Chales Tyler Stanton was born in Pompey, Onondaga County, on 11th March, 1811. He worked as a store clerk but took a keen interest in botany and geology. Stanton moved to Chicago in 1835 where he established his own business.
In 1846 he joined the Donner Party wagon train in its journey from Independence, Missouri, to Sutter's Fort in California. The party followed the Oregon Trail until they reached Fort Bridger on 28th July.
At the fort the party met Lansford Hastings. He was busy attempting to persuade Oregon-bound emigrants to go to California by way of what became known as the Hastings Cutoff. Hastings claimed that his route would remove 300 miles from the distance to Sutter's Fort. His cut-off involved crossing the Wasatch Mountains, round the Great Salt Lake to the south, then due west to the Humboldt River in Nevada, before returning to the main trail from Fort Hall.
Hastings told people that the desert was only 40 miles across and that they would find water after 24 hours. It was in fact 82 miles wide and water was only to be found after 48 hours of travelling. Hastings told George Donner and James Reed that three wagon trains had already opted for this route.
The Donner Party had made poor time so far and was already some way behind most of the other wagon trains travelling from Independence to Sutter's Fort. They knew they had to cross the Sierra Nevada before the snowfalls that would their path to Sutter's Fort. This usually happened in early November. Although they were on schedule to reach the mountains by late summer they were worried about other delays that could mean being blocked by the winter weather. They therefore made the decision to take the advice of Lansford Hastings and take the proposed short-cut.
On 31st July the Donner Party left Fort Bridger. They did not come out of the Echo Canyon until the 6th August. What they expected to take them four days had actually taken them seven days. They found a letter from Lansford Hastings advising them to camp at the Weber River and to send a man ahead to find him so he could show them a new route to California. Stanton and James Reed went off in pursuit of Hastings. When they found him he refused the offer of becoming the personal guide to the Donner wagon train. Instead he drew a rough map of the new route.
The Donner Party entered the Wasatch Mountains on 12th August. They soon discovered they had to chop their way through aspen, cottonwood and tangled undergrowth to make a route for the wagons. Over the next few days they had to dislodge boulders and build causeways across swamps in order to reach the valley of the Great Salt Lake. The twenty-three wagons of the Donner Party was now joined by the Graves family and their three wagons. As Virginia Reed later recorded the new group consisted "of W.F. Graves, his wife and eight children, his son-in-law Jay Fosdick, and a young man by the name of John Snyder."
It was now the 27th August and they still had to cross the Salt Desert. Members of the party now realised they were in serious trouble and now had only a small chance of crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains before the winter snows blocked their route. The faster wagons pushed on ahead and the slow, heavily laden wagons of the Reeds and Donners were by now falling further and further behind.
The Donner Party reached Pilot Peak on 8th September. To enable them to keep up, the Reeds and Donners had to abandon some of the heavy goods they were carrying. They also abandoned three wagons and increased the number of oxen pulling the remaining wagons. Members of the party were also having doubts about whether they had enough food to last them before they reached California. It was therefore decided to send two men, Stanton and William McCutcheon ahead to Sutter's Fort in order to purchase provisions for the wagon train.
The Donner Party now started out towards the Humboldt River. On the 30th September they reached the main trail from Fort Hall to Sutter's Fort. However, by this time the rest of the 1846 wagon trains had long gone and were already in California. The Donner Party now had trouble from the Paiute. They stole two oxen and two horses. They also fired several arrows at the wagon train and wounded some of the animals.
On 5th October, 1846, another disaster struck the Donner Party. James Reed and John Snyder had an argument about one of the wagons. Snyder lost his temper and hit him over the head with a bullwhip. Reed drew his knife and stuck it into Snyder's body. Snyder mumbled: "Uncle Patrick, I am dead." His prediction was correct and Lewis Keseberg immediately began to set up a wagon tongue as a makeshift gallows. William Eddy used his gun to insist that Reed would not be lynched. The others agreed and after much discussion it was decided that Reed should be banished from the wagon train. He was forced to make his way to Sutter's Fort on horseback without weapons. To many in the party this was equivalent to sentencing Reed to death.
Soon afterwards Lewis Keseberg ejected one of his employees, Hardkoop, from his wagon. He was never seen again and it is not known whether he died of starvation or was killed by local Native American tribes. This was followed by the disappearance of another German named Wolfinger. Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer later confessed they had robbed and murdered Wolfinger.
The Donner Party now had to cross a 40 mile desert. Over the next three days the wagon train suffered repeated attacks from groups of warriors. During this time they stole 18 oxen, killed another 21 and wounded many others. Since most of their animals were now dead or stolen, the party was forced to abandon their wagons. The party reached the Truckee Lake at the end of October.
On 19th October Stanton arrived back from Sutter's Fort with seven mules loaded with food. William McCutcheon had been taken ill and had been forced to stay at the fort. However, Stanton had brought back with him two Indian guides to help them get to California. Stanton also brought news that James Reed had successfully reached California. On 20th October William Foster killed his brother-in-law in a shooting accident.
The Donner Party now began its attempt to cross the the Sierra Nevada mountains. A few snow flurries made them realise they were in a desperate race for time. In the distance they could see that the peaks were covered in snow. On 25th October a Paiute warrior opened fire on what was left of the animals. He hit nineteen oxen before being killed by William Eddy.
The migrants ploughed on but when they got to within three miles of the summit they found their way blocked by five-foot snowdrifts. They were now forced to turn back and seek cover in a cabin they had passed at the foot of the mountain. Meanwhile James Reed and William McCutcheon had set out with enough food to keep the Donner Party alive for the winter. However, they had found their path blocked and had to return with their pack mules to Sutter's Fort.
The surviving members of the wagon train now set about constructing a camp next to what later became known as Donner Lake. Patrick Dolan, Patrick Breen and his family moved into the abandoned cabin whereas Lewis Keseberg built a lean-to against one of the walls. William Eddy and William Foster built a log cabin. So also did Stanton. His cabin was to house the Graves family and Margaret Reed and her children. George Donner managed to construct a primitive shelter for his family.
The Donner Party was desperately short of food. The remaining animals were killed and eaten. Attempts to catch fish in the river was unsuccessful. Some of the men went hunting but during the next two weeks they were only able to kill one bear, a coyote, an owl and a grey squirrel. It was clear that if they stayed in the camp they would all die of starvation and on 12th November thirteen men and two women made another attempt to get to Sutter's Fort. However, they found their way blocked by a 10 foot snow drift and returned to camp.
The party rested for a few days and then a party led by Stanton and William Eddy made another attempt to reach safety. On 21st November they returned to camp defeated. Soon afterwards Baylis Williams died. This motivated the stronger members of the party to make one last attempt to cross the mountains.
On 16th December fifteen members of the party left the camp and headed for the summit. This became known as the Forlorn Hope group. Aided by better weather, this time they managed to cross the mountain pass. On 20th December they had reached a place called Yuba Bottoms. The following morning Stanton was not strong enough to leave the camp. The rest were forced to leave him to die.
Well what may surprise you perhaps is that I am going to start for California tomorrow I met with a good opportunity and, thinking it doubtful whether I should find anything to do in this country I concluded to go .... If you have never read Hastings' (book) Oregon & California get it and read it. You will see some of the inducements which led me to this step I am in hopes to get through safe which I think there is little danger as we go in such large crowds that we shall be law unto ourselves and a protection unto each other.
In our encampment we had several Oregon families, constituting twenty wagons. Some little disturbance arising, they concluded to withdraw from our party and go on their own hook, forming a company of their own, mustering a force of some twenty fighting men. They went on ahead for several days encamped one or two miles of us. In their party there were many young ladies-in ours mostly young men. Friendships and attachments had been formed which were hard to break; for ever since, our company is nearly deserted, by the young men every day riding out on horseback, pretending to hunt, but instead of pursuing the bounding deer or fleet antelope, they are generally found among the fair Oregon girls! Thus they go, every day, making love by the road-side, in the midst of the wildest and most beautiful scenery, now admiring the meanderings of some delightful stream, or course of some noble river!
After travelling one or two days, we encamped upon the Little Blue which abounds in fish, and my skill as a fisherman was here put to the test; but I succeeded in catching one of the finest you ever saw, which we had the next morning for breakfast... We journeyed for several days up this delightful stream, and every night found romantic camping ground. The scenery was most beautiful - the eye wandered over fair prospects of hill and dale.
One was anxious to reach the Platte... We had now travelled four days up the Blue, and one day's march would take us to that great river. This day's march, therefore, was resumed with alacrity. We had to cross a high elevated plain, the dividing ridge between the waters of the Kansas and the Platte. About eleven a.m. we could perceive, as we crossed the highest elevation, that the land gradually descended both ways, and far in the distance could see the little mounds or hillocks, which formed the ridge or bluffs of the noble river... It was about two p.m., when, in ascending a high point of land, we saw, spread out before us, the valley of the noble Platte. We all hallooed with pleasure and surprise. The valley of the Platte! there is none other like it. The bluffs are from ten to fifteen miles apart, the river, of over a mile in width, flowing through the centre. The bluffs suddenly fall down from 50 to 100 feet, when there is a gradual slope to the water's edge. There is not a single stick of timber to be seen on either side of the river - it is one interminible prairie as far as the eye can extend; yet there is relief found in the numerous islands of the river being generally covered with wood.
About 10 a.m. the Chimney Rock was discovered, some forty miles distant. I saw it. It looked like a small spire, standing out in bold relief against the sky. Two days more we reached this celebrated rock, and arrived to it about noon. Its height was variously estimated by our guessing company, from two to eight hundred feet. I suppose it to be three hundred feet high. It is round, gently sloping up, and coming to a point at the base of the chimney, 250 feet; then the chimney commences rising in an oblong square, of 10 by 20 feet, 100 feet more. Yesterday we passed a greater curiosity in my view than this; some called it the Court House, others the Fortress, and others the Castle Tower. .... In travelling up the river to Fort Laramie, I have remarked that their knobs,or hills, or bluffs, or whatever else they may be called, are only to be found on one side of the river at at time, .... This was the case before reaching the "court house," but here they suddenly jumped across the stream, and the first building we saw, was the immense mass on the tops of the bluffs, 200 feet above the river. There it stood, solitary and alone, in solemn grandeur.
We left our encampment at the Fort on Sunday, and went up the Laramie Fork two miles and encamped... I wrote the other half of my letter to you. But I did not finish it till the next morning and even then, not until our company had left. I waited behind over an hour to finish it... The last of the wagons had long since disappeared behind the hills... and I alone was trudging on foot to overtake the wagons. I soon reached the main road, where I beheld it lined with Indians on horseback, coming back from the wagons which they had accompanied a considerable distance on their journey, for the purpose of securing what presents they could obtain and swapping horses... I was soon surrounded by ten or a dozen Souix... They all rode up and shook me, by the hand, and wanted something which I could not understand. One or two drew their knives across their throats. This struck me as not being a very pleasant amusement, especially if they were to amuse themselves in this manner on me. I finally presented them with a few pieces of tobacco, which they gladly accepted, and rode off seemingly well pleased... On coming up with the wagons, I found that the Oregon company had joined us. Since they left us, three marriages had taken place, and one or two more were on the tapis. We were all glad to see each other after our long separation, and good feeling seemed to reign throughout. We had not travelled far before we commenced the ascent of the Black Hills, and had a fine view of Laramie's Peak - the highest in the range.
Yesterday we celebrated the 4th of July. The breaking one or two bottles of good liquor, which had been hid to prevent a few old tapsters from stealing, (so thirsty do they become on this route for liquor, of any kind, that the stealing of it is thought no crime), a speech or oration from Colonel Russell, a few songs from Mr. Bryant, and several other gentlemen, with music, consisting of a fiddle, flute, a dog drum - the dog from which the skin was taken was killed, and the drum made the night previous - with the discharge of all the guns of the camp, at the end of speech, song and toast, created one of the most pleasurable excitements we have had on the road.
On the morning of July 6th, after our two days' rest, we got underway and travelled twenty miles to Deer Creek. Laramie's Peak was visible almost the whole day, off to the south east. About noon we came to the north fork of the Platte, after having been absent from it over a week. Where we struck the river, there is a fine bed of stone coal; but the great Platte, on which we had travelled so long and far, how it had dwindled down, or rather up, to a small stream. The water was clear, but I did not like it as well as I did when mixed with sand and loam when we first struck the river.
We travelled all the next day up the Platte, and camped near a small grove on the banks of the river. On Wednesday we crossed the Platte about noon, and drove on six miles. The buffalo and other game are becoming plentiful. Every day one or more is killed, and we are again luxuriating on fresh meat. I think there is no beef in the world equal to a fine buffalo cow - such a flavor, so rich, so juicy, it makes the mouth water to think of it.
On Thursday morning we left the Platte and the long range of black hills on our left, and struck off towards the Sweet Water. At noon, Colonel Boon came up full of excitement, stating that he had been out with some others, and had killed eight buffaloes, among which were several fat cows and calves, and requested all who wanted buffalo meat to get what they wanted... In the afternoon, we drove a few miles and encamped by a fine spring.
The whole region of country from Fort Laramie to this place is almost entirely barren. There is no grass except in the valleys, which in some few places only, is found luxuriant. One seems at a loss how to account how the buffalo can live on the hills over which they range. Over the whole region the wild sage or artemisia grows in abundance. ... The sage is not like the sage of the garden. It has more the smell of lavender... The first week after leaving the Fort, we experienced, though in midsummer, the cool mountain breezes, being necessary at night to bundle ourselves up in our overcoats, and often times through the whole day. The past week, however, it has been different. It has been insufferably hot both day and night - thermometer ranging from 95 to 100 degrees.
Yesterday at noon we arrived at the "culminating point," or dividing ridge between the Atlantic and Pacific. This evening we are encamped on the Little Sandy, one of the forks of the Green river, which is a tributary of the great Colorado, which flows into the gulf of California. Thus the great daydreams of my youth and of my riper years is accomplished. I have seen the Rocky mountains - have crossed the Rubicon, an am now on the waters that flow to the Pacific! It seems as if I had left the old world behind, and that a new one is dawning upon me. In every step thus far there has been something new, something to attract. Should the remainder of my journey be as interesting, I shall be abundantly repaid for the toils and hardships of this arduous trip.
I may not have another opportunity of sending you letters till I reach California. We take a new route to California, never travelled before this season; consequently our route is over a new an interesting region. We are now in the Bear river valley, in the midst of the Bear River mountains, the summits of which are covered with snow. As I am now writing, we are cheered by a warm summer's sun, while but a few miles off, the snow covered mountains are glittering in its beams.
Leaving Fort Bridger, we unfortunately took the new route, traveling on without incident of note, until we arrived at the head of Webber canyon. A short distance before reaching this place we found a letter sticking in the top of a sage bush. It was from Hastings. He stated that if we would send a messenger after him he would return and pilot us through a route much shorter and better than the canyon. A meeting of the company was held, when it was resolved to send Messrs. McCutchen, Stanton and myself to Mr. Hastings; also we were at the same time to examine the canyon and report at short notice.
Next morning ascending to the summit of the mountain where we could overlook a portion of the country that lay between us and the head of the canyon, where the Donner party were camped. After he gave me the direction, Mr. Hastings and I separated. He returning to the companies he had left the morning previous, I proceeding on eastward. After descending to what may be called the table land, I took an Indian trail and blazed the route where it was necessary that the road should be made, if the company so directed when they heard the report. When McCutchen, Stanton and myself got through Webber canyon on our way to overtake Mr. Hastings, our conclusions were that many of the wagons would be destroyed in attempting to get through the canyon. Mr. Stanton and McCutchen were to return to our company as fast as their horses would stand it, they having nearly given out. I reached the company in the evening and reported to them the conclusions in regard to Weber canyon, at the same time stating that the route that I had blazed that day was fair, but would take considerable labor in clearing and digging. They agreed with unanimous voice to take that route if I would direct them in the road making, they working faithfully until it was completed.
On the 19th of October, while traveling along the Truckee, our hearts were gladdened by the return of Stanton, with seven mules loaded with provisions. Mr. McCutchen was ill and could not travel, but Captain Sutter had sent two of his Indian vaqueros, Luis and Salvador with Stanton. Hungry as we were, Stanton brought us something better than food - news that my father was alive. Stanton had met him nor far from Sutter's Fort; he had been three days without food, and his horse was not able to carry him. Stanton had given him a horse and some provisions and he had gone on. We now packed what little we had left on one mule and started with Stanton. My mother rode on a mule, carrying Tommy in her lap; Patty and Jim rode behind the two Indians, and I behind Mr. Stanton, and in this way we journeyed on through the rain.
William Eddy, C.T. Stanton, William Graves, Jay Fosdick, James Smith, Charles Burger, William Foster, Antoine (a Spaniard), John Baptiste, Lewis, Salvadore, Augustus Spitzer, Mary Graves, Sarah Fosdick, and Milton Elliot, being the strongest of the party, started to cross the mountains on foot. Mr. Eddy, in narrating the afflicting story, said to me he could never forget the parting scene between himself and family; but he hoped to get in and obtain relief, and return with the means for their rescue. They started with a small piece of beef each; but they had scarcely gone within three miles of the top of the Pass, when the snow, which was soft, and about ten feet deep, compelled them again to return to the cabins, which they reached about midnight.
The next day, very faint from want of food, he resumed his hunting, and at length came upon an enormously large grisly-bear track. Under other circumstances, he would have preferred seeing the tracks of one to seeing the animal itself. But now, weak and faint as he was, he was eager to come up with it... He was not long in finding the object of his search. At the distance of about ninety yards, he saw the bear, with its head to the ground, engaged in digging roots. The beast was in a small skirt of prairie, and Mr. Eddy, taking advantage of a large fir tree near which he was at the moment, kept himself in concealment. Having put into his mouth the only bullet that was not in his gun, so that he might quickly reload in case of an emergency, he deliberately fired. The bear immediately reared upon its hind feet, and seeing the smoke from Mr. Eddy's gun, ran fiercely toward him, with open jaws. By the time the gun was reloaded, the bear reached the tree, and, with a fierce growl, pursued Mr. Eddy round it, who, running swifter than the animal, came up with it in the rear, and disabled it by a shot in the shoulder, so that it was no longer able to pursue him. He then dispatched the bear by knocking it on the head with a club. Upon examination, he found that the first shot had pierced its heart. He then returned to Mountain Camp for assistance to bring in his prize. Graves and Eddy went out after the bear. ... They, however, finally contrived to get in the bear after dark. Mr. Eddy gave one half to Mr. Foster for the use of the gun. A part of it was likewise given to Mr. Graves and to Mrs. Reed. The bear weighed about 800 lbs.
Not discouraged, and impelled by the increasing scarcity of provisions at the cabins, on the twentieth (November, 1846) they tried it again, and succeeded in crossing the divide; but found it was impossible for them to proceed for the want of a pilot, Mr. Stanton having refused to allow the Indians to accompany them on account of not being able to bring the mules out with them, which Mr. Stanton had taken there with provisions from J. A. Sutter's, previous to the falling of the snow. Here again were their warmest hopes blighted; and they again turned with heavy hearts towards their miserable cabins. Mrs. Murphy, daughter, and two sons were of this party.
On the twentieth (December) the sun rose clear and beautiful, and cheered by its sparkling rays, they pursued their weary way. From the first day, Mr. Stanton, it appears, could not keep up with them, but had always reached their camp by the time they got their fire built, and preparations made for passing the night. This day they had travelled eight miles, and encamped early; and as the shades of evening gathered round them, many an anxious glance was cast back through the deepening gloom for Stanton; but he came not.
Before morning the weather became stormy, and at daylight they started and went about four miles, when they encamped, and agreed to wait and see if Stanton would come up; but that night his place was again vacant by their cheerless fire, while he, I suppose, had escaped from all further suffering, and lay wrapped in his winding sheet of snow.
The wind next day changed to southwest, and the snow fell all day. They encamped at sunset, and about dark Mr. Stanton came up. They resumed their journey on the 22nd. Mr. Stanton came into camp in about an hour, as usual. That night they consumed the last of their little stock of provisions. They had limited themselves to one ounce at each meal, since leaving the mountain camp, and now the last was gone. They had one gun, but they had not seen a living creature.
During this day (23rd December) Mr. Eddy examined a little bag for the purpose of throwing out something, with a view to getting along with more ease. In doing this, he found about half a pound of bear's meat, to which was attached a paper upon which his wife had written in pencil, a note signed 'Your own dear Eleanor' in which she requested him to save it for the last extremity, and expressed the opinion that it would be the means of saving his life. ... On the morning of this day Mr. Stanton remained at the camp-fire, smoking his pipe. He requested them to go on, saying that he would overtake them. The snow was about fifteen feet deep. Mr. Stanton did not come up with them.
They resumed their melancholy journey, and after traveling about a mile, they encamped to wait for their companion. They had nothing to eat during the day. Mr. Stanton did not come up. The snow fell all night, and increased one foot in depth. They now gave up poor Stanton for dead.