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


Anonymous said...

eat me

Scott said...

Not unless we're trapped in a snowbound cabin somewhere.

Anonymous said...


You changed your background again, Roy. You ought to alert your faithful Google when you do that.

Scott said...

I did it about a month ago. Put up a bunch of fancy links to my favorite blog posts too.

Anonymous said...

The description of the horrible of horrible storms, with hurricane winds, reminds me of the terrifying description by John Krakhauer of the 1996 descent from Mt. Everest during which 11 people died.

Krakhauer was with the group. His riveting book about their horrifying experience is WELL worth a read. It's called -- Into Thin Air --.