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


Kristin Johnson said...

Saw your response to my earlier comment -- could you write to me via email? Link's on my website.

Anonymous said...


I was surprised, in an earlier post, to learn that the mules which died could not be found. At that point, they had to have known that the mule meat would be vital, and at all costs rope them up near a cabin and watch over them at night if need be. Not to keep the alive but so what happened would be avoided.

I'm surprised to learn that the Breen's still had meat when the party was rescued. What kind of meat could they have had and why would they still have had some?

Was meat all that people had to eat? No ice fishing, no energy and snowshoes to hunt, and no ground vegetation. Maybe there were non-poisonous leaves, berries, and nuts, like pinion nuts, in the tops of trees that they could walk on the snow to get to.

I'm surprised at the apparent robustness of the girls pictured above, taken close to the time of their rescue. I would have imagined they'd be skin and bones. One of them looks rather round, chubby in the face and the other one, regular.
Maybe by "close to the time of the rescue" meant 6 or more months afterward. By then, they'd have had plenty to eat and people may have encouraged them to "eat more" to regain their health. There might also be a rebound effect - eating normally after starvation gives the appearance of greater weight gain as more surplus fat is stored by the body?

Scott said...

The Breens were separated from the other families in their own cabins, and apparently just did a better job of hording their food throughout the worst of the winter.

As for the picture, I'm not sure just how close in time to their ordeal that it was taken, but judging by their ages, it couldn't have been more than a year or so.