No. 10

Donner Party Bulletin


I am extremely grateful to Nancy Piper of Toluca, Illinois, who sent me the following article. Nancy maintains a Marshall County history website at

Mr. Graves and Family

The late article, from the pen of L.P. Bates of Sparland, concerning the Graves family, has called out from an old resident of Lacon, through the Home Journal, a more pointed and extended sketch of these early settlers. It is an accurate picture of Marshall county in the early days, well worth reading:

In a late number of the "Home Journal" I found a sketch of the first settler of Sparland, Mr. Graves. It was good what there was of it, but I felt disappointed that the writer did not tell more. Mr. Graves and his family must have been living on their farm (now Sparland) about four years when the writer of this article first met with them. In the year 1836, when "Columbia" (afterwards Lacon) was but a small beginning of a town, we often watched anxiously for the arrival of Mr. Graves with his bucket of fresh honey, as he crossed the river, for if we did not catch him as he came up the bank, the honey was sure to find its way to "Joe Johnson’s store" and then we must pay a premium on it.

Mr. Graves had a canoe of his own, made by his own hands, and in this they crossed the river many times each day, bringing over whatever they might have to sell. Mr. G. usually came in the morning, with game, furs, etc., and his wife in the afternoon with butter, eggs, soft soap, etc., the latter in the pail in which the honey had been carried in the morning. They came singly as the frail bark was not plated to carry double like the good old family horse of olden time. So Mr. G. or his wife always paddled their own canoe, and kept separate purses.

I can see the man now as he appeared to me then, shoeless, hatless, with his thick bushy hair matted together, his long lank form, his big feet, and his pleasant smile. He never would wear a hat, but would walk up the street in the hottest or coldest day with only his hair to protect his head. I think he did put on shoes in winter, but could not endure them at any other time.

His wife was also tall and thin, her good honest sun-burnt

face always wearing a smile. Her dress was usually a blue calico frock with one garment perhaps beneath it; her shoes were of cowskin unbound and tied with leather strings, no stockings in summer, blue hose in winter, and an old calico sun bonnet. Not a woman in Columbia but was glad to see Mrs. Graves enter her door. She usually had a baby in one arm, her workbag on the other, and always cheerful.

Many old settlers will remember the cold winter of 1839 and ’40. One afternoon of that winter, Mrs. G. came to my house with some butter, and finding me with a young infant, she remained some hours to assist in some household matters, giving me some very good advice, and offering to bring over some herbs in the morning. The day was extremely cold, but the river was still open and I was afraid Mrs. Graves would not be able to cross in her little boat. Her dress was the same as in summer, except the blue stockings and a bright cotton handkerchief pinned about her neck.

I begged her to remain all night as she had her baby with her, but no, she said, the young ones at home might set themselves afire. Then I insisted on lending her a shawl, but she only laughed, said she could keep warm enough, so rolling up her baby in a square of plaid linsey, she left th[en], and I watched her as she seated herself in the boat, laid the child at her feet, seized the oars and was soon lost in my sight in the coming darkness.

That was a terrible night. The freezing wind howled through every cabin in Columbia as I had never heard it here before. Morning came, and we could not see through the frost covered glass upon windows and still the wind blew fiercely. What was our surprise then about ten o’clock to see Mrs. Graves come in; dressed just the same only that the baby’s scant blanket was pinned over the old sun-bonnet, for the child had been left at home; and the mother to fulfill her promise, had crossed the river on the ice to bring me a handful of herbs.

Yet the river she had crossed in a boat, a few hours before, was now frozen hard enough to be used as a bridge, but it surely could not have been very safe. I know I could only wonder at her bravery, and could not understand why she was not frozen, for it was actually freezing in my own rooms, by the fireside. I, as many other newcomers, suffered terribly that winter and spring with chilblains and one day when Mr. Graves came in he told me his cure for frost bitten feet, I will give it in his own words.

Donner Party Bulletin No. 10
"We’ve got an old iron dutch oven at our house, and I fills that with cold spring water, set it on some hot embers, bring up a chair, take a seat in front of the fire, and stick both my feet in the oven. Here I just let ’em simmer and simmer, putting more coals under the oven till the water nearly boils, or till I can’t stand it no longer, than I take ’em out and pour a pail of cold water over ’em, and then hop into bed. That generally cures up my feet."

I had often heard of stewing pigs feet, but not even then while their owners were living. I never tried Mr. G.’s cure, but others can do so if inclined.

One day, the following summer, while riding we were overtaken by a storm very near Mr. G.’s cabin, and we gladly took shelter therein. We were delayed some hours, and I had time to examine their home, which, like the settlers cabin of old,

"One side was hung with wearing garments,

And ’tother with the skins of varments."

A large fire place took up one end of the room; at the opposite end two beds occupied the corners; under each of these was a trundle bed; between these beds was a window looking out on the public road, and under this window was a large chest, and curled up on this chest, were two half grown girls with their bare feet under them, busy stringing glass beads.

Mr. G. and two boys came in during the storm, and two or three little ones were clinging to the scant skirts of their mother. She, on "hospitable thoughts intent" went about making preparations for cooking us a supper. The boys were sent to catch chickens, Mr. G. made up a roaring fire, but as the day was cold Mrs. G. kept anxiously watching a loaf of "salt rising" dough, hoping it might "come up" in time to bake for supper This loaf was in a large dutch oven , and I could not help thinking of the parboil of the human feet it had contained, and I was not sorry that the stubborn salt rising delayed the supper until the storm cleared away and we could start for home. So much for associations of ideas.

A few years later we heard that Mr. Graves had sold his farm and was preparing to start for California with his family. His eldest daughter was at that time engaged to be married to a young man in the neighborhood, and she was not to accompany her family. But when the time drew near she felt

she could not let her dear mother depart without her on that perilous journey, and all the little ones she had so long helped to care for.

So on the very last day she made up her mind to go, unmarried if it must be, married if her intended would consent to accompany them. Of course her faithful lover would not consent to part with her, and much against the wishes of his family they were married the very evening before that fatal journey began.

Months passed ere we had news of Graves family, for no railroads then were laid in the great west, no telegraph wires connected one state with the others, and the mails traveled slowly. ’Tis said "Ill news flies fast," and that the news we received was ill enough.

Nearly the whole family had perished in the snow. Mrs. Graves died with her baby in her arms in a hut where her husband had left he while he tried to struggle on. I do not now remember all the particulars of that sad tragedy, but I think the eldest daughter, Sarah did get through alive, but her young husband perished on the plains. I know Mr. and Mrs. Graves and the younger children all died after untold hardships, for they were not delicate hot-house plants, but inured to hardships and privations, it must indeed have been very severe suffering e’er they succumbed.

I know it was the whole talk of the neighborhood for miles around for many weeks. I would often lie in bed at night and think of that kind mother trying to shelter her little ones from the perishing cold, and feeding them with the last mouthful of their scanty food.

I do not even know if any of the family are now living, but many of their old neighbors could give more than I can, and I hope yet to read in your papers a full history of the Graves family, that our readers may be convinced that "truth is stranger than fiction." An Old Columbian

Marshall County Republican (Henry, Ill.)
December 5, 1867.

Donner Party Bulletin is edited by
Kristin Johnson
Salt Lake City, UT
Kristin Johnson


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