The Year of Decision 1846





In the year 1846, when Polk was in the White House, forces were at work which would determine within the twelvemonth the destiny of Oregon, Texas, New Mexico, and California. At the beginning of the year the sovereignty of these huge, unoccupied territories was in dispute. Mountain men like Jim Clyman had explored the new country, looking for the openings which would let the immigrants in. And by 1846 they were guiding the white-tops West in an ever-increasing stream.

One of the largest and most fateful of these wagon trains started from Independence, Missouri, in May. It included a group of emigrants from Springfield, Illinois, the nucleus of the eighty-seven men, women, and children whom we know as the Donner party. The captain of the group of relatives and neighbors was the patriarch, George Donner, sixty-two years old. Notable among his companions were his brother Jacob and his neighbor, James Frazier Reed. Reed and the Donners were wealthy men, and the entire party was extraordinarily well outfitted for the western passage. They carried thousands of dollars in cash and quantities of goods of all kinds; they rode blooded horses and drove milch cows in addition to the usual oxen.

Traveling eastward to meet the wagon trains was Lansford Hastings — part realtor, part guide, and part fake — who was interested in turning this year’s immigration south to California. To every train he recommended a “cut-off” from the established trail, which he had never tried, but which he said would shorten the distance by several hundred miles.

At Fort Bernard the Donner party was solemnly warned against the Hastings cut-off by Jim Clyman, a seasoned mountain man. But on Hastings’s promise to lead them in person, they disregarded the warning. Then, when they arrived at the base of the Wasatch with its bewildering canyons, they found that Hastings had gone ahead. He had deserted them.

Ahead of the Donners rode Edwin Bryant with ten unencumbered men, traveling light, on muleback, without wagons, herds, or families. At Fort Bridger they overtook Hastings and his partner Hudspeth, who were assembling a wagon train to lead in person over the “Hastings Cut-off.” Hudspeth rode on with Bryant ; Hastings followed with his wagon train, which is known as the Harlan-Young party. Hudspeth led Bryant across the Wasatch Mountains to Great Salt Lake, where they turned westward. At dawn of August 2 they prepared to cross the Great Salt Desert, the worst desert in North America, one of the most appalling wastes of the world. Here, turning back to rejoin Hastings, Hudspeth said, “Now, boys, put spurs to your mules and ride like hell.” They did. In the best crossing ever recorded, they put the Great Salt Desert behind them in thirty-one hours.

Hastings, with his partner’s help, got the Harlan-Young party through the Great Salt Desert in two days and a night. They escaped disaster by a hair: oxen died, wagons had to be abandoned in the salt. Hastings got them over the Sierra early in October, and on down to California. They had lost about three weeks by taking his dangerous new route.

They were the last ones through. Laboring far behind them came the Donner party — big. cumbersome, inexpert, slow. So the tragedy begins . . .




THE Wasatch are one of the most beautiful of Rocky Mountain ranges, but not among the highest. Characteristic of them are small, narrow, twisting canyons which have no logic except the laws of flowing water. These canyons are adventurous for mountain climbers, but their discouraging attribute for those who travel them seriously is the way they lead into one another. The Union Pacific Railroad takes the one direct pass through the north and south main chain of the Wasatch, Weber Canyon, which we have seen Bryant and the Harlan-Young party traveling — but takes it by virtue of dynamite. All other passages of the Wasatch are circuitous, by small canyons which lead into other small canyons, sometimes widen into circular valleys off which a number of canyons lead (only one of which will be the right way onward), and by degrees take their streams westward round cliffs, the base of peaks, and the jutting ends of spinal ledges. Modem highways cross the Wasatch by such oblique routes now.

The Donner party started out on August 12 to find such a route. Fifteen days later, on August 27, they reached Salt Lake Valley, having covered a distance estimated, but probably underestimated, as thirty-six miles. In the meantime Reed’s lost companions had rejoined the party, and the Graves family had caught up with them from the east.

They had had to make a road for wagons, by a route which no wagon had ever taken before. They had had to chop through aspen and popple and cottonwoods and underbrush which choked the small canyons. They had to dig tracks and fell trees and level off centers high up on mountainsides, pry boulders out of their course, riprap swampy patches, sometimes bridge brooks that could not be crossed otherwise, grunt and strain and curse while the oxen heaved the wagons up inclines, over ridges, and around spurs of rock. Every ridge they topped showed a haze of further ridges beyond it. Every canyon that opened out closed in again. Every canyon that might be the last one ended in another one that might also be the last. Three times they found that they could go no farther, had to go back over part of the road they had built, and, abandoning it as wasted, try again, chopping and shoveling a new road. When they camped at the end of the fifteenth day they were almost out of the last canyon, the narrow defile which the Mormons were to call Parley’s Canyon. The next morning they decided that they could not get through a tortuous place where the canyon walls almost met and the notch between was choked with loose rock. So they retraced their way up Parley’s Canyon and the gulch by which they had entered it, and took the wagons straight up a mountain, over the ridge, and down into what is now called Emigration Canyon, and out, at last, into the valley of the lake.

Edwin Bryant, who left Fort Bridger on July 20, reached the valley of Great Salt Lake on July 26. The Donner party, leaving Fort Bridger on July 31, reached the valley on August 27. That difference in traveling time states the first circumstance of their disaster but does not reveal all that had happened to them in the Wasatch. Their morale had begun to break. The morale of any emigrant train can be judged by its success in solving a fundamental conflict. On one hand there is any American frontiersman’s impulse to go his own way, make his own choices, reap the rewards of his own intelligence and skill, and pay the penalties for his own mistakes. On the other is the coöperation enforced by the wilderness, which requires choices to be made in the common interest, assesses against the group penalties for every mistake made by individuals, and pools intelligence and skill for the use of everyone. We have seen the wagon trains breaking up and re-forming. Every new grouping was an attempt to establish a small social system which would function effectively; a successful passage along the trail meant the creation of a group spirit.

The feeling of being members one of another cracked in the Wasatch. In fourteen days of heartbreaking labor, some had begun to resent the weakness of companions who could not do their full share, and some had refused to do their share, accepting the common labor without putting into it all they had. The membrane that incloses the primordial inheritance was thus wearing through, and an even more dangerous pressure had been put on it. They had thought that Big Mountain was the last ridge that they must cross, but Stanton and McCutchen rejoined them just as they got down from it, and told them that it was not. Then, Eliza Donner Houghton says, “Sudden fear of being lost in the trackless mountains almost precipitated a panic, and it was with difficulty that my father [George Donner] and other cool-headed persons kept excited families from scattering rashly into greater dangers.” They had at last realized the danger they were in, and the realization tended to drive them apart.

Overstrained and fearful, but less exhausted than their stock, with the wagons jolted and shaken into brittleness, they headed for the south end of Great Salt Lake and the Salt Desert beyond. One of George Donner’s wagons stopped in blistering sun, and Luke Halloran, the consumptive, died, his head in Tamsen’s lap. They examined his possessions, which he had bequeathed to George Donner, and found $1500 in gold coin and the insignia of Masonry.

There were eighty-six of them now, and twenty-three wagons. They toiled on, hurrying as fast as the condition of the oxen permitted, and in five days reached the last oasis east of the Salt Desert. Here they found fragments of paper tacked to a board. Tamsen Donner gathered them up and pieced them together, and they proved to be a note from Hastings. The author of their ills was confessing another enthusiasm. He had originally said that the Salt Desert was no more than forty miles wide and could be crossed in one day. Now he was telling them that the crossing would take two days and nights.

It took them six days and they traveled all or most of every night.

Here is where the membrane broke, where the group was atomized to individuals. The blinding glare, the burning blue sky with the insolent peace of bellying clouds, the horizon of mountains blue and purple and amethyst, the reds of sunset and the greens of dawn — the cruel beauty of the death-giver could be observed in irony. Twisting whirlwinds or high walls of salt blew past them. Mirages offered them lakes and streams or showed them fields of grass blowing in the wind. William Eddy saw a file of men moving across the distance; they were himself repeated twenty times. Others saw similar processions and once some of them cried out, for this must be Hastings, the deliverer, coming back to help his victims. But none of this mattered, for fear and the pit were upon them. The social system disintegrated. Some drove their oxen to the uttermost exertion, some tried to conserve their strength, some merely went on. Following the tracks of Hastings’s wagons, they strung out across the white hell, under sun or full moon, formless, disorganized, at random, the stock failing, men and women with death in their hearts, all of them forced to observe the stoic, uncomprehending agony of the children.

The heavily loaded outfits of Reed and the Donners fell to the rear, where shrewdness would have put them anyway in a crisis of sauve qui peut. But too much had been required of the oxen in the Wasatch, and by the third night there was no water left in the casks. Men and stock must have water or die in the salt. Reed rode ahead, passing most of the others. Some had abandoned their wagons, driving the teams toward the water that was somewhere ahead. Others, frail, black-faced, stolid, were trying to keep to the wheel-tracks. At the end of the fourth day (if he had slept at all, it was during part of the first night) he got to Pilot Peak and its springs. William Eddy and the Graveses had got there before him, first of all. Eddy, taking water to an exhausted ox, went back a few miles with Reed, who again in the moon’s unreality passed down the frayed line of specters. He met his own teamsters, who had unhitched the oxen and were trying to get them and his horses to water in time. Then the Donners, driving their stock and some wagons. Then an abandoned Donner wagon and at last, toward dawn, his wife and children and some employees. One of the employees took Reed’s horse back. The others waited for the drivers and the oxen.

They sat there in the salt, under the sun, blistered by wind, all the next day. No oxen and no drivers came. . . . Reed’s herd, maddened by thirst, had stampeded into the wasteland and would never be recovered. ... So at the end of the day, Reed carrying the three-year-old Tommy, the others packing some food from the wagons and the remaining gills of water, they started out to walk it. When the children could go no farther, they made a kind of camp. An insane ox charged them and they got up again and went on. They reached Jacob Donner’s wagon; Reed heard that he had lost his teams, and, leaving his family, hurried on. Nearly everyone was getting to Pilot Peak now, some with their wagons, some with only their teams, some staggering in alone. The last day stretched out its agony. Jacob Donner came in with Reed’s family, and, with no one dead, they had crossed the Salt Desert in six days. September 8.

Thirty-six oxen all told, just half of them Reed’s, had died or stampeded into emptiness. As soon as they had drunk and let the surviving oxen drink, they started back to round up any stock they could find and bring the wagons in. There were few spare teams left now, and all the stock were dangerously worn down. No more dangerously so, however, than their owners. The Salt Desert had accelerated the collapse which the Wasatch had begun.

They started toward the Humboldt. The oxen weakened and some of them died, and the wagons kept falling apart. The travelers repeatedly lightened their loads, sometimes making caches in the dream that they would be able later on to come back and open them, sometimes just leaving the stuff there in the desert.

And now they realized that there wasn’t enough food. To the terror that they might not get across the Sierra before the snow came (now stimulated by a typical September snowstorm), there was added the terror that they might starve before they could freeze. So they did what the desert-bound in these parts always did: they resolved to appeal to Sutter. After a debate two volunteered and were accepted: the bachelor Stanton and the tall, powerful McCutchen, who would leave a wife and child behind him. On September 18 they rode ahead, hoping to bring supplies back from the Sacramento Valley in time.

Even on the trail the Nevada stretches were always felt to be the worst of all. Except for occasional dry drives there was always water, and the double-teaming, the struggle with narrow gaps of rock or sudden and insane vertical hills or knife wedges of rock or stinking quicksand, was by now so routine that no one regarded it. But it was here that the reserves of physical strength and moral stamina were exhausted. Here the cumulative strain of emigration precipitated trouble for man and beast and outfit alike, if it was going to. And here, if you were going to, you encountered the Diggers, their half-gram brains vibrating with the remembered murders of hundreds of kinsmen and with desire for oxen and other plunder.


The Donner party reached the main trail on September 30. They had come back (just west of Elko) to the road from Fort Hall which they should have taken from the Little Sandy or Fort Bridger. Exactly a month before, on August 30, Edwin Bryant had come down to Johnson’s ranch on the far side of the Sierra.

The party split in two, one group forming round the Donners, whose outfits had survived in the best condition and could travel faster. The division was made on the theory that they could thus make more efficient use of the sparse grass. But it was really an act of anxiety, further evidence that the bonds of the community had been broken.

Some Diggers who came into camp seemed amiable and they were fed and allowed to spend the night. They were gone in the morning and so were two oxen. Some of their kin got a horse presently, and others began shooting arrows, not yet fatally, into the hides of oxen. And on October 5 the constraints of human association snapped apart.

It was double-teaming up one more of a thousand slopes that did the business. The Reeds had by now merged their small remaining outfit with Eddy’s. Reed’s teamster, Milt Elliott, who was driving the single wagon, had hitched Pike’s team to it for the ascent. Elliott got into a quarrel with John Snyder, of the Graves party, over precedence up the hill. Snyder flamed into a rage and became violently abusive. Reed intercepted his threats. Snyder began to beat Reed over the head with his bullwhip, gashing him badly. Reed drew a knife and stabbed Snyder, just as another blow from the whip knocked him down. Snyder died almost at once. And at once this band of pilgrims traveling the frontier of death was atomized to armed men threatening one another. The Graveses demanded Reed’s life. Keseberg, whom Reed had once insisted on temporarily banishing from the train for rifling an Indian grave and thus risking all their lives, propped up his wagon tongue — they were sufficiently veteran to know that this was how you hanged a man on the trail. Reed, supported by Eddy and Elliott, would not be hanged without some shooting first. When due fear of loaded guns had made itself felt above the blood lust, the party convened as a court, Reed’s wounds bandaged and his wife’s face showing the bruise where Snyder’s whip had struck her. Sentence: on promise of the others to take care of his family, Reed must hereafter travel alone. And unarmed.

Prevailed on by his family, and by the thought that he might bring help to them all, Reed rode ahead the next day. Someone — either Virginia Reed or William Eddy — defied the common will by taking his rifle to him and so giving him a chance to survive. He overtook the forward section and had breakfast with George Donner. One of his teamsters who was traveling with them, Walter Herron, joined him and they went on.

They were six days along the Humboldt stretch of the trail when the quarrel occurred. It took the main party the entire month of October to travel that stretch, go up the Truckee, and reach Truckee Lake just east of the final Sierra crossing. Obeying the law of avalanches, the daily disasters grew worse.

Hardkoop, who was more than sixty years old, had been traveling with Keseberg and had suffered badly from the desert. One morning he could walk no more. Keseberg, with the limpid logic of the German mind, would not take him in a wagon, condemning the unfit for the preservation of the strong. That night he did not come in, and that night and the next day Eddy, Elliott, and Pike would obey the obligations of humanity and go back for him. But they had no horse to ride. Those who had horses would not lend them for such an errand. Let him die. He died.

They caught up with the section that had been leading. At once the Diggers ran off Graves’s horses. The next night they got eighteen oxen and a cow. The following night they playfully shot arrows into some oxen without killing them. The third night they shot twenty-one oxen, and those which were not killed were useless. . . .

The dreary process of combining outfits and caching possessions in the hope of sometime reclaiming them went on. Wolfinger stayed behind one day to cache some of his wealth. Probably he wore a money-belt. His countrymen, Reinhardt and Spitzer, stayed to help him, and Keseberg was also making a cache that day. When Keseberg, alone, caught up with the rest, he was suspected of having killed Wolfinger, but it was Reinhardt and Spitzer who murdered him, got his money-belt if he had one, and reported that Indians had killed him and burned his outfit.

At the end of that desert was the Truckee River. They rested for a day. Reinhardt and Spitzer came in and told their wild West romance. The widow Wolfinger attached herself to the Donners, who crawled ahead of the rest again, and Eddy could get no food for his children. They headed up Truckee Canyon. And then, on the third day, October 19, Stanton came riding in from the west with seven pack mules and two Indians driving them. Sutter, whose mules and Indians they were, had not failed them. Nor had Stanton and McCutchen failed them. McCutchen had given out on the crossing and was laid up at Sutter’s. But Stanton, a bachelor, moved solely by the obligation which most of them daily refused to acknowledge, had, after reaching safety, put his life in jeopardy again and brought back over the divide the food which, for a time, saved the lives of all. He could report that Reed and Herron had got through, though barely. At one point they had found five navy beans spilled from some wagon, and later a tar bucket discarded from another, at the bottom of which was some tallow that they could eat, though it puked Reed. They got down into Bear Valley, however, and, catching up with the rear guard of the emigration, got food and met Stanton.

Stanton took Mrs. Reed and her children under his protection. They came up to the Truckee Meadows. Here they were all together again — something over a dozen decayed wagons, and the oxen and the cows that were yoked with them all but dead. They were a tangle of fear, hatred, family love, friendship, fortitude, panic, and desperate hope. Ahead of them was the worst ascent of all, to the divide above Truckee Lake. If their teams had been sound they could have made it in at most three days. But their teams were hardly alive. They had to rest their stock at the Truckee Meadows — but there had been a number of snowstorms already and the sky above the pass was leaden with the threat of winter. The two dreads made a cruel dilemma. They solved it by lingering to recruit the teams. Stanton had been told at Sutter’s, where the best judgment was to be had, that they could expect nearly a full month more before the snows would begin to block the pass.

They could not even be careful now. William Pike, the husband of Harriet Murphy, handed his pistol to his brother-in-law, Fosdick, and the gun went off. Pike died. Naomi and Catherine were fatherless.

There was another snow. It scared them and, without decision, merely as they could, they started for the pass, traveling in three rough sections. When the first section made camp, the first evening, a Digger skewered nineteen oxen. Eddy killed him. October 25.

The peaks above them were blanketed with snow, and clouds hung round the summits. The advance party reached the lake—or rather a couple of miles short of it, a mile from the Schallenberger cabin — on the evening of the last day of October. It had taken them just three months to get here from Fort Bridger. Four or four and a half months would have been about right for a good crossing from Independence to the Sacramento.

The terrible cold of the high places wrapped them round. On November 1 they tried the ascent. They found five feet of snow in the pass. They came back to the Schallenberger cabin, which the Breens pre-empted. They decided to stay there. On November 2 it rained all day. The middle group, Stanton traveling with them, came up. Stanton found them in the apathy of despair, but roused them, or most of them, to try again on November 3.

Even when there was no snow, wagons were taken up that terrible slope only by an all-out labor of man and beast, by doubling teams, prying with crowbars, blocking wheels with stones and drags, all hands manning ropes. Before they reached the ascent, before they had even passed the lake, they saw that the snow was impassable. They abandoned the wagons, packed what they could on the backs of oxen, tied the now crippled Keseberg to a horse, shouldered the children, and drove the stock ahead of them, to pack down a trail through the snow.

Stanton and an Indian got to the divide . . . and could have gone down the western slope. He came back. To help the others.

But they had reached the extremity and he could not rally them. No more. Don’t call on the outraged flesh or the defeated soul for what is beyond its power. Evening was coming up and they made a fire and stayed close to it, quarreling. Make the effort, don’t make it, stay here for the night, don’t try till morning. They stayed here. So it came on to snow. Strange weights woke them; their companions were sitting up from white mounds and the cattle had disappeared. They understood. The next morning, while the snow fell steadily, they straggled back to their abandoned wagons and on to the little cabin at the lake. That snow caught the rear guard, the Donner families, a few miles farther eastward. They turned up Alder Creek Valley, made camp, and hurriedly felled trees for cabins. There was not time enough for cabins; brush huts must do. The snow fell, almost continuously, for eight days.

Not more than thirty miles to the west, on the far slope of the divide, Reed and McCutchen with a pack train struggled toward them ever more slowly through the same snow, and at last were stopped. They had come up from Sutter’s to Johnson’s ranch with two Indians and thirtyone horses packed with food. Ignorant of what had happened since they left the train, they expected to meet their families on the way down from the divide, doubtless very hungry but safely out of danger. They thought of their desperate journey as one of alleviation only, not rescue.

There was snow to their shoulders, snow so deep that sometimes they had to dig the horses out of it. Finally it stopped them. And while their families and former companions, hardly thirty miles away, built shelters in a realization that the long snow had brought the winter in, Reed and McCutchen, with the same realization, turned back to lower altitudes. Sutter told them that this premature snow had made it impossible for them to do anything till February.


The Breens and Dolan reoccupied a cabin built by emigrants two years before. Keseberg built a lean-to against one of its walls. The Murphys (including the Fosters and the widow Pike and her children) and the Eddys built another log cabin, not far away. Another double cabin was built, one half of it for the Graveses and Mrs. McCutchen and her child, the other for the Reeds, John Denton and the surviving teamsters, Stanton, and Sutter’s two Indians. These were crude log structures, the roofs being merely poles covered with whatever would turn water, or partly turn it. They were better than the huts which the Donners were able to build in Alder Creek Valley. George Donner built a semicircular hut of boughs and canvas against a tall pine, interlacing small branches and covering them with quilts and wagon-covers. It was divided into two crude rooms and had a hole in the ground for a fireplace. Mrs. Wolfinger lived with the George Donners. Jacob Donner built a similar but even cruder structure, across the brook from George. The four teamsters had a Digger-like tepee of brush. There were twentyone people at Alder Creek, sixty at the lake.

They could look up to the crest above them when the snow paused and the clouds withdrew: any help that might reach them would come from the west. But they could not depend on help. They must prepare to pass the winter here without help. The only food they were certain of was the surviving cattle. They saw clearly that they did not have enough for more than half the winter. They tried to catch fish: the trout of the mountain lake would not bite at this season. They tried to hunt: practically all the game had gone down to lower levels. Eddy, tirelessly roaming the snow with his borrowed rifle, killed a coyote, an owl, two ducks, a gray squirrel, and finally a grizzly. Most days he killed nothing.

Successive storms, some of them several shrieking days long, steadily deepened the snow at the camps. The refugees got weaker and more lethargic, making relentless inroads on their stores. The Donner women had to do a man’s work; all the women had to. But in this camp of slowly approaching death, one thinks most painfully of the children.

On November 12, thirteen men and Mary Graves and Sarah Fosdick tried to get over the divide. Of course, both Eddy and Stanton made this attempt. They were stopped a full three miles short of the divide. The snow “was soft and about ten feet deep.” They were back, defeated, by midnight.

After more storms it was possible to make another attempt on November 21. There were twenty-two all told, six of them women. This time, on a firmer snow crust, they actually got over the divide, where Eddy measured the snow and found it twenty-five feet deep, and started down the far side. They were barely strong enough to gather wood for fire, but spent the night in the snow. And spent part of it, the two most resolute, Eddy and Stanton, fatally disagreeing. They had been using Sutter’s mules to break a trail; the mules were done in and must be abandoned. Stanton would not go on without the mules — they belonged to Sutter, and the sacred rights of property required him to return them. Eddy pleaded the imminence of death, in a great gust of rage. No use. The next day they went back over the divide to camp.

Another storm lasted more than a week, while everyone’s strength waned. When it was over, all the oxen and horses that had remained alive were dead and lost beyond recovery under the snow. So were Sutter’s mules, which Graves had not let them kill for food and Stanton had refused to abandon beyond the divide. Graves and Stanton, who were Easterners, were showing their companions how to make snowshoes out of split oxbows and strips of oxhide. There was another storm, which lasted for five days.

At the upper camp Baylis Williams died; at Alder Creek old Jacob Donner, Shoemaker, Rheinhardt, and James Smith.

Fourteen pairs of snowshoes were ready. A party of seventeen prepared to start out: ten men, five women, and two boys. The three who had no snowshoes would trudge behind the others, in the trail they hoped to make. They took a rifle and an axe, a blanket apiece, and minute rations of dried ox meat, which they expected to last for six days. Stanton and his Indians and William Eddy were again the dominant spirits. Uncle Billy Graves, fifty-seven years old and the author of the snowshoes, went along. Mrs. McCutchen left her year-old baby in the care of the invalids and joined the party. Their principal hope was Stanton and the two Indians, who knew the route. December 16 was a clear day after a night of vicious cold. They started out.

It took them a full day to get to the upper end of the lake, about four miles. Two Murphy boys and Burger, Keseberg’s teamster, were the three who started out on foot. Burger and one of the boys gave it up and turned back. That night they made a crude pair of snowshoes for the other boy and he kept on with them. On December 17 they got over the divide, all but dead. They could go down the far slope now, but they were eating an ounce of food a day and the sun gave them snow blindness. Their movement was slow and agonizing, the travel of the half-dead. Stanton, besides being snow-blind, was weakening. On the march he fell behind, coming in to the campfire at night. There were brief, wild, swirling snowstorms. Their feet froze. Mary Graves had a hallucination. They had seen no game. On December 20 they camped far down, beyond the Yuba Bottoms. Stanton came in late to that campfire too. And Stanton was done.

December 21. That morning, going through his little pack, Eddy found half a pound of bear meat which, unknown to him, his wife Eleanor had put there, taking it from her own small store in order, her note said, to save his life in extremity. And when the others prepared to set out the next morning, Stanton sat quietly smoking a pipe. They asked him if he were coming. Yes, he said honorably, he would be along. He sat there, smoking.

On the day before Christmas, their ninth day out, not knowing that they had lost the trail, their last daily mouthful eaten two days before, snow beginning to fall, suddenly a fatality gripped them. All the men except Eddy announced that they would go no farther. But an assertion of human will followed, and Eddy insisted on continuing the effort while life was left to them. The two Indians agreed. So did all the women. “I told them,” Mary Ann Graves said, “I would go too, for to go back and hear the cries of hunger from my little brothers and sisters was more than I could stand. I would go as far as I could, let the consequences be what they might.”

The will prevailed — but also it precipitated another decision. Patrick Dolan voiced the thought which they had so far kept from voicing. Let them draw lots to see which one should be killed. Eddy agreed, Fosdick refused. Then Eddy, in revulsion, proposed a manlier solution: that two of them, selected by lot, take revolvers and shoot it out. In a moment the obvious became obvious to them. Someone would die soon. They groaned on through falling snow.

After they camped that night, the Mexican herder, Antoine, died. And toward ten o’clock the snowstorm changed into a blizzard. A tornado-like wind drove whirlpools of snow at them, their fire went out, they lost their one small axe. Most of them were moaning or screaming in the dark. Uncle Billy Graves was dying, and all but Eddy were willing to die. Eddy spread some blankets on the snow and had his companions sit on them in a circle. He tented them over with the remaining blankets and closed the circle himself. Presently the blizzard covered them over and they could live. But, bidding his daughters eat his body, Uncle Billy died. His corpse upheld his part of the tent all through Christmas Day, while the blizzard howled and made the mound bigger. Dolan died that night, and all that night the storm kept up. It stopped toward midafternoon, the day after Christmas. They crawled out of their mound, made tinder of the cotton lining of a mantua, and got a dead pine tree to burn. So they cut strips from the legs and arms of Patrick Dolan and roasted them. Eddy and the two Indians would not eat, and the food would not revive Lemuel Murphy, who died that night. On December 27 they butchered the bodies of Graves, Dolan, Antoine, and Lemuel Murphy, and dried at the fire such portions as they did not need now. They started out again, a little restored, on December 30.

Back at the lake, Milt Elliott, who was one of Reed’s teamsters, and Noah James, who was one of the Donners’, had started out on December 9 to get news of the Alder Creek camp, and Elliott got back to the lake on December 20. He reported the deaths of Jacob Donner and Samuel Shoemaker and James Smith and Joseph Reinhardt. They had not starved, for some food was left; they had just died. (Before he died, Reinhardt confessed to George Donner that he and Spitzer had murdered Wolfinger.) At Alder Creek they were trying to locate the frozen bodies of the oxen by thrusting poles into the snow, but they were not succeeding. They were catching the field mice that crept into the huts, and eating them. And they had begun the diet that was to be the staple here and at the lake. Strips of oxhide were singed to remove the hair and then boiled for hours, or days, till a kind of glue was formed. (They had some pepper left to season it.) They boiled the bones also till they were soft and could be swallowed, and a faint taste of meat was imparted to the water.

Eliza Donner remembered that one day her mother Tamsen took her up the snow steps to where the dazzling sun shone on the snow and blinded her, and led her to a hole from which smoke was floating up. Uncle Jacob lived there, Tamsen said (but he didn’t live there any more), and they must go down and see Aunt Betsy and Eliza’s little cousins. Eliza peered down that blackness and was afraid. She called to her cousins to come up instead — and was more frightened when they did. They had grown skinny and white, they were strange, suspicious, feral.

They had buried the dead in the snow, which froze over the bodies and then deepened as more storms came. At the lake no one had died since Baylis Williams gave the party an omen for their departure. The huts at the lake were a little better off than those at Alder Creek — in that there were more hides to make glue of, some frozen meat still, a couple of handfuls of flour from which Mrs. Murphy could make gruel for her granddaughter, the infant Catherine Pike. Catherine had been weaned when Harriet Pike went over the divide with William Eddy — weaned on spoonfuls of water thickened a little with this hoarded flour. There were, or had been, four other nursing babies at this camp.

One thinks especially of these and the older children on Christmas Day. They could remember firelight on friendlier snow, Sunday-school classes with scrubbed faces, hymns in warm rooms, going to bed at night, the inexplicable behavior of grownups on Christmas Day, the myth of a fat man who brought gifts. They could remember the Christmas of the vast America far to the eastward of this mountainside where trees cut down for firewood left twenty-foot stumps in the snow and death came slowly to families trapped by Lansford Hastings’s ambition.

Nevertheless there was one Christmas feast at Donner Lake. In her end of the double cabin whose other half was occupied by the remaining Graveses, Mrs. James Frazier Reed had taken thought long before of her children’s memories. When she bought four oxen from the Breens and Graveses, she had cleaned the tripe of one and hung it low outside the cabin, where snow would conceal and preserve it. She had also contrived to store away through nearly eight weeks a quantity of white beans amounting to a cupful, half as much rice, Half as much dried apples, and a two-inch square of bacon. On Christmas Day she took them from the hiding-place and made a stew of them. While the storm that was killing Dolan and Graves on the far side of the ridge buried the cabin still deeper, the children danced round that bubbling pot. Thirteen-year-old Virginia; Patty Reed, eight years old; Jimmy, five, and Tommy, three. There was once more a perfume of the kitchen in the hut, and diced cubes of tripe or bacon jigged on the bubbles while the children shouted. Thinking of her husband, possibly dead, possibly alive somewhere beyond the hurricane of snow, Margaret Reed could nevertheless speak the warning of all mothers on Christmas Day, “Children, eat slowly, there is plenty for all.”


The party with William Eddy are known as “The Forlorn Hope,” and of the fifteen who crossed the divide, ten were left when the Christmas storm was over. Gradually they got down to where patches of bare ground showed through the snow. “ Gradually ” is a word: the meaning is men and women who were all but dead falling forward step by step through a white desolation, the risk of tumbling into oblivion disregarded, their minds dim and submerged in terror. Eddy shot a deer and thereafter could not muster strength enough to raise the rifle. Jay Fosdick died, and his wife saw his heart roasted on a stick, Foster lost his sanity and begged them to kill some of the women; then, when Eddy would not, to kill Sutter’s Indians. The Indians slipped away into the snow, but they failed, and Fosdick shot them before they died. Eddy and Mary Graves forged ahead. It was on January 17 that the others finally gave up and lay down to die. But a handful of pine nuts, given to him by some Indians whom they met at last, revived Eddy. Supported on the shoulders of two Indians, Eddy left bloody footprints across six miles of rough ground and came, an hour before sunset, to a little shack on the edge of Johnson’s ranch, the first outpost of settlement, at the eastern wall of the Sacramento Valley. The shack belonged to M. D. Ritchie, an emigrant of '46, who had settled near Johnson’s for the winter. Young Harriet Ritchie, his daughter, came to the door and Eddy asked her for bread.

Harriet Ritchie burst into tears. But she got him to bed, got bread for him, and ran out among the other shacks, summoning help. Before long, four Americans were hurrying back to find the six survivors whom Eddy had described, and were able to find them by following his bloody footprints. The Forlorn Hope had reached the succor of their own kind — seven of the fifteen who started out, thirty-three days after the beginning of the effort for which they had laid in six days’ rations of two mouthfuls a day.

Now the settlements could learn the truth about the Donner party, of whom they had known only, on Reed’s and McCutchen’s reports, that they were caught in the snows with enough cattle to see them through the winter. Reed had tried to raise help at San Jose but had had to ride out with the local cavalry to help settle disturbances that had followed the Bear Flag uprising, before help could be spared. It was not till February 1 that he was able to get to Yerba Buena (San Francisco) and call a mass meeting. Yerba Buena raised $1300 to equip and pay a relief expedition, and put in charge of it a recent arrival in California, Passed Midshipman Selim Woodworth. He was the son of a journalist who is still remembered as the author of “ The Hunters of Kentucky” and “The Old Oaken Bucket.” Polk had sent him overland to Oregon with news of the termination of Joint Occupation. He was a bad choice. While Woodworth talked and Reed worked furiously preparing his expedition, Sutter’s launch arrived with the tidings which Eddy and the Forlorn Hope had brought. And old Caleb Greenwood came in from Sonoma, where McCutchen had been trying to organize relief, offering to head another expedition. Reed and Greenwood rode off to prepare an advance party, leaving Woodworth to organize supporting expeditions. From this came what is called the Second Relief. But meanwhile the First Relief had left Johnson’s and headed toward the snow, on February 4.

The First Relief originally numbered fourteen, among them William Eddy of the intrepid heart, who had had less than three weeks of rest. They made a base camp at a high ridge well up in the mountains, at Mule Springs, and sent Eddy and another back with the horses, since they would have to go in on foot. They left two others to guard the camp. Four days later, at the foot of the vertical wall that drops down from Emigrant Gap, three of them had had enough. That left seven: two runaway sailors, Sels and Ned Coffeemeyer, and five emigrants of ‘46, Acquilla Glover, Reasin Tucker, the two Rhoads brothers John and Daniel, and the Riley Septimus Mootrey whom we saw married to Mary Lard last June, beside the Platte.

They camped at the western end of the pass on February 17, fourteen days out from Johnson’s. The next day they went over it on their snowshoes, with Glover and Dan Rhoads barely able to cross. They were all day coming down the barrier and following the silent, white lakeside to the huts. They could see no smoke, they could not even see the huts, since they were buried deep, till they came right up to them at sunset. They shouted, wandering if anyone were still alive, and something like a woman came up out of a hole in the snow. The others crawded up the ramp of frozen snow to mew at the seven men from beyond the mountains, in the crimson sunset and the violet shadows of the woods. They looked like mummies; their wailing was cracked and tiny, their cries broke into lunatic talk. Around them at the top of the ramp, in the sunset, lay the bodies of those who had died since the last storm, dragged so far and left uncovered.

Life in those buried huts since December 16, two months before, when the Forlorn Hope departed, is hardly to be understood. Over them were the storms and the sunny, bitter days and the sunny, gentle days. Around them was phantasm, whose figures were both real and unreal. Their minds peeled down to anger and dread, out of which bubbled the primitive delirium for which physicians to the diseased soul probe. No clue told them which of the figures they saw and the voices they heard were hallucinatory and which those of their companions. The mind grew monocular, its vision flat. Up from childhood came the figures of the Old Testament, and from a far more distant past the figure of Lansford Hastings, by whose act they had become animals that died in apathy and animals that lived on, sodden with their personal filth.

Breen was reading his Bible and keeping his diary, one of the most soul-shocking documents in our literature. It details the weather and the deaths, not much language spent on suffering or despair. How the Graveses confiscated the hides that Margaret Reed had bought with promises, how Milt Elliott made good his demand that Margaret be given a hide — the Keseberg babydied last night — “Eddy’s child died last night,” February 5, with Eddy climbing toward Bear Valley in the rain to save little Margaret’s life. Then Mrs. Eddy is growing weaker — Spitzer dies — Mrs. Eddy dies — Keseberg never gets up from bed — “Milt Elliott died last night at Murphy’s shanty,” the last friend of the Reed family gone — John Denton, the English gunsmith, growing weaker — Mrs. Graves takes back the hide that Milt had got for Mrs. Reed (title to it really vested in John Augustus Sutter) — “wind SE all in good health Thanks be to Almighty God Amen” — and the First Relief arrives.

The seven gave them a little food, — it was not safe to give them more, — posted a guard over the packs, and got their first full night’s sleep in a week. The next morning, three of them went on down to Alder Creek. None had died there since the report Milt Elliott brought back, but George Donner appeared to be dying. Tamsen was still strong. She would not leave and neither would Elizabeth, Jacob’s widow. So the rescuers took four of the older children. They also took Noah James and the widow Wolfinger. They left the Donner women and the younger children with one man to take care of them, the worthless Jean Baptiste Trubode. They were counting on the Reed-Greenwood relief being just behind them. They went back to the lake, where their companions were trying to decide which of the babbling, cursing survivors could or should attempt the trip.

That left eleven at Alder Creek, and there was only one hide remaining. As the party started out, Tamsen said staunchly that if food did not come by the time it was used up they would begin eating what they had refrained from eating.

All the Reeds were to go and their surviving hired girl, Eliza Williams. Only Edward, thirteen, and Simon, nine, of the Breen family — who had plenty of hides. William, Eleanor, and Lovina Graves (their father had died on the Forlorn Hope, but the rescuers carefully lied, saying that everyone who tried the crossing had survived); Mary and Sarah had got through, their mother and younger brothers and sisters would wait for the next rescue party. William Murphy, eleven, who had started with the Forlorn Hope but had to come back, and his sister Mary — leaving their mother, feeble and going blind, tenyear-old Simon, and the Pike baby and little George Foster, Mrs. Murphy’s grandchildren. She would also try to take care of James Eddy, William’s surviving child. Mrs. Keseberg was to go, with the surviving Ada, but Keseberg was too sick to make the attempt — and, if later suspicions were correct, he had his eye on the property of the dead. The dying John Denton would start, too, and John Rhoads would carry Naomi Pike, daughter of Harriet Pike of the Forlorn Hope.

Twenty-three all told started with the seven rescuers on February 22. The calm weather still held. They had not gone far when it became obvious that three-year-old Tommy Reed and his eight-year-old sister Patty could not make the journey. Glover told Mrs. Reed that they must be taken back to the huts. “ That was the hardest thing yet,” Virginia’s account runs, “to leave the children in those cabins — not knowing but they would starve to death. Martha [Patty] said, ‘well Mother, if you never see me again, do the best you can.’ The men said they could hardly stand it: it made them cry.” The Breens refused to take them in. Mootrey and Glover had to make detailed promises of reward and at last had to supplement them with threats. Even so they doubted if the children could survive the unwatched charity of the Breens.

The first day Denton failed on the trail and had to be carried into camp. The next day he failed altogether. They built a fire for him and left far more than his share of food, wrapped him in a blanket, and left him to his courage. When they reached the first cache, it had been rifled by martens. There was nothing to do but to send the two strongest ahead, Mootrey and Coffeemeyer (the latter’s snowshoes had been eaten, overnight, by one of his charges). Glover and Dan Rhoads had to go with them; they were exhausted, of no further use. They would either meet another relief party or raise one of the remaining caches and bring back food. That left Sels, Tucker, and John Rhoads to bully and exhort the twenty survivors, give them a shoulder for a few rods, cajole and carry the children by turns. They built fires on log platforms by night. At evening on the fifth day Mootrey and Coffeemeyer came in with packs replenished from the cache at Bear Valley. But they brought also the terrifying news that they had not met any of the other parties who by now should be here.

In the morning they started out again. They must be seen in a line stretching westward below the peaks, among the evergreens, in the snow and silence of the heights. So James Frazier Reed saw them, who was hurrying his Second Relief forward, having met Glover and Dan Rhoads the night before. “Left camp on a fine, hard snow,” Reed’s curt record says, written by firelight in fifteen feet of snow, “and proceeded about four miles, when we met the poor, unfortunate starved people. As I met them scattered along the trail, I distributed some bread that I had baked last night. I gave in small quantities to each. Here I met my wife and two of my little children. Two of my children are still in the mountains. I cannot describe the death-like look all these people had. ‘Bread!’ ‘Bread!’ ‘Bread!’ ‘Bread!’ was the begging cry of every child and grown person. I gave all I had to give them and set out for the scene of desolation at the lake.”

Margaret Reed fainted when the cry came down the straggling line that her husband was here, but Virginia ran and fell and ran again over crusted snow till she was in his arms. They had last seen each other on the Humboldt, with Snyder buried and Milt Elliott cocking his rifle lest Keseberg should prop up his wagon tongue again for a desert hanging. But Patty and Tommy were at the lake, with the unwilling Breens. . . . Reed told the saved that behind him the swiftly organizing Californians were building a series of way stations for them, bountifully supplied with food. The vigilant, resolute Passed Midshipman Woodworth would take care of them. They were, his diary says, “overjoyed.” Reed led his party on and the saved took up the trail again.

Two days later they reached Mule Springs, where by now Woodworth, who was supposed to be the head of the relief efforts, had come up and made a camp. Military man’s camp, with brandy to drink and strikers to rub the commander’s feet with snow, lest they be frostbitten. Virginia Reed was not yet fourteen years old, but this was a frontier community they were coming down to, after all, and one of the emigrants who was shepherding them had an eye to the needs of the commonwealth. He looked at this skinny child and proposed marriage. By that token Virginia, giggling an unpracticed refusal, knew that the ordeal was over and they had come in. (Three months later she wrote her cousin Mary, back in Springfield, “Tell the girls that this is the greatest place for marrying they ever saw and that they must come to California if they want to marry.” Before the year was out she was married.) On March 4 they reached Sutter’s and the nursing of Mrs. Sinclair.


The incompetent Woodworth had missed all the meetings he had arranged, but men like Reed, McCutchen, Miller, Turner, and the Greenwoods did not need help or rely on it. So far they had come on their own, triumphantly, and they hurried on toward the lake. On the way they passed the frozen corpse of John Denton, sitting wrapped in his blanket at the foot of his tree. He had not needed the food in his pockets, but before the end a strange need had come upon him. Dying as a man of honor in the snow, he had taken out his memorandum book and pencil and had written a poem. Reed and his companion did not find it when they passed but William Eddy did, a few days later, and here it is, from the hour of death in the snow: —

O! after many roving years,
How sweet it is to come
Back to the dwelling place of 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
Upon that tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch-elm
That shades the village green;
And watched my boat upon the brook —
It was a regal galley,
And sighed for not a joy on earth
Beyond the happy valley.
I wish I could once more recall
That bright and blissful joy,
And summon to my weary heart
The feelings of a boy.
But now on scenes of past delight
I look, and feel no pleasure,
As misers on the bed of death
Gaze coldly on their treasure.

Early in the morning of March 1, Clark, Cady, and Stone went on down to the first hut. They distributed a little food, and Clark and Cady pushed on to Alder Creek. The others came up at noon and Reed found that Patty and Tommy were alive. At the Murphy cabin they found Stone washing the children’s clothes. They took off their own clothes — need one remark that there were lice? — and began to bathe little James Eddy and George Foster. Finishing this sanitation, Reed and McCutchen began to bathe the disabled Keseberg, who once had propped up his wagon tongue to invoke the justice of the trail on Reed.

Just outside the hut was the dismembered, recognizable body of Milt Elliott. It was nine days since the First Relief had left the lake, and in that interval the survivors had reached the extremity. Breen’s diary, six days earlier, stated: “Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that [she] thought she would commence on Milt and eat him.”She had. The faithful Thornton adds, “Half consumed limbs were seen concealed in trunks. Bones were scattered about. Human hair of different colors was seen in tufts about the fireplace.”

And at Alder Creek the same. Clark and Cady got there at a moment when Trubode, sent by Tamsen to borrow a meal from Elizabeth, was returning with a leg of Elizabeth’s husband, Jacob, and the message that the best of neighbors would be able to spare no more. At sight of the rescuers, he tossed the now unneeded leg back on the butchered corpse. Jacob’s surviving children “were sitting upon a log, with their faces stained with blood, devouring the half roasted liver and heart of the[ir] father, unconscious of the approach of the men, of whom they took not the slightest notice even after they came up.”

Elizabeth had not eaten the food her children fed on, and she was nearly dead. George Donner, Reed’s old friend, with whom he had shared the dream of California in the long planning of an earlier winter — George Donner had a few words of friendship for him but seemed to be dying. Tamsen, keeping her resolution, had kept her strength. Reed could see the bearded face of his other old friend, Jacob, in the snow, the head cut off from the body and the brain opened.

Once more Tamsen would not leave her husband. She would stay beside him while he died. Reed decided that the younger children also must stay here. Surely Woodworth would arrive in two or three days at most, and he was able to leave food enough to last a week. So Tamsen’s three daughters, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza, and Elizabeth’s two youngest sons, Lewis and Samuel, would stay at Alder Creek, waiting for the largest and best-supplied of all the relief parties, as Woodworth’s would surely be. Reed left Cady and Clark to care for them and took Elizabeth’s three remaining children with him. At the lake he chose Patrick and Margaret Breen, Mrs. Graves, and eleven children. That left the two helpless adults, Keseberg and Mrs. Murphy, and three children, Simon Murphy, James Eddy, and George Foster. Stone was left to care for them, and Woodworth with many men and much food must come down from the pass any day now.

Woodworth was not coming; he never came. So the return of the Second Relief, which should have been the most successful, constitutes the final catastrophe of the Donner party.

Like the First Relief, Reed’s men had been scrupulous not to allude to the deaths of the Forlorn Hope, and Mrs. Graves was taking to her dead son-in-law, Jay Fosdick, the violin she had watched over for him at the huts. Patrick Breen played on it for hours, the first two nights out, serene in the belief that they were safe at last. That music is a bizarre touch, for already the Second Relief were in ghastly danger. They had counted on traveling faster than it was possible to travel with so many children, most of whom the seven rescuers had to carry in turn. And they were counting on meeting Woodworth.

Even before they got over the divide, Reed sent three of his best men ahead — Turner, Gendreau, and Dofar — to bring back food, whether by lifting the nearest cache or by urging Woodworth on if they should meet him. The four remaining rescuers got their seventeen charges over the divide and down to the head of the Yuba. The three who had been sent ahead should join them here if they found the first cache intact. But it had been rifled by animals and they had to go on.

On March 6 just such a storm as the Forlorn Hope had had to live through struck the Second Relief. From Reed’s diary: “The men up nearly all night making fires. Some of the men begin praying. Several of them became blind. I could not see the light of the fire blazing before me nor tell when it was burning. . . . The snow blows so thick and fast that we cannot see twenty feet looking against the wind. I dread the coming night. Three of my men only able to get wood. ‘Hungry,’ ‘Hungry,’ is the cry with the children and nothing to give them. ‘Freezing!’ is the cry of the mothers who have nothing for their little, starving, freezing children. Night closing fast and with it the hurricane increases.”

The storm lasted two full days and three nights. Once the fire was blown out altogether, but McCutchen and Hiram Miller got it blazing again. During the last night five-year-old Isaac Donner died quietly, unnoticed, lying between his sister Mary and Patty Reed. When the wind dropped and the snow ceased on March 8, they had to make their last try. The four rescuers could travel. They would take the two Reed children and Solomon Hook (Elizabeth Donner’s son) and Mary Donner. The Graveses could not travel. The Breens would not Patrick’s will to survive had gone out and Reed’s pleas and commands would not budge him. They cut wood for the eleven they were leaving behind and started off, Miller carrying Tommy Reed. That afternoon Patty seemed to be dying. Her father had saved about a teaspoonful of crumbs in the thumb of his mitten. He gave it to her, he warmed her with his own body, and the child came back. Her heart rose too: “God has not brought us so far to let ns perish now,” she told them. She is a slightly formidable child, this eight-year-old with an ancient fatalism and an ancient hope, but she was holding them to the job. The first night after the storm they camped beside the Yuba. The feet of several were frozen. No sign of Turner, Gendreau, and Dofar. No sight of Passed Midshipman Woodworth. But Cady and Stone, who had been left to take care of the starving, came down from the pass. They brought no one with them, not even a child. But they had a pack of table silver, silk dresses, and other valuables that had been the Donners’.

Nothing could be said to men who had broken their trust: whosoever chooses to save his own skin is entitled to. In the morning they started off together, and another fraction of the Donner party were leaving bloody footprints on the snow. Late in the afternoon they found some food hanging from a tree at the end of a rope. Turner, Gendreau, and Dofar had hung it there, finding a little left in the second cache. They struggled on. They camped for the night, building another fire. Cady and Brit Greenwood, their toes frozen, pushed on a little way. They shouted to the others. Their shouts were answered — from the wrong direction. The tip of another relief party had reached them. Howard Oakley and John Starks, of that party, came to the fire with food. Later Midshipman Woodworth, here making his farthest venture toward the pass, came up. Later still the two men appeared who had shamed, threatened, and bullied Woodworth to this effort. They were William Eddy and William Foster of the Forlorn Hope, who two months before had been murderously attacking each other in the snow.

Reed and those with him were safe now. But there were the Breens and Graveses back in the snow, and there were the others at the lake and Alder Creek. Eddy and Foster were blazing to go on, but at first could get no companions except John Starks, who had come up with Woodworth, and the staunch Hiram Miller, who had just come down with Reed. Eddy and Foster pleaded with the others and finally determined to go alone. Reed persuaded them against suicide, got them all to go back to Woodworth’s luxurious base camp in Bear Valley, and there renewed his pledges of high pay. Howard Oakley volunteered. So did another of Woodworth’s men, named Thompson. So did Starks and Hiram Miller. So did the recreant Stone. On March 11, the Third Relief really got going. Let it be remembered that Foster and Eddy had been with the Forlorn Hope, and Hiram Miller had just escaped death on the Second Relief.

It was at Woodworth’s camp that Patty Reed revealed the secret she had kept throughout this last journey of cold and agony. Before leaving the huts she had wrapped up her treasure in a little bundle. Doubtless it had sustained her through the days after her mother left her there. Doubtless it had been a solace through long days of dust along the trail last summer and she had cherished it when the wagons parked at night beneath twisted buttes or when she came footsore to bed in the Wasatch or when the grownups argued or despaired along the Humboldt. Leaving the lake, she had hidden it under her dress, knowing that the men would make her throw away the slightest weight, even so slight a weight as this. There was a tiny glass salt cellar, one of those jewels that arc precious to children. There was a small wooden doll with black hair and black eyes. And there was a lock of gray hair, her grandmother’s hair. When Mrs. Keyes had died, way back at the Big Blue, Patty herself had snipped that lock before they buried Grandmother, before John Denton, now dead below the Sierra, chiseled her name in stone. She had wrapped them all in a shred of lawn dotted with blue flowers. Now she was safe in California and could bring out the treasure and settle down to play.


It was due to the will of Eddy and Foster that Woodworth had nerved himself to come as far as this. The two men were friends again, companions in anxiety. The return of the First Relief with its starving refugees informed Eddy that his wife and daughter were dead but that his son and Foster’s were still living when the refugees left. When the last storm ended, the two got horses and rode furiously toward the mountains, knowing that the Second Relief would be in terrible danger but believing that Woodworth would be hurrying to rescue them. Reaching Woodworth, who bandaged his cowardice with innumerable justifications, they had cursed him and his five men as far as the camp from which they had heard the shouts of Reed’s party.

Late in the afternoon of March 12, the seven reached the survivors in the pit which their sinking fire had made—twenty-five feet deep, bare ground at the bottom. It was the fifth day since Reed had left here. Little Isaac had died before that. Since then the five-year-old Franklin Graves had died and so had his mother. Her year-old daughter Elizabeth, when the rescuers got there, “sat at her side,” Thornton says, “one arm on the body of its mangled mother, and sobbing bitterly cried ‘Ma! Ma! Ma!’”

Eddy, Foster, Thompson, and Miller, after leaving the camp whence Starks, Stone, and Oakley were taking their charges down, were able to cross the divide in a few hours. Mrs. Murphy, nearly blind and almost dead, answered their question with a single word. George Foster and James Eddy were dead. The terrified Donner children thought then, and thought throughout their lives, that Keseberg, now a mere sac of bestiality, had killed little George Foster. Whether they were right or not, Keseberg could stand there in the hut and remark to Eddy and Foster that he had eaten their sons.

Besides Keseberg and Mrs. Murphy, there were still alive in this room littered with filth and butchered corpses the three Donner girls, Simon Murphy, and — Tamsen Donner. Tamsen had come here from Alder Creek desperate for word about her children.

She could have gone over the divide with this, the Third Relief. But George Donner, her husband, somehow had not yet died when she left Alder Creek. Moreover, she supposed that Clark and Trubode were there, and she had a duty to tell them the rescuers had come. Eddy pleaded with her, setting out the logic of her going with him. But no. If they would wait while she went back to her own huts at Alder Creek (Elizabeth was dead, everyone was dead but George and Elizabeth’s little Samuel) it might be that they would find that her husband had died. But the trip would consume another full day and they could not wait. So Tamsen said good-bye once more to Frances, Georgia, and Eliza. She would go back and sit beside George Donner and, when the time came, close his eyes.

Two hours after reaching the huts, they started back. Mrs. Murphy obviously could not be taken. Neither — if anyone cared — could Keseberg. They did all that they could for the dying widow Murphy and then took charge of a child apiece. Miller carried Eliza, but the others could mostly walk by themselves. They reached the foot of the pass and camped for the night.

. . . And Clark and Trubode joined them, Clark carrying a heavy pack of loot, instead of Samuel Donner, whom he might have brought from Alder Creek.

The rest is the memories of children. On the second day Hiram Miller’s kindness cracked and Eliza remembered that he bribed her to walk with a promise of sugar which he did not have. Then he punished her. She was lonesome for her mother. Frances stormed at Eliza’s persecutor. Eddy found a bundle beside the trail, and when they opened it at the evening fire it proved to be the spoons and silks which Cady had abandoned when his feet swelled. So Thompson, who had freviously made some moccasins for Frances, got out his needle again and from the fine silk dresses made sleeping bags for the three little girls. They wore them on the trail too, the next day the dove-colored silk for Frances, the light brown for Georgia, and the dark brown for Eliza. Eliza remembered passing a dim, wailing line of children and John Starks setting two down irom his shoulders beside the trail and going back for two more. Then there was shouting. They had met Glover, Coffeemeyer, Mootrey, and Woodworth. It was March 17 and their mother had been right. God had taken care of the children who had been told always to say that they were the children of George Donner.


The survivors were brought down to Sutter’s as soon as they could travel, and there they might grow from death to life and to the expectation of a new home in the West. Two families had come through intact, the Reeds and the Breens — the most complex nervous systems, one thinks, and the simplest. The others were variously reduced. All the Donners were orphans (Hiram Miller would be appointed their guardian) and William Eddy had lost his entire family. Everyone who has written about the Donners has remarked that the women had withstood the trial better than the men.

The final expedition was made primarily to salvage the property of the survivors. It was headed by Thomas Fallon, a Canadian mountain man. Five veterans of the reliefs joined him, and an emigrant from Johnson’s. They left Johnson’s on April 13 and found no snow till they reached the head of Bear Valley, whence they went in, like all their predecessors, on foot with packs. They thought that Tamsen and Keseberg might still be alive, but found no one at the lake, which they reached on April 17. They did find a scene which shocked Fallon, whose nerves were probably strong. He mentions the body of Mrs. Eddy, “the limbs sawed off and a frightful gash in the skull,” and other “sights from which we would have fain turned away.” They went on to Alder Creek, which looked worse. The Donner property, broken open by Keseberg and probably by Diggers as well, was scattered all about. At the mouth of a hut — the snow had mostly melted away — was a kettle full of pieces of the body of George Donner. They judged that, amazingly, he had been dead no longer than four days. They noticed that legs of oxen, reclaimed from the snow that had preserved them, had not been eaten.

They made up packs of valuables, and four of them started back to the lake. There they found Keseberg, whose tracks they had seen in the melting snow and who had been keeping away from them.

Like a monomaniac squirrel, Keseberg had filled his noisome burrow with possessions of the Donners. Fallon was a curt man; he put the rope to Keseberg’s neck and commanded him to reveal where the money was. He got $517. Cady and Stone had got as much before. No more of the thousands of dollars in cash which the Donners brought with them was ever found.

Keseberg’s story was that Tamsen had come to the lake in delirium after George Donner died. She was raving, babbling of children, the pass, her dead husband. Keseberg said he warmed her and put her to bed and the next morning found her dead. The salvage party could identify no trace of her body, unless there might be fragments of it in the pan or in “the two kettles oi human blood, in all supposed to be over a gallon.” Since she had been in excellent strength three weeks before, in fact a little corpulent, they believed that Keseberg had killed her. He denied it and went on denying it through the rest of his life. But there in the cabin he told them that “he ate her body and found her flesh the best he had ever tasted. He further stated that he obtained from her body at least four pounds of fat.”

They took Keseberg with them when they started back on April 23, as they might have taken an abandoned dog from the scene of a friend’s disaster. The snow in the pass was only six feet deep. On April 25 they were back at their horse-camp. The episode was over, and so was the work of Lansford Hastings. There had been eighty-two of them when they reached the Sierra, after five had died this side of the Wasatch. Thirty-five of these had died and, besides them, two of the rescuers, Luis and Salvador, the Indians. Forty-seven had come through to the end of the trail and might now set about fulfilling the dream that had started them toward Independence on this journey, in April just a year before Fallon brought Keseberg down to Bear Valley.

(To be continued)