New Light on the Donner Party
What I Saw in California
by Edwin Bryant
Chapter 20: The Donner Party
Having accomplished the journey from the United States to the civilized
districts of Upper California, it is proper that I should give some account
of those with whom I started and travelled a portion of the distance.
The great bulk of the migration of 1846 both to California and Oregon took the old routes of former emigrating parties. The company of Capt. West on Mary’s river had a difficulty and a fight with a large party of digger Indians. In this encounter a Mr. [William P.] Sallee lost his life from a wound by a poisoned arrow. Mr. [Benjamin S.] Lippincott was wounded in the knee, but he recovered. With this exception all of these, I believe, reached their destination in safety and in good season.
A party consisting of some sixty or eighty wagons bound for Oregon, among whom were the Messrs. Putnam of Lexington, Ky., took the new route to the Wilhamette valley, explored by Mr. Applegate and his party, whom we met on Mary’s river. This company became entangled in the Umpqua mountains, (not very distant from the settlements of Oregon,) and after suffering great hardships, were compelled to abandon all their wagons and baggage. With the aid of parties sent for their relief from the Wilhamette valley, nearly all of them, however, reached their destination. Mr. Newton, whom I have previously mentioned, was murdered by some Indians. They professed to be friendly and loitered about Mr. N’s camp. He suspected them of hostile intentions and ordered them away. They however managed to secure some powder and balls, and availing themselves of a moment when Mr. N., being worn out with watching, had fallen asleep outside of his tent, they shot three balls into him. He sprang into the tent to secure his rifle, but was seized by one of his assailants, who with an axe nearly severed one of his legs. He died of his wounds the next day. Mrs. N. escaped. The Indians robbed the tent of all its portable contents.
The number of wagons which took the new route from Fort Bridger via the south end of the Great Salt Lake, intersecting with the old wagon-trail on Mary’s river 250 miles above the Sink, was about eighty. The advance company of these was Mr. [George W.] Harlan’s. The pioneers, and those following their trail, succeeded by energetic exertions in opening a road through the difficult mountain passes near the Salt Lake, and reached the settlements of California in good season. The rear party, known as Messrs. Reed and Donner’s company, did not follow the trail of those who had preceded them, but explored for a portion of the distance, another route, and opened a new road through the Desert Basin. In making these explorations and from other causes, they lost a month’s time, the consequence of which was, that they did not reach the Pass of the Sierra Nevada until 31st of October, when they should have been there by the 1st of October.
The snow commenced falling on the Sierra, two or three weeks earlier in 1846 than is usual, and when this party arrived at the foot of the Pass they found it impossible to proceed from its depth. The people of the town of San Francisco, as soon as they received intelligence of the dangerous situation of these emigrants, held a public meeting, and with a liberality that reflects the highest credit upon them, subscribed fifteen hundred dollars for the organization of a party that would penetrate the mountains for their relief. This party started, and soon afterwards other parties under the direction of the naval commandant at the Port of San Francisco, were organized for the same object. Capt. J. A. Sutter, a philanthropist in its most expressive and least ostentatious sense, displayed his characteristic generosity and benevolence on this occasion. At his own expense and hazard, before other exertions were made, he furnished men and mules laden with provisions for the relief of the perishing sufferers. The result of these exertions in behalf of the unfortunate emigrants, and the melancholy and in some respects horrible details of their sufferings, will be best understood by a perusal of the following extracts from authentic papers in my possession. They compose a chapter of human misery, for which there are but few parallels in fact or fiction.
Statement of John Sinclair Esq., Alcalde. District of Sacramento.
The following brief sketch of the sufferings of the emigrants who
endeavored at different times to reach this valley from the mountains, where
they had been caught by the snow in October, is drawn up at the request of
the survivors, with whom I have held several conversations on the subject,
and from a few short notes handed me by W. H. Eddy, one of the party. Such
as they are, and hastily thrown together, I place them at your disposal.
On the first of November, Patrick Brin, Patrick Dolan, —— Keysburg, and W. H. Eddy, left their cabins, and attempting to cross the dividing ridge of the mountains; but owning to the softness and depth of the snow, they were obliged to return. On the third they tried it again, taking with them Mrs. Reed and family, Mr. Stanton, and two Indians [Luis and Salavador], who were in the employ of J. A. Sutter; but after being out one day and night, they returned to their cabins. On the twelfth, Mr. Graves, and two daughters [Sarah and Mary], Messrs. Fosdick, Foster, Eddy, Stanton, Sheumacher [Shoemaker], with two New Mexicans [Antonio and Baptiste], and the two Indians, started on another trial, but met with no better success. Not discouraged, and impelled by the increasing scarcity of provisions at the cabins, on the twentieth 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. During the interval between this last attempt and the next, there came on a storm, and the snow fell to the depth of eight feet. In the midst of the storm, two young men [Milt Elliott and Noah James] started to go to another party of emigrants , (twenty-four in number,) distant about eight miles [i.e., the Donners at Alder Creek], who it was known at the commencement of the storm had no cabins built, neither had they killed their cattle, as they still had hopes of being able to cross the mountains. As the two young men never returned, it is supposed they perished in the storm; and it is the opinion of those who have arrived here, that the party to whom they were going must have all perished. On the sixteenth of December, expecting that they would be able to reach the settlements in ten days, Messrs. Graves, Fosdick, Dolan, Foster, Eddy, Stanton, L[emuel]. Murphy (aged thirteen,) Antonio, a New Mexican; with Mrs. Fosdick, Mrs. [Sarah] Foster, Mrs. [Harriet] Pike, Mrs. [Amanda] McCutcheon, and Miss M[ary]. Graves, and the two Indians before mentioned, having prepared themselves with snow-shoes, again started on their perilous undertaking, determined to succeed or perish.
Those who have ever made an attempt to walk with snow-shoes will be able to realize the difficulty they experience. On first starting, the snow being so light and loose, even with their snow-shoes, they sank twelve inches at every step; however, they succeeded in traveling about four miles that day. On the seventeenth they crossed the divide, with considerable difficulty and fatigue making about five miles, the snow on the divide being twelve feet deep. The next day they made six miles, and, on the nineteenth, five, it having snowed all day. On the twentieth the sun rose clear and beautiful, and cheered by its sparking 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"—
"His weary wand’rings and his travels o’er."
On the twenty-second the storm still continued, and they remained in camp
until the twenty-third, when they again started, although the storm still
continued, and traveled eight miles. they encamped in a deep valley. Here
the appearance of the country was so different from what it had been
represented to them, (probably by Mr. Stanton,) that they came to the
conclusion that they were lost; and the two Indians on whom they had placed
all their confidence, were bewildered. In this melancholy situation they
consulted together, and concluded they would go on, trusting in Providence,
rather than return to their miserable cabins. They were, also, at this time,
out of provisions, and partly agreed, with the exception of Mr. Foster, that
in case of necessity, they would cast lots who should die to preserve the
remainder. during the whole of the night it rained and snowed very heavily,
and by morning the snow had increased that they could not travel; while, to
add to their sufferings, their fire had been put out by the rain, and all
their endeavors to light another proved abortive.
How heart-rending must have been their situation at this time, as they gazed upon each other, shivering and shrinking from the pitiless storm! Oh! how they must have thought of those happy, happy homes, which but a few short months before they had left with buoyant hopes and fond anticipations! Where, oh where were the green and flowery plains which they had heard of, dreamt, and anticipated beholding, in the month of January, in California? Alas! many of that little party were destined never to behold them. Already was death in the midst of them. Antonio died about nine, a.m.; and at eleven o’clock , p m., Mr. Graves. The feelings of the rest may be imagined, on seeing two of their small party removed by death in a few hours from among them, while the thought must have struck home to every bosom, that they too would shortly follow.
In this critical situation, 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 a 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 or wood or snow. After every thing 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.
On the twenty-fifth, about four o’clock, p.m. Patrick Dolan died; he had been for some hours delirious, and escaped from under their shelter, when he stripped off his coat, hat and boots, and exposed himself to the storm. Mr. Eddy tried to force him back, but his strength was unequal to the task. He, however, afterwards returned of his own accord, and laid down outside of their shelter, when they succeeded in dragging him inside. On the twenty-sixth, L. Murphy died, he likewise being delirious; and was only kept under their shelter by the united strength of the party.
In the afternoon of this day they succeeded in getting fire into a dry pine tree. Having been four entire days without food, and since the month of October on short allowance, there was not but two alternatives left them - either to die, or preserve life by eating the bodies of the dead; slowly and reluctantly they adopted the latter alternative. On the twenty-seventh they took the flesh from the bodies of the dead; and on that and the two following days they remained in camp drying the meat, and preparing to pursue their journey. On the thirtieth they left this melancholy spot, where so many of their friends and relative had perish; and with heavy hearts and dark forebodings of the future, pursued their pathless course through the new-fallen snow, and made about five miles; next day about six miles. January first was one of the most fatiguing day’s journeys which they had. they were compelled to climb a mountain, which they repressed as nearly perpendicular; to accomplish which, they were obliged to take advantage of every cleft of rock, and putt themselves up by shrubs growing in the crevices. On the second they found they could go without snow-shoes, which, however, gave them but little relief; their feet being so badly frozen by this time, that every step was marked with blood, and the toes of one of the Indians had dropped off at the first joint. They were also again out of provisions. On the third they travelled seven miles, and at night fared on the strings of their snow-shoes.
Some time during the night of the fourth, the Indians left them; no doubt fearful to remain, lest they might be sacrificed for food. Poor fellow, they stood the pangs of hunger two days longer than their white fellow-travellers before they tasted of the human flesh. On the morning of the fifth, the party took the trail of the Indians, following it by the blood which marked their steps. After having travelled about a mile, they discovered fresh footprints of deer in the snow, when Mr. Eddy, who had a rifle, started with Miss Graves, in advance, hoping to fall in with them, which they fortunately did, and succeeded in killing one, after travelling about eight miles, at the foot of a mountain. That night Mr. Foster and wife, Mrs. Pike, and Mrs. McCutcheon, encamped on the top of the mountain, not being able to get to where Eddy was with the deer. Mr. Fosdick having given out, remained with his wife about a mile back from them. On the next day they got what remained of the deer to the top of the mountain, and two of them went back to look for Fosdick; but he was at that time "where the weary are at rest," having died about eleven o’clock, p.m.; and his wife had lain by his side that lonesome night, and prayed that death might release her from suffering, but in vain.
The flesh taken from the bones of poor Fosdick, and brought into camp; but there was one there who tasted not of it. On the seventh and eighth they only made about two and a half miles, going down one mountain and over another. On the ninth, after travelling four miles, they fell in with the two Indians, who had then got out of the snow. Salvador was dead. Lewis had crawled to a small stream of water, and lain down to drink. They raised him up, and offered him some food; he tried to eat, but could not; and only lived about an hour. Being nearly out of provisions, and knowing not how far they might be from the settlements, they took their flesh likewise.
On the tenth and eleventh they made about seventeen miles, when falling in with an Indian trail, they concluded they would follow it, which they accordingly did; and on the twelfth, fell in with some of the Indians, who treated them kindly, gave them some acorns, and put them on to another trail the next day, which they took, and after travelling four miles in a heavy rain-storm, they came to more Indians, with whom they stopped the remainder of that day and the next. The two next days they made about seventeen miles. the seventeenth, 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 fatigues 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. On the morning of the eighteenth, others started with horses, and brought them to the settlement, where they were treated with every mark of kindness by the inhabitants.
I remain, very respectfully,
Your obd’t servant,
EXTRACT OF A LETTER FROM MR. GEO. M’KINSTRY
Captain E. Kern informed you of the men sent up from this place to the assistance of the sufferers, when we were first informed of their situation. I will again give you a list of their names, as I think they ought to be recorded in letters of gold. Aquila Glover, R.S. Montrey, Daniel Rhodes, John Rhodes, Daniel [Reason P.] Tucker, Joseph Sel, and Edward Copymier. Mr. Glover, who was put in charge of this little, brave band of men, returned to me his journal, from which I extract as follows: — "On the 13 of February, 1847, our party arrived at Bear River Valley. 14th, remained in camp, preparing packs and provision. 15th, left Bear river Valley, and travelled fifteen miles, and encamped on Yuba river. 16th, travelled three miles, and stopped to make snow-shoes. 17th, travelled five miles, and camped on Yuba river — snow fifteen feet deep, dry and soft. 18th, travelled eight miles, and encamped on the head of Yuba river. 19th, travelled nine miles, crossed the summit of the California mountains, and reached part of the suffering company about sundown, in camp near Truckee Lake." Mr. Glover informs me that he found them in a most deplorable condition, entirely beyond description. Ten of their number had already died from starvation; and he thinks several others will die in camp, as they are too low to resuscitate. The whole party had been living on bullock-hides four weeks. On the morning of the 20th, the party went down to the camp of Geo. Donner, eight miles below the first camp, and found them with but one hide left. They had come to the conclusion, that when that was consumed, to dig up the bodies of those who had died from starvation, and use them as food. When the party arrived at the camp, they were obliged to guard the little stock of provision that they had carried over the mountains on their backs on foot, for the relief of the poor beings, as they were in such a starving condition that they would have immediately used up the small store. They even stole the buckskin strings from their snow-shoes, and ate them. This little, brave band of men immediately left with twenty-one persons, principally women and children, for the settlements. They left all the food they could spare with those (twenty-nine in number) that they were obliged to leave behind, and promised them that they would immediately return to their assistance. They were successful in bringing all safe over the mountains. Four of the children they were obliged to carry on their backs, the balance walked. On their arrival at the Bear River Valley they met a small party with provisions, that Captain Kern, of this fort, had sent for their relief. The same day they met Mr. [James F.] Reed with fifteen men, on foot, packed with provisions, who ere this have reached the sufferers. Lieutenant [Selim E.] Woodworth was going ahead with a full force, and will himself visit them in their mountain camp, and see that every person is brought out. Mr. [Caleb] Greenwood was three days behind Mr. Reed, with the horses. Captain Kern will remain in camp, with the Indian soldiers, to guard the provisions and horses, and will send the sufferers down to this post as soon as possible, where they will be received by Captain J. A. Sutter with all the hospitality for which he is so celebrated. And in the mean time Captain Sutter will keep up a communication with Captain Kern’s camp, so as to be in readiness to assist him on all occasions. Mr. Glover informed me that the wagons belonging to the emigrants are buried some fifteen feet under the snow. He thinks that it will be some three weeks from this date before Lieutenant Woodworth can arrive at this fort. Mr. Glover left the party at Bear River Valley on express, as I had written to him, by the second party, of the death of one member of his family, and the severe illness of his wife. The balance of the party will reach here in some four or five days. The weather is very fine, and we have no doubt but that Lieutenant Woodworth will be able to bring all left on the mountains.
Copy of a Journal kept by a suffering Emigrant on the California mountains, from Oct. 31st, 1846, to March 1st, 1847. [Note: This version of the diary is highly inaccurate; click here for an accurate transcription.]
Truckee Lake, Nov. 20, 1846. —Came to this place on the 31st of last month; went into the Pass, the snow so deep we were unable to find the road, and when within three miles from the summit, turned back to this shanty on Truckee Lake. Stanton came up one day after we arrived here; we again took our teams and wagons and made another unsuccessful attempt to cross in company with Stanton; we returned to the shanty, it continuing to snow all the time. We now have killed most port of our cattle, having to remain here until next spring, and to live on lean beef without bread or salt. It snowed during the space of eight days with little intermission, after our arrival here, though now clear and pleasant, freezing at night, the snow nearly gone from the valley. —21. fine morning, wind n.w.; twenty-two of our company about starting to cross the mountains this day, including Stanton and his Indians. —22. Froze hard last night; fine and clear to-day; no account from those on the mountains. —23. Same weather, wind w.; the expedition across the mountains returned after an unsuccessful attempt. —25. Cloudy, looks like the eve of a snowstorm; our mountaineers are to make another trial tomorrow, if fair; —froze hard last night. —26. Began to snow last evening, now rains or sleets; the party does not start to-day. —29. Still snowing, now about three feet deep; wind w.; killed my last oxen to-day; gave another yoke to Foster; wood hard to be got. —30. Snowing fast, looks as likely to continue as when it commenced; no living thing without wings can get about.
Dec. 1. —Still snowing, wind w.; snow about six or six and a half feet deep; very difficult to get wood, and we are completely housed up; our cattle all killed but two or three, and these, with the horses and Stanton’s mules, all supposed to be lost in the snow; no hopes of finding them alive. —e. Ceased snow; cloudy all day; warm enough to thaw. —5. Beautiful sunshine, thawing a little; looks delightful after the long storm; snow seven or eight feet deep. —6. The morning fine and clear; Stanton and Graves manufacturing snow-shoes for another mountain scrabble; no account of mules. —8. fine weather, froze hard last night; wind s.w.; hard work to find wood sufficient to keep us warm or cook our beef. —9. Commenced snowing about 11 o’clock, wind n.w.; took in Spitzer yesterday so weak, that he cannot rise without help, caused by starvation. some have a scant supply of beef; Stanton trying to get some for himself and Indians; not likely to get much. —10. Snowed fast all night with heavy squalls of wind; continues to snow, now about seven feet in dept. —13. Snows faster than any previous day; Stanton and Graves, with several others, making preparations to cross the mountains on snow-shoes. Snow eight feet deep on a level. —16. Fair and pleasant, froze hard last night; the company started on snow-shoes to cross the mountains, wind s.e. —17. Pleasant, Wm. Murphy returned from the mountain party last evening; Balis Williams died night before last; Milton and Noah started for Donner’s eight days ago; not returned yet; think they are lost in the snow. —19. Snowed last night, thawing to-day, wind n.w.; a little singular for a thaw. —20. Clear and pleasant; Mrs. Reed here; no account from Milton yet; Charles Berger set out for Donner’s; turned back, unable to proceed; tough times, but not discouraged; our hopes are in God, Amen. —21. Milton got back last night from Donner’s camp; sad news, Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Rhinehart, and Smith, are dead the rest of them in a low situation; snowed all night with a strong s.w. wind. —23. Clear to-day; Milton took some of his meat away; all well at their camp. Began this day to read the "Thirty days’ prayers." Almighty God grant the requests of unworthy sinners! —24. Rained all night and still continues; poor prospect for any kind of comfort, spiritual or temporal. —25. Began to snow yesterday, snowed all night, and snows yet rapidly; extremely difficult to find wood; offered our prayers to God this Christmas morning; the prospect is appalling, but we trust in Him. —27. Cleared off yesterday, continues clear, snow nine feet deep; wood growing scarce, a tree when felled sinks into the snow and hard to be got at. —30. Fine clear morning, froze hard last night; Charles Berger died last evening about 10 o’clock. —31. 1st of the year; may we, with the help of God, spend the coming year better than we have the past, which we propose to do if it is the will of the Almighty to deliver us from our present dreadful situation, Amen. Morning fair but cloudy, wind e. by s.; looks like another snow-storm — snow-storms are dreadful to us; the snow at present very deep.
Jan. 1, 1847. —We pray the God of mercy to deliver us from our present calamity, if it be His holy will. Commenced snowing last night and snows a little yet; provisions getting very scant; dug up a hide from under the snow yesterday — have not commenced on it yet. —3. Fair during the day, freezing at night; Mrs. Reed talks of crossing the mountains with her children. —4. fine morning, looks like spring; Mrs. Reed and Virginia, Milton Elliot, and Eliza Williams, started a short time ago with the hope of crossing the mountain; left the children here — it was difficult for Mrs. Reed to part with them. —6. Eliza came back from the mountains yesterday evening, not able to proceed, the others kept ahead. —8. Very cold this morning; Mrs. Reed and the others came back; could not find the way on the other side of the mountains; they have nothing but hides to live on. —10. Began to snow last night, still continues; wind w.n.w. —13. Snowing fast snow higher than the shanty; it must be 13 feet deep; cannot get wood this morning; it is a dreadful sight for us to look upon. —14. Cleared off yesterday; the sun shining brilliantly renovates our spirits, praises be to the God of heaven. —15. Clear day again, wind n.w.; Mrs. Murphy blind; Lantron not able to get wood, has but one axe between him and Keysburg; it looks like another storm — expecting some account from Sutter’s soon. —17. Eliza Williams came here this morning; Lantron crazy last night; provisions scarce, hides our main subsistence. May the Almighty send us help. —21. find morning; John Battise and Mr. Denton came this morning with Eliza; she will not eat hides. Mrs. ____sent her back to live or die on them. —22. Began to snow after sunrise; likely to continue; wind w. —23. Blew hard and snowed all night, the most severe storm we have experienced this winter; wind w. -26.Cleared up yesterday; to-day fine and pleasant, wind s.; in hopes we are done with snow-storms; those who went to Sutter’s not yet returned; provisions getting scant; people growing weak living on small allowance of hides. —27. Commenced snowing yesterday; still continues to-day; Lewis (Sutter’s Indian) [actually Louis Keseberg, Jr.] died three days ago; wood getting scarce; don’t have fire enough to cook our hides. —30. Fair and pleasant, wind w., thawing in the sun; John and Edward Breen went to Graves’ this morning; the _______seized on Mrs. ________goods, until they should be paid; they also took the hides which she and her family subsisted upon. She regained two pieces only, the balance they have taken. You may judge from this what our fare is in camp; there is nothing to be had by hunting, yet perhaps there soon will be. —31. The sun does not shine out brilliant this morning; froze hard last night, wind n.w. Lantron Murphy died last night about 1 o’clock. Mrs. Reed went to Graves’ this morning to look after goods.
February 5. — Snowed hard until two o’clock last night; many uneasy for fear we shall all perish with hunger; we have but a little meat left and only three hides; Mrs. Reed has nothing but one hide and that is on Graves’ house; Milton lives there and likely will keep that — Eddy’s child died last night. —6. It snowed faster last night and to-day than it has done this winter before, still continues without intermission, wind s.w.; Murphy’s folks and Keysburg say they cannot eat hides; I wish we had enough of them. Mrs. Eddy is very weak. —7. Ceased to snow at last, to-day it is quite pleasant. McCutcheon’s child died on the second of this month. —8. Fine clear morning, Spitzer died last night, we shall bury him in the snow. Mrs. Milton is at Murphy’s not able to get out of bed; Keysburg never gets up, says he is not able. Mrs. Eddy and child were buried to-day, wind s.e. —10. Beautiful morning, thawing in the sun. Milton Elliot died last night at Murphy’s shanty. Mrs. Reed went there this morning to see after his effects. J. Denton trying to borrow meat from Graves; had none to give; they had nothing but hides. All re entirely out of meat but a little we have. Our hides are nearly all eat up, but with god’s help spring will soon smile upon us. —12. Warm, thawing morning. —14. Fine morning, but cold; buried Milton in the snow. John Denton not well. —15. Morning cloudy until nine o’clock, then cleared off warm. Mrs. _____refused to give Mrs. _______any hides; put sutter’s pack-hides on her shanty and would not let her have them. —16.Commenced to rain last evening and turned to snow during the night and continued until morning; weather changeable, sunshine then light showers of hail and wind at time. We all feel very unwell; the snow is not getting much less at present. —19. Froze hard last night, seven men arrived from California yesterday evening with provisions, but left the greater part on the way; to-day it is clear and warm for this region. Some of the men have gone to Donner’s camp; they will start back on Monday. —22. The Californians started this morning, twenty-four in number, some in a very weak state. Mrs. Keysburg started with them and left Keysburg here unable to go; buried Pike’s child this morning in the snow, it died two days ago. —23. Froze hard last night, to-day pleasant and thaw; has the appearance of spring, all but the deep snow; wind s.s.e.; shot a dog to-day and dressed his flesh. —25. To-day Mrs. Murphy says the wolves are about to dig up the dead bodies around her shanty, and the nights are too cold to watch them, but we hear them howl. —26. Hungry times in camp; plenty of hides, but the folks will not eat them; we eat them with tolerable good appetite, thanks be to the Almighty God. Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that she thought she would commence on Milton and eat him; I do not think she has done so yet — it is distressing; the Donner’s told the California folks four days ago that they would commence on the dead people if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle, then ten or twelve feet under the snow, and did not know the spot or near it; they have done it ere this. —28. One solitary Indian passed by yesterday, came from the Lake, had a heavy pack on his back, gave me five or six roots resembling onions in shape, tasted some like a sweet potato full of tough little fibers.
March 1. Ten men arrived this morning from Bear Valley with provision; we are to start in two or three days and shall cache our good here. They say the snow will remain until June.
The above mentioned ten men started for the valley with seventeen of the sufferers; they travelled fifteen miles and a severe snow-storm came on; they left fourteen of the emigrants, the writer of the above journal and his family, and succeeded in getting in but three children. Lieut. Woodworth immediately went to their assistance, but before he reached them they had eaten three of their number, who had died from hunger and fatigue; the remainder Lieut. Woodworth’s party brought in. On the 29th of April, 1847, the last member of that party was brought to Capt. Sutter’s Fort; it is utterly impossible to give any description of the sufferings of the company. Your readers can form some idea of them by perusing the above diary.
George McKinstry, Jr.
Fort Sacramento, April 1847
Names of the late Emigration from the United States, who were prevented by the snow from crossing the California mountains, October 31st, 1846.
ARRIVED IN CALIFORNIA
William Graves, Sarah Fosdick, Mary Graves, Ellen Graves, Viney Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan Graves, Elizabeth Graves, Loithy [Elitha] Donner, Lean[na] Donner, Francis Donner, Georgiana Donner, Eliza Donner, John Battiste, Solomon Hook, George Donner, Jr., Mary Donner, Mrs. Woolfinger, Lewis Keysburg, Mrs. Keysburg, William Foster, Sarah Foster, Simon Murphy, Mary Murphy, Harriet Pike, Miomin [Naomi] Pike, Wm. Eddy, Patric Breen, Margaret Breen, John Breen, Edward Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., Simon Breen, James Breen, Peter Breen, Isabella Breen, Eliza Williams, James F. Reed, Mrs. Reed, Virginia Reed, Martha Reed, James Reed, Thomas Reed, Noah James.
PERISHED IN THE MOUNTAINS.
C. T Stanton, Mr. Graves, Mrs. Graves, Mr. J Fosdick, Franklin Graves, John Denton, Geo. Donner, Sr., Mrs. Donner, Charles Berger, Joseph Rhinehart, Jacob Donner, Betsey Donner, Wm. Johnson [Hook], Isaac Donner, Lewis Donner, Samuel Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, James Smith, Balis Williams, Bertha [Ada] Keysburg, (child,) Lewis Keysburg, Mrs. Murphy, Lemuel Murphy, George Foster, Catharine Pike, Ellen Eddy, Margaret Eddy, James Eddy, Patrick Dolan, Augustus Spitzer, Milton Elliot, Lantron Murphy, Mr. Pike, Antonio (New Mexican,) Lewis, (Sutter’s Indian,) Salvadore, do.
At the time the occurrences above related took place, I was marching with
the California battalion, under the command of Col. Fremont, to Ciudad de los Angelos, to assist in suppressing a rebellion which had its origin in
that quarter. After my return from that expedition, I saw and conversed with
several of the survivors in the above list. The oral statements made to me
by them in regard to their sufferings, far exceed in horror the descriptions
given in the extracts. Mr. Fallon, who conducted the last relief party over
the mountains, made a statement in regard to what he saw upon his arrival at
the "cabins," so revolting that I hesitate before alluding to it. The
parties which had preceded him had brought into the settlements all the
living sufferers except three. These were Mr. and
Mrs. George Donner, and
_______Keysburg. At the time the others left, Mr. George Donner was unable
to travel from debility, and Mrs. D. refused to leave him. Why Keysburg
remained, there is no satisfactory explanation. Mrs. Donner offered a reward
of five hundred dollars to any party that would return and rescue them. I
knew the Donners well. Their means in money and merchandise, which they had
brought with them was abundant. Mr. Donner was a man of about sixty, and was
at the time of his leaving the United States a highly respectable citizen of
Illinois — a farmer of independent circumstances. Mrs. D. was considerably
younger than her husband, and an active, energetic woman of refined
Mr. Fallon and his party reached the "cabins" some time in April. The snow in the valley, on the eastern side of the Pass had melted so as in spots to expose the ground. He found the main cabin empty, but evidences that it had not been long deserted. He and his party commenced a search, and soon discovered fresh tracks in the snow leading from it. These they followed some miles, and by pursuing them they returned again to the cabin. Here they now found Keysburg. He was reclining upon the floor of the cabin, smoking his pipe. Near his head a fire was blazing, upon which was a camp kettle filled with human flesh. His feet were resting upon skulls and dislocated limbs denuded of their flesh. A bucket partly filled with blood was standing near, and pieces of human flesh, fresh and bloody, were strewn around. The appearance of Keysburg was haggard and revolting. His beard was of great length; his finger-nails had gown out until they resembled the claws of beasts. He was ragged and filthy, and the expression of his countenance ferocious. He stated that the Donners were both dead. That Mrs. Donner was the last to die, and had expired some two days previously. That she had left her husband’s camp, some eight miles distant, and came to this cabin. She attempted to return in the evening to the camp, but becoming bewildered she came back to the cabin, and died in the course of the night. He was accused of having murdered her, for her flesh and the money the Donners were known to possess, but denied it. When questioned in regard to the money of the Donners, he denied all knowledge respecting it. He was informed that if he did not disclose where he had secreted the money, he would immediately be hung to a tree. Still persisting in his denial, a rope, after much resistance from him, was placed around his neck, and Mr. Fallon commenced drawing him up to the limb of a tree, when he stated that if they would desist from this summary execution, he would disclose all he knew about the money. Being released, he produced $517 in gold. He was then notified that he must accompany the party to the settlements. To this he was disinclined, and he did not consent until the order was so peremptory that he was compelled to obey it. The body of George Donner was found dead in his tent. He had been carefully laid out by his wife, and a sheet was wrapped around the corpse. This sad office was probably the last act she performed before visiting the cabin of Keysburg. This is briefly a statement of particulars as detailed to me by Mr. Fallon, who accompanied Gen. Kearny on his return to the United States in the capacity of guide.
When the return party of Gen. Kearny (which I accompanied) reached the scene of these horrible and tragical occurrences, on the 22d of June, 1847, a halt was ordered, for the purpose of collecting and interring the remains. Near the principal cabins, I saw two bodies, entire with the exception that the abdomens had been cut open and the entrails extracted. Their flesh had been either wasted by famine or evaporated by exposure to the dry atmosphere, and the presented the appearance of mummies. Strewn around the cabins were dislocated and broken bones — skulls (in some instances sawed asunder with care for the purpose of extracting the brains,) — human skeletons, in short, in every variety of mutilation. A more revolting and appalling spectacle I never witnessed. The remains were, by an order of Gen. Kearny, collected and buried under the superintendence of Major Swords. They were interred in a pit which had been dug in the center of one of the cabins for a cache. These melancholy duties to the dead being performed, the cabins, by order of Major Swords, were fired, and with every thing surrounding them connected with this horrid and melancholy tragedy, were consumed. The body of George Donner was found at his camp, about eight or ten miles distant, wrapped in a sheet. He was buried by a party of men detailed for that purpose.
I subjoin the following description of the sufferings of these unfortunate emigrants, and the horrid and revolting extremities to which some of them were reduced to sustain life, from the "California Star" of April 10th, 1847:—
"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 side of the body of her husband,
who had just died, cutting out his tongue; the heart she had already taken
out, broiled, and ate! 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 these
acts afforded them of escaping the most dreadful deaths, as a providential
interference in their behalf. Calculations were coldly made, as they sat
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 interposition, 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 the whites, and destroying them, as they could easily have done, dividing 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 ate another about the same age before noon." [Next]
What I Saw in California:
Part 1: Independence, Missouri, to the Green River
Part 2: Hastings Cutoff to California
Part 3: The Donner Party
Part 4: In Northern California
Part 5: To Southern California and Back
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