Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part X

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III

Read Part IV

Read Part V

Read Part VI

Read Part VII

Read Part VIII

Read Part IX


On March 4th, 1847, James Reed and his party of refugees - the second such group to escape from the winter encampment - reached the opposite side of the mountain pass and camped in an area that had been cleared and used by the first refugee party on their way out several days earlier.

A modern photograph of the Starved Camp location

Rations were, as always, very low, and Reed sent out three men to bring provisions back from caches he had left further down along the trail. He planned to stay in that spot for a few days until the men returned with the goods.

In his diary of this relief mission, he recorded that the people “began to fail” around this time, because even with more provisions than had been available at Truckee Lake, the refugees were still rationed to only about “one and a half pints of gruel” each day. And this was on the heels of months of starvation and four days of difficult travel over cold, snowy, wooded mountains.

In that same diary entry of March 4th, Reed noted that a storm appeared to be brewing on the horizon, and night was falling fast. He stated: “Terror, terror, I feel a terrible foreboding but dare not communicate my mind to [anyone else]. Death to all if our provisions do not come in a day or two and [a] storm should fall on us.”

Lest anyone assume this marked a moment of precognition on the part of James Reed, it is likely that he updated this diary entry later for dramatic effect, since he makes several references in it which he could not possibly have known until later (such as mentioning that the place they were camped is “now” called the “Starved Camp”).

In any case, a late winter blizzard was indeed brewing on the horizon. In an article Reed wrote a number of years later, he stated that the snow at this camp was about twenty feet deep (they would have been encamped on the firm upper crust) and that “a heavy snow storm burst upon us” that night.

A snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada

The refugees built a wall of snow as a break against the wind so that their fire would burn, then huddled around it in the lee of the wall to ride out the storm. By the following day, the storm was still raging and according to James Reed’s account, the provisions had run out. Reed makes note of the dire situation: “Hunger, hunger, [was] the cry [of] the children, and nothing to give them. Freezing was the cry of the mothers with reference to their little, starving, freezing children.”

Reed also describes the difficulty in keeping the fire lit, as it kept sinking deeper and deeper into the snowpack beneath them.

William McCutchen, one of the rescuers with Reed who had originally left the Donner Party in October on the first mission for provisions, would later recall:

The rest of the [party] were disheartened, and would not use any exertion; in fact, they gave up all hope, and in despair, some of them commenced praying. I [got after] them, telling them it was not time to pray but to get up, stir themselves and get wood, for it was a matter of life and death to us in a few minutes.

William McCutchen

Reed’s diary from the following day, March 6th, mirrors that of McCutchen:

Thank God, day has once more appeared, although darkened by the storm. Snowing as fast as ever and the hurricane has never ceased for [even] ten minutes…One of the most dismal nights I ever witnessed and I hope I never shall witness such [again]…All the praying and crying…nothing ever equaled it. Several times I expected to see the people perish by the extreme cold. At one time our fire was nearly gone, and had it not been for Mr. McCutchen’s exertions, it would have entirely disappeared. Had the fire been lost, two-thirds of the camp would have been out of their misery before morning. But as God would have it, we soon got it blazing in comfortable order and the sufferings of the people became less.

In this same entry, Reed notes that the refugees told him this storm was more violent than any they had suffered in camp on the other side of the pass. Out in the open, exposed to the elements, it is not hard to imagine why they might have said this.

Reed had expected his men to return the previous day with provisions from the cache. But as it turned out, they had come to the first cache and found it looted by animals, then went on to the second cache and found that it, too, had been partially looted by animals. In trying to get back from this second cache farther along the trail, they had been stopped by the same storm that hit Reed and the refugees.

The storm finally blew itself out during the day on March 6th, but two of the refugees were dead – Mrs. Graves and one of the Donner children, five-year-old Isaac. With the death of Elizabeth Graves, the four young children she had with her were left orphans. Their father, Franklin, had died with the Forlorn Hope.

Once the storm had cleared, Reed and McCutchen made plans to immediately head out, but they found to their disappointment that most of the refugees were not up to the task. Reed wrote later about how the entire Breen family refused to go forward, with Patrick Breen saying he would rather die in camp than on the trail. Seven-year-old Mary Donner had frostbitten feet and could not walk, and with no parents to help them along the trail, the four young Graves children were forced to remain behind with the others.

Mary Donner

Reed and his rescue party ended up leaving with only Reed’s two children, Patty and Tommy, and the teenage Solomon Donner, George Donner’s second stepson. They hoped to reach their cached provisions (they did not yet know that animals had looted them) and return to the remaining people at the Starved Camp. They left behind two adults and ten children, and since Mr. Breen was too sick to be of much help, his wife Margaret was left with the responsibility of caring for ten starving children in the freezing, mountainous wilderness.

Both Reed and McCutchen would later write that they urged the Breens not to stay behind, and James Reed eventually made Patrick Breen swear an oath before McCutchen that if any of the Breens died, their deaths would be upon Patrick Breen, and not any of the rescuers. Both Reed and McCutchen, in their later writings, failed to mention the fact that Mary Donner and the four Graves children would have been left alone had the Breen family not stayed behind – and none of those children was over the age of eight.

Over the next few days, Margaret Breen tended to her husband and the starving children. She gathered wood to keep the fire going, and broke off bits of sugar cubes to revive those who fell listless. A later writer, Eliza Farnham, whose account was based on interviews with the Breens, wrote that “they sat or laid in a kind of stupor, from which [Mrs. Breen] often found it alarmingly difficult to rouse them.”

At one point she feared that her five-year-old son James was dying. She told her husband that he wasn’t breathing, and was shocked when Patrick Breen – near death himself – said that death would make James “better off than any of us.” Mrs. Breen refused to accept this, and managed to revive her son by feeding him sugar and vigorously rubbing his hands and chest. The sugar, together with the stimulation to the lungs from the chest rubbing, no doubt saved the child’s life.

Farther down the trail, Reed and McCutchen had met up with a party sent out to supply the returning rescue teams. At the same time, a third relief party arrived led by William Eddy and William Foster, the only two men who had survived the Forlorn Hope expedition. They were traveling alone, expecting to meet the other relief parties and entice several people to go back with them. Reed, McCutchen, and their companions, however, were too weak to make another trip across the pass, and none of the men from the supply team was willing to go – even though they knew a party of starving children was camped just a few dozen miles back.

With no one to go with them, Eddy and Foster intended to go on alone, but Reed talked them in to returning to his base camp at the Bear Valley, where he promised to find other men to travel with them. Once they had reached this camp the next day, Eddy and Foster managed to entice five other men to travel, and they set out toward the mountain passes.

Back at the Starved Camp, young Franklin Graves Jr. died from starvation. The eleven remaining people were now camped together with three corpses lying among them in the snow – Mrs. Graves and her son Franklin, and Isaac Donner. Their fire had sunk so low into the snow bank that it was sitting on bare earth – a sight that the refugees found compelling and comforting. Through great effort of cutting steps in the snow, they managed to get all the survivors down to level ground, next to the fire, huddled, as it were, in a large pit in the snow. The rescuers who eventually found them stated that the pit was about twelve feet wide and twenty-four feet deep.

Revived by the fire, seven-year-old Mary Donner is said to have been the first to suggest cannibalizing the dead – yet a third example of Donner Party members reaching the point of cannibalization independently. They had been about five days with no food whatsoever, and had only a small ration of food for a few days prior to that. And prior to the start of March, of course, they had been several months with little or no provisions other than boiled animal hides and bones.

Mary Donner may have already experienced cannibalism prior to this time. It seems apparent that the folks at the Donner family encampment at Alder Creek had resorted to cannibalism a few days before the arrival of James Reed. Eliza Farnham’s 1856 account of the Donner Party – based largely on interviews with the Breens – suggests that Mary Donner, at this time, admitted that the Donners had eaten “father and uncle” back at Alder Creek, and thus she suggested cannibalizing the dead at Starved Camp. This, however, is not historically reliable because her uncle, George Donner, was not yet dead when Mary Donner left camp with James Reed and the second relief party. Furthermore, Farnham’s account suggests that Mary Donner specifically “begged” Patrick Breen to “cut a piece off” of her dead brother, Isaac, for her to eat. This has the ring of sensationalism. Finally, Farnham claims that none of the Breen family partook of any cannibalism, even at the Starved Camp, and this is simply not consistent with numerous other accounts.

In any event, cannibalism seems to have begun at the Starved Camp within a few days of the departure of Reed and McCutchen. By March 12th, when Eddy and Foster arrived, they found the bodies of Mrs. Graves, Franklin Graves Jr., and Isaac Donner cannibalized. Certainly these bodies weren’t cannibalized solely by four children under the age of eight (which would be the assumption if one believes Farnham’s account that none of the Breen family engaged in cannibalism). Furthermore, is it reasonable to assume that Mr. and Mrs. Breen cut and cooked flesh for these four children, but didn’t eat any of it themselves or offer it to their own starving children?

A photo collage of the Breen family. The youngest son, William (pictured at the top), was the only child not yet born when the Donner Party tragedy occurred. All nine Breen family members survived the ordeal.

John Stark, one of the men with Eddy and Foster, agreed to lead the refugees at the Starved Camp back to civilization, while Eddy and the others continued on to the main encampments at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek.

Stark was considered a hero by these people at the Starved Camp, as he carried all their provisions – food and blankets – on his back, and also carried several of the weaker children for much of the journey. According to later accounts, only Mrs. Breen and her teenage son John were able to walk completely unaided. Furthermore, upon finding that most of the refugees at the Starved Camp could not walk, Eddy and Foster’s relief party had voted to give them food and leave them to make their own way out of the wilderness, while they went ahead to Truckee Lake (Eddy and Foster both had young sons still at the main camp). John Stark, however, apparently found this to be cold and uncaring, and he talked two other members of the rescue party into to staying behind with him to help the victims at the Starved Camp.

Read Part XI

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part IX

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III

Read Part IV

Read Part V

Read Part VI

Read Part VII

Read Part VIII


Even after being retrieved by rescuers, the hardships were not yet over for the first band of refugees. The relief party had cached most of its provisions on the mountain rather than bring them into camp, as this made traveling through the passes easier. When they returned to this cache, however, it had been ransacked by animals. The refugee party was forced to travel the first five days with only the slightest of provisions.

Several days after leaving John Denton behind, and after suffering the loss of another child in three-year-old Ada Keseberg, the refugee party met up with the second relief party coming the other direction, headed by James Reed.

For James Reed, separated from his family for the better part of five months, he was understandably relieved to find his wife, oldest daughter, and oldest son still alive. The reunion with his two remaining children – Patty and Tommy – would come a few days later after Reed arrived at Truckee Lake.

James and Margret Reed, in a picture most likely taken in the 1850's

In typical Victorian fashion, James Reed’s account of the reunion was rather phlegmatic: “Here I met my own wife, Mrs. Reed, and two of my little children. Two still in the mountains. I cannot describe the death-like look they all had.”

Reed’s account describes how everyone, young and old, begged him for food, but he gave it out only sparingly, for fear they would gorge themselves. Overeating is a serious threat to victims of starvation, as their bodies are not equal to the task of heavy digestion, and too much food can overburden the system.

These fears would be realized a few days later.

Reed and his party of rescuers moved on into the mountains, while the first group of refugees continued toward Sutter’s Fort. The rescuers kept a close watch on the provisions, which were now in abundance thanks to caches set farther back by Reed.

Despite their precautions, they were unable to keep several of the refugees from overeating. William Hook, step-son of Jacob Donner, snuck into the cache of food and gorged himself. After a night of suffering, he died the next morning. As rescuer Daniel Rhoades would later recall: “During the night…the eldest boy of the Donner family managed to eat so much dried meat that he died the next day.”

By the end of the first week of March, this first party of refugees reached Johnson’s Ranch and safety.


One of the interesting facts of the Donner Party story is that it involves not one, but three separate groups of people resorting to cannibalism independently of one another.

The first group, of course, was the aforementioned Forlorn Hope, a group of people forced to cannibalize their dead as they trudged through the mountains of the Sierra Nevada in an attempt to reach help. Those left at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek, however, would have known nothing of this. Yet, by the end of February, as they began to reach the same breaking point of starvation endured by the Forlorn Hope party several months earlier, they too began to consider, and then engage in, eating their dead comrades.

The first glimpse we get of this dire predicament is from the journal of Patrick Breen, on February 26th, about four days after the first relief party set out with its refugees:

Hungry times in camp. Plenty hides but the folks will not eat them. Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday [that she was thinking about] commenc[ing] on Milt[‘s body] and eat[ing] him. I don’t think that she has done so yet. It is distressing.

Levinah Murphy

“Milt,” of course, was Milt Elliot, driver for the Reed family who had died several weeks earlier. Breen goes on to say that when the rescuers were in camp, the Donner family told them that they would have to resort to cannibalism if they were not able to find some of their dead cattle under the snow. In regards to whether the Donners had yet resorted to cannibalism, he says: “I suppose they have done so [by] this time.”

On March 1st, James Reed and his party reached the camps at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek. Their first sight was similar to what was reported by the first relief party: a plain of snow, with just the slightest hint of a cabin roof showing in one region. Reed was reunited with his remaining two children, whom he found alive and well despite their failure to make it with the first party of refugees.

Of arriving at the camp, Reed later wrote: “About the middle of the next day we arrived at the [Breen cabin]. If we left any provisions here, it was a small amount, he and his family not being in want.”

The Breens appear to have been the only family of the Donner Party who never completely ran out of food. Patrick Breen’s journal makes it apparent that they continued to have at least a small amount of meat well into February. Other members of the party routinely sought them out for assistance because of this. Even when their meat ran out, they still evidently had enough animal skins to subsist for the final few weeks of February before the second relief party arrived.

Patrick Breen recorded his last entry on March 1st: “10 men arrived this morning…with provisions. We are to start in two or three days…”

In later reports provided by Reed, he admitted to finding evidence of cannibalism when he came into camp. One author, writing his account based on Reed’s notes, wrote: “Among the cabins lay the fleshless bones and half eaten bodies of the victims of famine.” That is no doubt a bit overdramatized, but it seems apparent that Patrick Breen’s fears were true: the Murphys, the Donners, and perhaps several others had resorted to cannibalism.

In one rather infamous account, Georgia Donner recalled her Aunt Elizabeth (widow of Jacob Donner) coming in and announcing that she had cooked “Shoemaker’s arm” for breakfast. Shoemaker was a Donner family teamster who had died early in the winter.

Georgia Donner (left) and Eliza Donner (right). This picture would have been taken very shortly after their return from the mountains. The woman in the center is a nanny who was not a part of the Donner Party.

This account, of course, is likely fictional. Georgia Donner was only four when the Donner Party tragedy occurred, and she was infamous for talking candidly about the party’s cannibalism, no doubt resulting from the fact that she probably didn’t personally remember much of it, or perhaps liked the attention such sensational comments brought.

Georgia Donner in later childhood

As the first rescue party had done, Reed and his group gathered all those who seemed able to make the journey across the mountain. This comprised seventeen people, including all the remaining members of the Breen and Graves families, and Reed’s two remaining children. George Donner, suffering all winter from an infection in the hand he had injured in early October, was too weak to travel. His wife refused to leave without him. They sent their remaining children on with Reed. Jacob Donner’s widow, Elizabeth, was also very sick, and she too stayed behind.

James Reed recorded that he left a week’s worth of provisions for the “Keesberger [sic] camp.” That is a reference to Louis Keseberg, who was now living in the Murphy cabin with Mrs. Murphy, her infant grandson George Foster, and the infant James Eddy, whose father had left with the Forlorn Hope and whose mother had died a month earlier. Both of Keseberg's children were already dead, and his wife had left with the first relief party. Reed also left behind three of his rescue team to gather wood and, in his words, “take care of the helpless.”

Read Part X

Friday, November 27, 2009

Kentucky Wildcats Undefeated?

(For those of you eagerly following my on-going miniseries about the Donner Party, consider this post a sort of "intermission." The next installment of the Donner Party story will come tomorrow.)

College basketball fans in Kentucky have a lot to be happy about this year. After a decade of perceived underachieving with Tubby Smith, and a disastrous two years under Billy Gillispie that saw the Cats miss their first NCAA tournament since Barack Obama was a teenager, new coach John Calipari has brought talent and top-tier coaching skills to the program and reinvigorated the fan base.

John Calipari

In the preseason polls, Kentucky was ranked 4th by the AP and 5th by ESPN/USAToday. This was largely driven by the changes Calipari made in the roster, bringing in a number of talented freshmen and waving goodbye to several Gillispie-era players that realized their playing time was about to be drastically reduced.

Now at the end of week three, the team is 6-0, ranked 5th in both polls.

In looking at Kentucky’s schedule for the remainder of the regular season, it is hard not to ask yourself whether Kentucky has the chance of going undefeated in the regular season this year. I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball, and I don’t intend to make any predictions about the SEC or NCAA tournaments. But I do think a good case can be made for the Cats to have a chance at ending the regular season without a loss.

First, a qualification to that prediction:

While UK undoubtedly has enormous talent, they have not yet displayed, in the first six games, the kind of cohesion and chemistry that one expects to see from a championship team (or an undefeated team). Watching them play is like watching a game of street ball. There is a lot of running and gunning, not much organized defense, a lot of turnovers, a lot of slam dunks and 3-pointers, and frequently a lot of fouls. They play exactly like you’d expect a team top-heavy with freshman superstars to play. This has led them to several “close calls” already in just the first six games against teams without nearly as much talent. Only a buzzer beater won the game over Miami of Ohio, and when they played Stanford, they were down most of the game and only pulled out the victory in overtime.

For Kentucky to have any chance at going undefeated or making a serious NCAA tournament run, John Calipari has to reign in this street ball style of play and harness the talent he’s got on his roster. He has to get the chemistry down and get the team playing like a team, and not like a group of five individuals racking up statistics. If he’s not able to do that, then what I have to say below will all be academic; if they keep playing like they’ve been playing these first six games, UK will likely find it tough to beat teams like North Carolina, Louisville, and some of their SEC rivals.

Therefore, my prediction about an undefeated season is contingent on Calipari getting a handle on this team’s talent and harnessing it to produce the kind of sharp, clean, team-oriented play that is vital for a championship-caliber team.

With that established, what exactly are the reasons why UK has a chance to go undefeated this season?

First, the aforementioned talent. This is perhaps the most individually-talented UK basketball team since at least the Rick Pitino era of the mid-90’s – maybe even of all time. At least four, and perhaps all five of their starters will almost certainly go on to have successful NBA careers. That kind of star power has been rare in the last ten to twelve years for the Cats. There are currently only nine former UK players in the NBA, and two of those are from the Pitino era.

A team with this sort of talent definitely has what it takes to go undefeated.

Second, UK has depth. This isn’t just a team with four or five really, really good starters, and seven or eight average bench players. So far this year, they have six players playing twenty minutes or more per game, and eight players seeing fifteen minutes or more per game. They are so deep that senior Perry Stevenson, who has been a starter for much of his four years at UK, is now the tenth man off the bench for John Calipari.

Perry Stevenson

Furthermore, in terms of scoring, they have three players scoring better than 2:1 in terms of points-per-minutes-played, (1 point or more for every two minutes played), and three more players scoring better than 3:1 (1 point or more for every three minutes played).

Talent combined with depth makes this a UK team that could go undefeated.

Third, UK has a veritable superstar in John Wall. Because the NBA now has a rule disallowing anyone under the age of nineteen to be drafted, top-ranked high school players are essentially required to either attend at least one year of college, or play overseas for a year. If not for that rule, Wall would have gone straight from high school to the NBA, and probably would have been one of the top two or three draft picks. As it is, he will play at UK for a year and then go into the NBA in 2010, where he will almost certainly be the number one draft pick (barring a major injury).

John Wall

As history tells us, teams that go undefeated are almost always anchored by a superstar player, surrounded by depth and talent.

Finally, there is the issue of UK’s schedule. Currently, only three teams in the SEC are ranked in the top 25, including Kentucky. The other two teams are Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Vanderbilt is barely in the mix, currently ranked 24th. Tennessee is a solid team currently ranked 11th (9th in the AP poll), but they lost this week to Perdue, which will drop them several spots in next week’s rankings.

Other than that, the SEC is thin again this year in talent. Since it has not historically been unusual for Kentucky to go undefeated in conference play, the chances of it happening again this year – considering their talent, depth, and star power – are very, very good.

That leaves the first half of the season – the non-conference portion of their schedule. Kentucky has already played and won the first six of those games. Among those non-conference teams they have left to play, only three present a serious challenge – North Carolina, Connecticut, and Louisville. North Carolina is currently ranked 12th (11th in the AP poll). They have already lost once, and will have a tough match-up next week against 2nd ranked Michigan State. If they lose that game, they will come into Kentucky next weekend with two losses already on their schedule. In either case, Kentucky is a superior team to North Carolina this year, and will play them with a home court advantage.

As for Connecticut, the 13th ranked Huskies lost today to Duke. That will drop them several spots in next week’s rankings. They will likely still be somewhere in the mid-teens when they play Kentucky on December 9th. The game will take place on the neutral court of Madison Square Garden.

Finally, Louisville is currently ranked 16th. Kentucky, however, does not play Louisville until January 2nd, and it is likely that Louisville will have moved up significantly by that time. Louisville will not play any ranked opponents until that match-up with the Cats. It is a strong likelihood that Louisville will be either undefeated or have no more than one loss when they come to Lexington in early January. Thus, by that time, they will likely be well-established with a top-10 or even top-5 ranking. The annual UK-UL game is always a fight to the finish, and the pre-game ranking or win/loss total for each team rarely predicts who will win. Last year, for instance, UK beat the Cardinals, even though Louisville was the far superior team (Louisville was a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament and went to the Elite Eight; UK didn’t even make the tournament).

Thus, with both teams potentially undefeated and in the top 5 by that time, the UK-UL game this year should be a fun one to watch. Kentucky will have home court advantage, however, and Louisville has only beaten Kentucky at home four times since the rivalry started in 1983.

In any case, those three teams – Connecticut, North Carolina, and Louisville – are the only three teams that should present a threat to UK in non-conference play. And presently, all three of them are ranked well below Kentucky in the polls. In fact, as it currently stands, Kentucky has only five ranked opponents left to play on its schedule this year, and none of them are even in the top 10. If and when Kentucky loses a game, it will be to an opponent that is ranked below them, or not ranked at all.

Given the team’s immense talent, depth, star power, and relatively easy schedule, it seems that Kentucky has a very good chance – if they get their chemistry together – of going through the regular season undefeated this year.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part VIII

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III

Read Part IV

Read Part V

Read Part VI

Read Part VII


On February 18th, 1847, the first relief party, comprised of seven men on snowshoes, reached the camp at Truckee Lake.

A lithograph of the arrival of the first relief party; the cabins were completely buried in the snow

Patrick Breen’s account is stoic as always: “[Seven] men arrived from California yesterday evening with some provisions…[they are] gone today to [the Donner family] camp.”

Daniel Rhoads, one of the members of the relief party, wrote this account many years later:

At sunset…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…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.

Virginia Reed provided a similar account:

[The relief party] 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 [Truckee] Lake that night…But with the joy, sorrow was strangely blended…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.

Both of these accounts, written years later, probably present an overly sentimental impression. Patrick Breen’s diary entry, written the morning after it happened, conveys numbness more than anything else. Still, there can be no doubt that the Donner Party must have regarded these men of the first relief party, arriving so many days and weeks after they were hoped for and expected, as little more than heavenly messengers.

Despite the arrival of the relief party, death continued to stalk the camp. Infant Catherine Pike, whose father had been killed several months earlier in the aforementioned gun cleaning accident, and whose mother had gone with the Forlorn Hope, had been left in the care of her grandmother. On February 22nd, Patrick Breen recorded in his diary that she had died two days earlier, and he buried her.

In addition, the relief party had left the majority of its provisions cached in the mountains above Truckee Lake. Intending to bring a party of refugees out of the camp, they needed these provisions for the return trip. So the amount of food that was actually left for those remaining in camp was insignificant indeed.

On the same day that Patrick Breen buried the young Catherine Pike, the refugee party, consisting of twenty-four of the healthiest Donner Party members (those believed best suited to survive the overland trip) headed out from Truckee Lake. Two of these refugees, Patty and Tommy Reed – both children – weren’t up to the task and had to be taken back to the Breen cabin to await the next relief.

Patty Reed, daughter of James Reed and sister to Virginia Reed

Members of this first rescued party recounted the “survivor’s guilt” of leaving so many others behind. From Virginia Reed, writing to her friend Mary a few months later:

Oh Mary, that was the hardest thing yet, to [go] and leave them there. [We] did not know but what they would starve to death…The men said they could hardly stand it – it made them all cry.


Among the group that left with the first relief party was an Englishman from Sheffield named John Denton. A gunsmith by trade, Denton had met the Donner family in Springfield, Illinois, and had joined them as a teamster for the journey west. A world traveler, adventurer, and apparent Renaissance man, Denton was knowledgeable on a variety of subjects from literature to botany to animal husbandry to metal and stone working. As we saw earlier, when James Reed’s mother-in-law died early in the voyage, it was Denton who kindly carved her gravestone in northeastern Kansas.

Sarah Keyes, mother-in-law of James Reed

The time at Truckee Lake, however, had weakened him, and three days into the voyage over the mountains with the refugees from the Donner Party, he became overwhelmed with exhaustion and snow blindness, and was unable to go any further. Snow blindness is essentially a sunburn of the eyes, caused by sunlight reflected from snow. It can cause temporary and even permanent loss of vision, but in the accounts of John Denton’s collapse, it was probably more of a euphemism for utter exhaustion than anything else.

According to rescuer Daniel Rhoads: “On the third day an emigrant named John Denton, exhausted by starvation and totally snow blind, gave out…We made a platform of saplings, built a fire on it, cut some boughs for him to sit upon, and left him.”

As with others who had been left behind on previous mountain expeditions, there was hope that he might catch up, or might survive until the relief party of James Reed came through, but it proved another forlorn hope. Denton was found later in the place where they had left him, sitting upright with his head bowed down to his chest.

In his pocket several pages of a journal were found inscribed with a poem. It has been suggested that this poem must have been written shortly before he died, and while it is certainly a nice thought, it is not entirely clear whether he wrote the poem there on his death bed, or perhaps many weeks earlier. In any case, it clearly represents his dream of returning to his native England after a lifetime of wandering, and his realization that it will never happen:

Oh! after many roving years,
How sweet it is to come
To the dwelling-place of early youth –
Our first and dearest home.

To turn away our wearied eyes,
From proud ambition’s towers,
And wander in those summer fields,
The scene of boyhood’s hours.

But I am changed since last I gazed
on yonder tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch-elm
That shades the village green;

And watched my boat upon the brook –
As it were a regal galley,
And sighed not for a joy on earth
Beyond the happy valley.

I wish I could recall once more
That bright and blissful joy,
And summon to my weary heart
The feelings of a boy.

But I look on scenes of past delight
Without my wanted pleasures,
As a miser on the bed of death
Looks coldly on his treasures.

Read Part IX

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part VII

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III

Read Part IV

Read Part V

Read Part VI


Back among the Forlorn Hope party, things were getting desperate. Around this time, William Eddy and William Foster got into a wrestling match over the continued suggestions of shooting someone for food.

William Eddy

Foster was intent on sacrificing someone, and Eddy had to subdue him as Foster advanced with a knife. This account, however, comes from Quinn Thornton, the sensationalist writer mentioned earlier, and other Donner Party members frequently accused Thornton and his main source William Eddy of being profound liars. Whether this fight ever took place, and indeed whether anyone in the Forlorn Hope party ever seriously considered sacrificing another emigrant for food, is hard to establish with certainty.

It does, however, appear that such discussions took place in regards to the Indians Luis and Salvadore, because it is well established that they fled in fear of their lives.

In any case, the Forlorn Hope caught up with Luis and Salvadore the day after the alleged fight between Eddy and Foster.

Accounts of what happened next vary among the survivors.

According to John Sinclair, who wrote an account of the events based on interviews with survivors, Salvadore was already dead when the party found them. Luis was near death, attempting to drink from a stream. Sinclair wrote that Luis “only lived about an hour” thereafter.

Forlorn Hope survivor Mary Graves, however, wrote that the “two Indians were killed.”

Mary Graves

Finally, there is William Eddy’s account, as told by the sensationalist Quinn Thornton:

…They came upon the Indians, lying upon the ground in a totally helpless condition. They had been without food for eight or nine days…They could not, probably, have lived for more than two or three hours. Nevertheless, Eddy remonstrated against their being killed. [William Eddy is always portrayed as the hero in Thornton’s accounts.] Foster affirmed that he was compelled to do it…Luis was told that he must die and was shot through the head. Salvadore was dispatched in the same manner immediately after…The flesh was then cut from their bones and dried.

What is definitely agreed upon by all the sources is that the two Indians died and were cannibalized. Mary Graves stated that their “flesh lasted until we got out of the snow and [got help].”

Back at Truckee Lake, the snow began falling again on the evening of January 9th. Breen records it as lasting until the 13th. This must certainly be the terrible “storme” that young Virginia Reed wrote to her friend about later that year. On January 13th, Breen wrote in his diary: “Snow higher than the [cabin]. Must be 13 feet deep. Don’t know how to get wood this morning. It is dreadful to look at.”

The Reed family had by now been taken in by others, as their cabin was unlivable since they had removed the hides from the roof for food. Virginia and some of her siblings were living with the Breens, while Mrs. Reed and her employees, Milt and Eliza, were moving back and forth between the Keseberg hut and the Graves cabin (which abutted the now unlivable Reed cabin).


About the time that the Truckee Lake and Alder Creek camps were in the depths of the January blizzard, the Forlorn Hope finally reached civilization. Their ranks decimated now to seven people, they came upon a series of Indian tribes around the Bear River who took them in and fed them. Quinn Thornton wrote: “As soon as the first brief burst 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.”

For several days they moved among Indian tribes, then made the final drive into Johnson’s Ranch, a large settlement about thirty-five miles north of Sutter’s Fort.

A picture of the house at Johnson's Ranch, circa 1860

William Eddy reached it first, having left the party resting with one of the Indian tribes. Riders on horseback carried food and provisions back to the others, and by January 18th, all seven survivors had been brought into Johnson’s Ranch.

Of the seventeen who had originally set out from Truckee Lake thirty-three days earlier, nine were now dead (one of those, Charley Burger, had died after returning with William Murphy to the camp). They had lost eight people along the way, two perhaps intentionally. Of the dead, only Charles Stanton had avoided cannibalization, dying before that dreadful choice had been forced on the party.

One perhaps unexpected statistic from the Forlorn Hope is the fact that all the women survived. The original party had included twelve men and five women. Two of the men had turned back, and eight others had perished. The women, however, all made it through alive. There are any number of reasons why this may have happened, the least of which is simply luck of the draw. It may also, however, indicate that in the preceding months of low rations and hardships, the women were, in general, better taken care of. One modern scholar has suggested that the women had a greater survival rate because women are biologically better suited to surviving cold weather and starvation, with their lower core body temperature and lower nutritional requirements.


After the survivors of the Forlorn Hope reached Johnson’s Ranch, immediate plans were made to send rescue parties back into the mountains. This proved, however, to be difficult. Johnson’s Ranch had only a few able-bodied men (most California men were involved in a war with Mexico at the time), and because of heavy rains throughout the winter, much of the land between Johnson’s Ranch and Sutter’s Fort was waterlogged and impassable. It would be several weeks before a party could be sent with provisions.

Meanwhile, the emigrants at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek were growing more desperate by the day. The blizzard of January 9th to 13th had left their cabins and shelters completely buried in snow. On the 15th, Breen expressed hope that the party they’d sent out in December would return soon from Sutter’s Fort: “Expecting some account from Sutter’s soon.” He had no way of knowing, of course, that they were only just exiting the mountain passes, depleted by half.

On the 17th of January, Breen wrote: “Hides are the only article we depend on, we have a little meat [still]. May God send us help.”

Within a few days, the majority of the camp was living primarily on boiled animal hides and bones. Movement between cabins was treacherous and required digging tunnels through the snow and walking atop the frozen crust. Steps were carved out of the snow to lead up and down from the doorways. To an observer from a nearby mountain peak, the valley would have looked like a flat snowy landscape of indeterminate depth, with no cabins or life visible except those few souls who passed between buildings to carry news or hunt for firewood.

The Donner Party continued to hope for provisions. On January 20th, Breen wrote: “Expecting some person across the Mountain this week.” There was certainly no reason for that expectation, other than the Forlorn Hope’s long absence and James Reed’s even longer absence. It must have seemed to Breen and the rest of the Donner Party that someone must surely turn up soon.

Around January 21st, a few people from the Donner family on Alder Creek came up to Breen’s cabin with Eliza Williams – one of the Reed family workers. She apparently refused to eat the gluey residue of animal hides and bones and was hoping to find meat with the Breens. This doesn’t appear to have sat well in the Breen cabin. Patrick Breen records in his diary that they “sent her back to live or die on them.” It’s easy to imagine that the few provisions that remained at this point were being aggressively protected. In this same entry, he reported that the members of the Donner family were “all well.”

Another storm passed through on the 23rd, with Breen stating: “Blew hard and snowed all night; the most severe storm we experienced this winter,” and later, “Heard nothing from Murphy camp since the storm; expect to hear they suffered some.” A few days after that: “Those that went to Sutter’s not yet returned. Provisions getting very scant. People getting weak living on short allowance of hides.” By now, not only were they living on animal hides – with a nutritional content roughly the same as cardboard, and not nearly as easy on the palate – but they were even rationing those hides, only eating a small amount each day.

Sometime during this second storm of January, the Keseberg family’s newborn died. He had been born on the trail, probably the previous summer. Breen reports that three of the Murphy children were sick, as well as Mr. Keseberg. Landrum Murphy, the oldest Murphy son, had been in and out of delirium since the middle of the month, and he finally died on January 31st.

Around this same time, families began fighting for provisions. Breen records that the Graves family “seized Mrs. Reed’s goods,” including her remaining animal hides, and Mrs. Reed was only able to retrieve a few things (the Reeds and Graves’ had built adjoining cabins, and after the Reeds abandoned their part of the cabin, the Graves family apparently claimed their remaining belongings). Breen states with a hint of resignation: “You may know from these proceedings what our [life is like] in camp.” Later he noted:

Peggy [his wife] 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’ [cabin]. Milt [Elliot] is living there and likely will keep that hide.

He referred again several days later to this disagreement, noting that Mrs. Graves refused to give any hides to Mrs. Reed, and calling Mrs. Graves “a case” (that is, a “head case”).

Across the mountains, relief parties were making their final preparations for travel. Two parties left north-central California in early February; the second, led by James Reed and William McCutchen, left about a week after the first party.

James Reed

William McCutchen

In the meantime, the Donner Party continued to suffer. A new four-foot layer of snow fell, and five-year-old Margaret Eddy died. A few days later, her mother, wife of William Eddy, also perished. They were buried together in the snow. About the same time, Harriet McCutchen died. She was the only child of William and Amanda McCutchen. William had been gone from the Donner Party since September, when he traveled to Sutter’s Fort with Charles Stanton on the first supply trip. Amanda had left with the Forlorn Hope in December. From that time forward, the Graves family had been caring for the one-year-old Harriet, but one has to wonder how much care they were giving her as rations ran low and desperation ran high.

The deaths continued now seemingly every few days. On February 7th, August Spitzer died. He had been staying in the Breen cabin for some time.

On February 9th, a kind of stoic numbness was evident in Patrick Breen’s diary: “Pike’s child all but dead. Milt at Murphy’s [cabin], not able to get out of bed. Keseberg never gets up; says he is not able.”

That same evening, Milt Elliot died. Virginia Reed would later write this kind epitaph to his memory:

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.

Read Part VIII

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part VI

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III

Read Part IV

Read Part V


Christmas day brought death for the Forlorn Hope.

Antonio died first, followed by Franklin Graves, patriarch of the Graves clan. The next day Patrick Dolan died, after throwing off his clothes in delirium and running into the snow. He was dragged back into the shelter, but died shortly thereafter. Twelve-year-old Lemuel Murphy, whose younger brother had returned to Truckee Lake on the first day, died a few hours later, also in a delirium.

In later years, the daughters of Franklin Graves claimed that he called them to his side before dying, encouraging them to do whatever was necessary to stay alive. The clear implication was that he gave them his blessing to cannibalize him. This may or may not be a true story; it certainly is easy to imagine the members of the party rationalizing their difficult decisions later. On the other hand, several accounts suggest that cannibalization was discussed before any of the Forlorn Hope had actually died: William Eddy claimed that he had suggested a duel, with the loser being cannibalized; but it was ultimately decided to let nature take its course.

Whatever the case, with four of their party now dead beside them, the remaining ten people were faced with an unthinkable decision: cannibalize or die.

Many people offhandedly suggest that if faced with having to eat another human, they’d choose starvation. I would gently point out that this is easy to say from the relative safety, comfort, and warmth of one’s own home.

Stranded there in the wilderness in what has come to be known as the Camp of Death, starving and with no hope of food, the remaining members of the Forlorn Hope cannibalized their dead comrades.


Back at the lake camp, Charley Burger, who had turned back with William Murphy from the Forlorn Hope expedition, died after falling ill. Desperation had not quite reached a fever pitch for the members of the Donner Party still in camp at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek, and Burger was buried as Baylis Williams had been several weeks earlier.

On New Year’s Eve, after writing a prayer for better fortune in the coming year, Patrick Breen wrote: “Looks like another snow storm. Snow storms are dreadful to us. Snow very deep. Crust on the snow.”

A storm brewing over Donner Pass

As the new year began, the Forlorn Hope made their way gradually out of the mountains, while the emigrants at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek slowly starved to death. On January 1st, Breen wrote: “Provisions getting scant,” and on January 3rd, “Provisions scarce.”

The next day, January 4th, Mrs. Reed set out with her daughter Virginia – then thirteen years old – to attempt a mountain crossing. They were joined by the Reed family teamster, Milt Elliot, and their maidservant, Eliza Williams (whose brother, Baylis, had died in December). The remaining Reed children were left in the care of others. The group lasted four or five days in the wilderness before returning, defeated but still alive.

On the same day Mrs. Reed and her group set out from the lake camp, the Forlorn Hope party finished the last of their human provisions, and began discussing the dire option of shooting their Indian guides for food. This was understandably met with much resistance by several members of the party, and William Eddy later stated that he warned the two men – Luis and Salvadore – about what the others were discussing. After darkness fell, the two Indians fled.

The Forlorn Hope followed their footprints the next day, and William Eddy succeeded in finding and killing a deer. The party, however, became separated during the day, with Eddy and Mary Graves out with the deer carcass in what was probably the Bear River Valley, the main group some distance back at the top of the ridge above the valley, and Jay and Sarah Fosdick back about a mile further yet. Jay Fosdick was on his last leg, and his wife had stayed behind to assist him.

The following morning, Eddy and Mary Graves dragged the deer carcass back to the others waiting on the ridge, and a small group went back to check on Jay and Sarah Fosdick. Jay had died in the night, and although they had a fresh deer carcass, they recognized that it would not last long. So, according to one early biographer, “the flesh was taken from the bones of poor Fosdick, and brought into camp.”

Another writer, Quinn Thornton, working from the stories of William Eddy, and widely acknowledged to have intentionally sensationalized the unspeakable horrors encountered by the Donner Party, wrote the account like this:

One of the emigrants, believing that Mr. and Mrs. Fosdick had died during the previous night, sent a person back to the place, with instructions to get Mr. Fosdick’s heart for breakfast…[After meeting Mrs. Fosdick on the way,] two individuals accompanied her [back to her husband’s corpse], and notwithstanding the remonstrances, entreaties, and tears of the affected widow, cut out the heart and liver, and severed the arms and legs of her departed husband.

These sorts of stories, told in the 19th century, no doubt contributed to the grisly image people to this day associate with the Donners. It seems to matter very little that it was sensationalism at best, and outright lies at worst.

Back at the lake camp, Mrs. Reed and her companions returned during the day of January 7th. According to a letter Virginia Reed wrote later that year, their decision to return was providential, because that night the camp was hit with “the worst storme [sic] we had that winter.” From other existing accounts, it seems to have been raining and sleeting throughout many of the days during the early part of January, and freezing hard at night, and the storm Virginia refers to actually hit several days later. By that time, emigrants at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek were able to move about only by tunneling through the snow. The doors and windows of the cabins and shelters had long since been covered over by snow and ice.

A passage for railroad tracks cleared through the snow during a 1917 blizzard in the Sierra Nevada

On January 8th, Patrick Breen recorded the return of Mrs. Reed and her group, then commented rather stoically: “Prospects dull.” He also commented that by this time, the Reeds had nothing but “hides” to live on.

He was referring, of course, to animal hides. The emigrants had used hides to cover the roofs of their cabins. With nothing left to eat, they took the hides and boiled them, boiling out what little fat and protein were left in the skin. This would congeal at the top of the water, and the jelly-like substance could be scooped off and eaten. According to Virginia Reed, writing as an adult: “When prepared for cooking and boiled they were simply a pot of glue.”

Cannibalism couldn’t possibly be much worse than that. They were literally eating leather.

In the aforementioned letter of May, 1847, the teenage Virginia Reed wrote: “We had nothing to eat but ox hides…we had to kill little Cash the dog and eat him. We ate his head and feet and hide and everything about him.”

Read Part VII

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part V

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III

Read Part IV


On December 16th, 1846, yet another group set out from the encampment in an effort to make it through the mountains. This time, they went prepared. Charles Stanton and Franklin Graves had spent the previous two weeks making snowshoes. Graves, originally from the Green Mountains of Vermont, was perhaps the only member of the Donner Party familiar with winter survival in the mountains, and he knew how to make snowshoes. Using oxbows from their now useless yokes, Graves and Stanton had made enough snowshoes for a party of fifteen people to attempt crossing the mountains.

In later years, this party would come to be known as the Forlorn Hope, a euphemism usually applied to bands of soldiers chosen to lead an attack on a defended position where casualties are expected to be high.

The Forlorn Hope party consisted of the following people:

From the Graves family: Franklin Graves; daughters Mary and Sarah; Jay Fosdick, husband of Sarah.

Sarah Graves

Mary Graves

From the Murphy family: Sarah Murphy Foster and her husband William Foster; sister Harriet Murphy Pike, whose husband had been killed in the gun cleaning accident a month and a half earlier; brothers Lemuel and William Murphy, ages twelve and ten respectively.

These nine were joined by Amanda McCutchen, whose husband was with James Reed at Sutter’s Fort; William Eddy; Patrick Dolan, a family friend and traveler with the Breen family; Charles Stanton, who had already been to Sutter’s Fort and back; and Stanton’s Indian guides Luis and Salvadore, who were no doubt eager to return to their jobs with Captain Sutter.

Although only fifteen snowshoes were available, two other also joined the group. These were two teamsters named Charley Burger and Antonio. Practically nothing is known of Antonio – he was apparently a Mexican who had been hired by one of the families in Wyoming. Burger was among the German contingent, probably a teamster for the Donner or Keseberg families.

Patrick Breen records their departure on December 16th in his usual, terse style: “Company started on snow shoes to cross the mountains.”

William Murphy, being only ten years old, was chosen to make the trip without snowshoes.

William Murphy

According to his own account many years later, the party figured he was so young and lightweight that he wouldn’t sink into the snow. This proved wrong, and Murphy ended up returning to camp with Charley Burger, who also was attempting to make the trip without snowshoes.

The Forlorn Hope party left with enough provisions to last a week. This was all the camp could spare. In addition to making Sutter’s Fort and returning with more rations, the emigrants hoped that by relieving the camp of fifteen mouths to feed, their dwindling provisions might last longer.

On the first night, the Forlorn Hope made about four miles, camping at the western end of Truckee Lake. The next day, they crossed the mountain pass. Mary Graves would later describe it: “We had a very slavish day’s travel, climbing to the divide…I had a chance to observe the company ahead, trudging along with packs on their backs. It reminded me of some Norwegian fur company among the icebergs.”

The following day, December 18th, Charles Stanton began to give out, but the party moved on without him, knowing that the only chance of survival was to keep forging ahead. Stanton managed to stumble into camp several hours later. The party was traveling about five miles each day, and Stanton continued to fall behind, catching up only after the others had already camped for the night.

On the evening of December 21st, he never showed up in camp. They had left him that morning sitting at the previous night’s camp. The next day they camped early, then stayed there for two days, but Stanton was never seen again. His body was found several months later by rescue teams. His dream of a new life in California, articulated so beautifully in letters he sent on the wagon train, died there with him in the Sierra Nevada mountains.


Around the same time that Stanton disappeared in the mountains, bad news reached the families at Truckee Lake.

Milt Elliot and Noah James, both teamsters for the Donner Party, had been sent to Alder Creek back on December 9th by Charles Stanton. They took with them a letter Stanton had written to George Donner asking for a compass and tobacco to take with him on the snowshoe journey. They had never returned and the Forlorn Hope had gone ahead and left without the compass from Donner.

The emigrants at Truckee Lake had feared Elliot and James had perished attempting to get to the Donner families, but they returned on December 21st, about two weeks after they’d been sent. They brought with them news that four people had died at the Alder Creek camp – Jacob Donner and three teamsters: Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph Reinhardt, and James Smith.

Reinhardt was one of the Germans who, back in October, had stayed behind to help Mr. Wolfinger cache his wagon in central Nevada. Reinhardt had returned saying that Wolfinger was killed by Indians. On his deathbed, Reinhardt finally confessed, admitting that he had killed Wolfinger himself, no doubt because Wolfinger was reputed to be wealthy.

Evidence of the Donner Party’s increasing desperation becomes apparent in Patrick Breen’s diary at the end of December. His writing becomes more religious, and he includes prayers and exhortations to God. From December 23rd: “May Almighty God grant the request of an unworthy sinner that I am. Amen.” And again on Christmas Eve: “May God help us to spend Christmas as we ought considering circumstances.”

The party of the Forlorn Hope was faring no better. Deeply troubled by the loss of Stanton, who was essentially their guide, they made slower progress. Then, on the 23rd, they found themselves hopelessly lost in a driving storm of rain and sleet. Mary Graves later said: “We made good progress until the 8th day, when we got lost. It commenced raining and continued until the next day at night – then it commenced snowing and continued three days and nights.” They were unable to build a fire, they had no shelter, and their food had run out. They were unable to hunt because there was no game to be found. They were no longer certain they were on the right path. They were beginning to starve to death.

The rain and sleet proved to be the precursor to yet another monstrous blizzard, felt by both the Forlorn Hope and the remainder of the Donner Party at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek.

The fourteen remaining members of the Forlorn Hope got snowed down in a hastily built camp in the western foothills of the mountains. Using a technique apparently suggested by William Eddy, they sat in a close circle on a blanket, with their legs touching. Then they covered themselves completely with blankets, using their own bodies, in essence, as the structures of a tent. As the snow piled up on top of the human tent, it closed the gaps between the quilts, allowing their body heat and breath to keep them warm. According to William Eddy, they “camped” like this for the better part of two days.

Back at Truckee Lake, Patrick Breen wrote on Christmas day:

Began to snow yesterday about 12 o’clock. Snow all night and snows yet rapidly…Great difficulty in getting wood…Offered our prayers to God this Christmas morning. The prospect is appalling, but hope in God. Amen.

Virginia Reed said of that Christmas day: “Christmas was near, but to [those who were starving] its memory gave no comfort. It came and passed without observance.”

The next day, Breen recorded that this most recent blizzard dropped about two feet of additional snow, making the total snow around the camp roughly nine feet deep.

Read Part VI

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part IV

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III


Within just a few days of William Pike’s death, on October 27th, 1846, Charles Stanton and his two vaqueros reached the Donner Party at Truckee Meadows.

Charles Stanton, a bachelor traveling with the Donner Party

Stanton was welcomed like a prodigal son, only it was Stanton throwing the feast. His seven mule-loads of provisions was a welcome relief for the emigrants. John Breen would later write: “We traveled up the river a few days, when we met the excellent Stanton, returning with…mules and provisions…an act for which he deserves the love of every soul of that suffering company.”

Heavy clouds and winds had been looming over the mountains for some time, but Stanton assured them that the passes were clear and that there would be no problem crossing into California.

Once Stanton had arrived with provisions, those still resting in Truckee Meadows began heading along the Truckee River, southwest toward the Nevada/California border and the final run into Sutter’s Fort.

Truckee River in winter

This trek took them deep into the mountains where the threat of snow continued to loom. The caravan was spread out over several dozen miles, each little group traveling in its own miniature caravan. Elitha Donner, daughter of George, later stated: “Father was Captain of the [company] at one time but as the teams failed on the long journey we camped apart from the rest…sometimes we would be ahead, sometimes behind.”

Elitha Donner - fourteen during the winter of 1846-47

Other accounts from survivors suggest that it was rainy and cold during this part of the journey, with snow visible on the mountain peaks.

By the 30th of the month, most of the party had reached the eastern end of Truckee Lake, which today sits just to the west of the city of Truckee, California, and is known as Donner Lake.

Truckee (now Donner) Lake

In 1846, the city was not there and it was mostly mountain wilderness. Beyond the lake lay the final series of mountain passes that would lead the Donner Party to their destination.

The main pass now known as Donner Pass, looking back on Truckee Lake to the east

They were roughly 90 miles from Sutter’s Fort – a journey of three or four days in wagons with good weather.

About this same time, James Reed finally reached Sutter’s Fort, where he procured more provisions for the caravan and made plans to return to them immediately.

Sutter's Fort

He later wrote that he asked Sutter if he would “furnish…horses and saddle to bring the women and children out of the mountains…[Sutter] at once complied with the request.” Reed also met up here with William McCutchen, the party member who had originally ridden ahead with Charles Stanton, but who had remained at Sutter’s Fort because of an illness.

William McCutchen was about thirty in 1846

Reed and McCutchen now began making plans to head back to the caravan, expecting to meet them in the Bear River Valley, which lay just west of the mountain pass the Donner Party had just reached.

Their trip, however, would be delayed. According to Reed:

The second night after my arrival at Captain Sutter’s, we had a light rain; next morning we could see snow on the mountains. The Captain stated that it was…heavy for the first fall of the season.

William Graves, with the Donner Party on the other side of the pass, wrote about that first snow as well: “On the 30th of October, 1846, we camped in a pretty little valley about five miles from [Truckee] Lake; that night it snowed about eight inches deep.”

William Graves was sixteen in 1846

Fearing more snow, some of the families ahead of the main body of the caravan attempted to forge ahead through the pass.

A famous lithograph of the Donner Party attempting to get through the pass that now bears their name

In a diary that emigrant Patrick Breen began keeping on November 20th, he wrote about their arrival at Truckee Lake and their attempt to cross the mountain: “Came to this place on the 31st [of October]…we went on to the pass – the snow [was] so deep we were unable to find the road…within 3 miles of the summit [we] turned back.”

John Breen, Patrick’s son who was a teenager at the time, later gave a more detailed and stark account of the genesis of the Donner Party tragedy:

In the morning it was very cold, with about an inch of snow on the ground. This made us hurry our cattle still more…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…We pushed on as fast as our failing cattle could haul our almost empty wagons…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…At last, [the snow] was up to the axle of the wagons. We now concluded…it was impossible to advance…So we hitched to the wagons and returned to the valley again, where we found it raining in torrents…[The rain] 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.

The Donner Party found the mountain passes blocked with heavy snow.

From Donner Pass, looking back at Truckee Lake

They naively believed, however, that since it was raining in the valley, it must also be raining in the mountains. This led them to believe that the rain would wash away the snow, and perhaps within a few days they could make it through. They retreated back to the eastern end of Truckee Lake were a cabin had been built several years earlier. The region was relatively flat, with plenty of timber, wildlife, and available fishing. It seemed a reasonably good place to set up a temporary encampment, and the company built two more structures next to the first one.

A lithograph of the encampment on the eastern shores of Truckee Lake

Roughly 59 people holed up into those three cabins on the eastern shores of Truckee Lake. According to later accounts, the Breen family moved into the pre-existing cabin. The Murphy and Eddy families built a cabin some 150 yards away, against a rocky precipice that formed one of the walls of the structure.

The Murphy-Eddy cabin was built against this rock

About half a mile away, the Graves family and the Reed family built a third cabin, apparently much larger than the other two. Louis Keseberg and his clan built a lean-to against the Breen cabin.

The two families who were not among those at the lakeside camp were the Donner brother families. The Donners, by this time, had been bringing up the rear of the caravan. Several days earlier, the wagon driven by George Donner had broken an axle and Donner had seriously injured his hand trying to fix it. According to one of his daughters: “[His hand] was cut across the back…it was useless to him. He got it cut while repairing the wagon.”

Because of his injury and the delay the broken axle caused, the Donner families and those traveling with them ended up camped about six miles behind the rest of the party when the snows finally hit around November 1st. They were in a region known as Alder Creek, and the blizzard struck with such suddenness that they had no time to build any sturdy structures.

According to one Donner daughter: “We had no time to build a cabin. The snow came on so suddenly that we had barely time to pitch our tent.” Instead, the Donners built lean-tos of quilts and buffalo hide. One of their hired hands, a man named Jean Trudeau, later said:

The snow came on with blinding fury, and being unable to build cabins we put up brush sheds, covering them with limbs from the pine trees. It was the 1st of November, I think, that we went into that camp of snow and suffering.

Over the next several days, the emigrants at Truckee Lake made several more abortive attempts to cross the mountain passes, each time finding them completely impassible, even without the wagons. The snow continued to fall in heavy waves. From the various accounts of those first few days, the snow was anywhere from three to four feet deep.

By the 4th or 5th of November, it became apparent that the Donner Party wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. They began to hunt game and slaughter their own cattle. From William Eddy’s recollection, as told by writer Quinn Thornton: “On [November 5th, the families] commenced killing their cattle. Mr. Eddy also killed his ox.”

Meanwhile, Reed and McCutchen, despite the snow in the mountains, attempted to return to the Donner Party. The snow grew steadily deeper as they reached the Bear River Valley and proceeded into the mountain passes. Eventually, some of their horses got stranded in the snow and they were forced to abandon them. James Reed, writing in the third person for literary purposes, would later write: “They…attempted to pursue their journey on foot, [but since they had no snow shoes, they] were obliged to abandon all hope of passing the huge barrier of snow…[G]athering their horses together, they returned to the valley.”

Facing defeat and knowing there was no hope of getting through the passes before spring, Reed and McCutchen returned to Sutter’s Fort. They consoled themselves with the assumption that the Donner Party had plenty of food to last through the worst of the winter months. Reed wrote:

I also gave [Sutter] the number of head of cattle [the Donner Party] had when I left them. He made an estimate, and stated that if the emigrants would kill the cattle, and place the meat in the snow for preservation, there was no fear of starvation until relief could reach them.

Little did they know that the vast majority of the caravan’s cattle had been lost throughout October – after Reed had left – due to exhaustion and attacks from Indian tribes.


“It snowed [for] eight days with little intermission after our arrival here.”

So said Patrick Breen in his diary, which he kept from November 20th, 1846, to March 1st, 1847.

Patrick Breen

The title page of Breen's diary

By the time he started his diary, the Donner Party had accepted that they would spend much of the winter at Truckee Lake, with the Donners at Alder Creek six miles away. While they knew that their provisions were not as robust as Reed and McCutchen – on the other side of the pass – believed them to be, the company must, at this point, have figured their chances were fairly good. They were holed up in cabins with plenty of clothes and animal hides and firewood to keep them warm. Food was scarce, but with rationing, hunting, and fishing, they must have believed they could make it through the worst of the winter until they could either leave or James Reed could lead a supply caravan to them. William Eddy seems to have been the hunter of the group, and he had some success early on in finding game, including the killing of a reported 800 pound bear around November 15th.

Throughout the remainder of the month, the company slaughtered its remaining cattle, as the animals couldn’t live in the snow-covered terrain, and although they had no salt for curing the meat, the bitterly cold temperatures kept the meat frozen until it was needed. In Patrick Breen’s first diary entry, from November 20th, he wrote: “We now have killed most part of our cattle, having to stay here until next spring and live on poor beef without bread or salt.”

The first entry in Breen's diary

During a lull in the weather, when most of the snow in the valley had apparently melted, a party of about twenty emigrants set out to see what the mountain passes looked like. They returned after finding twenty-five feet of snow in the passes and spending a night trying to keep a fire going on the crust atop the deep snow. As John Breen would later recall: “This report put an end to further effort…which made the prospect for men with families of small children gloomy in the extreme.”

Despite these setbacks, the Donner Party was not entirely discouraged. Near the end of the month, another party planned to set out to find a passage through the mountains. One of them was Milt Elliot, who had been the driver of the Reed Wagon. George Donner gave him a note, dated November 28th, 1846, to deliver at Sutter’s Fort:

This is to certify that I authorize Millford [sic] Elliott and make him my agent to purchase and buy whatever property he may deem necessary for my distress in the mountains for which on my arrival in California I will pay cash or goods or both.

The party never managed to leave. That night, another massive blizzard struck. On November 30th, Patrick Breen wrote: “Snowing fast…about 4 or 5 feet deep, no drifts. Looks…likely to continue…no living thing without wings can get about.” Then, the next day: “Difficult to get wood. No going from the house. Completely housed up.”

By December 2nd, Breen noted that the snow in the valley was six feet deep – no doubt over the doorways of the cabins. He appears to have still been in good spirits, however. On the 5th of December, he wrote: “Fine clear day. Beautiful sunshine. Thawing a little. Looks delightful after the long snow storm.”

Although they didn’t know it, the Donner Party was experiencing one of the worst and earliest winters in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Warm, moist air from the Pacific Ocean had sped across the California mainland, colliding with cold, dry air in the mountains. This led initially to a rain/snow mix, followed by drier snow that accumulated to ski-slope depths. While these sorts of weather patterns are not uncommon in the Sierra Nevada, they don’t usually happen as early as they did in 1846, or with the same intensity.

The Donner Party was literally buried under snow in the mountain wilderness. The seven mules brought by Charles Stanton from Sutter’s Fort – kept alive until now because Sutter expected them to be returned – died in the snowstorms. This, of course, was no great tragedy to the hungry emigrants of the Donner Party. The problem was that the snow was so deep they couldn’t find the carcasses to scavenge from. According to Patrick Breen, the company spent several days looking for the mules with no success. “No account of mules,” he wrote on December 6th.

As December progressed, the situation went downhill quickly. Food was running out. The emigrants had already been on strict rations for a month and were hungry and weak. The snow was so deep there was no possibility of hunting. Truckee Lake was frozen solid, and no one knew how to ice fish. Food became a commodity jealously guarded. In his diary entry of December 9th, Breen wrote: “Some having scant supply of beef. Stanton trying to [get food] for his Indians [and himself]. Not likely to get much.”

On that same day, August Spitzer, one of the teamsters of George Donner, arrived at Breen’s doorstep, having trekked several miles through the snow from the Donner family camp at Alder Creek. The Donners were apparently not willing to share their food with him any longer. The Breen family took him in, and Patrick Breen described him as “so weak [from starvation] that he cannot live without help.”

Snow continued to fall through the following days. On December 13th, Breen noted that it was now about eight feet deep on level ground.

If you look closely near the bottom, you can see the entry of December 13th, "snow 8 feet deep on the level"

Two days later, the first death occurred at the winter camp.

Baylis Williams, a hired hand for the Reed family, succumbed to the rigors of the previous few months. He and his sister, Eliza, had both worked for the Reed family for a number of years prior to the journey west. According to Virginia Reed, Baylis was in poor health even before they left Illinois. In later accounts, she asserted that Baylis died because of his pre-existing ill health: “[Baylis Williams] passed away before starvation had really set in.” In any case, Williams was buried in the snow near the Reed cabin.

Read Part V