THE EXPEDITION OF THE DONNER PARTY
AND ITS TRAGIC FATE
BY ELIZA P. DONNER HOUGHTON
Out of the sunshine and shadows of sixty-eight years come these personal recollections of California—of the period when American civilization first crossed its mountain heights and entered its overland gateways.
I seem to hear the tread of many feet, the lowing of many herds, and know they are the re-echoing sounds of the sturdy pioneer home-seekers. Travel-stained and weary, yet triumphant and happy, most of them reach their various destinations, and their trying experiences and valorous deeds are quietly interwoven with the general history of the State.
Not so, however, the "Donner Party," of which my father was captain. Like fated trains of other epochs whose privations, sufferings, and self-sacrifices have added renown to colonization movements and served as danger signals to later wayfarers, that party began its journey with song of hope, and within the first milestone of the promised land ended it with a prayer for help. "Help for the helpless in the storms of the Sierra Nevada Mountains!"
And I, a child then, scarcely four years of age, was too young to do more than watch and suffer with other children the lesser privations of our snow-beleaguered camp; and with them survive, because the fathers and mothers hungered in order that the children might live.
Scenes of loving care and tenderness were emblazoned on my mind. Scenes of anguish, pain, and dire distress were branded on my brain during days, weeks, and months of famine,—famine which reduced the party from eighty-one souls to forty-five survivors, before the heroic relief men from the settlements could accomplish their mission of humanity.
Who better than survivors knew the heart-rending circumstances of life and death in those mountain camps? Yet who can wonder that tenderest recollections and keenest heartaches silenced their quivering lips for many years; and left opportunities for false and sensational details to be spread by morbid collectors of food for excitable brains, and for prolific historians who too readily accepted exaggerated and unauthentic versions as true statements?
Who can wonder at my indignation and grief in little girlhood, when I was told of acts of brutality, inhumanity, and cannibalism, attributed to those starved parents, who in life had shared their last morsels of food with helpless companions?
Who can wonder that I then resolved that, "When I grow to be a woman I shall tell the story of my party so clearly that no one can doubt its truth"? Who can doubt that my resolve has been ever kept fresh in mind, by eager research for verification and by diligent communication with older survivors, and rescuers sent to our relief, who answered my many questions and cleared my obscure points?
And now, when blessed with the sunshine of peace and happiness, I am finishing my work of filial love and duty to my party and the State of my adoption, who can wonder that I find on my chain of remembrance countless names marked, "forget me not"? Among the many to whom I became greatly indebted in my young womanhood for valuable data and gracious encouragement in my researches are General William Tecumseh Sherman, General John A. Sutter, Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, Mrs. Jessie Benton Fremont, Honorable Allen Francis, and C.F. McGlashan, author of the "History of the Donner Party."
My fondest affection must ever cling to the dear, quaint old pioneer men and women, whose hand-clasps were warmth and cheer, and whose givings were like milk and honey to my desolate childhood. For each and all of them I have full measure of gratitude, often pressed down, and now overflowing to their sons and daughters, for, with keenest appreciation I learned that, on June 10, 1910, the order of Native Sons of the Golden West laid the corner stone of "Donner Monument," on the old emigrant trail near the beautiful lake which bears the party's name. There the Native Sons of the Golden West, aided by the Native Daughters of the Golden West, propose to erect a memorial to all overland California pioneers.
In a letter to me from Dr. C.W. Chapman, chairman of that monument committee, is the following forceful paragraph:
"The Donner Party has been selected by us as the most typical and as the most varied and comprehensive in its experiences of all the trains that made these wonderful journeys of thousands of miles, so unique in their daring, so brave, so worthy of the admiration of man."
ELIZA P. DONNER HOUGHTON.
Los Angeles, California,
THE PACIFIC COAST IN 1845—SPEECHES OF SENATOR BENTON AND REPORT OF CAPT. FREMONT—MY FATHER AND HIS FAMILY—INTEREST AWAKENED IN THE NEW TERRITORY—FORMATION OF THE FIRST EMIGRANT PARTY FROM ILLINOIS TO CALIFORNIA—PREPARATIONS FOR THE JOURNEY—THE START—ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF CIVILIZATION
IN THE TERRITORY OF KANSAS—PRAIRIE SCHOONERS FROM SANTA FE TO INDEPENDENCE, MO.—LIFE en route—THE BIG BLUE—CAMP GOVERNMENT—THE Blue Rover
IN THE HAUNTS OF THE PAWNEES—LETTERS OF MRS. GEORGE DONNER—HALT AT FORT BERNARD—SIOUX INDIANS AT FORT LARAMIE
FOURTH OF JULY IN AN EMIGRANT PARTY—OPEN LETTER OF LANSFORD HASTINGS—GEORGE DONNER ELECTED CAPTAIN OF PARTY BOUND FOR CALIFORNIA—ENTERING THE GREAT DESERT—INSUFFICIENT SUPPLY OF FOOD—VOLUNTEERS COMMISSIONED BY MY FATHER TO HASTEN TO SUTTER'S FORT FOR RELIEF
BEWILDERING GUIDE BOARD—SOUL-TRYING STRUGGLES—FIRST SNOW—REED-SNYDER TRAGEDY—HARDCOOP'S FATE
INDIAN DEPREDATIONS—WOLFINGER'S DISAPPEARANCE—STANTON RETURNS WITH SUPPLIES FURNISHED BY CAPT. SUTTER—DONNER WAGONS SEPARATED FROM TRAIN FOREVER—TERRIBLE PIECE OF NEWS—FORCED INTO SHELTER AT DONNER LAKE—DONNER CAMP ON PROSSER CREEK.
SNOWBOUND—SCARCITY OF FOOD AT BOTH CAMPS—WATCHING FOR RETURN OF MCCUTCHEN AND REED
ANOTHER STORM—FOUR DEATHS IN DONNER CAMP—FIELD MICE USED FOR FOOD—CHANGED APPEARANCE OF THE STARVING—SUNSHINE—DEPARTURE OF THE "FORLORN HOPE"—WATCHING FOR RELIEF—IMPOSSIBLE TO DISTURB THE BODIES OF THE DEAD IN DONNER CAMP—ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE OF FIRST RELIEF PARTY
SUFFERINGS OF THE "FORLORN HOPE"—RESORT TO HUMAN FLESH—"CAMP OF DEATH"—BOOTS CRISPED AND EATEN—DEER KILLED—INDIAN Rancheria—THE "WHITE MAN'S HOME" AT LAST
RELIEF MEASURES INAUGURATED IN CALIFORNIA—DISTURBED CONDITIONS BECAUSE OF MEXICAN WAR—GENEROUS SUBSCRIPTIONS—THREE PARTIES ORGANIZE—"FIRST RELIEF," UNDER RACINE TUCKER; "SECOND RELIEF," UNDER REED AND GREENWOOD; AND RELAY CAMP UNDER WOODWORTH—FIRST RELIEF PARTY CROSSES SNOW-BELT AND REACHES DONNER LAKE
WATCHING FOR THE SECOND RELIEF PARTY—"OLD NAVAJO"—LAST FOOD IN CAMP
ARRIVAL OF SECOND RELIEF, OR REED-GREENWOOD PARTY—FEW SURVIVORS STRONG ENOUGH TO TRAVEL—WIFE'S CHOICE—PARTINGS AT DONNER CAMP—MY TWO SISTERS AND I DESERTED—DEPARTURE OF SECOND RELIEF PARTY
A FATEFUL CABIN—MRS. MURPHY GIVES MOTHERLY COMFORT—THE GREAT STORM—HALF A BISCUIT—ARRIVAL OF THIRD RELIEF—"WHERE IS MY BOY?"
THE QUEST OF TWO FATHERS—SECOND RELIEF IN DISTRESS—THIRD RELIEF ORGANIZED AT WOODWORTH'S RELAY CAMP—DIVIDES AND ONE HALF GOES TO SUCCOR SECOND RELIEF AND ITS REFUGEES; AND THE OTHER HALF PROCEEDS TO DONNER LAKE—A LAST FAREWELL—A WOMAN'S SACRIFICE
SIMON MURPHY, FRANCES, GEORGIA, AND I TAKEN FROM THE LAKE CABINS BY THE THIRD RELIEF—NO FOOD TO LEAVE—CROSSING THE SNOW—REMNANT OF THE SECOND RELIEF OVERTAKEN—OUT OF THE SNOW—INCIDENTS OF THE JOURNEY—JOHNSON'S RANCH—THE SINCLAIR HOME—SUTTER'S FORT
ELITHA AND LEANNA—LIFE AT THE FORT—WATCHING THE COW PATH—RETURN OF THE FALLON PARTY—KESEBERG BROUGHT IN BY THEM—FATHER AND MOTHER DID NOT COME
ORPHANS—KESEBERG AND HIS ACCUSERS—SENSATIONAL ACCOUNTS OF THE TRAGEDY AT DONNER LAKE—PROPERTY SOLD AND GUARDIAN APPOINTED—KINDLY INDIANS—"GRANDPA"—MARRIAGE OF ELITHA
"GRANDMA"—HAPPY VISITS—A NEW HOME—AM PERSUADED TO LEAVE IT
ON A CATTLE RANCH NEAR THE COSUMNE RIVER—"NAME BILLY"—INDIAN GRUB FEAST
I RETURN TO GRANDMA—WAR RUMORS AT THE FORT—LINGERING HOPE THAT MY MOTHER MIGHT BE LIVING—AN INDIAN CONVOY—THE BRUNNERS AND THEIR HOME
MORAL DISCIPLINE—THE HISTORICAL PUEBLO OF SONOMA—SUGAR PLUMS
GOLD DISCOVERED—"CALIFORNIA IS OURS"—NURSING THE SICK—THE U.S. MILITARY POST—BURIAL OF AN OFFICER
REAPING AND THRESHING—A PIONEER FUNERAL—THE HOMELESS AND WAYFARING APPEAL TO MRS. BRUNNER—RETURN OF THE MINERS—SOCIAL GATHERINGS—OUR DAILY ROUTINE—STOLEN PLEASURES—A LITTLE DAIRYMAID—MY DOGSKIN SHOES
MEXICAN METHODS OF CULTIVATION—FIRST STEAMSHIP THROUGH THE GOLDEN GATE—"THE ARGONAUTS" OR "BOYS OF '49"—A LETTER FROM THE STATES—JOHN BAPTISTE—JAKIE LEAVES US—THE FIRST AMERICAN SCHOOL IN SONOMA
FEVER PATIENTS FROM THE MINES—UNMARKED GRAVES—THE TALES AND TAUNTS THAT WOUNDED MY YOUNG HEART
THANK OFFERINGS—MISS DOTY'S SCHOOL—THE BOND OF KINDRED—IN JACKET AND TROUSERS—CHUM CHARLIE
CAPT. FRISBIE—WEDDING FESTIVITIES—THE MASTERPIECE OF GRANDMA'S YOUTH—SENORA VALLEJO—JAKIE'S RETURN—HIS DEATH—A CHEROKEE INDIAN WHO HAD STOOD BY MY FATHER'S GRAVE
ELITHA, FRANCES, AND MR. MILLER VISIT US—MRS. BRUNNER CLAIMS US AS HER CHILDREN—THE DAGUERREOTYPE
GREAT SMALLPOX EPIDEMIC—ST. MARY'S HALL—THANKSGIVING DAY IN CALIFORNIA—ANOTHER BROTHER-IN-LAW
IDEALS AND LONGINGS—THE FUTURE—CHRISTMAS
THE WIDOW STEIN AND LITTLE JOHNNIE—"DAUGHTERS OF A SAINTED MOTHER"—ESTRANGEMENT AND DESOLATION—A RESOLUTION AND A VOW—MY PEOPLE ARRIVE AND PLAN TO BEAR ME AWAY
GRANDMA'S RETURN—GOOD-BYE TO THE DUMB CREATURES—GEORGIA AND I ARE OFF FOR SACRAMENTO
THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF SACRAMENTO—A GLIMPSE OF GRANDPA—THE RANCHO DE LOS CAZADORES—MY SWEETEST PRIVILEGE—LETTERS FROM THE BRUNNERS
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 RITES
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 DONNERS
NEWS OF THE BRUNNERS—LETTERS FROM GRANDPA
ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST PONY EXPRESS
WAR AND RUMORS OF WAR—MARRIAGE—SONOMA REVISITED
ARTICLES PUBLISHED IN The California Star—STATISTICS OF THE PARTY—NOTES OF AGUILLA GLOVER—EXTRACT FROM THORNTON—RECOLLECTIONS OF JOHN BAPTISTE TRUBODE
THE REED-GREENWOOD PARTY, OR SECOND RELIEF—REMINISCENCES OF WILLIAM G. MURPHY—CONCERNING NICHOLAS CLARK AND JOHN BAPTISTE
THE REPORT OF THOMAS FALLON—DEDUCTIONS—STATEMENT OF EDWIN BRYANT—PECULIAR CIRCUMSTANCES
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
S.O. Houghton Eliza P. Donner Houghton The Camp Attacked by Indians Our Stealthy Foes Governor L.W. Boggs Corral Such as was Formed by Each Section for the Protection of its Cattle Fort Laramie as it Appeared When Visited by the Donner Party Chimney Rock John Baptiste Trubode Frances Donner (Mrs. Wm. R. Wilder) Georgia Ann Donner (Mrs. W.A. Babcock) March of the Caravan United States Troops Crossing the Desert Pass in the Sierra Nevadas of California Camp at Donner Lake, November, 1846 Bear Valley, from Emigrant Gap The Trackless Mountains Sutter's Fort Sam Brannan's Store at Sutter's Fort Arrival of Relief Party, February 18, 1847 Donner Lake Arrival of the Caravan at Santa Fe On the Banks of the Sacramento River Elitha Donner (Mrs. Benjamin Wilder) Leanna Donner (Mrs. John App) Mary Donner George Donner, Nephew of Capt. Donner Papooses in Bickooses Sutter's Mill, Where Marshall Discovered Gold, January 19, 1848 Plaza and Barracks of Sonoma One of the Oldest Buildings in Sonoma Old Mexican Carreta Residence of Judge A.L. Rhodes, a Typical California House of the Better Class in 1849 Mission San Francisco Solano, Last of the Historic Missions of California Ruins of the Mission at Sonoma Gold Rocker, Washing Pan, and Gold Borer Scene During the Rush to the Gold Mines from San Francisco, in 1848 Post Office, Corner of Clay and Pike Streets, San Francisco 1849 Old City Hotel, 1846, Corner of Kearney and Clay Streets, The First Hotel in San Francisco Mrs. Brunner, Georgia and Eliza Donner S.O. Houghton, Member of Col. J.D. Stevenson's First Regiment of N.Y. Volunteers Eliza P. Donner Sacramento City in the Early Fifties Front Street, Sacramento City, 1850 Pines of the Sierras Col. J.D. Stevenson General John A. Sutter St. Catherine's Convent at Benicia, California Chapel, St. Catherine's Convent The Cross at Donner Lake General Vallejo's Carriage, Built in England in 1832 General Vallejo's Old Jail Alder Creek Dennison's Exchange and the Parker House, San Francisco View in the Grounds of the Houghton Home in San Jose The Houghton Residence in San Jose, California
I wish to express my appreciation of the courtesies and assistance kindly extended me by the following, in the preparation of the illustrations for this book: Mr. Lynwood Abbott, "Burr-McIntosh Magazine," Mr. J.A. Munk, donor of the Munk Library of Arizoniana to the Southwest Museum, Mr. Hector Alliot, Curator of the Southwest Museum, the officers and attendants of the Los Angeles Public Library, Miss Meta C. Stofen, City Librarian, Sonoma, Cal., Miss Elizabeth Benton Fremont, Mr. C.M. Hunt, Editor "Grizzly Bear," the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine's Convent at Benicia, Cal., and Mrs. C.C. Maynard.
THE EXPEDITION OF THE DONNER PARTY
THE PACIFIC COAST IN 1845—SPEECHES OF SENATOR BENTON AND REPORT OF CAPT. FREMONT—MY FATHER AND HIS FAMILY—INTEREST AWAKENED IN THE NEW TERRITORY—FORMATION OF THE FIRST EMIGRANT PARTY FROM ILLINOIS TO CALIFORNIA—PREPARATIONS FOR THE JOURNEY—THE START—ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF CIVILIZATION.
Prior to the year 1845, that great domain lying west of the Rocky Mountains and extending to the Pacific Ocean was practically unknown. About that time, however, the spirit of inquiry was awakening. The powerful voice of Senator Thomas H. Benton was heard, both in public address and in the halls of Congress, calling attention to Oregon and California. Captain John C. Fremont's famous topographical report and maps had been accepted by Congress, and ten thousand copies ordered to be printed and distributed to the people throughout the United States. The commercial world was not slow to appreciate the value of those distant and hitherto unfrequented harbors. Tales of the equable climate and the marvellous fertility of the soil spread rapidly, and it followed that before the close of 1845, pioneers on the western frontier of our ever expanding republic were preparing to open a wagon route to the Pacific coast.
After careful investigation and consideration, my father, George Donner, and his elder brother, Jacob, decided to join the westward migration, selecting California as their destination. My mother was in accord with my father's wishes, and helped him to carry out his plan.
At this time he was sixty-two years of age, large, fine-looking, and in perfect health. He was of German parentage, born of Revolutionary stock just after the close of the war. The spirit of adventure, with which he was strongly imbued, had led him in his youth from North Carolina, his native State, to the land of Daniel Boone, thence to Indiana, to Illinois, to Texas, and ultimately back to Illinois, while still in manhood's prime.
By reason of his geniality and integrity, he was widely known as "Uncle George" in Sangamon County, Illinois, where he had broken the virgin soil two and a half miles from Springfield, when that place was a small village. There he built a home, acquired wealth, and took an active part in the development of the country round about.
Twice had he been married, and twice bereft by death when he met my mother, Tamsen Eustis Dozier, then a widow, whom he married May 24, 1839. She was a native of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She was cultured, and had been a successful teacher and writer. Their home became the local literary centre after she was installed as its mistress.
My father had two sons and eight daughters when she became his wife; but their immediate family circle consisted only of his aged parents, and Elitha and Leanna, young daughters of his second marriage, until July 8, 1840, when blue-eyed Frances Eustis was born to them. On the fourth of December, 1841, brown-eyed Georgia Ann was added to the number; and on the eighth of March, 1843, I came into this world.
I grew to be a healthy, self-reliant child, a staff to my sister Georgia, who, on account of a painful accident and long illness during her first year, did not learn to walk steadily until after I was strong enough to help her to rise, and lead her to a sand pile near the orchard, where we played away the bright days of two uneventful years.
With the approaching Winter of 1845 popular interest in the great territory to the west of us spread to our community. Maps and reports were eagerly studied. The few old letters which had been received from traders and trappers along the Pacific coast were brought forth for general perusal. The course of the reading society which met weekly at our home was changed, in order that my mother might read to those assembled the publications which had kindled in my father and uncle the desire to migrate to the land so alluringly described. Prominent among these works were "Travels Among the Rocky Mountains, Through Oregon and California," by Lansford W. Hastings, and also the "Topographical Report, with Maps Attached," by Captain Fremont, which has been already mentioned.
The Springfield Journal, published by Mr. Allen Francis, appeared with glowing editorials, strongly advocating emigration to the Pacific coast, and its columns contained notices of companies forming in Southern and Southwestern States, each striving to be ready to join the "Great Overland Caravan," scheduled to leave Independence, Missouri, for Oregon, early in May, 1846.
Mr. James F. Reed, a well-known resident of Springfield, was among those who urged the formation of a company to go directly from Sangamon County to California. Intense interest was manifested; and had it not been for the widespread financial depression of that year, a large number would have gone from that vicinity. The great cost of equipment, however, kept back many who desired to make the long journey.
As it was, James F. Reed, his wife and four children, and Mrs. Keyes, the mother of Mrs. Reed; Jacob Donner, his wife, and seven children; and George Donner, his wife, and five children; also their teamsters and camp assistants,—thirty-two persons all told,—constituted the first emigrant party from Illinois to California. The plan was to join the Oregon caravan at Independence, Missouri, continue with it to Fort Hall, and thence follow Fremont's route to the Bay of San Francisco.
The preparations made for the journey by my parents were practical. Strong, commodious emigrant wagons were constructed especially for the purpose. The oxen to draw them were hardy, well trained, and rapid walkers. Three extra yoke were provided for emergencies. Cows were selected to furnish milk on the way. A few young beef cattle, five saddle-horses, and a good watch-dog completed the list of live stock.
After carefully calculating the requisite amount of provisions, father stored in his wagons a quantity that was deemed more than sufficient to last until we should reach California. Seed and implements for use on the prospective farms in the new country also constituted an important part of our outfit. Nor was that all. There were bolts of cheap cotton prints, red and yellow flannels, bright-bordered handkerchiefs, glass beads, necklaces, chains, brass finger rings, earrings, pocket looking-glasses and divers other knickknacks dear to the hearts of aborigines. These were intended for distribution as peace offerings among the Indians. Lastly, there were rich stores of laces, muslins, silks, satins, velvets and like cherished fabrics, destined to be used in exchange for Mexican land-grants in that far land to which we were bound.
My mother was energetic in all these preparations, but her special province was to make and otherwise get in readiness a bountiful supply of clothing. She also superintended the purchase of materials for women's handiwork, apparatus for preserving botanical specimens, water colors and oil paints, books and school supplies; these latter being selected for use in the young ladies' seminary which she hoped to establish in California.
A liberal sum of money for meeting incidental expenses and replenishing supplies on the journey, if need be, was stored in the compartments of two wide buckskin girdles, to be worn in concealment about the person. An additional sum of ten thousand dollars, cash, was stitched between the folds of a quilt for safe transportation. This was a large amount for those days, and few knew that my parents were carrying it with them. I gained my information concerning it in later years from Mr. Francis, to whom they showed it.
To each of his grown children my father deeded a fair share of his landed estate, reserving one hundred and ten acres near the homestead for us five younger children, who in course of time might choose to return to our native State.
As time went on, our preparations were frequently interrupted by social obligations, farewell visits, dinners, and other merrymakings with friends and kindred far and near. Thursday, April 15, 1846, was the day fixed for our departure, and the members of our household were at work before the rosy dawn. We children were dressed early in our new linsey travelling suits; and as the final packing progressed, we often peeped out of the window at the three big white covered wagons that stood in our yard.
In the first were stored the merchandise and articles not to be handled until they should reach their destination; in the second, provisions, clothing, camp tools, and other necessaries of camp life. The third was our family home on wheels, with feed boxes attached to the back of the wagon-bed for Fanny and Margaret, the favorite saddle-horses, which were to be kept ever close at hand for emergencies.
Early in the day, the first two wagons started, each drawn by three yoke of powerful oxen, whose great moist eyes looked as though they too had parting tears to shed. The loose cattle quickly followed, but it was well on toward noon before the family wagon was ready.
Then came a pause fraught with anguish to the dear ones gathered about the homestead to say farewell. Each tried to be courageous, but not one was so brave as father when he bade good-bye to his friends, to his children, and to his children's children.
I sat beside my mother with my hand clasped in hers, as we slowly moved away from that quaint old house on its grassy knoll, from the orchard, the corn land, and the meadow; as we passed through the last pair of bars, her clasp tightened, and I, glancing up, saw tears in her eyes and sorrow in her face. I was grieved at her pain, and in sympathy nestled closer to her side and sat so quiet that I soon fell asleep. When I awoke, the sun still shone, but we had encamped for the night on the ground where the State House of Illinois now stands.
Mr. Reed and family, and my uncle Jacob and family, with their travelling equipments and cattle, were already settled there. Under father's direction, our own encampment was soon accomplished. By nightfall, the duties of the day were ended, and the members of our party gathered around one fire to spend a social hour.
Presently, the clatter of galloping horses was heard, and shortly thereafter eight horsemen alighted, and with merry greetings joined our circle. They were part of the reading society, and had come to hold its last reunion beside our first camp-fire. Mr. Francis was among them, and took an inventory of the company's outfit for the benefit of the readers of The Springfield Journal.
They piled more wood on the blazing fire, making it a beacon light to those who were watching from afar; they sang songs, told tales, and for the time being drove homesickness from our hearts. Then they rode away in the moonlight, and our past was a sweet memory, our future a beautiful dream.
William Donner, my half-brother, came to camp early next morning to help us to get the cattle started, and to accompany us as far as the outskirts of civilization.
We reached Independence, Missouri, on the eleventh of May, with our wagons and cattle in prime condition, and our people in the best of spirits. Our party encamped near that bustling frontier town, and were soon a part of the busy crowds, making ready for the great prairie on the morrow. Teams thronged the highways; troops of men, women, and children hurried nervously about seeking information and replenishing supplies. Jobbers on the street were crying their wares, anxious to sell anything or everything required, from a shoestring to a complete outfit for a four months' journey across the plains. Beads of sweat clung to the merchants' faces as they rushed to and fro, filling orders. Brawny blacksmiths, with breasts bared and sleeves rolled high, hammered and twisted red hot metal into the divers forms necessary to repair yokes and wagons.
Good fellowship prevailed as strangers met, each anxious to learn something of those who might by chance become his neighbors in line.
Among the pleasant acquaintances made that day, was Mr. J.Q. Thornton, a young attorney from Quincy, Illinois, who, with his invalid wife, was emigrating to Oregon. He informed us that himself and wife and ex-Governor Boggs and family, of Missouri, were hourly expecting Alphonso Boone, grandson of Daniel Boone; and that as soon as Boone and his family should arrive from Kentucky, they would all hasten on to join Colonel Russell's California company, which was already on the way, but had promised to await them somewhere on the Kansas River.
It was then believed that at least seven thousand emigrant wagons would go West, through Independence, that season. Obviously the journey should be made while pasturage and water continued plentiful along the route. Our little party at once determined to overtake Colonel Russell and apply for admission to his train, and for that purpose we resumed travel early on the morning of May twelfth.
As we drove up Main Street, delayed emigrants waved us a light-hearted good-bye, and as we approached the building of the American Tract Society, its agent came to our wagons and put into the hand of each child a New Testament, and gave to each adult a Bible, and also tracts to distribute among the heathen in the benighted land to which we were going. Near the outskirts of town we parted from William Donner, took a last look at Independence, turned our backs to the morning sun, and became pioneers indeed to the Far West.
IN THE TERRITORY OF KANSAS—PRAIRIE SCHOONERS FROM SANTA FE TO INDEPENDENCE, MO.—LIFE en route—THE BIG BLUE—CAMP GOVERNMENT—THE Blue Rover.
During our first few days in the Territory of Kansas we passed over good roads, and through fields of May blossoms musical with the hum of bees and the songs of birds. Some of the party rode horseback; others walked in advance of the train; but each father drove his own family team. We little folk sat in the wagons with our dolls, watching the huge white-covered "prairie schooners" coming from Santa Fe to Independence for merchandise. We could hear them from afar, for the great wagons were drawn by four or five span of travel-worn horses or mules, and above the hames of each poor beast was an arch hung with from three to five clear-toned bells, that jingled merrily as their carriers moved along, guided by a happy-go-lucky driver, usually singing or whistling a gleeful tune. Both man and beast looked longingly toward the town, which promised companionship and revelry to the one, and rest and fodder to the other.
We overtook similar wagons, heavily laden with goods bound for Santa Fe. Most of the drivers were shrewd; all of them civil. They were of various nationalities; some comfortably clad, others in tatters, and a few in picturesque threadbare costumes of Spanish finery. Those hardy wayfarers gave us much valuable information regarding the route before us, and the Indian tribes we should encounter. We were now averaging a distance of about two and a half miles an hour, and encamping nights where fuel and water could be obtained.
Early on the nineteenth of May we reached Colonel Russel's camp on Soldiers' Creek, a tributary of the Kansas River. The following account of the meeting held by the company after our arrival is from the journal of Mr. Edwin Bryant, author of "What I Saw in California":
May 19, 1846. A new census of our party was taken this morning; and it was found to consist of 98 fighting men, 50 women, 46 wagons, and 350 cattle. Two divisions were made for convenience in travelling. We were joined to-day by nine wagons from Illinois belonging to Mr. Reed and Messrs. Donner, highly respectable and intelligent gentlemen with interesting families. They were received into the company by a unanimous vote.
Our cattle were allowed to rest that day; and while the men were hunting and fishing, the women spread the family washings on the boughs and bushes of that well-wooded stream. We children, who had been confined to the wagon so many hours each day, stretched our limbs, and scampered off on Mayday frolics. We waded the creek, made mud pies, and gathered posies in the narrow glades between the cottonwood, beech, and alder trees. Colonel Russell was courteous to all; visited the new members, and secured their cheerful indorsement of his carefully prepared plan of travel. He was at the head of a representative body of pioneers, including lawyers, journalists, teachers, students, farmers, and day-laborers, also a minister of the gospel, a carriage-maker, a cabinet-maker, a stonemason, a jeweller, a blacksmith, and women versed in all branches of woman's work.
The government of these emigrant trains was essentially democratic and characteristically American. A captain was chosen, and all plans of action and rules and regulations were proposed at a general assembly, and accepted or rejected by majority vote. Consequently, Colonel Russell's function was to preside over meetings, lead the train, locate camping ground, select crossings over fordable streams, and direct the construction of rafts and other expedients for transportation over deep waters.
A trumpet call aroused the camp at dawn the following morning; by seven o'clock breakfast had been cooked and served, and the company was in marching order. The weather was fine, and we followed the trail of the Kansas Indians, toward the Big Blue.
At nooning our teams stood in line on the road chewing the cud and taking their breathing spell, while families lunched on the grass in restful picnic style. Suddenly a gust of wind swept by; the sky turned a greenish gray; black clouds drifted over the face of the sun; ominous sounds came rumbling from distant hills, and before our effects could be collected and returned to cover, a terrific thunderstorm was upon us.
We were three hours' distance from our evening camp-ground and our drivers had to walk and face that buffeting storm in order to keep control of the nervous cattle. It was still raining when we reached the knoll where we could spend the night. Our men were tired and drenched, some of them cross; fires were out of the question until fuel could be cut and brought from the edge of a swamp a mile from camp. When brought, the green wood smoked so badly that suppers were late and rather cheerless; still there was spirit enough left in those stalwart hearts to start some mirth-provoking ditty, or indulge in good-natured raillery over the joys and comforts of pioneering.
Indians had followed our train all day, and as we had been warned against leaving temptation within reach, the cattle were corralled early and their guards doubled. Happily, the night passed without alarm or losses. The following day we were joined by ex-Governor Boggs and companions, and lost Mr. Jordan and friends of Jackson, Missouri, who drew their thirteen wagons out of line, saying that their force was strong enough to travel alone, and that Captain Russell's company had become too large for rapid or convenient handling.
We covered fourteen miles that day over a beautiful rolling prairie, dotted with Indian lodges. Frequently their owners walked or rode beside our wagons, asking for presents.
Mrs. Kehi-go-wa-chuck-ee was made happy by the gift of a dozen strings of glass beads, and the chief also kindly accepted a few trinkets and a contribution of tobacco, and provisions, after which he made the company understand that for a consideration payable in cotton prints, tobacco, salt pork, and flour, he himself and his trusted braves would become escort to the train in order to protect its cattle from harm, and its wagons from the pilfering hands of his tribesmen. His offer was accepted, with the condition that he should not receive any of the promised goods until the last wagon was safe beyond his territory. This bargain was faithfully kept, and when we parted from the Indians, they proceeded to immediate and hilarious enjoyment of the unwonted luxuries thus earned.
We were now in line with spring storms, which made us victims of frequent downpours and cyclonic winds. The roads were heavy, and the banks of streams so steep that often the wagons had to be lowered by aid of rope and chain. Fortunately our people were able to take these trying situations philosophically, and were ever ready to enjoy the novelties of intervening hours of calm and sunshine.
The staid and elderly matrons spent most of their time in their wagons, knitting or patching designs for quilts. The younger ones and the girls passed theirs in the saddle. They would scatter in groups over the plains to investigate distant objects, then race back, and with song and banter join husband and brother, driving the loose cattle in the rear. The wild, free spirit of the plain often prompted them to invite us little ones to seats behind them, and away we would canter with the breeze playing through our hair and giving a ruddy glow to our cheeks.
Mr. Edwin Bryant, Mr. and Mrs. Thornton, and my mother were enthusiastic searchers for botanical and geological specimens. They delved into the ground, turning over stones and scraping out the crevices, and zealously penetrated the woods to gather mosses, roots, and flowering plants. Of the rare floral specimens and perishable tints, my mother made pencil and water-color studies, having in view the book she was preparing for publication.
On ascending the bluff overlooking the Big Blue, early on the afternoon of the twenty-sixth of May, we found the river booming, and the water still rising. Driftwood and good sized logs were floating by on a current so strong that all hope of fording it vanished even before its depth was measured. We encamped on the slope of the prairie, near a timber of cottonwood, oak, beech, and sycamore trees, where a clear brook rushed over its stony bed to join the Big Blue. Captain Russell, with my father and other sub-leaders, examined the river banks for marks of a ford.
By sunset the river had risen twenty inches and the water at the ford was two hundred yards in width. A general meeting was called to discuss the situation. Many insisted that the company, being comfortably settled, should wait until the waters receded; but the majority agreeing with the Captain, voted to construct a raft suitable to carry everything except the live stock, which could be forced to swim.
The assembly was also called upon to settle a difference between two members of our Oregon contingent, friendly intervention having induced the disputants to suspend hostilities until their rights should be thus determined. The assembly, however, instead of passing upon the matter, appointed a committee to devise a way out of the difficulty. J.Q. Thornton's work, "Oregon and California," has this reference to that committee, whose work was significant as developed by later events:
Ex-Governor Boggs, Mr. James F. Reed, Mr. George Donner, and others, myself included, convened in a tent according to appointment of a general assembly of the emigrants, with the design of preparing a system of laws for the purpose of preserving order, etc. We proposed a few laws without, however, believing that they would possess much authority. Provision was made for the appointment of a court of arbitrators to hear and decide disputes, and to try offenders against the peace and good order of the company.
The fiercest thunderstorm that we had yet experienced raged throughout that night, and had we not been protected by the bluff on one side, and the timber on the other, our tents would have been carried away by the gale.
The Big Blue had become so turbulent that work on the prospective craft was postponed, and our people proceeded to make the most of the unexpected holiday. Messrs. Grayson and Branham found a bee tree, and brought several buckets of delicious honey into camp. Mr. Bryant gathered a quantity of wild peas, and distributed them among the friends who had spices to turn them into sweet pickles.
The evening was devoted to friendly intercourse, and the camp was merry with song and melodies dear to loved ones around the old hearthstones.
Meanwhile, Captain Russell had drawn a plan of the craft that should be built, and had marked the cottonwood trees on the river bank, half a mile above camp, that would furnish the necessary materials.
Bright and early the following morning, volunteer boat-builders went to work with a will, and by the close of day had felled two trees about three and a half feet in diameter, had hollowed out the trunks, and made of them a pair of canoes twenty-five feet in length. In addition to this, they had also prepared timbers for the frames to hold them parallel, and insure the wagon wheels a steady place while being ferried across the river.
The workers were well satisfied with their accomplishment. There was, however, sorrow instead of rejoicing in camp, for Mrs. Reed's aged mother, who had been failing for some days, died that night. At two o'clock the next afternoon, she was buried at the foot of a monarch oak, in a neat cottonwood coffin, made by men of the party, and her grave was marked by a headstone.
The craft being finished on the morning of the thirtieth of May, was christened Blue Rover, and launched amid cheers of the company. Though not a thing of beauty, she was destined to fulfil the expectations of our worthy Captain. One set of guide-ropes held her in place at the point of embarkation, while swimmers on horseback carried another set of ropes across the river and quickly made them fast. Only one wagon at a time could cross, and great difficulty was experienced in getting the vehicles on and off the boat. Those working near the bank stood in water up to their arm-pits, and frequently were in grave peril. By the time the ninth wagon was safely landed, darkness fell.
The only unforeseen delay that had occurred was occasioned by an awkward slip of the third wagon while being landed. The Blue Rover groaned under the shock, leaned to one side and swamped one of the canoes. However, the damage was slight and easily repaired. The next day was Sunday; but the work had to go on, and the Rev. Mr. Cornwall was as ready for it as the rest of the toilers.
Much anxiety was experienced when the cattle were forced into the water, and they had a desperate struggle in crossing the current; but they finally reached the opposite bank without accident. Each family embarked in its own wagon, and the last was ferried over in the rain at nine o'clock that night. The ropes were then detached from the Blue Rover, and she drifted away in the darkness.
Captain Russell had despatched matters vigorously and tactfully, and when the labors of that day were completed, still had a word of cheer for the shivering, hungry travellers, whom he led into camp one mile west of the memorable Big Blue. Despite stiff joints and severe colds, all were anxious to resume travel at the usual hour next day, June the first.
IN THE HAUNTS OF THE PAWNEES—LETTERS OF MRS. GEORGE DONNER—HALT AT FORT BERNARD—SIOUX INDIANS AT FORT LARAMIE.
We were now near the haunts of the Pawnee Indians, reported to be "vicious savages and daring thieves." Before us also stretched the summer range of the antelope, deer, elk, and buffalo. The effort to keep out of the way of the Pawnees, and the desire to catch sight of the big game, urged us on at a good rate of speed, but not fast enough to keep our belligerents on good behavior. Before night they had not only renewed their former troubles, but come to blows, and insulted our Captain, who had tried to separate them. How the company was relieved of them is thus told in Mr. Bryant's Journal:
June 2, 1846, the two individuals at variance about their oxen and wagon were emigrants to Oregon, and some eighteen or twenty wagons now travelling with us were bound to the same place.
It was proposed in order to relieve ourselves from consequences of dispute in which we had no interest, that all Oregon emigrants should, in respectful manner and friendly spirit, be requested to separate themselves from the California, and start on in advance of us. The proposition was unanimously carried; and the spirit in which it was made prevented any bad feeling which otherwise might have resulted from it. The Oregon emigrants immediately drew their wagons from the corrals and proceeded on their way.
The Oregon company was never so far in advance that we could not hear from it, and on various occasions, some of its members sent to us for medicines and other necessaries.
Our fear of the Pawnees diminished as we proceeded, and met in their haunts only friendly Indians returning from the hunt, with ponies heavily laden with packs of jerked meats and dried buffalo tongues. At least one brave in each party could make himself understood by word or sign. Many could pronounce the one word "hogmeat," and would show what they had to exchange for the coveted luxury. Others also begged for "tobac," and sugar, and generally got a little.
A surprising number of trappers and traders, returning to the United States with their stocks of peltry, camped near us from time to time. They were glad to exchange information, and kept us posted in regard to the condition of the migrants, and the number of wagons on the road in advance. These rough-looking fellows courteously offered to carry the company's mail to the nearest post-office. Mr. Bryant and my mother availed themselves of the kindness, and sent letters to the respective journals of which they were correspondents.
Another means of keeping in touch with travelling parties in advance was the accounts that were frequently found written on the bleaching skulls of animals, or on trunks of trees from which the bark had been stripped, or yet again, on pieces of paper stuck in the clefts of sticks driven into the ground close to the trail. Thus each company left greetings and words of cheer to those who were following. Lost cattle were also advertised by that means, and many strays or convalescents were found and driven forward to their owners.
Early June afforded rarest sport to lovers of the chase, and our company was kept bountifully supplied with choicest cuts of antelope, deer, and elk meat, also juicy buffalo steak. By the middle of the month, however, our surroundings were less favorable. We entered a region of oppressive heat. Clouds of dust enveloped the train. Wood became scarce, and water had to be stored in casks and carried between supply points. We passed many dead oxen, also a number of poor cripples that had been abandoned by their unfeeling owners. Our people, heeding these warnings, gave our cattle extra care, and lost but few.
Through the kindness of the Hon. Allen Francis, U.S. Consul at Victoria, British Columbia, for a long term of years, and in his earlier career editor of The Springfield Journal, I have in my possession two letters written by my mother for this paper. They give a glimpse of the party en route. The interval of time which elapsed between the date of writing and that of publication indicates how much faster our trapper letter-carriers must have travelled on horseback than we had by ox train.
The following was published on the twenty-third of July:
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 travelled 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 travelled 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 blossom 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 extract is part of a letter which appeared in The Springfield Journal of July 30, 1846:
SOUTH FORK OF THE NEBRASKA, TEN MILES FROM THE CROSSING,
Tuesday, June 16, 1846
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.
On the eighteenth of June, Captain Russell, who had been stricken with bilious fever, resigned his office of leader. My father and other subordinate officers also resigned their positions. The assembly tendered the retiring officials a vote of thanks for faithful service; and by common consent, ex-Governor Boggs moved at the head of the train and gave it his name.
We had expected to push on to Fort Laramie without stopping elsewhere, but when we reached Fort Bernard, a small fur-trading post ten miles east of Fort Laramie, we learned that the Sioux Indians were gathering on Laramie Plain, preparing for war with the Crows, and their allies, the Snakes; also that the emigrants already encamped there found pasturage very short. Consequently, our train halted at this more advantageous point, where our cattle could be sent in charge of herders to browse along the Platte River, and where the necessary materials could be obtained to repair the great damage which had been done to our wagon wheels by the intense heat of the preceding weeks.
Meanwhile, Messrs. Russell and Bryant, with six young bachelor friends, found an opportunity to finish their journey with pack animals. They exchanged with traders from New Mexico their wagons and teams for the requisite number of saddle-horses, mules, pack-saddles, and other equipment, which would enable them to reach California a month earlier than by wagon route.
Both parties broke camp at the same hour on the last day of June, they taking the bridle trail to the right, and we turning to the left across the ridge to Fort Laramie.
Not an emigrant tent was to be seen as we approached the fort, but bands of horses were grazing on the plain, and Indians smeared with war-paint, and armed with hunting knives, tomahawks, bows and arrows, were moving about excitedly. They did not appear to notice us as we drove to the entrance of the strongly fortified walls, surrounding the buildings of the American Fur Company, yet by the time we were ready to depart, large crowds were standing close to our wagons to receive the presents which our people had to distribute among them. Many of the squaws and papooses were gorgeous in white doe skin suits, gaudily trimmed with beads, and bows of bright ribbons. They formed a striking contrast to us, travel-stained wayfarers in linsey dresses and sun-bonnets. Most of the white men connected with the fort had taken Indian wives and many little children played around their doors.
Mr. Bourdeau, the general manager at the fort, explained to us that the emigrants who had remained there up to the previous Saturday were on that day advised by several of the Sioux chiefs, for whom he acted as spokesman, "to resume their journey before the coming Tuesday, and to unite in strong companies, because their people were in large force in the hills, preparing to go out on the war-path in the country through which the travellers had yet to pass; that they were not pleased with the whites; that many of their warriors were cross and sulky in anticipation of the work before them; and that any white persons found outside the fort upon their arrival might be subject to robbery and other bad treatment." This advice of the chiefs had awakened such fear in the travellers that every camp-fire was deserted before sunrise the ensuing morning. We, in turn, were filled with apprehension, and immediately hurried onward in the ruts made by the fleeing wagons of the previous day.
Before we got out of the country of the Sioux, we were overtaken by about three hundred mounted warriors. They came in stately procession, two abreast; rode on in advance of our train; halted, and opened ranks; and as our wagons passed between their lines, the warriors took from between their teeth, green twigs, and tossed them toward us in pledge of friendship, then turned and as quietly and solemnly as they had come to us, rode toward the hills. A great sigh of relief expressed the company's satisfaction at being again alone; still no one could feel sure that we should escape a night attack. Our trail led up into the hills, and we travelled late into the night, and were again on the way by morning starlight. We heard wolf yelps and owl hoots in the distance, but were not approached by prowlers of any kind.
[Footnote 1: When Mr. Francis was appointed U.S. Consul by President Lincoln, he stored his flies of The Springfield, Illinois, Journal, and upon his return from Victoria, B.C., found the files almost destroyed by attic rodents, and my mother's earlier contributions in verse and prose, as well as her letters while en route to California were practically illegible.]
FOURTH OF JULY IN AN EMIGRANT PARTY—OPEN LETTER OF LANSFORD HASTINGS—GEORGE DONNER ELECTED CAPTAIN OF PARTY BOUND FOR CALIFORNIA—ENTERING THE GREAT DESERT—INSUFFICIENT SUPPLY OF FOOD—VOLUNTEERS COMMISSIONED BY MY FATHER TO HASTEN TO SUTTER'S FORT FOR RELIEF.
On the second of July we met Mr. Bryant returning to prevail on some man of our company to take the place of Mr. Kendall of the bridle party, who had heard such evil reports of California from returning trappers that his courage had failed, and he had deserted his companions and joined the Oregon company. Hiram Miller, who had driven one of my father's wagons from Springfield, took advantage of this opportunity for a faster method of travel and left with Mr. Bryant.
The following evening we encamped near the re-enforced bridle party, and on the morning of the Fourth Messrs. Russell and Bryant came over to help us to celebrate our national holiday. A salute was fired at sunrise, and later a platform of boxes was arranged in a grove close by, and by half-past nine o'clock every one in camp was in holiday attire, and ready to join the procession which marched around the camp and to the adjacent grove. There, patriotic songs were sung, the Declaration of Independence was read, and Colonel Russell delivered an address. After enjoying a feast prepared by the women of the company, and drinking to the health and happiness of friends and kindred in reverent silence, with faces toward the east, our guests bade us a final good-bye and godspeed.
We had on many occasions entertained eastward-bound rovers whose varied experiences on the Pacific coast made them interesting talkers. Those who favored California extolled its excellence, and had scant praise for Oregon. Those who loved Oregon described its marvellous advantages over California, and urged home-seekers to select it as the wiser choice; consequently, as we neared the parting of the ways, some of our people were in perplexity which to choose.
On the nineteenth of July we reached the Little Sandy River and there found four distinct companies encamped in neighborly groups, among them our friends, the Thorntons and Rev. Mr. Cornwall. Most of them were listed for Oregon, and were resting their cattle preparatory to entering upon the long, dry drive of forty miles, known as "Greenwood's Cut-off."
There my father and others deliberated over a new route to California.
They were led to do so by "An Open Letter," which had been delivered to our company on the seventeenth by special messenger on horseback. The letter was written by Lansford W. Hastings, author of "Travel Among the Rocky Mountains, Through Oregon and California." It was dated and addressed, "At the Headwaters of the Sweetwater: To all California Emigrants now on the Road," and intimated that, on account of war between Mexico and the United States, the Government of California would probably oppose the entrance of American emigrants to its territory; and urged those on the way to California to concentrate their numbers and strength, and to take the new and better route which he had explored from Fort Bridger, by way of the south end of Salt Lake. It emphasized the statement that this new route was nearly two hundred miles shorter than the old one by way of Fort Hall and the headwaters of Ogden's River, and that he himself would remain at Fort Bridger to give further information, and to conduct the emigrants through to the settlement.
The proposition seemed so feasible, that after cool deliberation and discussion, a party was formed to take the new route.
My father was elected captain of this company, and from that time on it was known as the "Donner Party." It included our original Sangamon County folks (except Mrs. Keyes and Hiram Miller), and the following additional members: Patrick Breen, wife, and seven children; Lewis Keseberg, wife, and two children; Mrs. Lavina Murphy (a widow) and five children; William Eddy, wife, and two children; William Pike, wife, and two children; William Foster, wife, and child; William McCutchen, wife, and child; Mr. Wolfinger and wife; Patrick Dolan, Charles Stanton, Samuel Shoemaker, —— Hardcoop, —— Spitzer, Joseph Rhinehart, James Smith, Walter Herron, and Luke Halloran.
While we were preparing to break camp, the last named had begged my father for a place in our wagon. He was a stranger to our family, afflicted with consumption, too ill to make the journey on horseback, and the family with whom he had travelled thus far could no longer accommodate him. His forlorn condition appealed to my parents and they granted his request.
All the companies broke camp and left the Little Sandy on the twentieth of July. The Oregon division with a section for California took the right-hand trail for Fort Hall; and the Donner Party, the left-hand trail to Fort Bridger.
After parting from us, Mr. Thornton made the following note in his journal:
July 20, 1846. The Californians were much elated and in fine spirits, with the prospect of better and nearer road to the country of their destination. Mrs. George Donner, however, was an exception. She was gloomy, sad, and dispirited in view of the fact that her husband and others could think of leaving the old road, and confide in the statement of a man of whom they knew nothing, but was probably some selfish adventurer.
Five days later the Donner Party reached Fort Bridger, and were informed by Hastings's agent that he had gone forward as pilot to a large emigrant train, but had left instructions that all later arrivals should follow his trail. Further, that they would find "an abundant supply of wood, water, and pasturage along the whole line of road, except one dry drive of thirty miles, or forty at most; that they would have no difficult canons to pass; and that the road was generally smooth, level, and hard."
At Fort Bridger, my father took as driver for one of his wagons, John Baptiste Trubode, a sturdy young mountaineer, the offspring of a French father—a trapper—and a Mexican mother. John claimed to have a knowledge of the languages and customs of various Indian tribes through whose country we should have to pass, and urged that this knowledge might prove helpful to the company.
The trail from the fort was all that could be desired, and on the third of August, we reached the crossing of Webber River, where it breaks through the mountains into the canon. There we found a letter from Hastings stuck in the cleft of a projecting stick near the roadside. It advised all parties to encamp and await his return for the purpose of showing them a better way than through the canon of Webber River, stating that he had found the road over which he was then piloting a train very bad, and feared other parties might not be able to get their wagons through the canon leading to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
He referred, however, to another route which he declared to be much better, as it avoided the canon altogether. To prevent unnecessary delays, Messrs. Reed, Pike, and Stanton volunteered to ride over the new route, and, if advisable, bring Hastings back to conduct us to the open valley. After eight days Mr. Reed returned alone, and reported that he and his companions overtook Hastings with his train near the south end of Salt Lake; that Hastings refused to leave his train, but was finally induced to go with them to the summit of a ridge of the Wahsatch Mountains and from there point out as best he could, the directions to be followed.
While exploring on the way back, Mr. Reed had become separated from Messrs. Pike and Stanton and now feared they might be lost. He himself had located landmarks and blazed trees and felt confident that, by making occasional short clearings, we could get our wagons over the new route as outlined by Hastings. Searchers were sent ahead to look up the missing men, and we immediately broke camp and resumed travel.
The following evening we were stopped by a thicket of quaking ash, through which it required a full day's hard work to open a passageway. Thence our course lay through a wilderness of rugged peaks and rock-bound canons until a heavily obstructed gulch confronted us. Believing that it would lead out to the Utah River Valley, our men again took their tools and became roadmakers. They had toiled six days, when W.F. Graves, wife, and eight children; J. Fosdick, wife, and child, and John Snyder, with their teams and cattle, overtook and joined our train. With the assistance of these three fresh men, the road, eight miles in length, was completed two days later. It carried us out into a pretty mountain dell, not the opening we had expected.
Fortunately, we here met the searchers returning with Messrs. Pike and Stanton. The latter informed us that we must turn back over our newly made road and cross a farther range of peaks in order to strike the outlet to the valley. Sudden fear of being lost in the trackless mountains almost precipitated a panic, and it was with difficulty that my father and other cool-headed persons kept excited families from scattering rashly into greater dangers.
We retraced our way, and after five days of alternate travelling and road-making, ascended a mountain so steep that six and eight yoke of oxen were required to draw each vehicle up the grade, and most careful handling of the teams was necessary to keep the wagons from toppling over as the straining cattle zigzaged to the summit. Fortunately, the slope on the opposite side was gradual and the last wagon descended to camp before darkness obscured the way.
The following morning, we crossed the river which flows from Utah Lake to Great Salt Lake and found the trail of the Hastings party. We had been thirty days in reaching that point, which we had hoped to make in ten or twelve.
The tedious delays and high altitude wrought distressing changes in Mr. Halloran's condition, and my father and mother watched over him with increasing solicitude. But despite my mother's unwearying ministrations, death came on the fourth of September.
Suitable timber for a coffin could not be obtained, so his body was wrapped in sheets and carefully enclosed in a buffalo robe, then reverently laid to rest in a grave on the shore of Great Salt Lake, near that of a stranger, who had been buried by the Hastings party a few weeks earlier.
Mr. Halloran had appreciated the tender care bestowed upon him by my parents, and had told members of our company that in the event of his death on the way, his trunk and its contents, and his horse and its equipments should belong to Captain Donner. When the trunk was opened, it was found to contain clothing, keepsakes, a Masonic emblem, and fifteen hundred dollars in coin.
A new inventory, taken about this time, disclosed the fact that the company's stock of supplies was insufficient to carry it through to California. A call was made for volunteers who should hasten on horseback to Sutter's Fort, procure supplies and, returning, meet the train en route. Mr. Stanton, who was without family, and Mr. McCutchen, whose wife and child were in the company, heroically responded. They were furnished with necessaries for their personal needs, and with letters to Captain Sutter, explaining the company's situation, and petitioning for supplies which would enable it to reach the settlement. As the two men rode away, many anxious eyes watched them pass out of sight, and many heartfelt prayers were offered for their personal safety, and the success of their mission.
In addressing this letter to Captain Sutter, my father followed the general example of emigrants to California in those days, for Sutter, great-hearted and generous, was the man to whom all turned in distress or emergencies. He himself had emigrated to the United States at an early age, and after a few years spent in St. Louis, Missouri, had pushed his way westward to California.
There he negotiated with the Russian Government for its holdings on the Pacific coast, and took them over when Russia evacuated the country. He then established himself on the vast estates so acquired, which, in memory of his parentage, he called New Helvetia. The Mexican Government, however, soon assumed his liabilities to the Russian Government, and exercised sovereignty over the territory. Sutter's position, nevertheless, was practically that of a potentate. He constructed the well-known fort near the present site of the city of Sacramento, as protection against Indian depredations, and it became a trading centre and rendezvous for incoming emigrants.
BEWILDERING GUIDE BOARD—SOUL-TRYING STRUGGLES—FIRST SNOW—REED-SNYDER TRAGEDY—HARDCOOP'S FATE.
Our next memorable camp was in a fertile valley where we found twenty natural wells, some very deep and full to the brim of pure, cold water. "They varied from six inches to several feet in diameter, the soil around the edges was dry and hard, and as fast as water was dipped out, a new supply rose to the surface." Grass was plentiful and wood easily obtained. Our people made much of a brief stay, for though the weather was a little sharp, the surroundings were restful. Then came a long, dreary pull over a low range of hills, which brought us to another beautiful valley where the pasturage was abundant, and more wells marked the site of good camping grounds.
Close by the largest well stood a rueful spectacle,—a bewildering guide board, flecked with bits of white paper, showing that the notice or message which had recently been pasted and tacked thereon had since been stripped off in irregular bits.
In surprise and consternation, the emigrants gazed at its blank face, then toward the dreary waste beyond. Presently, my mother knelt before it and began searching for fragments of paper, which she believed crows had wantonly pecked off and dropped to the ground.
Spurred by her zeal, others also were soon on their knees, scratching among the grasses and sifting the loose soil through their fingers. What they found, they brought to her, and after the search ended she took the guide board, laid it across her lap, and thoughtfully, began fitting the ragged edges of paper together and matching the scraps to marks on the board. The tedious process was watched with spell-bound interest by the anxious group around her.
The writing was that of Hastings, and her patchwork brought out the following words:
"2 days—2 nights—hard driving—cross—desert—reach water."
This would be a heavy strain on our cattle, and to fit them for the ordeal they were granted thirty-six hours' indulgence near the bubbling waters, amid good pasturage. Meanwhile, grass was cut and stored, water casks were filled, and rations were prepared for desert use.
We left camp on the morning of September 9, following dimly marked wagon-tracks courageously, and entered upon the "dry drive," which Hastings and his agent at Fort Bridger had represented as being thirty-five miles, or forty at most. After two days and two nights of continuous travel, over a waste of alkali and sand, we were still surrounded as far as eye could see by a region of fearful desolation. The supply of feed for our cattle was gone, the water casks were empty, and a pitiless sun was turning its burning rays upon the glaring earth over which we still had to go.
Mr. Reed now rode ahead to prospect for water, while the rest followed with the teams. All who could walk did so, mothers carrying their babes in their arms, and fathers with weaklings across their shoulders moved slowly as they urged the famishing cattle forward. Suddenly an outcry of joy gave hope to those whose courage waned. A lake of shimmering water appeared before us in the near distance, we could see the wavy grasses and a caravan of people moving toward it.
"It may be Hastings!" was the eager shout. Alas, as we advanced, the scene vanished! A cruel mirage, in its mysterious way, had outlined the lake and cast our shadows near its shore.
Disappointment intensified our burning thirst, and my good mother gave her own and other suffering children wee lumps of sugar, moistened with a drop of peppermint, and later put a flattened bullet in each child's mouth to engage its attention and help keep the salivary glands in action.
Then followed soul-trying hours. Oxen, footsore and weary, stumbled under their yokes. Women, heartsick and exhausted, could walk no farther. As a last resort, the men hung the water pails on their arms, unhooked the oxen from the wagons, and by persuasion and force, drove them onward, leaving the women and children to await their return. Messrs. Eddy and Graves got their animals to water on the night of the twelfth, and the others later. As soon as the poor beasts were refreshed, they were brought back with water for the suffering, and also that they might draw the wagons on to camp. My father's wagons were the last taken out. They reached camp the morning of the fifteenth.
Thirty-six head of cattle were left on that desert, some dead, some lost. Among the lost were all Mr. Reed's herd, except an ox and a cow. His poor beasts had become frenzied in the night, as they were being driven toward water, and with the strength that comes with madness, had rushed away in the darkness. Meanwhile, Mr. Reed, unconscious of his misfortune, was returning to his family, which he found by his wagon, some distance in the rear. At daylight, he, with his wife and children, on foot, overtook my Uncle Jacob's wagons and were carried forward in them until their own were brought up.
After hurriedly making camp, all the men turned out to hunt the Reed cattle. In every direction they searched, but found no clue. Those who rode onward, however, discovered that we had reached only an oasis in the desert, and that six miles ahead of us lay another pitiless barren stretch.
Anguish and dismay now filled all hearts. Husbands bowed their heads, appalled at the situation of their families. Some cursed Hastings for the false statements in his open letter and for his broken pledge at Fort Bridger. They cursed him also for his misrepresentation of the distance across this cruel desert, traversing which had wrought such suffering and loss. Mothers in tearless agony clasped their children to their bosoms, with the old, old cry, "Father, Thy will, not mine, be done."
It was plain that, try as we might, we could not get back to Fort Bridger. We must proceed regardless of the fearful outlook.
After earnest consultation, it was deemed best to dig a trench and cache all Mr. Reed's effects, except such as could be packed into one wagon, and were essential for daily use. This accomplished, Messrs. Graves and Breen each loaned him an ox, and these in addition to his own ox and cow yoked together, formed his team. Upon examination, it was found that the woodwork of all the wagons had been shrunk and cracked by the dry atmosphere. One of Mr. Keseberg's and one of my father's were in such bad condition that they were abandoned, left standing near those of Mr. Reed, as we passed out of camp.
The first snow of the season fell as we were crossing the narrow strip of land upon which we had rested and when we encamped for the night on its boundary, the waste before us was as cheerless, cold, and white as the winding sheet which enfolds the dead.
At dawn we resumed our toilful march, and travelled until four o'clock the following morning, when we reached an extensive valley, where grass and water were plentiful. Several oxen had died during the night, and it was with a caress of pity that the surviving were relieved of their yokes for the day. The next sunrise saw us on our way over a range of hills sloping down to a valley luxuriant with grass and springs of delicious water, where antelope and mountain sheep were grazing, and where we saw Indians who seemed never to have met white men before. We were three days in crossing this magnificent stretch of country, which we called, "Valley of Fifty Springs." In it, several wagons and large cases of goods were cached by our company, and secret marks were put on trees near by, so that they could be recovered, should their owners return for them.
While on the desert, my father's wagons had travelled last in the train, in order that no one should stray, or be left to die alone. But as soon as we reached the mountainous country, he took the lead to open the way. Uncle Jacob's wagons were always close to ours, for the two brothers worked together, one responding when the other called for help; and with the assistance of their teamsters, they were able to free the trail of many obstructions and prevent unnecessary delays.
From the Valley of Fifty Springs, we pursued a southerly course over more hills, and through fertile valleys, where we saw Indians in a state of nudity, who looked at us from a distance, but never approached our wagons, nor molested any one. On the twenty-fourth of September, we turned due north and found the tracks of wagon wheels, which guided us to the valley of "Mary's River," or "Ogden's River," and on the thirtieth, put us on the old emigrant road leading from Fort Hall. This welcome landmark inspired us with renewed trust; and the energizing hope that Stanton and McCutchen would soon appear, strengthened our sorely tried courage. This day was also memorable, because it brought us a number of Indians who must have been Fremont's guides, for they could give information, and understand a little English. They went into camp with us, and by word and sign explained that we were still far from the sink of Mary's River, but on the right trail to it.
After another long day's drive, we stopped on a mountain-side close to a spring of cold, sweet water. While supper was being prepared, one of the fires crept beyond bounds, spread rapidly, and threatened destruction to part of our train. At the critical moment two strange Indians rushed upon the scene and rendered good service. After the fire was extinguished, the Indians were rewarded, and were also given a generous meal at the tent of Mr. Graves. Later, they settled themselves in friendly fashion beside his fire and were soon fast asleep. Next morning, the Indians were gone, and had taken with them a new shirt and a yoke of good oxen belonging to their host.
Within the week, Indians again sneaked up to camp, and stole one of Mr. Graves's saddle-horses. These were trials which made men swear vengeance, yet no one felt that it would be safe to follow the marauders. Who could know that the train was not being stealthily followed by cunning plunderers who would await their chance to get away with the wagons, if left weakly guarded?
Conditions now were such that it seemed best to divide the train into sections and put each section under a sub-leader. Our men were well equipped with side arms, rifles, and ammunition; nevertheless, anxious moments were common, as the wagons moved slowly and singly through dense thickets, narrow defiles, and rugged mountain gorges, one section often being out of sight of the others, and each man realizing that there could be no concerted action in the event of a general attack; that each must stay by his own wagon and defend as best he could the lives committed to his care. No one rode horseback now, except the leaders, and those in charge of the loose cattle. When darkness obscured the way, and after feeding-time, each section formed its wagons into a circle to serve as cattle corral, and night watches were keenly alert to give a still alarm if anything unusual came within sight or sound.
Day after day, from dawn to twilight, we moved onward, never stopping, except to give the oxen the necessary nooning, or to give them drink when water was available. Gradually, the distance between sections lengthened, and so it happened that the wagons of my father and my uncle were two days in advance of the others, on the eighth of October, when Mr. Reed, on horseback, overtook us. He was haggard and in great tribulation. His lips quivered as he gave substantially the following account of circumstances which had made him the slayer of his friend, and a lone wanderer in the wilderness.
On the morning of October 5, when Mr. Reed's section broke camp, he and Mr. Eddy ventured off to hunt antelope, and were shot at a number of times by Indians with bows and arrows. Empty-handed and disappointed, the two followed and overtook their companions about noon, at the foot of a steep hill near "Gravelly Ford," where the teams had to be doubled for the ascent. All the wagons, except Pike's and Reed's, and one of Graves's in charge of John Snyder, had already been taken to the top. Snyder was in the act of starting his team, when Milton Elliot, driving Reed's oxen, with Eddy's in the lead, also started. Suddenly, the Reed and Eddy cattle became unmanageable, and in some way got mixed up with Snyder's team. This provoked both drivers, and fierce words passed between them. Snyder declared that the Reed team ought to be made to drag its wagon up without help. Then he began to beat his own cattle about the head to get them out of the way.
Mr. Reed attempted to remonstrate with him for his cruelty, at which Snyder became more enraged, and threatened to strike both Reed and Elliot with his whip for interfering. Mr. Reed replied sharply that they would settle the matter later. This, Synder took as a threat, and retorted, "No, we'll settle it right here," and struck Reed over the head with the butt end of his whip, cutting an ugly scalp wound.
Mrs. Reed, who rushed between the two men for the purpose of separating them, caught the force of the second blow from Snyder's whip on her shoulder. While dodging the third blow, Reed drew his hunting knife and stabbed Snyder in the left breast. Fifteen minutes later, John Snyder, with his head resting on the arm of William Graves, died, and Mr. Reed stood beside the corpse, dazed and sorrowful.
Near-by sections were immediately called into camp, and gloom, consternation, and anger pervaded it. Mr. Reed and family were taken to their tent some distance from the others and guarded by their friends. Later, an assembly was convened to decide what should be done. The majority declared the deed murder, and demanded retribution. Mr. Eddy and others pleaded extenuating circumstances and proposed that the accused should leave the camp. After heated discussion this compromise was adopted, the assembly voting that Mr. Reed should be banished from the company.
Mr. Reed maintained that the deed was not prompted by malice, that he had acted in self-defence and in defence of his wife; and that he would not be driven from his helpless, dependent family. The assembly promised that the company would care for his family, and limited his stay in camp. His wife, fearing the consequence of noncompliance with the sentence, begged him to abide by it, and to push on to the settlement, procure food and assistance, and return for her and their children. The following morning, after participating in the funeral rites over the lamented dead, Mr. Reed took leave of his friends and sorrowing family and left the camp.
The group around my father's wagon were deeply touched by Mr. Reed's narrative. Its members were friends of the slain and of the slayer. Their sympathies clustered around the memory of the dead, and clung to the living. They deplored the death of a fellow traveller, who had manfully faced many hardships, and was young, genial, and full of promise. They regretted the act which took from the company a member who had been prominent in its organization, had helped to formulate its rules, and had, up to that unfortunate hour, been a co-worker with the other leading spirits for its best interests. It was plain that the hardships and misfortunes of the journey had sharpened the tempers of both men, and the vexations of the morning had been too much for the overstrained nerves.