The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate
Eliza Poor Donner Houghton
Part 5 out of 6
would have crossed the plains with us had her father granted her wish.
She was particularly fond of us "three little ones" whom she had
caressed in babyhood. She related many pleasing incidents connected
with those days, and spoke feelingly, yet guardedly, of our experiences
in the mountains. Like Elitha, she hoped we would forget them, and as
she watched me cheerfully adapting myself to new surroundings, she
imagined that time and circumstances were dimming the past from my
She did not understand me. I was light-hearted because I was old enough
to appreciate the blessings that had come to me; old enough to look
ahead and see the pure, intelligent womanhood opening to me; and
trustful enough to believe that my expectations in life would be
realized. So I gathered counsel and comfort from the lips of that
sympathetic cousin, and loved her word pictures of the home where I was
Nor could change of circumstances wean my grateful thoughts from
Grandpa and Grandma Brunner. At times, I seemed to listen for the sound
of his voice, and to hear hers so near and clear that in the night, I
often started up out of sleep in answer to her dream calls. Finally I
determined to disregard her parting words, and write her. Georgia was
sure that I would get a severe answer, but Elitha's ready permission
made the letter easier to write. Weeks elapsed without a reply, and I
had about given up looking for it, when late in August, William, the
youngest Wilder brother, saddled his horse, and upon mounting, called
"I'm off to Sacramento, Eliza, to bring you that long-expected letter.
It was misdirected, and is advertised in _The Sacramento Union's_ list
of uncalled-for mail."
He left me in a speculative mood, wondering if it was from grandma;
which of her many friends had written it for her; and if it was severe,
as predicted by Georgia. Great was my delight when the letter was
handed me, and I opened it and read:
SONOMA, _July 3, 1856_
To Miss ELIZA P. DONNER:
CASADOR RANCHO, COSUMNE RIVER
NEAR SACRAMENTO CITY.
Your letter of the fifteenth of June came duly to hand, giving me
great satisfaction in regard to your health, as well as keeping me
and grandfather in good memory.
I have perused the contents of your letter with great interest. I am
glad to learn that you enjoy a country life. We have sold lately
twelve cows, and are milking fifteen at present. You want to know
how Flower is coming on: had you not better come and see for
yourself? Hard feelings or ill will we have none against you; and
why should I not forgive little troubles that are past and gone by?
I know that you saw grandfather in Sacramento; he saw you and knew
you well too. Why did you not go and speak to him?
The roses you planted on Jacob's grave are growing beautifully, and
our garden looks well. Grandfather and myself enjoy good health, and
we wish you the same for all time to come. We give you our love, and
In parental affection,
MARY AND CHRISTIAN BRUNNER.
(Give our love also to Georgia.)
Georgia was as much gratified by the contents of the letter as I, and
we each sent an immediate answer, addressed to grandpa and grandma,
expressing our appreciation of their forgiving words, regret for
trouble and annoyances we had caused them, thanks for their past
kindness, and the hope that they would write to us again when
convenient. We referred to our contentment in our new home, and avoided
any words which they might construe as a wish to return.
There was no long waiting for the second letter, nor mistake in
address. It was dated just three days prior to the first anniversary of
our leaving Sonoma, and here speaks for itself:
SONOMA, _Sept. 11, 1856_
GEORGIA AND ELIZA DONNER.
MY DEAR CHILDREN:
Your two letters dated August thirty-first reached us in due
We were glad to hear from you, and it is our wish that you do well.
Whenever you are disposed to come to us again our doors shall be
open to you, and we will rejoice to see you.
We are glad to see that you acknowledge your errors, for it shows
good hearts, and the right kind of principles; for you should always
remember that in showing respect to old age you are doing yourself
honor, and those who know you will respect you. All your cows are
I am inclined to think that the last letter we wrote you, you did
not get. We mention this to show you that we always write to you.
Your mother desires to know if you have forgotten the time when she
used to have you sleep with her, each in one arm, showing the great
love and care she had for you; she remembers, and can't forget.
Your grandfather informs you that he still keeps the butcher shop,
and bar-room, and that scarcely a day passes without his thinking of
you. He still feels very bad that you did not, before going away,
come to him and say "Good-bye grandfather." He forgives you,
however, and hopes you will come and see him. When you get this
letter you must write.
Letters following the foregoing assured us that grandma had become
fully satisfied that the stories told her by Mrs. Stein were untrue.
She freely acknowledged that she was miserable and forlorn without us,
and begged us to return to the love and trust which awaited us at our
old home. This, however, we could not do.
Before the close of the Winter, Frances and Georgia began preparations
for boarding school in Sacramento, and I being promised like
opportunities for myself later, wrote all about them to grandma,
trusting that this course would convince her that we were permanently
separated from her, and that Elitha and her husband had definite plans
for our future. I received no response to this, but Georgia's first
communication from school contained the following paragraph:
I saw Sallie Keiberg last week, who told me that her mother had a
letter from the old lady (Grandma Brunner) five weeks ago. A man
brought it. And that the old lady had sent us by him some jewellery,
gold breast-pins, earrings, and wristlets. He stopped at the William
Tell Hotel. And that is all they know about him and the presents.
TRAGEDY IN SONOMA--CHRISTIAN BRUNNER IN A PRISON CELL--ST. CATHERINE'S
CONVENT AT BENICIA--ROMANCE OF SPANISH CALIFORNIA--THE BEAUTIFUL ANGEL
IN BLACK--THE PRAYER OF DONA CONCEPCION ARGUELLO REALIZED--MONASTIC
Time passed. Not a word had come to me from Sonoma in months, when
Benjamin handed me the _Union_, and with horror I read the headlines to
which he pointed: "TRAGEDY IN SONOMA. CHRISTIAN BRUNNER, AN OLD
RESIDENT, SLAYS HIS OWN NEPHEW!"
From the lurid details published, I learned that the Brunners had asked
this nephew to come to them, and had sent him money to defray his
expenses from Switzerland to California. Upon his arrival in Sonoma, he
had settled himself in the proffered home, and at once begun a life of
extravagance, at the expense of his relatives. He was repeatedly warned
against trifling with their affection, and wasting their hard-earned
riches. Then patience ceased, and he was forbidden the house of his
Meanwhile, his aunt became seriously ill, and the young man visited her
secretly, and prevailed upon her to give him, in the event of her
death, certain cattle and other property which stood in her name. She,
however, recovered health; and he in the presence of his uncle,
insisted that she had given him the property outright, and he wanted
possession. This made trouble between the old couple, and the wife took
refuge with friends in San Francisco. The night after her departure,
the husband entered his own room and found the nephew in his bed.
Thoroughly enraged, he ordered him up and out of his sight, and was
insolently told by the young man that he was owner of that property and
in rightful possession of the same. At this, his uncle snatched his
pistol from the table at the bedside, and fired the fatal shot.
This almost incredible news was so harrowing that I could scarcely
think of anything, except grandpa chained in a prison cell, grandma in
hiding away from home, and excited groups of people gathering about the
thoroughfares of Sonoma discussing the tragedy.
I was not sorry that at this time an epidemic of measles broke out in
Sacramento, and Georgia became one of its early victims. This brought
both girls back to the ranch, and during Georgia's convalescence, we
had many serious talks about the Brunners' troubles. We wrote to
grandma, but received no answer, and could only wait to learn what
would be done with grandpa. He was arraigned and held; but the date set
for trial was not fixed before Benjamin took Frances and Georgia to
Benicia, to enter the September term of St. Catherine's Convent School.
Upon Ben's return, I observed that he and Elitha were keeping from me
some mysterious but pleasurable secret. It came out a few days later
when Elitha began making a black and a white uniform which would fit no
one except me. When ready to try them on, she informed me that we would
have to sew early and late, that I might be ready to enter the convent
by the first of October, and thereby reap the benefit of the
institution's established custom--"That when more than two of a family
become pupils the same term, the third one shall be received free of
charge (except incidentals) with the understanding that the family thus
favored shall exert its influence toward bringing an additional pupil
into the school."
Friends who had religious prejudices advised Ben against putting us
under Catholic influence, but he replied good-naturedly: "The school is
excellent, the girls are Protestants, and I am not afraid. Besides, I
have told them all the horrible and uncanny stories that I have heard
about convents, and they will not care to meddle with anything outside
of the prescribed course of study."
He was twenty years older than I, and had such conservative and
dignified ways, that I often stood in awe of him. So when he let the
convent gate close behind us with a loud click and said, "Now, you are
a goner," I scanned his face apprehensively, but seeing nothing very
alarming, silently followed him through the massive door which was in
charge of a white-robed nun of the Dominican order.
[Illustration: ST. CATHERINE'S CONVENT AT BENICIA, CALIFORNIA]
[Illustration: CHAPEL, ST. CATHERINE'S CONVENT]
Presently Mother Mary Superior and my two sisters came to us in the
reception room and my brother deposited the fund for my school
incidentals, and after a brief conversation, departed. The preparations
in connection with my coming had been so rapidly carried out that I had
had little time in which to question or anticipate what my reception at
the convent might be. Now, however, Mother Mary, with open watch in
hand, stood before me, saying,
"Your sister Georgia cried twice as long as expected when she came;
still I will allow you the regular five minutes."
"I don't wish to cry," was my timid response.
"But," she insisted, "you must shed a few entrance tears to--" Before
she finished her sentence, and without thinking that it would be
overreaching a stranger's privilege, I impulsively threw my arms around
her neck, laid my cheek against hers, and whispered, "Please don't make
She drew me closer to her, and her lips touched my forehead, and she
said, "No, child, you need not." Then she bade me go with my sisters
and become acquainted with my new surroundings.
I was at once made to feel that I was welcome to every advantage and
privilege accorded to Frances and Georgia. The following Monday, soon
after breakfast, I slipped unobserved from the recreation room and made
my way to the children's dormitory, where Sister Mary Joseph was busily
engaged. I told her that I had come to help make beds and that I hoped
she would also let me wash or wipe the silverware used at the noon and
evening meals. She would not accept my services until she became
thoroughly satisfied that I had not offered them because I felt that I
was expected to do so, but because I earnestly desired to do whatever I
could in return for the educational and cultural advantages so freely
tendered me by the convent.
By the end of the week I knew the way to parts of the buildings not
usually open to pupils. Up in the clothes room, I found Sister Mary
Frances, and on assuring her that I only wanted occupation for part of
my leisure time, she let me help her to sort and distribute the
clothing of the small girls, on Saturdays. Sister Rose let me come to
her in the kitchen an hour on Sundays, and other light tasks were
assigned me at my request.
Then did I eat the bread of independence, take a wholesome interest in
my studies, and enjoy the friends I gained!
My seat in the refectory was between my sister Georgia and Miss
Cayitana Payne, a wealthy Spanish girl. Near neighbors were the two
Estudillo sisters, who were prouder of their Castilian lineage than of
the princely estate which they had inherited through it. To them I was
in a measure indebted for pleasing conversation at table. My abundant
glossy black hair and brunette type had first attracted their
attention, and suggested the probability of Spanish blood in my veins.
After they had learned otherwise, those points of resemblance still
awoke in them an unobtrusive interest in my welfare. I became aware of
its depth one evening in the recreation room while Georgia was home
for a month on sick leave.
I was near Miss Dolores Estudillo, and overheard her say quietly to her
sister, in Spanish, "Magdalena, see how care-free the young girl at my
side seems to The far-away look so often in her eyes leads me to think
that our dear Lord has given her many crosses to bear. Her hands show
marks of hard work and her clothing is inexpensive, yet she appears of
good birth and when I can throw pleasure in her way, I mean to do it."
Whereupon Miss Magdalena turned to me and asked, "Do you live in
Sacramento, Miss Donner?"
"No, I live on a ranch twenty miles from the city."
"Do your parents like it there?"
"I have no parents, they died when I was four years old."
She did not ask another question, nor did she know that I had caught
the note of sympathy in her apology as she turned away. From that time
on, she and her coterie of young friends showed me many delicate
While still a new pupil, I not infrequently met Sister Dominica resting
at the foot of the steps after her walk in the sunshine, and with a
gracious, "Thank you," she would permit me to assist her up the flight
of stairs leading to her apartment. Bowed by age, and wasted by
disease, she was patiently awaiting the final summons. I became deeply
interested in her before I learned that this wan bit of humanity was
the once winsome daughter of Commandante Arguello, and the heroine of
a pathetic romance of Spanish California's day.
The hero was Rezanoff, an officer of high repute, sent by Russia in
1806 to inspect its establishment at the port of Sitka, Alaska. Finding
the colony there in almost destitute condition, he had embarked on the
first voyage of a Russian vessel to the port of San Francisco,
California. There being no commercial treaty between the two ports,
Rezanoff made personal appeal for help to Governor Arrillago, and later
to Commandante Arguello. After many difficulties and delays, he
succeeded in obtaining the sorely needed supplies.
Meanwhile, the young officer frequently met in her father's house the
vivacious Dona Concepcion Arguello, and Cupid soon joined their hearts
with an immortal chain.
After their betrothal, Rezanoff hastened back to the destitute colony
with supplies. Then he sped on toward St. Petersburg, buoyant with a
lover's hope of obtaining his sovereign's sanction to his marriage, and
perhaps an appointment to Spain, which would enable him to give his
bride a distinguished position in the country of her proud ancestors.
Alas, death overtook the lover _en route_ across the snows of Siberia.
When Dona Concepcion learned of her bereavement, her lamentations were
tearless, her sorrow inconsolable. She turned from social duties and
honors, and, clad in mourning weeds, devoted her time and means to the
poor and the afflicted, among whom she became known and idolized as
"the beautiful angel in black." After the death of her parents, she
endowed St. Catherine's Convent with her inheritance, took the vows of
the Dominican nun, and the world saw her no more.
Early in her sorrow, she had prayed that death might come to her in the
season when the snow lay deep on Siberia's plain; and her prayer was
realized, for it was on a bleak winter morning that we pupils gathered
in silence around the breakfast table, knowing that Sister Dominica lay
upon her bier in the chapel.
The meal was nearly finished when Sister Amelda entered, and spoke to a
couple of the Spanish young ladies, who bowed and immediately withdrew.
As she came down the line selecting other Spanish friends of the dead,
she stopped beside me long enough to say:
"You also may go to her. You comforted her in life, and it is fitting
that you should be among those who keep the last watch, and that your
prayers mingle with theirs."
After her burial, which was consecrated by monastic rites, I returned
to the schoolroom with reverential memories of Sister Dominica, the
once "beautiful angel in black."
The school year closed in July, 1858, and I left the convent with
regret. The gentle, self-sacrificing conduct of the nuns had destroyed
the effect of the prejudicial stories I had heard against conventual
life. The tender, ennobling influences which had surrounded me had
been more impressive than any I had experienced during orphanhood, and
I dreaded what the noisy world might again have in store for me.
My sister Frances and William R. Wilder, who had been betrothed for
more than a year, and had kept their secret until we three returned
from the convent, were married November 24, 1858, and soon thereafter
moved to a pleasant home of their own on a farm adjoining Rancho de los
Cazadores. The following January, Georgia and I entered public school
in Sacramento, where we spent a year and a half in earnest and arduous
[Footnote 17: The subject of a poem by Bret Harte, and of a novel by
Mrs. Gertrude Atherton.]
THE CHAMBERLAIN FAMILY, COUSINS OF DANIEL WEBSTER--JEFFERSON GRAMMAR
SCHOOL--FURTHER CONFLICTING ACCOUNTS OF THE DONNER PARTY--PATERNAL
ANCESTRY--S.O. HOUGHTON--DEATH TAKES ONE OF THE SEVEN SURVIVING
Our school home in Sacramento was with friends who not only encouraged
our desire for knowledge, but made the acquirement pleasant. The head
of the house was Mr. William E. Chamberlain, cashier of D.O. Mills's
bank. His wife, Charlotte, was a contributor to _The Sacramento Union_
and leading magazines. Their daughter, Miss Florence, taught in the
public schools; and their son, William E., Jr., was a high-school
student, preparing for Harvard.
In addition to their superior personal attainments, Mr. and Mrs.
Chamberlain, each--for they were cousins--had the distinction of being
first cousins to Daniel Webster, and this fact also served to bring to
their home guests of note and culture. Georgia and I were too closely
occupied with lessons to venture often beyond the school-girl precinct,
but the intellectual atmosphere which pervaded the house, and the books
to which we had access, were of inestimable advantage. Furthermore, the
tuition fees required of non-resident pupils entitled them to choice
of district, and we fortunately had selected Jefferson Grammar School,
No. 4, in charge of Mr. Henry A. White, one of the ablest educators in
Several resident families had also taken advantage of this privilege,
and elected to pay tuition and place their children under his
instruction, thus bringing together forty-nine energetic boys and girls
to whet each other's ambition and incite class rivalry. Among the
number were the five clever children of the Hon. Tod Robinson; three
sons of Judge Robert Robinson; Colonel Zabriskie's pretty daughter
Annie; Banker Swift's stately Margaret; General Redding's two sons; Dr.
Oatman's son Eugene; beloved Nelly Upton, daughter of the editor of
_The Sacramento Union_; Daniel Yost; Agnes Toll, the sweet singer; and
Eliza Denison, my chum.
At the end of the term, _The Daily Union_ closed its account of the
public examination of Jefferson Grammar School with the following
statement: "Among Mr. White's pupils are two young ladies, survivors of
the terrible disaster which befell the emigration of 1846 among the
snows of the California mountains."
Even this cursory reference was a matter of regret to Georgia and me.
We had entered school silent in regard to personal history, and did not
wish public attention turned toward ourselves even in an indirect way,
fearing it might lead to a revival of the false and sensational
accounts of the past, and we were not prepared to correct them, nor
willing they should be spread. Pursued by these fears, we returned to
the ranch, where Elitha and her three black-eyed little daughters
welcomed our home-coming and brightened our vacation.
Almost coincident, however, with the foregoing circumstance, Georgia
came into possession of "What I Saw in California," by Edwin Bryant;
and we found that the book did contain many facts in connection with
our party's disaster, but they were so interwoven with wild rumors, and
the false and sensational statements quoted from _The California Star_,
that they proved nothing, yet gave to the untrue that appearance of
truth which is so difficult to correct.
The language employed in description seemed to us so coarse and brutal
that we could not forgive its injustice to the living, and to the
memory of the dead. We could but feel that had simple facts been
stated, there would have been no harrowing criticism on account of long
unburied corpses found in the lake cabins. Nor would the sight of
mutilated dead have suggested that the starving survivors had become
"gloating cannibals, preying on the bodies of their companions." Bare
facts would have shown that the living had become too emaciated, too
weak, to dig graves, or to lift or drag the dead up the narrow snow
steps, even had open graves awaited their coming. Aye, more, would have
shown conclusively that mutilation of the bodies of those who had
perished was never from choice, never cannibalistic, but dire
necessity's last resort to ease torturing hunger, to prevent loss of
reason, to save life. Loss of reason was more dreaded than death by
the starving protectors of the helpless.
Fair statements would also have shown that the First Relief reached the
camps with insufficient provision to meet the pressing needs of the
unfortunate. Consequently, it felt the urgency of haste to get as many
refugees as possible to Bear Valley before storms should gather and
delays defeat the purpose of its coming; that it divided what it could
conscientiously spare among those whom it was obliged to leave, cut
wood for the fires, and endeavored to give encouragement and hope to
the desponding, but did not remain long enough to remove or bury the
Each succeeding party actuated by like anxieties and precautions,
departed with its charges, leaving pitiable destitution behind; leaving
mournful conditions in camp,--conditions attributable as much to the
work of time and atmospheric agencies as to the deplorable expedients
to which the starving were again and again reduced.
With trembling hand Georgia turned the pages, from the sickening
details of the _Star_ to the personal observations of Edwin Bryant,
who in returning to the United States in the Summer of 1847, crossed
the Sierra Nevadas with General Kearney and escort, reached the lake
cabins June 22, and wrote as follows:
A halt was called for the purpose of interring the remains. Near the
principal lake cabin I saw two bodies entire, except the abdomens
had been cut open and entrails extracted. Their flesh had been
either wasted by famine or evaporated by exposure to dry
atmosphere, and presented the appearance of mummies. Strewn around
the cabins were dislocated and broken skulls (in some instances
sawed asunder with care for the purpose of extracting the brains).
Human skeletons, in short, in every variety of mutilation. A more
appalling spectacle I never witnessed. The remains were, by order of
General Kearney, collected and buried under supervision of Major
Sword. They were interred in a pit dug in the centre of one of the
cabins for a cache. These melancholy duties to the dead being
performed, the cabins, by order of Major Sword, were fired and, with
everything surrounding them connected with the horrible and
melancholy tragedy, consumed.
The body of (Captain) George Donner was found in his camp about
eight miles distant. He had been carefully laid out by his wife, and
a sheet was wrapped around the corpse. This sad office was probably
the last act she performed before visiting the camp of Keseberg. He
was buried by a party of men detailed for that purpose.
I knew the Donners well; their means in money and merchandise which
they had brought with them were abundant. Mr. Donner was a man of
about sixty, and was at the time of leaving the United States a
highly respectable citizen of Illinois, a farmer of independent
means. Mrs. Donner was considerably younger than her husband, an
energetic woman of refined education.
After Georgia left me, I reopened the book, and pondered its
revelations, many of them new to us both; and most of them I marked for
Bryant found no human bones at Donner's camp. His description of that
camp was all-important, proving that my father's body had not been
mutilated, but lay in his mountain hut three long months, sacred as
when left by my little mother, who had watched over him to the pitiful
end, had closed his eyes, folded his arms across his breast, and
wrapped the burial sheet about his precious form. There, too, was
proof of his last resting-place, just as had been told me in sight of
Jakie's grave, by the Cherokee woman in Sonoma.
The book had also a copy of Colonel McKinstrey's letter to the General
Relief Committee in San Francisco, reporting the return of the first
rescuers with refugees. In speaking of the destitution of the
unfortunates in camp, he used the following words sympathically:
When the party arrived at camp, it was obliged to guard the little
stock of provisions it had carried over the mountains on its back on
foot, for the relief of the poor beings, as they were in such a
starving condition that they would have immediately used up all the
little store. They even stole the buckskin strings from the party's
snowshoes and ate them.
I at once recognized this friendly paragraph as the one which had had
its kindness extracted, and been abbreviated and twisted into that
cruel taunt which I had heard in my childhood from the lips of
A careful study of Bryant's work increased my desire to sift that of
Thornton, for I had been told that it not only contained the "Fallon
Diary," but lengthier extracts from the _Star_, and I wanted to compare
and analyze those details which had been published as "Thrilling Events
in California History." I was unable to procure the book then, but
resolved to do so when opportunity should occur. Naturally, we who see
history made, are solicitous that it be accurately recorded, especially
when it vitally concerns those near to us.
[Illustration: Photograph by Lynwood Abbott. THE CROSS AT DONNER LAKE]
Shortly before school reopened, Georgia and I spent the day with cousin
Frances E. Bond; and in relating to her various incidents of our life,
we spoke of the embarrassment we had felt in class the day that Mr.
White asked every pupil whose ancestors had fought in the war of the
American Revolution to rise, and Georgia and I were the only ones who
remained seated. My cousin regarded us a moment and then said:
"Your Grandfather Eustis, although a widow's only son, and not yet
sixteen years of age, enlisted when the Revolutionary War began. He was
a sentinel at Old South Church, and finally, a prisoner aboard the
She would have stopped there, but we begged for all she knew about our
mother's people, so she continued, mingling advice with information:
"I would rather that you should not know the difference between their
position in life and your own; yet, if you must know it, the Eustis and
the Wheelwright families, from whom you are descended, are among the
most substantial and influential of New England. Their reputation,
however, is not a prop for you to lean on. They are on the Atlantic
coast, you on the Pacific; so your future depends upon your own merit
This revelation of lineage, nevertheless, was an added incentive to
strive for higher things; an inheritance more enduring than our little
tin box and black silk stockings which had belonged to mother.
An almost indescribable joy was mine when, at a gathering of the
school children to do honor to the citizens who had inaugurated the
system of public instruction in Sacramento, I beheld on the platform
Captain John A. Sutter. Memories both painful and grateful were evoked.
It was he who had first sent food to the starving travellers in the
Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was he who had laid his hand on my head,
when a forlorn little waif at the Fort, tenderly saying, "Poor little
girl, I wish I could give back what you have lost!"
To me, Captain Sutter had long been the embodiment of all that was good
and grand; and now I longed to touch his hand and whisper to him
gratitude too sacred for strangers' ears. But the opportunity was
withheld until riper years.
During our last term at school, Georgia's health was so improved that
my life was more free of cares and aglow with fairer promises. Miss
Kate Robinson and I were rivals for school honors, and I studied as I
never had studied before, for in the history, physiology, and rhetoric
classes, she pressed me hard. At the close of the session the record
showed a tie. Neither of us would accept determination by lot, and we
respectfully asked the Honorable Board of Education to withhold the
medal for that year.
About this time Georgia and I enjoyed a rare surprise. On his return
from business one day, Mr. Chamberlain announced that a
distinguished-appearing young lawyer, S.O. Houghton by name, had
stopped at the bank that afternoon, to learn our address and say that
he would call in the evening. We, knowing that he was the husband of
our "little cousin Mary," were anxious to meet him and to hear of her,
whom we had not seen since our journey across the snow. He came that
evening, and told us of the cozy home in San Jose to which he had taken
his young wife, and of her wish that we visit them the coming July or
Although letters had passed between us, up to this time we had known
little of Mary's girlhood life. After we parted, in 1847, she was
carried through to San Francisco, then called Yerba Buena, where her
maimed foot was successfully treated by the surgeon of the United
States ship _Portsmouth_. The citizens of that place purchased and
presented to her the one hundred _vara_ lot Number 38, and the lot
adjoining to her brother George. Mr. Reed was appointed her guardian
and given charge of her apportionment of funds realized from the sale
of goods brought from her father's tents. She became a member of the
Reed household in San Jose, and her life must have been cast in
pleasant lines, for she always spoke of Mr. and Mrs. Reed with filial
affection. Moreover, her brother had been industrious and prosperous,
and had contributed generously to her comfort and happiness.
Some weeks later, we took Mr. Houghton's report home to Elitha. We also
showed her a recent letter from Mary, sparkling with bright
anticipations--anticipations never to be realized; for we girls were
hardly settled on the ranch before a letter came from cousin George
Donner, dated Sacramento, June 20, 1860. From this we learned that he
had on that day been summoned to the bedside of his dying sister, and
had come from his home on Putah Creek as fast as horse could carry him,
yet had failed to catch the bay steamer; and while waiting for the next
boat, was writing to us who could best understand his state of mind.
Next, a note from San Jose informed us that Mrs. Mary M. Houghton died
June 21, 1860, leaving a namesake, a daughter two weeks old, and that
her brother had reached there in time for the funeral.
Of the seven Donners who had survived the disaster, she was the first
called by death, and we deeply mourned her loss, and grieved because
another little Mary was motherless. The following August, Mr. Houghton
made his first visit to Rancho de los Cazadores, and with fatherly
pride, showed the likeness of his little girl, and promised to keep us
all in touch with her by letter.
Mr. Houghton was closely identified with pioneer affairs, and we had
many friends in common, especially among officers and soldiers of the
Mexican War. He had enlisted in Company A of Stevenson's Regiment of
New York Volunteers when barely eighteen years of age; and sailed with
it from his native State on the twenty-sixth of September, 1846. After
an eventful voyage by way of Cape Horn, the good ship _Loo Choo_, which
bore him hither, cast anchor in the Bay of San Francisco, March 26,
1847, about the time the Third Relief was bringing us little girls
over the mountains. His company being part of the detachment ordered to
Mexico under Colonel Burton, he went at once into active service, was
promoted through intermediate grades, and appointed lieutenant, and
adjutant on the staff of Colonel Burton, before his twentieth year.
Following an honorable discharge at the close of the war, and a year's
exciting experiences in the gold fields, he settled in San Jose in
November, 1849, then the capital city. His knowledge of the Spanish and
French languages fitting him specially therefor, he turned his
attention to legislative and municipal matters. As clerk of the Senate
Judiciary Committee of the first session of the California Legislature,
he helped to formulate statutes for enactment, they being promulgated
in Spanish as well as English at that time. During the period between
1851 and 1860 he held several official positions, among them that of
president of the City Council; and on his twenty-fifth birthday he was
elected Mayor of San Jose. Meanwhile he had organized the Eagle Guard,
one of the first independent military companies in the State, and had
also been successively promoted from adjutant to ordnance officer, with
the rank of lieutenant-colonel, on Major-General Halleck's staff of the
State Militia. Moreover, he had completed the study of law in the
office of Judge W.T. Wallace, been admitted to the bar, and was now
actively engaged in the practice of his profession.
[Footnote 18: See Appendix for extract from _The California Star_.]
NEWS OF THE BRUNNERS--LETTERS FROM GRANDPA.
More than two years had elapsed since we had heard directly from
Sonoma, when, on the day before Thanksgiving, 1860, Judge Robert
Robinson and wife, of Sacramento, came to the ranch, and he, in his
pleasing way, announced that he and Mrs. Robinson had a little story to
tell, and a message to deliver, which would explain why they had
arrived unexpectedly to spend the national holiday with us. Then
seating himself, he bowed to his wife, and listened in corroborative
silence while she related the following incident:
"Last Summer when the Judge went on his circuit, he took the carriage,
and I accompanied him on his travels. One day we stopped for dinner at
the stage station between Sonoma and Santa Rosa. After we had
registered, the proprietor approached us, saying: 'I see you are from
Sacramento, and wonder if you know anything about a couple of young
girls by the name of Downie, who spent some time there in the public
school?' He seemed disappointed when we replied, 'We know Donners, but
not Downies.' 'Well,' he continued, 'they are strangers to me; but I am
interested in them on account of their former connection with an
unfortunate little old German woman who frequently comes in on the
stage that runs between Sonoma and Santa Rosa. She carries their
pictures in her hand-bag and tells a touching story about her happiness
when they lived with her.' Just then the stage stopped before the door,
and he, looking out, exclaimed, 'Why, she is among the passengers
to-day! With your permission, I'll bring her to you.'
"He introduced her as Mrs. Brunner, told her where we were from, and
asked her to show us the picture of her little girls. After shaking
hands with us, she took the seat offered, and nervously drew from her
reticule a handsomely inlaid case, which she opened and handed to us.
An expression of pride and tenderness lighted her worn features as
Judge and I at once exclaimed, pointing to one and then the other,
'Why, this is Georgia, and this, Eliza Donner. We know them well and
call them "our girls" in Sacramento!'"
"She sprang from her seat, and stood with one hand on Judge's shoulder,
and the other on mine, saying earnestly,
"'Yes! You do know my children? Be they well, and doing well?'
"We had to talk fast in order to answer all her questions, and a number
of listeners drew nearer and were considerably affected as the poor old
soul said, 'Please shake hands with me again for them, and tell them
that you talked with their old Grandma Brunner, that loves them now
just the same as when they was little.'
"Judge and I assured her that we would deliver her messages in person,
as soon as we should get time to look you up. After dinner we saw her
reseated in the stage, and the black silk reticule containing the
picture was upon her lap as the stage carried her homeward."
We learned from them further that grandpa had been convicted of
manslaughter and sentenced to San Quentin Prison for a term of eleven
years, and that grandma had been granted a divorce, and awarded all the
property, but was having great trouble because it had since become
involved and was being frittered away in litigation.
The information given by the Robinsons increased our uneasiness for our
trouble-worn friends. Since the tragedy, Georgia and I had often spoken
of them to one another, but to no one else. We knew that few could
understand them as we did, and we refrained from exposing them to
unnecessary criticism. Anxious as we were to comfort them, it was not
in our power to do more than endeavor again to reach them by letter.
The first was despatched to grandma at Sonoma, the day after the
departure of our guests; and shortly before Christmas I posted one to
grandpa. The former was answered quickly, and so pathetically that
brother Ben offered to take us to Sonoma for a visit in the early
Spring and then to see what could be done for grandma.
The letter to grandpa did not reach him until January 27, 1861, but his
reply left San Quentin by Wells-Fargo Express on the twenty-eighth of
January. It was a brave letter, closing with the following mystifying
Though I may be confined by prison walls, I wish those dear to me to
be happy and joyous as they can, and I trust in God to open a way
for me out of here, when I can see you all; which will make us all
Your affectionate grandfather,
His next communication contained a thrilling surprise which cleared the
lurking mystery of his former letter, and expressed such joyous
appreciation of his regained privileges that I once more quote his own
words, from the letter yellowed by age, which lies before me.
SONOMA, _March 25, 1861_
DEAR ELIZA AND GEORGIA:
Your kind and friendly letter reached me about ten days ago, and I
would have responded to the same right away, but waited a few days,
so that I could give you some good news, over which you, my dear
little girls, will surely rejoice, as you take so much interest in
everything which myself concerns. This news is that I am free again.
Last Tuesday I received, through the influence of friends, from the
Governor of the State of California, a full pardon, and am again in
Sonoma; and as soon as I have my business affairs in such a way
settled that I can leave for a week or two, I will come up and see
you. I have much to tell you which you will better understand
through a personal interview than by writing.
Georgia and I felt this news was almost too good to be true. We
wondered how soon he would come to see us; wondered also, if he and
grandma had met, and were glad that we had not taken the side of either
against the other.
"What next?" was the pertinent question uppermost in our minds. We
found the answer in _The Sacramento Daily Union_, early in April, under
title of "Romance in Real Life." After a brief review of the troubles
of the Brunners, and reference to their divorcement, the article
announced their recent remarriage.
This gratifying circumstance made our long intended trip to Sonoma
unnecessary, especially since the reunited couple seemed to have
retained the sympathy and loyalty of those who had known them in their
days of prosperity and usefulness.
ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST PONY EXPRESS.
I happened to be in Sacramento on the thirteenth day of April, 1861,
and found the city full of irrepressible excitement. Men on gayly
caparisoned horses galloping hither and thither, unfurled flags, and a
general air of expectancy on eager faces everywhere betokened an
occasion of rare moment. At times hats were swung aloft and cheers rang
out tumultuously, only to be hushed by the disappointing murmur, "Not
yet." But an instant's quiet, and there was a mad rush of the populace
toward Sutter's Fort; then again enthusiasm died, and the crowds ebbed
back up J Street, which, some eight or ten feet higher than any other
street in the city, extended straight as an arrow from the fort to
where the bay steamer lightly hugged the water front, puffing and
impatient to be off to San Francisco.
So the anxious waiting continued until the day was well on to its
close, when suddenly, vociferous cheers again rent the air, and this
time knew no cessation. What a din! With leap and outcry, all faced
Sutter's Fort. That was a spectacle to be remembered.
Pony! The pony, hurrah, hurrah! We see a dark speck in the distance.
It grows, as up J Street it comes. Now, the pony foams before us; now,
swift as the wind, it is gone. It passes reception committee, passes
escort. It reaches the water front; down the gang-plank it dashes; the
band plays, the whistle blows, the bell rings, the steamer catches the
middle of the stream and is off, leaving a trail of sparks and smoke in
the twilight, and bearing away the first "Pony Express," memorable in
The baffling problem is solved; the dream of years is realized;
expeditious mail service with the East is an accomplished fact.
No wonder the people cheered! It was a gigantic scheme, well conceived,
magnificently executed. Think of it, a stretch of two thousand miles of
mountain wild and desert plain covered in twelve days!
How was it done? Horses were tested and riders selected by weight and
power of endurance. The latter were boys in years--Bill Cody, the
youngest, said to be only fourteen years of age. The pouch was light,
its contents were limited--but how gladly five dollars per letter was
paid for those precious missives.
Every detail was carefully arranged. The first mount left St. Joseph,
Missouri, April 2; relay camps were established ten miles apart, with a
horse ever in readiness for instantaneous exchange, and a fresh rider,
mounted for the next run, was waiting at each successive hundred-mile
station along the entire route.
Small wonder those pioneers were beside themselves with enthusiastic
excitement. The minds of many reverted to personal experiences with ox
team, or jogtrot of horses or mule train. Here was the Overland Stage
outdone; even the speed with which Monk Hanks brought Horace Greeley
over the mountains was at discount.
WAR AND RUMORS OF WAR--MARRIAGE--SONOMA REVISITED.
The Summer of 1861, now well advanced, was rife with war and rumors of
war, and foreshadowings of coming events. The old and the young were
flushed with patriotism, each eager to help his country's cause. I,
remembering grandma's training, was ready to give my services to
hospital work. Earnest as was this desire, however, I was dissuaded
from taking definite steps in that direction by those who knew that my
slender physique and girlish appearance would defeat my purpose before
the board of appointing physicians. Moreover, Mr. Houghton's visits and
frequent letters were changing my earlier plans for the future, and
finally led to my naming the tenth of October, 1861, as our wedding
The ceremony was solemnized by the Rev. J.A. Benton, of Sacramento. The
event is also noteworthy as being the occasion of the first reunion of
the five Donner sisters since their parting at Sutter's Fort in June,
1847. Georgia's place was by my side, while Elitha, Leanna, and Frances
each grouped with husband and children in front among friends, who had
come to witness the plighting of vows between my hero and me. Not
until I had donned my travelling suit, and my little white Swiss
wedding dress was being packed, did I fully realize that the days of
inseparable companionship between Georgia and me were past; She had
long been assured that in my new home a welcome would be ever ready for
her, yet she had thoughtfully answered, "No, I am not needed there, and
I feel that I am needed here."
Nature's wedding gift to us was a week of glorious weather, and its
first five days we passed in San Francisco, the bustling, historic
city, which I knew so well, yet had never seen before. Then we boarded
the afternoon boat up the bay, expecting to spend the evening and
following morning in Sonoma with Grandpa and Grandma Brunner, but the
vessel failed to reach Lakeside Landing in time to connect with the
northbound coach. This mischance necessitated our staying overnight at
the only hostelry in the place.
The cry, "All aboard for Sonoma!" hurried us from the table next
morning, and on reaching the sidewalk, we learned that the proprietor
of the hotel had bespoken the two best seats in the coach for us.
I was too happy to talk until after we crossed the Sonoma River, shaded
by grand old oak, sycamore, and laurel trees, and then onward, I was
too happy to remain silent. Before us lay the valley which brought back
memories of my childhood, and I was in a mood to recall only the
brightest, as we sped on to our destination. My companion shared my
delight and gave heed to each scene I called to his attention.
The coach stopped in front of the hotel, and we alighted upon almost
the same spot from which I had climbed into the carriage to leave
Sonoma six years earlier. But, oh, how changed was everything! One
sweeping glance at the little town revealed the fact that it had passed
its romantic age and lost its quickening spirit. Closed were the homes
of the old Spanish families; gone were the _caballeros_ and the
bright-eyed _senoritas_; grass-grown was the highway to the mines; the
flagstaff alone remained flushed with its old-time dignity and
importance. In subdued mood, I stepped into the parlor until our names
should be registered. When my husband returned, I said,
"The carpet on this floor, the chairs in this room, and the pictures on
these walls were in place in grandma's home when I left her--perhaps
she is no longer living."
He left me again to make inquiry concerning those whom we had come to
see, and ascertained that the Brunners had remarried for the purpose of
facilitating the readjustment of their property rights, and of rescuing
them from the hands of a scheming manager, who, with his family, was
now living on the estate, and caring for grandma, but would not permit
grandpa to enter the house.
After sending a messenger to find grandpa, I led the way to the open
door of the old home, then slipped aside to let my husband seek
admission. He rapped.
[Illustration: GENERAL VALLEJO'S CARRIAGE, BUILT IN ENGLAND IN 1832]
[Illustration: GENERAL VALLEJO'S OLD JAIL]
I heard a side door open, uneven footsteps in the hall, and him saying
quietly, "I think the old lady herself is coming, and you had better
meet her alone." I crossed the threshold, opened my arms, and uttered
the one word, "Grandma!"
She came and rested her head against my bosom and I folded my arms
about her just as she had enfolded me when I went to her a lonely child
yearning for love. She stirred, then drew back, looked up into my face
and asked, "Who be you?"
Touched by her wistful gaze, I exclaimed, "Grandma, don't you know me?"
"Be you Eliza?" she asked, and when I had given answer, she turned from
me in deepest emotion, murmuring, "No, no, it can't be my little
Eliza!" She would have tottered away had I not supported her to a seat
in the well-remembered living room and caressed her until she looked up
through her tears, saying, "When you smile, you be my little Eliza, but
when you look serious, I don't know you."
She inquired about Georgia, and how I came to be there without her.
Then she bade me call my husband, and thanked him for bringing me to
her. Forgetting all the faults and shortcomings that once had troubled
her sorely, she spoke of my busy childhood and the place I had won in
the affections of all who knew me.
A tender impulse took her from us a moment. She returned, saying, "Now,
you must not feel bad when you see what I have in the hand behind me,"
and drawing it forth continued, "This white lace veil which I bought at
Sutter's Fort when your mother's things were sold at auction, is to
cover my face when I am dead; and this picture of us three is to be
buried in the coffin with me. I want your husband to see how you looked
when you was little."
She appeared proudly happy; but a flame of embarrassment burned my
cheeks, as she handed him the picture wherein I showed to such
disadvantage, with the question, "Now, doesn't she look lovely?" and
heard his affirmative reply.
Upon the clock lay a broken toy which had been mine, and in childlike
ecstasy she spoke of it and of others which she had kept ever near her.
When invited to go to luncheon with us, she brought first her bonnet,
next her shawl, for me to hold while she should don her best apparel
for the occasion. Instead of going directly, she insisted on choosing
the longer road to town, that we might stop at Mrs. Lewis's to see if
she and her daughter Sallie would recognize me. Frequently as we walked
along, she hastened in advance, and then faced about on the road to
watch us draw near. When we reached Mrs. Lewis's door, she charged me
not to smile, and clapped her hands when both ladies appeared and
called me by name.
As we were taking leave, an aged horseman drew rein at the gate and
dismounted, and Mrs. Lewis looking up, exclaimed, "Why, there is Mr.
It did not take me long to meet him part way down the walk, nor did I
shrink from the caress he gave me, nor know how much joy and pain that
meeting evoked in him, even after he turned to Mr. Houghton saying
fervently, "Do not be angry because I kiss your wife and put my arms
around her, for she is my child come back to me. I helped raise her,
and we learned her to do all kinds of work, what is useful, and she was
my comfort child in my troubles."
My husband's reply seemed to dispel the recollections which had made
the reunion distressing, and grandpa led his horse and walked and
talked with us until we reached the turn where he bade us leave him
while he disposed of Antelope preparatory to joining us at luncheon.
Proceeding, we observed an increasing crowd in front of the hotel,
massed together as if in waiting. As we drew nearer, a way was opened
for our passage, and friends and acquaintances stepped forth, shook
hands with me and desired to be introduced to my husband. It was
apparent that the message which we had sent to grandpa early in the
day, stating the hour we would be at the hotel, had spread among the
people, who were now assembled for the purpose of meeting us.
Strangers also were among them, for I heard the whispered answer many
times, "Why, that is little Eliza Donner, who used to live with the
Brunners, and that is Mr. Houghton, her husband--they can only stay
until two o'clock." The hotel table, usually more than ample to
accommodate its guests, was not nearly large enough for all who
followed to the dining-room, so the smiling host placed another table
across the end for many who had intended to lunch at home that day.
Meantime, our little party was seated, with Mr. Houghton at the head of
the table, I at his right; grandpa opposite me, and grandma at my
right. She was supremely happy, would fold her hands in her lap and
say, "If you please," and "Thank you," as I served her; and I was
grateful that she claimed my attention, for grandpa's lips were mute.
He strove for calm, endeavoring to eat that he might the better conceal
the unbidden tears which coursed down his cheeks. Not until we reached
a secluded retreat for our farewell talk, did his emotion express
itself in words. Grasping my husband's hand he said:
"My friend, I must leave you. I broke bread and tasted salt with you,
but I am too heartsick to visit, or to say good-bye. You bring back my
child, a bride, and I have no home to welcome her in, no wedding feast,
or happiness to offer. I must see and talk with her in the house of
strangers, and it makes me suffer more than I can bear! But before I
go, I want you both to make me the promise that you will always work
together, and have but one home, one purse, one wish in life, so that
when you be old, you will not have to walk separately like we do. You
will not have bitter thoughts and blame one another."
Here grandma interrupted meekly, "I know I did wrong, but I did not
mean to, and I be sorry."
The pause which followed our given promise afforded me the opportunity
to clasp their withered hands together between mine, and gain from
grandpa an earnest pledge that he would watch over and be kind to her,
who had married him when he was poor and in ill health; who had toiled
for him through the long years of his convalescence; who had been the
power behind the throne, his best aid and counsellor, until time had
turned her back in its tide, and made her a child again.
My husband followed him from the room to bestow the sympathy and
encouragement which a strong man can give to a desponding one.
When the carriage was announced, which would take us to Benicia in time
to catch the Sacramento steamer to San Francisco, I tied on grandma's
bonnet, pinned her shawl around her shoulders, and told her that we
would take her home before proceeding on our way, but she crossed her
hands in front and artlessly whispered:
"No; I'd like to stay in town a while to talk with friends; but I thank
you just the same, and shall not forget that I am to go to you, after
you be settled in the new home, and his little daughter has learned to
call you 'mother.'"
We left her standing on the hotel piazza, smiling and important among
the friends who had waited to see us off; but grandpa was nowhere in
The steamer was at the landing when we reached Benicia so we hurriedly
embarked and found seats upon the deck overlooking the town. As the
moonlight glistened on the white spray which encircled our departing
boat, the sound of the Angelus came softly, sweetly, prayerfully over
the water; and I looking up and beyond, saw the glimmering lights of
Saint Catherine's Convent, fitting close to scenes of my childhood, its
silver-toned bells cheering my way to long life, honors, and many
Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding
small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds
FRIEDRICH VON LOGAU.
ARTICLES PUBLISHED IN _The California Star_--STATISTICS OF THE
PARTY--NOTES OF AGUILLA GLOVER--EXTRACT FROM THORNTON--RECOLLECTIONS OF
JOHN BAPTISTE TRUBODE.
In honor to the State that cherishes the landmark; in justice to
history which is entitled to the truth; in sympathetic fellowship with
those who survived the disaster; and in reverent memory of those who
suffered and died in the snow-bound camps of the Sierra Nevadas, I
refute the charges of cruelty, selfishness, and inhumanity which have
been ascribed to the Donner Party.
In this Appendix I set forth some of the unwarranted statements to
which frequent reference has been made in the foregoing pages, that
they may be examined and analyzed, and their utter unreliability
demonstrated by comparison with established facts and figures. These
latter data, for the sake of brevity, are in somewhat statistical form.
A few further incidents, which I did not learn of or understand until
long after they occurred, are also related.
The accounts of weather conditions, of scarcity of food and fuel, also
the number of deaths in the camps before the first of March, 1847, are
verified by the carefully kept "Diary of Patrick Breen, One of the
Donner Party," which has recently been published by the Academy of
Pacific Coast History.
The following article, which originally appeared in _The California
Star_, April 10, 1847, is here quoted from "The Life and Days of
General John A. Sutter," by T.J. Schoonover:
A more shocking scene cannot be imagined than was witnessed by the
party of men who went to the relief of the unfortunate emigrants in
the California Mountains. The bones of those who had died and been
devoured by the miserable ones that still survived were around their
tents and cabins; bodies of men, women, and children with half the
flesh torn from them lay on every side. A woman sat by the side of
the body of her dead husband cutting out his tongue; the heart she
had already taken out, broiled, and eaten. The daughter was seen
eating the father; and the mother, that [_viz._ body] of her
children; children, that of father and mother. The emaciated, wild,
and ghastly appearance of the survivors added to the horror of it.
Language can not describe the awful change that a few weeks of dire
suffering had wrought in the minds of the wretched and pitiable
beings. Those who one month before would have shuddered and sickened
at the thought of eating human flesh, or of killing their companions
and relatives to preserve their own lives, now looked upon the
opportunity the acts afforded them of escaping the most dreadful of
deaths as providential interference in their behalf.
Calculations were coldly made, as they sat around their gloomy camp
fires, for the next succeeding meals. Various expedients were
devised to prevent the dreadful crime of murder, but they finally
resolved to kill those who had least claims to longer existence.
Just at this moment some of them died, which afforded the rest
temporary relief. Some sank into the arms of death cursing God for
their miserable fate, while the last whisperings of others were
prayers and songs of praise to the Almighty. After the first few
deaths, but the one all-absorbing thought of individual
self-preservation prevailed. The fountains of natural affection
were dried up. The chords that once vibrated with connubial,
parental, and filial affection were torn asunder, and each one
seemed resolved, without regard to the fate of others, to escape
from impending calamity.
So changed had the emigrants become that when the rescuing party
arrived with food, some of them cast it aside, and seemed to prefer
the putrid human flesh that still remained. The day before the party
arrived, one emigrant took the body of a child about four years of
age in bed with him and devoured the whole before morning; and the
next day he ate another about the same age, before noon.
This article, one of the most harrowing to be found in print, spread
through the early mining-camps, and has since been quoted by historians
and authors as an authentic account of scenes and conduct witnessed by
the first relief corps to Donner Lake. It has since furnished style and
suggestion for other nerve-racking stories on the subject, causing
keener mental suffering to those vitally concerned than words can tell.
Yet it is easily proved to be nothing more or less than a perniciously
sensational newspaper production, too utterly false, too cruelly
misleading, to merit credence. Evidently, it was written without
malice, but in ignorance, and by some warmly clad, well nourished
person, who did not know the humanizing effect of suffering and sorrow,
and who may not have talked with either a survivor or a rescuer of the
When the Donner Party ascended the Sierra Nevadas on the last day of
October, 1846, it comprised eighty-one souls; namely, Charles
Berger, Patrick Breen, Margaret Breen (his wife), John Breen,
Edward Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., Simon Breen, James Breen, Peter
Breen, Isabella Breen, Jacob Donner, Elizabeth Donner (his
wife), William Hook, Solomon Hook, George Donner, Jr., Mary Donner,
Isaac Donner, Lewis Donner, Samuel Donner, George Donner,
Sr., Tamsen Donner (his wife), Elitha Donner, Leanna C. Donner,
Frances Eustis Donner, Georgia Anna Donner, Eliza Poor Donner, Patrick
Dolan, John Denton, Milton Elliot, William Eddy, Eleanor
Eddy (his wife), Margaret Eddy, and James Eddy, Jay Fosdick
and Sarah Fosdick (his wife), William Foster, Sarah Foster (his wife)
and George Foster, Franklin W. Graves, Sr., Elisabeth
Graves (his wife), Mary Graves, William C. Graves, Eleanor Graves,
Lovina Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan B. Graves, Franklin W. Graves,
Jr., and Elizabeth Graves, Jr., Noah James, Lewis S. Keseberg,
Philippine Keseberg (his wife), Ada Keseberg and Lewis S. Keseberg,
Jr., Mrs. Lovina Murphy (a widow), John Landrum Murphy,
Lemuel Murphy, Mary Murphy, William G. Murphy and Simon Murphy,
Mrs. Amanda McCutchen and Harriet McCutchen, Mrs. Harriet Pike
(widow), Nioma Pike and Catherine Pike, Mrs. Margaret Reed,
Virginia Reed, Martha J. Reed, James F. Reed, Jr., and Thomas K. Reed,
Joseph Rhinehart, Charles Stanton, John Baptiste Trubode,
August Spitzer, James Smith, Samuel Shoemaker, Bailis
Williams and Eliza Williams (his sister), Mrs. Woolfinger (widow),
Antonio (a Mexican) and Lewis and Salvador (the two Indians sent with
Stanton by General Sutter).
Stated in brief, the result of the disaster to the party in the
mountains was as follows:
The total number of deaths was thirty-six, as follows: fourteen in the
mountains while _en route_ to the settlement; fourteen at camp near
Donner Lake; and eight at Donner's Camp.
The total number who reached the settlement was forty-five; of whom
five were men, eight were women, and thirty-two were children.
The family of James F. Reed and that of Patrick Breen survived in
unbroken numbers. The only other family in which all the children
reached the settlement was that of Captain George Donner.
Fourteen of the eighty-one souls constituting the Donner Party were
boys and girls between the ages of nineteen and twelve years;
twenty-six ranged from twelve years to a year and a half; and seven
were nursing babes. There were only thirty-four adults,--twenty-two men
and twelve women.
Of the first-named group, eleven survived the disaster. One youth died
_en route_ with the Forlorn Hope; one at the Lake Camp; and one at Bear
Valley in charge of the First Relief.
Twenty of the second-named group also reached the settlements. One died
_en route_ with the First Relief; two at Donner's Camp (in March,
1847); two at Starved Camp, in charge of the Second Relief; and one at
the Lake Camp (in March).
Two of the seven babes lived, and five perished at the Lake Camp. They
hungered and slowly perished after famine had dried the natural flow,
and infant lips had drawn blood from maternal breasts.
The first nursling's life to ebb was that of Lewis Keseberg, Jr., on
January 24, 1847. His grief-stricken mother could not be comforted.
She hugged his wasted form to her heart and carried it far from camp,
where she dug a grave and buried it in the snow.
Harriet McCutchen, whose mother had struggled on with the Forlorn Hope
in search of succor, breathed her last on the second of February, while
lying upon the lap of Mrs. Graves; and the snow being deep and hard
frozen, Mrs. Graves bade her son William make the necessary excavation
near the wall within their cabin, and they buried the body there, where
the mother should find it upon her return. Catherine Pike died in the
Murphy cabin a few hours before the arrival of food from the settlement
and was buried on the morning of February 22.
[Illustration: Photograph by Lynwood Abbott. ALDER CREEK]
[Illustration: DENNISON'S EXCHANGE AND THE PARKER HOUSE, SAN FRANCISCO]
Those were the only babes that perished before relief came. Does not
the fact that so many young children survived the disaster refute the
charges of parental selfishness and inhumanity, and emphasize the
immeasurable self-sacrifice, love, and care that kept so many of the
little ones alive through that long, bitter siege of starvation?
Mrs. Elinor Eddy, who passed away in the Murphy cabin on the seventh of
February, was the only wife and mother called by death, in either camp,
before the arrival of the First Relief. Both Patrick Breen's diary and
William G. Murphy, then a lad of eleven years, assert that Mrs. Eddy
and little Margaret, her only daughter, were buried in the snow near
the Murphy cabin on the ninth of February. Furthermore, the Breen Diary
and the death-list of the Donner Party show that not a husband or
father died at the Lake Camp during the entire period of the party's
imprisonment in the mountains.
How, then, could that First Relief, or either of the other relief
parties see--how could they even have imagined that they saw--"wife
sitting at the side of her husband who had just died, mutilating his
body," or "the daughter eating her father," or "mother that of her
children," or "children that of father and mother"? The same questions
might be asked regarding the other revolting scenes pictured by the
The seven men who first braved the dangers of the icy trail in the work
of rescue came over a trackless, ragged waste of snow, varying from ten
to forty feet in depth, and approached the camp-site near the lake
at sunset. They halloed, and up the snow steps came those able to drag
themselves to the surface. When they descended into those cabins, they
found no cheering lights. Through the smoky atmosphere, they saw
smouldering fires, and faced conditions so appalling that words forsook
them; their very souls were racked with agonizing sympathy. There were
the famine-stricken and the perishing, almost as wasted and helpless as
those whose sufferings had ceased. Too weak to show rejoicing, they
could only beg with quivering lips and trembling hands, "Oh, give us
something to eat! Give us something to drink! We are starving!"
True, their hands were grimy, their clothing tattered, and the floors
were bestrewn with hair from hides and bits of broken bullock bones;
but of connubial, parental, or filial inhumanity, there were no signs.
With what deep emotion those seven heroic men contemplated the
conditions in camp may be gathered from Mr. Aguilla Glover's own notes,
published in Thornton's work:
Feb. 19, 1847. The unhappy survivors were, in short, in a condition
most deplorable, and beyond power of language to describe, or
imagination to conceive.
The emigrants had not yet commenced eating the dead. Many of the
sufferers had been living on bullock hides for weeks and even that
sort of food was so nearly exhausted that they were about to dig up
from the snow the bodies of their companions for the purpose of
prolonging their wretched lives.
Thornton's work contains the following statement by a member of one of
the relief corps:
On the morning of February 20, Racine Tucker, John Rhodes, and
Riley Moutrey went to the camp of George Donner eight miles distant,
taking a little jerked beef. These sufferers (eighteen) had but one
hide remaining. They had determined that upon consuming this they
would dig from the snow the bodies of those who had died from
starvation. Mr. Donner was helpless, Mrs. Donner was weak but in
good health, and might have come to the settlement with this party;
yet she solemnly but calmly determined to remain with her husband
and perform for him the last sad offices of affection and humanity.
And this she did in full view that she must necessarily perish by
remaining behind. The three men returned the same day with seven
refugees from Donner Camp.
John Baptiste Trubode has distinct recollections of the arrival and
departure of Tucker's party, and of the amount of food left by it.
He said to me in that connection:
"To each of us who had to stay in camp, one of the First Relief Party
measured a teacupful of flour, two small biscuits, and thin pieces of
jerked beef, each piece as long as his first finger, and as many pieces
as he could encircle with that first finger and thumb brought together,
end to end. This was all that could be spared, and was to last until
the next party could reach us.
"Our outlook was dreary and often hopeless. I don't know what I would
have done sometimes without the comforting talks and prayers of those
two women, your mother and Aunt Elizabeth. Then evenings after you
children went to sleep, Mrs. George Donner would read to me from the
book she wrote in every day. If that book had been saved, every one
would know the truth of what went on in camp, and not spread these
"I dug in the snow for the dead cattle, but found none, and we had to
go back to our saltless old bullock hide, days before the Second Relief
got to us, on the first of March."
[Footnote 19: Died while in the mountain camps.]
[Footnote 20: Died _en route_ over the mountains to the settlements in
[Footnote 21: Report brought by John Baptiste to Donner's Camp, after
one of his trips to the lake.]
[Footnote 22: Incident related by William C. Graves, after he reached
[Footnote 23: Franklin W. Graves and Jay Fosdick perished in December,
1846, while _en route_ to the settlement with the Forlorn Hope.]
[Footnote 24: One of the stamps near the Breen-Graves cabin, cut for
fuel while the snow was deepest, was found by actual measurement to be
twenty-two feet in height. It is still standing.]
[Footnote 25: Thornton's dates are one day later than those in the
Breen Diary. Breen must have lost a day _en route_.]
[Footnote 26: The First Relief Corps took six, instead of seven,
refugees from Donner Camp, and set out from the lake cabins with
twenty-three, instead of twenty-four, refugees.]
[Footnote 27: The journal, herbarium, manuscript, and drawings of Mrs.
George Donner were not among the goods delivered at the Fort by the
Fallon Party, and no trace of them was ever found.]
THE REED-GREENWOOD PARTY, OR SECOND RELIEF--REMINISCENCES OF WILLIAM G.
MURPHY--CONCERNING NICHOLAS CLARK AND JOHN BAPTISTE.
On the third of March, 1847, the Reed-Greenwood, or Second Relief Corps
(excepting Nicholas Clark) left camp with the following refugees:
Patrick Breen, Margaret Breen (his wife), Patrick Breen, Jr., Simon
Breen, James Breen, Peter Breen, Isabella Breen, Solomon Hook, Mary
Donner, Isaac Donner, Mrs. Elizabeth Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan B.
Graves, Franklin W. Graves, Jr., Elizabeth Graves, Jr., Martha J. Reed,
and Thomas K. Reed. The whole party, as has been already told, were
forced into camp about ten miles below the summit on the west side of
the Sierras, by one of the fiercest snow-storms of the season.
All credit is due Mr. and Mrs. Breen for keeping the nine helpless
waifs left with them at Starved Camp alive until food was brought them
by members of the Third Relief Party. Mr. Breen's much prized diary
does not cover the experiences of that little band in their struggle
across the mountains, but concludes two days before they started. After
he and his family succeeded in reaching the Sacramento Valley, he gave
his diary (kept at Donner Lake) to Colonel George McKinstrey for the
purpose of assisting him in making out his report to Captain Hall,
U.S.N., Sloop of War _Warren_, Commander Northern District of
James F. Reed of the Reed-Greenwood Party, the second to reach the
emigrants, has been adversely criticised from time to time, because he
and six of his men returned to Sutter's Fort in March with no more than
his own two children and Solomon Hook, a lad of twelve years, who had
said that he could and would walk, and did.
Careful investigation, however, proves the criticism hasty and unfair.
True, Mr. Reed went over the mountains with the largest and best
equipped party sent out, ten well furnished, able-bodied men. But
returning he left one man at camp to assist the needy emigrants.
The seventeen refugees whom he and nine companions brought over the
summit comprised three weak, wasted adults, and fourteen emaciated
young children. The prospect of getting them all to the settlement,
even under favorable circumstances, had seemed doubtful at the
beginning of the journey. Alas, one of the heaviest snow-storms of the
season overtook them on the bleak mountain-side ten miles from the tops
of the Sierra Nevadas. It continued many days. Food gave out, death
took toll. The combined efforts of the men could not do more than
provide fuel and keep the fires. All became exhausted. Rescuers and
refugees might have perished there together had the nine men not
followed what seemed their only alternative. Who would not have done
what Reed did? With almost superhuman effort, he saved his two
children. No one felt keener regret than he over the fact that he had
been obliged to abandon at Starved Camp the eleven refugees he had
heroically endeavored to save.
In those days of affliction, it were well nigh impossible to say who
was most afflicted; still, it would seem that no greater destitution
and sorrow could have been meted to any one than fell to the lot of
Mrs. Murphy at the lake camp. The following incidents were related by
her son, William G. Murphy, in an address to a concourse of people
assembled on the shore of Donner Lake in February, 1896:
I was a little more than eleven years of age when we all reached
these mountains, and that one-roomed shanty was built, where so many
of us lived, ate, and slept. No!--Where so many of us slept,
starved, and died! It was constructed for my mother and seven
children (two being married) and her three grandchildren, and
William Foster, husband of her daughter Sarah.
Early in December when the Forlorn Hope was planned, we were almost
out of provisions; and my mother took the babes from the arms of
Sarah and Harriet (Mrs. Pike) and told them that she would care for
their little ones, and they being young might with William (Foster)
and their brother Lemuel reach the settlement and return with food.
And the four became members of that hapless band of fifteen.
Mr. Eddy being its leader, his wife and her two children came to
live with us during his absence. When my eldest brother, on whom my
mother depended, was very weak and almost at death's door, my mother
went to the Breens and begged a little meat, just a few mouthfuls--I
remember well that little piece of meat! My mother gave half of it
to my dying brother; he ate it, fell asleep with a hollow death
gurgle. When it ceased I went to him--he was dead--starved to death
in our presence. Although starving herself, my mother said that if
she had known that Landrum was going to die she would have given him
the balance of the meat. Little Margaret Eddy lingered until
February 4, and her mother until the seventh. Their bodies lay two
days and nights longer in the room with us before we could find
assistance able to bury them in the snow. Some days earlier Milton
Elliot, weak and wandering around, had taken up his abode with us.
We shared with him the remnant of our beef hides. We had had a lot
of that glue-making material. But mark, it would not sustain life.
Elliot soon starved to death, and neighbors removed and interred the
body in the snow beside others.
Catherine Pike, my absent sister's baby, died on the eighteenth of
February, only a few hours before the arrival of the First Relief.
Thus the inmates of our shanty had been reduced to my mother, my
sister Mary, brother Simon, Nioma Pike, Georgie Foster, myself, and
little Jimmy Eddy.
When the rescuers decided they would carry out Nioma Pike, and that
my sister Mary and I should follow, stepping in the tracks made by
those who had snowshoes, strength seemed to come, so that I was able
to cut and carry to my mother's shanty what appeared to me a huge
pile of wood. It was green, but it was all I could get.
We left mother there with three helpless little ones to feed on
almost nothing, yet in the hope that she might keep them alive until
the arrival of the next relief.
Many of the survivors remember that after having again eaten food
seasoned with salt, the boiled, saltless hides produced nausea and
could not be retained by adult or child.
I say with deep reverence that flesh of the dead was used to sustain
the living in more than one cabin near the lake. But it was not used
until after the pittance of food left by the First Relief had long been
consumed; not until after the wolves had dug the snow from the graves.
Perhaps God sent the wolves to show Mrs. Murphy and also Mrs. Graves
where to get sustenance for their dependent little ones.
Both were widows; the one had three, and the other four helpless
children to save. Was it culpable, or cannibalistic to seek and use the
only life-saving means left them? Were the acts and purposes of their
unsteady hands and aching hearts less tender, less humane than those of
the lauded surgeons of to-day, who infuse human blood from living
bodies into the arteries of those whom naught else can save, or who
strip skin from bodies that feel pain, to cover wounds which would
otherwise prove fatal?
John Baptiste Trubode and Nicholas Clark, of the Second Relief, were
the last men who saw my father alive. In August, 1883, the latter came
to my home in San Jose.
This was our second meeting since that memorable morning of March 2,
1847, when he went in pursuit of the wounded mother bear, and was left
behind by the relief party. We spoke long and earnestly of our
experience in the mountains, and he wished me to deny the statement
frequently made that, "Clark carried a pack of plunder and a heavy
shotgun from Donner's Camp and left a child there to die." This I can
do positively, for when the Third Relief Party took Simon Murphy and us
"three little Donner girls" from the mountain camp, not a living being
remained, except Mrs. Murphy and Keseberg at the lake camp, and my
father and mother at Donner's Camp. All were helpless except my mother.
The Spring following my interview with Nicholas Clark, John Baptiste
came to San Jose, and Mr. McCutchen brought him to talk with me. John,
always a picturesque character, had become a hop picker in hop season,
and a fisherman the rest of the year. He could not restrain the tears
which coursed down his bronzed cheeks as he spoke of the destitution
and suffering in the snow-bound camps; of the young unmarried men who
had been so light-hearted on the plains and brave when first they faced
the snows. His voice trembled as he told how often they had tried to
break through the great barriers, and failed; hunted, and found
nothing; fished, and caught nothing; and when rations dwindled to
strips of beef hide, their strength waned, and death found them ready
victims. He declared,
The hair and bones found around the Donner fires were those of
cattle. No human flesh was used by either Donner family. This I
know, for I was there all winter and helped get all the wood and
food we had, after starvation threatened us. I was about sixteen
years old at the time. Our four men died early in December and were
buried in excavations in the side of the mountain. Their bodies were
never disturbed. As the snows deepened to ten and twelve feet, we
lost track of their location.
When saying good-bye, he looked at me wistfully and exclaimed: "Oh,
little Eliza, sister mine, how I suffered and worked to help keep you
alive. Do you think there was ever colder, stronger winds than them
that whistled and howled around our camp in the Sierras?"
He returned the next day, and in his quaint, earnest way expressed
keenest regret that he and Clark had not remained longer in camp with
my father and mother.
"I did not feel it so much at first; but after I got married and had
children of my own, I often fished and cried, as I thought of what I
done, for if we two men had stayed, perhaps we might have saved that
His careworn features lightened as I bade him grieve no more, for I
realized that he was but a boy, overburdened with a man's
responsibilities, and had done his best, and that nobly. Then I added
what I have always believed, that no one was to blame for the
misfortunes which overtook us in the mountains. The dangers and
difficulties encountered by reason of taking the Hastings Cut-off had
all been surmounted--two weeks more and we should have reached our
destination in safety. Then came the snow! Who could foresee that it
would come earlier, fall deeper, and linger longer, that season than
for thirty years before? Everything that a party could do to save
itself was done by the Donner Party; and certainly everything that a
generous, sympathizing people could do to save the snow-bound was done
by the people of California.
THE REPORT OF THOMAS FALLON--DEDUCTIONS--STATEMENT OF EDWIN
The following is the report of Thomas Fallon, leader of the fourth
party to the camps near Donner Lake:
Left Johnson's on the evening of April 13, and arrived at the lower
end of Bear River Valley on the fifteenth. Hung our saddles upon
trees, and sent the horses back, to be returned again in ten days to
bring us in again. Started on foot, with provisions for ten days and
travelled to head of the valley, and camped for the night; snow from
two to three feet deep. Started early in the morning of April 15 and
travelled twenty-three miles. Snow ten feet deep.
April 17. Reached the cabins between twelve and one o'clock.
Expected to find some of the sufferers alive. Mrs. Donner and
Keseberg in particular. Entered the cabins, and a horrible scene
presented itself. Human bodies terribly mutilated, legs, arms, and
skulls scattered in every direction. One body supposed to be that of
Mrs. Eddy lay near the entrance, the limbs severed off, and a
frightful gash in the skull. The flesh was nearly consumed from the
bones, and a painful stillness pervaded the place. The supposition
was, that all were dead, when a sudden shout revived our hopes, and
we flew in the direction of the sound. Three Indians who had been
hitherto concealed, started from the ground, fled at our approach,
leaving behind their bows and arrows. We delayed two hours in
searching the cabins, during which we were obliged to witness sights
from which we would have fain turned away, and which are too
dreadful to put on record. We next started for Donner's camp,
eight miles distant over the mountains. After travelling about
half-way, we came upon a track in the snow which excited our
suspicion, and we determined to pursue. It brought us to the camp of
Jacob Donner, where it had evidently left that morning. There we
found property of every description, books, calicoes, tea, coffee,
shoes, percussion caps, household and kitchen furniture, scattered
in every direction, and mostly in water. At the mouth of the tent
stood a large iron kettle, filled with human flesh cut up. It was
from the body of George Donner. The head had been split open, and
the brain extracted therefrom; and to the appearance he had not been
long dead--not over three or four days, at most. Near-by the kettle
stood a chair, and thereupon three legs of a bullock that had been
shot down in the early part of winter, and snowed upon before it
could be dressed. The meat was found sound and good, and with the
exception of a small piece out of the shoulder, whole, untouched. We
gathered up some property, and camped for the night.
April 18. Commenced gathering the most valuable property, suitable
for our packs; the greater portion had to be dried. We then made
them up, and camped for the night.
April 19. This morning Foster, Rhodes, and J. Foster started, with
small packs, for the first cabins, intending from thence to follow
the trail of the person that had left the morning previous. The
other three remained behind to cache and secure the goods
necessarily left there. Knowing the Donners had a considerable sum
of money we searched diligently but were unsuccessful. The party for
the cabins were unable to keep the trail of the mysterious
personage, owing to the rapid melting of the snow; they therefore
went directly to the cabins and upon entering discovered Keseberg
lying down amid the human bones, and beside him a large pan full of
fresh liver and lights. They asked him what had become of his
companions; whether they were alive, and what had become of Mrs.
Donner. He answered them by stating that they were all dead. Mrs.
Donner, he said, had, in attempting to cross from one cabin to
another, missed the trail and slept out one night; that she came to
his camp the next night very much fatigued. He made her a cup of
coffee, placed her in bed, and rolled her well in the blankets; but
next morning she was dead. He ate her body and found her flesh the
best he had ever tasted. He further stated that he obtained from her
body at least four pounds of fat. No trace of her body was found,
nor of the body of Mrs. Murphy either. When the last company left
the camp, three weeks previous, Mrs. Donner was in perfect health,
though unwilling to leave her husband there, and offered $500.00 to
any person or persons who would come out and bring them in, saying
this in the presence of Keseberg, and that she had plenty of tea and
coffee. We suspected that it was she who had taken the piece from
the shoulder of beef on the chair before mentioned. In the cabin
with Keseberg were found two kettles of human blood, in all,
supposed to be over two gallons. Rhodes asked him where he had got
the blood. He answered, "There is blood in dead bodies." They asked
him numerous questions, but he appeared embarrassed, and equivocated
a great deal; and in reply to their asking him where Mrs. Donner's
money was, he evinced confusion, and answered that he knew nothing
about it, that she must have cached it before she died. "I haven't
it," said he, "nor money nor property of any person, living or
dead." They then examined his bundle, and found silks and jewellery,
which had been taken from the camp of Donners, amounting in value to
about $200.00. On his person they discovered a brace of pistols
recognized to be those of George Donner; and while taking them from
him, discovered something concealed in his waistcoat, which on being
opened was found to be $225.00 in gold.
Before leaving the settlement, the wife of Keseberg had told us that
we would find but little money about him; the men therefore said to
him that they knew he was lying to them, and that he was well aware
of the place of concealment of the Donners' money. He declared
before Heaven he knew nothing concerning it, and that he had not the
property of any one in his possession. They told him that to lie to
them would effect nothing; that there were others back at the cabins
who unless informed of the spot where the treasure was hidden would
not hesitate to hang him upon the first tree. Their threats were of
no avail. He still affirmed his ignorance and innocence. Rhodes took
him aside and talked to him kindly, telling him that if he would
give the information desired, he should receive from their hands
the best of treatment, and be in every way assisted; otherwise, the
party back at Donner's Camp would, upon arrival, and his refusal to
discover to them the place where he had deposited this money,
immediately put him to death. It was all to no purpose, however, and
they prepared to return to us, leaving him in charge of the packs,
and assuring him of their determination to visit him in the morning;
and that he must make up his mind during the night. They started
back and joined us at Donner's Camp.
April 20. We all started for Bear River Valley, with packs of one
hundred pounds each; our provisions being nearly consumed, we were
obliged to make haste away. Came within a few hundred yards of the
cabins and halted to prepare breakfast, after which we proceeded to
the cabin. I now asked Keseberg if he was willing to disclose to me
where he had concealed that money. He turned somewhat pale and again
protested his innocence. I said to him, "Keseberg, you know well
where Donner's money is, and damn you, you shall tell me! I am not
going to multiply words with you or say but little about it. Bring
me that rope!" He then arose from his hot soup and human flesh, and
begged me not to harm him; he had not the money nor goods; the silk
clothing and money which were found upon him the previous day and
which he then declared belonged to his wife, he now said were the
property of others in California. I told him I did not wish to hear
more from him, unless he at once informed us where he had concealed
the money of those orphan children; then producing the rope I
approached him. He became frightened, but I bent the rope around his
neck and as I tightened the cord, and choked him, he cried out that
he would confess all upon release. I then permitted him to arise. He
still seemed inclined to be obstinate and made much delay in
talking. Finally, but without evident reluctance, he led the way
back to Donner's Camp, about ten miles distant, accompanied by
Rhodes and Tucker. While they were absent we moved all our packs
over the lower end of the lake, and made all ready for a start when
they should return. Mr. Foster went down to the cabin of Mrs.
Murphy, his mother-in-law, to see if any property remained there
worth collecting and securing; he found the body of young Murphy who
had been dead about three months with his breast and skull cut
open, and the brains, liver, and lights taken out; and this
accounted for the contents of the pan which stood beside Keseberg
when he was found. It appeared that he had left at the other camp
the dead bullock and horse, and on visiting this camp and finding
the body thawed out, took therefrom the brains, liver, and lights.
Tucker and Rhodes came back the next morning, bringing $273.00 that
had been cached by Keseberg, who after disclosing to them the spot,
returned to the cabin. The money had been hidden directly underneath
the projecting limb of a large tree, the end of which seemed to
point precisely to the treasure buried in the earth. On their return
and passing the cabin, they saw the unfortunate man within devouring
the remaining brains and liver left from his morning repast. They
hurried him away, but before leaving, he gathered together the bones
and heaped them all in a box he used for the purpose, blessed them
and the cabin and said, "I hope God will forgive me what I have
done. I could not help it; and I hope I may get to heaven yet!" We
asked Keseberg why he did not use the meat of the bullock and horse
instead of human flesh. He replied he had not seen them. We then
told him we knew better, and asked him why the meat on the chair had
not been consumed. He said, "Oh, it is too dry eating; the liver and
lights were a great deal better, and brains made good soup!" We then
moved on and camped by the lake for the night.
April 21. Started for Bear River Valley this morning. Found the snow
from six to eight feet deep; camped at Yuma River for the night. On
the twenty-second travelled down Yuma about eighteen miles, and
camped at the head of Bear River Valley. On the twenty-fifth moved
down to lower end of the valley, met our horses, and came in.
The account by Fallon regarding the fate of the last of the Donners in
their mountain camp was the same as that which Elitha and Leanna had
heard and had endeavored to keep from us little ones at Sutter's Fort.
[Illustration: VIEW IN THE GROUNDS OF THE HOUGHTON HOME IN SAN JOSE]
[Illustration: THE HOUGHTON RESIDENCE IN SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA]
It is self-evident, however, that the author of those statements did
not contemplate that reliable parties would see the Donner camps
before prowling beasts, or time and elements, had destroyed all proof
of his own and his party's wanton falsity.
It is also plain that the Fallon Party did not set out expecting to
find any one alive in the mountains, otherwise would it not have taken
more provisions than just enough to sustain its own men ten days? Would
it not have ordered more horses to meet it at the lower end of Bear
Valley for the return trip? Had it planned to find and succor survivors
would it have taken it for granted that all had perished, simply
because there was no one in the lake cabins, and would it have delayed
two precious hours in searching the lake camp for valuables before
proceeding to Donner's Camp?
Had the desire to rescue been uppermost in mind, would not the sight of
human foot-tracks on the snow half way between the two camps have
excited hope, instead of "suspicion," and prompted some of the party to
pursue the lone wanderer with kindly intent? Does not each succeeding
day's entry in that journal disclose the party's forgetfulness of its
declared mission to the mountains? Can any palliating excuse be urged
why those men did not share with Keseberg the food they had brought,
instead of permitting him to continue that which famine had forced upon
him, and which later they so righteously condemned?
Is there a single strain of humanity, pathos, or reverence in that
diary, save that reflected from Keseberg's last act before being
hurried away from that desolate cabin? Or could there be a falser,
crueler, or more heartless account brought to bereaved children than
Fallon's purported description of the father's body found in Donner's
Here is the statement of Edwin Bryant, who with General Kearney and
escort, _en route_ to the United States, halted at the deserted cabins
on June 22, 1847, and wrote:
The body of (Captain) George Donner was found in his own camp about
eight miles distant. He had been carefully laid out by his wife, and
a sheet was wrapped around the corpse. This sad office was probably
the last act she performed before visiting the camp of Keseberg.
After considering what had been published by _The California Star_, by
Bryant, Thornton, Mrs. Farnham, and others, I could not but realize
Keseberg's peculiarly helpless situation. Without a chance to speak in
his own defence, he had been charged, tried, and adjudged guilty by his
accusers; and an excited people had accepted the verdict without
question. Later, at Captain Sutter's suggestion, Keseberg brought
action for slander against Captain Fallon and party. The case was tried
before Alcalde Sinclair, and the jury gave Keseberg a verdict of
one dollar damages. This verdict, however, was not given wide
circulation, and prejudice remained unchecked. There were other
peculiar circumstances connected with this much accused man which were
worthy of consideration, notably the following: If, as reported,
Keseberg was in condition to walk to the settlement, why did the First
Relief permit him to remain in camp consuming rations that might have
Messrs. Reed and McCutchen of the Second Relief knew the man on the
plains, and had they regarded him as able to travel, or a menace to
life in camp, would they have left him there to prey on women and
little children, like a wolf in the fold?
Messrs. Eddy and Foster of the Third Relief had travelled with him on
the plains, starved with him in camp, and had had opportunities of
talking with him upon their return to the cabins too late to rescue
Jimmy Eddy and Georgia Foster. Had they believed that he had murdered
the children, would those two fathers and the rest of their party have
taken Simon Murphy and the three little Donner girls and left Keseberg
_alive_ in camp with lone, sick, and helpless Mrs. Murphy--Mrs. Murphy
who was grandmother of Georgia Foster, and had sole charge of Jimmy
[Footnote 28: Should be spelled Keseberg.]
[Footnote 29: General Kearney and escort, accompanied by Edwin Bryant.]
[Footnote 30: McGlashan's "History of the Donner Party" (1879).]
[Footnote 31: The old Alcalde records are not in existence, but some of
the survivors of the party remember the circumstance; and Mrs. Samuel
Kybert, now of Clarkville, Eldorado County, was a witness at the trial.
C.F. McGlashan, 1879.]
In March, 1879, while collecting material for his "History of the
Donner Party," Mr. C.F. McGlashan, of Truckee, California, visited
survivors at San Jose, and coming to me, said:
"Mrs. Houghton, I am sorry that I must look to you and your sisters for
answers to the most delicate and trying questions relating to this
history. I refer to the death of your mother at the hand of Keseberg."
He was so surprised and shocked as I replied, "I do not believe that
Keseberg was responsible for my mother's death," that he interrupted
me, lost for a moment the manner of the impartial historian, and with
the directness of a cross-questioning attorney asked:
"Is it possible that Mrs. George Donner's daughter defends the murderer
of her mother?"
And when I replied, "We have no proofs. My mother's body was never
found," he continued earnestly,
"Why, I have enough evidence in this note book to convict that monster,
and I can do it, or at least arouse such public sentiment against him
that he will have to leave the State."
Very closely he followed my answering words, "Mr. McGlashan, from
little girlhood I have prayed that Lewis Keseberg some day would send
for me and tell me of my mother's last hours, and perhaps give a last
message left for her children, and I firmly believe that my prayer will
be granted, and I would not like you to destroy my opportunity. You
have a ready pen, but it will not be used in exact justice to all the
survivors, as you have promised, if you finish your work without giving
Keseberg also a chance to speak for himself."
After a moment's reflection, he replied, "I am amazed; but your wish in
this matter shall be respected."
The following evening he wrote from San Francisco:
You will be glad to know that I have put Harry N. Morse's detective
agency of Oakland upon the track of Keseberg, and if found, I mean
to take steps to obtain his confession.
In less than a week after the foregoing, came a note from him which
tells its own story.
SACRAMENTO, _Midnight, April 4, 1879_
MRS. E.P. HOUGHTON,
Late as it is, I feel that I ought to tell you that I have spent the
evening with Keseberg. I have just got back, and return early
to-morrow to complete my interview. By merest accident, while
tracing, as I supposed, the record of his death, I found a clue to
his whereabouts. After dark I drove six miles and found him. At
first he declined to tell me anything, but somehow I melted the mood
with which he seemed enwrapped, and he talked freely.
He swears to me that he did not murder your mother. He declares it
so earnestly that I cannot doubt his veracity. To-morrow I intend
plying him closely with questions, and by a rigid system of cross
examination will detect the false-hood, if there is one, in his
statement. He gives chapter after chapter that others never knew. I
cannot say more to-night, but desire that you write me (at the
Cosmopolitan) any questions you might wish me to ask Keseberg, and
if I have not already asked them, I will do so on my return from San
After his second interview with Keseberg and in response to my urgent
appeal for full details of everything relating to my parents, Mr.
I wish you could see him. He will talk to either you or me at any
time, unless other influences are brought to bear upon him. If I
send word for him to come to Sacramento, he will meet me on my
return. If you and your husband could be there on Thursday or Friday
of this week, I could arrange an interview at the hotel that would
be all you could wish. I asked him especially if he would talk to
you, and he said, "Yes."
I dared not tell you about my interview until I had your permission.
Even now, I approach the task tremblingly.
Your mother was not murdered. Your father died, Keseberg thinks,
about two weeks after you left. Your mother remained with him until
the last and laid him out tenderly, as you know.
The days--to Keseberg--were perfect blanks. Mrs. Murphy died soon
after your departure with Eddy, and he was left alone--alone in his
cabin--alone with the dead bodies which he could not have lifted
from the floor, because of his weakness, even had he desired. The
man sighs and shudders, and great drops of agony gather upon his
brows as he endeavors to relate the details of those terrible days,
or recall their horrors. Loneliness, desolation was the chief
element of horror. Alone with the mutilated dead!
One night he sprang up in affright at the sound of something moving
or scratching at a log outside his cabin. It was some time before he
could understand that it was wolves trying to get in.
One night, about two weeks after you left, a knock came at his door,
and your mother entered. To this lonely wretch her coming seemed
like an angel's. She was cold and wet and freezing, yet her first
words were, that she must see her children. Keseberg understood that
she intended to start out that very night, and soon found that she
was slightly demented. She kept saying, "O God! I must see my
children. I must go to my children!" She finally consented to wait
until the morning, but was determined that nothing should then
prevent her lonely journey. She told Keseberg where her money was
concealed, she made him solemnly promise that he would get the money
and take it to her children. She would not taste the food he had to
offer. She had not tasted human flesh, and would hardly consent to
remain in his foul and hideous den. Too weak and Chilled to move,
she finally sank down on the floor, and he covered her as best he
could with blankets and feather bed, and made a fire to warm her;
but it was of no avail, she had received her death-chill, and in the
morning her spirit had passed heavenward.
I believe Keseberg tells the truth. Your mother watched day and
night by your father's bedside until the end. At nightfall he ceased
to breathe, and she was alone in the desolate camp, where she
performed the last sad ministrations, and then her duty in the
mountains was accomplished. All the smothered yearnings of maternal
love now burst forth with full power. Out into the darkness and
night she rushed, without waiting for the morning. "My children, I
must see my children!"
She arrived at Keseberg's cabin, overwrought mentally, overtaxed
physically, and chilled by the freezing night air. She was eager to
set forth on her desperate journey without resting a moment. I can
see her as he described her, wringing her hands and exclaiming over
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