The Donner-Reed wagon train was made up of twenty vehicles and the party included George Donner (wife Tamsen and five children and a family friend, John Denton), Jacob Donner (wife Elizabeth and seven children), James Reed (wife Margaret and four children), Patrick Breen (wife Peggy and seven children and a family friend Patrick Dolan), William McCutcheon (wife Amanda and one child) and William Eddy (wife Eleanor and two children). Also in the wagon train were three teamsters working for Donner (Noah James, Samuel Shoemaker and Jean-Baptise Trubode) and five people employed by Reed (Baylis Williams, Eliza Williams, Milton Elliott, James Smith and Walter Herron).
Lavinia Murphy, a widow from Tennessee, was accompanied by four unmarried daughters and two married daughters and their families (William Foster, his wife Sarah and one child; William Pike, wife Harriet and two children). There was also Charles T. Stanton, a businessman from Chicago, who was travelling on his own.
The party was completed by a group from Germany. This included Lewis Keseberg and his wife and two children. Keseberg also brought with him three employees, Karl Burger, Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer. The wagon train also included two Germans known as Hardkoop and Wolfinger.
The Donner-Reed wagon train left Independence, Missouri, for Sutter's Fort in May, 1846. Later that month, James Reed's mother-in-law died next to the Blue River in Kansas. She was to be the first of large number of people to die on this journey. 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. James Reed and Charles T. Stanton 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 Franklin 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, Charles T. 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 Charles T. 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 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 Charles T. 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 William Eddy and Charles T. Stanton 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.
William Eddy now took responsibility for leading the group to safety. On 24th December they were out of food and too weak to go on. The group came to the decision that the only way they could survive was to resort to cannibalism. That night Billy Graves and a Mexican called Antoine died. The following day Patrick Dolan also passed away and on 26th December they began cooking Dolan's arms and legs. At first only three members of the party, Eddy and the two Indian guides, refused to eat the meat. However, over the next two days they succumbed to temptation and resorted to cannibalism. They now had a fourth body to consume as Lemeul Murphy died that night.
On 30th December the party, much stronger after their cannibal feast, set off again. However, the weather deteriorated and they were once again forced to halt and make a camp. Out of food, the group began talking about murdering Luis and Salvador, the two Indian guides. Eddy argued against this idea and he secretly told Luis and Salvador that they were likely to be murdered if they remained. That night, while the others slept, they left the camp.
William Eddy and Mary Graves now volunteered to go out hunting. Eddy managed to kill a deer but by the time they got back to the camp Jay Fosdick had died. This supplied more meat for the six remaining members of the group.
The next day the party found the dying bodies of Luis and Salvador. Eddy was unable to stop William Foster killing the two Indians. This created conflict between Eddy and Foster and it was decided that they could no longer work together. The group now split up: Foster, his wife and sister, Harriet Pike made up one party whereas Eddy travelled with Mary Graves, Sarah Fosdick and Amanda McCutcheon.
On 12th January, Eddy's group reached a Paiute village. They took pity on the travellers and gave them a corn meal. This gave them the strength to move on and five days later found another village. This time they were given a meal of pine nuts. Eddy then paid a warrior a pouch of tobacco to act as a guide to Sutter's Fort. This he agreed to do and after a further six mile walker, Eddy reached his destination. When he heard the news James Reed quickly organized a relief party to go back and find the rest of the Forlorn Hope group.
Johann Sutter and Captain Edward Kern, the commanding officer at Sutter's Fort, offered to pay $3 a day for anyone willing to form a relief party to rescue those still camped at Donner Lake. Only seven men agreed to accept this dangerous task and on 31st January the small team led by Daniel Tucker left the fort.
James Reed successfully brought back William Foster, Sarah Foster, Harriet Pike, Mary Graves, Sarah Fosdick and Amanda McCutcheon. He now began preparing a second relief party. He organized a public meeting where he raised $1,300. He used this money to buy supplies and to hire six more men. William Eddy also agreed to guide the team back to the Donner Lake and they departed on 7th February.
Several members of Tucker's party threatened to turn back when they reached Bear Valley. The snow was ten feet deep. Tucker was forced to pay the men $5 a day to anyone who completed the journey. On 18th February they managed to reach Donner Lake. The first person they came across asked: "Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?" They discovered that a large number had died of starvation. This included Franklin Graves, George Donner, Jacob Donner, Eleanor Eddy, Margaret Eddy, Samuel Shoemaker, James Smith, Joseph Reinhardt, Lantron Murphy, John Denton, Harriet McCutcheon, Augustus Spitzer and Milton Elliott. It also became clear that the many of those still alive had resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.
Reed's rescue party arrived soon afterwards. It was decided to try to help as many people as possible to Sutter's Fort. However, a large number were too weak to make the journey back and had to be left behind. After reaching safety William Foster and William Eddy agreed to lead another rescue party to Donner Lake. They were eventually able to bring back all those who had survived the ordeal.
The Donner Party was the worst disaster in wagon train history. Forty-two emigrants and two Indian guides had died. However, the remaining forty-seven travellers survived.
We left our home in Iowa with three wagons drawn by seven yoke of oxen, - and some cows and horses. The horses were intended for the saddle, as at that time in Iowa, it was thought that horses were not suitable to draw wagons across the Rocky mountains as the country between the Missouri and California.
Two of the wagons were loaded with provisions & the third a light wagon carried the small children and some beds. We crossed the Missouri river at Glascow after a very tedious journey on account of high water as the spring of 1846 was exceeding wet, in that part of the country.
Never can I forget the morning when we bade farewell to kindred and friends. The Donners were there, having driven in the evening before with their families, so that we might get an early start. Grandma Keyes was carried out of the house and placed in the wagon on a large feather bed, propped up with pillows. Her sons implored her to remain and end her days with them, but she could not be separated from her only daughter. We were surrounded by loved ones, and there stood all my little schoolmates who had come to kiss me good-by. My father with tears in his eyes tried to smile as one friend after another grasped his hand in a last farewell. Mama was overcome with grief. At last the drivers cracked their whips, the oxen moved slowly forward and the long journey had begun... Many friends camped with us the first night out and my uncles traveled on for several days before bidding us a final farewell. It seemed to be strange to be riding in ox-teams, and we children were afraid of the oxen, thinking they could go wherever they pleased as they had no bridles.
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 roadside, 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 interminable 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.
Our journey, so far, has been pleasant... 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 had has been crossing creeks... 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. Every thing was new and pleasing.
We continued along the banks of the Little Blue until noon, when the trail diverged from the stream to the right, ascending over the bluffs, into the high tableland of the prairie, in order to strike the Platte river, the estimated distance of which from this point is twenty-seven miles. We supplied ourselves with water and wood, expecting to encamp tonight where neither of these could be obtained.
About two o'clock, p.m., in crossing a ravine the bank of which was steep, one of the axles of our wagon broke down entirely... The train "rolled" past us, but a number of men sufficient to assist in repairing the damage to our vehicle remained. The tools with which we had provided ourselves in the event of accidents, consisting of a saw, shaving-knife, augers, chisels, hammers, etc. etc., were now found indispensable. With the aid of these, Mr. Eddy, a carriage-maker by trade, was soon as busily at work in adjusting the new axle to the size of the irons appertaining to the wheels, as if he had been in his own shop at home.
The road at first was rough and led through a timbered country, but after striking the great valley of the Platte the road was good and the country beautiful. Stretching out before us as far as the eye could reach was a valley as green as emerald, dotted here and there with flowers of every imaginable color, and through this valley flowed the grand old Platte, a wide, rapid, shallow stream... Exercise in the open air under bright skies, and freedom from peril, combined to make this part of our journey an ideal pleasure trip. How I enjoyed riding my pony, galloping over the plain, gathering wild flowers! At night the young folks would gather about the camp fire chatting merrily, and often a song would be heard, or some clever dancer would give us a barn-door jig on the hind gate of a wagon.
My first appearance on the wilds of the Nebraska as a hunter, was on the 12th (June) when I returned to camp with a splendid two year old elk, the first only only one killed by the caravan as yet. I picked the elk I killed, out of eight of the largest I ever beheld, and I do really believe there was one in the gang as large as the horse I rode.
We have had two Buffalo killed. The men that killed them are considered the best buffalo hunters on the road - perfect "stars." Knowing that Glaucus could beat any horse on the Nebraska, I came to the conclusion that as far as buffalo killing was concerned, I could beat them. Accordingly, yesterday I thought to try my luck. The old buffalo hunters and as many others as they would permit to be in their company, having left the camp for a hunt, Hiram Miller, myself and two others, after due preparation, took up the line of march. Before we left, every thing in camp was talking about Mr so and so, had gone hunting, and we would have some choice buffalo meat. No one though or spoke of the two Sucker hunters, and none but the two asked to go with us... we saw a large herd.... On we went towards them as coolly and calmly as the nature of the case would permit. And now, as perfectly green as I was I had to compete with old experienced hunters, and remove the stars from their brows; which was my greatest ambition, and in order too, that they might see that a Sucker had the best horse in the company, and the best and most daring horseman in the caravan. Closing upon a gang of ten or twelve bulls, the word was given, and I was soon in their midst... At last I loaded, and soon the chase ended and I had two dead and a third mortally wounded and dying... A short distance off we saw another drove of calves. Again the chase was renewed, and soon I laid out another fine calf upon the plains.
We are now on the Platte, 200 miles from Fort Laramie... Wood is now very scarce, but "Buffalo chips" are excellent - they kindle quick and retain heat surprisingly. We had this evening 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.
We arrived here (Fort Laramie) yesterday without meeting any serious accident. Our company are in good health. Our road has been through a sandy country, but we have as yet had plenty of grass for our cattle and water.... Two hundred and six lodges of Sioux are expected at the Fort today on the way to join the warriors on the war against the Crows. The Indians all speak friendly to us. Two braves breakfasted with us. Their ornaments were tastefully arranged, consisting of beads, feathers, and a fine shell that is got from California, bark variously colored and arranged, and the hair from the scalps they have taken in battle... Our provisions are in good order, and we feel satisfied with our preparations for the trip.
At Fort Laramie was a party of Sioux, who were on the war path going to fight the Crows or Blackfeet. The Sioux are fine looking Indians and I was not in the least afraid of them. They fell in love with my pony and set about bargaining to buy him. They brought buffalo robes and beautifully tanned buckskin, pretty beaded moccasins, and ropes made of grass, and placing these articles in a heap alongside several of their ponies, they made my father understand by signs that they would give them all for Billy and his rider. Papa smiled and shook his head; then the number of ponies was increased and, as a last tempting inducement, they brought an old coat, that had been worn by some poor soldier, thinking my father could not withstand the brass buttons!
On the sixth of July we were again on the march. The Sioux were several days in passing our caravan, not on account of the length of our train, but because there were so many Sioux. Owing to the fact that our wagons were strung so far apart, they could have massacred our whole party without much loss to themselves. Some of our company became alarmed, and the rifles were cleaned out and loaded, to let the warriors see that we were prepared to fight; but the Sioux never showed any inclination to disturb us... their desire to possess my pony was so strong that at last I had to ride in the wagon, and let one of the drivers take charge of Billy. This I did not like, and in order to see how far back the line of warriors extended, I picked up a large field-glass which hung on a rack, and as I pulled it out with a click, the warriors jumped back, wheeled their ponies and scattered. This pleased me greatly, and I told my mother I could fight the whole Sioux tribe with a spyglass,
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.
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.
We have arrived here safe with the loss of two yoke of my best oxen. They were poisoned by drinking water in a little creek called Dry Sandy, situated between the Green Spring in the Pass of the Mountains, and Little Sandy. The water was standing in puddles. Jacob Donner also lost two yoke, and George Donner a yoke and half, all supposed from the same cause.
I have replenished my stock by purchasing from Messrs. Vasques & Bridger, two very excellent and accommodating gentlemen, who are the proprietors of this trading post. The new road, or Hastings' Cut-off, leaves the Fort Hall road here, and is said to be a saving of 350 or 400 miles in going to California, and a better route. There is, however, or thought to be, one stretch of 40 miles without water; but Hastings and his party, are out ahead examining for water, or for a route to avoid this stretch. I think that they cannot avoid it, for it crosses an arm of the Eutaw Lake, now dry. Mr. Bridger, and other gentlemen here, who have trapped that country, say that the Lake has receded from the tract of country in question. There is plenty of grass which we can cut and put into the waggons, for our cattle while crossing it. We are now only 100 miles from the Great Salt Lake by the new route, in all 250 miles from California; while by way of Fort Hall it is 650 or 700 miles - making a great saving in favor of jaded oxen and dust. On the new route we will not have dust, as there are about 60 waggons ahead of us. The rest of the Californians went the long route - feeling afraid of Hasting's Cutoff Mr. Bridger informs me that the route we design to take, is a fine level road, with plenty of water and grass, with the exception before stated. It is estimated that 700 miles will take us to Captain Sutter's Fort, which we hope to make in seven weeks from this day.
Arriving at Fort Bridger, I added one yoke of cattle to my teams, staying here four days. Several friends of mine who had passed here with pack animals for California, had left letters with Mr. Vasquez, Mr. Bridger's partner, directing me to take the route by way of Fort Hall and by no means to go the Hastings cutoff Vasquez, being interested in having the new route travelled, kept these letters.
A large number of Oregon and California emigrants encamped at this creek, among whom I may mention the following: Messrs. West, Crabtree, Campbell, Boggs, Donners and Dunbar. I had, at one time or another, became acquainted with all of these persons in those companies, and had traveled with them from Wokaruaka, and until subsequent divisions and subdivisions had separated us. We had often, since our various separations, passed and repassed each other upon the road, and had frequently encamped together by the same water and grass, as we did now. In fact, the particular history of my own journey is the general history of theirs. The greater number of the Californians, and especially the companies in which George Donner, Jacob Donner, James F. Reed, and William H. Eddy, and their families travelled, here turned to the left, for the purpose of going by way of Fort Bridger, to meet L. W. Hastings, who had informed them, by a letter which he wrote and forwarded from where the emigrant road leaves the Sweet Water, that he had explored a new route from California, which he had found to be much nearer and better than the old one, by way of Fort Hall, and the head waters of Ogden's River, and that he would remain at Fort Bridger to give further information, and to conduct them through. The Californians were generally much elated, and in fine spirits, with the prospect of a better and nearer road to the country of their destination. Mrs. George Donner was, however, an exception. She was gloomy, sad and dispirited, in view of the fact, that her husband and other could think for a moment of leaving the old road, and confide in the statement of a man of whom they knew nothing, but who was probably some selfish adventurer.
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.
He (James Reed) says that his misfortunes commenced on leaving Fort Bridger, which place he left on the 31st of July, 1846, in company with eighty-one others. Nothing of note occurred until the 6th of August, when they had reached within a few miles of Weaver Canyon, where they found a note from a Mr. Hastings, who was twenty miles in advance of them, with sixty wagons, saying that if they would send for him he would put them upon a new route, which would avoid the Canyon and lessen the distance to the great Salt Lake several miles. Here the company halted, and appointed three persons, who should overtake Mr. Hastings and engage him to guide them through the new route, which was promptly done.
We were seven days in reaching Weber Canyon, and Hastings, who was guiding a party in advance of our train, left a note by the wayside warning us that the road through Weber Canyon was impassable and advising us to select a road over the mountains, the outline of which he attempted to give on paper. These directions were so vague that C.T. Stanton, William Pike, and my father rode on in advance and overtook Hastings and tried to induce him to return and guide our party. He refused, but came back over a portion of the road, and from a high mountain endeavored to point out the general course. Over this road my father traveled alone, taking notes, and blazing trees, to assist him in retracing his course.
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.
He (Hastings) showed him (Reed) the way through then he went on and overtook his party, and Reed returned to his. Just then we overtook and joined the Donner Party. Here is what caused our suffering, for Reed told us if we went the Canyon road we would be apt to break our wagons and kill our oxen, but if we went the new way, we could get to Salt Lake in a week or ten days.
After traveling eighteen days they (the Donner Party) accomplished the distance of thirty miles, with great labor and exertion, being obliged to cut the whole road through a forest of pine and aspen.
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 consternations, the emigrants gazed at its blank face, then toward the dreary white 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 spellbound interest by the anxious group around her.
We started to cross the desert traveling day and night only stopping to feed and water our teams as long as water and grass lasted. We must have made at least two-thirds of the way across when a great portion of the cattle showed signs of giving out. Here the company requested me to ride on and find the water and report. Before leaving I requested my principal teamster, that when my cattle became so exhausted that they could not proceed further with the wagons, to turn them out and drive them on the road after me until they reached the water, but the teamster misunderstanding unyoked them when they first showed symptoms of giving out, starting on with them for the water. I found the water about twenty miles from where I left the company and started on my return. About eleven o'clock at night, I met my teamsters with all my cattle and horses. I cautioned them particularly to keep the cattle on the road, for that as soon as they would scent the water they would break for it. I proceeded on and reached my family and wagons. Some time after leaving the man one of the horses gave out and while they were striving to get it along, the cattle scented the water and started for it. And when they started with the horses, the cattle were out of sight, they could not find them, or their trail, as they told me afterward.
Receiving no information and the water being nearly exhausted, in the evening I started on foot with my family to reach the water. In the course of the night the children became exhausted. I stopped, spread a blanket and laid them down covering them with shawls. In a short time a cold hurricane commenced blowing; the children soon complained of the cold. Having four dogs with us I had them lie down with the children outside the covers. They were then kept warm. Mrs. Reed and myself sitting to the windward helped shelter them from the storm. Very soon one of the dogs jumped up and started out barking, the others following making an attack on something approaching us. Very soon I got sight of an animal making directly for us; the dogs seizing it changed its course, and when passing I discovered it to be one of my young steers. Incautiously stating that it was mad, in a moment my wife and children started to their feet scattering like quail, and it was some minutes before I could quiet camp; there was no more complaining of being tired or sleepy the balance of the night.
We realized that our wagons must be abandoned. The company kindly let us have two yoke of oxen, so with out ox and cow yoked together we could bring one wagon, but, alas! not the one which seemed so much like a home to us, and in which grandma had died. Some of the company went back with papa and assisted him in caching everything that could not be packed in one wagon. A cache was made by digging a hole in the ground, in which a box or the bed of a wagon was placed. Articles to be buried were packed into this box, covered with boards, and the earth thrown in upon them, and thus they were hidden from sight.
Mr. Eddy went out hunting... At noon he came up with the company, which had stopped to take some refreshments, at the foot of a very high and long sand-hill, covered with rocks at the top. At length they commenced ascending the hill. All the wagons had been taken up but Mr. Reed's, Mr. Pike's, and one of Mr. Graves', the latter driven by John Snyder. Milton Elliot, who was Mr. Reed's driver, took Mr. Eddy's team, which was on Mr. Reed's wagon, and joined it to Mr. Pike's team. The cattle of this team, being unruly, became entangled with that of Mr. Graves', driven by Snyder; and a quarrel ensued between him and Elliot. Snyder at length commenced quarreling with Mr. Reed, and made some threats of whipping him, which threats he seemed about to attempt executing. Mr. Reed then drew a knife, without, however, attempting to use it, and told Snyder that he did not wish to have any difficulty with him. Snyder told that he would whip him, "anyhow;" and turning the butt of his whip, gave Mr. Reed a severe blow upon the head, which cut it very much. As Reed was in the act of dodging the blow, he stabbed Snyder a little below the collarbone, cutting off the first rib, and driving the knife through the left lung. Snyder after this struck Mrs. Reed a blow upon the head, and Mr. Reed two blows upon the head, the last one bringing him down upon his knees. Snyder expired in about fifteen minutes. Mr. Reed, although the blood was running down over his face and shoulders from his own wounds, manifested great anguish of spirit, and threw the knife away from him and into the river. Although Mr. Reed was thus compelled to do as he did, the occurrence produced much feeling against him; and in the evening Kiesburg proposed to hang him. To this, however, he was probably prompted by a feeling of resentment, produced by Mr. Reed having been mainly instrumental in his expulsion from one of the companies, while on the South Platte, for grossly improper conduct. Mr. Eddy had two six-shooters, two double-barreled pistols, and a rifle; Milton Elliot had one rifle, and a double-barrreled shot gun; and Mr. Reed had one six-shooter, and a brace of double-barreled pistols, and rifle. Thus Mr. Reed's comrades were situated, and they determined that he should not die. Mr. Eddy, however, proposed that Mr. Reed should leave the camp. This was finally agreed to, and he accordingly left the next morning; not, however, before he had assisted in committing to the grave the body of the unhappy young man.
We had a rule in traveling which we always observed, and that was, if one wagon drove in the lead one day it should fall in the rear the next, so as to allow every one his turn in the lead. This day of a terrible tragedy my father was in the lead, Jay Fosdick second, John Snyder third, and Reed fourth; arriving at the foot of a short steep hill, my father's team was not able to pull the wagon up, so Fosdick took his team, doubled to father's and went up, then took both teams back and started up with Fosdick's. Snyder said that his team could pull up alone; just then Reed had got another team to double to his wagon, and started to pass Snyder's oxen. Reed at this time was on the opposite side of the oxen from Snyder, and said to Snyder, "you have no business here in the way;" Snyder said "it is my place." Reed started toward him, and jumping over the wagon tongue, said, "you are a damned liar, and I'll cut your heart out!" Snyder pulled his clothes open on his breast and said, "cut away." Reed ran to him and stuck a large six-inch butcher's knife into his heart and cut off two ribs. Snyder then turned the butt-end of his whip stock and struck at him three times, but missed him the third and hit Mrs. Reed, who had in the meantime got hold of her husband. Snyder then stared up the hill and went about ten steps, when he began to stagger; just then I got to him and kept him form falling; by laying him down easy, where he died in five minutes. We then went a little ways to a place where we could camp, and held a council to find out what to do with Reed and took affidavits form the witnesses with the view of giving him a fair trial when we got to civilization... Some of the company were opposed to allowing Reed to travel in the company; so they agreed to banish him.
On the Humboldt river, J. F. Reed and a man named Snyder quarreled and Snyder was killed; some thought Reed was to blame others that Snyder was in the wrong at all events Reed left the company on horseback and alone leaving his family with the company, I have always thought that this was a misfortune for the whole party as Reed was an intelligent and energetic man, and if he had remained the party might of got through. He said that he would go before and endeavor to send help back as provisions were now getting scarce. Now the truth is that the team was "Stalled" on a sand bank on the Humboldt river; it was Reed's team; Snyder was driving Graves team next to Reeds behind Reed was on the off side of his team assisting his man to get the team to pull. Snyder came up on the nigh side also to assist. Soon there was an altercation between Reed and Snyder. When Snyder called Reed some name and attempted to strike him across the tongue between the oxen and the wagon, Reed jumped across the tongue and stabbed him, Snyder died in a couple of hours. Mrs. Reed had nothing to do with the affair and if she had Snyder would not strike her, for he would not strike a woman at all; He was too much of a man for that. Snyders loss was mourned by the whole company; Still Reed was not blamed by many.
At this point in our journey, we were compelled to double our teams in order to ascend a steep, sandy hill. Milton Elliott, who was driving our wagon, and John Snyder, who was driving one of Mr. Graves's, became involved in a quarrel over the management of their oxen. Snyder was beating his cattle over the head, with the butt end of his whip, when my father, returning on horseback from a hunting trip, arrived and, appreciating the great importance of saving the remainder of the oxen, remonstrated with Snyder, telling him that they were our main dependence, and at the same time offering the assistance of our team. Snyder having taken offense at something Elliott had said declared that his team could pull up alone, and kept on using abusive language. Father tried to quiet the enraged man. Hard words followed. Then my father said: "We can settle this, John, when we get up the hill." "No," replied Snyder, with an oath, "we will settle it now," and springing upon the tongue of a wagon, he struck my father a violent blow over the head with his heavy whip-stock. One blow followed another. Father was stunned for a moment and blinded by the blood streaming from the gashes in his head. Another blow was descending when my mother ran in between the men. Father saw the uplifted whip, but had only time to cry: "John, John," when down came the stroke upon mother. Quick as a thought my father's hunting knife was out and Snyder fell, fatally wounded... My father was sent out into an unknown country without provisions or arms--even his horse was at first denied him. When we learned of this decision, I followed him through the darkness, taking Elliott with me, and carried him his rifle, pistols, ammunition and some food.
It was here suggested that I go in advance to California, see what had become of McCutchen and Stanton, and hurry up the supplies. They would take care of my family. That being agreed upon I started, taking with me about three days provisions, expecting to kill game on the way.
At about nine o'clock they started. In about half an hour Hardcoop came to Mr. Eddy, and informed him that Keseberg had again put him out of the wagon - that he was an old man, being more than sixty years of age... and he concluded by requesting Mr. Eddy to carry him in his wagon.... Mr. Eddy replied that they were then in the sand, and if he could in some way get forward until they got out, he would do what he could... The emigrants traveled on until night. As soon as they got into camp, inquiry was made for Hardcoop. Some boys who had been driving cattle stated that they had seen him sitting under a large bush of sage... exhausted and completely worn out... The night was very cold; but when morning dawned, the unhappy Hardcoop did not come up. Mrs. Reed, Milton Elliot, and Mr. Eddy then went to Keseburg, and besought him to return for the old man. This, Keseberg, in a very heartless and inhuman manner, refused to do. No other persons, excepting Patrick Breen, and Mr. Graves having horses, upon which he could be carried, they then applied to Patrick Breen, who replied that it was impossible, and that he must perish.
Keseberg may be responsible for the death of Hardcoop, but urges in his defense that all were walking, even to the women and the children. He says Hardcoop was not missed until evening, and that it was supposed the old man would catch up with the train during the night. The terrible dangers surrounding the company, the extreme lateness of the season, the weaknesses of the oxen, and the constant fear of lurking, hostile Indians, prevented him or anyone else from going back.
On the morning (12th October, 1846) George Donner, Jacob Donner, and Wolfinger lost eighteen head of cattle. Graves, also, had a cow stolen by Indians. They encamped on the night ... on a small spot of very poor grass. The water here, also, was deficient in quantity and bad in quality. Breen had a fine mare die in the mud. He asked Mr. Eddy to help him get her out. Mr. Eddy referred him to poor Hardcoop, and refused. Several cattle had arrows shot at them during the night, but none of them died in consequence.
There was a German in our company by the name of Wolfinger, who had a wife, two yoke of oxen and a wagon which was all that we knew of, but it was rumored that he had considerable money. One day he was driving in the rear; his wife, being on foot, kept up in company with the other women... another German by the name of Keseberg staid behind with him; they traveled so slow they got out of sight, but we thought nothing of it till night and they did not come; and we became a little alarmed about their safety; so two of the men and myself mounted horses and started back after them, but we had gone but a little ways till we met Keseberg, and he said Wolfinger would be along soon, so we turned back. But as he did not come the next morning, two of the company and myself again went back and in about five miles found the wagon in the road; the oxen had been unhitched from it, but left (two yoke) chained together and were grazing along the Humboldt river bank, not far from the wagon but we could not find Wolfinger. There were no Indian tracks about nothing what we supposed to be Keseberg's and Wolfinger's; we hitched the oxen to the wagon and drove them on till we overtook the company and delivered them up to Mrs. Wolfinger; she hired another German by the name of Charles Berger to drive it, after that, and there was nothing more said about it.
At the last encampment on Truckee river, another life was lost, by the accidental discharge of a pistol. Two men, brothers-in-law, (William Foster and William Pike) had been handling their arms by the camp fire in the morning. Wood to replenish it was called for, when one said to the other, 'hold my pistol while I go for some.' In the transfer, by some means it went off, and the contents lodged in the body of the unfortunate man who lived only two hours. Death did not startle them now. They were too much engrossed by their own necessities to heed his presence, further than naked decency required. They had buried their first dead in a coffin and shroud, with masonic ceremonies, their second with only a shroud and a board beneath and above him. The last man was buried literally dust to dust, nothing to separate his clay from that of the great parent who opened her bosom to receive him.
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.
When I arrived (at Sutter's Fort) making known my situation to him, asking if he would furnish me horses and saddle to bring the women and children out of the mountains (I expected to meet them at the head of Bear Valley by the time I could return there), he at once complied with the request, also saying that he would do everything possible for me and the company. On the evening of my arrival at the Captain's, I found Messrs. Bryant, Lippencott, Grayson, and Jacobs, some of the early voyagers in the Russel Company, they having left that company at Fort Laramie, most of them coming on horseback.
I remained at Sutter's Fort .... On the 28th October, Mr. Reed, whom I have before mentioned as belonging to the rear emigrating party, arrived here. He left his party on Mary's river, and in company with one man crossed the desert and the mountains. He was several days without provisions, and when he arrived at Johnson's, was so much emaciated and exhausted by fatigue and famine, that he could scarcely walk. His object was to procure provisions immediately, and to transport them with pack-mules over the mountains for the relief of the suffering emigrants behind. He had lost all of his cattle, and had been compelled to cache two of his wagons and most of his property. Captain Sutter generously furnished the requisite quantity of mules and horses, with Indian vaqueros, and jerked meat, and flour. This is the second expedition for the relief of the emigrants he has fitted out since our arrival in the country.
In the morning it was very cold, with about an inch of snow on the ground. This made us hurry our cattle still more, if possible, than before. We traveled on, and, at last, the clouds cleared, leaving the towering peaks in full view, covered as far as the eye could reach with snow. This sight made us almost despair of ever entering the long-sought valley of the Sacramento; but we pushed on as fast as our failing cattle could haul our almost empty wagons. At last we reached the foot of the main ridge, near Truckee Lake. It was sundown. The weather was clear in the early part of the night; but a large circle around the moon indicated, as we rightly supposed, an approaching storm. Daylight came only to confirm our worst fears. The snow was falling fast on that terrible summit over which we yet had to make our way.
Notwithstanding, we set out early to make an effort to cross. We traveled one or two miles - the snow increasing in depth all the way. At last, it was up to the axle of the wagons. We now concluded to leave them, pack some blankets on the oxen, and push forward; but by the time we got the oxen packed, it was impossible to advance; first, because of the depth of the snow, and next, because we could not find the road; so we hitched to the wagons and returned to the valley again, where we found it raining in torrents. We took possession of a cabin and built a fire in it, but the pine boughs were a poor shelter from the rain, so we turned our cattle at large, and laid down under our wagon covers to pass the night. It cleared off in the night, and this gave us hopes; we were so little acquainted with the country as to believe that the rain in the valley was rain on the mountain also, and that it would beat down the snow that we might possibly go over. In this we were fatally mistaken.
About the first of November 1846 we arrived at what proved to be the first of the main ridge, and camped at the foot of what is now called Donner Lake, It was raining when we stopped, but before morning their was some snow on the ground, we started at daylight, but soon found that the snow increased in depth as we advanced, and after traveling about two miles, it was so deep that the cattle could not go no further and to make matters worse another storm began, so we retraced our steps to the camp of the night before at the lake.
When we reached the lake, we lost our road, and owing to the depth of the snow on the mountains, were compelled to abandon our wagons, and pack our goods upon oxen. The cattle, unused to such burdens, caused great delay by 'bucking' and wallowing in the snow. There was also much confusion as to what articles should be taken and what abandoned. One wanted a box of tobacco carried along; another, a bale of calico, and some one thing and some another. But for this delay we would have passed the summit and pressed forward to California. Owing to my lameness, I was placed on horseback, and my foot tied up to the saddle in a sort of sling. Near evening we were close to the top of the dividing ridge. It was cold and chilly, and everybody was tired with the severe exertions of the day. Some of the emigrants sat down to rest, and declared they could go no farther. I begged them for God's sake to get over the ridge before halting. Some one, however, set fire to a pitchy pine tree, and the flames soon ascended to its top most branches. The women and children gathered about this fire to warm themselves. Meantime the oxen were rubbing off their packs against the trees. The weather looked very threatening, and I exhorted them to go on until the summit was reached. I foresaw the danger plainly and unmistakably. Only the strongest men, however, could go ahead and break the road, and it would have taken a determined man to induce the party to leave the fire. Had I been well, and been able to push ahead over the ridge, some, if not all, would have followed. As it was, all lay down on the snow, and from exhaustion were soon asleep. In the night, I felt something impeding my breath. A heavy weight seemed to be resting upon me. Springing up to a sitting posture, I found myself covered with freshly-fallen snow. The camp, the cattle, my companions, had all disappeared. All I could see was snow everywhere. I shouted at the top of my voice. Suddenly, here and there, all about me, heads popped up through the snow. The scene was not unlike what one might imagine at the resurrection, when people rise up out of the earth. The terror amounted to a panic. The mules were lost, the cattle strayed away, and our further progress rendered impossible.
Starting with seventeen horses, they (James Reed and William McCutcheon) proceeded to cross the mountains. As they advanced the snow became deeper; they reached the depth of four feet when the horses sank completely exhausted, and it was found impossible to proceed with them. Messrs. Reed and McCutcheon determined to use every effort to reach their friends. Choosing the best horses, they urged them forward - but alas! - they were obliged to leave the poor animals completely buried in snow. They then attempted to pursue their journey on foot, but for the want of snow shoes, were obliged to abandon all hope of passing the huge barrier of snow, which separated them from their families; and gathering their horses together, they returned to the valley.
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 campfire, 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.
In this critical situation (24th December, 1846), the presence of mind of Mr. Eddy suggested a plan for keeping themselves warm, which is common amongst the trappers of the Rocky Mountains, when caught in the snow without fire. It is simply to spread a blanket on the snow, when the party, (if small,) with the exception of one, sit down upon it in a circle, closely as possible, their feet piled over one another in the centre, room being left for the person who has to complete the arrangement. As many blankets as necessary are then spread over the heads of the party, the ends being kept down by billets of wood or snow. After everything is completed, the person outside takes his place in the circle. As the snow falls it closes up the pores of the blankets, while the breath from the party underneath soon causes a comfortable warmth. It was with a great deal of difficulty that Mr. Eddy succeeded in getting them to adopt this simple plan, which undoubtedly was the means of saving their lives at this time. In this situation they remained thirty-six hours.
The painful journey was again continued, and after traveling two or three miles, the wind changed to the south-west. The snow beginning to fall, they all sat down to hold a council for the purpose of determining whether to proceed. All the men but Mr. Eddy refused to go forward. The women and Mr. Eddy declared they would go through or perish. Many reasons were urged for returning, and among others the fact that they had not tasted food for two days, and this after having been on an allowance of one ounce per meal. It was said that they must all perish for want of food. At length, Patrick Dolan proposed that they should cast lots to see who should die, to furnish food for those who survived. Mr. Eddy seconded the motion. William Foster opposed the measure. Mr. Eddy then proposed that two persons should take each a six-shooter, and fight until one or both were slain. This, too, was objected to. Mr. Eddy at length proposed that they should resume their journey, and travel on till some one died. This was finally agreed to, and they staggered on for about three miles, when they encamped. They had a small hatchet with them, and after a great deal of difficulty they succeeded in making a large fire. About 10 o’clock on Christmas night, a most dreadful storm of wind, snow, and hail, began to pour down upon their defenseless heads. While procuring wood for the fire, the hatchet, as if to add another drop of bitterness to a cup already overflowing, flew from the handle, and was lost in unfathomable snows. About 11 o’clock that memorable night, the storm increased to a perfect tornado, and in an instant blew away every spark of fire. Antoine perished a little before this from fatigue, frost, and hunger. The company, except Mr. Eddy and one or two others, were now engaged in alternatingly imploring God for mercy and relief. That night’s bitter cries, anguish, and despair, never can be forgotten. Mr. Eddy besought his companions to get down upon blankets, and he would cover them up with other blankets; urging that the falling snow would soon cover them, and they could thus keep warm. In about two hours this was done. Before this, however, Mr. Graves was relieved by death from the honors of that night. Mr. Eddy told him that he was dying. He replied that he did not care, and soon expired.
They had not proceeded above two miles, when they came upon the Indians, lying upon the ground, in a totally helpless condition. They had been without food for eight or nine days, and had been four days without fire. They could not, probably, have lived for more than two or three hours; nevertheless, Eddy remonstrated against their being killed. Foster affirmed that he was compelled to do it. Eddy refused to see the deed consummated, and went on about two hundred yards, and halted. Lewis was told that he must die; and was shot through the head. Salvadore was dispatched in the same manner immediately after. Mr. Eddy did not see who fired the gun. The flesh was then cut from their bones and dried.
On the following morning they staggered forward, and toward the close of the day... they arrived at an Indian village, which in this country is called a rancheria. The Indians seemed to be overwhelmed with the sight of their miseries... As soon as the first brief burst of of feeling had subsided, all united in administering to their wants. One hurried here, and another hurried there, all sobbing and weeping, to obtain their stores of acorns.
It is probably not generally known to the people, that there is now in the California mountains in a most distressing situation a party of emigrants from the United States, who were prevented from crossing the mountains by an early heavy fall of snow. The party consists of about sixty persons, men, women and children. They were, almost entirely out of provisions, when they reached the foot of the mountain, and but for the timely succor afforded them by Capt. J.A. Sutter, one of the most humane and liberal men in California, they must have all perished in a few days. Captain Sutter as soon as he ascertained their situation, sent five mules loaded with provisions to them. A second party was dispatched with provisions for them, but they found the mountain impassable, in consequence of the snow. We hope that our citizens will do something for the relief of these unfortunate people.
The seventeenth (January, 1847) after walking two or three miles, with an Indian for a pilot, Mr. Foster and the women gave out, their feet being swollen to such a degree that they could go no further. Mr. Eddy, who it appears stood the fatigue of the journey better than any of them, here left them; and assisted by two Indians, that evening reached the settlement on Bear Creek. The inhabitants, on being informed of the situation of the party behind, immediately started with provisions on foot, and reached them that night about twelve o'clock.
My eldest brother was very weak, and almost at death's door, and my mother went to the Breens, and begged a small piece of meat; just a few mouthfuls. This is in the history recorded by Mr. Breen. I remember the little piece of meat; my mother gave half of it to my dying brother, and he ate it, fell off to sleep, with hollow death-gurgling snore, and when the sound ceased, I went to him, and he was dead - starved to death in my presence. My mother said that if she had known he was going to die, she would have given him the balance of the meat while she was starving too.
A number of the relief party remained here, while Messrs. Miller, McCutchen, and one of the men and myself, proceeded to the camp of the Messrs. Donner's. This was a number of miles further east. We found Mrs. Jacob Donner in a very feeble condition. Her husband had died early in the winter. We removed the tent and placed it in a more comfortable situation. I then visited the tent of Geo. Donner, close by, and found him and his wife. He was helpless. Their children and two of Jacob's had come out with the party we met at the head of Bear valley. I requested Mrs. George Donner to come out with us, as I would leave a man to take care of both Mr. George Donner and Mrs. Jacob Donner. Mrs. Geo. Donner positively refused, saying that as her children were all out she would not leave her husband in the situation he was in. After repeatedly urging her to come out, and she as positively refusing, I was satisfied in my own mind that Mrs. Geo. Donner remained with her husband for pure love and affection, and not for money, as stated by Mrs. Curtis. When I found that Mrs. Geo. Donner would not leave her husband, we took the three remaining children of Jacob Donner's leaving a man to take care of the two camps. Leaving all the provisions we could spare, and expecting the party from Sutter's fort would be in in a few days, we returned to the camp of Mrs. Graves, where all remained during the night except McCutchen, Miller, and myself, we going to the cabin of Mr. Breen, where two of my children were. Notice was given in all the camps that we would Start on Our Return To Sutter's early the next day."
Christmas was near, but to the starving its memory gave no comfort. It came and passed without observance, but my mother had determined weeks before that her children should have a treat on this one day. She had laid away a few dried apples, some beans, a bit of tripe, and a small piece of bacon. When this hoarded store was brought out, the delight of the little ones knew no bounds. The cooking was watched carefully, and when we sat down to our Christmas dinner mother said, "Children, eat slowly for this one day you can have all you wish." So bitter was the misery relieved by that one bright day, that I have never since sat down to a Christmas dinner without my thoughts going back to Donner Lake.
One day a man came down the snow-steps of Mrs. Breen's cabin, and fell at full length within the doorway. He was quickly raised, and some broth, made of beef and hide... put into his lifeless lips. It revived him so he spoke. He was a hired driver. His life was of value to no one. Those who would have divided their morsel with him, were in a land of plenty. She said that when a new call was made upon her slender store, and she thought of her children, she felt she could not withhold what she had... The man who had fallen in their door, died with them.
Then the little child of Mrs. Eddy who, with her two children, were with us, her husband having gone with the Forlorn Hope, died, and was not buried until its mother died two days later, and they lay in this same room with us two days and nights before we could get assistance to remove their corpses to the snow.
Sunday 17th, January: Eliza came here this morning, sent her back again to Graves. Lanthrom crazy last night.
Tuesday 19th, January: Leggy and Edward sick last night by eating some meat that Delay threw his tobacco on.
Thursday 21st, January: Dantean came this morning with Eliza she won't eat hides. FRS Reed sent her back to live or die on them.
Wednesday 27th, January: Keseberg sick and Lanthrom lying in bed the whole of his time.
Saturday 30th, January: The Graves seized on Mrs Reed's goods until they would be paid also took the hides that she and family had to live on.
Sunday 31st January: Lantron Murphy died last night.
Friday 5th February: Peggy very uneasy for fear we shall all perish with hunger we have but a little meat left and only part of 3 hides has to support Mrs Reed, she has nothing left but one hide and it is on Graves shanty... Eddy's child (Margaret), died last night.
Saturday 6th February: Murphys folks or Keseberg say they can't eat hides. I wish we had enough of them.
Sunday 7th February: William McCutcheon's child (Harriet) died 2nd of this month.
Monday 8th February: Spitzer died last night . . . Mrs Eddy died on the night of the 7th.
Wednesday 10th February: Milt Elliott died last night... Denton trying to borrow meat for Graves had none to give they have nothing but hides all are entirely out of meat but a little we have our hides are nearly all eat up.
When Milt Elliott died - our faithful friend, who seemed so like a brother - my mother and I dragged him up out of the cabin and covered him with snow. Commencing at his feet, I patted the pure white snow down softly until I reached his face. Poor Milt! it was hard to cover that face from sight forever, for with his death our best friend was gone.
By the arrival of the Brig Francisco, 3 days from Yerba Buena, Le Moine, Master, brings to us the heart rending new of the extreme suffering of a party of emigrants who were left on the other side of the California mountain, about 60 in all, nineteen of whom started to come into the valley. Seven, only have arrived, the remainder died, and the survivors were kept alive by eating the dead bodies. Among the survivors are two young girls... We have but few of the particulars of the hardships which they have suffered. Such a state of things will probably never again occur, from the fact, that the road is now better known, and the emigrants will hereafter start and travel so as to cross the mountain by the 1st of October. The party which are suffering so much, lost their work cattle on the salt planes, on Hasting's cut off, a rout which we hope no one will ever attempt again.
At sunset on the 16th day we crossed Truckee lake on the ice and came to the spot where we had been told we should find the emigrants. We looked all around but no living thing except ourselves was in sight and we thought that all must have perished. We raised a loud halloo and then we saw a woman emerge from a hole in the snow. As we approached her several others made their appearance in like manner coming out of the snow. They were gaunt with famine and I never can forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice very much agitated & said "are your men from California or do you come from heaven". We gave them food very sparingly and retired for the night having some one on guard until morning to keep close watch on our provisions to prevent the starving emigrants from eating them which they would have done until they died of repletion.
Their camp stood about sixty yards from the east end of the lake that’s now called Donner. The snow was about twelve to fourteen feet deep and covered everything. Where the water was there was a broad, clean sheet of snow. No one come up to greet us but when we got nearer and yelled, they came tumbling out of the cabins. They were an awful looking sight - a white and starved looking lot, I can tell you. There were pretty glad to see us. They took on awful, anyhow. Men, women and children crying and praying.
After we was there a bit they told us how the had suffered for months. The food all gone and death taking them on all sides. Then they showed us up into their cabins, and we saw the bodies of them who had gone. Most of the flesh was all stripped off and eaten. The rest was rotten. It was just awful. Ten were already dead and we could see some of the others was going. They were too weak to eat, and our provisions being scant, we thought it were best to let them go and look after the stronger ones.
On the evening of February 19th, 1847, they reached our cabins, where all were starving. They shouted to attract attention. Mr. Breen, clambered up the icy steps from our cabin, and soon we heard the blessed words, "Relief, thank God, relief!" There was joy at Donner Lake that night, for we did not know the fate of the Forlorn Hope and we were told that relief parties would come and go until all were across the mountains. But with the joy sorrow was strangely blended. There were tears in other eyes than those of children; strong men sat down and wept. For the dead were lying about on the snow, some were even unburied, since the living had not had strength to bury their dead.
They arrived about 8 o'clock ... and told us that father and his party all got through alive, but they froze their feet, and were so badly fatigued they could not come back with them. They said they would start back Monday or Tuesday and take all that were able to travel. Mother had four small children who were not able to travel, and she said I would have to stay with them, and get wood to keep them from freezing. I told her I would cut enough wood to last till we could go over and get provisions and come back and relieve them; to which she agreed, and I chopped about two chords.
Mother says: Never shall I forget the day when my sister Elitha and myself left our tent. Elitha was strong and in good health, while I was so poor and emaciated that I could scarcely walk. All we took with us were the clothes on our backs and one thin blanket, fastened with a string around our necks, answering the purpose of a shawl in the daytime, and which was all we had to cover us at night. We started early in the morning, and many a good cry I had before we reached the cabins, a distance of about eight miles. Many a time I sat down in the snow to die, and would have perished there if my sister had not urged me on, saying, 'The cabins are just over the hill.' Passing over the hill, and not seeing the cabins, I would give up, again sit down and have another cry, but my sister continued to help and encourage me until I saw the smoke rising from the cabins; then I took courage, and moved along as fast as I could. When we reached the Graves cabin it was all I could do to step down in the snow-steps into the cabin. Such pain and misery as I endured that day is beyond description.
A number of the relief party remained here, while Messrs. Miller, McCutchen, and one of the men and myself, proceeded to the camp of the Messrs. Donner's. This was a number of miles further east. We found Mrs. Jacob Donner in a very feeble condition. Her husband had died early in the winter. We removed the tent and placed it in a more comfortable situation. I then visited the tent of Geo. Donner, close by, and found him and his wife. He was helpless. Their children and two of Jacob's had come out with the party we met at the head of Bear valley. I requested Mrs. George Donner to come out with us, as I would leave a man to take care of both Mr. George Donner and Mrs. Jacob Donner. Mrs. Geo. Donner positively refused, saying that as her children were all out she would not leave her husband in the situation he was in. After repeatedly urging her to come out, and she as positively refusing, I was satisfied in my own mind that Mrs. George Donner remained with her husband for pure love and affection, and not for money, as stated by Mrs. Curtis. When I found that Mrs. George Donner would not leave her husband, we took the three remaining children of Jacob Donner's leaving a man to take care of the two camps. Leaving all the provisions we could spare, and expecting the party from Sutter's fort would be in in a few days, we returned to the camp of Mrs. Graves, where all remained during the night except McCutchen, Miller, and myself, we going to the cabin of Mr. Breen, where two of my children were. Notice was given in all the camps that we would Start on Our Return To Sutter's early the next day.
Their fire had melted the snow to a considerable depth, and the were lying upon the bank above it. Thus they had less of its heat than they needed, and found some difficulty in getting the fuel she gathered, placed so that it could burn... The fire had sunk so far away, that they had felt but little of its warmth the last two nights, and casting her eyes down into the snow-pit, where it sent forth only a dull glow, she thought she saw the welcome face of beloved mother earth. It was such a reviving sight, after their long freezing separation from it! She immediately roused her eldest son, and with at great deal of difficulty, and repeated words of cheering and encouragement, brought him to understand, that she wished him to descend by one of the tree-tops which had fallen in, so as to make a sort of ladder, and see if they could reach the naked earth and if it were possible for them all to go down. She trembled with fear of the vacant silence in which he at first gazed at her, but at long length, after she had told him a great many times, he said, 'yes, mother,' and went. He reached the bottom safely, and presently spoke to her. There was naked dry earth under his feet; it was warm, and he wished her to come down. She laid her baby beside some of the sleepers and descended. Immediately she determined upon taking them all down... By persuasion, by entreaty, by encouragement, and with her own aid, she got them all into this snug shelter. At this removal another child was found dead... He had a young sister who had set out in comparatively good condition, but was not emaciated and stupefied. The warmth of the fire revived and enlivened her, and when she missed her brother and learned that he was dead, she begged Mr. B. to go up cut a piece off him, for her to eat. 'O chiled,' exclaimed the horror-striken woman, 'sure you would not eat your own brother.' 'O yes I will. Do, Mr. Breen, I am so hungry, and we ate father and uncle at the cabin!' The man dared not resist her entreaty; for he thought, If she should die when her life might be saved by it, the responsibility would be on me! He ascended to the terrible task. His wife, frozen with horror, hid her face in her hands and could not look up. She was conscious of his return, and of something going one about the fire; but she could not bring herself to uncover her eyes till all had subsided again into silence. Her husband remarked, that perhaps they were wrong in rejecting a means of sustaining life, of which others had availed themselves; but she put away the suggestion so fearfully, that it was never renewed nor acted upon by any of her family.
Messrs. Eddy, Foster, Thompson, and Miller, started at about 4 o'clock, on the following morning, for the Mountain Camp, where they arrived at about 10 o'clock, a.m. A more shocking picture of distress and misfortune, can not be imagined, than the scene they witnessed upon their arrival. Many of those who had been detained by the snows had starved to death. Their bodies had been devoured by the wretched survivors; and their bones were lying in and around the camps. ... Something was absolutely necessary to be done to sustain their miserable existence; yet all of them, except Keseburg, had refrained from this most monstrous food as long as any thing else could be had. ... This man also devoured Mr. Eddy's child, ... and was among the first to communicate the fact to him. ... Such was the horrible and emaciated appearance of this man that Mr. Eddy, as he informed me, could not shed his blood there; but he resolved to kill him upon his landing at San Francisco, if he ever came to the place. The party of Messrs. Eddy and Foster, upon their arrival at the Mountain Camp, found five living children, to wit: three of George Donner's, one of Jacob Donner's, and one of Mrs. Murphy's. They also found a man whose name is Clarke. ... Clarke had gone out with Mr. Reed, I believe, under the pretense of assisting the emigrants. He was found with a pack of goods upon his back, weighing about forty pounds, and also two guns, about to set off with his booty. This man actually carried away this property, which weighed more than did a child he left behind to perish. ... In addition to these, there were in camp, Mrs. Murphy, Mr. and Mrs. George Donner, and Keseburg - the latter, it was believed, having far more strength to travel, for the reason, as was suspected, that he wished to remain behind for the purpose of obtaining the property and money of the dead. Mrs. George Donner was in good health, was somewhat corpulent, and certainly able to travel. But her husband was in a helpless condition, and she would not consent to leave him while he survived. She expressed her solemn and unalterable purpose, which no danger and peril could change, to remain, and perform for him the last sad offices of duty and affection. She manifested, however, the greatest solicitude for her children; and informed Mr. Eddy that she had fifteen hundred dollars in silver, all of which she would give to him, if he would save the lives of her children. He informed her that he would not carry out one hundred dollars for all that she had, but that he would save the children, or perish in the effort. The party had no provisions to leave for the sustenance of these unhappy and unfortunate beings. After remaining about two hours, Mr. Eddy informed Mrs. Donner that he was constrained by the force of circumstances to depart. ... The parting scene between the parents and children is represented as being one that will never be forgotten, ... and that the last words uttered by Mrs. Donner, in tears and sobs, to Mr. Eddy, were, 'O, save! save my children!' Mr. Eddy carried Georgiana Donner, who was about six years old; Hiram Miller carried Eliza Donner, about four years old; Mr. Thompson carried Frances Ann Donner, about eight years old; William Foster carried Simon Murphy, eight years old; and Clarke carried his booty, and left a child of the Donners to perish.
A more shocking scene cannot be imagined, than that witnessed by the party of men who went to the relief of the unfortunate emigrants in the California Mountains. The bones of those who had died and been devoured by the miserable ones that still survived were lying around their tents and cabins. Bodies of men, women and children, with half the flesh torn from them, lay on every side. A woman sat by the body of her husband, who had just died, eating out his tongue; the heart she had already taken out, broiled, and eat! The daughter was seen eating the flesh of the father - the mother that of her children - children that of father and mother. The emaciated, wild, and ghastly appearance of the survivors, added to the horror of the scene. Language cannot describe the awful change that a few weeks of dire suffering had wrought in the minds of these wretched and pitiable beings. Those who but one month before would have shuddered and sickened at the thought of eating human flesh, or of killing their companions and relatives to preserve their own lives, now looked upon the opportunity by these acts afforded them of escaping the most dreadful of deaths, as a providential interference in their behalf. Calculations were coldly made, as they sat gloomily around their gloomy camp fires, for the next and succeeding meals. Various expedients were devised to prevent the dreadful crime of murder, but they finally resolved to kill those who had the least claims to longer existence. Just at this moment, however, as if by Divine interpolation, some of them died, which afforded the rest temporary relief. Some sunk into the arms of death cursing God for their miserable fate, while the last whisperings of others were prayers and songs of praise to the Almighty.
After the first few deaths, but the one all absorbing thought of individual self-preservation prevailed. The fountains of natural affection were dried up. The cords that once vibrated with connubial, parental and filial affection were rent asunder, and each one seemed resolved without regard to the fate of others to escape from the impending calamity. Even the wild hostile mountain Indians, who once visited their camps, pitied them, and instead of pursuing the natural impulse of their hostile feelings to whites, and destroying them as they could easily have done, divided their own scanty supply of food with them.
So changed had the emigrants become that when the party sent out, arrived with food, some of them cast it aside and seemed to prefer the putrid human flesh that still remained. The day before the party arrived, one of the emigrants took a child of about four years of age in bed with him, and devoured the whole before morning; and the next day eat another about the same age before noon.
It is thought that several more of these unfortunate people might have been saved, but for their determination not to leave their property. Some of them who started in, loaded themselves with their money and other effects to such an extent, that they sunk under them and died on the road. According to the best accounts, forty-three died from starvation. They were principally from the neighborhood of Independence, Missouri.
This morning Foster, Rhodes, and J. Foster started with small packs for the first cabins intending from thence to follow the trail of the person that had left the morning previous. The other three remained behind to cache and secure the goods necessarily left there. Knowing the Donners had a considerable sum of money, we searched diligently but were unsuccessful. The party for the cabins were unable to keep the trail of the mysterious personage owing to the rapid melting of the snow, they therefore went direct for the cabins, and upon entering discovered Keseberg lying down amidst the human bones and beside him a large pan full of fresh liver and lights. They asked him what had become of his companions, whether they were alive, and what had become of Mrs. Donner. He answered them by stating they were all dead; Mrs. Donner, he said, had in attempting to cross form one cabin to another, missed the trail, and slept out one night; that she came to his camp the next night very much fatigued, he made her a cup of coffee, placed her in bed and rolled her well in the blankets, but the next morning found her dead; he eat her body and found her flesh the best he had ever tasted! He further stated that he obtained from her body at least four pounds of fat! No traces of her person could be found, nor the body of Mrs. Murphy either. When the last company left the camp, three weeks previous, Mrs Donner was in perfect health though unwilling to come out and leaver her husband there, and offered $500 to any person or persons who could come out and bring them in, saying this in the presence of Kiesburg, and she had plenty of tea and coffee, we suspected that it was her who had taken the piece from the shoulder of beef in the chair before mentioned. In the cabin with Keseberg was found two kettles of human blood, in all supposed to be over one gallon Rhodes asked him where he had got the blood, he answered, "there is blood in dead bodies,"--they asked him numerous questions, but he appeared embarrassed and equivocated a great deal, and in reply to their asking him where Mrs. Donner's money was, he evinced confusion and answered, that he knew nothing about it. That she must have cached it before she died: "I haven't it" said he, "nor the money, nor the property of any person, living or dead!" They then examined his bundle and found silks and jewelry, which had been taken from the camp of the Donners, and amounting in value to about $200; on his person they discovered a brace of pistols, recognized to be those of George Donner, and while taking them from him discovered something concealed in his waistcoat, which on being opened was found to be $225 in gold.
Before leaving the settlements, the wife of Kesebrrg had told us that we would find but little money about him; the men therefore said to him that they knew he was lying to them, and he was well aware of the place of concealment of the Donner's money; he declared before heaven, he knew nothing concerning it, and that he had not the property of any one in his possession; they told him that to lie to them would effect nothing, that there were others back at the cabins, who unless informed of the spot where the treasure was hidden, would not hesitate to hang him upon the first tree. Their threats were of no avail, he still affirmed his ignorance and innocence, and Rhodes took him aside and talked to him kindly, telling him that if he would give the information desired, he should receive from their hands the best of treatment, and be in every way assisted, otherwise, the party back at Donners' camp, would, upon his arrival and refusal to discover to them the place where he had deposited this money, immediately put him to death; it was all to no purpose, however, and they prepared to return to us, leaving him in charge of his packs, and assuring him of their determination to visit him in the morning, and he must make up his mind during the night. They then started back and joined us at Donner's Camp.
I have not written to you about half of our trouble. But thank God we have got through and the only family that did not eat human flesh. We have left everything but I don't care for that. We have got through with our lives. Never take no cut offs and hurry along as fast as you can.
In considering the case of Keseberg I have given little regard to the question of cannibalism. For there can be no doubt of the fact itself; besides, he did in this matter only what others of the party did; and finally under the circumstances neither he nor the others can be held culpable. One may think him blameworthy for his boasting, his flaunting of the deed, but certainly not for the cannibalism itself. That was the result of necessity, and of a necessity recognized by even such a great authority upon the conduct of life as the Catholic Church.
Even the seemingly ghoulish actions involved in the story may be rationally explained. To open the bodies first for the
heart and liver, and to saw apart the skulls for the brain were not acts of perversion. We must remember that these people had been living for months upon the hides and lean meat of half-starved work-oxen; their diet was lacking not only in mere quantity, but also in all sorts of necessary vitamins and mineral constituents, even in common salt. Almost uncontrollable cravings must have assailed them, cravings which represented a real deficiency in diet to be supplied in some degree at least by the organs mentioned. If Keseberg said that human liver was better than lean beef, most likely a starved body more than a perverted mind was speaking.