HISTORY OF THE DONNER PARTY
A TRAGEDY OF THE SIERRA
By C. F. McGlashan
To Mrs. Elizabeth A. Keiser, One of the Pioneer Mothers of California,
This Book is Respectfully Dedicated by the Author.
The delirium preceding death by starvation, is full of strange phantasies. Visions of plenty, of comfort, of elegance, flit ever before the fast-dimming eyes. The final twilight of death is a brief semi-consciousness in which the dying one frequently repeats his weird dreams. Half rising from his snowy couch, pointing upward, one of the death-stricken at Donner Lake may have said, with tremulous voice: "Look! there, just above us, is a beautiful house. It is of costliest walnut, inlaid with laurel and ebony, and is resplendent with burnished silver. Magnificent in all its apartments, it is furnished like a palace. It is rich with costly cushions, elegant tapestries, dazzling mirrors; its floor is covered with Oriental carpets, its ceiling with artistic frescoings; downy cushions invite the weary to repose. It is filled with people who are chatting, laughing, and singing, joyous and care-free. There is an abundance of warmth, and rare viands, and sparkling wines. Suspended among the storm-clouds, it is flying along the face of the precipice at a marvelous speed. Flying? no! it has wheels and is gliding along on a smooth, steel pathway. It is sheltered from the wind and snow by large beams and huge posts, which are bolted to the cliffs with heavy, iron rods. The avalanches, with their burden of earth and rocks and crushed pines, sweep harmlessly above this beautiful house and its happy inmates. It is drawn by neither oxen nor horses, but by a fiery, hot-breathed monster, with iron limbs and thews of, steel. The mountain trembles beneath his tread, and the rocks for miles re-echo his roar."
If such a vision was related, it but indicates, prophetically, the progress of a few years. California's history is replete with tragic, startling events. These events are the landmarks by which its advancement is traced. One of the most mournful of these is recorded in this work—a work intended as a contribution, not to the literature, but to the history of the State. More thrilling than romance, more terrible than fiction, the sufferings of the Donner Party form a bold contrast to the joys of pleasure-seekers who to-day look down upon the lake from the windows of silver palace cars.
The scenes of horror and despair which transpired in the snowy Sierra in the winter of 1846-7, need no exaggeration, no embellishment. From all the works heretofore published, from over one thousand letters received from the survivors, from ample manuscript, and from personal interviews with the most important actors in the tragedy, the facts have been carefully compiled. Neither time, pains, nor expense have been spared in ferreting out the truth. New and fragmentary versions of the sad story have appeared almost every year since the unfortunate occurrence. To forever supplant these distorted and fabulous reports—which have usually been sensational new articles—the survivors have deemed it wise to contribute the truth. The truth is sufficiently terrible.
Where conflicting accounts of particular scenes or occurrences have been contributed, every effort has been made to render them harmonious and reconcilable. With justice, with impartiality, and with strict adherence to what appeared truthful and reliable, the book has been written. It is an honest effort—toward the truth, and as such is given to the world.
C. F. McGlashan.
Truckee, Cal., June 30, 1879.
Donner Lake A Famous Tourist Resort Building the Central Pacific California's Skating Park The Pioneers The Organization of the Donner Party Ho! for California! A Mammoth Train The Dangers by the Way False Accounts of the Sufferings Endured Complete Roll of the Company Impostors Claiming to Belong to the Party Killed by the Pawnees An Alarmed Camp Resin Indians A Mother's Death
Mrs. Donner's Letters Life on the Plains An Interesting Sketch The Outfit Required The Platte River Botanizing Five Hundred and Eighteen Wagons for California Burning "Buffalo Chips" The Fourth of July at Fort Laramie Indian Discipline Sioux Attempt to Purchase Mary Graves George Donner Elected Captain Letter of Stanton Dissension One Company Split up into Five The Fatal Hastings Cut-off Lowering Wagons over a Precipice The First View of Great Salt Lake
A Grave of Salt Members of the Mystic Tie Twenty Wells A Desolate Alkaline Waste Abandoned on the Desert A Night of Horror A Steer Maddened by Thirst The Mirage Yoking an Ox and a Cow "Cacheing" Goods The Emigrants' Silent Logic A Cry for Relief Two Heroic Volunteers A Perilous journey Letters to Captain Sutter
Gravelly Ford The Character of James F. Reed Causes which Led to the Reed-Snyder Tragedy John Snyder's Popularity The Fatal Altercation Conflicting Statements of Survivors Snyder's Death A Brave Girl A Primitive Trial A Court of Final Resort Verdict of Banishment A Sad Separation George and Jacob Donner Ahead at the Time Finding Letters in Split Sticks Danger of Starvation
Great Hardships The Sink of the Humboldt Indians Stealing Cattle An Entire Company Compelled to Walk Abandoned to Die Wolfinger Murdered Rhinehart's Confession Arrival of C. T. Stanton A Temporary Relief A Fatal Accident The Sierra Nevada Mountains Imprisoned in Snow Struggles for Freedom A Hopeless Situation Digging for Cattle in Snow How the Breen Cabin Happened to be Built A Thrilling Sketch of a Solitary Winter Putting up Shelters The Donners Have Nothing but Tents Fishing for Trout.
Endeavors to Cross the Mountains Discouraging Failures Eddy Kills a Bear Making Snow-Shoes Who composed the "Forlorn Hope" Mary A. Graves An Irishman A Generous Act Six Days' Rations Mary Graves' Account Snow-Blind C. T. Stanton's Death "I Am Coming Soon" Sketch of Stanton's Early Life His Charity and Self-sacrifice The Diamond Breastpin Stanton's Last Poem
A Wife's Devotion The Smoky Gorge Caught in a Storm Casting Lots to See Who Should Die A Hidden River The Delirium of Starvation Franklin Ward Graves His Dying Advice A Frontiersman's Plan The Camp of Death A Dread Resort A Sister's Agony The Indians Refuse to Eat Lewis and Salvador Flee for Their Lives Killing a Deer Tracks Marked by Blood Nine Days without Food
Starvation at Donner Lake Preparing Rawhide for Food Eating the Firerug Shoveling Snow off the Beds Playing they were Tea-cups of Custard A Starving Baby Pleading with Silent Eloquence Patrick Breen's Diary Jacob Donner's Death A Child's Vow A Christmas Dinner Lost on the Summits A Stump Twenty-two Feet High Seven Nursing Babes at Donner Lake A Devout Father A Dying Boy Sorrow and Suffering at the Cabins
The Last Resort Two Reports of a Gun Only Temporary Relief Weary Traveling The Snow Bridges Human Tracks! An Indian Rancherie Acorn Bread Starving Five Times! Carried Six Miles Bravery of John Rhodes A Thirty-two Days' Journey Organizing the First Relief Party Alcalde Sinclair's Address Capt. R. P. Tucker's Companions.
A Lost Age in California History The Change Wrought by the Discovery of Gold The Start from Johnson's Ranch A Bucking Horse A Night Ride Lost in the Mountains A Terrible Night A Flooded Camp Crossing a Mountain Torrent Mule Springs A Crazy Companion Howlings of Gray Wolves A Deer Rendezvous A Midnight Thief Frightening Indians The Diary of the First Relief Party
Hardships of Reed and Herron Generosity of Captain Sutter Attempts to Cross the Mountains with Provisions Curtis' Dog Compelled to Turn Back Hostilities with Mexico Memorial to Gov. Stockton Yerba Buena's Generosity Johnson's Liberality Pitiful Scenes at Donner Lake Noble Mothers Dying rather than Eat Human Flesh A Mother's Prayer Tears of Joy Eating the Shoestrings
A Wife's Devotion Tamsen Donner's Early Life The Early Settlers of Sangamon County An Incident in School Teaching and Knitting School Discipline Capt. George Donner's Appearance Parting Scenes at Alder Creek Starting over the Mountains A Baby's Death A Mason's Vow Crossing the Snow Barrier More Precious than Gold or Diamonds Elitha Donner's Kindness
Death of Ada Keseberg Denton Discovering Gold A Poem Composed while Dying The Caches of Provisions Robbed by Fishers The Sequel to the Reed-Snyder Tragedy Death from Overeating The Agony of Frozen Feet An Interrupted Prayer Stanton, after Death, Guides the Relief Party! The Second Relief Party Arrives A Solitary Indian Patty Reed and Her Father Starving Children Lying in Bed Mrs. Graves' Money still Buried at Donner Lake
Leaving Three Men in the Mountains The Emigrants Quite Helpless Bear Tracks in the Snow The Clumps of Tamarack Wounding a Bear Blood Stains upon the Snow A Weary Chase A Momentous Day Stone and Cady Leave the Sufferers A Mother Offering Five Hundred Dollars Mrs. Donner Parting from her Children "God will Take Care of You" Buried in Snow without Food or Fire Pines Uprooted by the Storm A Grave Cut in the Snow The Cub's Cave Firing at Random A Desperate Undertaking Preparing for a Hand-to-hand Battle Precipitated into the Cave Seizing the Bear Mrs. Elizabeth Donner's Death Clarke and Baptiste Attempt to Escape A Death more Cruel than Starvation
A Mountain Storm Provisions Exhausted Battling the Storm Fiends Black Despair Icy Coldness A Picture of Desolation The Sleep of Death A Piteous Farewell Falling into the Fire-well Isaac Donner's Death Living upon Snow Water Excruciating Pain A Vision of Angels "Patty is Dying!" The Thumb of a Mitten A Child's Treasures The "Dolly" of the Donner Party
A Mother at Starved Camp Repeating the Litany Hoping in Despair Wasting Away The Precious Lump of Sugar "James is Dying" Restoring a Life Relentless Hunger The Silent Night Vigils The Sight of Earth Descending the Snow Pit The Flesh of the Dead Refusing to Eat The Morning Star The Mercy of God The Mutilated Forms The Dizziness of Delirium Faith Rewarded "There is Mrs. Breen."
The Rescue California Aroused A Yerba Buena Newspaper Tidings of Woe A Cry of Distress Noble Generosity Subscriptions for the Donner Party The First and Second Reliefs Organization of the Third The Dilemma Voting to Abandon a Family The Fatal Ayes John Stark's Bravery Carrying the Starved Children A Plea for the Relief Party
Arrival of the Third Relief The Living and the Dead Captain George Donner Dying Mrs. Murphy's Words Foster and Eddy at the Lake Tamsen Donner and Her Children A Fearful Struggle The Husband's Wishes Walking Fourteen Miles Wifely Devotion Choosing Death The Night Journey An Unparalleled Ordeal An Honored Name Three Little Waifs "And Our Parents are Dead."
False Ideas about the Donner Party Accused of Six Murders Interviews with Lewis Keseberg His Statement An Educated German A Predestined Fate Keseberg's Lameness Slanderous Reports Covered with Snow "Loathsome, Insipid, and Disgusting" Longings toward Suicide Tamsen Donner's Death Going to Get the Treasure Suspended over a Hidden Stream "Where is Donner's Money?" Extorting a Confession
Dates of the Rescues Arrival of the Fourth Relief A Scene Beggaring Description The Wealth of the Donners An Appeal to the Highest Court A Dreadful Shock Saved from a Grizzly Bear A Trial for Slander Keseberg Vindicated Two Kettles of Human Blood The Enmity of the Relief Party "Born under an Evil Star" "Stone Him! Stone Him!" Fire and Flood Keseberg's Reputation for Honesty A Prisoner in His Own House The Most Miserable of Men
Sketch of Gen. John A. Sutter The Donner Party's Benefactor The Least and Most that Earth Can Bestow The Survivors' Request His Birth and Parentage Efforts to Reach California New Helvetia A Puny Army Uninviting Isolation Ross and Bodega Unbounded Generosity Sutter's Wealth Effect of the Gold Fever Wholesale Robbery The Sobrante Decision A "Genuine and Meritorious" Grant Utter Ruin Hock Farm Gen. Sutter's Death Mrs. E. P. Houghton's Tribute
The Death List The Forty-two Who Perished Names of Those Saved Forty-eight Survivors Traversing Snow-belt Five Times Burying the Dead An Appalling Spectacle Tamsen Donner's Last Act of Devotion A Remarkable Proposal Twenty-six Present Survivors McCutchen Keseberg The Graves Family The Murphys Naming Marysville The Reeds The Breens
The Orphan Children of George and Tamsen Donner Sutter, the Philanthropist "If Mother Would Only Come" Christian and Mary Brunner An Enchanting Home "Can't You Keep Both of Us?" Eliza Donner Crossing the Torrent Earning a Silver Dollar The Gold Excitement Getting an Education Elitha C. Donner Leanna C. Donner Frances E. Donner Georgia A. Donner Eliza P Donner
Yerba Buena's Gift to George and Mary Donner An Alcalde's Negligence Mary Donner's Land Regranted Squatters Jump George Donner's Land A Characteristic Land Law-suit Vexatious Litigation Twice Appealed to Supreme Court, and once to United States Supreme Court A Well-taken Law Point Mutilating Records A Palpable Erasure Relics of the Donner Party Five Hundred Articles Buried Thirty-two Years Knives, Forks, Spoons Pretty Porcelain Identifying Chinaware Beads and Arrow-heads A Quaint Bridle-bit Remarkable Action of Rust A Flint-Lock Pistol A Baby's Shoe The Resting Place of the Dead Vanishing Land-marks
Donner Lake A Famous Tourist Resort Building the Central Pacific California's Skating Park The Pioneers The Organization of the Donner Party Ho! for California! A Mammoth Train The Dangers by the Way False Accounts of the Sufferings Endured Complete Roll of the Company Impostors Claiming to Belong to the Party Killed by the Pawnees An Alarmed Camp Resin Indians A Mother's Death.
Three miles from Truckee, Nevada County, California, lies one of the fairest and most picturesque lakes in all the Sierra. Above, and on either side, are lofty mountains, with castellated granite crests, while below, at the mouth of the lake, a grassy, meadowy valley widens out and extends almost to Truckee. The body of water is three miles long, one and a half miles wide, and four hundred and eighty-three feet in depth.
Tourists and picnic parties annually flock to its shores, and Bierstadt has made it the subject of one of his finest, grandest paintings. In summer, its willowy thickets, its groves of tamarack and forests of pine, are the favorite haunts and nesting places of the quail and grouse. Beautiful, speckled mountain trout plentifully abound in its crystalline waters. A rippling breeze usually wimples and dimples its laughing surface, but in calmer moods it reflects, as in a polished mirror, the lofty, overhanging mountains, with every stately pine, bounding rivulet; blossoming shrub, waving fern, and—high above all, on the right—the clinging, thread-like line of the snow-sheds of the Central Pacific. When the railroad was being constructed, three thousand people dwelt on its shores; the surrounding forests resounded with the music of axes and saws, and the terrific blasts exploded in the lofty, o'ershadowing cliffs, filled the canyons with reverberating thunders, and hurled huge bowlders high in the air over the lake's quivering bosom.
In winter it is almost as popular a pleasure resort as during the summer. The jingling of sleighbells, and the shouts and laughter of skating parties, can be heard almost constantly. The lake forms the grandest skating park on the Pacific Coast.
Yet this same Donner Lake was the scene of one of the most thrilling, heart-rending tragedies ever recorded in California history. Interwoven with the very name of the lake are memories of a tale of destitution, loneliness, and despair, which borders on the incredible. It is a tale that has been repeated in many a miner's cabin, by many a hunter's campfire, and in many a frontiersman's home, and everywhere it has been listened to with bated breath.
The pioneers of a new country are deserving of a niche in the country's history. The pioneers who became martyrs to the cause of the development of an almost unknown land, deserve to have a place in the hearts of its inhabitants. The far-famed Donner Party were, in a peculiar sense, pioneer martyrs of California. Before the discovery of gold, before the highway across the continent was fairly marked out, while untold dangers lurked by the wayside, and unnumbered foes awaited the emigrants, the Donner Party started for California. None but the brave and venturesome, none but the energetic and courageous, could undertake such a journey. In 1846, comparatively few had dared attempt to cross the almost unexplored plains which lay between the Mississippi and the fair young land called California. Hence it is that a certain grandeur, a certain heroism seems to cling about the men and women composing this party, even from the day they began their perilous journey across the plains. California, with her golden harvests, her beautiful homes, her dazzling wealth, and her marvelous commercial facilities, may well enshrine the memory of these noble-hearted pioneers, pathfinders, martyrs.
The States along the Mississippi were but sparsely settled in 1846, yet the fame of the fruitfulness, the healthfulness, and the almost tropical beauty of the land bordering the Pacific, tempted the members of the Donner Party to leave their homes. These homes were situated in Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Missouri, and Ohio. Families from each of these States joined the train and participated in its terrible fate; yet the party proper was organized in Sangamon County, Illinois, by George and Jacob Donner and James F. Reed. Early in April, 1846, the party set out from Springfield, Illinois, and by the first week in May reached Independence, Missouri. Here the party was increased by additional members, and the train comprised about one hundred persons.
Independence was on the frontier in those days, and every care was taken to have ample provisions laid in and all necessary preparations made for the long journey. Ay, it was a long journey for many in the party! Great as was the enthusiasm and eagerness with which these noble-hearted pioneers caught up the cry of the times, "Ho! for California!" it is doubtful if presentiments of the fate to be encountered were not occasionally entertained. The road was difficult, and in places almost unbroken; warlike Indians guarded the way, and death, in a thousand forms, hovered about their march through the great wilderness.
In the party were aged fathers with their trusting families about them, mothers whose very lives were wrapped up in their children, men in the prime and vigor of manhood, maidens in all the sweetness and freshness of budding womanhood, children full of glee and mirthfulness, and babes nestling on maternal breasts. Lovers there were, to whom the journey was tinged with rainbow hues of joy and happiness, and strong, manly hearts whose constant support and encouragement was the memory of dear ones left behind in home-land. The cloud of gloom which finally settled down in a death-pall over their heads was not yet perceptible, though, as we shall soon see, its mists began to collect almost at the outset, in the delays which marked the journey.
The wonderment which all experience in viewing the scenery along the line of the old emigrant road was peculiarly vivid to these people. Few descriptions had been given of the route, and all was novel and unexpected. In later years the road was broadly and deeply marked, and good camping grounds were distinctly indicated. The bleaching bones of cattle that had perished, or the broken fragments of wagons or cast-away articles, were thickly strewn on either side of the highway. But in 1846 the way was through almost trackless valleys waving with grass, along rivers where few paths were visible, save those made by the feet of buffaloes and antelope, and over mountains and plains where little more than the westward course of the sun guided the travelers. Trading-posts were stationed at only a few widely distant points, and rarely did the party meet with any human beings, save wandering bands of Indians. Yet these first days are spoken of by all of the survivors as being crowned with peaceful enjoyment and pleasant anticipations. There were beautiful flowers by the roadside, an abundance of game in the meadows and mountains, and at night there were singing, dancing, and innocent plays. Several musical instruments, and many excellent voices, were in the party, and the kindliest feeling and good-fellowship prevailed among the members.
The formation of the company known as the Donner Party was purely accidental. The union of so many emigrants into one train was not occasioned by any preconcerted arrangement. Many composing the Donner Party were not aware, at the outset, that such a tide of emigration was sweeping to California. In many instances small parties would hear of the mammoth train just ahead of them or just behind them, and by hastening their pace, or halting for a few days, joined themselves to the party. Many were with the train during a portion of the journey, but from some cause or other became parted from the Donner company before reaching Donner Lake. Soon after the train left Independence it contained between two and three hundred wagons, and when in motion was two miles in length.
With much bitterness and severity it is alleged by some of the survivors of the dreadful tragedy that certain impostors and falsifiers claim to have been members of the Donner Party, and as such have written untruthful and exaggerated accounts of the sufferings of the party. While this is unquestionably true, it is barely possible that some who assert membership found their claim upon the fact that during a portion of the journey they were really in the Donner Party. Bearing this in mind, there is less difficulty in reconciling the conflicting statements of different narrators.
The members of the party proper numbered ninety, and were as follows:
George Donner, Tamsen Donner (his wife), Elitha C. Donner, Leanna C. Donner, Frances E. Donner, Georgia A. Donner and Eliza P. Donner. The last three were children of George and Tamsen Donner; Elitha and Leanna were children of George Donner by a former wife.
Jacob Donner, Elizabeth Donner (his wife), Solomon Hook, William Hook, George Donner, Jr., Mary M. Donner, Isaac Donner, Lewis Donner and Samuel Donner. Jacob Donner was a brother of George; Solomon and William Hook were sons of Elizabeth Donner by a former husband.
James Frazier Reed, Margaret W. Reed (his wife), Virginia E. Reed, Martha F. (Patty) Reed, James F. Reed, Jr., Thomas K. Reed, and Mrs. Sarah Keyes, the mother of Mrs. Reed.
The two Donner families and the Reeds were from Springfield, Illinois. From the same place were Baylis Williams and his half-sister Eliza Williams, John Denton, Milton Elliott, James Smith, Walter Herron and Noah James.
From Marshall County, Illinois, came Franklin Ward Graves, Elizabeth Graves (his wife), Mary A. Graves, William C. Graves, Eleanor Graves, Lovina Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan B. Graves, F. W. Graves, Jr., Elizabeth Graves, Jr., Jay Fosdick and Mrs. Sarah Fosdick (nee Graves). With this family came John Snyder.
From Keokuk, Lee County, Iowa, came Patrick Breen, Mrs. Margaret Breen, John Breen, Edward J. Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., Simon P. Breen, James F. Breen, Peter Breen, and Isabella M. Breen. Patrick Dolan also came from Keokuk.
William H. Eddy, Mrs. Eleanor Eddy, James P. Eddy, and Margaret Eddy came from Belleville, Illinois.
From Tennessee came Mrs. Lavina Murphy, a widow, and her family, John Landrum Murphy, Mary M. Murphy, Lemuel B. Murphy, William G. Murphy, Simon P. Murphy, William M. Pike, Mrs. Harriet F. Pike (nee Murphy), Naomi L. Pike, and Catherine Pike. Another son-in-law of Mrs. Murphy, William M. Foster, with his wife, Mrs. Sarah A. C. Foster, and infant boy George Foster, came from St. Louis, Missouri.
William McCutchen, Mrs. W. McCutchen, and Harriet McCutchen were from Jackson County, Missouri.
Lewis Keseberg, Mrs. Phillipine Keseberg, Ada Keseberg, and L. Keseberg, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Wolfinger, Joseph Rhinehart, Augustus Spitzer, and Charles Burger, came from Germany.
Samuel Shoemaker came from Springfield, Ohio, Charles T. Stanton from Chicago, Illinois, Luke Halloran from St. Joseph, Missouri, Mr. Hardcoop from Antwerp, in Belgium, Antoine from New Mexico. John Baptiste was a Spaniard, who joined the train near the Santa Fe trail, and Lewis and Salvador were two Indians, who were sent out from California by Captain Sutter.
The Breens joined the company at Independence, Missouri, and the Graves family overtook the train one hundred miles west of Fort Bridger. Each family, prior to its consolidation with the train, had its individual incidents. William Trimble, who was traveling with the Graves family, was slain by the Pawnee Indians about fifty miles east of Scott's Bluff. Trimble left a wife and two or three children. The wife and some of her relatives were so disheartened by this sad bereavement, and by the fact that many of their cattle were stolen by the Indians, that they gave up the journey to California, and turned back to the homes whence they had started.
An amusing incident is related in the Healdsburg (Cal.) Flag, by Mr. W. C. Graves, of Calistoga, which occurred soon after his party left St. Joseph, Missouri. It was on the fourth night out, and Mr. Graves and four or five others were detailed to stand guard. The constant terror of the emigrants in those days was Indians. Both the Pawnees, the Sioux, and the Snakes were warlike and powerful, and were jealous, revengeful, and merciless toward the whites. That night a fire somehow started in the prairie grass about half a mile from camp. The west wind, blowing fierce and strong, carried the flames in great surging gusts through the tall prairie grass. A resin weed grows in bunches in this part of the country, generally attaining the height of four or five feet. The night being very dark, these weeds could be seen standing between the fire and the guards. As the flames swayed past the weeds, the impression was very naturally produced upon the mind of a timid beholder that the weeds were moving in the opposite direction. This optical illusion caused some of the guards to believe that the Indians had set fire to the grass, and were moving in immense numbers between them and the fire with intent to surround them, stampede the cattle, and massacre the entire party. The watcher next to Mr. Graves discovered the enemy, and rushed breathlessly to his comrade to impart the intelligence. Scarcely had Mr. Graves quieted him before it was evident that a general alarm had been spread in the camp. Two other guards had seen the Indians, and the aroused camp, armed to the teeth, marched out to give battle to the imaginary foe. It was a rich joke, and it was some time before those who were scared heard the last of the resin Indians.
Only once, before reaching Salt Lake, did death invade the joyous Donner company. It was near the present site of Manhattan, Kansas, and Mrs. Sarah Keyes was the victim. This estimable lady was the mother of Mrs. J. F. Reed, and had reached her four score and ten years. Her aged frame and feeble health were not equal to the fatigues and exposure of the trip, and on the thirtieth of May they laid her tenderly to rest. She was buried in a coffin carefully fashioned from the trunk of a cottonwood tree, and on the brow of a beautiful knoll overlooking the valley. A grand old oak, still standing, guards the lonely grave of the dear old mother who was spared the sight of the misery in store for her loved ones. Could those who performed the last sad rites have caught a vision of the horrors awaiting the party, they would have known how good was the God who in mercy took her to Himself.
Mrs. Donner's Letters Life on the Plains An Interesting Sketch The Outfit Required The Platte River Botanizing Five Hundred and Eighteen Wagons for California Burning "Buffalo Chips" The Fourth of July at Fort Laramie Indian Discipline Sioux Attempt to Purchase Mary Graves George Donner Elected Captain Letter of Stanton Dissension One Company Split up into Five The Fatal Hastings Cut-off Lowering Wagons over the Precipice The First View of Great Salt Lake.
Presenting, as they do, an interesting glimpse of the first portion of the journey, the following letters are here introduced. They were written by Mrs. Tamsen Donner, and were published in the Springfield (Illinois) Journal. Thanks for copies of these letters are due to Mrs. Eliza P. Houghton of San Jose, Mrs. Donner's youngest daughter. Allusions are made in these letters to botanical researches. Mrs. Donner, C. T. Stanton, and perhaps one or two others who were prominent actors in the later history, were particularly fond of botany. Mrs. Donner made valuable collections of rare flowers and plants. Her journal, and a full description of the contents of her botanical portfolios, were to have been published upon her arrival in California.
Though bearing the same date, the letters here presented were written at different times. The following appeared in the Springfield Journal, July 23, 1846:
Near the Junction of the North and South Platte, June 16, 1846.
My Old Friend: We are now on the Platte, two hundred miles from Fort Laramie. Our journey so far has been pleasant, the roads have been good, and food plentiful. The water for part of the way has been indifferent, but at no time have our cattle suffered for it. Wood is now very scarce, but "buffalo chips" are excellent; they kindle quickly and retain heat surprisingly. We had this morning buffalo steaks broiled upon them that had the same flavor they would have had upon hickory coals.
We feel no fear of Indians, our cattle graze quietly around our encampment unmolested.
Two or three men will go hunting twenty miles from camp; and last night two of our men lay out in the wilderness rather than ride their horses after a hard chase.
Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started. Our wagons have not needed much repair, and I can not yet tell in what respects they could be improved. Certain it is, they can not be too strong. Our preparations for the journey might have been in some respects bettered.
Bread has been the principal article of food in our camp. We laid in 150 pounds of flour and 75 pounds of meat for each individual, and I fear bread will be scarce. Meat is abundant. Rice and beans are good articles on the road; cornmeal, too, is acceptable. Linsey dresses are the most suitable for children. Indeed, if I had one, it would be acceptable. There is so cool a breeze at all times on the plains that the sun does not feel so hot as one would suppose.
We are now four hundred and fifty miles from Independence. Our route at first was rough, and through a timbered country, which appeared to be fertile. After striking the prairie, we found a first-rate road, and the only difficulty we have had, has been in crossing the creeks. In that, however, there has been no danger.
I never could have believed we could have traveled so far with so little difficulty. The prairie between the Blue and the Platte rivers is beautiful beyond description. Never have I seen so varied a country, so suitable for cultivation. Everything was new and pleasing; the Indians frequently come to see us, and the chiefs of a tribe breakfasted at our tent this morning. All are so friendly that I can not help feeling sympathy and friendship for them. But on one sheet what can I say?
Since we have been on the Platte, we have had the river on one side and the ever varying mounds on the other, and have traveled through the bottom lands from one to two miles wide, with little or no timber. The soil is sandy, and last year, on account of the dry season, the emigrants found grass here scarce. Our cattle are in good order, and when proper care has been taken, none have been lost. Our milch cows have been of great service, indeed. They have been of more advantage than our meat. We have plenty of butter and milk.
We are commanded by Captain Russell, an amiable man. George Donner is himself yet. He crows in the morning and shouts out, "Chain up, boys—chain up," with as much authority as though he was "something in particular." John Denton is still with us. We find him useful in the camp. Hiram Miller and Noah James are in good health and doing well. We have of the best people in our company, and some, too, that are not so good.
Buffaloes show themselves frequently.
We have found the wild tulip, the primrose, the lupine, the eardrop, the larkspur, and creeping hollyhock, and a beautiful flower resembling the bloom of the beech tree, but in bunches as large as a small sugar-loaf, and of every variety of shade, to red and green.
I botanize, and read some, but cook "heaps" more. There are four hundred and twenty wagons, as far as we have heard, on the road between here and Oregon and California.
Give our love to all inquiring friends. God bless them. Yours, truly,
Mrs. George Donner.
The following letter was published in the journal of July 30, 1846:
South Fork of the Nebraska, Ten Miles from the Crossing, Tuesday, June 16, 1846.
Dear Friend: To-day, at nooning, there passed, going to the States, seven men from Oregon, who went out last year. One of them was well acquainted with Messrs. Ide and Cadden Keyes, the latter of whom, he says, went to California. They met the advance Oregon caravan about 150 miles west of Fort Laramie, and counted in all, for Oregon and California (excepting ours), 478 wagons. There are in our company over 40 wagons, making 518 in all, and there are said to be yet 20 behind. To-morrow we cross the river, and, by reckoning, will be over 200 miles from Fort Laramie, where we intend to stop and repair our wagon wheels. They are nearly all loose, and I am afraid we will have to stop sooner, if there can be found wood suitable to heat the tires. There is no wood here, and our women and children are out now gathering "buffalo chips" to burn, in order to do the cooking. These chips burn well.
Mrs. George Donner.
At Fort Laramie a portion of the Donner Party celebrated the Fourth of July, 1846. Arriving there on the evening of the third, they pitched camp somewhat earlier than usual, and prepared a grand dinner for the Fourth. At the Fort were a large party of Sioux who were on the war-path against the Snakes or Pawnees. The Sioux were, perhaps, the most warlike Indian nation on the great prairies, and when dressed in their war paint and mounted on their fleet ponies, presented a truly imposing appearance. The utmost friendliness prevailed, and there was a mutual interchange of gifts and genial courtesies. When the Donner Party pursued their march, and had journeyed half a day from the Fort, they were overtaken and convoyed quite a distance by about three hundred young warriors. The escort rode in pairs alongside the train in true military fashion. Finally halting, they opened ranks; and as the wagons passed, each warrior held in his mouth a green twig or leaf, which was said to be emblematic of peacefulness and good feeling.
The train was never seriously molested by the Sioux. On one occasion, about fifty warriors on horseback surrounded a portion of the train, in which was the Graves family. While generally friendly, a few of the baser sort persisted in attempting to steal, or take by force, trivial articles which struck their fancy. The main body of Indians were encamped about half a mile away, and when the annoyances became too exasperating, W. C. Graves mounted a horse, rode to the encampment, and notified the Chief of the action of his followers. Seizing an old-fashioned single-barreled shotgun, the Chief sprang upon his horse and fairly flew over the plain toward the emigrant wagons. When within about a hundred yards of the train he attracted attention by giving an Indian whoop, which was so full of rage and imprecation that the startled warriors forthwith desisted from their petty persecutions and scattered in every direction like frightened quail. One of the would-be marauders was a little tardy in mounting his pony, and as soon as the Chief got within range, the shotgun was leveled and discharged full at the unruly subject. Three of the buckshot entered the pony's side and one grazed the warrior's leg. As if satisfied that his orders to treat the emigrants in a friendly manner would not be again disregarded, the Chief wheeled his horse about, and in the most grave and stately manner rode back to his encampment.
On another occasion, Mary Graves, who was a very beautiful young lady, was riding on horseback accompanied by her brother. They were a little in the rear of the train, and a band of Sioux Indians, becoming enamored with the maiden, offered to purchase her. They made very handsome offers, but the brother not being disposed to accept, one of the Indians seized the bridle of the girl's horse and attempted to carry her away captive. Perhaps the attempt was made in half jest. At all events the bridle was promptly dropped when the brother leveled his rifle at the savage.
On the twentieth of July, 1846, George Donner was elected Captain of the train at the Little Sandy River. From that time forward it was known as the Donner Party.
One incident, not at all unusual to a trip across the plains, is pointedly described in a letter written by C. T. Stanton to his brother, Sidney Stanton, now of Cazenovia, New York. The incident alluded to is the unfriendliness and want of harmony so liable to exist between different companies, and between members of the same company. From one of Mr. Stanton's letters the following extract is made:
"At noon we passed Boggs' company on the Sweetwater; a mile further up the river, Dunlavy's; a mile further, West's; and about two miles beyond that, was Dunbar's. We encamped about half way between the two latter. Thus, within five miles were encamped five companies. At Indian Creek, twenty miles from Independence, these five companies all constituted one, but owing to dissensions and quarreling they became broken into fragments. Now, by accident, we all again once more meet and grasp the cordial hand; old enmities are forgot, and nothing but good feeling prevails. * * * * * The next morning we got rather a late start, owing to a difference of opinion arising in our company as to whether we should lie by or go ahead. Those wishing to lie by were principally young men who wished to have a day's hunting among the buffaloes, and there were also a few families out of meat who wished to lay in a supply before they left the buffalo country. A further reason was urged that the cattle were nearly fagged out by hard travel, and that they would not stand the journey unless we stopped and gave them rest. On the other side it was contended that if we stopped here the other companies would all get ahead, the grass would all he eaten off by their thousand head of cattle, and that consequently, when we came along, our cattle would starve. The go-ahead party finally ruled and we rolled out."
As will presently be seen, the dissension existing in the company, and the petty differences of opinion and interest, were the fundamental causes of the calamities which befell the Donner Party.
When the company was near Fort Bridger, Edward Breen's leg was broken by a fall from a horse. His mother refused to permit amputation, or rather left the question to Edward's decision, and of course, boy-like, he refused to have the operation performed. Contrary to expectation, the bone knitted, and in a month he walked without a crutch.
At Fort Bridger, which was at this time a mere camp or trading post, the party heard much commendation bestowed upon a new route via Salt Lake. This route passed along the southern shore of the Lake, and rejoined the old Fort Hall emigrant road on the Humboldt. It was said to shorten the distance three hundred miles. The new route was known as the Hastings Cut-off, and was named after the famous Lansford W. Hastings, who was even then piloting a small company over the cut-off. The large trains delayed for three or four days at Fort Bridger, debating as to the best course to pursue. It is claimed that but for the earnest advice and solicitation of Bridger and Vasquez, who had charge of the fort, the entire party would have continued by the accustomed route. These men had a direct interest in the Hastings Cut-off, as they furnished the emigrants with supplies, and had employed Hastings to pilot the first company over the road to Salt Lake.
After mature deliberation, the party divided, the greater portion going by Fort Hall and reaching California in safety. With the large train, which journeyed the old road, this narrative is no longer interested. Eighty-seven persons, however, took the Hastings Cut-off. Their names are included in the ninety mentioned in the preceding chapter, it being remembered that Mrs. Sarah Keyes had died, and that Lewis and Salvador were not yet members of the party. For several days the party traveled without much difficulty. They reached Weber River near the head of the well-known Weber Canyon. At the first crossing of this river, on the third of August, they found a letter from Hastings stuck in the split of a stick, informing them that the road down the Weber Canyon was in a terrible condition, and that it was doubtful if the sixty-six wagons which L. W. Hastings was then piloting through the canyon would ever succeed in reaching the plain. In the letter, Hastings advised all emigrants to avoid the canyon road, and pursue over the mountains a course which he faintly outlined. In order to obtain further information, and, if possible, to induce Hastings to return and act as guide, Messrs. Reed, Stanton, and Pike were sent forward to overtake the advance company. This was accomplished after a fatiguing trip, which so exhausted the horses of Stanton and Pike that these gentlemen were unable to return to the Donner Party. Hastings was overtaken at a point near the southern end of Great Salt Lake, and came back with Reed to the foot of the bluffs overlooking the present city of Salt Lake. Here he declared that he must return to the company he was piloting, and despite the urgent entreaties of Reed, decided that it was his duty to start back the next morning. He finally consented, however, to ascend to the summit of the Wahsatch Mountains, from which he endeavored, as best he could, to point out the direction in which the wagons must travel from the head of Weber Canyon. Reed proceeded alone on the route indicated, taking notes of the country and occasionally blazing trees to assist him in retracing the course.
Wm. G. Murphy (now of Marysville, Cal.) says that the wagons remained in the meadows at the head of Weber Canyon until Reed's return. They then learned that the train which preceded them had been compelled to travel very slowly down the Weber River, filling in many irregular places with brush and dirt; that at last they had reached a place where vast perpendicular pillars of rock approached so closely on either side that the river had barely space to flow between, and just here the water plunged over a precipice. To lower the wagons down this precipice had been a dreadful task.
The Donner Party unanimously decided to travel across the mountains in a more direct line toward Salt Lake. They soon found rolling highlands and small summit valleys on the divide between Weber River and Salt Lake. Following down one of the small streams, they found a varying, irregular canyon, down which they passed, filling its small stream with brush and rocks, crossing and recrossing it, making roads, breaking and mending wagons, until three weeks' time had expired. The entire country was heavily covered with timber and underbrush. When the party arrived at the outlet of this stream into Salt Lake Valley, they found it utterly impassable. It was exceedingly narrow, and was filled with huge rocks from the cliffs on either side. Almost all the oxen in the train were necessary in drawing each wagon out of the canyon and up the steep overhanging mountain. While in this canyon, Stanton and Pike came up to the company. These gentlemen encountered great hardships after their horses gave out, and were almost starved to death when they reached the train.
Instead of reaching Salt Lake in a week, as had been promised, the party were over thirty days in making the trip. No words can describe what they endured on this Hastings Cut-off. The terrible delay was rendering imminent the dangers which awaited them on the Sierra Nevada. At last, upon ascending the steep rugged mountain before mentioned, the vision of Great Salt Lake, and the extensive plains surrounding it, burst upon their enraptured gaze. All were wild with joy and gratitude for their deliverance from the terrible struggle through which they had just passed, and all hoped for a prosperous, peaceful journey over pleasant roads throughout the remainder of the trip to California. Alas! there were trials in the way compared with which their recent struggles were insignificant. But for the fatal delay caused by the Hastings Cut-off, all would have been well, but now the summer was passed, their teams and themselves were well-nigh exhausted, and their slender stock of provisions nearly consumed.
A Grave of Salt Members of the Mystic Tie Twenty Wells A Desolate Alkaline Waste Abandoned on the Desert A Night of Horror A Steer Maddened by Thirst The Mirage Yoking an Ox and a Cow "Cacheing" Goods The Emigrant's Silent Logic A Cry for Relief Two Heroic Volunteers A Perilous Journey Letters to Capt. Sutter.
Near the southern shore of great Salt Lake the Donner Party encamped on the third or fourth of September, 1846. The summer had vanished, and autumn had commenced tinting, with crimson and gold, the foliage on the Wahsatch Mountains. While encamped here, the party buried the second victim claimed by death. This time it was a poor consumptive named Luke Halloran. Without friend or kinsman, Halloran had joined the train, and was traveling to California in hopes that a change of climate might effect a cure. Alas! for the poor Irishman, when the leaves began to fall from the trees his spirit winged its flight to the better land. He died in the wagon of Captain George Donner, his head resting in Mrs. Tamsen Donner's lap. It was at sundown. The wagons had just halted for the night. The train had driven up slowly, out of respect to the dying emigrant. Looking up into Mrs. Donner's face, he said: "I die happy." Almost while speaking, he died. In return for the many kindnesses he had received during the journey, he left Mr. Donner such property as he possessed, including about fifteen hundred dollars in coin. Hon. Jas. F. Breen, of South San Juan, writes: "Halloran's body was buried in a bed of almost pure salt, beside the grave of one who had perished in the preceding train. It was said at the time that bodies thus deposited would not decompose, on account of the preservative properties of the salt. Soon after his burial, his trunk was opened, and Masonic papers and regalia bore witness to the fact that Mr. Halloran was a member of the Masonic Order. James F. Reed, Milton Elliott, and perhaps one or two others in the train, also belonged to the mystic tie."
On the sixth day of September they reached a meadow in a valley called "Twenty Wells," as there were that number of wells of various sizes, from six inches to several feet in diameter. The water in these wells rose even with the surface of the ground, and when it was drawn out the wells soon refilled. The water was cold and pure, and peculiarly welcome after the saline plains and alkaline pools they had just passed. Wells similar to these were found during the entire journey of the following day, and the country through which they were passing abounded in luxuriant grass. Reaching the confines of the Salt Lake Desert, which lies southwest of the lake, they laid in, as they supposed, an ample supply of water and grass. This desert had been represented by Bridger and Vasquez as being only about fifty miles wide. Instead, for a distance of seventy-five miles there was neither water nor grass, but everywhere a dreary, desolate, alkaline waste. Verily, it was
"A region of drought, where no river glides, Nor rippling brook with osiered sides; Where sedgy pool, nor bubbling fount, Nor tree, nor cloud, nor misty mount Appears to refresh the aching eye, But the barren earth and the burning sky, And the blank horizon round and round Spread, void of living sight or sound."
When the company had been on the desert two nights and one day, Mr. Reed volunteered to go forward, and, if possible, to discover water. His hired teamsters were attending to his teams and wagons during his absence. At a distance of perhaps twenty miles he found the desired water, and hastened to return to the train. Meantime there was intense suffering in the party. Cattle were giving out and lying down helplessly on the burning sand, or frenzied with thirst were straying away into the desert. Having made preparations for only fifty miles of desert, several persons came near perishing of thirst, and cattle were utterly powerless to draw the heavy wagons. Reed was gone some twenty hours. During this time his teamsters had done the wisest thing possible, unhitched the oxen and started to drive them ahead until water was reached. It was their intention, of course, to return and get the three wagons and the family, which they had necessarily abandoned on the desert. Reed passed his teamsters during the night, and hastened to the relief of his deserted family. One of his teamster's horses gave out before morning and lay down, and while the man's companions were attempting to raise him, the oxen, rendered unmanageable by their great thirst, disappeared in the desert. There were eighteen of these oxen. It is probable they scented water, and with the instincts of their nature started out to search for it. They never were found, and Reed and his family, consisting of nine persons, were left destitute in the midst of the desert, eight hundred miles from California. Near morning, entirely ignorant of the calamity which had befallen him in the loss of his cattle, he reached his family. All day long they looked and waited in vain for the returning teamsters. All the rest of the company had driven ahead, and the majority had reached water. Toward night the situation grew desperate. The scanty supply of water left with the family was almost gone, and another day on the desert would mean death to all he held dear. Their only way left was to set out on foot. He took his youngest child in his arms, and the family started to walk the twenty miles. During this dreadful night some of the younger children became so exhausted that, regardless of scoldings or encouragements, they lay down on the bleak sands. Even rest, however, seemed denied the little sufferers, for a chilling wind began sweeping over the desert, and despite their weariness and anguish, they were forced to move forward. At one time during the night the horror of the situation was changed to intense fright. Through the darkness came a swift-rushing animal, which Reed soon recognized as one of his young steers. It was crazed and frenzied with thirst, and for some moments seemed bent upon dashing into the frightened group. Finally, however, it plunged madly away into the night, and was seen no more. Reed suspected the calamity which had prevented the return of the teamsters, but at the moment, the imminent peril surrounding his wife and children banished all thought of worrying about anything but their present situation. God knows what would have become of them had they not, soon after daylight, discovered the wagon of Jacob Donner. They were received kindly by his family, and conveyed to where the other members of the party were camped. For six or eight days the entire company remained at this spot. Every effort was made to find Reed's lost cattle. Almost every man in the train was out in the desert, searching in all directions. This task was attended with both difficulty and danger; for when the sun shone, the atmosphere appeared to distort and magnify objects so that at the distance of a mile every stone or bush would appear the size of an ox. Several of the men came near dying for want of water during this search. The desert mirage disclosed against the horizon, clear, distinct, and perfectly outlined rocks, mountain peaks, and tempting lakelets. Each jagged cliff, or pointed rock, or sharply-curved hill-top, hung suspended in air as perfect and complete as if photographed on the sky. Deceived, deluded by these mirages, in spite of their better judgment, several members of the company were led far out into the pathless depths of the desert.
The outlook for Reed was gloomy enough. One cow and one ox were the only stock he had remaining. The company were getting exceedingly impatient over the long delay, yet be it said to their honor, they encamped on the western verge of the desert until every hope of finding Reed's cattle was abandoned. Finally, F. W. Graves and Patrick Breen each lent an ox to Mr. Reeds and by yoking up his remaining cow and ox, he had two yoke of cattle. "Cacheing," or concealing such of his property on the desert, as could not be placed in one wagon, he hitched the two yoke of cattle to this wagon and proceeded on the journey. The word cache occurs so frequently in this history that a brief definition of the interesting process of cacheing might not be amiss. The cache of goods or valuables was generally made in a wagon bed, if one, as in the present instance, was to be abandoned. A square hole, say six feet in depth, was dug in the earth, and in the bottom of this the box or wagon bed containing the articles was placed. Sand, soil, or clay of the proper stratum was filled in upon this, so as to just cover the box from sight. The ground was then tightly packed or trampled, to make it resemble, as much as possible, the earth in its natural state. Into the remaining hole would be placed such useless articles as could be spared, such as old tins, cast-off clothing, broken furniture, etc., and upon these the earth was thrown until the surface of the ground was again level. These precautions were taken to prevent the Indians from discovering and appropriating the articles cached. It was argued that the Indians, when digging down, would come to the useless articles, and not thinking there was treasure further down would abandon the task. "But," says Hon. James F. Breen, in speaking on this subject, "I have been told by parties who have crossed the plains, that in no case has the Indian been deceived by the emigrant's silent logic." The Indians would leave nothing underground, not even the dead bodies buried from time to time. One of the trains in advance of the Donner Party buried two men in one grave, and succeeding parties found each of the bodies unearthed, and were compelled to repeat the last sad rites of burial.
Before the Donner Party started from the Desert camp, an inventory of the provisions on hand was accurately taken, and an estimate was made of the quantity required for each family, and it was found that there was not enough to carry the emigrants through to California. As if to render more emphatic the terrible situation of the party, a storm came during their last night at the camp, and in the morning the hill-tops were white with snow. It was a dreadful reminder of the lateness of the season, and the bravest hearts quailed before the horrors they knew must await them. A solemn council was held. It was decided that some one must leave the train, press eagerly forward to California, and obtaining a supply of provisions, return and meet the party as far back on the route as possible. It was a difficult undertaking, and perilous in the extreme. A call was made for volunteers, and after a little reflection two men offered their services. One was Wm. McCutchen, who had joined the train from Missouri, and the other was C. T. Stanton, of Chicago, a man who afterwards proved himself possessed of the sublimest heroism. Taking each a horse, they received the tearful, prayerful farewells of the doomed company, and set out upon their solitary journey.
Would they return? If they reached the peaceful, golden valleys of California, would they turn back to meet danger, and storms, and death, in order to bring succor to those on the dreary desert? McCutchen might come, because he left dear ones with the train, but would Stanton return? Stanton was young and unmarried. There were no ties or obligations to prompt his return, save his plighted word and the dictates of honor and humanity.
They bore letters from the Donner Party to Captain Sutter, who was in charge at Sutter's Fort. These letters were prayers for relief, and it was believed would secure assistance from the generous old Captain. Every eye followed Stanton and McCutchen until they disappeared in the west. Soon afterward the train resumed its toilsome march.
Gravelly Ford The Character of James F. Reed Causes Which Led to the Reed-Snyder Tragedy John Snyder's Popularity The Fatal Altercation Conflicting Statements of Survivors Snyder's Death A Brave Girl A Primitive Trial A Court of Final Resort Verdict of Banishment A Sad Separation George and Jacob Donner Ahead at the Time Finding Letters in Split Sticks Danger of Starvation.
Gravelly ford, on the Humboldt River, witnessed a tragedy which greatly agitated the company. Its results, as will be seen, materially affected the lives not only of the participants, but of several members of the party during the days of horror on the mountains, by bringing relief which would otherwise have been lacking. The parties to the tragedy were James F. Reed and John Snyder. Reed was a man who was tender, generous, heroic, and whose qualities of true nobility shone brilliantly throughout a long life of usefulness. His name is intimately interwoven with the history of the Donner Party, from first to last. Indeed, in the Illinois papers of 1846-7 the company was always termed the "Reed and Donner Party." This title was justly conferred at the time, because he was one of the leading spirits in the organization of the enterprise. In order to understand the tragedy which produced the death of John Snyder, and the circumstances resulting therefrom, the reader must become better acquainted with the character of Mr. Reed.
The following brief extract is from "Powers' Early Settlers of Sangamon County:" "James Frazier Reed was born November 14, 1800, in County Armagh, Ireland. His ancestors were of noble Polish birth, who chose exile rather than submission to the Russian power, and settled in the north of Ireland. The family name was originally Reednoski, but in process of time the Polish termination of the name was dropped, and the family was called Reed. James F. Reed's mother's name was Frazier, whose ancestors belonged to Clan Frazier, of Scottish history. Mrs. Reed and her son, James F., came to America when he was a youth, and settled in Virginia. He remained there until he was twenty, when he left for the lead mines of Illinois, and was engaged in mining until 1831, when he came to Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois."
Among the papers of Mr. Reed is a copy of the muster roll of a company which enlisted in the Blackhawk war, and in this roll are the names of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, and James F. Reed. At the termination of this war, Mr. Reed returned to Springfield, engaged in the manufacture of cabinet furniture, and amassed a considerable fortune. He was married in 1835 to Mrs. Margaret Backenstoe, whose maiden name was Keyes. The death of his wife's mother, Mrs. Sarah Keyes, has already been mentioned as occurring on the Big Blue River, near Manhattan, Kansas.
During the progress of the train, Mr. Reed was always a prominent, active member. Full of life and enthusiasm, fearless of danger, he was ready at all times to risk his life for the company's welfare. On the desert, we have seen that his lonely expedition in search of water cost him his valuable oxen, and left him and his family almost destitute.
The deplorable affair about to be narrated was only the natural outgrowth of the trying circumstances in which the company were placed. The reader must bear in mind that many petty causes combined to produce discord and dissension among the members of the Donner Party. Coming from so many different States, being of different nationalities and modes of thought, delayed on the road much longer than was expected, rendered irritable by the difficulties encountered on the journey, annoyed by losses of stock, fearful of unknown disasters on the Sierra, and already placed on short allowances of provisions, the emigrants were decidedly inharmonious.
The action of the company, moreover, was doubtless influenced in a greater or less degree by Snyder's popularity. A young man, not over twenty-three years old, he was tall, straight, and of erect, manly carriage, and his habits of life as a frontiersman had developed him into a muscular, athletic being. He excelled and led in all the out-door sports most in favor with Western men, such as jumping, running, and wrestling. His manner was gentle, retired, and timid to a degree verging on bashfulness, until roused by the influence of passion. The lion in the man was dormant until evoked by the fiercer emotions. His complexion was dark, but as you studied his face you could not repress the suspicion that Nature had marked him for a blonde, and that constant exposure to the wind and sun and rain of the great plains of the West had wrought the color change, and the conviction was strong that the change was an improvement on Nature. His features were cast in a mold of great beauty—such beauty as we seldom look for in a man. He was never moody, despondent, or cast down, and at all times, and under all circumstances, possessed the faculty of amusing himself and entertaining others. In the evening camp, when other amusements failed, or when anticipated troubles depressed the spirits of the travelers, it was his custom to remove the "hindgate" of his wagon, lay it on the ground, and thereon perform the "clog dance," "Irish jigs," the "pigeon wing," and other fantastic steps. Many an evening the Donner Party were prevented from brooding over their troubles by the boyish antics of the light-hearted youth.
As stated above, the train had reached Gravelly Ford. Already the members of the company were beginning to scan eagerly the western plain in hopes of discovering the relief which it was believed Stanton and McCutchen would bring from Sutter's Fort. Of course there were the usual accidents and incidents peculiar to a journey across the plains. Occasionally a wagon would need repairing. Occasionally there would be a brief halt to rest and recruit the jaded cattle. The Indians had stolen two of Mr. Graves' oxen, and a couple of days later had stolen one of the horses.
In traveling, the Donner Party observed this rule: If a wagon drove in the lead one day, it should pass back to the rear on the succeeding day. This system of alternating allowed each his turn in leading the train. On this fifth of October, 1846, F. W. Graves was ahead, Jay Fosdick second, John Snyder third, and the team of J. F. Reed fourth. Milton Elliott was driving Reed's team. Arriving at the foot of a steep, sandy hill, the party was obliged to "double teams," that is, to hitch five or six yoke of oxen to one wagon. Elliott and Snyder interchanged hot words over some difficulty about the oxen. Fosdick had attached his team to Graves' and had drawn Graves' wagon up the hill. Snyder, being nettled at something Elliott had said, declared that his team could pull up alone. During the excitement Snyder made use of very bad language, and was beating his cattle over the head with his whip-stock. One account says that Reed's team and Snyder's became tangled. At all events, Snyder was very much enraged. Reed had been off hunting on horseback, and arriving at this moment, remonstrated with Snyder for beating the cattle, and at the same time offered him the assistance of his team. Snyder refused the proffered aid, and used abusive language toward both Reed and Elliott. Reed attempted to calm the enraged man. Both men were of fiery, passionate dispositions, and words began to multiply rapidly. When Reed saw that trouble was likely to occur, he said something about waiting until they got up the hill and settling this matter afterwards. Snyder evidently construed this to be a threat, and with an oath replied, "We will settle it now." As Snyder uttered these words, he struck Reed a blow on the head with the butt-end of his heavy whip-stock. This blow was followed in rapid succession by a second, and a third. As the third stroke descended, Mrs. Reed ran between her husband and the furious man, hoping to prevent the blow. Each time the whip-stock descended on Reed's head it cut deep gashes. He was blinded with the blood which streamed from his wounds, and dazed and stunned by the terrific force of the blows. He saw the cruel whip-stock uplifted, and knew that his wife was in danger, but had only time to cry "John! John!" when down came the stroke full upon Mrs. Reed's head and shoulders. The next instant John Snyder was staggering, speechless and death-stricken. Reed's hunting-knife had pierced his left breast, severing the first and second ribs and entering the left lung.
No other portion of the History of the Donner Party, as contributed by the survivors, has been so variously stated as this Reed-Snyder affair. Five members of the party, now living, claim to have been eyewitnesses. The version of two of these, Mrs. J. M. Murphy and Mrs. Frank Lewis, is the one here published. In the theory of self-defense they are corroborated by all the early published accounts. This theory was first advanced in Judge J. Quinn Thornton's work in 1849, and has never been disputed publicly until within the last two or three years. Due deference to the valuable assistance rendered by Wm. G. Murphy, of Marysville, and W. C. Graves, of Calistoga, demands mention of the fact that their accounts differ in important respects from the one given above. This is not surprising in view of the thirty-three years which have elapsed since the occurrence. The history of criminal jurisprudence justifies the assertion that eye-witnesses of any fatal difficulty differ materially in regard to important particulars, even when their testimony is taken immediately after the difficulty. It is not strange, therefore, that after the lapse of an ordinary life-time a dozen different versions should have been contributed by the survivors concerning this unfortunate tragedy. James F. Reed, after nearly a quarter of a century of active public life in California, died honored and respected. During his life-time this incident appeared several times in print, and was always substantially as given in this chapter. With the single exception of a series of articles contributed to the Healdsburg Flag by W. C. Graves, two or three years ago, no different account has ever been published. This explanatory digression from the narrative is deemed necessary out of respect to the two gentlemen who conscientiously disagree with Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Lewis. On all other important subjects the survivors are harmonious or reconcilable.
W. C. Graves, now of Calistoga, caught the dying man in his arms, and in a few minutes he was carried a little way up the hill and laid upon the ground. Reed immediately regretted the act and threw the knife from him. His wife and daughters gathered about him and began to stanch the blood that flowed from the gashes on his head. He gently pushed them aside and went to the assistance of the dying man. He and Snyder had always been firm friends, and Snyder had been most active in securing a team for Reed after the latter had lost his cattle in the desert. Snyder expired in about fifteen minutes, and Reed remained by his side until the last. Patrick Breen came up, and Snyder said, "Uncle Patrick, I am dead." It is not certain that he spoke again, though Reed's friends claim that he said to Reed, "I am to blame."
Snyder's death fell like a thunderbolt upon the Donner Party. Camp was immediately pitched, the Reed family being a little removed down the hill from the main body of emigrants. Reed felt that he had only acted in defense of his own life and in defense of the wife he adored. Nevertheless, it was evident that trouble was brewing in the main camp where Snyder's body was lying.
The Reed family were in a sad situation. They commenced the journey with a more costly and complete outfit than the other emigrants, and thereby had incurred the envy of some of their less fortunate companions. They had a fine race horse and good stock, and Virginia had a beautiful pony of her own, and was fond of accompanying her father on his horseback excursions. From these and other circumstances the Reeds had acquired the name of being "aristocratic." Ordinarily, this is a term which would excite a smile, but on this dreadful day it had its weight in inflaming the minds of the excited emigrants. On the desert Reed had cached many valuable articles, but all his provisions had been distributed among his companions. This, however, was forgotten in the turbulent camp, and the destitute, desolate family could plainly catch the sound of voices clamoring for Reed's death.
Meantime, Virginia Reed was dressing the wounds on her father's head. Mrs. Reed was overwhelmed with grief and apprehension, and the father came to Virginia for assistance. This brave little woman was only twelve years old, yet in this and all other acts of which there is a record she displayed a nerve and skillfulness which would have done credit to a mature woman. The cuts in Reed's scalp were wide and deep. Indeed, the scars remained to his dying day. In San Jose, long years afterwards, as James F. Reed lay dead, the gentle breeze from an open window softly lifted and caressed his gray hair, disclosing plainly the scars left by these ugly wounds.
Reed entertained none but the friendliest sentiments toward Snyder. Anxious to do what he could for the dead, he offered the boards of his wagon-bed from which to make a coffin for Snyder. This offer, made with the kindliest, most delicate feeling, was rejected by the emigrants. At the funeral, Reed stood sorrowfully by the grave until the last clod was placed above the man who had been one of his best friends. A council was held by the members of the company. A council to decide upon Reed's fate. It was in the nature of a court, all-powerful, from whose decision there was no appeal. Breathlessly the fond wife and affectionate children awaited the verdict. The father was idolized by the mother and the little ones, and was their only stay and support.
The friendship of the Donner Party for John Snyder, the conflicting and distorted accounts of the tragedy, and the personal enmity of certain members of the company toward Reed, resulted in a decree that he should be banished from the train. The feeling ran so high that at one time the end of a wagon-tongue was propped up with an ox-yoke by some of the emigrants with the intention of hanging Reed thereon, but calmer counsel prevailed.
When the announcement was communicated to Reed that he was to be banished, he refused to comply with the decree. Conscious that he had only obeyed the sacred law of self-defense, he refused to accede to an unjust punishment. Then came the wife's pleadings! Long and earnestly Mrs. Reed reasoned and begged and prayed with her husband. All was of no avail until she urged him to remember the want and destitution in which they and the entire company were already participants. If he remained and escaped violence at the hands of his enemies, he might nevertheless see his children starve before his eyes, and be helpless to aid them. But if he would go forward, if he would reach California, he could return with provisions, and meet them on the mountains at that point on the route where they would be in greatest need. It was a fearful struggle, but finally the mother's counsels prevailed. Prior to setting out upon his gloomy journey, Mr. Reed made the company promise to care for his family.
At the time of the Snyder tragedy, George and Jacob Donner, with their wagons and families, were two days in advance of the main train. Walter Herron was with them, and, when Reed came up, Herron concluded to accompany him to California.
It was contemplated that Reed should go out into the wilderness alone, and with neither food nor ammunition. Happily this part of the programme was thwarted. The faithful Virginia, in company with Milton Elliott, followed Mr. Reed after he had started, and carried him his gun and ammunition. The affectionate girl also managed to carry some crackers to him, although she and all the company were even then on short allowance.
The sad parting between Reed and his family, and the second parting with the devoted Virginia, we pass over in silence. James F. Reed, Jr., only five years old, declared that he would go with his father, and assist him in obtaining food during the long journey. Even the baby, only two and a half years old, would fret and worry every time the family sat down to their meals, lest father should find nothing to eat on his difficult way. Every day the mother and daughters would eagerly search for the letter Mr. Reed was sure to leave in the top of some bush, or in a split stick by the wayside. When he succeeded in killing geese or ducks, as he frequently did along the Humboldt and Truckee, he would scatter the feathers about his camping-ground, that his family might see that he was supplied with food. It is hardly necessary to mention that Mrs. Reed and the children regarded the father's camping-places as hallowed ground, and as often as possible kindled their evening fires in the same spot where his had been kindled.
But a day came when they found no more letters, no further traces of the father. Was he dead? Had the Indians killed him? Had he starved by the way? No one could answer, and the mother's cheek grew paler and her dear eyes grew sadder and more hopeless, until Virginia and Patty both feared that she, too, was going to leave them. Anxious, grief-stricken, filled with the belief that her husband was dead, poor Mrs. Reed was fast dying of a broken heart. But suddenly all her life, and energy, and determination were again aroused into being by a danger that would have crushed a nature less noble. A danger that is the most terrible, horrible, that ever tortured human breast; a danger—that her children, her babes, must starve to death!
Great Hardships The Sink of the Humboldt Indians Stealing Cattle An Entire Company Compelled to Walk Abandoned to Die Wolfinger Murdered Rhinehart's Confession Arrival of C. T. Stanton A Temporary Relief A Fatal Accident The Sierra Nevada Mountains Imprisoned in Snow Struggles for Freedom A Hopeless Situation Digging for Cattle in Snow How the Breen Cabin Happened to be Built A Thrilling Sketch of a Solitary Winter Putting up Shelters The Donners have Nothing but Tents Fishing for Trout.
Starvation now stared the emigrants in the face. The shortest allowance capable of supporting life was all that was portioned to any member of the company. At times, some were forced to do without food for a day or more, until game was procured. The poor cattle were also in a pitiable condition. Owing to the lateness of the season, the grass was exceedingly scanty and of a poor quality. Frequently the water was bad, and filled with alkali and other poisonous deposits. George Donner, Jacob Donner, Wolfinger, and others, lost cattle at various points along the Humboldt. Mr. Breen lost a fine mare. The Indians were constantly hovering around the doomed train, ready to steal cattle, but too cowardly to make any open hostile attack. Arrows were shot into several of the oxen by Indians who slipped up near them during the night-time. At midnight, on the twelfth of October, the party reached the sink of the Humboldt. The cattle, closely guarded, were turned out to graze and recruit their wasted strength. About dawn on the morning of the thirteenth the guard came into camp to breakfast. During the night nothing had occurred to cause the least apprehension, and no indications of Indians had been observed. Imagine the consternation in camp when it was discovered that during the temporary absence of the guard twenty-one head of cattle had been stolen by the redskins. This left the company in terribly destitute circumstances. All had to walk who were able. Men, women, and children were forced to travel on foot all day long, and in many cases were compelled to carry heavy burdens in order to lessen the loads drawn by the weary cattle. Wm. G. Murphy remembers distinctly seeing his brother carrying a copper camp-kettle upon his head. The Graves family, the Breens, the Donners, the Murphys, the Reeds, all walked beside the wagons until overpowered with fatigue. The men became exhausted much sooner, as a rule, than the women. Only the sick, the little children, and the utterly exhausted, were ever allowed to ride. Eddy and his wife had lost all their cattle, and each carried one of their children and such personal effects as they were able. Many in the train were without shoes, and had to travel barefooted over the weary sands, and flinty, sharp-edged stones.
On the ninth of October a death had resulted from this necessity of having to walk. It was a case of desertion, which, under other circumstances, would have been unpardonably heartless. An old man named Hardcoop was traveling with Keseberg. He was a cutler by trade, and had a son and daughter in the city of Antwerp, in Belgium. It is said he owned a farm near Cincinnati, Ohio, and intended, after visiting California to dispose of this farm, and with the proceeds return to Antwerp, for the purpose of spending his declining years with his children. He was a man of nearly three-score years, and the hardships of the journey had weakened his trembling limbs and broken down his health. Sick, feeble, helpless as he was, this old man was compelled to walk with the others. At last, when his strength gave way, he was forced to lie down by the roadside to perish of cold and hunger. Who can picture the agony, the horror, the dreary desolation of such a death? The poor old man walked until his feet actually burst!—walked until he sank utterly exhausted by the roadside! It was a terrible death! To see the train disappear in the distance; to know he was abandoned to die of exposure and starvation; to think that the wolves would devour his flesh and gnaw his bones; to lie down on the great desert, hungry, famished, and completely prostrated by fatigue—to meet death thus is too dreadful to contemplate.
No one made any attempt to return and find the poor old fellow. This, however, is partially excused by the overwhelming dangers which now threatened the entire company. Each hour's delay rendered death in the Sierra Nevada Mountains more imminent.
About the fourteenth of October, beyond the present site of Wadsworth, another tragedy occurred. Wolfinger, who was supposed to be quite wealthy, was in the rear of the train, traveling with Keseberg. At nightfall, neither of the Germans made his appearance. It happened that both their wives had walked ahead, and were with the emigrants. Considering it suspicious that the men did not arrive, and fearing some evil had befallen them, a party returned to ascertain the cause of the delay. Before proceeding far, however, Keseberg was met traveling leisurely along. He assured them that Wolfinger was only a little way behind, and would be along in a few moments. Reassured by this information, the party returned with Keseberg to camp and awaited the arrival of Wolfinger. The night passed, and the missing man had not appeared. Mrs. Wolfinger was nearly frantic. She was a tall, queenly-looking lady, of good birth and much refinement. She was recently from Germany, and understood but little English, yet she was evidently a wellbred lady. Nearly all the survivors remember the elegant dresses and costly jewelry she wore during the first part of the journey. Her grief at her husband's disappearance was so heart-rending that three young men at last consented to start back in the morning and endeavor to find Wolfinger. W. C. Graves, from whom this information is obtained, was one of the three who returned. Five miles back the wagon was found standing in the road. The oxen had been unhitched, but were still chained together, and were quietly grazing at a little distance. There were no signs of Indians, but Wolfinger was not to be found. At the time it was strongly conjectured that Keseberg had murdered Wolfinger for his money, and had concealed the body. This was doubtless unjust, for when Joseph Rhinehart was dying, some weeks later, in George Donner's tent, he confessed that he (Rhinehart) had something to do with the murder of Wolfinger. The men hitched the oxen to the wagon, and drove on until they overtook the emigrants, who, owing to the dangers by which they were encompassed, felt compelled to pursue their onward journey. The team was given to Mrs. Wolfinger, and she employed a German by the name of Charles Burger to drive it thereafter. Little was said about the affair at the time. Mrs. Wolfinger supposed the Indians had killed her husband.
On the nineteenth of October, C. T. Stanton was met returning with provisions. The company was near the present town of Wadsworth, Nevada. A great rejoicing was held over the brave man's return. McCutchen had been severely ill, and was unable to return with Stanton. But the latter, true to his word, recrossed the Sierra, and met the emigrants at a time when they were on the verge of starvation. He had brought seven mules, five of which were loaded with flour and dried beef. Captain Sutter had furnished these mules and the provisions, together with two Indian vaqueros, without the slightest compensation or security. The Indians, Lewis and Salvador, would assist in caring for the pack-animals, and would also be efficient guides. Without Stanton's aid the entire party would have been lost; not a single soul would have escaped. The provisions, though scant, were sufficient to entirely alter the situation of affairs. Had the party pressed immediately forward, they could have passed the summits before the storms began. For some cause, however, it was concluded to rest the cattle for a few days near the present site of Reno, preparatory to attempting to ascend the difficult Sierra. Three or four days' time was lost. This loss was fatal. The storms on the mountains generally set in about Thanksgiving, or during the latter days of November. The emigrants trusted that the storm season of 1846 would not begin earlier than usual. Alas! the terrible consequences of this mistaken trust!
After the arrival of Stanton, it was still deemed necessary to take further steps for the relief of the train. The generosity of Captain Sutter, as shown to Stanton, warranted them in believing that he would send still further supplies to the needy emigrants. Accordingly, two brothers-in-law, William Foster and William Pike, both brave and daring spirits, volunteered to go on ahead, cross the summits, and return with provisions as Stanton had done. Both men had families, and both were highly esteemed in the company. At the encampment near Reno, Nevada, while they were busily preparing to start, the two men were cleaning or loading a pistol. It was an old-fashioned "pepper-box." It happened, while they were examining it, that wood was called for to replenish the fire. One of the men offered to procure it, and in order to do so, handed the pistol to the other. Everybody knows that the "pepper-box" is a very uncertain weapon. Somehow, in the transfer, the pistol was discharged. William Pike was fatally wounded, and died in about twenty minutes. Mrs. Pike was left a widow, with two small children. The youngest, Catherine, was a babe of only a few months old, and Naomi was only three years of age. The sadness and distress occasioned by this mournful accident, cast a gloom over the entire company, and seemed an omen of the terrible fate which overshadowed the Donner Party.