner's husband was an invalid, and the faithful wife would not leave him even to save her own life. The party scarcely made three miles the first day, and then went into camp. At leaving Mrs. Graves took with her a considerable sum of money, but how much is unknown, Geo. Sparr paid her husband $1,500, and it is not probable much of this was used in procuring an outfit. The first night some one of the party jokingly said they would play a game of cards to see who should have her money. The next morning she staid behind and secreted it. All that is known is, that she buried it behind a big rock on the north side of Donner Lake. So far as known it has never been found.
The threatening storm came in all its fury, and the poor immigrants were exposed to its pitiless blasts. They were shelterless, supperless and disheartened, and sank down upon the snow, some never to rise again. Except for the exertions of James Reed this dreadful night all must have perished. He labored at the fires, he piled snow against the sheltering boughs, he shook it from the poor sleepers. But there is a limit to human endurance and while saving others he was literally freezing. He labored until sightless, benumbed and half dying he sank down on the snow. Providentially Mrs. Breen awoke. The logs on which the fire rested had given away, the coals dropped on the snow and had gone out and soon all woijld have been in daakness. The camp was quickly roused and Reed was cared for. All were nearly frozen. Hiram Miller's hands were so cold and frosted that the skin cracked when he strove to split some kindling. The night was the coldest many of them had ever known, and in the darkness and in the storm the weary soul of Mrs. Graves put out on the unknown sea of eternity. She was one of the noblest and self-sacrificing mothers in the party. Her life was devoted to her children, and for them she yielded it up.
Mrs. Farnham, who gathered the particulars from one who was present thus describes the closing scene : "Mrs. Graves lay with hsr babe and three or four children by the side of the fire. The storm raged violently all night, and she watched through it, taking little snatches of rest, and rousing herself to brush the snow from the sleepers. Toward morning one of the little Grave's girls called her mother's name. The call was repeated impatiently, and Mrs. Breen rebuked the child, telling her to let her mother rest. Presently Mrs. Graves spoke in a quite unnatural voice and Mrs. Breen asked one of the men to go and see to her. He found the poor sufferer almost gone, and taking the infant, shook the snow from the blanket and covered her as well as he could. Presently Mrs. Breen went and found her cold in death. Her poor starving child moaned piteously in the arms of it's young sister, but the mother's heart could no more warm or nourish it."
Meanwhile the snow came pitilessly down without ceasing. For three days it stormed incessantly, and none can imagine the dread desolation of the scene. It is best told in Bret Harte's story of "Gabriel Conroy."
"Snow everywhere. As far as the eye could reach fifty miles looking southward from the highest white peak. Filling ravines and gulches and dropping from the walls of canyons in white shroud like drifts fashioning the dividing ridge into the likeness of a monstrous grave, hiding the basis of giant pines and completely covering young trees and larches, rimming with porcelain the bowl-like edges of still, cold lakes, and undulating in motionless, white billows to the distant horizon. Snow lying everywhere on the California Sierras, and still falling. It had been snowing in finely granulated powder, in damp, spongy flakes, in thin, feathery plumes; snowing from a leaden sky steadily; snowing fiercely; shaken out of black purple clouds in flocculent masses, or dropping in long, level lines like white lancets from the broken and tumbled heavens; but always steadily. The woods were so choked with it, it had so cushioned and muffled the ringing rocks and echoing hills, that all sound was deadened. The strongest "gust, the fiercest blast awoke no sigh from the snow-packed rigid piles of frost. There was no cracking of bough, no crackle of underbrush; the overladen branches of fir and pine yielded and gave way without a sound. The silence was vast, measureless, complete."
No description can do justice to that awful night. Even the pen of the romancer fails to reproduce its dreadful horrors.
Mrs. Breen laid her husband and four children together, and while they slept watched by the fire, with only moccasins on her feet and a blanket drawn over her head, within which she shielded her poor, emaciated baby. Her milk had dried up, and the babe was so poor and lifeless that each hour she expected it to expire.
The brave men who had periled their lives to save the poor emigrants felt themselves in imminent danger of death. They were powerless to carry the helpless and starving children through the soft, yielding snow, and it was doubtful whether they could ever reach the settlements, even if unencumbered. Isaac Donner, one of the sons of Jacob and Elizabeth Donner, died the second night. He was sleeping on a bed of pine boughs between his sister Mary and Patty Reed, and died so quietly that neither of them awoke.
In the deep snow, and the weak and starving condition of the fugitives, progress was impossible, and yet to remain was death. The relief party felt that the only hope was to hasten to the settlements and send back relief. Solomon Hook thought himself able to travel, and joined the party. Hiram Miller, an old friend of the Reed family, took Francis Reed in his arms, and Patty Reed, full of courage and hope, refused to be carried, and started on foot.
With what emotions did the poor sufferers in Starved Camp see the party disappear among the pines. There was no food, and death had already claimed two of their number. What a pitiable group it was. Could a situation more desolate and deplorable be imagined. Mr. Breen, as has before been mentioned, was feeble and sickly, and upon his faithful wife devolved the care not only of her helpless family, but of all who remained in camp. John Breen, their eldest son, was the strongest and most vigorous, yet the following incident shows how near he was to death's door: The fire had melted a deep cavity in the snow, dowi, which the men sometimes descended, and into this pit the boy stumbled and fell, but fortunately was rescued. It was some time before he was restored to consciousness. Mrs. Breen had saved a small piece of sugar, which she placed between his teeth, and that seemed to revive him. He lived, and is now the head of a large family in San Benito County.
Mrs. Breen's younger children, Patrick, James, Peter, and her babe Isabella, were completely helpless and dependent. So, too, were the orphan children of Mr. and Mrs. Graves. Nancy was nly about nine years old, and upon her devolved the task of caring for the little babe Elizabeth, and to her lasting honor be it said, although she was dying of hunger, she faithfully tended, cared for and saved her baby sister. Aside from little bits of sugar, this baby and Mrs. Breen's had nothing for an entire week but snow water. Besides Nancy and Elizabeth there were of the Graves children Jonathan, aged seven, and Franklin, aged five. Franklin soon perished. Starvation and exposure had so reduced his feeble person that he could not endure the continued fasting. Nancy Graves became the wife of R. W. Williamson, an able, eloquent and devout divine of Los Gatos, Santa Clara County.
An accident happened to Mary Donner, an estimable girl. She had frozen her feet, and they were insensible to pain. Happening to be too near the fire, they were dreadfully burned, and she suffered excruciating agony, yet evinced remarkable fortitude. She ultimately had to submit to a partial amputation of her foot.
Of the fourteen who staated out three Mrs. Graves, her boy Franklin, and Isaac Donner lay dead upon the snow, and the eleven waiting relief were the Breen family of seven, Mary Donner and the three Graves children.
Meantime, how fared it with those who went pressing on toward the southwest? At each step they sank above their knees in snow, each following in the footsteps of the leader. Only the strongest could endure the severe hardships of forcing a way through the interminable drifts, and the men alternated in leading as their strength allowed. Patty Reed was too small to take the long steps, and the over-exertion soon told upon her; yet so resolute and courageous was she that she would not admit she was either cold or fatigued. She was but eight years old, but had a wonderful mind for one of her age. She was too weak to endure her journey, and gradually her system gave way. Her sight grew dim, and the path, the forest, the bleak mountains faded from her eyes, but in their stead came a vision of angels and brilliant stars. It was a picture seldom seen by mortal eyes, full of glory and brightness. Her wan face
became illumined with smiles, and she began to talk of the radiant forms that hovered near her, the angels, the stars, and the happiness she felt. McCutcheon looked on the girl and said to her father: " Why Reed, Patty is dying." It was too true.
At once the party stopped and went into camp, that they might minister to the little girl. At the starved camp Reed had taken the frozen sacks in which food had been carried, and scraping from the seams little crumbs of bread that adhered, placed them in the thumb of his mitten for an emergency like this. Little did he imagine such an emergency would come so soon. Warming and moistening the crumbs between his own lips, the father placed them in the child's mouth. Others wrapped blankets round her chilled form, chafed her feet, and gradually she returned to life, her first words being a regret that they had wakened her from that beautiful dream. To this day she cherishes the memory of that enchanting vision. After this Patty was carried on the men's backs.
Without further accident they arrived at Bear Valley, where Past Midshipman Woodworth, with supplies, had idly waited without an effort to succor those known to be in the mountains. His name deserves to be embalmed in infamy.
Patty Reed is now Mrs. Frank Lewis, of San Jose, California. She has a pleasant home and a beautiful family of grown-up daughters; yet never has she forgotten that dreary, desolate journey in the mountains that so nearly terminated her existence.
. . . .
Source: Records of the Olden Time, published in 1880 and authored by Spencer Ellsworth