The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate
Eliza Poor Donner Houghton
Part 2 out of 6
Much as we felt the shock, there was little time for
self-indulgence. Never were moments of greater importance; for while
father and uncle were hewing a new axle, two men came from the head
of the company to tell about the snow. It was a terrible piece of
Those men reported that on the twenty-eighth of that month the larger
part of the train had reached a deserted cabin near Truckee Lake (the
sheet of water now known as Donner Lake) at the foot of Fremont's Pass
in the main chain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The following morning
they had proceeded to within three miles of the summit; but finding
snow there five feet in depth, the trail obliterated, and no place for
making camp, they were obliged to return to the spot they had left
early in the day. There, they said, the company had assembled to
discuss the next move, and great confusion prevailed as the excited
members gave voice to their bitterest fears. Some proposed to abandon
the wagons and make the oxen carry out the children and provisions;
some wanted to take the children and rations and start out on foot; and
some sat brooding in dazed silence through the long night.
The messengers further stated that on the thirtieth, with Stanton as
leader, and despite the falling sleet and snow, the forward section of
the party united in another desperate effort to cross the summit, but
encountered deeper drifts and greater difficulties. As darkness crept
over the whitened waste, wagons became separated and lodged in the
snow; and all had to cling to the mountain-side until break of day,
when the train again returned to its twice abandoned camp, having been
compelled, however, to leave several of the wagons where they had
become stalled. The report concluded with the statement that the men at
once began log-cutting for cabins in which the company might have to
pass the winter.
After the messengers left, and as father and Uncle Jacob were hastening
preparations for our own departure, new troubles beset us. Uncle was
giving the finishing touches to the axle, when the chisel he was using
slipped from his grasp, and its keen edge struck and made a serious
wound across the back of father's right hand which was steadying the
timber. The crippled hand was carefully dressed, and to quiet uncle's
fears and discomfort, father made light of the accident, declaring that
they had weightier matters for consideration than cuts and bruises. The
consequences of that accident, however, were far more wide-reaching
than could have been anticipated.
Up and up we toiled until we reached an altitude of six thousand feet,
and were within about ten miles of our companions at the lake, when the
intense cold drove us into camp on Prosser Creek in Alder Creek Valley,
a picturesque and sheltered nook two and a half miles in length and
three-quarters of a mile in width. But no one observed the picturesque
grandeur of the forest-covered mountains which hem it in on the north
and west; nor that eastward and southward it looks out across plateaus
to the Washoe Mountains twenty miles away.
A piercing wind was driving storm-clouds toward us, and those who
understood their threatening aspect realized that twenty-one persons,
eight of them helpless children, were there at the mercy of the
The teams were hurriedly unhooked, the tents pitched, and the men and
the women began collecting material for more suitable quarters. Some
felled trees, some lopped off the branches, and some, with oxen,
dragged the logs into position. There was enough building material on
the ground for a good sized foundation four logs deep, when night
stopped the work. The moon and stars came out before we went to bed,
yet the following morning the ground was covered with snow two or three
feet in depth, which had to be shovelled from the exposed beds before
their occupants could rise.
I remember well that new day. All plans for log cabins had to be
abandoned. There was no sheltered nook for shivering children, so
father lifted Georgia and me on to a log, and mother tucked a buffalo
robe around us, saying, "Sit here until we have a better place for
you." There we sat snug and dry, chatting and twisting our heads about,
watching the hurrying, anxious workers. Those not busy at the wagons
were helping the builders to construct a permanent camp.
They cleared a space under a tall pine tree and reset the tent a few
feet south of its trunk, facing the sunrise. Then, following the
Indian method as described by John Baptiste, a rude semi-circular hut
of poles was added to the tent, the tree-trunk forming part of its
north wall, and its needled boughs, the rafters and cross-pieces to the
roof. The structure was overlaid so far as possible with pieces of
cloth, old quilts, and buffalo robes, then with boughs and branches of
pine and tamarack. A hollow was scooped in the ground near the tree for
a fireplace, and an opening in the top served as chimney and
ventilator. One opening led into the tent and another served as an
To keep the beds off the wet earth, two rows of short posts were driven
along the sides in the tent, and poles were laid across the tops, thus
forming racks to support the pine boughs upon which the beds should be
made. While this was being done, Elitha, Leanna, and Mrs. Wolfinger
were bringing poles and brush with which to strengthen and sheath the
tent walls against wind and weather. Even Sister Frances looked tall
and helpful as she trudged by with her little loads.
The combination of tent and hut was designed for my father and family
and Mrs. Wolfinger. The teamsters, Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph Rhinehart,
James Smith, and John Baptiste, built their hut in Indian wigwam
fashion. Not far from us, across the stream, braced against a log, was
reared a mixed structure of brush and tent for use of Uncle Jacob, Aunt
Betsy, and William and Solomon Hook (Aunt Betsy's sons by a former
husband), and their five small children, George, Mary, Isaac, Lewis,
and Samuel Donner.
Before we two could leave our perch, the snow was falling faster and in
larger flakes. It made pictures for Georgia and me upon the branches of
big and little trees; it gathered in a ridge beside us upon the log; it
nestled in piles upon our buffalo robe; and by the time our quarters
were finished, it was veiling Uncle Jacob's from view. Everything
within was cold, damp, and dreary, until our tired mother and elder
sisters built the fire, prepared our supper, and sent us to bed, each
with a lump of loaf sugar as comforter.
[Footnote 3: Thornton.]
SNOWBOUND--SCARCITY OF FOOD AT BOTH CAMPS--WATCHING FOR RETURN OF
M'CUTCHEN AND REED.
When we awoke the following morning, little heaps of snow lay here and
there upon the floor. No threshold could be seen, only a snow-bank
reaching up to the white plain beyond, where every sound was muffled,
and every object was blurred by falling flakes.
Father's face was very grave. His morning caress had all its wonted
tenderness, but the merry twinkle was gone from his eye, and the
gladsome note from his voice. For eight consecutive days, the fatal
snow fell with but few short intermissions. Eight days, in which there
was nothing to break the monotony of torturing, inactive endurance,
except the necessity of gathering wood, keeping the fires, and cutting
anew the steps which led upward, as the snow increased in depth. Hope
well-nigh died within us.
All in camp fared alike, and all were on short rations. Three of our
men became dispirited, said that they were too weak and hungry to
gather wood, and did not care how soon death should put an end to their
The out-of-door duties would have fallen wholly upon my Aunt Betsy's
two sons and on John Baptiste and on my crippled father, had the women
lost their fortitude. They, however, hid their fears from their
children, even from each other, and helped to gather fuel, hunt cattle,
and keep camp.
Axes were dull, green wood was hard to cut, and harder to carry,
whether through loose, dry snow, or over crusts made slippery by sleet
and frost. Cattle tracks were covered over. Some of the poor creatures
had perished under bushes where they sought shelter. A few had become
bewildered and strayed; others were found under trees in snow pits,
which they themselves had made by walking round and round the trunks to
keep from being snowed under. These starvelings were shot to end their
sufferings, and also with the hope that their hides and fleshless bones
might save the lives of our snow-beleaguered party. Every part of the
animals was saved for food. The locations of the carcasses were marked
so that they could be brought piece by piece into camp; and even the
green hides were spread against the huts to serve in case of need.
After the storm broke, John Baptiste was sent with a letter from my
mother to the camp near the lake. He was absent a number of days, for
upon his arrival there, he found a party of fourteen ready to start
next morning, on foot, across the summit. He joined it, but after two
days of vain effort, the party returned to camp, and he came back to us
with an answer to the letter he had delivered.
We then learned that most of those at the lake were better housed than
we. Some in huts, and the rest in three log structures, which came to
be known respectively as the Murphy, Graves, and Breen cabins. The last
mentioned was the relic of earlier travellers and had been grizzled
by the storms of several winters. Yet, despite their better
accommodations, our companions at the lake were harassed by fears like
ours. They too were short of supplies. The game had left the mountains,
and the fish in the lake would not bite.
Different parties, both with and without children, had repeatedly
endeavored to force their way out of that wilderness of snow, but each
in turn had become confused, and unconsciously moved in a circle back
to camp. Several persons had become snow-blind. Every landmark was
lost, even to Stanton, who had twice crossed the range.
All now looked to the coming of McCutchen and Reed for deliverance. We
had every reason to expect them soon, for each had left his family with
the company, and had promised to return with succor. Moreover, Stanton
had brought tidings that the timely assistance of himself and comrade
had enabled Reed to reach Sutter's Fort in safety; and that McCutchen
would have accompanied him back, had he not been detained by illness.
Well, indeed, was it that we could not know that at the very time we
were so anxiously awaiting their arrival, those two men, after
struggling desperately to cross the snows, were finally compelled to
abandon the attempt, bury the precious food they had striven to bring
us, and return to the settlement.
It was also well that we were unaware of their baffling fears, when the
vigorous efforts incited by the memorial presented by Reed to Commodore
Stockton, the military Governor of California, were likewise frustrated
by mountain storms.
[Footnote 4: Built by Townsend party in 1844. See McGlashan's "History
of the Donner Party."]
ANOTHER STORM--FOUR DEATHS IN DONNER CAMP--FIELD MICE USED FOR
FOOD--CHANGED APPEARANCE OF THE STARVING--SUNSHINE--DEPARTURE OF THE
"FORLORN HOPE"--WATCHING FOR RELIEF--IMPOSSIBLE TO DISTURB THE BODIES
OF THE DEAD IN DONNER CAMP--ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE OF THE FIRST RELIEF
Meanwhile with us in the Sierras, November ended with four days and
nights of continuous snow, and December rushed in with a wild,
shrieking storm of wind, sleet, and rain, which ceased on the third.
The weather remained clear and cold until the ninth, when Milton Elliot
and Noah James came on snowshoes to Donner's camp, from the lake
cabins, to ascertain if their captain was still alive, and to report
the condition of the rest of the company.
Before morning, another terrific storm came swirling and whistling down
our snowy stairway, making fires unsafe, freezing every drop of water
about the camp, and shutting us in from the light of heaven. Ten days
later Milton Elliot alone fought his way back to the lake camp with
these tidings: "Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph Rhinehart, and
James Smith are dead, and the others in a low condition."
Uncle Jacob, the first to die, was older than my father, and had been
in miserable health for years before we left Illinois. He had gained
surprisingly on the journey, yet quickly felt the influence of
impending fate, foreshadowed by the first storm at camp. His courage
failed. Complete prostration followed.
My father and mother watched with him during the last night, and the
following afternoon helped to lay his body in a cave dug in the
mountain side, beneath the snow. That snow had scarcely resettled when
Samuel Shoemaker's life ebbed away in happy delirium. He imagined
himself a boy again in his father's house and thought his mother had
built a fire and set before him the food of which he was fondest.
But when Joseph Rhinehart's end drew near, his mind wandered, and his
whitening lips confessed a part in Mr. Wolfinger's death; and my
father, listening, knew not how to comfort that troubled soul. He could
not judge whether the self-condemning words were the promptings of a
guilty conscience, or the ravings of an unbalanced mind.
Like a tired child falling asleep, was James Smith's death; and Milton
Elliot, who helped to bury the four victims and then carried the
distressing report to the lake camp, little knew that he would soon be
among those later called to render a final accounting. Yet it was even
Our camp having been thus depleted by death, Noah James, who had been
one of my father's drivers, from Springfield until we passed out of the
desert, now cast his lot again with ours, and helped John Baptiste to
dig for the carcasses of the cattle. It was weary work, for the snow
was higher than the level of the guide marks, and at times they
searched day after day and found no trace of hoof or horn. The little
field mice that had crept into camp were caught then and used to ease
the pangs of hunger. Also pieces of beef hide were cut into strips,
singed, scraped, boiled to the consistency of glue, and swallowed with
an effort; for no degree of hunger could make the saltless, sticky
substance palatable. Marrowless bones which had already been boiled and
scraped, were now burned and eaten, even the bark and twigs of pine
were chewed in the vain effort to soothe the gnawings which made one
cry for bread and meat.
During the bitterest weather we little ones were kept in bed, and my
place was always in the middle where Frances and Georgia, snuggling up
close, gave me of their warmth, and from them I learned many things
which I could neither have understood nor remembered had they not made
[Illustration: PASS IN THE SIERRA NEVADAS OF CALIFORNIA]
[Illustration: From an old drawing made from description furnished by
Wm. G. Murphy. CAMP AT DONNER LAKE, NOVEMBER, 1846]
Just one happy play is impressed upon my mind. It must have been after
the first storm, for the snow bank in front of the cabin door was not
high enough to keep out a little sunbeam that stole down the steps and
made a bright spot upon our floor. I saw it, and sat down under it,
held it on my lap, passed my hand up and down in its brightness, and
found that I could break its ray in two. In fact, we had quite a
frolic. I fancied that it moved when I did, for it warmed the top of my
head, kissed first one cheek and then the other, and seemed to run up
and down my arm. Finally I gathered up a piece of it in my apron and
ran to my mother. Great was my surprise when I carefully opened the
folds and found that I had nothing to show, and the sunbeam I had left
seemed shorter. After mother explained its nature, I watched it creep
back slowly up the steps and disappear.
Snowy Christmas brought us no "glad tidings," and New Year's Day no
happiness. Yet, each bright day that followed a storm was one of
thanksgiving, on which we all crept up the flight of snow steps and
huddled about on the surface in the blessed sunshine, but with our eyes
closed against its painful and blinding glare.
Once my mother took me to a hole where I saw smoke coming up, and she
told me that its steps led down to Uncle Jacob's tent, and that we
would go down there to see Aunt Betsy and my little cousins.
I stooped low and peered into the dark depths. Then I called to my
cousins to come to me, because I was afraid to go where they were. I
had not seen them since the day we encamped. At that time they were
chubby and playful, carrying water from the creek to their tent in
small tin pails. Now, they were so changed in looks that I scarcely
knew them, and they stared at me as at a stranger. So I was glad when
my mother came up and took me back to our own tent, which seemed less
dreary because I knew the things that were in it, and the faces about
Father's hand became worse. The swelling and inflammation extending up
the arm to the shoulder produced suffering which he could not conceal.
Each day that we had a fire, I watched mother sitting by his side, with
a basin of warm water upon her lap, laving the wounded and inflamed
parts very tenderly, with a strip of frayed linen wrapped around a
little stick. I remember well the look of comfort that swept over his
worn features as she laid the soothed arm back into place.
By the middle of January the snow measured twelve and fourteen feet in
depth. Nothing could be seen of our abode except the coils of smoke
that found their way up through the opening. There was a dearth of
water. Prosser Creek was frozen over and covered with snow. Icicles
hung from the branches of every tree. The stock of pine cones that had
been gathered for lights was almost consumed. Wood was so scarce that
we could not have fire enough to cook our strips of rawhide, and
Georgia heard mother say that we children had not had a dry garment on
in more than a week, and that she did not know what to do about it.
Then like a smile from God, came another sunny day which not only
warmed and dried us thoroughly but furnished a supply of water from
The twenty-first was also bright, and John Baptiste went on snowshoes
with messages to the lake camp. He found its inmates in a more
pitiable condition than we were. Only one death had occurred there
since our last communication, but he saw several of the starving who
could not survive many days.
The number to consume the slender stock of food had been lessened,
however, on the sixteenth of December, some six weeks previously, by
the departure of William Eddy, Patrick Dolan, Lemuel Murphy, William
Foster, Mrs. Sarah Foster, Jay Fosdick, Mrs. Sarah Fosdick, Mrs.
William McCutchen, Mrs. Harriet Pike, Miss Mary Graves, Franklin
Graves, Sr., C.T. Stanton, Antonio, Lewis, and Salvador.
This party, which called itself "The Forlorn Hope," had a most
memorable experience, as will be shown later. In some instances husband
had parted from wife, and father from children. Three young mothers had
left their babes in the arms of grandmothers. It was a dire resort, a
last desperate attempt, in face of death, to save those dependent upon
Staff in hand, they had set forth on snowshoes, each carrying a pack
containing little save a quilt and light rations for six days'
journeying. One had a rifle, ammunition, flint, and hatchet for camp
use. William Murphy and Charles Burger, who had originally been of the
number, gave out before the close of the first day, and crept back to
camp. The others continued under the leadership of the intrepid Eddy
and brave Stanton.
John Baptiste remained there a short time and returned to us, saying,
"Those at the other camp believe the promised relief is close at hand!"
This rekindled hope in us, even as it had revived courage and prolonged
lives in the lake cabins, and we prayed, as they were praying, that the
relief might come before its coming should be too late.
Oh, how we watched, hour after hour, and how often each day John
Baptiste climbed to the topmost bough of a tall pine tree and, with
straining eyes, scanned the desolate expanse for one moving speck in
the distance, for one ruffled track on the snow which should ease our
Days passed. No food in camp except an unsavory beef hide--pinching
hunger called for more. Again John Baptiste and Noah James went forth
in anxious search for marks of our buried cattle. They made
excavations, then forced their hand-poles deep, deeper into the snow,
but in vain their efforts--the nail and hook at the points brought up
no sign of blood, hair, or hide. In dread unspeakable they returned,
"We shall go mad; we shall die! It is useless to hunt for the cattle;
but the _dead_, if they could be reached, their bodies might keep us
"No," replied father and mother, speaking for themselves. "No, part of
a hide still remains. When it is gone we will perish, if that be the
The fact was, our dead could not have been disturbed even had the
attempt been made, for the many snowfalls of winter were banked about
them firm as granite walls, and in that camp was neither implement nor
arm strong enough to reach their resting-places.
It was a long, weary waiting, on starvation rations until the
nineteenth of February. I did not see any one coming that morning; but
I remember that, suddenly, there was an unusual stir and excitement in
the camp. Three strangers were there, and one was talking with father.
The others took packs from their backs and measured out small
quantities of flour and jerked beef and two small biscuits for each of
us. Then they went up to fell the sheltering pine tree over our tent
for fuel; while Noah James, Mrs. Wolfinger, my two half-sisters, and
mother kept moving about hunting for things.
Finally Elitha and Leanna came and kissed me, then father, "good-bye,"
and went up the steps, and out of sight. Mother stood on the snow where
she could see all go forth. They moved in single file,--the leaders on
snowshoes, the weak stepping in the tracks made by the strong. Leanna,
the last in line, was scarcely able to keep up. It was not until after
mother came back with Frances and Georgia that I was made to understand
that this was the long-hoped-for relief party.
It had come and gone, and had taken Noah James, Mrs. Wolfinger, and my
two half-sisters from us; then had stopped at Aunt Betsy's for William
Hook, her eldest son, and my Cousin George, and all were now on the
way to the lake cabins to join others who were able to walk over the
snow without assistance.
The rescuers, seven in number, who had followed instructions given them
at the settlement, professed to have no knowledge of the Forlorn Hope,
except that this first relief expedition had been outfitted by Captain
Sutter and Alcalde Sinclair in response to Mr. Eddy's appeal, and that
other rescue parties were being organized in California, and would soon
come prepared to carry out the remaining children and helpless grown
folk. By this we knew that Mr. Eddy, at least, had succeeded in
reaching the settlement.
[Footnote 5: Patrick Breen's Diary.]
SUFFERINGS OF THE "FORLORN HOPE"--RESORT TO HUMAN FLESH--"CAMP OF
DEATH"--BOOTS CRISPED AND EATEN--DEER KILLED--INDIAN _Rancheria_--THE
"WHITE MAN'S HOME" AT LAST.
Although we were so meagrely informed, it is well that my readers
should, at this point, become familiar with the experiences of the
expedition known as the Forlorn Hope, and also the various measures
taken for our relief when our precarious condition was made known to
the good people of California. It will be remembered that the Forlorn
Hope was the party of fifteen which, as John Baptiste reported to us,
made the last unaided attempt to cross the mountains.
Words cannot picture, nor mind conceive, more torturing hardships and
privations than were endured by that little band on its way to the
settlement. It left the camp on the sixteenth of December, with scant
rations for six days, hoping in that time to force its way to Bear
Valley and there find game. But the storms which had been so pitiless
at the mountain camps followed the unprotected refugees with seemingly
fiendish fury. After the first day from camp, its members could no
longer keep together on their marches. The stronger broke the trail,
and the rest followed to night-camp as best they could.
On the third day, Stanton's sight failed, and he begged piteously to be
led; but, soon realizing the heart-rending plight of his companions, he
uncomplainingly submitted to his fate. Three successive nights, he
staggered into camp long after the others had finished their stinted
meal. Always he was shivering from cold, sometimes wet with sleet and
It is recorded that at no time had the party allowed more than an ounce
of food per meal to the individual, yet the rations gave out on the
night of the twenty-second, while they were still in a wilderness of
snow-peaks. Mr. Eddy only was better provided. In looking over his pack
that morning for the purpose of throwing away any useless article, he
unexpectedly found a small bag containing about a half-pound of dried
bear-meat. Fastened to the meat was a pencilled note from his wife,
begging him to save the hidden treasure until his hour of direst need,
since it might then be the means of saving his life. The note was
signed, "Your own dear Elinor." With tenderest emotion, he slipped the
food back, resolving to do the dear one's bidding, trusting that she
and their children might live until he should return for them.
[Illustration: BEAR VALLEY, FROM EMIGRANT GAP]
[Illustration: THE TRACKLESS MOUNTAINS]
The following morning, while the others were preparing to leave camp,
Stanton sat beside the smouldering fire smoking his pipe. When ready to
go forth, they asked him if he was coming, and he replied, "Yes, I am
coming soon." Those were his parting words to his friends, and his
greeting to the Angel of Death. He never left that fireside, and his
companions were too feeble to return for him when they found he did not
come into camp.
Twenty-four hours later, the members of that hapless little band threw
themselves upon the desolate waste of snow to ponder the problems of
life and death; to search each the other's face for answer to the
question their lips durst not frame. Fathers who had left their
families, and mothers who had left their babes, wanted to go back and
die with them, if die they must; but Mr. Eddy and the Indians--those
who had crossed the range with Stanton--declared that they would push
on to the settlement. Then Mary Graves, in whose young heart were still
whisperings of hope, courageously said:
"I, too, will go on, for to go back and hear the cries of hunger from
my little brothers and sisters is more than I can stand. I shall go as
far as I can, let the consequences be what they may."
W.F. Graves, her father, would not let his daughter proceed alone, and
finally all decided to make a final, supreme effort. Yet--think of
it--they were without one morsel of food! Even the wind seemed to
hold its breath as the suggestion was made that, "were one to die, the
rest might live." Then the suggestion was made that lots be cast, and
whoever drew the longest slip should be the sacrifice. Mr. Eddy
endorsed the plan. Despite opposition from Mr. Foster and others, the
slips of paper were prepared, and great-hearted Patrick Dolan drew the
fatal slip. Patrick Dolan, who had come away from camp that his
famishing friends might prolong their lives by means of the small stock
of food which he had to leave! Harm a hair of that good man's head? Not
a soul of that starving band would do it.
Mr. Eddy then proposed that they resume their journey as best they
could until death should claim a victim. All acquiesced. Slowly rising
to their feet, they managed to stagger and to crawl forward about three
miles to a tree which furnished fuel for their Christmas fire. It was
kindled with great difficulty, for in cutting the boughs, the hatchet
blade flew off the handle and for a time was lost in deep snow.
Meanwhile, every puff of wind was laden with killing frost, and in
sight of that glowing fire, Antonio froze to death. Mr. Graves, who was
also breathing heavily, when told by Mr. Eddy that he was dying,
replied that he did not care. He, however, called his daughters, Mrs.
Fosdick and Mary Graves, to him, and by his parting injunctions, showed
that he was still able to realize keenly the dangers that beset them.
Remembering how their faces had paled at the suggestion of using human
flesh for food, he admonished them to put aside the natural repugnance
which stood between them and the possibility of life. He commanded them
to banish sentiment and instinctive loathing, and think only of their
starving mother, brothers, and sisters whom they had left in camp, and
avail themselves of every means in their power to rescue them. He
begged that his body be used to sustain the famishing, and bidding each
farewell, his spirit left its bruised and worn tenement before half the
troubles of the night were passed.
About ten o'clock, pelting hail, followed by snow on the wings of a
tornado, swept every spark of fire from those shivering mortals, whose
voices now mingled with the shrieking wind, calling to heaven for
relief. Mr. Eddy, knowing that all would freeze to death in the
darkness if allowed to remain exposed, succeeded after many efforts in
getting them close together between their blankets where the snow
With the early morning, Patrick Dolan became delirious and left camp.
He was brought back with difficulty and forcibly kept under cover until
late in the day, when he sank into a stupor, whence he passed quietly
into that sleep which knows no waking.
The crucial hour had come. Food lay before the starving, yet every eye
turned from it and every hand dropped irresolute.
Another night of agony passed, during which Lemuel Murphy became
delirious and called long and loud for food; but the cold was so
intense that it kept all under their blankets until four o'clock in the
afternoon, when Mr. Eddy succeeded in getting a fire in the trunk of a
large pine tree. Whereupon, his companions, instead of seeking food,
crept forth and broke off low branches, put them down before the fire
and laid their attenuated forms upon them. The flames leaped up the
trunk, and burned off dead boughs so that they dropped on the snow
about them, but the unfortunates were too weak and too indifferent to
fear the burning brands.
Mr. Eddy now fed his waning strength on shreds of his concealed bear-meat,
hoping that he might survive to save the giver. The rest in camp
could scarcely walk, by the twenty-eighth, and their sensations of
hunger were deminishing. This condition forebode delirium and death,
unless stayed by the only means at hand. It was in very truth a pitiful
alternative offered to the sufferers.
With sickening anguish the first morsels were prepared and given to
Lemuel Murphy, but for him they were too late. Not one touched flesh of
kindred body. Nor was there need of restraining hand, or warning voice
to gauge the small quantity which safety prescribed to break the fast
of the starving. Death would have been preferable to that awful meal,
had relentless fate not said: "Take, eat that ye may live. Eat, lest ye
go mad and leave your work undone!"
All but the Indians obeyed the mandate, and were strengthened and
reconciled to prepare the remaining flesh to sustain them a few days
longer on their journey.
Hitherto, the wanderers had been guided partly by the fitful sun,
partly by Lewis and Salvador, the Indians who had come with Stanton
from Sutter's Fort. In the morning, however, when they were ready to
leave that spot, which was thereafter known as the "Camp of Death,"
Salvador, who could speak a little English, insisted that he and Lewis
were lost, and, therefore, unable to guide them farther.
Nevertheless, the party at once set out and travelled instinctively
until evening. The following morning they wrapped pieces of blanket
around their cracked and swollen feet and again struggled onward until
late in the afternoon, when they encamped upon a high ridge. There they
saw beyond, in the distance, a wide plain which they believed to be the
This imaginary glimpse of distant lowland gave them a peaceful sleep.
The entire day of December 31 was spent in crossing a canon, and every
footstep left its trace of blood in the snow.
When they next encamped, Mr. Eddy saw that poor Jay Fosdick was
failing, and he begged him to summon up all his courage and energy in
order to reach the promised land, now so near. They were again without
food; and William Foster, whose mind had become unbalanced by the long
fast, was ready to kill Mrs. McCutchen or Miss Graves. Mr. Eddy
confronted and intimidated the crazed sufferer, who next threatened
the Indian guides, and would have carried out his threat then, had Mr.
Eddy not secretly warned them against danger and urged them to flee.
But nothing could save the Indians from Foster's insane passion later,
when he found them on the trail in an unconscious and dying condition.
January 1, 1847, was, to the little band of eight, a day of less
distressing trials; its members resumed travel early, braced by
unswerving will-power. They stopped at midday and revived strength by
eating the toasted strings of their snowshoes. Mr. Eddy also ate his
worn out moccasins, and all felt a renewal of hope upon seeing before
them an easier grade which led to night-camp where the snow was only
six feet in depth. Soothed by a milder temperature, they resumed their
march earlier next morning and descended to where the snow was but
three feet deep. There they built their camp-fire and slightly crisped
the leather of a pair of old boots and a pair of shoes which
constituted their evening meal, and was the last of their effects
available as food.
An extraordinary effort on the third day of the new year brought them
to bare ground between patches of snow. They were still astray among
the western foothills of the Sierras, and sat by a fire under an oak
tree all night, enduring hunger that was almost maddening.
Jay Fosdick was sinking rapidly, and Mr. Eddy resolved to take the gun
and steal away from camp at dawn. But his conscience smote him, and he
finally gave the others a hint of his intention of going in search of
game, and of not returning unless successful. Not a moving creature nor
a creeping thing had crossed the trail on their journey thither; but
the open country before them, and minor marks well known to hunters,
had caught Mr. Eddy's eye and strengthened his determination. Mrs.
Pike, in dread and fear of the result, threw her arms about Mr. Eddy's
neck and implored him not to leave them, and the others mingled their
entreaties and protestations with hers. In silence he took his gun to
go alone. Then Mary Graves declared that she would keep up with him,
and without heeding further opposition the two set out. A short
distance from camp they stopped at a place where a deer had recently
With a thrill of emotion too intense for words, with a prayer in his
heart too fervent for utterance, Mr. Eddy turned his tearful eyes
toward Mary and saw her weeping like a child. A moment later, that man
and that woman who had once said that they knew not how to pray, were
kneeling beside that newly found track pleading in broken accents to
the Giver of all life, for a manifestation of His power to save their
starving band. Long restrained tears were still streaming down the
cheeks of both, and soothing their anxious hearts as they arose to go
in pursuit of the deer. J.Q. Thornton says:
They had not proceeded far before they saw a large buck about eighty
yards distant. Mr. Eddy raised his rifle and for some time tried to
bring it to bear upon the deer, but such was his extreme weakness
that he could not. He breathed a little, changed his manner of
holding the gun, and made another effort. Again his weakness
prevented him from being able to hold upon it. He heard a low,
suppressed sobbing behind him, and, turning around, saw Mary Graves
weeping and in great agitation, her head bowed, and her hands upon
her face. Alarmed lest she should cause the deer to run, Mr. Eddy
begged her to be quiet, which she was, after exclaiming, "Oh, I am
afraid you will not kill it."
He brought the gun to his face the third time, and elevated the
muzzle above the deer, let it descend until he saw the animal
through the sight, when the rifle cracked. Mary immediately wept
aloud, exclaiming, "Oh, merciful God, you have missed it!" Mr. Eddy
assured her that he had not; that the rifle was upon it the moment
of firing; and that, in addition to this, the animal had dropped its
tail between its legs, which this animal always does when wounded.
His belief was speedily confirmed. The deer ran a short distance,
then fell, and the two eager watchers hastened to it as fast as
their weakened condition would allow. Mr. Eddy cut the throat of the
expiring beast with his pocket-knife, and he and his companion knelt
down and drank the warm blood that flowed from the wound.
The excitement of getting that blessed food, and the strength it
imparted, produced a helpful reaction, and enabled them to sit down in
peace to rest a while, before attempting to roll their treasure to the
tree near-by, where they built a fire and prepared the entrails.
Mr. Eddy fired several shots after dark, so that the others might know
that he had not abandoned them. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Foster, Mrs.
McCutchen, and Mrs. Pike had moved forward and made their camp half-way
between Mr. Eddy's new one and that of the previous night. Mr. Fosdick,
however, being too weak to rise, remained at the first camp. His
devoted wife pillowed his head upon her lap, and prayed that death
would call them away together. Mr. Thornton continues:
The sufferer had heard the crack of Mr. Eddy's rifle at the time he
killed the deer, and said, feebly, "There! Eddy has killed a deer!
Now, if I can only get to him I shall live!"
But in the stillness of that cold, dark night, Jay Fosdick's spirit
fled alone. His wife wrapped their only blanket about his body, and lay
down on the ground beside him, hoping to freeze to death. The morning
dawned bright, the sun came out, and the lone widow rose, kissed the
face of her dead, and, with a small bundle in her hand, started to join
Mr. Eddy. She passed a hunger-crazed man on the way from the middle
camp, going to hers, and her heart grew sick, for she knew that her
loved one's body would not be spared for burial rites.
She found Mr. Eddy drying his deer meat before the fire, and later saw
him divide it so that each of his companions in the camps should have
an equal share.
The seven survivors, each with his portion of venison, resumed travel
on the sixth and continued in the foothills a number of days, crawling
up the ascents, sliding down the steeps; often harassed by fears of
becoming lost near the goal, yet unaware that they were astray.
The venison had been consumed. Hope had almost died in the heart of the
bravest, when at the close of day on the tenth of January, twenty-five
days from the date of leaving Donner Lake, they saw an Indian village
at the edge of a thicket they were approaching. As the sufferers
staggered forward, the Indians were overwhelmed at sight of their
misery. The warriors gazed in stolid silence. The squaws wrung their
hands and wept aloud. The larger children hid themselves, and the
little ones clung to their mothers in fear. The first sense of horror
having passed, those dusky mothers fed the unfortunates. Some brought
them unground acorns to eat, while others mixed the meal into cakes and
offered them as fast as they could cook them on the heated stones. All
except Mr. Eddy were strengthened by the food. It sickened him, and he
resorted to green grass boiled in water.
The following morning the chief sent his runners to other _rancherias,
en route_ to the settlement, telling his people of the distress of the
pale-faces who were coming toward them, and who would need food. When
the Forlorn Hope was ready to move on, the chief led the way, and an
Indian walked on either side of each sufferer supporting and helping
the unsteady feet. At each _rancheria_ the party was put in charge of a
new leader and fresh supporters.
On the seventeenth, the chief with much difficulty procured, for Mr.
Eddy, a gill of pine nuts which the latter found so nutritious that the
following morning, on resuming travel, he was able to walk without
support. They had proceeded less than a mile when his companions sank
to the ground completely unnerved. They had suddenly given up and were
willing to die. The Indians appeared greatly perplexed, and Mr. Eddy
shook with sickening fear. Was his great effort to come to naught?
Should his wife and babes die while he stood guard over those who would
no longer help themselves? No, he would push ahead and see what he yet
The old chief sent an Indian with him as a guide and support. Relieved
of the sight and personal responsibility of his enfeebled companions,
Mr. Eddy felt a renewal of strength and determination. He pressed
onward, scarcely heeding his dusky guide. At the end of five miles they
met another Indian, and Mr. Eddy, now conscious that his feet were
giving out, promised the stranger tobacco, if he would go with them and
help to lead him to the "white man's house."
And so that long, desperate struggle for life, and for the sake of
loved ones, ended an hour before sunset, when Mr. Eddy, leaning heavily
upon the Indians, halted before the door of Colonel M.D. Richey's home,
thirty-five miles from Sutter's Fort.
The first to meet him was the daughter of the house, whom he asked for
bread. Thornton says:
She looked at him, burst out crying, and took hold of him to assist
him into the room. He was immediately placed in bed, in which he lay
unable to turn his body during four days. In a very short time he
had food brought to him by Mrs. Richey, who sobbed as she fed the
miserable and frightful being before her. Shortly, Harriet, the
daughter, had carried the news from house to house in the
neighborhood, and horses were running at full speed from place to
place until all preparations were made for taking relief to those
whom Mr. Eddy had left in the morning.
William Johnson, John Howell, John Rhodes, Mr. Keiser, Mr. Sagur,
Racine Tucker, and Joseph Varro assembled at Mr. Richey's
immediately. The females collected the bread they had, with tea,
sugar, and coffee, amounting to as much as four men could carry.
Howell, Rhodes, Sagur, and Tucker started at once, on foot, with the
Indians as guides, and arrived at camp, between fifteen and eighteen
miles distant, at midnight.
Mr. Eddy had warned the outgoing party against giving the sufferers as
much food as they might want, but, on seeing them, the tender-hearted
men could not deny their tearful begging for "more." One of the relief
was kept busy until dawn preparing food which the rest gave to the
enfeebled emigrants. This overdose of kindness made its victims
temporarily very ill, but caused no lasting harm.
Early on the morning of January 18, Messrs. Richey, Johnson, Varro, and
Keiser, equipped with horses and other necessaries, hurried away to
bring in the refugees, together with their comrades who had gone on
before. By ten o'clock that night the whole of the Forlorn Hope were
safe in the homes of their benefactors. Mr. Richey declared that he and
his party had retraced Mr. Eddy's track six miles, by the blood from
his feet; and that they could not have believed that he had travelled
that eighteen miles, if they themselves had not passed over the ground
in going to his discouraged companions.
[Footnote 6: The experiences of the Donner Party, to which he refers in
a footnote, suggested to Bret Harte the opening chapters of "Gabriel
Conroy"; but he has followed the sensational accounts circulated by the
newspapers, and the survivors find his work a mere travesty of the
facts. The narrative, however, does not purport to set forth the truth,
but is confessedly imaginative.]
[Footnote 7: Mr. Eddy had killed the bear and dried the meat early in
[Footnote 8: His body was found there later by the First Relief Party.]
RELIEF MEASURES INAUGURATED IN CALIFORNIA--DISTURBED CONDITIONS BECAUSE
OF MEXICAN WAR--GENEROUS SUBSCRIPTIONS--THREE PARTIES ORGANIZE--"FIRST
RELIEF," UNDER RACINE TUCKER; "SECOND RELIEF" UNDER REED AND GREENWOOD;
AND RELAY CAMP UNDER WOODWORTH--FIRST RELIEF PARTY CROSSES SNOW-BELT
AND REACHES DONNER LAKE.
The kindness and sympathy shown Mr. Eddy by the good people in the
neighborhood of the Richey and Johnson ranches encouraged his efforts
in behalf of his fellow-sufferers in the mountains. While the early
sunlight of January 19 was flooding his room with cheer and warmth, he
dictated a letter to Mr. John Sinclair, Alcalde of the Upper District
of California, living near Sutter's Fort, in which he stated as briefly
as possible the conditions and perils surrounding the snow-bound
travellers, and begged him to use every means in his power toward their
Bear River was running high, and the plain between it and Sutter's Fort
seemed a vast quagmire, but John Rhodes volunteered to deliver the
letter. He was ferried over the river on a raft formed of two logs
lashed together with strips of rawhide. Then he rolled his trousers
above the knee and with his shoes in his hand, started on his mission.
He saw no white faces until he reached Sinclair's, where the letter
created a painful interest and won ready promises of help.
It was dark when he reached Sutter's Fort, nevertheless from house to
house he spread the startling report: "Men, women, and little children
are snow-bound in the Sierras, and starving to death!"
Captain Kerns in charge at the Fort, pledged his aid, and influence to
the cause of relief. Captain Sutter, who had already twice sent
supplies, first by Stanton and again by McCutchen and Reed, in their
unsuccessful attempt to cross the mountains, at once agreed to
cooeperate with Alcalde Sinclair.
While Captain Kerns at Sutter's Fort was sending messengers to
different points, and Mrs. Sinclair was collecting clothing to replace
the tattered garments of the members of the Forlorn Hope, her husband
despatched an open letter to the people of San Francisco, describing
the arrival of the survivors of the Forlorn Hope, and the heart-rending
condition of those remaining in the mountains. He urged immediate
action, and offered his services for individual work, or to cooeperate
with Government relief, or any parties that might be preparing to go
out with Messrs. Reed and McCutchen, who were known to be endeavoring
to raise a second expedition.
[Illustration: SUTTER'S FORT]
[Illustration: SAM BRANNAN'S STORE AT SUTTER'S FORT]
The letter was taken to the City Hotel in San Francisco, and read aloud
in the dining-room. Its contents aroused all the tender emotions
known to human nature. Some of the listeners had parted from members of
the Donner Party at the Little Sandy, when its prospects appeared so
bright, and the misfortunes which had since befallen the party seemed
incredible. Women left the room sobbing, and men called those passing,
in from the street, to join the knots of earnest talkers. All were
ready and willing to do; but, alas, the obstacles which had prevented
Mr. Reed getting men for the mountain work still remained to be
Existing war between Mexico and the United States was keeping
California in a disturbed condition. Most of the able-bodied male
emigrants had enlisted under Captain Fremont as soon as they reached
the country, and were still on duty in the southern part of the
province; and the non-enlisted were deemed necessary for the protection
of the colonies of American women and children encamped on the soil of
the enemy. Moreover, all felt that each man who should attempt to cross
the snow belt would do so at the peril of his life.
Mr. Reed, who in the late Autumn had sent petitions to the Military
Governor and to Lieutenant Washington A. Bartlett of the United States
Navy, Alcalde of the town and district of San Francisco, but as yet had
obtained nothing, now appeared before each in person, and was promised
assistance. Captain Mervine of the United States Navy, and Mr.
Richardson, United States Collector, each subscribed fifty dollars to
the cause on his own account.
As a result of these appeals, Alcalde Bartlett called a public meeting;
and so intense was the feeling that Mr. Dunleary, "the first speaker,
had scarcely taken his seat on the platform when the people rushed to
the chairman's table from all parts of the house with their hands full
of silver dollars," and could hardly be induced to stay their
generosity until the meeting was organized.
A treasurer and two committees were appointed; the one to solicit
subscriptions, and the other to purchase supplies. The Alcalde was
requested to act with both committees. Seven hundred dollars was
subscribed before the meeting adjourned. Seven hundred dollars, in an
isolated Spanish province, among newly arrived immigrants, was a
princely sum to gather.
Messrs. Ward and Smith, in addition to a generous subscription, offered
their launch _Dice mi Nana_, to transport the expedition to Feather
River, and Mr. John Fuller volunteered to pilot the launch.
It was decided to fit out an expedition, under charge of Past
Midshipman Woodworth, who had tendered his services for the purpose, he
to act under instructions of the Military Governor and cooeperate with
the committee aiding Reed.
Soon thereafter "Old Trapper Greenwood" appeared in San Francisco,
asking for assistance in fitting out a following to go to the mountains
with himself and McCutchen, Mr. George Yount and others in and around
Sonoma and Napa having recommended him as leader. Donations of horses,
mules, beef, and flour had already been sent to his camp in Napa
Valley. Furthermore, Lieut. William L. Maury, U.S.N., Commander at the
port; Don Mariano G. Vallejo, Ex-Commandante-General of California; Mr.
George Yount, and others subscribed the sum of five hundred dollars in
specie toward outfitting Greenwood and the men he should select to
cross the mountains.
Greenwood urged that he should have ten or twelve men on whom he could
rely after reaching deep snow. These, he said, he could secure if he
had the ready money to make advances and to procure the necessary warm
clothing and blankets. He had crossed the Sierras before, when the snow
lay deep on the summit, and now proposed to drive over horses and kill
them at the camps as provisions for the sufferers. If this scheme
should fail, he and his sons with others would get food to the camp on
snowshoes. Thornton says:
The Governor-General of California, after due form, and trusting to
the generosity and humanity of the Government which he represented,
appropriated four hundred dollars on Government account toward
outfitting this relief party. Furthermore, in compliance with an
application from Alcalde Bartlett (for the committee), Captain
Mervine, of the U.S. frigate _Savannah_, furnished from the ship's
stores ten days' full rations for ten men. The crews of the
_Savannah_ and the sloop _Warren_, and the marines in garrison at
San Francisco, increased the relief fund to thirteen hundred
dollars. Messrs. Mellus and Howard tendered their launch to carry
the party up the bay to Sonoma, and Captain Sutter proffered his
launch _Sacramento_ for river use.
It was now settled that the "Reed-Greenwood party" should go to
Johnson's ranch by way of Sonoma and Napa, and Woodworth with his
men and supplies, including clothing for the destitute, should go
by boat to Sutter's Landing; there procure pack animals, buy beef
cattle, and hurry on to the snow-belt; establish a relay camp,
slaughter the cattle, and render all possible aid toward the
immediate rescue of the snow-bound.
Meanwhile, before Alcalde Sinclair's letter had time to reach San
Francisco, he and Captain Sutter began outfitting the men destined to
become the "First Relief." Aguilla Glover and R.S. Moutrey volunteered
their services, declaring their willingness to undertake the hazardous
journey for the sake of the lives they might save.
To hasten recruits for service, Captain Sutter and Alcalde Sinclair
promised that in case the Government should fail to grant the sum, they
themselves would become responsible for the payment of three dollars
per day to each man who would get food through to the snow-bound camps.
Accordingly, Aguilla Glover and R.S. Moutrey, driving pack animals well
laden with warm clothing, blankets, and food supplies, left the Fort at
sunrise on the morning of February the first, and on the third reached
Johnson's ranch, where they joined Messrs. Tucker, Johnson, Richey and
others, who, being anxious to assist in the good work, had killed, and
were fire-drying, beef to take up the mountains. Here two days were
spent making pack-saddles, driving in horses, and getting supplies in
shape. Indians were kept at the handmill grinding wheat. Part of the
flour was sacked, and part converted into bread by the women in the
On the morning of the fifth of February, Alcalde Sinclair rode to
Johnson's ranch, and all things being ready, he appointed Racine Tucker
Captain of the company, and in touching words commended the heroic work
of its members, and bade them godspeed on their errand of mercy. When
ready to mount, he shook hands with each man, and recorded the names in
a note-book as follows:
Racine Tucker, Aguilla Glover, R.S. Moutrey, John Rhodes, Daniel
Rhodes, Edward Coffemeir, D. Richey, James Curtis, William Eddy,
William Coon, George Tucker, Adolph Brenheim, and John Foster.
This party is generally known as the "First Relief." Their route to the
snow-belt lay through sections of country which had become so soft and
oozy that the horses often sank in mire, flank deep; and the streams
were so swollen that progress was alarmingly slow. On the second day
they were driven into camp early by heavy rains which drenched
clothing, blankets, and even the provisions carefully stored under the
saddles and leather saddle-covers. This caused a delay of thirty-six
hours, for everything had to be sun or fire dried before the party
could resume travel.
Upon reaching Mule Springs, the party found the snow from three to four
feet deep, and, contrary to expectations, saw that it would be
impossible to proceed farther with the horses. Mr. Eddy was now ill of
fever, and unfit to continue the climb; whereupon his companions
promised to bring out his loved ones if he would return with Joe Varro,
whom Mr. Johnson had sent along to bring the pack animals home after
they should cease to be of use.
At Mule Springs, the party built a brush store-house for the extra
supplies and appointed George Tucker and William Coon camp-keepers.
Then they prepared packs containing jerked beef, flour, and bread, each
weighing between forty and seventy-five pounds, according to the
temperament and strength of the respective carriers. The following
morning ten men started on their toilsome march to Bear Valley, where
they arrived on the thirteenth, and at once began searching for the
abandoned wagon and provisions which Reed and McCutchen had cached the
previous Autumn, after their fruitless attempt to scale the mountains.
The wagon was found under snow ten feet in depth; but its supplies had
been destroyed by wild beasts. Warned by this catastrophe, the First
Relief decided to preserve its supplies for the return trip by hanging
them in parcels from ropes tied to the boughs of trees.
The ten kept together courageously until the fifteenth; then Mr. M.D.
Richey, James Curtis, and Adolph Brenheim gave up and turned back. Mr.
Tucker, fearing that others might become disheartened and do likewise,
guaranteed each man who would persevere to the end, five dollars per
diem, dating from the time the party entered the snow. The remaining
seven pushed ahead, and on the eighteenth, encamped on the summit
overlooking the lake, where the snow was said to be forty feet in
The following morning Aguilla Glover and Daniel Rhodes were so
oppressed by the altitude that their companions had to relieve them of
their packs and help them on to the cabins, which, as chronicled in a
previous chapter, the party reached on the nineteenth of February,
[Footnote 9: Of the Forlorn Hope.]
WATCHING FOR THE SECOND RELIEF PARTY--"OLD NAVAJO"--LAST FOOD IN CAMP.
After the departure of the First Relief we who were left in the
mountains began to watch and pray for the coming of the Second Relief,
as we had before watched and prayed for the coming of the First.
Sixteen-year-old John Baptiste was disappointed and in ill humor when
Messrs. Tucker and Rhodes insisted that he, being the only able-bodied
man in the Donner camp, should stay and cut wood for the enfeebled,
until the arrival of other rescuers. The little half-breed was a sturdy
fellow, but he was starving too, and thought that he should be allowed
to save himself.
After he had had a talk with father, however, and the first company of
refugees had gone, he became reconciled to his lot, and served us
faithfully. He would take us little ones up to exercise upon the snow,
saying that we should learn to keep our feet on the slick, frozen
surface, as well as to wade through slush and loose drifts.
Frequently, when at work and lonesome, he would call Georgia and me up
to keep him company, and when the weather was frosty, he would bring
"Old Navajo," his long Indian blanket, and roll her in it from one end,
and me from the other, until we would come together in the middle, like
the folds of a paper of pins, with a face peeping above each fold. Then
he would set us upon the stump of the pine tree while he chopped the
trunk and boughs for fuel. He told us that he had promised father to
stay until we children should be taken from camp, also that his home
was to be with our family forever. One of his amusements was to rake
the coals together nights, then cover them with ashes, and put the
large camp kettle over the pile for a drum, so that we could spread our
hands around it, "to get just a little warm before going to bed."
For the time, he lived at Aunt Betsy's tent, because Solomon Hook was
snow-blind and demented, and at times restless and difficult to
control. The poor boy, some weeks earlier, had set out alone to reach
the settlement, and after an absence of forty-eight hours was found
close to camp, blind, and with his mind unbalanced. He, like other
wanderers on that desolate waste, had become bewildered, and,
unconsciously, circled back near to the starting-point.
Aunt Betsy came often to our tent, and mother frequently went to hers,
and they knelt together and asked for strength to bear their burdens.
Once, when mother came back, she reported to father that she had
discovered bear tracks quite close to camp, and was solicitous that the
beast be secured, as its flesh might sustain us until rescued.
As father grew weaker, we children spent more time upon the snow above
camp. Often, after his wound was dressed and he fell into a quiet
slumber, our ever-busy, thoughtful mother would come to us and sit on
the tree trunk. Sometimes she brought paper and wrote; sometimes she
sketched the mountains and the tall tree-tops, which now looked like
small trees growing up through the snow. And often, while knitting or
sewing, she held us spell-bound with wondrous tales of "Joseph in
Egypt," of "Daniel in the den of lions," of "Elijah healing the widow's
son," of dear little Samuel, who said, "Speak Lord, for Thy servant
heareth," and of the tender, loving Master, who took young children in
his arms and blessed them.
With me sitting on her lap, and Frances and Georgia at either side, she
referred to father's illness and lonely condition, and said that when
the next "Relief" came, we little ones might be taken to the
settlement, without either parent, but, God willing, both would follow
later. Who could be braver or tenderer than she, as she prepared us to
go forth with strangers and live without her? While she, without
medicine, without lights, would remain and care for our suffering
father, in hunger and in cold, and without her little girls to kiss
good-morning and good-night. She taught us how to gain friends among
those whom we should meet, and what to answer when asked whose children
Often her eyes gazed wistfully to westward, where sky and mountains
seemed to meet, and she told us that beyond those snowy peaks lay
California, our land of food and safety, our promised land of
happiness, where God would care for us. Oh, it was painfully quiet some
days in those great mountains, and lonesome upon the snow. The pines
had a whispering homesick murmur, and we children had lost all
inclination to play.
The last food which I remember seeing in our camp before the arrival of
the Second Relief was a thin mould of tallow, which mother had tried
out of the trimmings of the jerked beef brought us by the First Relief.
She had let it harden in a pan, and after all other rations had given
out, she cut daily from it three small white squares for each of us,
and we nibbled off the four corners very slowly, and then around and
around the edges of the precious pieces until they became too small for
us to hold between our fingers.
ARRIVAL OF SECOND RELIEF, OR REED-GREENWOOD PARTY--FEW SURVIVORS STRONG
ENOUGH TO TRAVEL--WIFE'S CHOICE--PARTINGS AT DONNER CAMP--MY TWO
SISTERS AND I DESERTED--DEPARTURE OF SECOND RELIEF PARTY.
It was the first of March, about ten days after the arrival of the
First Relief, before James Reed and William McCutchen succeeded in
reaching the party they had left long months before. They, together
with Brit Greenwood, Hiram Miller, Joseph Jondro, Charles Stone, John
Turner, Matthew Dofar, Charles Cady, and Nicholas Clark constituted the
They reported having met the First Relief with eighteen refugees at the
head of Bear Valley, three having died _en route_ from the cabins.
Among the survivors Mr. Reed found his wife, his daughter Virginia, and
his son James F. Reed, Jr. He learned there from his anxious wife that
their two younger children, Martha J. and Thomas K. Reed, had also left
the cabin with her, but had soon given out and been carried back and
left at the mountain camp by Messrs. Glover and Moutrey, who then
retraced their steps and rejoined the party.
Consequently this Reed-Greenwood party, realizing that this was no time
for tarrying, had hurried on to the lake cabins, where Mr. Reed had the
happiness of finding his children still alive. There he and five
companions encamped upon the snow and fed and soothed the unfortunates.
Two members continued on to Aunt Betsy's abode, and Messrs. Cady and
Clark came to ours.
This Relief had followed the example of its predecessor in leaving
supplies at marked caches along the trail for the return trip.
Therefore, it reached camp with a frugal amount for distribution. The
first rations were doled out with careful hand, lest harm should come
to the famishing through overeating, still, the rescuers administered
sufficient to satisfy the fiercest cravings and to give strength for
the prospective journey.
While crossing Alder Creek Valley to our tent that first afternoon,
Messrs. Cady and Clark had seen fresh tracks of a bear and cubs, and in
the evening the latter took one of our guns and went in pursuit of the
game which would have been a godsend to us. It was dark when he
returned and told my mother that he had wounded the old bear near the
camp, but that she had escaped with her young through the pines into a
clump of tamarack, and that he would be able to follow her in the
morning by the blood-stains on the snow.
Meanwhile, the two men who had come to Aunt Betsy's with food thought
it best not to tell her that her son William had died _en route_ to the
settlement with the First Relief. They selected from among her
children in camp, Solomon, Mary, and Isaac, as able to follow a leader
to the lake cabins, and thence to go with the outgoing Second Relief,
across the mountains. Hopefully, that mother kissed her three children
good-bye, and then wistfully watched them depart with their rescuers on
snowshoes. She herself was strong enough to make the journey, but
remained because there was no one to help to carry out her two youngest
Thirty-one of the company were still in the camps when this party
arrived, nearly all of them children, unable to travel without
assistance, and the adults were too feeble to give much aid to the
little ones upon the snow. Consequently, when my father learned that
the Second Relief comprised only ten men, he felt that he himself would
never reach the settlement. He was willing to be left alone, and
entreated mother to leave him and try to save herself and us children.
He reminded her that his life was almost spent, that she could do
little for him were she to remain, and that in caring for us children
she would be carrying on his work.
She who had to choose between the sacred duties of wife and mother,
thought not of self. She looked first at her helpless little children,
then into the face of her suffering and helpless husband, and tenderly,
unhesitatingly, announced her determination to remain and care for him
until both should be rescued, or death should part them.
[Illustration: From an old drawing made from description furnished by
Wm. G. Murphy. ARRIVAL OF RELIEF PARTY, FEBRUARY 18, 1847]
[Illustration: Photograph by Lynwood Abbott. DONNER LAKE]
Perplexities and heartaches multiplied with the morning hours of the
following day. Mr. Clark, being anxious to provide more food, started
early to hunt the wounded bear. He had not been gone long, when Mr.
Stone arrived from the lake cabins and told Mr. Cady that the other
members of the Relief had become alarmed at gathering storm clouds, and
had resolved to select at once the ablest among the emigrants and
hasten with them across the summit, and to leave Clark, Cady, and
himself to cut the necessary fuel for the camps, and otherwise assist
the sufferers until the Third Relief should reach them.
Cady and Stone, without waiting to inform Clark, promptly decided upon
their course of action. They knew the scarcity of provisions in camp,
the condition of the trail over the mountains, the probability of long,
fierce March storms, and other obstacles which might delay future
promised relief, and, terror-stricken, determined to rejoin their
party, regardless of opposition, and return to the settlement.
Mother, fearing that we children might not survive another storm in
camp, begged Messrs. Cady and Stone to take us with them, offering them
five hundred dollars in coin, to deliver us to Elitha and Leanna at
Sutter's Fort. The agreement was made, and she collected a few
keepsakes and other light articles, which she wished us to have, and
which the men seemed more than willing to carry out of the mountains.
Then, lovingly, she combed our hair and helped us to dress quickly for
the journey. When we were ready, except cloak and hood, she led us to
the bedside, and we took leave of father. The men helped us up the
steps and stood us up on the snow. She came, put on our cloaks and
hoods, saying, as if talking to herself, "I may never see you again,
but God will take care of you."
Frances was six years and eight months old and could trudge along quite
bravely, but Georgia, who was little more than five, and I, lacking a
week of four years, could not do well on the heavy trail, and we were
soon taken up and carried. After travelling some distance, the men left
us sitting on a blanket upon the snow, and went ahead a short distance
where they stopped and talked earnestly with many gesticulations. We
watched them, trembling lest they leave us there to freeze. Then
"Don't feel afraid. If they go off and leave us, I can lead you back to
mother by our foot tracks on the snow."
After a seemingly long time, they returned, picked us up and took us on
to one of the lake cabins, where without a parting word, they left us.
The Second Relief Party, of which these men were members, left camp on
the third of March. They took with them seventeen refugees--the Breen
and Graves families, Solomon Hook, Isaac and Mary Donner, and Martha
and Thomas, Mr. Reed's two youngest children.
A FATEFUL CABIN--MRS. MURPHY GIVES MOTHERLY COMFORT--THE GREAT
STORM--HALF A BISCUIT--ARRIVAL OF THIRD RELIEF--"WHERE IS MY BOY?"
How can I describe that fateful cabin, which was dark as night to us
who had come in from the glare of day? We heard no word of greeting and
met no sign of welcome, but were given a dreary resting-place near the
foot of the steps, just inside the open doorway, with a bed of branches
to lie upon, and a blanket to cover us. After we had been there a short
time, we could distinguish persons on other beds of branches, and a man
with bushy hair reclining beside a smouldering fire.
Soon a child began to cry, "Give me some bread. Oh, give me some meat!"
Then another took up the same pitiful wail. It continued so long that I
wept in sympathy, and fastened my arms tightly around my sister
Frances' neck and hid my eyes against her shoulder. Still I heard that
hungry cry, until a husky voice shouted,
"Be quiet, you crying children, or I'll shoot you."
But the silence was again and again broken by that heart-rending plea,
and again and again were the voices hushed by the same terrifying
threat. And we three, fresh from our loving mother's embrace, believed
the awful menace no vain threat.
We were cold, and too frightened to feel hungry, nor were we offered
food that night, but next morning Mr. Reed's little daughter Mattie
appeared carrying in her apron a number of newly baked biscuits which
her father had just taken from the hot ashes of his camp fire. Joyfully
she handed one to each inmate of the cabin, then departed to join those
ready to set forth on the journey to the settlement. Few can know how
delicious those biscuits tasted, and how carefully we caught each
dropping crumb. The place seemed drearier after their giver left us,
yet we were glad that her father was taking her to her mother in
Soon the great storm which had been lowering broke upon us. We were not
exposed to its fury as were those who had just gone from us, but we
knew when it came, for snow drifted down upon our bed and had to be
scraped off before we could rise. We were not allowed near the fire and
spent most of our time on our bed of branches.
Dear, kind Mrs. Murphy, who for months had taken care of her own son
Simon, and her grandson George Foster, and little James Eddy, gave us a
share of her motherly attention, and tried to feed and comfort us.
Affliction and famine, however, had well nigh sapped her strength and
by the time those plaintive voices ceased to cry for bread and meat,
her willing hands were too weakened to do much for us.
I remember being awakened while there by two little arms clasped
suddenly and tightly about me, and I heard Frances say,
"No, she shall not go with you. You want to kill her!"
Near us stood Keseberg, the man with the bushy hair. In limping past
our sleeping place, he had stopped and said something about taking me
away with him, which so frightened my sisters that they believed my
life in danger, and would not let me move beyond their reach while we
remained in that dungeon. We spoke in whispers, suffered as much as the
starving children in Joseph's time, and were more afraid than Daniel in
the den of lions.
How long the storm had lasted, we did not know, nor how many days we
had been there. We were forlorn as children can possibly be, when Simon
Murphy, who was older than Frances, climbed to his usual "look out" on
the snow above the cabin to see if any help were coming. He returned to
us, stammering in his eagerness:
"I seen--a woman--on snow shoes--coming from the other camp! She's a
little woman--like Mrs. Donner. She is not looking this way--and may
Hardly had he spoken her name, before we had gathered around him and
were imploring him to hurry back and call our mother. We were too
excited to follow him up the steps.
She came to us quickly, with all the tenderness and courage needed to
lessen our troubles and soften our fears. Oh, how glad we were to see
her, and how thankful she appeared to be with us once more! We heard it
in her voice and saw it in her face; and when we begged her not to
leave us, she could not answer, but clasped us closer to her bosom,
kissed us anew for father's sake, then told how the storm had
distressed them. Often had they hoped that we had reached the cabins
too late to join the Relief--then in grieving anguish felt that we had,
and might not live to cross the summit.
She had watched the fall of snow, and measured its depth; had seen it
drift between the two camps making the way so treacherous that no one
had dared to cross it until the day before her own coming; then she
induced Mr. Clark to try to ascertain if Messrs. Cady and Stone had
really got us to the cabins in time to go with the Second Relief.
We did not see Mr. Clark, but he had peered in, taken observations, and
returned by nightfall and described to her our condition.
John Baptiste had promised to care for father in her absence. She left
our tent in the morning as early as she could see the way. She must
have stayed with us over night, for I went to sleep in her arms, and
they were still around me when I awoke; and it seemed like a new day,
for we had time for many cherished talks. She veiled from us the
ghastliness of death, telling us Aunt Betsy and both our little cousins
had gone to heaven. She said Lewis had been first to go, and his
mother had soon followed; that she herself had carried little Sammie
from his sick mother's tent to ours the very day we three were taken
away; and in order to keep him warm while the storm raged, she had laid
him close to father's side, and that he had stayed with them until "day
I asked her if Sammie had cried for bread. She replied, "No, he was not
hungry, for your mother saved two of those little biscuits which the
relief party brought, and every day she soaked a tiny piece in water
and fed him all he would eat, and there is still half a biscuit left."
How big that half-biscuit seemed to me! I wondered why she had not
brought at least a part of it to us. While she was talking with Mrs.
Murphy, I could not get it out of my mind. I could see that broken
half-biscuit, with its ragged edges, and knew that if I had a piece, I
would nibble off the rough points first. The longer I waited, the more
I wanted it. Finally, I slipped my arm around mother's neck, drew her
face close to mine and whispered,
"What are you going to do with the half-biscuit you saved?"
"I am keeping it for your sick father," she answered, drawing me closer
to her side, laying her comforting cheek against mine, letting my arm
keep its place, and my fingers stroke her hair.
The two women were still talking in subdued tones, pouring the oil of
sympathy into each others' gaping wounds. Neither heard the sound of
feet on the snow above; neither knew that the Third Relief Party was
at hand, until Mr. Eddy and Mr. Foster came down the steps, and each
asked anxiously of Mrs. Murphy, "Where is my boy?"
Each received the same sorrowful answer--"Dead."
THE QUEST OF TWO FATHERS--SECOND RELIEF IN DISTRESS--THIRD RELIEF
ORGANIZED AT WOODWORTH'S RELAY CAMP--DIVIDES AND ONE HALF GOES TO
SUCCOR SECOND RELIEF AND ITS REFUGEES; AND THE OTHER HALF PROCEEDS TO
DONNER LAKE--A LAST FAREWELL--A WOMAN'S SACRIFICE.
It will be remembered that Mr. Eddy, being ill, was dropped out of the
First Relief at Mule Springs in February, and sent back to Johnson's
Ranch to await the return of this party, which had promised to bring
out his family. Who can realize his distress when it returned with
eighteen refugees, and informed him that his wife and little Maggie had
perished before it reached the camps, and that it had been obliged to
leave his baby there in care of Mrs. Murphy?
Disappointed and aggrieved, the afflicted father immediately set out on
horseback, hoping that he would meet his child on the trail in charge
of the Second Relief, which it seemed reasonable to expect would follow
closely in the footsteps of the first. He was accompanied by Mr.
Foster, of the Forlorn Hope, who had been forced to leave his own
little son at the camp in charge of Mrs. Murphy, its grandmother.
On the evening of the second day, the two reached Woodworth's camp,
established as a relay station pursuant to the general plan of rescue
originally adopted. They found the midshipman in snug quarters with
several men to do his bidding. He explained that the lack of competent
guides had prevented his venturing among the snow peaks. Whereupon, Mr.
Eddy earnestly assured him that the trail of those who had already gone
up outlined the way.
After much deliberation, Woodworth and his men agreed to start out next
morning for the mountain camps, but tried to dissuade Mr. Eddy from
accompanying them on account of his apparent depleted condition.
Nevertheless both he and Mr. Foster remained firm, and with the party,
left the relay camp, crossed the low foothills and encamped for the
night on the Yuba River.
At dusk, Woodworth was surprised by the arrival of two forlorn-looking
individuals, whom he recognized as members of the Reed-Greenwood
Relief, which had gone up the mountain late in February and was
overdue. The two implored food for themselves, also for their seven
companions and three refugees, a mile back on the trail, unable to come
When somewhat refreshed, they were able to go more into detail, and the
following explanation of their plight was elicited:
"One of our men, Clark, is at Donner's Camp, and the other nine of us
left the cabins near the lake on the third of March, with seventeen of
the starving emigrants. The storm caught us as we crossed the summit,
and ten miles below, drove us into camp. It got so bad and lasted so
long that our provisions gave out, and we almost froze to death cutting
wood. We all worked at keeping the fires until we were completely
exhausted, then seeing no prospects of help coming to us, we left, and
made our way down here, bringing Reed's two children and Solomon Hook,
who said he could and would walk. The other fourteen that we brought
over the summit are up there at what we call Starved Camp. Some are
dead, the rest without food."
Woodworth and two followers went at once with provisions to the near-by
sufferers, and later brought them down to camp.
Messrs. Reed and Greenwood stated that every available means had been
tried by them to get the seventeen unfortunates well over the summit
before the great storm reached its height. They said the physical
condition of the refugees was such, from the very start, that no
persuasion, nor warnings, nor threats could quicken their feeble steps.
All but three of the number were children, with their hands and feet
more or less frozen. Worse still, the caches on which the party had
relied for sustenance had been robbed by wild animals, and the severity
of the storm had forced all into camp, with nothing more than a
breastwork of brush to shelter them. Mrs. Elisabeth Graves died the
first night, leaving to the party the hopeless task of caring for her
emaciated babe in arms, and her three other children between the ages
of nine and five years. Soon, however, the five-year-old followed his
mother, and the number of starving was again lessened on the third
night when Isaac Donner went to sleep beside his sister and did not
waken. The storm had continued so furiously that it was impossible to
bury the dead. Days and nights were spent in steadfast struggling
against the threatening inevitable, before the party gave up; and
Greenwood and Reed, taking the two Reed children and also Solomon Hook,
who walked, started down the mountain, hoping to save their own lives
and perhaps get fresh men to complete the pitiful work which they had
been forced to abandon.
When Messrs. Reed and Greenwood closed their account of the terrible
physical and mental strain their party had undergone, "Mr. Woodworth
asked his own men of the relay camp, if they would go with him to
rescue those unfortunates at 'Starved Camp,' and received an answer in
The following morning there was an earnest consultation, and so
hazardous seemed the trail and the work to be done that for a time all
except Eddy and Foster refused to go farther. Finally, John Stark
stepped forward, saying,
"Gentlemen, I am ready to go and do what I can for those sufferers,
without promise of pay."
[Illustration: ARRIVAL OF THE CARAVAN AT SANTA FE]
[Illustration: ON THE BANKS OF THE SACRAMENTO RIVER]
By guaranteeing three dollars per day to any man who would get supplies
to the mountain camps, and fifty dollars in addition to each man who
should carry a helpless child, not his own, back to the settlement,
Mr. Eddy secured the services of Hiram Miller, who had just come
down with the Second Relief; and Mr. Foster hired, on the same terms,
Mr. Thompson from the relay camp. Mr. Woodworth offered like
inducements, on Government account, to the rest of his men, and before
the morning was far advanced, with William H. Eddy acting as leader,
William Foster, Hiram Miller, Mr. Thompson, John Stark, Howard Oakley,
and Charles Stone (who had left us little ones at the lake camp)
shouldered their packs and began the ascent.
Meanwhile how fared it at Starved Camp? Mr. and Mrs. Breen being left
there with their own five suffering children and the four other poor,
moaning little waifs, were tortured by situations too heart-rending for
description, too pitiful to seem true. Suffice it to relate that Mrs.
Breen shared with baby Graves the last lump of loaf sugar and the last
drops of tea, of that which she had denied herself and had hoarded for
her own babe. When this was gone, with quivering lips she and her
husband repeated the litany and prayed for strength to meet the
ordeal,--then, turning to the unburied dead, they resorted to the only
means left to save the nine helpless little ones.
When Mr. Eddy and party reached them, they found much suffering from
cold and crying for "something to eat," but not the wail which precedes
delirium and death.
This Third Relief Party settled for the night upon the snow near these
refugees, who had twice been in the shadow of doom; and after giving
them food and fire, Mr. Eddy divided his force into two sections.
Messrs. Stark, Oakley, and Stone were to remain there and nurture the
refugees a few hours longer, then carry the small children, and conduct
those able to walk to Mule Springs, while Eddy and three companions
should hasten on to the cabins across the summit.
Section Two, spurred on by paternal solicitude, resumed travel at four
o'clock the following morning, and crossed the summit soon after
sunrise. The nearer they approached camp, the more anxious Messrs. Eddy
and Foster became to reach the children they hoped to find alive.
Finally, they rushed ahead, as we have seen, to the Murphy cabin. Alas!
only disappointment met them there.
Even after Mrs. Murphy had repeated her pitiful answer, "Dead," the
afflicted fathers stood dazed and silent, as if waiting for the loved
ones to return.
Mr. Eddy was the first to recover sufficiently for action. Presently
Simon Murphy and we three little girls were standing on the snow under
a clear blue sky, and saw Hiram Miller and Mr. Thompson coming toward
The change was so sudden it was difficult to understand what had
happened. How could we realize that we had passed out of that loathsome
cabin, never to return; or that Mrs. Murphy, too ill to leave her bed,
and Keseberg, too lame to walk, by reason of a deep cleft in his heel,
made by an axe, would have to stay alone in that abode of wretchedness?
Nor could we know our mother's anguish, as she stepped aside to arrange
with Mr. Eddy for our departure. She had told us at our own camp why
she would remain. She had parted from us there and put us in charge of
men who had risked much and come far to do a heroic deed. Later she had
found us, abandoned by them, in time of direst need, and in danger of
an awful death, and had warmed and cheered us back to hope and
confidence. Now, she was about to confide us to the care of a party
whose leader swore either to save us or die with us on the trail. We
listened to the sound of her voice, felt her good-bye kisses, and
watched her hasten away to father, over the snow, through the pines,
and out of sight, and knew that we must not follow. But the influence
of her last caress, last yearning look of love and abiding faith will
go with us through life.
The ordeal through which she passed is thus told by Colonel Thornton,
after a personal interview with Mr. Eddy:
Mrs. George Donner was able to travel. But her husband was in a
helpless condition, and she would not consent to leave him while he
survived. She expressed her solemn and unalterable purpose, which no
danger or peril could change, to remain and perform for him the last
sad office of duty and affection. She manifested, however, the
greatest solicitude for her children, and informed Mr. Eddy that she
had fifteen hundred dollars in silver, all of which she would give
him, if he would save the lives of the children.
He informed her that he would not carry out one hundred dollars of
all she had, but that he would save her children or die in the
effort. The party had no provisions to leave for the sustenance of
these unhappy, unfortunate beings.
After remaining about two hours, Mr. Eddy informed Mrs. Donner that
he was constrained by force of circumstances to depart. It was
certain that George Donner would never rise from the miserable bed
upon which he had lain down, worn by toil and wasted by famine.
A woman was probably never before placed in circumstances of greater
or more peculiar trial; but her duty and affection as a wife
triumphed over all her instincts of reason.
The parting scene between parent and children is represented as
being one that will never be forgotten, so long as life remains or
memory performs its functions.
My own emotions will not permit me to attempt a description which
language, indeed, has not power to delineate. It is sufficient to
say that it was affecting beyond measure; and that the last words
uttered by Mrs. Donner in tears and sobs to Mr. Eddy were, "Oh,
save, save my children!"
[Footnote 10: Extract from Thornton's work.]
[Footnote 11: Thornton saw Eddy pay Hiram Miller the promised fifty
dollars after the Third Relief reached the settlement.]
[Footnote 12: See McGlashan's "History of the Donner Party."]
SIMON MURPHY, FRANCES, GEORGIA, AND I TAKEN FROM THE LAKE CABINS BY THE
THIRD RELIEF--NO FOOD TO LEAVE--CROSSING THE SNOW--REMNANT OF THE
SECOND RELIEF OVERTAKEN--OUT OF THE SNOW--INCIDENTS OF THE
JOURNEY--JOHNSON'S RANCH--THE SINCLAIR HOME--SUTTER'S FORT.
When we left the lake cabin, we still wore the clothing we had on when
we came from our tent with Messrs. Cady and Stone. Georgia and I were
clad in quilted petticoats, linsey dresses, woollen stockings, and
well-worn shoes. Our cloaks were of a twilled material, garnet, with a
white thread interwoven, and we had knitted hoods to match. Frances'
clothing was as warm; instead of cloak, however, she wore a shawl, and
her hood was blue. Her shoes had been eaten by our starving dog before
he disappeared, and as all others were buried out of reach, mother had
substituted a pair of her own in their stead.
Mr. Foster took charge of Simon Murphy, his wife's brother, and Messrs.
Eddy and Miller carried Georgia and me. Mr. Eddy always called Georgia
"my girl," and she found great favor in his eyes, because in size and
looks she reminded him of his little daughter who had perished in that
Our first stop was on the mountain-side overlooking the lake, where we
were given a light meal of bread and meat and a drink of water. When we
reached the head of the lake, we overtook Nicholas Clark and John
Baptiste who had deserted father in his tent and were hurrying toward
the settlement. Our coming was a surprise to them, yet they were glad
to join our party.
After our evening allowance of food we were stowed snugly between
blankets in a snow trench near the summit of the Sierras, but were so
hungry that we could hardly get to sleep, even after being told that
more food would do us harm.
Early next morning we were again on the trail. I could not walk at all,
and Georgia only a short distance at a time. So treacherous was the way
that our rescuers often stumbled into unseen pits, struggled among snow
drifts, and climbed icy ridges where to slip or fall might mean death
in the yawning depth below.
Near the close of this most trying day, Hiram M. Miller put me down,
saying wearily, "I am tired of carrying you. If you will walk to that
dark thing on the mountain-side ahead of us, you shall have a nice lump
of loaf sugar with your supper."
My position in the blanket had been so cramped that my limbs were stiff
and the jostling of the march had made my body ache. I looked toward
the object to which he pointed. It seemed a long way off; yet I wanted
the sugar so much that I agreed to walk. The wind was sharp. I
shivered, and at times could hardly lift my feet; often I stumbled and
would have fallen had he not held my hand tightly, as he half led,
half drew me onward. I did my part, however, in glad expectation of the
promised bit of sweetness. The sun had set before we reached our
landmark, which was a felled and blackened tree, selected to furnish
fuel for our night fire. When we children were given our evening
allowance of food, I asked for my lump of sugar, and cried bitterly on
being harshly told there was none for me. Too disappointed and fretted
to care for anything else, I sobbed myself to sleep.
Nor did I waken happy next morning. I had not forgotten the broken
promise, and was lonesome for mother. When Mr. Miller told me that I
should walk that day as far as Frances and Georgia did, I refused to go
forward, and cried to go back. The result was that he used rough means
before I promised to be good and do as he commanded. His act made my
sister Frances rush to my defence, and also, touched a chord in the
fatherly natures of the other two men, who summarily brought about a
more comfortable state of affairs.
When we proceeded on our journey, I was again carried by Mr. Miller in
a blanket on his back as young children are carried by Indians on long
journeys. My head above the blanket folds bobbed uncomfortably at every
lurch. The trail led up and down and around snow peaks, and under
overhanging banks that seemed ready to give way and crush us.
At one turn our rescuers stopped, picked up a bundle, and carefully
noted the fresh human foot prints in the snow which indicated that a
number of persons were moving in advance. By our fire that night, Mr.
Eddy opened the bundle that we had found upon the snow, and to the
surprise of all, Frances at once recognized in it the three silk
dresses, silver spoons, small keepsakes, and articles of children's
clothing which mother had intrusted to the care of Messrs. Cady and
The spoons and smaller articles were now stowed away in the pockets of
our rescuers for safekeeping on the journey; and while we little girls
dressed ourselves in the fresh underwear, and watched our discarded
garments disappear in the fire, the dresses, which mother had planned
should come to us later in life, were remodelled for immediate use.
Mr. Thompson pulled out the same sharp pocket-knife, coarse black
thread, and big-eyed needle, which he had used the previous evening,
while making Frances a pair of moccasins out of his own gauntlet
gloves. With the help of Mr. Eddy, he then ripped out the sleeves, cut
off the waists about an inch above the skirt gathers, cut slits in the
skirts for arm-holes, and tacked in the sleeves. Then, with mother's
wish in mind, they put the dove-colored silk on Frances, the light
brown on Georgia, and the dark coffee-brown on me. Pleats and laps in
the skirt bands were necessary to fit them to our necks. Strings were
tied around our waists, and the skirts tacked up until they were of
walking length. These ample robes served for cloaks as well as dresses
for we could easily draw our hands back through the sleeves and keep
our arms warm beneath the folds. Thus comfortably clad, we began
another day's journey.
Before noon we overtook and passed Messrs. Oakley, Stone, and Stark,
having in charge the following refugees from Starved Camp: Mr. and Mrs.
Patrick Breen and their five children; Mary Donner, Jonathan Graves,
Nancy Graves, and baby Graves. Messrs. Oakley and Stone were in
advance, the former carrying Mary Donner over his shoulder; and the
latter baby Graves in his arms. Great-hearted John Stark had the care
of all the rest. He was broad-shouldered and powerful, and would stride
ahead with two weaklings at a time, deposit them on the trail and go
back for others who could not keep up. These were the remnant of the
hopeful seventeen who had started out on the third of March with the
Second Relief, and with whom mother had hoped we children would cross
It was after dark when our own little party encamped at the crossing of
the Yuba River. The following morning Lieutenant Woodworth and
attendants were found near-by. He commended the work done by the Third
Relief; yet, to Mr. Eddy's dismay, he declared that he would not go to
the rescue of those who were still in the mountains, because the warmer
weather was melting the snow so rapidly that the lives of his men would
be endangered should he attempt to lead them up the trail which we had
just followed down. He gave our party rations, and said that he would
at once proceed to Johnson's Ranch and from there send to Mule Springs
the requisite number of horses to carry to the settlement the persons
now on the trail.
Our party did not resume travel until ten o'clock that morning;
nevertheless, we crossed the snow line and made our next camp at Mule
Springs. There we caught the first breath of spring-tide, touched the
warm, dry earth, and saw green fields far beyond the foot of that cold,
cruel mountain range. Our rescuers exclaimed joyfully, "Thank God, we
are at last out of the snow, and you shall soon see Elitha and Leanna,
and have all you want to eat."
Our allowance of food had been gradually increased and our improved
condition bore evidence of the good care and kind treatment we had
received. We remained several days at Mule Springs, and were
comparatively happy until the arrival of the unfortunates from Starved
Camp, who stretched forth their gaunt hands and piteously begged for
food which would have caused death had it been given to them in
sufficient quantities to satisfy their cravings.
When I went among them I found my little cousin Mary sitting on a
blanket near Mr. Oakley, who had carried her thither, and who was
gently trying to engage her thoughts. Her wan face was wet with tears,
and her hands were clasped around her knee as she rocked from side to
side in great pain. A large woollen stocking covered her swollen leg
and frozen foot which had become numb and fallen into the fire one
night at Starved Camp and been badly maimed before she awakened to
feel the pain. I wanted to speak to her, but when I saw how lonesome
and ill she looked, something like pain choked off my words.
Her brother Isaac had died at that awful camp and she herself would not
have lived had Mr. Oakley not been so good to her. He was now
comforting her with the assurance that he would have the foot cared for
by a doctor as soon as they should reach the settlement; and she,
believing him, was trying to be brave and patient.
We all resumed travel on horseback and reached Johnson's Ranch about
the same hour in the day. As we approached, the little colony of
emigrants which had settled in the neighborhood the previous Autumn
crowded in and about the two-roomed adobe house which Mr. Johnson had
kindly set apart as a stopping place for the several relief parties on
their way to and from the mountains. All were anxious to see the
sufferers for whose rescue they had helped to provide.
Survivors of the Forlorn Hope and of the First Relief were also there
awaiting the arrival of expected loved ones. There Simon Murphy, who
came with us, met his sisters and brother; Mary Graves took from the
arms of Charles Stone, her slowly dying baby sister; she received from
the hands of John Stark her brother Jonathan and her sister Nancy, and
heard of the death of her mother and of her brother Franklin at Starved
Camp. That house of welcome became a house of mourning when Messrs.
Eddy and Foster repeated the names of those who had perished in the
snows. The scenes were so heart-rending that I slipped out of doors and
sat in the sunshine waiting for Frances and Georgia, and thinking of
her who had intrusted us to the care of God.
Before our short stay at the Johnson Ranch ended, we little girls had a
peculiar experience. While standing in a doorway, the door closed with
a bang upon two of my fingers. My piercing cry brought several persons
to the spot, and one among them sat down and soothed me in a motherly
way. After I was myself again, she examined the dress into which
Messrs. Thompson and Eddy had stitched so much good-will, and she said:
"Let me take off this clumsy thing, and give you a little blue dress
with white flowers on it." She made the change, and after she had
fastened it in the back she got a needle and white thread and bade me
stand closer to her so that she might sew up the tear which exposed my
knees. She asked why I looked so hard at her sewing, and I replied,
"My mother always makes little stitches when she sews my dresses."
No amount of pulling down of the sleeves or straightening out of the
skirt could conceal the fact that I was too large for the garment. As I
was leaving her, I heard her say to a companion, "That is just as good
for her, and this will make two for my little girl." Later in the day
Frances and Georgia parted with their silks and looked as forlorn as I
in calico substitutes.
Oh, the balm and beauty of that early morning when Messrs. Eddy,
Thompson, and Miller took us on horseback down the Sacramento Valley.
Under the leafy trees and over the budding blossoms we rode. Not
rapidly, but steadily, we neared our journey's end. Toward night, when
the birds had stopped their singing and were hiding themselves among
bush and bough, we reached the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Sinclair on
the American River, thirty-five miles from Johnson's Ranch and only two
and a half from Sutter's Fort.
That hospitable house was over-crowded with earlier arrivals, but as it
was too late for us to cross the river, sympathetic Mrs. Sinclair said
that she would find a place for us. Having no bed to offer, she
loosened the rag-carpet from one corner of the room, had fresh straw
put on the floor, and after supper, tucked us away on it, drawing the
carpet over us in place of quilts.
We had bread and milk for supper that night, and the same good food
next day. In the afternoon we were taken across the river in an Indian
canoe. Then we followed the winding path through the tules to Sutter's
Fort, where we were given over to our half-sisters by those heroic men
who had kept their pledge to our mother and saved our lives.
ELITHA AND LEANNA--LIFE AT THE FORT--WATCHING THE COW PATH--RETURN OF
THE FALLON PARTY--KESEBERG BROUGHT IN BY THEM--FATHER AND MOTHER DID
The room in which Elitha and Leanna were staying when we arrived at
Sutter's Fort was part of a long, low, single-story adobe building
outside the fortification walls, and like others that were occupied by
belated travellers, was the barest and crudest structure imaginable. It
had an earthen floor, a thatched roof, a batten door, and an opening in
the rear wall to serve as window.
We little ones were oblivious of discomfort, however. The tenderness
with which we were received, and the bewildering sense of safety that
we felt, blinded us even to the anguish and fear which crept over our
two sisters, when they saw us come to them alone. How they suffered I
learned many years later from Elitha, who said, in referring to those
After Sister Leanna and I reached the Fort with the First Relief, we
were put in different families to await our parents; but as soon as
the Second Relief was expected, we went to housekeeping, gathered
wood, and had everything ready. No one came. Then we waited and
watched anxiously for the Third Relief, and it was a sad sight to
see you three and no more.
I went in, kindled the fire, and gave you supper. I had a bed of
shavings hemmed in with poles for father and mother. They did not
come. We five lay down upon it, and Sister Leanna and I talked long
after you three were asleep, wondering what we should do. You had no
clothes, except those you wore, so the next day I got a little
cotton stuff and commenced making you some. Sister Leanna did the
cooking and looked after you, which took all her time.
The United States Army officer at the Port had left orders at
Captain Sutter's store, that we should be furnished with the
necessaries of life, and that was how we were able to get the food
and few things we had when you arrived.
Messrs. Eddy and Thompson did not tell my sisters that they had no
expectation of father's getting through, and considered mother's chance
very slight, but went directly to the Fort to report to Colonel
McKinstrey and to Mr. Kerns what their party had accomplished, and to
inform them that Lieutenant Woodworth was about to break camp and
return to the settlement instead of trying to get relief to the four
unfortunates still at the mountain camp.
Very soon thereafter, a messenger on horseback from the Fort delivered
a letter to Lieutenant Woodworth, and a fourth party was organized,
"consisting of John Stark, John Rhodes, E Coffeymier, John Del, Daniel
Tucker, Wm. Foster, and Wm. Graves. But this party proceeded no farther
than Bear Valley on account of the rapidly melting snows."
The return of the party after its fruitless efforts was not made known
to Elitha and Leanna; nor were they aware that Thomas Fallon, with six
companions, had set out for the mountain camps on the tenth of April.
Neither fear nor misgivings troubled us little ones the morning we
started out, hand in hand, to explore our new surroundings. We had
rested, been washed, combed, and fed, and we believed that father and
mother would soon come to us. Everything was beautiful to our eyes. We
did not care if "the houses did look as if they were made of dry dirt
and hadn't anything but holes for windows." We watched the mothers
sitting on the door sills or on chairs near them laughing as they
talked and sewed, and it seemed good to see the little children at play
and hear them singing their dolls to sleep.
The big gate to the adobe wall around Captain Sutter's home was open,
and we could look in and see many white-washed huts built against the
back and side walls, and a flag waving from a pole in front of the
large house, which stood in the middle of the ground. Cannons like
those we had seen at Fort Laramie were also peeping out of holes in
these walls, and an Indian soldier and a white soldier were marching to
and fro, each holding a gun against his shoulder, and it pointing
straight up in the air.
[Illustration: ELITHA DONNER (MRS. BENJAMIN WILDER)]
[Illustration: LEANNA DONNER (MRS. JOHN APP)]
[Illustration: MARY DONNER]
[Illustration: GEORGE DONNER, NEPHEW OF CAPT. DONNER]
Often we looked at each other and exclaimed, "How good to be here
instead of up in the snow." It was hard to go back to the house when
sisters called us. I do not remember the looks or the taste of
anything they gave us to eat. We were so eager to stay out in the
sunshine. Before long, we went to that dreary, bare room only to sleep.
Many of the women at the Fort were kind to us; gave us bread from their
scant loaves not only because we were destitute, but because they had
grateful recollection of those whose name we bore.
Once a tall, freckle-faced boy, with very red hair, edged up to where I
was watching others at play, and whispered:
"See here, little gal, you run get that little tin cup of yourn, and
when you see me come out of Mrs. Wimmer's house with the milk pail on
my arm, you go round yonder to the tother side of the cow-pen, where
you'll find a hole big enough to put the cup through. Then you can
watch me milk it full of the nicest milk you ever tasted. You needn't
say nothing to nobody about it. I give your little sister some last
time, and I want to do the same for you. I hain't got no mother
neither, and I know how it is."
When I got there he took the cup and, as he sat down under old Bossy,
smilingly asked if I liked lots of foam. I told him I did. He milked a
faster, stronger stream, then handed me the cup, full as he could carry
it, and a white cap of foam stood above its rim. I tasted it and told
him it was too good to drink fast, but he watched me until it was all
gone. Then, saying he didn't want thanks, he hurried me back to the
children. I never saw that boy again, but have ever been grateful for
his act of pure kindness.
Every day or two a horse all white with lather and dripping with sweat
would rush by, and the Indian or white man on his back would guide him
straight to Captain Kerns' quarters, where he would hand out papers and
letters. The women and children would flock thither to see if it meant
news for them. Often they were disappointed and talked a great deal
about the tediousness of the Mexican War and the delays of Captain
Fremont's company. They wanted the war to end, and their men folk back
so that they could move and get to farming before it should be too late
to grow garden truck for family use.
While they thus anxiously awaited the return of their soldiers, we kept
watch of the cow-path by which we had reached the Fort; for Elitha had
told us that we might "pretty soon see the relief coming." She did not
say, "with father and mother"; but we did, and she replied, "I hope
Back to Full Books