The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate
by Eliza P. Donner Houghton
Chicago, A.C. McClurg & co., 1911.
©transcribed by K. Torp, Genealogy Trails
Eliza Houghton (b. 1843) was the youngest child of George Donner, one of two Springfield, Illinois, brothers who organized the ill-fated California-bound emigrant party that bore their name. Eliza and her older sisters were rescued by relief parties that made their way to the stranded travellers at Donner Lake, but their parents perished, and the girls were left to make their way alone in the West. The expedition of the Donner party and its tragic fate (1911) begins with Mrs. Houghton's account of her childhood and the family's tragic overland journey, and rescue. She continues with her life as an orphan, first at Fort Sutter, and then with a family in Sonoma and with her older half-sister in Sacramento.
PRIOR to the year 1845, that great domain lying west of the Rocky Mountains and extending to the Pacific Ocean was practically unknown. About that time, however, the spirit of inquiry was awakening. The powerful voice of Senator Thomas H. Benton was heard, both in public address and in the halls of Congress, calling attention to Oregon and California. Captain John C. Frémont's famous topographical report and maps had been accepted by Congress, and ten thousand copies ordered to be printed and distributed to the people throughout the United States. The commercial world was not slow to appreciate the value of those distant and hitherto unfrequented harbors. Tales of the equable climate and the marvellous fertility of the soil spread rapidly, and it followed that before the close of 1845, pioneers on the western frontier of our ever expanding republic were preparing to open a wagon route to the Pacific coast.
After careful investigation and consideration, my father, George Donner, and his elder brother, Jacob, decided to join the westward migration, selecting California as their destination. My mother was in accord with my father's wishes, and helped him to carry out his plan.
At this time he was sixty-two years of age, large, fine-looking, and in perfect health. He was of German parentage, born of Revolutionary stock just after the close of the war. The spirit of adventure, with which he was strongly imbued, had led him in his youth from North Carolina, his native State, to the land of Daniel Boone, thence to Indiana, to Illinois, to Texas, and ultimately back to Illinois, while still in manhood's prime.
By reason of his geniality and integrity, he was widely known as “Uncle George” in Sangamon County, Illinois, where he had broken the virgin soil two and a half miles from Springfield, when that place was a small village. There he built a home, acquired wealth, and took an active part in the development of the country round about.
Twice had he been married, and twice bereft by death when he met my mother, Tamsen Eustis Dozier, then a widow, whom he married May 24, 1839. She was a native of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She was cultured, and had been a successful teacher and writer. Their home became the local literary center after she was installed as its mistress.
My father had two sons and eight daughters when she became his wife; but their immediate family circle consisted only of his aged parents, and Elitha and Leanna, young daughters of his second marriage, until July 8, 1840, when blue-eyed Frances Eustis was born to them. On the fourth of December, 1841, brown-eyed Georgia Ann was added to the number; and on the eighth of March, 1843, I came into this world.
I grew to be a healthy, self-reliant child, a staff to my sister Georgia, who, on account of a painful accident and long illness during her first year, did not learn to walk steadily until after I was strong enough to help her to rise, and lead her to a sand pile near the orchard, where we played away the bright days of two uneventful years.
With the approaching Winter of 1845 popular interest in the great territory to the west of us spread to our community. Maps and reports were eagerly studied. The few old letters which had been received from traders and trappers along the Pacific coast were brought forth for general perusal. The course of the reading society which met weekly at our home was changed, in order that my mother might read to those assembled the publications which had kindled in my father and uncle the desire to migrate to the land so alluringly described. Prominent among these works were “Travels Among the Rocky Mountains, Through Oregon and California,” by Lansford W. Hastings, and also the “Topographical Report, with Maps Attached,” by Captain Frémont, which has been already mentioned.
The Springfield Journal, published by Mr. Allen Francis, appeared with glowing editorials, strongly advocating emigration to the Pacific coast, and its columns contained notices of companies forming in Southern and Southwestern States, each striving to be ready to join the “Great Overland Caravan,” scheduled to leave Independence, Missouri, for Oregon, early in May, 1846.
Mr. James F. Reed, a well-known resident of Springfield, was among those who urged the formation of a company to go directly from Sangamon County to California. Intense interest was manifested; and had it not been for the widespread financial depression of that year, a large number would have gone from that vicinity. The great cost of equipment, however, kept back many who desired to make the long journey.
As it was, James F. Reed, his wife and four children, and Mrs. Keyes, the mother of Mrs. Reed; Jacob Donner, his wife, and seven children; and George Donner, his wife, and five children; also their teamsters and camp assistants, --thirty-two persons all told, --constituted the first emigrant party from Illinois to California. The plan was to join the Oregon caravan at Independence, Missouri, continue with it to Fort Hall, and thence follow Frémont's route to the Bay of San Francisco.
The preparations made for the journey by my parents were practical. Strong, commodious emigrant wagons were constructed especially for the purpose. The oxen to draw them were hardy, well trained, and rapid walkers. Three extra yoke were provided for emergencies. Cows were selected to furnish milk on the way. A few young beef cattle, five saddle-horses, and a good watch-dog completed the list of live stock.
After carefully calculating the requisite amount of provisions, father stored in his wagons a quantity that was deemed more than sufficient to last until we should reach California. Seed and implements for use on the prospective farms in the new country also constituted an important part of our outfit. Nor was that all. There were bolts of cheap cotton prints, red and yellow flannels, bright-bordered handkerchiefs, glass beads, necklaces, chains, brass finger rings, earrings, pocket looking-glasses and divers other knickknacks dear to the hearts of aborigines. These were intended for distribution as peace offerings among the Indians. Lastly, there were rich stores of laces, muslins, silks, satins, velvets and like cherished fabrics, destined to be used in exchange for Mexican land-grants in that far land to which we were bound.
My mother was energetic in all these preparations, but her special province was to make and otherwise get in readiness a bountiful supply of clothing. She also superintended the purchase of materials for women's handiwork, apparatus for preserving botanical specimens, water colors and oil paints, books and school supplies; these latter being selected for use in the young ladies' seminary which she hoped to establish in California.
A liberal sum of money for meeting incidental expenses and replenishing supplies on the journey, if need be, was stored in the compartments of two wide buckskin girdles, to be worn in concealment about the person. An additional sum of ten thousand dollars, cash, was stitched between the folds of a quilt for safe transportation. This was a large amount for those days, and few knew that my parents were carrying it with them. I gained my information concerning it in later years from Mr. Francis, to whom they showed it.
To each of his grown children my father deeded a fair share of his landed estate, reserving one hundred and ten acres near the homestead for us five younger children, who in course of time might choose to return to our native State.
As time went on, our preparations were frequently interrupted by social obligations, farewell visits, dinners, and other merrymakings with friends and kindred far and near. Thursday, April 15, 1846, was the day fixed for our departure, and the members of our household were at work before the rosy dawn. We children were dressed early in our new linsey travelling suits; and as the final packing progressed, we often peeped out of the window at the three big white covered wagons that stood in our yard.
In the first were stored the merchandise and articles not to be handled until they should reach their destination; in the second, provisions, clothing, camp tools, and other necessaries of camp life. The third was our family home on wheels, with feed boxes attached to the back of the wagon-bed for Fanny and Margaret, the favorite saddle-horses, which were to be kept ever close at hand for emergencies.
Early in the day, the first two wagons started, each drawn by three yoke of powerful oxen, whose great moist eyes looked as though they too had parting tears to shed. The loose cattle quickly followed, but it was well on toward noon before the family wagon was ready.
Then came a pause fraught with anguish to the dear ones gathered about the homestead to say farewell. Each tried to be courageous, but not one was so brave as father when he bade good-bye to his friends, to his children, and to his children's children.
I sat beside my mother with my hand clasped in hers, as we slowly moved away from that quaint old house on its grassy knoll, from the orchard, the corn land, and the meadow; as we passed through the last pair of bars, her clasp tightened, and I, glancing up, saw tears in her eyes and sorrow in her face. I was grieved at her pain, and in sympathy nestled closer to her side and sat so quiet that I soon fell asleep. When I awoke, the sun still shone, but we had encamped for the night on the ground where the State House of Illinois now stands.
Mr. Reed and family, and my uncle Jacob and family, with their travelling equipments and cattle, were already settled there. Under father's direction, our own encampment was soon accomplished. By nightfall, the duties of the day were ended, and the members of our party gathered around one fire to spend a social hour.
Presently, the clatter of galloping horses was heard, and shortly thereafter eight horsemen alighted, and with merry greetings joined our circle. They were part of the reading society, and had come to hold its last reunion beside our first camp-fire. Mr. Francis was among them, and took an inventory of the company's outfit for the benefit of the readers of The Springfield Journal.
They piled more wood on the blazing fire, making it a beacon light to those who were watching from afar; they sang songs, told tales, and for the time being drove homesickness from our hearts. Then they rode away in the moonlight, and our past was a sweet memory, our future a beautiful dream.
William Donner, my half-brother, came to camp early next morning to help us to get the cattle started, and to accompany us as far as the outskirts of civilization.
We reached Independence, Missouri, on the eleventh of May, with our wagons and cattle in prime condition, and our people in the best of spirits. Our party
encamped near that bustling frontier town, and were soon a part of the busy crowds, making ready for the great prairie on the morrow. Teams thronged the highways; troops of men, women, and children hurried nervously about seeking information and replenishing supplies. Jobbers on the street were crying their wares, anxious to sell anything or everything required, from a shoestring to a complete outfit for a four months' journey across the plains. Beads of sweat clung to the merchants' faces as they rushed to and fro, filling orders. Brawny blacksmiths, with breasts bared and sleeves rolled high, hammered and twisted red hot metal into the divers forms necessary to repair yokes and wagons.
Good fellowship prevailed as strangers met, each anxious to learn something of those who might by chance become his neighbors in line.
Among the pleasant acquaintances made that day, was Mr. J. Q. Thornton, a young attorney from Quincy, Illinois, who, with his invalid wife, was emigrating to Oregon. He informed us that himself and wife and ex-Governor Boggs and family, of Missouri, were hourly expecting Alphonso Boone, grandson of Daniel Boone; and that as soon as Boone and his family should arrive from Kentucky, they would all hasten on to join Colonel Russell's California company, which was already on the way, but had promised to await them somewhere on the Kansas River.
It was then believed that at least seven thousand emigrant wagons would go West, through Independence, that season. Obviously the journey should be made while pasturage and water continued plentiful along the route. Our little party at once determined to overtake Colonel Russell and apply for admission to his train, and for that purpose we resumed travel early on the morning of May twelfth.
As we drove up Main Street, delayed emigrants waved us a light-hearted good-bye, and as we approached the building of the American Tract Society, its agent came to our wagons and put into the hand of each child a New Testament, and gave to each adult a Bible, and also tracts to distribute among the heathen in the benighted land to which we were going. Near the outskirts of town we parted from William Donner, took a last look at Independence, turned our backs to the morning sun, and became pioneers indeed to the Far West.
DURING our first few days in the Territory of Kansas we passed over good roads, and through fields of May blossoms musical with the hum of bees and the songs of birds. Some of the party rode horseback; others walked in advance of the train; but each father drove his own family team. We little folk sat in the wagons with our dolls, watching the huge white-covered “prairie schooners” coming from Santa Fé to Independence for merchandise. We could hear them from afar, for the great wagons were drawn by four or five span of travel-worn horses or mules, and above the hames of each poor beast was an arch hung with from three to five clear-toned bells, that jingled merrily as their carriers moved along, guided by a happy-go-lucky driver, usually singing or whistling a gleeful tune. Both man and beast looked longingly toward the town, which promised companionship and revelry to the one, and rest and fodder to the other.
We overtook similar wagons, heavily laden with goods bound for Santa Fé. Most of the drivers were shrewd; all of them civil. They were of various nationalities; some comfortably clad, others in tatters, and a few in picturesque threadbare costumes of Spanish finery. Those hardy wayfarers gave us much valuable information regarding the route before us, and the Indian tribes we should encounter. We were now averaging a distance of about two and a half miles an hour, and encamping nights where fuel and water could be obtained.
Early on the nineteenth of May we reached Colonel Russell's camp on Soldiers' Creek, a tributary of the Kansas River. The following account of the meeting held by the company after our arrival is from the journal of Mr. Edwin Bryant, author of “What I Saw in California”:
May 19, 1846. A new census of our party was taken this morning; and it was found to consist of 98 fighting men, 50 women, 46 wagons, and 350 cattle. Two divisions were made for convenience in travelling. We were joined to-day by nine wagons from Illinois belonging to Mr. Reed and Messrs. Donner, highly respectable and intelligent gentlemen with interesting families. They were received into the company by a unanimous vote.
Our cattle were allowed to rest that day; and while the men were hunting and fishing, the women spread the family washings on the boughs and bushes of that well-wooded stream. We children, who had been confined to the wagon so many hours each day, stretched our limbs, and scampered off on Mayday frolics. We waded the creek, made mud pies, and gathered posies in the narrow glades between the cottonwood, beech, and alder trees. Colonel Russell was courteous to all;
visited the new members, and secured their cheerful indorsement of his carefully prepared plan of travel. He was at the head of a representative body of pioneers, including lawyers, journalists, teachers, students, farmers, and day-laborers, also a minister of the gospel, a carriage-maker, a cabinet-maker, a stone-mason, a jeweller, a blacksmith, and women versed in all branches of woman's work.
The government of these emigrant trains was essentially democratic and characteristically American. A captain was chosen, and all plans of action and rules and regulations were proposed at a general assembly, and accepted or rejected by majority vote. Consequently, Colonel Russell's function was to preside over meetings, lead the train, locate camping ground, select crossings over fordable streams, and direct the construction of rafts and other expedients for transportation over deep waters.
A trumpet call aroused the camp at dawn the following morning; by seven o'clock breakfast had been cooked and served, and the company was in marching order. The weather was fine, and we followed the trail of the Kansas Indians, toward the Big Blue.
At nooning our teams stood in line on the road chewing the cud and taking their breathing spell, while families lunched on the grass in restful picnic style. Suddenly a gust of wind swept by; the sky turned a greenish gray; black clouds drifted over the face of the sun; ominous sounds came rumbling from distant hills, and before our effects could be collected and returned to cover, a terrific thunderstorm was upon us.
We were three hours' distance from our evening camp-ground and our drivers had to walk and face that buffeting storm in order to keep control of the nervous cattle. It was still raining when we reached the knoll where we could spend the night. Our men were tired and drenched, some of them cross; fires were out of the question until fuel could be cut and brought from the edge of a swamp a mile from camp. When brought, the green wood smoked so badly that suppers were late and rather cheerless; still there was spirit enough left in those stalwart hearts to start some mirth-provoking ditty, or indulge in good-natured raillery over the joys and comforts of pioneering.
Indians had followed our train all day, and as we had been warned against leaving temptation within reach, the cattle were corralled early and their guards doubled. Happily, the night passed without alarm or losses. The following day we were joined by ex-Governor Boggs and companions, and lost Mr. Jordan and friends of Jackson, Missouri, who drew their thirteen wagons out of line, saying that their force was strong enough to travel alone, and that Captain Russell's company had become too large for rapid or convenient handling.
We covered fourteen miles that day over a beautiful rolling prairie, dotted with Indian lodges. Frequently their owners walked or rode beside our wagons, asking for presents. Mrs. Kehi-go-wa-chuck-ee was made happy by the gift of a dozen strings of glass beads, and the chief also kindly accepted a few trinkets and a contribution of tobacco, and provisions, after which he made the company understand that for a consideration payable in cotton prints, tobacco, salt pork, and flour, he himself and his trusted braves would become escort to the train in order to protect its cattle from harm, and its wagons from the pilfering hands of his tribesmen. His offer was accepted, with the condition that he should not receive any of the promised goods until the last wagon was safe beyond his territory. This bargain was faithfully kept, and when we parted from the Indians, they proceeded to immediate and hilarious enjoyment of the unwonted luxuries thus earned.
We were now in line with spring storms, which made us victims of frequent downpours and cyclonic winds. The roads were heavy, and the banks of streams so steep that often the wagons had to be lowered by aid of rope and chain. Fortunately our people were able to take these trying situations philosophically, and were ever ready to enjoy the novelties of intervening hours of calm and sunshine.
The staid and elderly matrons spent most of their time in their wagons, knitting or patching designs for quilts. The younger ones and the girls passed theirs in the saddle. They would scatter in groups over the plains to investigate distant objects, then race back, and with song and banter join husband and brother, driving the loose cattle in the rear. The wild, free spirit of the plain often prompted them to invite us little ones to seats behind them, and away we would canter with the breeze playing through our hair and giving a ruddy glow to our cheeks.
Mr. Edwin Bryant, Mr. and Mrs. Thornton, and my mother were enthusiastic searchers for botanical and geological specimens. They delved into the ground, turning over stones and scraping out the crevices, and zealously penetrated the woods to gather mosses, roots, and flowering plants. Of the rare floral specimens and perishable tints, my mother made pencil and water-color studies, having in view the book she was preparing for publication.
On ascending the bluff overlooking the Big Blue, early on the afternoon of the twenty-sixth of May, we found the river booming, and the water still rising. Driftwood and good sized logs were floating by on a current so strong that all hope of fording it vanished even before its depth was measured. We encamped on the slope of the prairie, near a timber of cottonwood, oak, beech, and sycamore trees, where a clear brook rushed over its stony bed to join the Big Blue. Captain Russell, with my father and other sub-leaders, examined the river banks for marks of a ford.
By sunset the river had risen twenty inches and the water at the ford was two hundred yards in width. A general meeting was called to discuss the situation. Many insisted that the company, being comfortably settled, should wait until the waters receded; but the majority agreeing with the Captain, voted to construct a raft suitable to carry everything except the live stock, which could be forced to swim.
The assembly was also called upon to settle a difference between two members of our Oregon contingent, friendly intervention having induced the disputants to suspend hostilities until their rights should be thus determined. The assembly, however, instead of passing upon the matter, appointed a committee to devise a way out of the difficulty. J. Q. Thornton's work, “Oregon and California,” has this reference to that committee, whose work was significant as developed by later events:
Ex-Governor Boggs, Mr. James F. Reed, Mr. George Donner, and others, myself included, convened in a tent according to appointment of a general assembly of the emigrants, with the design of preparing a system of laws for the purpose of preserving order, etc. We proposed a few laws without, however, believing that they would possess much authority. Provision was made for the appointment of a court of arbitrators to hear and decide disputes, and to try offenders against the peace and good order of the company.
The fiercest thunderstorm that we had yet experienced raged throughout that night, and had we not been protected by the bluff on one side, and the timber on the other, our tents would have been carried away by the gale.
The Big Blue had become so turbulent that work on the prospective craft was postponed, and our people proceeded to make the most of the unexpected holiday. Messrs. Grayson and Branham found a bee tree, and brought several buckets of delicious honey into camp. Mr. Bryant gathered a quantity of wild peas, and distributed them among the friends who had spices to turn them into sweet pickles.
The evening was devoted to friendly intercourse, and the camp was merry with song and melodies dear to loved ones around the old hearthstones.
Meanwhile, Captain Russell had drawn a plan of the craft that should be built, and had marked the cotton-wood trees on the river bank, half a mile above camp, that would furnish the necessary materials.
Bright and early the following morning, volunteer boat-builders went to work with a will, and by the close of day had felled two trees about three and a half feet in diameter, had hollowed out the trunks, and made of them a pair of canoes twenty-five feet in length. In addition to this, they had also prepared timbers for the frames to hold them parallel, and insure the wagon wheels a steady place while being ferried across the river.
The workers were well satisfied with their accomplishment. There was, however, sorrow instead of rejoicing in camp, for Mrs. Reed's aged mother, who had been failing for some days, died that night. At two o'clock the next afternoon, she was buried at the foot of a monarch oak, in a neat cottonwood coffin, made by men of the party, and her grave was marked by a headstone.
The craft being finished on the morning of the thirtieth of May, was christened Blue Rover, and launched amid cheers of the company. Though not a thing of beauty, she was destined to fulfill the expectations of our worthy Captain. One set of guide-ropes held her in place at the point of embarkation, while swimmers on horseback carried another set of ropes across the river and quickly made them fast. Only one wagon at a time could cross, and great difficulty was experienced in getting the vehicles on and off the boat. Those working near the bank stood in water up to their armpits, and frequently were in grave peril. By the time the ninth wagon was safely landed, darkness fell.
The only unforeseen delay that had occurred was occasioned by an awkward slip of the third wagon while being landed. The Blue Rover groaned under the shock, leaned to one side and swamped one of the canoes. However, the damage was slight and easily repaired. The next day was Sunday; but the work had to go on, and the Rev. Mr. Cornwall was as ready for it as the rest of the toilers.
Much anxiety was experienced when the cattle were forced into the water, and they had a desperate struggle in crossing the current; but they finally reached the opposite bank without accident. Each family embarked in its own wagon, and the last was ferried over in the rain at nine o'clock that night. The ropes were then detached from the Blue Rover, and she drifted away in the darkness.
Captain Russell had despatched matters vigorously and tactfully, and when the labors of that day were completed, still had a word of cheer for the shivering, hungry travellers, whom he led into camp one mile west of the memorable Big Blue. Despite stiff joints and severe colds, all were anxious to resume travel at the usual hour next day, June the first.
WE were now near the haunts of the Pawnee Indians, reported to be “vicious savages and daring thieves.” Before us also stretched the summer range of the antelope, deer, elk, and buffalo. The effort to keep out of the way of the Pawnees, and the desire to catch sight of the big game, urged us on at a good rate of speed, but not fast enough to keep our belligerents on good behavior. Before night they had not only renewed their former troubles, but come to blows, and insulted our Captain, who had tried to separate them. How the company was relieved of them is thus told in Mr. Bryant's Journal:
June 2, 1846, the two individuals at variance about their oxen and wagon were emigrants to Oregon, and some eighteen or twenty wagons now travelling with us were bound to the same place.
It was proposed in order to relieve ourselves from consequences of dispute in which we had no interest, that all Oregon emigrants should, in respectful manner and friendly spirit, be requested to separate themselves from the California, and start on in advance of us. The proposition was unanimously carried; and the spirit in which it was made prevented any bad feeling which otherwise might have resulted from it. The Oregon emigrants immediately drew their wagons from the corrals and proceeded on their way.
The Oregon company was never so far in advance that we could not hear from it, and on various occasions, some of its members sent to us for medicines and other necessaries.
Our fear of the Pawnees diminished as we proceeded, and met in their haunts only friendly Indians returning from the hunt, with ponies heavily laden with packs of jerked meats and dried buffalo tongues. At least one brave in each party could make himself understood by word or sign. Many could pronounce the one word “hogmeat,” and would show what they had to exchange for the coveted luxury. Others also begged for “tobac,” and sugar, and generally got a little.
A surprising number of trappers and traders, returning to the United States with their stocks of peltry, camped near us from time to time. They were glad to exchange information, and kept us posted in regard to the condition of the migrants, and the number of wagons on the road in advance. These rough-looking fellows courteously offered to carry the company's mail to the nearest post-office. Mr. Bryant and my mother availed themselves of the kindness, and sent letters to the respective journals of which they were correspondents.
Another means of keeping in touch with travelling parties in advance was the accounts that were frequently found written on the bleaching skulls of animals, or on trunks of trees from which the bark had been stripped, or yet again, on pieces of paper stuck in the clefts of sticks driven into the ground close to the trail. Thus each company left greetings and words of cheer to those who were following. Lost cattle were also advertised by that means, and many strays or convalescents were found and driven forward to their owners.
Early June afforded rarest sport to lovers of the chase, and our company was kept bountifully supplied with choicest cuts of antelope, deer, and elk meat, also juicy buffalo steak. By the middle of the month, however, our surroundings were less favorable. We entered a region of oppressive heat. Clouds of dust enveloped the train. Wood became scarce, and water had to be stored in casks and carried between supply points. We passed many dead oxen, also a number of poor cripples that had been abandoned by their unfeeling owners. Our people, heeding these warnings, gave our cattle extra care, and lost but few.
Through the kindness of the Hon. Allen Francis, U.S. Consul at Victoria, British Columbia, for a long term of years, and in his earlier career editor of The Springfield Journal, I have in my possession two letters written by my mother for this paper. They give a glimpse of the party en route. The interval of time which elapsed between the date of writing and that of publication indicates how much faster our trapper letter-carriers must have travelled on horseback than we had by ox train.
The following was published on the twenty-third of July:
NEAR THE JUNCTION OF THE NORTH
AND SOUTH PLATTE, June 16, 1846
MY OLD FRIEND:
We are now on the Platte, two hundred miles from Fort Laramie. Our journey so far has been pleasant, the roads have been good, and food plentiful. The water for part of the way has been indifferent, but at no time have our cattle suffered for it. Wood is now very scarce, but “buffalo chips” are excellent; they kindle quickly and retain heat surprisingly. We had this morning buffalo steaks broiled upon them that had the same flavor they would have had upon hickory coals.
We feel no fear of Indians, our cattle graze quietly around our encampment unmolested.
Two or three men will go hunting twenty miles from camp; and last night two of our men lay out in the wilderness rather than ride their horses after a hard chase.
Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started. Our wagons have not needed much repair, and I can not yet tell in what respects they could be improved. Certain it is, they can not be too strong. Our preparations for the journey might have been in some respects bettered.
Bread has been the principal article of food in our camp. We laid in 150 pounds of flour and 75 pounds of meat for each individual, and I fear bread will be scarce. Meat is abundant. Rice and beans are good articles on the road; cornmeal, too, is acceptable. Linsey dresses are the most suitable for children. Indeed, if I had one, it would be acceptable. There is so cool a breeze at all times on the plains that the sun does not feel so hot as one would suppose.
We are now four hundred and fifty miles from Independence. Our route at first was rough, and through a timbered country, which appeared to be fertile. After striking the prairie, we found a first-rate road, and the only difficulty we have had, has been in crossing the creeks. In that, however, there has been no danger.
I never could have believed we could have travelled so far with so little difficulty. The prairie between the Blue and the Platte rivers is beautiful beyond description. Never have I seen so varied a country, so suitable for cultivation.
Everything was new and pleasing; the Indians frequently come to see us, and the chiefs of a tribe breakfasted at our tent this morning. All are so friendly that I can not help feeling sympathy and friendship for them. But on one sheet what can I say?
Since we have been on the Platte, we have had the river on one side and the ever varying mounds on the other, and have travelled through the bottom lands from one to two miles wide, with little or no timber. The soil is sandy, and last year, on account of the dry season, the emigrants found grass here scarce. Our cattle are in good order, and when proper care has been taken, none have been lost. Our milch cows have been of great service, indeed. They have been of more advantage than our meat. We have plenty of butter and milk.
We are commanded by Captain Russell, an amiable man. George Donner is himself yet. He crows in the morning and shouts out, “Chain up, boys!” chain up!” with as much authority as though he was “something in particular.” John Denton is still with us. We find him useful in the camp. Hiram Miller and Noah James are in good health and doing well. We have of the best people in our company, and some, too, that are not so good.
Buffaloes show themselves frequently.
We have found the wild tulip, the primrose, the lupine, the eardrop, the larkspur, and creeping hollyhock, and a beautiful flower resembling the blossom of the beech tree, but in bunches as large as a small sugar loaf, and of every variety of shade, to red and green.
I botanize and read some, but cook “heaps” more. There are four hundred and twenty wagons, as far as we have heard, on the road between here and Oregon and California.
Give our love to all inquiring friends. God bless them.
MRS. GEORGE DONNER.
The following extract is part of a letter which appeared in The Springfield Journal of July 30, 1846* :
[Note : When Mr. Francis was appointed U.S. Consul by President Lincoln, he stored his files of The Springfield, Illinois, Journal, and upon his return from Victoria, B.C., found the files almost destroyed by attic rodents, and my mother's earlier contributions in verse and prose, as well as her letters while en route to California were practically illegible.]
SOUTH FORK OF THE NEBRASKA,
TEN MILES FROM THE CROSSING,
Tuesday, June 16, 1846
To-day, at nooning, there passed, going to the States, seven men from Oregon, who went out last year. One of them was well acquainted with Messrs. Ide and Cadden Keyes, the latter of whom, he says, went to California. They met the advance Oregon caravan about 150 miles west of Fort Laramie, and counted in all, for Oregon and California (excepting ours), 478 wagons. There are in our company over 40 wagons, making 518 in all; and there are said to be yet 20 behind. To-morrow we cross the river, and, by reckoning, will be over 200 miles from Fort Laramie, where we intend to stop and repair our wagon wheels. They are nearly all loose, and I am afraid we will have to stop sooner, if there can be found wood suitable to heat the tires. There is no wood here, and our women and children are out now gathering “buffalo chips” to burn, in order to do the cooking. These chips burn well.
MRS. GEORGE DONNER.
On the eighteenth of June, Captain Russell, who had been stricken with bilious fever, resigned his office of leader. My father and other subordinate officers also resigned their positions. The assembly tendered the retiring officials a vote of thanks for faithful service; and by common consent, ex-Governor Boggs moved at the head of the train and gave it his name.
We had expected to push on to Fort Laramie without stopping elsewhere, but when we reached Fort Bernard, a small fur-trading post ten miles east of Fort Laramie, we learned that the Sioux Indians were gathering on Laramie Plain, preparing for war with the Crows, and their allies, the Snakes; also that the emigrants already encamped there found pasturage very short. Consequently, our train halted at this more advantageous point, where our cattle could be sent in charge of herders to browse along the Platte River, and where the necessary materials could be obtained to repair the great damage which had been done to our wagon wheels by the intense heat of the preceding weeks.
Meanwhile, Messrs. Russell and Bryant, with six young bachelor friends, found an opportunity to finish their journey with pack animals. They exchanged with traders from New Mexico their wagons and teams for the requisite number of saddle-horses, mules, pack-saddles, and other equipment, which would enable them to reach California a month earlier than by wagon route.
Both parties broke camp at the same hour on the last day of June, they taking the bridle trail to the right, and we turning to the left across the ridge to Fort Laramie.
Not an emigrant tent was to be seen as we approached the fort, but bands of horses were grazing on the plain, and Indians smeared with war-paint, and armed with hunting knives, tomahawks, bows and arrows, were moving about excitedly. They did not appear to notice us as we drove to the entrance of the strongly fortified walls, surrounding the buildings of the American Fur Company, yet by the time we were ready to depart, large crowds were standing close to our wagons to receive the presents which our people had to distribute among them. Many of the squaws and papooses were gorgeous in white doe skin suits, gaudily trimmed with beads, and bows of bright ribbons. They formed a striking contrast to us, travel-stained wayfarers in linsey dresses and sun-bonnets. Most of the white men connected with the fort had taken Indian wives and many little children played around their doors.
Mr. Bourdeau, the general manager at the fort, explained to us that the emigrants who had remained there up to the previous Saturday were on that day advised by several of the Sioux chiefs, for whom he acted as spokesman, to resume their journey before the coming Tuesday, and to unite in strong companies, because their people were in large force in the hills, preparing to go out on the war-path in the country through which the travellers had yet to pass; that they were not pleased with the whites; that many of their warriors were cross and sulky in anticipation of the work before them; and that any white persons found outside the fort upon their arrival might be subject to robbery and other bad treatment.” This advice of the chiefs had awakened such fear in the travellers that every camp-fire was deserted before sunrise the ensuing morning. We, in turn, were filled with apprehension, and immediately hurried onward in the ruts made by the fleeing wagons of the previous day.
Before we got out of the country of the Sioux, we were overtaken by about three hundred mounted warriors. They came in stately procession, two abreast; rode on in advance of our train; halted, and opened ranks; and as our wagons passed between their lines, the warriors took from between their teeth, green twigs, and tossed them toward us in pledge of friendship, then turned and as quietly and solemnly as they had come to us, rode toward the hills. A great sigh of relief expressed the company's satisfaction at being again alone; still no one could feel sure that we should escape a night attack. Our trail led up into the hills, and we travelled late into the night, and were again on the way by morning starlight. We heard wolf yelps and owl hoots in the distance, but were not approached by prowlers of any kind.
ON the second of July we met Mr. Bryant returning to prevail on some man of our company to take the place of Mr. Kendall of the bridle party, who had heard such evil reports of California from returning trappers that his courage had failed, and he had deserted his companions and joined the Oregon company. Hiram Miller, who had driven one of my father's wagons from Springfield, took advantage of this opportunity for a faster method of travel and left with Mr. Bryant.
The following evening we encamped near the reenforced bridle party, and on the morning of the Fourth Messrs. Russell and Bryant came over to help us to celebrate our national holiday. A salute was fired at sunrise, and later a platform of boxes was arranged in a grove close by, and by half-past nine o'clock every one in camp was in holiday attire, and ready to join the procession which marched around the camp and to the adjacent grove. There, patriotic songs were sung, the Declaration of Independence was read, and Colonel Russell delivered an address. After enjoying a feast prepared by the women of the company, and drinking to the health and happiness of friends and kindred in reverent silence, with faces toward the east, our guests bade us a final good-bye and godspeed.
We had on many occasions entertained eastward-bound rovers whose varied experiences on the Pacific coast made them interesting talkers. Those who favored California extolled its excellence, and had scant praise for Oregon. Those who loved Oregon described its marvellous advantages over California, and urged home-seekers to select it as the wiser choice; consequently, as we neared the parting of the ways, some of our people were in perplexity which to choose.
On the nineteenth of July we reached the Little Sandy River and there found four distinct companies encamped in neighborly groups, among them our friends, the Thorntons and Rev. Mr. Cornwall. Most of them were listed for Oregon, and were resting their cattle preparatory to entering upon the long, dry drive of forty miles, known as “Greenwood's Cut-off.”
There my father and others deliberated over a new route to California.
They were led to do so by “An Open Letter,” which had been delivered to our company on the seventeenth by special messenger on horseback. The letter was written by Lansford W. Hastings, author of “Travel Among the Rocky Mountains, Through Oregon and California.” It was dated and addressed, “At the Headwaters of the Sweetwater: To all California Emigrants now on the Road,” and intimated that, on account of war between Mexico and the United States, the Government of California would probably oppose the entrance of American emigrants to its territory; and urged those on the way to California to concentrate their numbers and strength, and to take the new and better route which he had explored from Fort Bridger, by way of the south end of Salt Lake. It emphasized the statement that this new route was nearly two hundred miles shorter than the old one by way of Fort Hall and the headwaters of Ogden's River, and that he himself would remain at Fort Bridger to give further information, and to conduct the emigrants through to the settlement.
The proposition seemed so feasible, that after cool deliberation and discussion, a party was formed to take the new route.
My father was elected captain of this company, and from that time on it was known as the “Donner Party.” It included our original Sangamon County folks (except Mrs. Keyes and Hiram Miller), and the following additional members: Patrick Breen, wife, and seven children; Lewis Keseberg, wife, and two children; Mrs. Lavina Murphy (a widow) and five children; William Eddy, wife, and two children; William Pike, wife, and two children; William Foster, wife, and child; William McCutchen, wife, and child; Mr. Wolfinger and wife; Patrick Doland, Charles Stanton, Samuel Shoemaker, --Hardcoop, --Spitzer, Joseph Reinhart, James Smith, Walter Herron, and Luke Halloran.
While we were preparing to break camp, the last named had begged my father for a place in our wagon. He was a stranger to our family, afflicted with consumption, too ill to make the journey on horseback, and the family with whom he had travelled thus far could no longer accommodate him. His forlorn condition appealed to my parents and they granted his request.
All the companies broke camp and left the Little Sandy on the twentieth of July. The Oregon division with a section for California took the right-hand trail for Fort Hall; and the Donner Party, the left-hand trail to Fort Bridger.
After parting from us, Mr. Thornton made the following note in his journal:
July 20, 1846. The Californias were much elated and in fine spirits, with the prospect of better and nearer road to the country of their destination. Mrs. George Donner, however, was an exception. She was gloomy, sad, and dispirited in view of the fact that her husband and others could think of leaving the old road, and confide in the statement of a man of whom they knew nothing, but was probably some selfish adventurer.
Five days later the Donner Party reached Fort Bridger, and were informed by Hasting's agent that he had gone forward as pilot to a large emigrant train, but had left instructions that all later arrivals should follow his trail. Further, that they would find “an abundant supply of wood, water, and pasturage along the whole line of road, except one dry drive of thirty miles, or forty at most; that they would have no difficult cañons to pass; and that the road was generally smooth, level, and hard.”
At Fort Bridger, my father took as driver for one of his wagons, John Baptiste Trubode, a sturdy young mountaineer, the offspring of a French father--a trapper--and a Mexican mother. John claimed to have a knowledge of the languages and customs of various Indian tribes through whose country we should have to pass, and urged that this knowledge might prove helpful to the company.
The trail from the fort was all that could be desired, and on the third of August, we reached the crossing of Webber River, where it breaks through the mountains into the cañon. There we found a letter from Hastings stuck in the cleft of a projecting stick near the roadside. It advised all parties to encamp and await his return for the purpose of showing them a better way than through the cañon of Webber River, stating that he had found the road over which he was then piloting a train very bad, and feared other parties might not be able to get their wagons through the cañon leading to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
He referred, however, to another route which he declared to be much better, as it avoided the cañon altogether. To prevent unnecessary delays, Messrs. Reed, Pike, and Stanton volunteered to ride over the new route, and, if advisable, bring Hastings back to conduct us to the open valley. After eight days Mr. Reed returned alone, and reported that he and his companions overtook Hastings with his train near the south end of Salt Lake; that Hastings refused to leave his train, but was finally induced to go with them to the summit of a ridge of the Wahsatch Mountains and from there point out as best he could, the directions to be followed.
While exploring on the way back, Mr. Reed had become separated from Messrs. Pike and Stanton and now feared they might be lost. He himself had located landmarks and blazed trees and felt confident that, by making occasional short clearings, we could get our wagons over the new route as outlined by Hastings. Searchers were sent ahead to look up the missing men, and we immediately broke camp and resumed travel.
The following evening we were stopped by a thicket of quaking ash, through which it required a full day's hard work to open a passageway. Thence our course lay through a wilderness of rugged peaks and rockbound cañons until a heavily obstructed gulch confronted us. Believing that it would lead out to the Utah River Valley, our men again took their tools and became roadmakers. They had toiled six days, when W. F. Graves, wife, and eight children; J. Fosdick, wife, and child, and John Snyder, with their teams and cattle, overtook and joined our train. With the assistance of these three fresh men, the road, eight miles in length, was completed two days later. It carried us out into a pretty mountain dell, not the opening we had expected.
Fortunately, we here met the searchers returning with Messrs. Pike and Stanton. The latter informed us that we must turn back over our newly made road and cross a farther range of peaks in order to strike the outlet to the valley. Sudden fear of being lost in the trackless mountains almost precipitated a panic, and it was with difficulty that my father and other cool-headed persons kept excited families from scattering rashly into greater dangers.
We retraced our way, and after five days of alternate travelling and road-making, ascended a mountain so steep that six and eight yoke of oxen were required to draw each vehicle up the grade, and most careful handling of the teams was necessary to keep the wagons from toppling over as the straining cattle zigzaged to the summit. Fortunately, the slope on the opposite side was gradual and the last wagon descended to camp before darkness obscured the way.
The following morning, we crossed the river which flows from Utah Lake to Great Salt Lake and found the trail of the Hastings party. We had been thirty days in reaching that point, which we had hoped to make in ten or twelve.
The tedious delays and high altitude wrought distressing changes in Mr. Halloran's condition, and my father and mother watched over him with increasing solicitude. But despite my mother's unwearying ministrations, death came on the fourth of September. Suitable timber for a coffin could not be obtained, so his body was wrapped in sheets and carefully enclosed in a buffalo robe, then reverently laid to rest in a grave on the shore of Great Salt Lake, near that of a stranger, who had been buried by the Hastings party a few weeks earlier.
Mr. Halloran had appreciated the tender care bestowed upon him by my parents, and had told members of our company that in the event of his death on the way, his trunk and its contents, and his horse and its equipments should belong to Captain Donner. When the trunk was opened, it was found to contain clothing, keepsakes, a Masonic emblem, and fifteen hundred dollars in coin.
A new inventory, taken about this time, disclosed the fact that the company's stock of supplies was insufficient to carry it through to California. A call was made for volunteers who should hasten on horseback to Sutter's Fort, procure supplies and, returning, meet the train en route. Mr. Stanton, who was without family, and Mr. McCutchen, whose wife and child were in the company, heroically responded. They were furnished with necessaries for their personal needs, and with letters to Captain Sutter, explaining the company's situation, and petitioning for supplies which would enable it to reach the settlement. As the two men rode away, many anxious eyes watched them pass out of sight, and many heartfelt prayers were offered for their personal safety, and the success of their mission.
In addressing this letter to Captain Sutter, my father followed the general example of emigrants to California in those days, for Sutter, great-hearted and generous, was the man to whom all turned in distress or emergencies. He himself had emigrated to the United States at an early age, and after a few years spent in St. Louis, Missouri, had pushed his way westward to California.
There he negotiated with the Russian Government for its holdings on the Pacific coast, and took them over when Russia evacuated the country. He then established himself on the vast estates so acquired, which, in memory of his parentage, he called New Helvetia. The Mexican Government, however, soon assumed his liabilities to the Russian Government, and exercised sovereignty over the territory. Sutter's position, nevertheless, was practically that of a potentate. He constructed the well-known fort near the present site of the city of Sacramento, as protection against Indian depredations, and it became a trading centre and rendezvous for incoming emigrants.
OUR next memorable camp was in a fertile valley where we found twenty natural wells, some very deep and full to the brim of pure, cold water. They varied from six inches to several feet in diameter, the soil around the edges was dry and hard, and as fast as water was dipped out, a new supply rose to the surface.”* Grass was plentiful and wood easily obtained. Our people made much of a brief stay, for though the weather was a little sharp, the surroundings were restful. Then came a long, dreary pull over a low range of hills, which brought us to another beautiful valley where the pasturage was abundant, and more wells marked the site of good camping grounds.
Close by the largest well stood a rueful spectacle, --a bewildering guide board, flecked with bits of white paper, showing that the notice or message which had recently been pasted and tacked thereon had since been stripped off in irregular bits.
In surprise and consternation, the emigrants gazed at its blank face, then toward the dreary waste beyond. Presently, my mother knelt before it and began searching for fragments of paper, which she believed crows had wantonly pecked off and dropped to the ground.
Spurred by her zeal, others also were soon on their knees, scratching among the grasses and sifting the loose soil through their fingers. What they found, they brought to her, and after the search ended she took the guide board, laid it across her lap, and thoughtfully began fitting the ragged edges of paper together and matching the scraps to marks on the board. The tedious process was watched with spellbound interest by the anxious group around her.
The writing was that of Hastings, and her patchwork brought out the following words:
“2 days--2 nights--hard driving--cross--desert--reach water.”
This would be a heavy strain on our cattle, and to fit them for the ordeal they were granted thirty-six hours' indulgence near the bubbling waters, amid good pasturage. Meanwhile, grass was cut and stored, water casks were filled, and rations were prepared for desert use.
We left camp on the morning of September 9, following dimly marked wagon-tracks courageously, and entered upon the “dry drive,” which Hastings and his agent at Fort Bridger had represented as being thirty-five miles, or forty at most. After two days and two nights of continuous travel, over a waste of alkali and sand, we were still surrounded as far as eye could see by a region of fearful desolation. The supply of feed for our cattle was gone, the water casks were empty, and a pitiless sun was turning its burning rays upon the glaring earth over which we still had to go.
Mr. Reed now rode ahead to prospect for water, while the rest followed with the teams. All who could walk did so, mothers carrying their babes in their arms, and fathers with weaklings across their shoulders moved slowly as they urged the famishing cattle forward. Suddenly an outcry of joy gave hope to those whose courage waned. A lake of shimmering water appeared before us in the near distance, we could see the wavy grasses and a caravan of people moving toward it.
“It may be Hastings!” was the eager shout. Alas, as we advanced, the scene vanished! A cruel mirage, in its mysterious way, had outlined the lake and cast our shadows near its shore.
Disappointment intensified our burning thirst, and my good mother gave her own and other suffering children wee lumps of sugar, moistened with a drop of peppermint, and later put a flattened bullet in each child's mouth to engage its attention and help keep the salivary glands in action.
Then followed soul-trying hours. Oxen, footsore and weary, stumbled under their yokes. Women, heartsick and exhausted, could walk no farther. As a last resort, the men hung the water pails on their arms, unhooked the oxen from the wagons, and by persuasion and force, drove them onward, leaving the women and children to await their return. Messrs. Eddy and Graves got their animals to water on the night of the twelfth, and the others later. As soon as the poor beasts were refreshed, they were brought back with water for the suffering, and also that they might draw the wagons on to camp. My father's wagons were the last taken out. They reached camp the morning of the fifteenth.
Thirty-six head of cattle were left on that desert, some dead, some lost. Among the lost were all Mr. Reed's herd, except an ox and a cow. His poor beasts had become frenzied in the night, as they were being driven toward water, and with the strength that comes with madness, had rushed away in the darkness. Meanwhile, Mr. Reed, unconscious of his misfortune, was returning to his family, which he found by his wagon, some distance in the rear. At daylight, he, with his wife and children, on foot, overtook my Uncle Jacob's wagons and were carried forward in them until their own were brought up.
After hurriedly making camp, all the men turned out to hunt the Reed cattle. In every direction they searched, but found no clue. Those who rode onward, however, discovered that we had reached only an oasis in the desert, and that six miles ahead of us lay another pitiless barren stretch.
Anguish and dismay now filled all hearts. Husbands bowed their heads, appalled at the situation of their families. Some cursed Hastings for the false statements in his open letter and for his broken pledge at Fort Bridger. They cursed him also for his misrepresentation of the distance across this cruel desert, traversing which had wrought such suffering and loss. Mothers in tearless agony clasped their children to their bosoms, with the old, old cry, “Father, Thy will, not mine, be done.”
It was plain that, try as we might, we could not get back to Fort Bridger. We must proceed regardless of the fearful outlook.
After earnest consultation, it was deemed best to dig a trench and cache all Mr. Reed's effects, except such as could be packed into one wagon, and were essential for daily use. This accomplished, Messrs. Graves and Breen each loaned him an ox, and these in addition to his own ox and cow yoked together, formed his team. Upon examination, it was found that the woodwork of all the wagons had been shrunk and cracked by the dry atmosphere. One of Mr. Keseberg's and one of my father's were in such bad condition that they were abandoned, left standing near those of Mr. Reed, as we passed out of camp.
The first snow of the season fell as we were crossing the narrow strip of land upon which we had rested and when we encamped for the night on its boundary, the waste before us was as cheerless, cold, and white as the winding sheet which enfolds the dead.
At dawn we resumed our toilful march, and travelled until four o'clock the following morning, when we reached an extensive valley, where grass and water were plentiful. Several oxen had died during the night, and it was with a caress of pity that the surviving were relieved of their yokes for the day. The next sunrise saw us on our way over a range of hills sloping down to a valley luxuriant with grass and springs of delicious water, where antelope and mountain sheep were grazing, and where we saw Indians who seemed never to have met white men before. We were three days in crossing this magnificent stretch of country, which we called, “Valley of Fifty Springs.” In it, several wagons and large cases of goods were cached by our company, and secret marks were put on trees near by, so that they could be recovered, should their owners return for them.
While on the desert, my father's wagons had travelled last in the train, in order that no one should stray, or be left to die alone. But as soon as we reached the mountainous country, he took the lead to open the way. Uncle Jacob's wagons were always close to ours, for the two brothers worked together, one responding when the other called for help; and with the assistance of their teamsters, they were able to free the trail of many obstructions and prevent unnecessary delays.
From the Valley of Fifty Springs, we pursued a southerly course over more hills, and through fertile valleys, where we saw Indians in a state of nudity, who looked at us from a distance, but never approached our wagons, nor molested any one. On the twenty-fourth of September, we turned due north and found the tracks of wagon wheels, which guided us to the valley of “Mary's River,” or “Ogden's River,” and on the thirtieth, put us on the old emigrant road leading from Fort Hall. This welcome landmark inspired us with renewed trust; and the energizing hope that Stanton and McCutchen would soon appear, strengthened our sorely tried courage. This day was also memorable, because it brought us a number of Indians who must have been Frémont's guides, for they could give information, and understand a little English. They went into camp with us, and by word and sign explained that we were still far from the sink of Mary's River, but on the right trail to it.
After another long day's drive, we stopped on a mountain-side close to a spring of cold, sweet water. While supper was being prepared, one of the fires crept beyond bounds, spread rapidly, and threatened destruction to part of our train. At the critical moment two strange Indians rushed upon the scene and rendered good service. After the fire was extinguished, the Indians were rewarded, and were also given a generous meal at the tent of Mr. Graves. Later, they settled themselves in friendly fashion beside his fire and were soon fast asleep. Next morning, the Indians were gone, and had taken with them a new shirt and a yoke of good oxen belonging to their host.
Within the week, Indians again sneaked up to camp, and stole one of Mr. Graves's saddle-horses. These were trials which made men swear vengeance, yet no
one felt that it would be safe to follow the marauders. Who could know that the train was not being stealthily followed by cunning plunderers who would await their chance to get away with the wagons, if left weakly guarded?
Conditions now were such that it seemed best to divide the train into sections and put each section under a sub-leader. Our men were well equipped with side arms, rifles, and ammunition; nevertheless, anxious moments were common, as the wagons moved slowly and singly through dense thickets, narrow defiles, and rugged mountain gorges, one section often being out of sight of the others, and each man realizing that there could be no concerted action in the event of a general attack; that each must stay by his own wagon and defend as best he could the lives committed to his care. No one rode horseback now, except the leaders, and those in charge of the loose cattle. When darkness obscured the way, and after feeding-time, each section formed its wagons into a circle to serve as cattle corral, and night watches were keenly alert to give a still alarm if anything unusual came within sight or sound.
Day after day, from dawn to twilight, we moved onward, never stopping, except to give the oxen the necessary nooning, or to give them drink when water was available. Gradually, the distance between sections lengthened, and so it happened that the wagons of my father and my uncle were two days in advance of the others, on the eighth of October, when Mr. Reed, on horseback, overtook us. He was haggard and in great tribulation. His lips quivered as he gave substantially the following account of circumstances which had made him the slayer of his friend, and a lone wanderer in the wilderness.
On the morning of October 5, when Mr. Reed's section broke camp, he and Mr. Eddy ventured off to hunt antelope, and were shot at a number of times by Indians with bows and arrows. Empty-handed and disappointed, the two followed and overtook their companions about noon, at the foot of a steep hill near “Gravelly Ford,” where the teams had to be doubled for the ascent. All the wagons, except Pike's and Reed's, and one of Graves's in charge of John Snyder, had already been taken to the top. Snyder was in the act of starting his team, when Milton Elliot, driving Reed's oxen, with Eddy's in the lead, also started. Suddenly, the Reed and Eddy cattle became unmanageable, and in some way got mixed up with Snyder's team. This provoked both drivers, and fierce words passed between them. Snyder declared that the Reed team ought to be made to drag its wagon up without help. Then he began to beat his own cattle about the head to get them out of the way.
Mr. Reed attempted to remonstrate with him for his cruelty, at which Snyder became more enraged, and threatened to strike both Reed and Elliot with his whip for interfering. Mr. Reed replied sharply that they would settle the matter later. This, Synder took as a threat, and retorted, “No, we'll settle it right here,” and struck Reed over the head with the butt end of his whip, cutting an ugly scalp wound.
Mrs. Reed, who rushed between the two men for the purpose of separating them, caught the force of the second blow from Snyder's whip on her shoulder. While dodging the third blow, Reed drew his hunting knife and stabbed Snyder in the left breast. Fifteen minutes later, John Snyder, with his head resting on the arm of William Graves, died, and Mr. Reed stood beside the corpse, dazed and sorrowful.
Near-by sections were immediately called into camp, and gloom, consternation, and anger pervaded it. Mr. Reed and family were taken to their tent some distance from the others and guarded by their friends. Later, an assembly was convened to decide what should be done. The majority declared the deed murder, and demanded retribution. Mr. Eddy and others pleaded extenuating circumstances and proposed that the accused should leave the camp. After heated discussion this compromise was adopted, the assembly voting that Mr. Reed should be banished from the company.
Mr. Reed maintained that the deed was not prompted by malice, that he had acted in self-defence and in defence of his wife; and that he would not be driven from his helpless, dependent family. The assembly promised that the company would care for his family, and limited his stay in camp. His wife, fearing the consequence of noncompliance with the sentence, begged him to abide by it, and to push on the settlement, procure food and assistance, and return for her and their children. The following morning, after participating in the funeral rites over the lamented dead, Mr. Reed took leave of his friends and sorrowing family and left the camp.
The group around my father's wagon were deeply touched by Mr. Reed's narrative. Its members were friends of the slain and of the slayer. Their sympathies clustered around the memory of the dead, and clung to the living. They deplored the death of a fellow traveller, who had manfully faced many hardships, and was young, genial, and full of promise. They regretted the act which took from the company a member who had been prominent in its organization, had helped to formulate its rules, and had, up to that unfortunate hour, been a co-worker with the other leading spirits for its best interests. It was plain that the hardships and misfortunes of the journey had sharpened the tempers of both men, and the vexations of the morning had been too much for the overstrained nerves.
Mr. Reed breakfasted at our tent, but did not continue his journey alone. Walter Herron, one of my father's helpers, decided to accompany him, and after hurried preparations, they went away together, bearing an urgent appeal from my father to Captain Sutter for necessary teams and provisions to carry the company through to California, also his personal pledge in writing that he would be responsible for the payment of the debt as soon as he should reach the settlement. My father believed the two men would reach their destination long before the slowly moving train.
Immediately after the departure of Messrs. Reed and Herron, our wagons moved onward. Night overtook us at a grewsome place where wood and feed were scarce and every drop of water was browned by alkali. There, hungry wolves howled, and there we found and buried the bleaching bones of Mr. Sallé, a member of the Hastings train, who had been shot by Indians. After his companions had left his grave, the savages had returned, dug up the body, robbed it of its clothing, and left it to the wolves.
At four o'clock the following morning, October 10, the rest of the company, having travelled all night, drove into camp. Many were in a state of great excitement, and some almost frenzied by the physical and mental suffering they had endured. Accounts of the Reed-Snyder tragedy differed somewhat from that we had already heard. The majority held that the assembly had been lenient with Mr. Reed and considerate for his family; that the action taken had been largely influenced by rules which Messrs. Reed, Donner, Thornton, and others had suggested for the government of Colonel Russell's train, and that there was no occasion for criticism, since the sentence was for the transgression, and not for the individual.
The loss of aged Mr. Hardcoop, whose fate was sealed soon after the death of John Synder, was the subject of bitter contention. The old man was travelling with the Keseberg family, and, in the heavy sand, when that family walked to lighten the load, he was required to do likewise. The first night after leaving Gravelly Ford, he did not come into camp with the rest. The company, fearing something amiss, sent a man on horseback to bring him in. He was found five miles from camp, completely exhausted and his feet in a terrible condition.
The following morning, he again started with Keseberg, and when the section had been under way only a short time, the old man approached Mr. Eddy and begged for a place in some other wagon, saying he was sick and exhausted, and that Keseberg had put him out to die. The road was still through deep, loose sand, and Mr. Eddy told him if he would only manage to go forward until the road should be easier on the oxen, he himself would take him in. Hardcoop promised to try, yet the roads became so heavy that progress was yet slower and even the small children were forced to walk, nor did any one see when Mr. Hardcoop dropped behind.
Mr. Eddy had the first watch that night, and kept a bright fire burning on the hillside in hopes that it would guide the belated into camp. Milton Elliot went on guard at midnight, and kept the fire till morning, yet neither sign nor sound of the missing came over that desolate trail.
In vain the watchers now besought Keseberg to return for Hardcoop. Next they applied to Messrs. Graves and Breen, who alone had saddle horses able to carry the helpless man, but neither of them would risk his animals again on that perilous road. In desperation, Messrs. William Pike, Milton Elliot, and William Eddy proposed to go out afoot and carry him in, if the wagons would wait. Messrs. Graves and Breen, however, in language so plain and homely that it seemed heartless, declared that it was neither the voice of common sense, nor of humanity that asked the wagons to wait there in the face of danger, while three foolhardy men rushed back to look for a helpless one, whom they had been unable to succor on the previous day, and for whom they could make no provision in the future, even if they should succeed then in snatching him from the jaws of death.
This exposition of undeniable facts defeated the plans of the would-be rescuers, yet did not quiet their consciences. When the section halted at noon, they again begged, though in vain, for horses which might enable them to do something for their deserted companion.
My father listened thoughtfully to the accounts of that harrowing incident, and although he realized that death must have ended the old man's sufferings within a few hours after he dropped by the wayside, he could not but feel deeply the bitterness of such a fate.
Who could peer into the near future and read between its lines the greater suffering which Mr. Hardcoop had escaped, or the trials in store for us?
We were in close range of ambushed savages, lying in wait for spoils. While the company were hurrying to get into marching order, Indians stole a milch cow and several horses belonging to Mr. Graves. Emboldened by success, they made a raid on our next camp and stampeded a bunch of eighteen horned cattle belonging to Mr. Wolfinger and my father and Uncle Jacob, and also flesh-wounded several poor beasts with arrows. These were more serious hindrances than we had yet experienced. Still, undaunted by the alarming prospects before us, we immediately resumed travel with cows under yoke in place of the freshly injured oxen.
ALL who managed to get beyond the sink of Ogden's River before midnight of October 12, reached Geyser Springs without further molestation, but the belated, who encamped at the sink were surprised at daylight by the Indians, who, while the herders were hurriedly taking a cup of coffee, swooped down and killed twenty-one head of cattle. Among the number were all of Mr. Eddy's stock, except an ox and a cow that would not work together. Maddened by his appalling situation, Eddy called for vengeance on his despoilers, and would have rushed to certain death, if the breaking of the lock of his rifle at the start had not stopped him.
Sullen and dejected, he cached the contents of his wagons, and with a meagre supply of food in a pack on his back, he and his wife, each carrying a child, set forth to finish the journey on foot. To add to their discomfort, they saw Indians on adjacent hills dancing and gesticulating in savage delight. In relating the above occurrence after the journey was finished, Mr. Eddy declared that no language could portray the desolation and heartsick feeling, nor the physical and mental torture which he and his wife experienced while travelling between the sink of Ogden's River and the Geyser Springs.*
It was during that trying week that Mr. Wolfinger mysteriously disappeared. At the time, he and Keseberg, with their wagons, were at the rear of the train, and their wives were walking in advance with other members of the company. When camp was made, those two wagons were not in sight, and after dark the alarmed wives prevailed on friends to go in search of their missing husbands. The searchers shortly found Keseberg leisurely driving toward camp. He assured them that Wolfinger was not far behind him, so they returned without further search.
All night the frantic wife listened for the sound of the coming of her husband, and so poignant was her grief that at break of day, William Graves, Jr., and two companions went again in search of Mr. Wolfinger. Five or six miles from camp, they came upon his tenantless wagon, with the oxen unhooked and feeding on the trail near-by. Nothing in the wagon had been disturbed, nor did they find any sign of struggle, or of Indians. After a diligent search for the missing man, his wagon and team was brought to camp and restored to Mrs. Wolfinger, and she was permitted to believe that her husband had been murdered by Indians and his body carried off. Nevertheless, some suspected Keseberg of having had a hand in his disappearance, as he knew that Mr. Wolfinger carried a large sum of money on his person.
Three days later Reinhart and Spitzer, who had not been missed, came into camp, and Mrs. Wolfinger was startled to recognize her husband's gun in their possession. They explained that they were in the wagon with Mr. Wolfinger when the Indians rushed upon them, drove them off, killed Wolfinger and burned the wagon. My father made a note of this conflicting statement to help future investigation of the case.
At Geyser Springs, the company cached valuable goods, among them several large cases of books and other heavy articles belonging to my father. As will be seen later, the load in our family wagon thus lightened through pity for our oxen, also lessened the severity of an accident which otherwise might have been fatal to Georgia and me.
On the nineteenth of October, near the present site of Wadsworth, Nevada, we met Mr. Stanton returning from Sutter's Fort with two Indian herders driving seven mules, laden with flour and jerked beef. Their arrival was hailed with great joy, and after a brief consultation with my father, Stanton and his Indians continued toward the rear, in order to distribute first to those most in need of provisions, also that the pack animals might be the sooner set apart to the use of those whose teams had given out, or had been destroyed by Indians.
Mr. Stanton had left Mr. McCutchen sick at Sutter's Fort. He brought information also concerning Messrs. Reed and Herron, whom he had met in the Sacramento valley. At the time of meeting, they were quite a distance from the settlement, had been without food three days, and Mr. Reed's horse was completely worn out. Mr. Stanton had furnished Mr. Reed with a fresh mount, and provisions enough to carry both men to Sutter's Fort.
In camp that night, Mr. Stanton outlined our course to the settlement, and in compliance with my father's earnest wish, consented to lead the train across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Frost in the air and snow on the distant peaks warned us against delays; yet, notwithstanding the need of haste, we were obliged to rest our jaded teams. Three yoke of oxen had died from exhaustion within a week, and several of those remaining were not in condition to ascend the heavy grades before them.
On the twentieth, Mr. Pike met death in his own tent by the accidental discharge of a six-shooter in the hands of Mr. Foster, his brother-in-law. He left a young wife, and two small children, Naomi, three years of age, and Catherine, a babe in arms. His loss was keenly felt by the company, for he was highly esteemed.
We broke camp on the twenty-second, and my father and uncle took our wagons to the rear of the train in order to favor our cattle, and also to be near families whose teams might need help in getting up the mountains. That day we crossed the Truckee River for the forty-ninth and last time in eighty miles, and encamped for the night at the top of a high hill, where we received our last experience of Indian cruelty. The perpetrator was concealed behind a willow, and with savage vim and well trained hand, sent nineteen arrows whizzing through the air, and each arrow struck a different ox. Mr. Eddy caught him in the act; and as he turned to flee, the white man's rifle ball struck him between the shoulders and pierced his body. With a spring into the air and an agonizing shriek, he dropped lifeless into the bushes below. Strange, but true, not an ox was seriously hurt!
The train took the trail early next morning, expecting to cross the summit of the Sierras and reach California in less than two weeks.
The following circumstances, which parted us forever from the train which father had led through so many difficulties, were told me by my sister, Mrs. Elitha C. Wilder, now of Bruceville, California:
Our five Donner wagons, and Mrs. Wolfinger's wagon, were a day or more behind the train, and between twelve and sixteen miles from the spot where we later made our winter camp, when an accident happened which nearly cost us your life, and indirectly prevented our rejoining the train. Your mother and Frances were walking on ahead; you and Georgia were asleep in the wagon; and father was walking beside it, down a steep hill. It had almost reached the base of the incline when the axle to the fore wheels broke, and the wagon tipped over on the side, tumbling its contents upon you two children. Father and uncle, in great alarm, rushed to your rescue. Georgia was soon hauled out safely through the opening in the back of the wagon sheets, but you were nowhere in sight, and father was sure you were smothering because you did not answer his call. They worked breathlessly getting things out, and finally uncle came to your limp form. You could not have lasted much longer, they said. How thankful we all were that our heaviest boxes had been cached at Geyser Springs!
Much as we felt the shock, there was little time for self-indulgence. Never were moments of greater importance; for while father and uncle were hewing a new axle, two men came from the head of the company to tell about the snow. It was a terrible piece of news!
Those men reported that on the twenty-eighth of that month the larger part of the train had reached a deserted cabin near Truckee Lake (the sheet of water now known as Donner Lake) at the foot of Frémont's Pass in the main chain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The following morning they had proceeded to within three miles of the summit; but finding snow there five feet in depth, the trail obliterated, and no place for making camp, they were obliged to return to the spot they had left early in the day. There, they said, the company had assembled to discuss the next move, and great confusion prevailed as the excited members gave voice to their bitterest fears. Some proposed to abandon the wagons and make the oxen carry out the children and provisions; some wanted to take the children and rations and start out on foot; and some sat brooding in dazed silence through the long night.
The messengers further stated that on the thirtieth, with Stanton as leader, and despite the falling sleet and snow, the forward section of the party united in another desperate effort to cross the summit, but encountered deeper drifts and greater difficulties. As darkness crept over the whitened waste, wagons became separated and lodged in the snow; and all had to cling to the mountain-side until break of day, when the train again returned to its twice abandoned camp, having been compelled, however, to leave several of the wagons where they had become stalled. The report concluded with the statement that the men at once began log-cutting for cabins in which the company might have to pass the winter.
After the messengers left, and as father and Uncle Jacob were hastening preparations for our own departure, new troubles beset us. Uncle was giving the finishing touches to the axle, when the chisel he was using slipped from his grasp, and its keen edge struck and made a serious wound across the back of father's right hand which was steadying the timber. The crippled hand was carefully dressed, and to quiet uncle's fears and discomfort, father made light of the accident, declaring that they had weightier matters for consideration than cuts and bruises. The consequences of that accident, however, were far more wide-reaching than could have been anticipated.
Up and up we toiled until we reached an altitude of six thousand feet, and were within about ten miles of our companions at the lake, when the intense cold drove us into camp on Prosser Creek in Alder Creek Valley, a picturesque and sheltered nook two and a half miles in length and three-quarters of a mile in width. But no one observed the picturesque grandeur of the forest-covered mountains which hem it in on the north and west; nor that eastward and southward it looks out across plateaus to the Washoe Mountains twenty miles away.
A piercing wind was driving storm-clouds toward us, and those who understood their threatening aspect realized that twenty-one persons, eight of them helpless children, were there at the mercy of the pitiless storm-king.
The teams were hurriedly unhooked, the tents pitched, and the men and the women began collecting material for more suitable quarters. Some felled trees, some lopped off the branches, and some, with oxen, dragged the logs into position. There was enough building material on the ground for a good sized foundation four logs deep, when night stopped the work. The moon and stars came out before we went to bed, yet the following morning the ground was covered with snow two or three feet in depth, which had to be shovelled from the exposed beds before their occupants could rise.
I remember well that new day. All plans for log cabins had to be abandoned. There was no sheltered nook for shivering children, so father lifted Georgia and me on to a log, and mother tucked a buffalo robe around us, saying, “Sit here until we have a better place for you.” There we sat snug and dry, chatting and twisting our heads about, watching the hurrying, anxious workers. Those not busy at the wagons were helping the builders to construct a permanent camp.
They cleared a space under a tall pine tree and reset the tent a few feet south of its trunk, facing the sunrise. Then, following the Indian method as described by John Baptiste, a rude semi-circular hut of poles was added to the tent, the tree-trunk forming part of its north wall, and its needled boughs, the rafters and cross-pieces to the roof. The structure was overlaid so far as possible with pieces of cloth, old quilts, and buffalo robes, then with boughs and branches of pine and tamarack. A hollow was scooped in the ground near the tree for a fireplace, and an opening in the top served as chimney and ventilator. One opening led into the tent and another served as an outer door.
To keep the beds off the wet earth, two rows of short posts were driven along the sides in the tent, and poles were laid across the tops, thus forming racks to support the pine boughs upon which the beds should be made. While this was being done, Elitha, Leanna, and Mrs. Wolfinger were bringing poles and brush with which to strengthen and sheath the tent walls against wind and weather. Even Sister Frances looked tall and helpful as she trudged by with her little loads.
The combination of tent and hut was designed for my father and family and Mrs. Wolfinger. The teamsters, Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph Reinhart, James Smith, and John Baptiste, built their hut in Indian wigwam fashion. Not far from us, across the stream, braced against a log, was reared a mixed structure of brush and tent for use of Uncle Jacob, Aunt Betsy, and William and Solomon Hook (Aunt Betsy's sons by a former husband), and their five small children, George, Mary, Isaac, Lewis, and Samuel Donner.
Before we two could leave our perch, the snow was falling faster and in larger flakes. It made pictures for Georgia and me upon the branches of big and little trees; it gathered in a ridge beside us upon the log; it nestled in piles upon our buffalo robe; and by the time our quarters were finished, it was veiling Uncle Jacob's from view. Everything within was cold, damp, and dreary, until our tired mother and elder sisters built the fire, prepared our supper, and sent us to bed, each with a lump of loaf sugar as comforter.
WHEN we awoke the following morning, little heaps of snow lay here and there upon the floor. No threshold could be seen, only a snow-bank reaching up to the white plain beyond, where every sound was muffled, and every object was blurred by falling flakes.
Father's face was very grave. His morning caress had all its wonted tenderness, but the merry twinkle was gone from his eye, and the gladsome note from his voice. For eight consecutive days, the fatal snow fell with but few short intermissions. Eight days, in which there was nothing to break the monotony of torturing, inactive endurance, except the necessity of gathering wood, keeping the fires, and cutting anew the steps which led upward, as the snow increased in depth. Hope well-nigh died within us.
All in camp fared alike, and all were on short rations. Three of our men became dispirited, said that they were too weak and hungry to gather wood, and did not care how soon death should put an end to their miseries.
The out-of-door duties would have fallen wholly upon my Aunt Betsy's two sons and on John Baptiste and on my crippled father, had the women lost their fortitude. They, however, hid their fears from their children, even from each other, and helped to gather fuel, hunt cattle, and keep camp.
Axes were dull, green wood was hard to cut, and harder to carry, whether through loose, dry snow, or over crusts made slippery by sleet and frost. Cattle tracks were covered over. Some of the poor creatures had perished under bushes where they sought shelter. A few had become bewildered and strayed; others were found under trees in snow pits, which they themselves had made by walking round and round the trunks to keep from being snowed under. These starvelings were shot to end their sufferings, and also with the hope that their hides and fleshless bones might save the lives of our snow-beleaguered party. Every part of the animals was saved for food. The locations of the carcasses were marked so that they could be brought piece by piece into camp; and even the green hides were spread against the huts to serve in case of need.
After the storm broke, John Baptiste was sent with a letter from my mother to the camp near the lake. He was absent a number of days, for upon his arrival there, he found a party of fourteen ready to start next morning, on foot, across the summit. He joined it, but after two days of vain effort, the party returned to camp, and he came back to us with an answer to the letter he had delivered. We then learned that most of those at the lake were better housed than we. Some in huts, and the rest in three log structures, which came to be known respectively as the Murphy, Graves, and Breen cabins. The last mentioned was the relic of earlier travellers* and had been grizzled by the storms of several winters. Yet, despite their better accomodations, our companions at the lake were harassed by fears like ours. They too were short of supplies. The game had left the mountains, and the fish in the lake would not bite. [*Note : Built by Townsend party in 1844. See McGlashan's “History of the Donner Party.”]
Different parties, both with and without children, had repeatedly endeavored to force their way out of that wilderness of snow, but each in turn had become confused, and unconsciously moved in a circle back to camp. Several persons had become snow-blind. Every landmark was lost, even to Stanton, who had twice crossed the range.
All now looked to the coming of McCutchen and Reed for deliverance. We had every reason to expect them soon, for each had left his family with the company, and had promised to return with succor. Moreover, Stanton had brought tidings that the timely assistance of himself and comrade had enabled Reed to reach Sutter's Fort in safety; and that McCutchen would have accompanied him back, had he not been detained by illness.
Well, indeed, was it that we could not know that at the very time we were so anxiously awaiting their arrival, those two men, after struggling desperately to cross the snows, were finally compelled to abandon the attempt, bury the precious food they had striven to bring us, and return to the settlement.
It was also well that we were unaware of their baffling fears, when the vigorous efforts incited by the memorial presented by Reed to Commodore Stockton, the military Governor of California, were likewise frustrated by mountain storms.
MEANWHILE with us in the Sierras, November ended with four days and nights of continuous snow, and December rushed in with a wild, shrieking storm of wind, sleet, and rain, which ceased on the third. The weather remained clear and cold until the ninth, when Milton Elliot and Noah James came on snowshoes to Donner's camp, from the lake cabins, to ascertain if their captain was still alive, and to report the condition of the rest of the company.
Before morning, another terrific storm came swirling and whistling down our snowy stairway, making fires unsafe, freezing every drop of water about the camp, and shutting us in from the light of heaven. Ten days later Milton Elliot alone fought his way back to the lake camp with these tidings: “Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph Rhinehart, and James Smith are dead, and the others in a low condition.”* [*Note : Patrick Breen's Diary.]
Uncle Jacob, the first to die, was older than my father, and had been in miserable health for years before we left Illinois. He had gained surprisingly on the journey, yet quickly felt the influence of impending fate, foreshadowed by the first storm at camp. His courage failed. Complete prostration followed.
My father and mother watched with him during the last night, and the following afternoon helped to lay his body in a cave dug in the mountain side, beneath the snow. That snow had scarcely resettled when Samuel Shoemaker's life ebbed away in happy delirium. He imagined himself a boy again in his father's house and thought his mother had built a fire and set before him the food of which he was fondest.
But when Joseph Rhinehart's end drew near, his mind wandered, and his whitening lips confessed a part in Mr. Wolfinger's death; and my father, listening, knew not how to comfort that troubled soul. He could not judge whether the self-condemning words were the promptings of a guilty conscience, or the ravings of an unbalanced mind.
Like a tired child falling asleep, was James Smith's death; and Milton Elliot, who helped to bury the four victims and then carried the distressing report to the lake camp, little knew that he would soon be among those later called to render a final accounting. Yet it was even so.
Our camp having been thus depleted by death, Noah James, who had been one of my father's drivers, from Springfield until we passed out of the desert, now cast his lot again with ours, and helped John Baptiste to dig for the carcasses of the cattle. It was weary work, for the snow was higher than the level of the guide marks, and at times they searched day after day and found no trace of hoof or horn. The little field mice that had crept into camp were caught then and used to ease the pangs of hunger. Also pieces of beef hide were cut into strips, singed, scraped, boiled to the consistency of glue, and swallowed with an effort; for no degree of hunger could make the saltless, sticky substance palatable. Marrowless bones which had already been boiled and scraped, were now burned and eaten, even the bark and twigs of pine were chewed in the vain effort to soothe the gnawings which made one cry for bread and meat.
During the bitterest weather we little ones were kept in bed, and my place was always in the middle where Frances and Georgia, snuggling up close, gave me of their warmth, and from them I learned many things which I could neither have understood nor remembered had they not made them plain.
Just one happy play is impressed upon my mind. It must have been after the first storm, for the snow bank in front of the cabin door was not high enough to keep out a little sunbeam that stole down the steps and made a bright spot upon our floor. I saw it, and sat down under it, held it on my lap, passed my hand up and down in its brightness, and found that I could break its ray in two. In fact, we had quite a frolic. I fancied that it moved when I did, for it warmed the top of my head, kissed first one cheek and then the other, and seemed to run up and down my arm. Finally I gathered up a piece of it in my apron and ran to my mother. Great was my surprise when I carefully opened the folds and found that I had nothing to show, and the sunbeam I had left seemed shorter. After mother explained its nature, I watched it creep back slowly up the steps and disappear.
Snowy Christmas brought us no “glad tidings,” and New Year's Day no happiness. Yet, each bright day that followed a storm was one of thanksgiving, on which we all crept up the flight of snow steps and huddled about on the surface in the blessed sunshine, but with our eyes closed against its painful and blinding glare.
Once my mother took me to a hole where I saw smoke coming up, and she told me that its steps led down to Uncle Jacob's tent, and that we would go down there to see Aunt Betsy and my little cousins.
I stooped low and peered into the dark depths. Then I called to my cousins to come to me, because I was afraid to go where they were. I had not seen them since the day we encamped. At that time they were chubby and playful, carrying water from the creek to their tent in small tin pails. Now, they were so changed in looks that I scarcely knew them, and they stared at me as at a stranger. So I was glad when my mother came up and took me back to our own tent, which seemed less dreary because I knew the things that were in it, and the faces about me.
Father's hand became worse. The swelling and inflammation extending up the arm to the shoulder produced suffering which he could not conceal. Each day that we had a fire, I watched mother sitting by his side, with a basin of warm water upon her lap, laving the wounded and inflamed parts very tenderly, with a strip of frayed linen wrapped around a little stick. I remember well the look of comfort that swept over his worn features as she laid the soothed arm back into place.
By the middle of January the snow measured twelve and fourteen feet in depth. Nothing could be seen of our abode except the coils of smoke that found their way up through the opening. There was a dearth of water. Prosser Creek was frozen over and covered with snow. Icicles hung from the branches of every tree. The stock of pine cones that had been gathered for lights was almost consumed. Wood was so scarce that we could not have fire enough to cook our strips of rawhide, and Georgia heard mother say that we children had not had a dry garment on in more than a week, and that she did not know what to do about it. Then like a smile from God, came another sunny day which not only warmed and dried us thoroughly but furnished a supply of water from dripping snowbanks.
The twenty-first was also bright, and John Baptiste went on snowshoes with messages to the lake camp.
He found its inmates in a more pitiable condition than we were. Only one death had occurred there since our last communication, but he saw several of the starving who could not survive many days.
The number to consume the slender stock of food had been lessened, however, on the sixteenth of December, some six weeks previously, by the departure of William Eddy, Patrick Dolan, Lemuel Murphy, William Foster, Mrs. Sarah Foster, Jay Fosdick, Mrs. Sarah Fosdick, Mrs. William McCutchen, Mrs. Harriet Pike, Miss Mary Graves, Franklin Graves, Sr., C. T. Stanton, Antonio, Lewis, and Salvador.
This party, which called itself “The Forlorn Hope,” had a most memorable experience, as will be shown later. In some instances husband had parted from wife, and father from children. Three young mothers had left their babes in the arms of grandmothers. It was a dire resort, a last desperate attempt, in face of death, to save those dependent upon them.
Staff in hand, they had set forth on snowshoes, each carrying a pack containing little save a quilt and light rations for six days' journeying. One had a rifle, ammunition, flint, and hatchet for camp use. William Murphy and Charles Burger, who had originally been of the number, gave out before the close of the first day, and crept back to camp. The others continued under the leadership of the intrepid Eddy and brave Stanton.
John Baptiste remained there a short time and returned to us, saying, “Those at the other camp believe the promised relief is close at hand!”
This rekindled hope in us, even as it had revived courage and prolonged lives in the lake cabins, and we prayed, as they were praying, that the relief might come before its coming should be too late.
Oh, how we watched, hour after hour, and how often each day John Baptiste climbed to the topmost bough of a tall pine tree and, with straining eyes, scanned the desolate expanse for one moving speck in the distance, for one ruffled track on the snow which should ease our awful suspense.
Days passed. No food in camp except an unsavory beef hide--pinching hunger called for more. Again John Baptiste and Noah James went forth in anxious search for marks of our buried cattle. They made excavations, then forced their hand-poles deep, deeper into the snow, but in vain their efforts--the nail and hook at the points brought up no sign of blood, hair, or hide. In dread unspeakable they returned, and said:
“We shall go mad; we shall die! It is useless to hunt for the cattle; but the dead, if they could be reached, their bodies might keep us alive.”
“No,” replied father and mother, speaking for themselves. “No, part of a hide still remains. When it is gone we will perish, if that be the alternative.”
The fact was, our dead could not have been disturbed even had the attempt been made, for the many snowfalls of winter were banked about them firm as granite walls, and in that camp was neither implement nor arm strong enough to reach their resting-places.
It was a long, weary waiting, on starvation rations until the nineteenth of February. I did not see any one coming that morning; but I remember that, suddenly, there was an unusual stir and excitement in the camp. Three strangers were there, and one was talking with father. The others took packs from their backs and measured out small quantities of flour and jerked beef and two small biscuits for each of us. Then they went up to fell the sheltering pine tree over our tent for fuel; while Noah James, Mrs. Wolfinger, my two half-sisters, and mother kept moving about hunting for things.
Finally Elitha and Leanna came and kissed me, then father, “good-bye,” and went up the steps, and out of sight. Mother stood on the snow where she could see all go forth. They moved in single file, --the leaders on snowshoes, the weak stepping in the tracks made by the strong. Leanna, the last in line, was scarcely able to keep up. It was not until after mother came back with Frances and Georgia that I was made to understand that this was the long-hoped-for relief party.
It had come and gone, and had taken Noah James, Mrs. Wolfinger, and my two half-sisters from us; then had stopped at Aunt Betsy's for William Hook, her eldest son, and my Cousin George, and all were now on the way to the lake cabins to join others who were able to walk over the snow without assistance.
The rescuers, seven in number, who had followed instructions given them at the settlement, professed to have no knowledge of the Forlorn Hope, except that this first relief expedition had been outfitted by Captain Sutter and Alcalde Sinclair in response to Mr. Eddy's appeal, and that other rescue parties were being organized in California, and would soon come prepared to carry out the remaining children and helpless grown folk. By this we knew that Mr. Eddy, at least, had succeeded in reaching the settlement.
ALTHOUGH we were so meagrely informed, it is well that my readers should, at this point, become familiar with the experiences of the expedition known as the Forlorn Hope,* and also the various measures taken for our relief when our precarious condition was made known to the good people of California. It will be remembered that the Forlorn Hope was the party of fifteen which, as John Baptiste reported to us, made the last unaided attempt to cross the mountains. [*Note : The experiences of the Donner Party, to which he refers in a footnote, suggested to Bret Harte the opening chapters of “Gabriel Conroy”; but he has followed the sensational accounts circulated by the newspapers, and the survivors find his work a mere travesty of the facts. The narrative, however, does not purport to set forth the truth, but is confessedly imaginative.]
Words cannot picture, nor mind conceive, more torturing hardships and privations than were endured by that little band on its way to the settlement. It left the camp on the sixteenth of December, with scant rations for six days, hoping in that time to force its way to Bear Valley and there find game. But the storms which had been so pitiless at the mountain camps followed the unprotected refugees with seemingly fiendish fury. After the first day from camp, its members could no longer keep together on their marches. The stronger broke the trail, and the rest followed to nightcamp as best they could.
On the third day, Stanton's sight failed, and he begged piteously to be led; but, soon realizing the heart-rending plight of his companions, he uncomplainingly submitted to his fate. Three successive nights, he staggered into camp long after the others had finished their stinted meal. Always he was shivering from cold, sometimes wet with sleet and rain.
It is recorded that at no time had the party allowed more than an ounce of food per meal to the individual, yet the rations gave out on the night of the twenty-second, while they were still in a wilderness of snowpeaks. Mr. Eddy only was better provided. In looking over his pack that morning for the purpose of throwing away any useless article, he unexpectedly found a small bag containing about a half-pound of dried bear-meat.* Fastened to the meat was a pencilled note from his wife, begging him to save the hidden treasure until his hour of direst need, since it might then be the means of saving his life. The note was signed, “Your own dear Elinor.” With tenderest emotion, he slipped the food back, resolving to do the dear one's bidding, trusting that she and their children might live until he should return for them. [*Note : Mr. Eddy had killed the bear and dried the meat early in the winter.]
The following morning, while the others were preparing to leave camp, Stanton sat beside the smouldering fire smoking his pipe. When ready to go forth, they asked him if he was coming, and he replied, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Those were his parting words to his friends, and his greeting to the Angel of Death.* He never left that fireside, and his companions were too feeble to return for him when they found he did not come into camp. [*Note : His body was found there later by the First Relief Party.]
Twenty-four hours later, the members of that happless little band threw themselves upon the desolate waste of snow to ponder the problems of life and death; to search each the other's face for answer to the question their lips durst not frame. Fathers who had left their families, and mothers who had left their babes, wanted to go back and die with them, if die they must; but Mr. Eddy and the Indians--those who had crossed the range with Stanton--declared that they would push on to the settlement. Then Mary Graves, in whose young heart were still whisperings of hope, courageously said:
“I, too, will go on, for to go back and hear the cries of hunger from my little brothers and sisters is more than I can stand. I shall go as far as I can, let the consequences be what they may.”
W. F. Graves, her father, would not let his daughter proceed alone, and finally all decided to make a final, supreme effort. Yet--think of it--they were without one morsel of food!
Even the wind seemed to hold its breath as the suggestion was made that, “were one to die, the rest might live.” Then the suggestion was made that lots be cast, and whoever drew the longest slip should be the sacrifice. Mr. Eddy endorsed the plan. Despite opposition from Mr. Foster and others, the slips of paper were prepared, and great-hearted Patrick Dolan drew the fatal slip. Patrick Dolan, who had come away from camp that his famishing friends might prolong their lives by means of the small stock of food which he had to leave! Harm a hair of that good man's head? Not a soul of that starving band would do it.
Mr. Eddy then proposed that they resume their journey as best they could until death should claim a victim. All acquiesced. Slowly rising to their feet, they managed to stagger and to crawl forward about three miles to a tree which furnished fuel for their Christmas fire. It was kindled with great difficulty, for in cutting the boughs, the hatchet blade flew off the handle and for a time was lost in deep snow.
Meanwhile, every puff of wind was laden with killing frost, and in sight of that glowing fire, Antonio froze to death. Mr. Graves, who was also breathing heavily, when told by Mr. Eddy that he was dying, replied that he did not care. He, however, called his daughters, Mrs. Fosdick and Mary Graves, to him, and by his parting injunctions, showed that he was still able to realize keenly the dangers that beset them. Remembering how their faces had paled at the suggestion of using human flesh for food, he admonished them to put aside the natural repugnance which stood between them and the possibility of life. He commanded them to banish sentiment and instinctive loathing, and think only of their starving mother, brothers, and sisters whom they had left in camp, and avail themselves of every means in their power to rescue them. He begged that his body be used to sustain the famishing, and bidding each farewell, his spirit left its bruised and worn tenement before half the troubles of the night were passed.
About ten o'clock, pelting hail, followed by snow on the wings of a tornado, swept every spark of fire from those shivering mortals, whose voices now mingled with the shrieking wind, calling to heaven for relief. Mr. Eddy, knowing that all would freeze to death in the darkness if allowed to remain exposed, succeeded after many efforts in getting them close together between their blankets where the snow covered them.
With the early morning, Patrick Dolan became delirious and left camp. He was brought back with difficulty and forcibly kept under cover until late in the day, when he sank into a stupor, whence he passed quietly into that sleep which knows no waking.
The crucial hour had come. Food lay before the starving, yet every eye turned from it and every hand dropped irresolute.
Another night of agony passed, during which Lemuel Murphy became delirious and called long and loud for food; but the cold was so intense that it kept all under their blankets until four o'clock in the afternoon, when Mr. Eddy succeeded in getting a fire in the trunk of a large pine tree. Whereupon, his companions, instead of seeking food, crept forth and broke off low branches, put them down before the fire and laid their attenuated forms upon them. The flames leaped up the trunk, and burned off dead boughs so that they dropped on the snow about them, but the unfortunates were too weak and too indifferent to fear the burning brands.
Mr. Eddy now fed his waning strength on shreds of his concealed bear meat, hoping that he might survive to save the giver. The rest in camp could scarcely walk, by the twenty-eighth, and their sensations of hunger were deminishing. This condition forebode delirium and death, unless stayed by the only means at hand. It was in very truth a pitiful alternative offered to the sufferers.
With sickening anguish the first morsels were prepared and given to Lemuel Murphy, but for him they were too late. Not one touched flesh of kindred body. Nor was there need of restraining hand, or warning voice to gauge the small quantity which safety prescribed to break the fast of the starving. Death would have been preferable to that awful meal, had relentless fate not said: “Take, eat that ye may live. Eat, lest ye go mad and leave your work undone!”
All but the Indians obeyed the mandate, and were strengthened and reconciled to prepare the remaining flesh to sustain them a few days longer on their journey.
Hitherto, the wanderers had been guided partly by the fitful sun, partly by Lewis and Salvador, the Indians who had come with Stanton from Sutter's Fort. In the morning, however, when they were ready to leave that spot, which was thereafter known as the “Camp of Death,” Salvador, who could speak a little English, insisted that he and Lewis were lost, and, therefore, unable to guide them farther.
Nevertheless, the party at once set out and travelled instinctively until evening. The following morning they wrapped pieces of blanket around their cracked and swollen feet and again struggled onward until late in the afternoon, when they encamped upon a high ridge. There they saw beyond, in the distance, a wide plain which they believed to be the Sacramento Valley.
This imaginary glimpse of distant lowland gave them a peaceful sleep. The entire day of December 31 was spent in crossing a cañon, and every footstep left its trace of blood in the snow.
When they next encamped, Mr. Eddy saw that poor Jay Fosdick was failing, and he begged him to summon up all his courage and energy in order to reach the promised land, now so near. They were again without food; and William Foster, whose mind had become unbalanced by the long fast, was ready to kill Mrs. McCutchen or Miss Graves. Mr. Eddy confronted and intimidated the crazed sufferer, who next threatened the Indian guides, and would have carried out his threat then, had Mr. Eddy not secretly warned them against danger and urged them to flee. But nothing could save the Indians from Foster's insane passion later, when he found them on the trail in an unconscious and dying condition.
January 1, 1847, was, to the little band of eight, a day of less distressing trials; its members resumed travel early, braced by unswerving will-power. They stopped at midday and revived strength by eating the toasted strings of their snowshoes. Mr. Eddy also ate his worn out moccasins, and all felt a renewal of hope upon seeing before them an easier grade which led to night-camp where the snow was only six feet in depth. Soothed by a milder temperature, they resumed their march earlier next morning and descended to where the snow was but three feet deep. There they built their camp-fire and slightly crisped the leather of a pair of old boots and a pair of shoes which constituted their evening meal, and was the last of their effects available as food.
An extraordinary effort on the third day of the new year brought them to bare ground between patches of snow. They were still astray among the western foothills of the Sierras, and sat by a fire under an oak tree all night, enduring hunger that was almost maddening.
Jay Fosdick was sinking rapidly, and Mr. Eddy resolved to take the gun and steal away from camp at dawn. But his conscience smote him, and he finally gave the others a hint of his intention of going in search of game, and of not returning unless successful. Not a moving creature nor a creeping thing had crossed the trail on their journey thither; but the open country before them, and minor marks well known to hunters, had caught Mr. Eddy's eye and strengthened his determination. Mrs. Pike, in dread and fear of the result, threw her arms about Mr. Eddy's neck and implored him not to leave them, and the others mingled their entreaties and protestations with hers. In silence he took his gun to go alone. Then Mary Graves declared that she would keep up with him, and without heeding further opposition the two set out. A short distance from camp they stopped at a place where a deer had recently lain.
With a thrill of emotion too intense for words, with a prayer in his heart too fervent for utterance, Mr. Eddy turned his tearful eyes toward Mary and saw her weeping like a child. A moment later, that man and that woman who had once said that they knew not how to pray, were kneeling beside that newly found track pleading in broken accents to the Giver of all life, for a manifestation of His power to save their starving band. Long restrained tears were still streaming down the cheeks of both, and soothing their anxious hearts as they arose to go in pursuit of the deer. J. Q. Thornton says:
They had not proceeded far before they saw a large buck about eighty yards distant. Mr. Eddy raised his rifle and for some time tried to bring it to bear upon the deer, but such was his extreme weakness that he could not. He breathed a little, changed his manner of holding the gun, and made another effort. Again his weakness prevented him from being able to hold upon it. He heard a low, suppressed sobbing behind him, and, turning around, saw Mary Graves weeping and in great agitation, her head bowed, and her hands upon her face. Alarmed lest she should cause the deer to run, Mr. Eddy begged her to be quiet, which she was, after exclaiming, “Oh, I am afraid you will not kill it.”
He brought the gun to his face the third time, and elevated the muzzle above the deer, let it descend until he saw the animal through the sight, when the rifle cracked. Mary immediately wept aloud, exclaiming, “Oh, merciful God, you have missed it!” Mr. Eddy assured her that he had not; that the rifle was upon it the moment of firing; and that, in addition to this, the animal had dropped its tail between its legs, which this animal always does when wounded.
His belief was speedily confirmed. The deer ran a short distance, then fell, and the two eager watchers hastened to it as fast as their weakened condition would allow. Mr. Eddy cut the throat of the expiring beast with his pocket-knife, and he and his companion knelt down and drank the warm blood that flowed from the wound.
The excitement of getting that blessed food, and the strength it imparted, produced a helpful reaction, and enabled them to sit down in peace to rest a while, before attempting to roll their treasure to the tree nearby, where they built a fire and prepared the entrails.
Mr. Eddy fired several shots after dark, so that the others might know that he had not abandoned them. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Foster, Mrs. McCutchen, and Mrs. Pike had moved forward and made their camp half-way between Mr. Eddy's new one and that of the previous night. Mr. Fosdick, however, being too weak to rise, remained at the first camp. His devoted wife pillowed his head upon her lap, and prayed that death would call them away together. Mr. Thornton continues:
The sufferer had heard the crack of Mr. Eddy's rifle at the time he killed the deer, and said, feebly, “There! Eddy has killed a deer! Now, if I can only get to him I shall live!”
But in the stillness of that cold, dark night, Jay Fosdick's spirit fled alone. His wife wrapped their only blanket about his body, and lay down on the ground beside him, hoping to freeze to death. The morning dawned bright, the sun came out, and the lone widow rose, kissed the face of her dead, and, with a small bundle in her hand, started to join Mr. Eddy. She passed a hunger-crazed man on the way from the middle camp, going to hers, and her heart grew sick, for she knew that her loved one's body would not be spared for burial rites.
She found Mr. Eddy drying his deer meat before the fire, and later saw him divide it so that each of his companions in the camps should have an equal share.
The seven survivors, each with his portion of venison, resumed travel on the sixth and continued in the foothills a number of days, crawling up the ascents, sliding down the steeps; often harassed by fears of becoming lost near the goal, yet unaware that they were astray.
The venison had been consumed. Hope had almost died in the heart of the bravest, when at the close of day on the tenth of January, twenty-five days from the
date of leaving Donner Lake, they saw an Indian village at the edge of a thicket they were approaching. As the sufferers staggered forward, the Indians were overwhelmed at sight of their misery. The warriors gazed in stolid silence. The squaws wrung their hands and wept aloud. The larger children hid themselves, and the little ones clung to their mothers in fear. The first sense of horror having passed, those dusky mothers fed the unfortunates. Some brought them unground acorns to eat, while others mixed the meal into cakes and offered them as fast as they could cook them on the heated stones. All except Mr. Eddy were strengthened by the food. It sickened him, and he resorted to green grass boiled in water.
The following morning the chief sent his runners to other rancherias, en route to the settlement, telling his people of the distress of the pale-faces who were coming toward them, and who would need food. When the Forlorn Hope was ready to move on, the chief led the way, and an Indian walked on either side of each sufferer supporting and helping the unsteady feet. At each rancheria the party was put in charge of a new leader and fresh supporters.
On the seventeenth, the chief with much difficulty procured, for Mr. Eddy, a gill of pine nuts which the latter found so nutritious that the following morning, on resuming travel, he was able to walk without support. They had proceeded less than a mile when his companions sank to the ground completely unnerved. They had suddenly given up and were willing to die. The Indians appeared greatly perplexed, and Mr. Eddy shook with sickening fear. Was his great effort to come to naught? Should his wife and babes die while he stood guard over those who would no longer help themselves? No, he would push ahead and see what he yet could do!
The old chief sent an Indian with him as a guide and support. Relieved of the sight and personal responsibility of his enfeebled companions, Mr. Eddy felt a renewal of strength and determination. He pressed onward, scarcely heeding his dusky guide. At the end of five miles they met another Indian, and Mr. Eddy, now conscious that his feet were giving out, promised the stranger tobacco, if he would go with them and help to lead him to the “white man's house.”
And so that long, desperate struggle for life, and for the sake of loved ones, ended an hour before sunset, when Mr. Eddy, leaning heavily upon the Indians, halted before the door of Colonel M. D. Richey's home, thirty-five miles from Sutter's Fort.
The first to meet him was the daughter of the house, whom he asked for bread. Thornton says:
She looked at him, burst out crying, and took hold of him to assist him into the room. He was immediately placed in bed, in which he lay unable to turn his body during four days. In a very short time he had food brought to him by Mrs. Richey, who sobbed as she fed the miserable and frightful being before her. Shortly, Harriet, the daughter, had carried the news from house to house in the neighborhood, and horses were running at full speed from place to place until all preparations were made for taking relief to those whom Mr. Eddy had left in the morning. William Johnson John Howell, John Rhodes, Mr. Keiser, Mr. Sagur, Racine Tucker, and Joseph Varro assembled at Mr. Richey's immediately. The females collected the bread they had, with tea, sugar, and coffee, amounting to as much as four men could carry. Howell, Rhodes, Sagur, and Tucker started at once, on foot, with the Indians as guides, and arrived at camp, between fifteen and eighteen miles distant, at midnight.
Mr. Eddy had warned the outgoing party against giving the sufferers as much food as they might want, but, on seeing them, the tender-hearted men could not deny their tearful begging for “more.” One of the relief was kept busy until dawn preparing food which the rest gave to the enfeebled emigrants. This overdose of kindness made its victims temporarily very ill, but caused no lasting harm.
Early on the morning of January 18, Messrs. Richey, Johnson, Varro, and Keiser, equipped with horses and other necessaries, hurried away to bring in the refugees, together with their comrades who had gone on before. By ten o'clock that night the whole of the Forlorn Hope were safe in the homes of their benefactors. Mr. Richey declared that he and his party had retraced Mr. Eddy's track six miles, by the blood from his feet; and that they could not have believed that he had travelled that eighteen miles, if they themselves had not passed over the ground in going to his discouraged companions.
THE kindness and sympathy shown Mr. Eddy by the good people in the neighborhood of the Richey and Johnson ranches encouraged his efforts in behalf of his fellow-sufferers in the mountains. While the early sunlight of January 19 was flooding his room with cheer and warmth, he dictated a letter to Mr. John Sinclair, Alcalde of the Upper District of California, living near Sutter's Fort, in which he stated as briefly as possible the conditions and perils surrounding the snow-bound travellers, and begged him to use every means in his power toward their immediate rescue.
Bear River was running high, and the plain between it and Sutter's Fort seemed a vast quagmire, but John Rhodes volunteered to deliver the letter. He was ferried over the river on a raft formed of two logs lashed together with strips of rawhide. Then he rolled his trousers above the knee and with his shoes in his hand, started on his mission. He saw no white faces until he reached Sinclair's, where the letter created a painful interest and won ready promises of help.
It was dark when he reached Sutter's Fort, nevertheless from house to house he spread the startling report: “Men, women, and little children are snowbound in the Sierras, and starving to death!”
Captain Kerns in charge at the Fort, pledged his aid, and influence to the cause of relief. Captain Sutter, who had already twice sent supplies, first by Stanton and again by McCutchen and Reed, in their unsuccessful attempt to cross the mountains, at once agreed to cooperate with Alcalde Sinclair.
While Captain Kerns at Sutter's Fort was sending messengers to different points, and Mrs. Sinclair was collecting clothing to replace the tattered garments of the members of the Forlorn Hope, her husband despatched an open letter to the people of San Francisco, describing the arrival of the survivors of the Forlorn Hope, and the heart-rending condition of those remaining in the mountains. He urged immediate action, and offered his services for individual work, or to cooperate with Government relief, or any parties that might be preparing to go out with Messrs. Reed and McCutchen, who were known to be endeavoring to raise a second expedition.
The letter was taken to the City Hotel in San Francisco, and read aloud in the dining-room. Its contents aroused all the tender emotions known to human nature. Some of the listeners had parted from members of the Donner Party at the Little Sandy, when its prospects appeared so bright, and the misfortunes which had since befallen the party seemed incredible. Women left the room sobbing, and men called those passing, in from the street, to join the knots of earnest talkers. All were ready and willing to do; but, alas, the obstacles which had prevented Mr. Reed getting men for the mountain work still remained to be overcome.
Existing war between Mexico and the United States was keeping California in a disturbed condition. Most of the able-bodied male emigrants had enlisted under Captain Frémont as soon as they reached the country, and were still on duty in the southern part of the province; and the non-enlisted were deemed necessary for the protection of the colonies of American women and children encamped on the soil of the enemy. Moreover, all felt that each man who should attempt to cross the snow belt would do so at the peril of his life.
Mr. Reed, who in the late Autumn had sent petitions to the Military Governor and to Lieutenant Washington A. Bartlett of the United States Navy, Alcalde of the town and district of San Francisco, but as yet had obtained nothing, now appeared before each in person, and was promised assistance. Captain Mervine of the United States Navy, and Mr. Richardson, United States Collector, each subscribed fifty dollars to the cause on his own account.
As a result of these appeals, Alcalde Bartlett called a public meeting; and so intense was the feeling that Mr. Dunleary, “the first speaker, had scarcely taken his seat on the platform, when the people rushed to the chairman's table from all parts of the house with their hands full of silver dollars,” and could hardly be induced to stay their generosity until the meeting was organized.
A treasurer and two committees were appointed; the one to solicit subscriptions, and the other to purchase supplies. The Alcalde was requested to act with both committees. Seven hundred dollars was subscribed before the meeting adjourned. Seven hundred dollars, in an isolated Spanish province, among newly arrived immigrants, was a princely sum to gather.
Messrs. Ward and Smith, in addition to a generous subscription, offered their launch Dice mi Nana, to transport the expedition to Feather River, and Mr. John Fuller volunteered to pilot the launch.
It was decided to fit out an expedition, under charge of Past Midshipman Woodworth, who had tendered his services for the purpose, he to act under instructions of the Military Governor and cooperate with the committee aiding Reed.
Soon thereafter “Old Trapper Greenwood” appeared in San Francisco, asking for assistance in fitting out a following to go to the mountains with himself and McCutchen, Mr. George Yount and others in and around Sonoma and Napa having recommended him as leader. Donations of horses, mules, beef, and flour had already been sent to his camp in Napa Valley. Furthermore, Lieut. William L. Maury, U.S.N., Commander at the port; Don Mariano G. Vallejo, Ex-Commandante-General of California; Mr. George Yount, and others subscribed the sum of five hundred dollars in specie toward outfitting Greenwood and the men he should select to cross the mountains.
Greenwood urged that he should have ten or twelve men on whom he could rely after reaching deep snow. These, he said, he could secure if he had the ready money to make advances and to procure the necessary warm clothing and blankets. He had crossed the Sierras before, when the snow lay deep on the summit, and now proposed to drive over horses and kill them at the camps as provisions for the sufferers. If this scheme should fail, he and his sons with others would get food to the camp on snowshoes. Thornton says:
The Governor-General of California, after due form, and trusting to the generosity and humanity of the Government which he represented, appropriated four hundred dollars on Government account toward outfitting this relief party. Furthermore, in compliance with an application from Alcalde Bartlett (for the committee), Captain Mervine, of the U.S. frigate Savannah, furnished from the ship's stores ten days' full rations for ten men. The crews of the Savannah and the sloop Warren, and the marines in garrison at San Francisco, increased the relief fund to thirteen hundred dollars. Messrs. Mellus and Howard tendered their launch to carry the party up the bay to Sonoma, and Captain Sutter proffered his launch Sacramento for river use.
It was now settled that the “Reed-Greenwood party” should go to Johnson's ranch by way of Sonoma and Napa, and Woodworth with his men and supplies, including clothing for the destitute, should go by boat to Sutter's Landing; there procure pack animals, buy beef cattle, and hurry on to the snow-belt; establish a relay camp, slaughter the cattle, and render all possible aid toward the immediate rescue of the snow-bound.
Meanwhile, before Alcalde Sinclair's letter had time to reach San Francisco, he and Captain Sutter began outfitting the men destined to become the “First Relief.” Aguilla Glover and R. S. Moutrey volunteered their services, declaring their willingness to undertake the hazardous journey for the sake of the lives they might save.
To hasten recruits for service, Captain Sutter and Alcalde Sinclair promised that in case the Government should fail to grant the sum, they themselves would become responsible for the payment of three dollars per day to each man who would get food through to the snow-bound camps. Accordingly, Aguilla Glover and R. S. Moutrey, driving pack animals well laden with warm clothing, blankets, and food supplies, left the Fort at sunrise on the morning of February the first, and on the third reached Johnson's ranch, where they joined Messrs. Tucker, Johnson, Richey and others, who, being anxious to assist in the good work, had killed, and were fire-drying, beef to take up the mountains. Here two days were spent making pack-saddles, driving in horses, and getting supplies in shape. Indians were kept at the handmill grinding wheat. Part of the flour was sacked, and part converted into bread by the women in the vicinity.
On the morning of the fifth of February, Alcalde Sinclair rode to Johnson's ranch, and all things being ready, he appointed Racine Tucker Captain of the company, and in touching words commended the heroic work of its members, and bade them godspeed on their errand of mercy. When ready to mount, he shook hands with each man, and recorded the names in a note-book as follows:
Racine Tucker, Aguilla Glover, R. S. Moutrey, John Rhodes, Daniel Rhodes, Edward Coffemeir, D. Richey, James Curtis, William Eddy,* William Coon, George Tucker, Adolph Brenheim, and John Foster.* [*Note : Of the Forlorn Hope.]
This party is generally known as the “First Relief.” Their route to the snow-belt lay through sections of country which had become so soft and oozy that the horses often sank in mire, flank deep; and the streams were so swollen that progress was alarmingly slow. On the second day they were driven into camp early by heavy rains which drenched clothing, blankets, and even the provisions carefully stored under the saddles and leather saddle-covers. This caused a delay of thirty-six hours, for everything had to be sun or fire dried before the party could resume travel.
Upon reaching Mule Springs, the party found the snow from three to four feet deep, and, contrary to expectations, saw that it would be impossible to proceed farther with the horses. Mr. Eddy was now ill of fever, and unfit to continue the climb; whereupon his companions promised to bring out his loved ones if he would return with Joe Varro, whom Mr. Johnson had sent along to bring the pack animals home after they should cease to be of use.
At Mule Springs, the party built a brush storehouse for the extra supplies and appointed George Tucker and William Coon camp-keepers. Then they prepared packs containing jerked beef, flour, and bread, each weighing between forty and seventy-five pounds, according to the temperament and strength of the respective carriers. The following morning ten men started on their toilsome march to Bear Valley, where they arrived on the thirteenth, and at once began searching for the abandoned wagon and provisions which Reed and McCutchen had cached the previous Autumn, after their fruitless attempt to scale the mountains. The wagon was found under snow ten feet in depth; but its supplies had been destroyed by wild beasts. Warned by this catastrophe, the First Relief decided to preserve its supplies for the return trip by hanging them in parcels from ropes tied to the boughs of trees.
The ten kept together courageously until the fifteenth; then Mr. M. D. Richey, James Curtis, and Adolph Brenheim gave up and turned back. Mr. Tucker, fearing that others might become disheartened and do likewise, guaranteed each man who would persevere to the end, five dollars per diem, dating from the time the party entered the snow. The remaining seven pushed ahead, and on the eighteenth, encamped on the summit overlooking the lake, where the snow was said to be forty feet in depth. The following morning Aguilla Glover and Daniel Rhodes were so oppressed by the altitude that their companions had to relieve them of their packs and help them on to the cabins, which, as chronicled in a previous chapter, the party reached on the nineteenth of February, 1847.
AFTER the departure of the First Relief we who were left in the mountains began to watch and pray for the coming of the Second Relief, as we had before watched and prayed for the coming of the First.
Sixteen-year-old John Baptiste was disappointed and in ill humor when Messrs. Tucker and Rhodes insisted that he, being the only able-bodied man in the Donner camp, should stay and cut wood for the enfeebled, until the arrival of other rescuers. The little half-breed was a sturdy fellow, but he was starving too, and thought that he should be allowed to save himself.
After he had had a talk with father, however, and the first company of refugees had gone, he became reconciled to his lot, and served us faithfully. He would take us little ones up to exercise upon the snow, saying that we should learn to keep our feet on the slick, frozen surface, as well as to wade through slush and loose drifts.
Frequently, when at work and lonesome, he would call Georgia and me up to keep him company, and when the weather was frosty, he would bring “Old Navajo,” his long Indian blanket, and roll her in it from one end, and me from the other, until we would come together in the middle, like the folds of a paper of pins, with a face peeping above each fold. Then he would set us upon the stump of the pine tree while he chopped the trunk and boughs for fuel. He told us that he had promised father to stay until we children should be taken from camp, also that his home was to be with our family forever. One of his amusements was to rake the coals together nights, then cover them with ashes, and put the large camp kettle over the pile for a drum, so that we could spread our hands around it, “to get just a little warm before going to bed.”
For the time, he lived at Aunt Betsy's tent, because Solomon Hook was snow-blind and demented, and at times restless and difficult to control. The poor boy, some weeks earlier, had set out alone to reach the settlement, and after an absence of forty-eight hours was found close to camp, blind, and with his mind unbalanced. He, like other wanderers on that desolate waste, had become bewildered, and, unconsciously, circled back near to the starting-point.
Aunt Betsy came often to our tent, and mother frequently went to hers, and they knelt together and asked for strength to bear their burdens. Once, when mother came back, she reported to father that she had discovered bear tracks quite close to camp, and was solicitous that the beast be secured, as its flesh might sustain us until rescued. As father grew weaker, we children spent more time upon the snow above camp. Often, after his wound was dressed and he fell into a quiet slumber, our everbusy, thoughtful mother would come to us and sit on the tree trunk. Sometimes she brought paper and wrote; sometimes she sketched the mountains and the tall tree-tops, which now looked like small trees growing up through the snow. And often, while knitting or sewing, she held us spell-bound with wondrous tales of “Joseph in Egypt,” of “Daniel in the den of lions,” of “Elijah healing the widow's son,” of dear little Samuel, who said, “Speak Lord, for Thy servant heareth,” and of the tender, loving Master, who took young children in his arms and blessed them.
With me sitting on her lap, and Frances and Georgia at either side, she referred to father's illness and lonely condition, and said that when the next “Relief” came, we little ones might be taken to the settlement, without either parent, but, God willing, both would follow later. Who could be braver or tenderer than she, as she prepared us to go forth with strangers and live without her? While she, without medicine, without lights, would remain and care for our suffering father, in hunger and in cold, and without her little girls to kiss good-morning and good-night. She taught us how to gain friends among those whom we should meet, and what to answer when asked whose children we were.
Often her eyes gazed wistfully to westward, where sky and mountains seemed to meet, and she told us that beyond those snowy peaks lay California, our land of food and safety, our promised land of happiness, where God would care for us. Oh, it was painfully quiet some days in those great mountains, and lonesome upon the snow. The pines had a whispering homesick murmur, and we children had lost all inclination to play.
The last food which I remember seeing in our camp before the arrival of the Second Relief was a thin mould of tallow, which mother had tried out of the trimmings of the jerked beef brought us by the First Relief. She had let it harden in a pan, and after all other rations had given out, she cut daily from it three small white squares for each of us, and we nibbled off the four corners very slowly, and then around and around the edges of the precious pieces until they became too small for us to hold between our fingers.
From an old drawing made from description furnished by Wm. G. Murphy
ARRIVAL OF RELIEF PARTY, FEBRUARY 18, 1847
IT was the first of March, about ten days after the arrival of the First Relief, before James Reed and William McCutchen succeeded in reaching the party they had left long months before. They, together with Brit Greenwood, Hiram Miller, Joseph Jondro, Charles Stone, John Turner, Matthew Dofar, Charles Cady, and Nicholas Clark constituted the Second Relief.
They reported having met the First Relief with eighteen refugees at the head of Bear Valley, three having died en route from the cabins. Among the survivors Mr. Reed found his wife, his daughter Virginia, and his son James F. Reed, Jr. He learned there from his anxious wife that their two younger children, Martha J. and Thomas K. Reed, had also left the cabin with her, but had soon given out and been carried back and left at the mountain camp by Messrs. Glover and Moutrey, who then retraced their steps and rejoined the party.
Consequently this Reed-Greenwood party, realizing that this was no time for tarrying, had hurried on to the lake cabins, where Mr. Reed had the happiness of finding his children still alive. There he and five companions encamped upon the snow and fed and soothed the unfortunates. Two members continued on to Aunt Betsy's abode, and Messrs. Cady and Clark came to ours.
This Relief had followed the example of its predecessor in leaving supplies at marked caches along the trail for the return trip. Therefore, it reached camp with a frugal amount for distribution. The first rations were doled out with careful hand, lest harm should come to the famishing through overeating, still, the rescuers administered sufficient to satisfy the fiercest cravings and to give strength for the prospective journey.
While crossing Alder Creek Valley to our tent that first afternoon, Messrs. Cady and Clark had seen fresh tracks of a bear and cubs, and in the evening the latter took one of our guns and went in pursuit of the game which would have been a godsend to us. It was dark when he returned and told my mother that he had wounded the old bear near the camp, but that she had escaped with her young through the pines into a clump of tamarack, and that he would be able to follow her in the morning by the blood-stains on the snow.
Meanwhile, the two men who had come to Aunt Betsy's with food thought it best not to tell her that her son William had died en route to the settlement with the First Relief. They selected from among her children in camp, Solomon, Mary, and Isaac, as able to follow a leader to the lake cabins, and thence to go with the outgoing Second Relief, across the mountains. Hopefully, that mother kissed her three children good-bye, and then wistfully watched them depart with their rescuers on snowshoes. She herself was strong enough to make the journey, but remained because there was no one to help to carry out her two youngest children.
Thirty-one of the company were still in the camps when this party arrived, nearly all of them children, unable to travel without assistance, and the adults were too feeble to give much aid to the little ones upon the snow. Consequently, when my father learned that the Second Relief comprised only ten men, he felt that he himself would never reach the settlement. He was willing to be left alone, and entreated mother to leave him and try to save herself and us children. He reminded her that his life was almost spent, that she could do little for him were she to remain, and that in caring for us children she would be carrying on his work.
She who had to choose between the sacred duties of wife and mother, thought not of self. She looked first at her helpless little children, then into the face of her suffering and helpless husband, and tenderly, unhesitatingly, announced her determination to remain and care for him until both should be rescued, or death should part them.
Perplexities and heartaches multiplied with the morning hours of the following day. Mr. Clark, being anxious to provide more food, started early to hunt the wounded bear. He had not been gone long, when Mr. Stone arrived from the lake cabins and told Mr. Cady that the other members of the Relief had become alarmed at gathering storm clouds, and had resolved to select at once the ablest among the emigrants and hasten with them across the summit, and to leave Clark, Cady, and himself to cut the necessary fuel for the camps, and otherwise assist the sufferers until the Third Relief should reach them.
Cady and Stone, without waiting to inform Clark, promptly decided upon their course of action. They knew the scarcity of provisions in camp, the condition of the trail over the mountains, the probability of long, fierce March storms, and other obstacles which might delay future promised relief, and, terror-stricken, determined to rejoin their party, regardless of opposition, and return to the settlement.
Mother, fearing that we children might not survive another storm in camp, begged Messrs. Cady and Stone to take us with them, offering them five hundred dollars in coin, to deliver us to Elitha and Leanna at Sutter's Fort. The agreement was made, and she collected a few keepsakes and other light articles, which she wished us to have, and which the men seemed more than willing to carry out of the mountains. Then, lovingly, she combed our hair and helped us to dress quickly for the journey. When we were ready, except cloak and hood, she led us to the bedside, and we took leave of father. The men helped us up the steps and stood us up on the snow. She came, put on our cloaks and hoods, saying, as if talking to herself, “I may never see you again, but God will take care of you.”
Frances was six years and eight months old and could trudge along quite bravely, but Georgia, who was little more than five, and I, lacking a week of four years, could not do well on the heavy trail, and we were soon taken up and carried. After travelling some distance, the men left us sitting on a blanket upon the snow, and went ahead a short distance where they stopped and talked earnestly with many gesticulations. We watched them, trembling lest they leave us there to freeze. Then Frances said,
“Don't feel afraid. If they go off and leave us, I can lead you back to mother by our foot tracks on the snow.”
After a seemingly long time, they returned, picked us up and took us on to one of the lake cabins, where without a parting word, they left us.
The Second Relief Party, of which these men were members, left camp on the third of March. They took with them seventeen refugees--the Breen and Graves families, Solomon Hook, Isaac and Mary Donner, and Martha and Thomas, Mr. Reed's two youngest children.
HOW can I describe that fateful cabin, which was dark as night to us who had come in from the glare of day? We heard no word of greeting and met no sign of welcome, but were given a dreary resting-place near the foot of the steps, just inside the open doorway, with a bed of branches to lie upon, and a blanket to cover us. After we had been there a short time, we could distinguish persons on other beds of branches, and a man with bushy hair reclining beside a smouldering fire.
Soon a child began to cry, “Give me some bread. Oh, give me some meat!”
Then another took up the same pitiful wail. It continued so long that I wept in sympathy, and fastened my arms tightly around my sister Frances' neck and hid my eyes against her shoulder. Still I heard that hungry cry, until a husky voice shouted,
“Be quiet, you crying children, or I'll shoot you.”
But the silence was again and again broken by that heart-rending plea, and again and again were the voices hushed by the same terrifying threat. And we three, fresh from our loving mother's embrace, believed the awful menace no vain threat.
We were cold, and too frightened to feel hungry, nor were we offered food that night, but next morning Mr. Reed's little daughter Mattie appeared carrying in her apron a number of newly baked biscuits which her father had just taken from the hot ashes of his camp fire. Joyfully she handed one to each inmate of the cabin, then departed to join those ready to set forth on the journey to the settlement. Few can know how delicious those biscuits tasted, and how carefully we caught each dropping crumb. The place seemed drearier after their giver left us, yet we were glad that her father was taking her to her mother in California.
Soon the great storm which had been lowering broke upon us. We were not exposed to its fury as were those who had just gone from us, but we knew when it came, for snow drifted down upon our bed and had to be scraped off before we could rise. We were not allowed near the fire and spent most of our time on our bed of branches.
Dear, kind Mrs. Murphy, who for months had taken care of her own son Simon, and her grandson George Foster, and little James Eddy, gave us a share of her motherly attention, and tried to feed and comfort us. Affliction and famine, however, had well nigh sapped her strength and by the time those plaintive voices ceased to cry for bread and meat, her willing hands were too weakened to do much for us.
I remember being awakened while there by two little arms clasped suddenly and tightly about me, and I heard Frances say,
“No, she shall not go with you. You want to kill her!”
Near us stood Keseberg, the man with the bushy hair. In limping past our sleeping place, he had stopped and said something about taking me away with him, which so frightened my sisters that they believed my life in danger, and would not let me move beyond their reach while we remained in that dungeon. We spoke in whispers, suffered as much as the starving children in Joseph's time, and were more afraid than Daniel in the den of lions.
How long the storm had lasted, we did not know, nor how many days we had been there. We were forlorn as children can possibly be, when Simon Murphy, who was older than Frances, climbed to his usual “look out” on the snow above the cabin to see if any help were coming. He returned to us, stammering in his eagerness:
“I seen--a woman--on snow shoes--coming from the other camp! She's a little woman--like Mrs. Donner. She is not looking this way--and may pass!”
Hardly had he spoken her name, before we had gathered around him and were imploring him to hurry back and call our mother. We were too excited to follow him up the steps.
She came to us quickly, with all the tenderness and courage needed to lessen our troubles and soften our fears. Oh, how glad we were to see her, and how thankful she appeared to be with us once more! We heard it in her voice and saw it in her face; and when we begged her not to leave us, she could not answer, but clasped us closer to her bosom, kissed us anew for father's sake, then told how the storm had distressed them. Often had they hoped that we had reached the cabins too late to join the Relief--then in grieving anguish felt that we had, and might not live to cross the summit.
She had watched the fall of snow, and measured its depth; had seen it drift between the two camps making the way so treacherous that no one had dared to cross it until the day before her own coming; then she induced Mr. Clark to try to ascertain if Messrs. Cady and Stone had really got us to the cabins in time to go with the Second Relief.
We did not see Mr. Clark, but he had peered in, taken observations, and returned by nightfall and described to her our condition.
John Baptiste had promised to care for father in her absence. She left our tent in the morning as early as she could see the way. She must have stayed with us over night, for I went to sleep in her arms, and they were still around me when I awoke; and it seemed like a new day, for we had time for many cherished talks. She veiled from us the ghastliness of death, telling us Aunt Betsy and both our little cousins had gone to heaven. She said Lewis had been first to go, and his mother had soon followed; that she herself had carried little Sammie from his sick mother's tent to ours the very day we three were taken away; and in order to keep him warm while the storm raged, she had laid him close to father's side, and that he had stayed with them until “day before yesterday.”
I asked her if Sammie had cried for bread. She replied, “No, he was not hungry, for your mother saved two of those little biscuits which the relief party brought, and every day she soaked a tiny piece in water and fed him all he would eat, and there is still half a biscuit left.”
How big that half-biscuit seemed to me! I wondered why she had not brought at least a part of it to us. While she was talking with Mrs. Murphy, I could not get it out of my mind. I could see that broken half-biscuit, with its ragged edges, and knew that if I had a piece, I would nibble off the rough points first. The longer I waited, the more I wanted it. Finally, I slipped my arm around mother's neck, drew her face close to mine and whispered,
“What are you going to do with the half-biscuit you saved?”
“I am keeping it for your sick father,” she answered, drawing me closer to her side, laying her comforting cheek against mine, letting my arm keep its place, and my fingers stroke her hair.
The two women were still talking in subdued tones, pouring the oil of sympathy into each others' gaping wounds. Neither heard the sound of feet on the snow
above; neither knew that the Third Relief Party was at hand, until Mr. Eddy and Mr. Foster came down the steps, and each asked anxiously of Mrs. Murphy, “Where is my boy?”
Each received the same sorrowful answer--“Dead.”
IT will be remembered that Mr. Eddy, being ill, was dropped out of the First Relief at Mule Springs in February, and sent back to Johnson's Ranch to await the return of this party, which had promised to bring out his family. Who can realize his distress when it returned with eighteen refugees, and informed him that his wife and little Maggie had perished before it reached the camps, and that it had been obliged to leave his baby there in care of Mrs. Murphy?
Disappointed and aggrieved, the afflicted father immediately set out on horseback, hoping that he would meet his child on the trail in charge of the Second Relief, which it seemed reasonable to expect would follow closely in the footsteps of the first. He was accompanied by Mr. Foster, of the Forlorn Hope, who had been forced to leave his own little son at the camp in charge of Mrs. Murphy, its grandmother.
On the evening of the second day, the two reached Woodworth's camp, established as a relay station pursuant to the general plan of rescue originally adopted. They found the midshipman in snug quarters with several men to do his bidding. He explained that the lack of competent guides had prevented his venturing among the snow peaks. Whereupon, Mr. Eddy earnestly assured him that the trail of those who had already gone up outlined the way.
After much deliberation, Woodworth and his men agreed to start out next morning for the mountain camps, but tried to dissuade Mr. Eddy from accompanying them on account of his apparent depleted condition. Nevertheless both he and Mr. Foster remained firm, and with the party, left the relay camp, crossed the low foothills and encamped for the night on the Yuba River.
At dusk, Woodworth was surprised by the arrival of two forlorn-looking individuals, whom he recognized as members of the Reed-Greenwood Relief, which had gone up the mountain late in February and was overdue. The two implored food for themselves, also for their seven companions and three refugees, a mile back on the trail, unable to come farther.
When somewhat refreshed, they were able to go more into detail, and the following explanation of their plight was elicited:
“One of our men, Clark, is at Donner's Camp, and the other nine of us left the cabins near the lake on the third of March, with seventeen of the starving emigrants. The storm caught us as we crossed the summit, and ten miles below, drove us into camp. It got so bad and lasted so long that our provisions gave out, and we almost froze to death cutting wood. We all worked at keeping the fires until we were completely exhausted, then seeing no prospects of help coming to us, we left, and made our way down here, bringing Reed's two children and Solomon Hook, who said he could and would walk. The other fourteen that we brought over the summit are up there at what we call Starved Camp. Some are dead, the rest without food.”
Woodworth and two followers went at once with provisions to the near-by sufferers, and later brought them down to camp.
Messrs. Reed and Greenwood stated that every available means had been tried by them to get the seventeen unfortunates well over the summit before the great storm reached its height. They said the physical condition of the refugees was such, from the very start, that no persuasion, nor warnings, nor threats could quicken their feeble steps. All but three of the number were children, with their hands and feet more or less frozen. Worse still, the caches on which the party had relied for sustenance had been robbed by wild animals, and the severity of the storm had forced all into camp, with nothing more than a breastwork of brush to shelter them. Mrs. Elisabeth Graves died the first night, leaving to the party the hopeless task of caring for her emaciated babe in arms, and her three other children between the ages of nine and five years. Soon, however, the five-year-old followed his mother, and the number of starving was again lessened on the third night when Isaac Donner went to sleep beside his sister and did not waken. The storm had continued so furiously that it was impossible to bury the dead. Days and nights were spent in steadfast struggling against the threatening inevitable, before the party gave up; and Greenwood and Reed, taking the two Reed children and also Solomon Hook, who walked, started down the mountain, hoping to save their own lives and perhaps get fresh men to complete the pitiful work which they had been forced to abandon.
When Messrs. Reed and Greenwood closed their account of the terrible physical and mental strain their party had undergone, “Mr. Woodworth asked his own men of the relay camp, if they would go with him to rescue those unfortunates at 'Starved Camp,' and received an answer in the negative.”*
[*Note : Extract from Thornton's work.]
The following morning there was an earnest consultation, and so hazardous seemed the trail and the work to be done that for a time all except Eddy and Foster refused to go farther. Finally, John Stark stepped forward, saying,
“Gentlemen, I am ready to go and do what I can for those sufferers, without promise of pay.”
By guaranteeing three dollars per day to any man who would get supplies to the mountain camps, and fifty dollars in addition to each man who should carry a helpless child, not his own, back to the settlement, Mr. Eddy* secured the services of Hiram Miller, who had just come down with the Second Relief; and Mr. Foster hired, on the same terms, Mr. Thompson from the relay camp. Mr. Woodworth offered like inducements, on Government account, to the rest of his men, and before the morning was far advanced, with William H. Eddy acting as leader, William Foster, Hiram Miller, Mr. Thompson, John Stark, Howard Oakley, and Charles Stone (who had left us little ones at the lake camp) shouldered their packs and began the ascent.
[*Note : Thornton saw Eddy pay Hiram Miller the promised fifty dollars after the Third Relief reached the settlement.]
Meanwhile how fared it at Starved Camp? Mr. and Mrs. Breen being left there with their own five suffering children and the four other poor, moaning little waifs, were tortured by situations too heart-rending for description, too pitiful to seem true. Suffice it to relate that Mrs. Breen shared with baby Graves the last lump of loaf sugar and the last drops of tea, of that which she had denied herself and had hoarded for her own babe. When this was gone, with quivering lips she and her husband repeated the litany and prayed for strength to meet the ordeal, --then, turning to the unburied dead, they resorted to the only means left to save the nine helpless little ones.
When Mr. Eddy and party reached them, they found much suffering from cold and crying for “something to eat,” but not the wail which precedes delirium and death.
This Third Relief Party settled for the night upon the snow near these refugees, who had twice been in the shadow of doom; and after giving them food and fire, Mr. Eddy divided his force into two sections. Messrs. Stark, Oakley, and Stone were to remain there and nurture the refugees a few hours longer, then carry the small children, and conduct those able to walk to Mule Springs, while Eddy and three companions should hasten on to the cabins across the summit.* [*Note : See McGlashan's “History of the Donner Party.”]
Section Two, spurred on by paternal solicitude, resumed travel at four o'clock the following morning, and crossed the summit soon after sunrise. The nearer they approached camp, the more anxious Messrs. Eddy and Foster became to reach the children they hoped to find alive. Finally, they rushed ahead, as we have seen, to the Murphy cabin. Alas! only disappointment met them there.
Even after Mrs. Murphy had repeated her pitiful answer, “Dead,” the afflicted fathers stood dazed and silent, as if waiting for the loved ones to return.
Mr. Eddy was the first to recover sufficiently for action. Presently Simon Murphy and we three little girls were standing on the snow under a clear blue sky, and saw Hiram Miller and Mr. Thompson coming toward camp.
The change was so sudden it was difficult to understand what had happened. How could we realize that we had passed out of that loathsome cabin, never to return; or that Mrs. Murphy, too ill to leave her bed, and Keseberg, too lame to walk, by reason of a deep cleft in his heel, made by an axe, would have to stay alone in that abode of wretchedness?
Nor could we know our mother's anguish, as she stepped aside to arrange with Mr. Eddy for our departure. She had told us at our own camp why she would remain. She had parted from us there and put us in charge of men who had risked much and come far to do a heroic deed. Later she had found us, abandoned by them, in time of direst need, and in danger of an awful death, and had warmed and cheered us back to hope and confidence. Now, she was about to confide us to the care of a party whose leader swore either to save us or die with us on the trail. We listened to the sound of her voice, felt her good-bye kisses, and watched her hasten away to father, over the snow, through the pines, and out of sight, and knew that we must not follow. But the influence of her last caress, last yearning look of love and abiding faith will go with us through life.
The ordeal through which she passed is thus told by Colonel Thornton, after a personal interview with Mr. Eddy:
Mrs. George Donner was able to travel. But her husband was in a helpless condition, and she would not consent to leave him while he survived. She expressed her solemn and unalterable purpose, which no danger or peril could change, to remain and perform for him the last sad office of duty and affection. She manifested, however, the greatest solicitude for her children, and informed Mr. Eddy that she had fifteen hundred dollars in silver, all of which she would give him, if he would save the lives of the children.
He informed her that he would not carry out one hundred dollars of all she had, but that he would save her children or die in the effort. The party had no provisions to leave for the sustenance of these unhappy, unfortunate beings.
After remaining about two hours, Mr. Eddy informed Mrs. Donner that he was constrained by force of circumstances to depart. It was certain that George Donner would never rise from the miserable bed upon which he had lain down, worn by toil and wasted by famine.
A woman was probably never before placed in circumstances of greater or more peculiar trial; but her duty and affection as a wife triumphed over all her instincts of reason.
The parting scene between parent and children is represented as being one that will never be forgotten, so long as life remains or memory performs its functions.
My own emotions will not permit me to attempt a description which language, indeed, has not power to delineate. It is sufficient to say that it was affecting beyond measure; and that the last words uttered by Mrs. Donner in tears and sobs to Mr. Eddy were, “Oh, save, save my children!”
WHEN we left the lake cabin, we still wore the clothing we had on when we came from our tent with Messrs. Cady and Stone. Georgia and I were clad in quilted petticoats, linsey dresses, woollen stockings, and well-worn shoes. Our cloaks were of a twilled material, garnet, with a white thread interwoven, and we had knitted hoods to match. Frances' clothing was as warm; instead of cloak, however, she wore a shawl, and her hood was blue. Her shoes had been eaten by our starving dog before he disappeared, and as all others were buried out of reach, mother had substituted a pair of her own in their stead.
Mr. Foster took charge of Simon Murphy, his wife's brother, and Messrs. Eddy and Miller carried Georgia and me. Mr. Eddy always called Georgia “my girl,” and she found great favor in his eyes, because in size and looks she reminded him of his little daughter who had perished in that storm-bound camp. Our first stop was on the mountain-side overlooking the lake, where we were given a light meal of bread and meat and a drink of water. When we reached the head of the lake, we overtook Nicholas Clark and John Baptiste who had deserted father in his tent and were hurrying toward the settlement. Our coming was a surprise to them, yet they were glad to join our party.
After our evening allowance of food we were stowed snugly between blankets in a snow trench near the summit of the Sierras, but were so hungry that we could hardly get to sleep, even after being told that more food would do us harm.
Early next morning we were again on the trail. I could not walk at all, and Georgia only a short distance at a time. So treacherous was the way that our rescuers often stumbled into unseen pits, struggled among snow drifts, and climbed icy ridges where to slip or fall might mean death in the yawning depth below.
Near the close of this most trying day, Hiram M. Miller put me down, saying wearily, “I am tired of carrying you. If you will walk to that dark thing on the mountain-side ahead of us, you shall have a nice lump of loaf sugar with your supper.”
My position in the blanket had been so cramped that my limbs were stiff and the jostling of the march had made my body ache. I looked toward the object to which he pointed. It seemed a long way off; yet I wanted the sugar so much that I agreed to walk. The wind was sharp. I shivered, and at times could hardly lift my feet; often I stumbled and would have fallen had he not held my hand tightly, as he half led, half drew me onward. I did my part, however, in glad expectation of the promised bit of sweetness. The sun had set before we reached our landmark, which was a felled and blackened tree, selected to furnish fuel for our night fire. When we children were given our evening allowance of food, I asked for my lump of sugar, and cried bitterly on being harshly told there was none for me. Too disappointed and fretted to care for anything else, I sobbed myself to sleep.
Nor did I waken happy next morning. I had not forgotten the broken promise, and was lonesome for mother. When Mr. Miller told me that I should walk that day as far as Frances and Georgia did, I refused to go forward, and cried to go back. The result was that he used rough means before I promised to be good and do as he commanded. His act made my sister Frances rush to my defence, and also, touched a chord in the fatherly natures of the other two men, who summarily brought about a more comfortable state of affairs.
When we proceeded on our journey, I was again carried by Mr. Miller in a blanket on his back as young children are carried by Indians on long journeys. My head above the blanket folds bobbed uncomfortably at every lurch. The trail led up and down and around snow peaks, and under overhanging banks that seemed ready to give way and crush us.
At one turn our rescuers stopped, picked up a bundle, and carefully noted the fresh human foot prints in the snow which indicated that a number of persons were moving in advance. By our fire that night, Mr. Eddy opened the bundle that we had found upon the snow, and to the surprise of all, Frances at once recognized in it the three silk dresses, silver spoons, small keepsakes, and articles of children's clothing which mother had intrusted to the care of Messrs. Cady and Stone.
The spoons and smaller articles were now stowed away in the pockets of our rescuers for safekeeping on the journey; and while we little girls dressed ourselves in the fresh underwear, and watched our discarded garments disappear in the fire, the dresses, which mother had planned should come to us later in life, were remodelled for immediate use.
Mr. Thompson pulled out the same sharp pocket-knife, coarse black thread, and big-eyed needle, which he had used the previous evening, while making Frances a pair of moccasins out of his own gauntlet gloves. With the help of Mr. Eddy, he then ripped out the sleeves, cut off the waists about an inch above the skirt gathers, cut slits in the skirts for arm-holes, and tacked in the sleeves. Then, with mother's wish in mind, they put the dove-colored silk on Frances, the light brown on Georgia, and the dark coffee-brown on me. Pleats and laps in the skirt bands were necessary to fit them to our necks. Strings were tied around our waists, and the skirts tacked up until they were of walking length. These ample robes served for cloaks as well as dresses for we could easily draw our hands back through the sleeves and keep our arms warm beneath the folds. Thus comfortably clad, we began another day's journey.
Before noon we overtook and passed Messrs. Oakley, Stone, and Stark, having in charge the following refugees from Starved Camp: Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Breen and their five children; Mary Donner, Jonathan Graves, Nancy Graves, and baby Graves. Messrs. Oakley and Stone were in advance, the former carrying Mary Donner over his shoulder; and the latter baby Graves in his arms. Great-hearted John Stark had the care of all the rest. He was broad-shouldered and powerful, and would stride ahead with two weaklings at a time, deposit them on the trail and go back for others who could not keep up. These were the remnant of the hopeful seventeen who had started out on the third of March with the Second Relief, and with whom mother had hoped we children would cross the mountains.
It was after dark when our own little party encamped at the crossing of the Yuba River. The following morning Lieutenant Woodworth and attendants were found near-by. He commended the work done by the Third Relief; yet, to Mr. Eddy's dismay, he declared that he would not go to the rescue of those who were still in the mountains, because the warmer weather was melting the snow so rapidly that the lives of his men would be endangered should he attempt to lead them up the trail which we had just followed down. He gave our party rations, and said that he would at once proceed to Johnson's Ranch and from there send to Mule Springs the requisite number of horses to carry to the settlement the persons now on the trail.
Our party did not resume travel until ten o'clock that morning; nevertheless, we crossed the snow line and made our next camp at Mule Springs. There we caught the first breath of springtide, touched the warm, dry earth, and saw green fields far beyond the foot of that cold, cruel mountain range. Our rescuers exclaimed joyfully, “Thank God, we are at last out of the snow, and you shall soon see Elitha and Leanna, and have all you want to eat.”
Our allowance of food had been gradually increased and our improved condition bore evidence of the good care and kind treatment we had received. We remained several days at Mule Springs, and were comparatively happy until the arrival of the unfortunates from Starved Camp, who stretched forth their gaunt hands and piteously begged for food which would have caused death had it been given to them in sufficient quantities to satisfy their cravings.
When I went among them I found my little cousin Mary sitting on a blanket near Mr. Oakley, who had carried her thither, and who was gently trying to engage her thoughts. Her wan face was wet with tears, and her hands were clasped around her knee as she rocked from side to side in great pain. A large woollen stocking covered her swollen leg and frozen foot which had become numb and fallen into the fire one night at Starved Camp and been badly maimed before she awakened to feel the pain. I wanted to speak to her, but when I saw how lonesome and ill she looked, something like pain choked off my words.
Her brother Isaac had died at that awful camp and she herself would not have lived had Mr. Oakley not been so good to her. He was now comforting her with the assurance that he would have the foot cared for by a doctor as soon as they should reach the settlement; and she, believing him, was trying to be brave and patient.
We all resumed travel on horseback and reached Johnson's Ranch about the same hour in the day. As we approached, the little colony of emigrants which had settled in the neighborhood the previous Autumn crowded in and about the two-roomed adobe house which Mr. Johnson had kindly set apart as a stopping place for the several relief parties on their way to and from the mountains. All were anxious to see the sufferers for whose rescue they had helped to provide.
Survivors of the Forlorn Hope and of the First Relief were also there awaiting the arrival of expected loved ones. There Simon Murphy, who came with us, met his sisters and brother; Mary Graves took from the arms of Charles Stone, her slowly dying baby sister; she received from the hands of John Stark her brother Jonathan and her sister Nancy, and heard of the death of her mother and of her brother Franklin at Starved Camp. That house of welcome became a house of mourning when Messrs. Eddy and Foster repeated the names of those who had perished in the snows. The scenes were so heart-rending that I slipped out of doors and sat in the sunshine waiting for Frances and Georgia, and thinking of her who had intrusted us to the care of God.
Before our short stay at the Johnson Ranch ended, we little girls had a peculiar experience. While standing in a doorway, the door closed with a bang upon two of my fingers. My piercing cry brought several persons to the spot, and one among them sat down and soothed me in a motherly way. After I was myself again, she examined the dress into which Messrs. Thompson and Eddy had stitched so much good-will, and she said:
“Let me take off this clumsy thing, and give you a little blue dress with white flowers on it.” She made the change, and after she had fastened it in the back she got a needle and white thread and bade me stand closer to her so that she might sew up the tear which exposed my knees. She asked why I looked so hard at her sewing, and I replied,
“My mother always makes little stitches when she sews my dresses.”
No amount of pulling down of the sleeves or straightening out of the skirt could conceal the fact that I was too large for the garment. As I was leaving her, I heard her say to a companion, “That is just as good for her, and this will make two for my little girl.” Later in the day Frances and Georgia parted with their silks and looked as forlorn as I in calico substitutes.
Oh, the balm and beauty of that early morning when Messrs. Eddy, Thompson, and Miller took us on horseback down the Sacramento Valley. Under the leafy trees and over the budding blossoms we rode. Not rapidly, but steadily, we neared our journey's end. Toward night, when the birds had stopped their singing and were hiding themselves among bush and bough, we reached the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Sinclair on the American River, thirty-five miles from Johnson's Ranch and only two and a half from Sutter's Fort.
That hospitable house was over-crowded with earlier arrivals, but as it was too late for us to cross the river, sympathetic Mrs. Sinclair said that she would find a place for us. Having no bed to offer, she loosened the rag-carpet from one corner of the room, had fresh straw put on the floor, and after supper, tucked us away on it, drawing the carpet over us in place of quilts.
We had bread and milk for supper that night, and the same good food next day. In the afternoon we were taken across the river in an Indian canoe. Then we followed the winding path through the tules to Sutter's Fort, where we were given over to our half-sisters by those heroic men who had kept their pledge to our mother and saved our lives.
THE room in which Elitha and Leanna were staying when we arrived at Sutter's Fort was part of a long, low, single-story adobe building outside the fortification walls, and like others that were occupied by belated travellers, was the barest and crudest structure imaginable. It had an earthen floor, a thatched roof, a batten door, and an opening in the rear wall to serve as window.
We little ones were oblivious of discomfort, however. The tenderness with which we were received, and the bewildering sense of safety that we felt, blinded us even to the anguish and fear which crept over our two sisters, when they saw us come to them alone. How they suffered I learned many years later from Elitha, who said, in referring to those pitiful experiences:
After Sister Leanna and I reached the Fort with the First Relief, we were put in different families to await our parents; but as soon as the Second Relief was expected, we went to housekeeping, gathered wood, and had everything ready. No one came. Then we waited and watched anxiously for the Third Relief, and it was a sad sight to see you three and no more.
I went in, kindled the fire, and gave you supper. I had a bed of shavings hemmed in with poles for father and mother. They did not come. We five lay down upon it, and Sister Leanna and I talked long after you three were asleep, wondering what we should do. You had no clothes, except those you wore, so the next day I got a little cotton stuff and commenced making you some. Sister Leanna did the cooking and looked after you, which took all her time.
The United States Army officer at the Fort had left orders at Captain Sutter's store, that we should be furnished with the necessaries of life, and that was how we were able to get the food and few things we had when you arrived.
Messrs. Eddy and Thompson did not tell my sisters that they had no expectation of father's getting through, and considered mother's chance very slight, but went directly to the Fort to report to Colonel McKinstry and to Mr. Kerns what their party had accomplished, and to inform them that Lieutenant Woodworth was about to break camp and return to the settlement instead of trying to get relief to the four unfortunates still at the mountain camp.
Very soon thereafter, a messenger on horseback from the Fort delivered a letter to Lieutenant Woodworth, and a fourth party was organized, “consisting of John Stark, John Rhodes, E Coffeymier, John Del, Daniel Tucker, Wm. Foster, and Wm. Graves. But this party proceeded no farther than Bear Valley on account of the rapidly melting snows.”* [*Note : Thornton.]
The return of the party after its fruitless efforts was not made known to Elitha and Leanna; nor were they aware that Thomas Fallon, with six companions, had set out for the mountain camps on the tenth of April.
Neither fear nor misgivings troubled us little ones the morning we started out, hand in hand, to explore our new surroundings. We had rested, been washed, combed, and fed, and we believed that father and mother would soon come to us. Everything was beautiful to our eyes. We did not care if “the houses did look as if they were made of dry dirt and hadn't anything but holes for windows.” We watched the mothers sitting on the door sills or on chairs near them laughing as they talked and sewed, and it seemed good to see the little children at play and hear them singing their dolls to sleep.
The big gate to the adobe wall around Captain Sutter's home was open, and we could look in and see many white-washed huts built against the back and side walls, and a flag waving from a pole in front of the large house, which stood in the middle of the ground. Cannons like those we had seen at Fort Laramie were also peeping out of holes in these walls, and an Indian soldier and a white soldier were marching to and fro, each holding a gun against his shoulder, and it pointing straight up in the air.
Often we looked at each other and exclaimed, “How good to be here instead of up in the snow.” It was hard to go back to the house when sisters called us. I do not remember the looks or the taste of anything they gave us to eat. We were so eager to stay out in the sunshine. Before long, we went to that dreary, bare room only to sleep. Many of the women at the Fort were kind to us; gave us bread from their scant loaves not only because we were destitute, but because they had grateful recollection of those whose name we bore.
Once a tall, freckle-faced boy, with very red hair, edged up to where I was watching others at play, and whispered:
“See here, little gal, you run get that little tin cup of yourn, and when you see me come out of Mrs. Wimmer's house with the milk pail on my arm, you go round yonder to the other side of the cow-pen, where you'll find a hole big enough to put the cup through. Then you can watch me milk it full of the nicest milk you ever tasted. You needn't say nothing to nobody about it. I give your little sister some last time, and I want to do the same for you. I hain't got no mother neither, and I know how it is.”
When I got there he took the cup and, as he sat down under old Bossy, smilingly asked if I liked lots of foam. I told him I did. He milked a faster, stronger stream, then handed me the cup, full as he could carry it, and a white cap of foam stood above its rim. I tasted it and told him it was too good to drink fast, but he watched me until it was all gone. Then, saying he didn't want thanks, he hurried me back to the children. I never saw that boy again, but have ever been grateful for his act of pure kindness.
Every day or two a horse all white with lather and dripping with sweat would rush by, and the Indian or white man on his back would guide him straight to Captain Kerns' quarters, where he would hand out papers and letters. The women and children would flock thither to see if it meant news for them. Often they were disappointed and talked a great deal about the tediousness of the Mexican War and the delays of Captain Frémont's company. They wanted the war to end, and their men folk back so that they could move and get to farming before it should be too late to grow garden truck for family use.
While they thus anxiously awaited the return of their soldiers, we kept watch of the cow-path by which we had reached the Fort; for Elitha had told us that we might “pretty soon see the relief coming.” She did not say, “with father and mother”; but we did, and she replied, “I hope so.”
We were very proud of the new clothes she had made us; but the first time she washed and hung them out to dry, they were stolen, and we were again destitute. Sister Elitha thought perhaps strange Indians took them.
In May, the Fallon party arrived with horses laden with many packs of goods, but their only refugee was Lewis Keseberg, from the cabin near the lake.
It was evening, and some one came to our door, spoke to Elitha and Leanna in low tones and went away. My sisters turned, put their arms about us and wept bitterly. Then, gently, compassionately, the cruel, desolating truth was told. Ah, how could we believe it? No anxious watching, no weary waiting would ever bring father and mother to us again!
THE report of our affliction spread rapidly, and the well-meaning, tender-hearted women at the Fort came to condole and weep with us, and made their children weep also by urging, “Now, do say something comforting to these poor little girls, who were frozen and starved up in the mountains, and are now orphans in a strange land, without any home or any one to care for them.”
Such ordeals were too overwhelming. I would rush off alone among the wild flowers to get away from the torturing sympathy. Even there, I met those who would look at me with great serious eyes, shake their heads, and mournfully say, “You poor little mite, how much better it would be if you had died in the mountains with your dear mother, instead of being left alone to struggle in this wicked world!”
This would but increase my distress, for I did not want to be dead and buried up there under the cold, deep snow, and I knew that mother did not want me to be there either. Had she not sent me away to save me, and asked God, our Heavenly Father, to take care of me?
Intense excitement and indignation prevailed at the Fort after Captain Fallon and other members of his party gave their account of the conditions found at the mountain camps, and of interviews had with Keseberg, whom they now called, “cannibal, robber, and murderer.” The wretched man was accused by this party, not only of having needlessly partaken of human flesh, and of having appropriated coin and other property which should have come to us orphaned children, but also of having wantonly taken the life of Mrs. Murphy and of my mother.
Some declared him crazy, others called him a monster. Keseberg denied these charges and repeatedly accused Fallon and his party of making false statements. He sadly acknowledged that he had used human flesh to keep himself from starving, but swore that he was guiltless of taking human life. He stated that Mrs. Murphy had died of starvation soon after the departure of the “Third Relief,” and that my mother had watched by father's bedside until he died. After preparing his body for burial, she had started out on the trail to go to her children. In attempting to cross the distance from her camp to his, she had strayed and wandered about far into the night, and finally reached his cabin wet, shivering, and grief-stricken, yet determined to push onward. She had brought nothing with her, but told him where to find money to take to her children in the event of her not reaching them.
He stated that he offered her food, which she refused. He then attempted to persuade her to wait until morning, and while they were talking, she sank upon the floor completely exhausted, and he covered her with blankets and made a fire to warm her. In the morning he found her cold in death.
Keseberg's vehement and steadfast denial of the crimes of which he stood accused saved him from personal violence, but not from suspicion and ill-will. Women shunned him, and children stoned him as he walked about the fort. The California Star printed in full the account of the Fallon party, and blood-curdling editorials increased public sentiment against Keseberg, stamping him with the mark of Cain, and closing the door of every home against him.* [*Note : See Appendix for account of the Fallon party, quoted from Thornton's work.]
Elitha and Leanna tried to keep us little ones in ignorance of the report that our father's body was mutilated, also of what was said about the alleged murder of our mother. Still we did hear fragments of conversations which greatly disturbed us, and our sisters found it difficult to answer some of our questions.
Meanwhile, more disappointments for us were brewing at the fort. Fallon's party demanded an immediate settlement of its claim. It had gone up the mountains under promise that its members should have not only a per diem as rescuers, but also one half of all the property that they might bring to the settlement, and they had brought valuable packs from the camps of the Donners. Captain Fallon also had two hundred and twenty-five dollars in gold coin taken from concealment on Keseberg's person, and two hundred and seventy-five dollars additional taken from a cache that Keseberg had disclosed after the Captain had partially strangled him, and otherwise brutally treated him, to extort information of hidden treasure.
Keseberg did not deny that this money belonged to the Donners, but asserted that it was his intention and desire to take it to the Donner children himself as he had promised their mother.
Eventually, it was agreed that the Donner properties should be sold at auction, and that “one half of the proceeds should be handed over to Captain Fallon to satisfy the claims of his party, and the other half should be put into the hands of a guardian for the support of the Donner children.” Hiram Miller was appointed guardian by Alcalde Sinclair.
Notwithstanding these plans for our well-being, unaccountable delays followed, making our situation daily more trying.
Elitha was not yet fifteen years of age, and Leanna was two years younger. They had not fully recovered from the effects of their long privations and physical sufferings in the mountains; and the loss of parents and means of support placed upon them responsibilities greater than they could carry, no matter how bravely they strove to meet the situation. “How can we provide for ourselves and these little sisters?” was a question which haunted them by night and perplexed them by day.
They had no way of communicating with our friends in Eastern States, and the women at the Fort could ill afford to provide longer for us, since their bread winners were still with Frémont, and their own supplies were limited. Finally, my two eldest sisters were given employment by different families in exchange for food, which they shared with us; but it was often insufficient, and we little ones drifted along forlornly. Sometimes home was where night overtook us.
Often, we trudged to the rancheria beyond the pond, made by the adobe-moulders who had built the houses and wall surrounding the fort. There the Indian mothers were good to us. They gave us shreds of smoked fish and dried acorns to eat; lowered from their backs the queer little baby-beds, called “bickooses,” and made the chubby faces in them laugh for our amusement. They also let us pet the dogs that perked up their ears and wagged their tails as our own Uno used to do when he wanted to frolic. Sometimes they stroked our hair and rubbed the locks between their fingers, then felt their own as if to note the difference. They seemed sorry because we could not understand their speech.
The pond also, with its banks of flowers, winding path, and dimpling waters, had charms for us until one day's experience drove us from it forever. We three were playing near it when a joyous Indian girl with a bundle of clothes on her head ran down the bank to the water's edge. We, following, watched her drop her bundle near a board that sloped from a rock into nature's tub, then kneel upon the upper end and souse the clothes merrily up and down in the clear water. She lathered them with a freshly gathered soap-root and cleansed them according to the ways of the Spanish mission teachers. As she tied the wet garments in a bundle and turned to carry them to the drying ground, Frances espied some loose yellow poppies floating near the end of the board and lay down upon it for the purpose of catching them.
Georgia and I saw her lean over and stretch out her hand as far as she could reach; saw the poppies drift just beyond her finger tips; saw her lean a little farther, then slip, head first, into the deep water. Such shrieks as terrified children give, brought the Indian girl quickly to our aid. Like a flash, she tossed the bundle from her head, sprang into the water, snatched Frances as she rose to the surface, and restored her to us without a word. Before we had recovered sufficiently to speak, she was gone.
Not a soul was in sight when we started toward the Fort, all unconscious of what the inevitable “is to be” was weaving into our lives.
We were too young to keep track of time by calendar, but counted it by happenings. Some were marked with tears, some with smiles, and some stole unawares upon us, just as on that bright June evening, when we did not find our sisters, and aimlessly followed others to the little shop where a friendly-appearing elderly
man was cutting slices of meat and handing them to customers. We did not know his name, nor did we realize that he was selling the meat he handed out, only that we wanted some. So, after all the others had gone, we addressed him, asking,
“Grandpa, please give us a little piece of meat.”
He looked at us, and inquired whose children we were, and where we lived. Upon learning, he turned about, lifted a liver from a wooden peg and cut for each, a generous slice.
On our way out, a neighbor intercepted us and said that we should sleep at her house that night and see our sisters in the morning. She also gave us permission to cook our pieces of liver over her bed of live coals. Frances offered to cook them all on her stick, but Georgia and I insisted that it would be fun for each to broil her own. I, being the smallest child, was given the shortest stick, and allowed to stand nearest the fire. Soon the three slices were sizzling and browning from the ends of three willow rods, and smelled so good that we could hardly wait for them to be done. Presently, however, the heat began to burn my cheeks and also the hand that held the stick. The more I wiggled about, the hotter the fire seemed, and it ended in Frances having to fish my piece of liver from among the coals, burned in patches, curled over bits of dying embers, and pretty well covered with ashes, but she knew how to scrape them away, and my supper was not spoiled.
Our neighbor gave us breakfast next morning and spruced us up a bit, then led us to the house where a number of persons had gathered, most of them sitting at table laughing and talking, and among them, Elitha and Leanna. Upon our entrance, the merriment ceased and all eyes were turned inquiringly toward us. Some one pointed to him who sat beside our eldest sister and gayly said, “Look at your new brother.” Another asked, “How do you like him?” We gazed around in silent amazement until a third continued teasingly, “She is no longer Elitha Donner, but Mrs. Perry McCoon. You have lost your sister, for her husband will take her away with him.” “Lost your sister!” Those harrowing words stirred our pent feelings to anguish so keen that he who had uttered them in sport was touched with pity by the pain they caused.
Tears came also to the child-wife's eyes as she clasped her arms about us soothingly, assuring us that she was still our sister, and would care for us. Nevertheless, she and her husband slipped away soon on horseback, and we were told that we were to stay at our neighbor's until they returned for us.
This marriage, which was solemnized by Alcalde John Sinclair on the fourth of June, 1847, was approved by the people at the Fort. Children were anxious to play with us because we had “a married sister and a new brother.” Women hurried through noon chores to meet outside, and some in their eagerness forgot to roll down their sleeves before they began to talk. One triumphantly repeated to each newcomer the motherly advice which she gave the young couple when she “first noticed his affection for that sorrowing girl, who is too pretty to be in this new country without a protector.” They also recalled how Perry McCoon's launch had brought supplies up the river for the Second Relief to take over the mountains; and how finally, he himself had carried to the bereaved daughter the last accounts from Donner Camp.
Then the speakers wondered how soon Elitha would be back. Would she take us three to live with her on that cattle ranch twenty-five miles by bridle trail from the Fort? And would peace and happiness come to us there?
WE were still without Elitha, when up the road and toward the Fort came a stout little old woman in brown. On one arm she carried a basket, and from the hand of the other hung a small covered tin pail. Her apron was almost as long as her dress skirt, which reached below her ankles, yet was short enough to show brown stockings above her low shoes. Two ends of the bright kerchief which covered her neck and crossed her bosom were pinned on opposite sides at the waist-line. A brown quilted hood of the same shade and material as her dress and apron concealed all but the white lace frill of a “grandma cap,” which fastened under her chin with a bow. Her dark hair drawn down plain to each temple was coiled there into tiny wheels, and a brass pin stuck through crosswise to hold each coil in place. Her bright, speaking eyes, more brown than gray, gave charm to a face which might have been pretty had disease not marred it in youth.
As she drew near, her wonderful eyes looked into our faces and won from our lips a timid “Good morning, grandma.”
That title, which we had been taught to use when speaking to the aged, was new and sweet to her, who had never been blessed with child. She set the basket on the ground, put the pail beside it, and caressed us in a cheery way, then let us peep in and see what she had brought especially for us. How did it happen? That is something we were to learn later. Such luxuries, --eggs, bread, butter, cheese, and milk in the dear little tin pail!
Seeing how thin and hungry we looked she gave each a piece of buttered bread before going with us to our neighbor's house, where she left the food, with instructions, in broken English, that it was for us three little girls who had called her “grandma,” and that we must not be given too much at a time.
When next grandma came she took puny Georgia home with her, and left me hugging the promise that I also should have a visit, if I would await my turn patiently.
Who can picture my delight when Georgia got back and told me of all she had seen? Cows, horses, pigs; and chickens, but most thrilling of all was about the cross old sheep, which would not let her pass if she did not carry a big stick in sight. Still, I should not have been so eager to go, nor so gleeful on the way, had I known that the “good-bye” kiss I gave my sister Frances at parting that day, would be the last kiss in five long years.
Grandma was as happy as I. She could understand English better than she could speak it, and in answering my questions, explained largely by signs.
“Courage,” her gray poodle, left deep footprints in the dust, as he trotted ahead over the well-known road, and I felt an increasing affection for him upon learning that he, too, had crossed the plains in an emigrant wagon and had reached the Fort at about the same time I had reached the snow. He was so small that I imagined he must have been a wee baby dog when he started, and that he was not yet half grown. My surprise and admiration quickened beyond expression when grandma assured me that he could do many tricks, understood French and German, and was learning English.
Then she laughed, and explained that he was thus accomplished because she and Christian Brunner, her husband, and Jacob, her brother-in-law, had come from a place far away across lands and big waters where most of the people spoke both French and German and that they had always talked to Courage in one or the other of these languages.
As soon as we got into the house she opened the back door and called “Jacob!” Then turning, she took a small cup of rennet clabber from the shelf, poured a little cream over it, put a spoon in it, and set it on the table before me. While I was eating, a pleasant elderly man came in and by nods, motions, and words, partly English and partly something else, convinced me that he liked little girls, and was glad to see me. Then of a sudden, he clasped his hands about my waist and tossed me in the air as father did before his hand was hurt, and when he wanted to startle me, and then hear me laugh. This act, which brought back loving memories, made Jacob seem nearer to me; nearer still when he told me I must not call him anything but Jakie.
Everything about the house was as Georgia had described. Even the big stick she had used to keep the old sheep from butting her over was behind the door where she had left it.
When Christian Brunner got home from the Fort, grandma had supper nearly ready, and he and I were friends the instant we looked into each other's face; for he was “grandpa” who had given us the liver the evening we did not find our sisters. He had gone home that night and said: “Mary, at the Fort are three hungry little orphan girls. Take them something as soon as you can. One child is fair, two are dark. You will know them by the way they speak to you.”
Grandpa had now hastened home to hold me on his lap and to hear me say that I was glad to be at his house and intended to help grandma all I could for being so good as to bring me there. After I told how we had cooked the liver and how good it tasted, he wiped his eyes and said: “Mine child, when you little ones thanked me for that liver, it made me not so much your friend as when you called me 'grandpa.'”
As time went on, grandma declared that I helped her a great deal because I kept her chip-box full, shooed the hens out of the house, brought in the eggs, and drove the little chicks to bed, nights. I don't recollect that I was ever tired or sleepy, yet I know that the night must have sped, between the time of my last nod at the funny shadow picture of a rabbit which Jakie made hop across the wall behind the lighted candle, and Courage's barking near my pillow, which grandma said meant, “Good-morning, little girl!”
It was after one of these reminders of a new day that I saw Leanna. I don't know when or how she came, but I missed Frances and Georgia the more because I wanted them to share our comforts. Nevertheless a strange feeling of uneasiness crept over me as I noticed, later, that grandpa lingered and that the three spoke long in their own tongue, and glanced often toward me.
Finally grandpa and Jakie went off in the wagon and grandma also disappeared, but soon returned, dressed for a trip to the Fort, and explained that she had heard that Georgia was sick and she would take me back and bring her in my place. I had known from the beginning that I was to stay only a little while, yet I was woefully disturbed at having my enjoyment so abruptly terminated. My first impulse was to cry, but somehow, the influence of her who under the soughing pines of the Sierras had told me that “friends do not come quickly to a cry-baby child” gave me courage, and I looked up into the dear old face before me and with the earnestness of an anxious child asked, “Grandma, why can't you keep two of us?”
She looked at me, hesitated, then replied, “I will see.” She kissed away my fears and rode off on old Lisa. I did not know that she would ride farther than the fort and imagined she had gone on horseback so that she might the easier bring back my little sister.
Leanna washed the dishes and did the other work before she joined me in watching for grandma's return. At last she came in sight and I ran up the road craning my neck to see if Georgia were really behind on old Lisa's back, and when I saw her pinched face aglow with smiles that were all for me, I had but one wish, and that was to get my arms around her.
One chair was large enough to hold us both when we got into the house, and the big clock on the wall with long weights reaching almost to the floor and red roses painted around its white face, did not tick long before we were deaf to its sound, telling each other about the doings of the day.
She knew more than I, who listened intently as she excitedly went on:
“Me and Frances started to find you this morning, but we wasn't far when we met Jacob in the wagon, and he stopped and asked us where we was going. We told him. Then he told us to get in by him. But he didn't come this way, just drove down to the river and some men lifted us out and set us in a boat and commenced to paddle across the water. I knew that wasn't the way, and I cried and cried as loud as I could cry, and told them I wanted to go to my little sister Eliza, and that I'd tip the boat over if they did not take me back; and one man said, 'It's too bad! It ain't right to part the two littlest ones.' And they told me if I'd sit still and stop crying they would bring me back with them by and by, and that I should come to you. And I minded.
“Then they taked us to that house where we sleeped under the carpet the night we didn't get to the Fort. Don't you remember? Well, lots of people was there and talked about us and about father and mother, and waited for grandma to come. Pretty soon grandma come, and everybody talked, and talked. And grandma told them she was sorry for us, and would take you and me if she could keep Leanna to help her do the work. When I was coming away with grandma, Frances cried like everything. She said she wanted to see you, and told the people mother said we should always stay together. But they wouldn't let her come. They've gived her to somebody else, and now she is their little girl.”
We both felt sorry for Frances, and wished we could know where she was and what she was doing.
While we were talking, grandma kept busily at work, and sometimes she wiped her face with the corner of her apron, yet we did not think of her as listening, nor of watching us, nor would we ever have known it, had we not learned it later from her own lips, as she told others the circumstances which had brought us into her life.
Some days later Georgia and I were playing in the back yard when Leanna appeared at the door and called out in quick, jubilant tones: “Children, run around to the front and see who has come!”
True enough, hitched to a stake near the front door was a bay horse with white spots on his body and a white stripe down his face, and tied to the pommel of his saddle was another horse with a side saddle on its back. It did not take us long to get into the house where we found Elitha and our new brother, who had come to arrange about taking us away with them. While Elitha was talking to grandma and Leanna, Georgia stood listening, but I sat on my new brother's knee and heard all about his beautiful spotted horse and a colt of the same colors.
Elitha could not persuade Leanna or Georgia to go with her, nor was I inclined to do so when she and grandma first urged me. But I began to yield as the former told me she was lonesome; wanted at least one little sister to live with her, and that if I would be that one, I should have a new dress and a doll with a face. Then my new brother settled the matter by saying: “Listen to me. If you'll go, you shall have the pinto colt that I told you about, a little side saddle of your own, and whenever you feel like it, you can get on it and ride down to see all the folks.” The prospects were so alluring that I went at once with Leanna, who was to get me ready for the journey.
Leanna did not share my enthusiasm. She said I was a foolish little thing, and declared I would get lonesome on such a big place so far away; that the colt would kick me if I tried to go near it, and that no one ever made saddles for colts. She was not so gentle as usual when she combed my hair and gave my face a right hard scrubbing with a cloth and whey, which grandma bade her use, “because it makes the skin so nice and soft.”
Notwithstanding these discouragements, I took my clothes, which were tied up in a colored handkerchief, kissed them all good-bye, and rode away sitting behind my new brother on the spotted horse, really believing that I should be back in a few days on a visit.
WE left the Fort and grandma's house far behind, and still rode on and on. The day was warm, the wild flowers were gone, and the plain was yellow with ripening oats which rustled noisily as we passed through, crowding and bumping their neighborly heads together. Yet it was not a lonesome way, for we passed elk, antelope, and deer feeding, with pretty little fawns standing close to their mothers' sides. There were also sleek fat cattle resting under the shade of live oak trees, and great birds that soared around overhead casting their shadows on the ground. As we neared the river, smaller birds of brighter colors could be heard and seen in the trees along the banks where the water flowed between, clear and cold.
All these things my sister pointed out to me as we passed onward. It was almost dark before we came in sight of the adobe ranch house. We were met on the road by a pack of Indian dogs, whose fierce looks and savage yelping made me tremble, until I got into the house where they could not follow.
The first weeks of my stay on the ranch passed quickly. Elitha and I were together most of the time. She made my new dress and a doll which was perfection in my eyes, though its face was crooked, and its pencilled hair was more like pothooks than curls. I did not see much of her husband, because in the mornings he rode away early to direct his Indian cattle-herders at the rodeos, or to oversee other ranch work, and I was often asleep when he returned nights.
The pinto colt he had promised me was, as Leanna had said, “big enough to kick, but too small to ride,” and I at once realized that my anticipated visits could not be made as planned.
Occasionally, men came on horseback to stay a day or two, and before the summer was over, a young couple with a small baby moved into one part of our house. We called them Mr. and Mrs. Packwood and Baby Packwood. The mother and child were company for my sister, while the husbands talked continually of ranches, cattle, hides, and tallow, so I was free to roam around by myself.
In one of my wanderings I met a sprightly little Indian lad, whose face was almost as white as my own. He was clad in a blue and white shirt that reached below his knees. Several strings of beads were around his neck, and a small bow and arrow in his hand. We stopped and looked at each other; were pleased, yet shy about moving onward or speaking. I, being the larger, finally asked,
“What's your name?”
To my great delight, he answered, “Name, Billy.”
While we were slowly getting accustomed to each other, a good-natured elderly squaw passed. She wore a tattered petticoat, and buttons, pieces of shell, and beads of bird bones dangled from a string around her neck. A band of buckskin covered her forehead and was attached to strips of rawhide, which held in place the water-tight basket hanging down her back. Billy now left me for her, and I followed the two to that part of our yard where the tall ash-hopper stood, which ever after was like a story book to me.
The squaw set the basket on the ground, reached up, and carefully lifted from a board laid across the top of the hopper, several pans of clabbered milk, which she poured into the basket. Instead of putting the pans back, she tilted them up against the hopper, squatted down in front and with her slim forefinger, scraped down the sides and bottom of each pan so that she and Billy could scoop up and convey to their mouths, by means of their three crooked fingers, all that had not gone into the basket. Then she licked her improvised spoon clean and dry; turned her back to her burden; replaced the band on her forehead; and with the help of her stick, slowly raised herself to her feet and quietly walked away, Billy after her.
Next day I was on watch early. My kind friend, the choreman, let me go with him when he carried the lye from the hopper to the soap fat barrel. Then he put more ashes on the hopper and set the pans of milk in place for the evening call of Billy and his companion.
He pointed out the rancheria by the river where the Indian herders lived with others of their tribe, among them, Billy and his mother. He also informed me that the squaws took turns in coming for the milk, and that Billy came as often as he got the chance; that he was a nice little fellow, who had learned a few English words from his white papa, who had gone off and left him.
Billy and I might never have played together as we did, if my brother-in-law had not taken his wife to San Francisco and left me in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Packwood. Their chief aim in life was to please their baby. She was a dear little thing when awake, but the house had to be kept very still while she slept, and they would raise a hand and say, “Hu-sh!” as they left me, and together tip-toed to the cradle to watch her smile in her sleep. I had their assurance that they would like to let me hold her if her little bones were not so soft that I might break them.
They were never unkind or cross to me. I had plenty to eat, and clean clothes to wear, but they did not seem to realize how I yearned for some one to love. So I went to Mr. Choreman. He told me about the antelope that raced across the ranch before I was up; of the elk, deer, bear, and buffalo he had shot in his day; and of beaver, otter, and other animals that he had trapped along the rivers. Entranced with his tales I became as excited as he, while listening to the dangers he had escaped.
One day he showed me a little chair which I declared was the cunningest thing I had ever seen. It had a high, straight back, just like those in the house, only that it was smaller. The seat was made of strips of rawhide woven in and out so that it looked like patchwork squares. He let me sit on it and say how beautiful it was, before telling me that he had made it all for me. I was so delighted that I jumped up, clasped it in my arms and looked at him in silent admiration. I do not believe that he could understand how rich and grateful I felt, although he shook his head saying, “You are not a bit happier than I was while making it for you, nor can you know how much good it does me to have you around.”
Gradually, Billy spent more time near the ranch house, and learned many of my kind of words, and I picked up some of his. Before long, he discovered that he could climb up on the hopper, and then he helped me up. But I could not crook my fingers into as good a spoon as he did his, and he got more milk out of the pan than I.
We did not think any one saw us, yet the next time we climbed up, we found two old spoons stuck in a crack, in plain sight. After we got through using them, I wiped them on my dress skirt and put them back. Later, I met Mr. Choreman, who told me that he had put the spoons there because I was too nice a little girl to eat as Billy did, or to dip out of the same pan. I was ashamed and promised not to do so again, nor to climb up there with him.
As time passed, I watched wistfully for my sister's return, and thought a great deal about the folks at grandma's. I tried to remember all that had happened while I was there, and felt sure they were waiting for me to pay the promised visit. A great longing often made me rush out behind a large tree near the river, where no one could see or hear me feel sorry for myself, and where I would wonder if God was taking care of the others and did not know where I lived.
I still feel the wondrous thrill, and bid my throbbing heart beat slower, when I recall the joy that tingled through every part of my being on that evening when, unexpectedly, Leanna and Georgia came to the door. Yet, so short-lived was that joy that the event has always seemed more like a disquieting dream than a reality; for they came at night and were gone in the morning, and left me sorrowing.
A few months ago, I wrote to Georgia (now Mrs. Babcock), who lives in the State of Washington, for her recollections of that brief reunion, and she replied:
Before we went to Sonoma with Grandma Brunner in the Fall of 1847, Leanna and I paid you a visit. We reached your home at dusk. Mr. McCoon and Elitha were not there. We were so glad to meet, but our visit was too short. You and I were given a cup of bread and milk and sent to bed. Leanna ate with the grown folks, who, upon learning that we had only come to say good-bye, told her we must for your sake get away before you awoke next morning. We arose and got started early, but had only gone a short distance when we heard your pitiful cry, begging us to take you with us. Leanna hid her face in her apron, while a man caught you and carried you back. I think she cried all the way home. It was so hard to part from you.
Mr. Packwood carried me into the house, and both he and his wife felt sorry for me. My head ached and the tears would come as often as any one looked at me. Mrs. Packwood wet a piece of brown paper, laid it on my forehead, and bade me lie on my bed until I should feel better. I could not eat or play, and even Mr. Choreman's bright stories had lost their charm.
“Come look, see squaw, papoose! Me go, you go?” exclaimed Billy excitedly one soft gray morning after I had regained my spirits. I turned in the direction he pointed and saw quite a number of squaws trudging across an open flat with babies in bickooses, and larger children scampering along at various paces, most of them carrying baskets.
With Mrs. Packwood's permission, Billy and I sped away to join the line. I had never been granted such a privilege before, and had no idea what it all meant.
As we approached the edge of the marsh, the squaws walked more slowly, with their eyes fixed upon the ground. Every other moment some of them would be down, digging in the earth with forefinger or a little stick, and I soon learned they were gathering bulbs about a quarter of an inch in thickness and as large around as the smaller end of a woman's thimble. I had seen the plants growing near the pond at the fort, but now the bulbs were ripe, and were being gathered for winter use. In accordance with the tribal custom, not a bulb was eaten during harvest time. They grew so far apart and were so small that it took a long while to make a fair showing in the baskets.
When no more bulbs could be found, the baskets were put on the ground in groups, and the mothers carefully leaned their bickooses against them in such positions that the wide awake papooses could look out from under their shades and smile and sputter at each other in quaint Indian baby-talk; and the sleeping could sleep on undisturbed.
That done, the squaws built a roaring fire, and one of them untied a bundle of hardwood sticks which she had brought for the purpose, and stuck them around under the fuel in touch with the hottest parts of the burning mass. When the ends glowed like long-lasting coals, the waiting crowd snatched them from their bed and rushed into the low thicket which grew in the marsh. I followed with my fire-brand, but, not knowing what to do with it, simply watched the Indians stick theirs into the bushes, sometimes high up, sometimes low down. I saw them dodge about, and heard their shouts of warning and their peals of laughter. Then myriads of hornets came buzzing and swarming about. This frightened me so that I ran back to where the brown babies were cooing in safety.
Empty-handed, but happy, they at length returned, and though I could not understand anything they were saying, their looks and actions betokened what a good time they had had.
Years later, I described the scene to Elitha, who assured me that I had been highly favored by those Indians for they had permitted me to witness their annual “Grub Feast.” The Piutes always use burning fagots to drive hornets and other stinging insects from their nests, and they also use heat in opening the comb cells so that they can easily remove the larvæ, which they eat without further preparation.
With the first cold snaps of winter, my feet felt the effect of former frost bites, and I was obliged to spend most of my time within doors. Fortunately Baby Packwood had grown to be quite a frolicsome child. She was fond of me, and her bones had hardened so that there was no longer danger of my breaking them when I lifted her or held her on my lap. Her mother had also discovered that I was anxious to be helpful, pleased when given something to do, and proud when my work was praised.
I was quite satisfied with my surroundings, when, unexpectedly, Mr. McCoon brought my sister back, and once more we had happy times together.
THE Spring of 1848 was at hand when my brother-in-law said to me, “Grandma Brunner wants you to come back to her; and if you would like to go, I'll take you to the Fort, as soon as the weather changes, and leave you with the people who are getting ready to move north and are willing to take you with them to Sonoma, where grandma now lives.”
The storm was not over, but the day was promising, when my bundle of clothes was again on the pommel of the saddle, and I ready to begin my journey. I was so excited that I could hardly get around to say good-bye to those who had gathered to see me off. We returned by the same route that we had followed out on that warm June day, but everything seemed different. The catkins on the willows were forming and the plain was green with young grass.
As we neared the Fort we passed a large camp of fine-looking Indians who, I was told, were the friendly Walla-Wallas, that came every spring to trade ponies, and otter, and beaver-skins with Captain Sutter for provisions, blankets, beads, gun caps, shot, and powder.
A large emigrant wagon stood near the adobe house where my new brother-in-law drew rein. Before dismounting, he reached back, took me by the arm and carefully supported me as I slid from the horse to the ground. I was so stiff that I could hardly stand, but he led me to the door where we were welcomed by a good-natured woman, to whom he said,
“Well, Mrs. Lennox, you see I've brought the little girl. I don't think she'll be much trouble, unless she talks you to death.”
Then he told her that I had, during the ride, asked him more questions than a man six times his size could answer. But she laughed, and “lowed” that I couldn't match either of her three boys in asking questions, and then informed him that she did not “calculate on making the move until the roads be dryer and the weather settled.” She promised, however, that I should have good care until I could be handed over to the Brunners. After a few words with her in private Perry McCoon bade me good-bye, and passed out of my life forever.
I was now again with emigrants who had crossed the plains in 1846, but who had followed the Fort Hall route and so escaped the misfortunes that befell the Donner Party.
Supper over, Mrs. Lennox made me a bed on the floor in the far corner of the room. I must have fallen asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow, for I remember nothing more until I was awakened by voices, and saw the candle still burning and Mrs. Lennox and two men and a woman sitting near the table. The man speaking had a shrill voice, and his words were so terrifying that I shook all over; my hair felt as though it were trying to pull itself out by its roots; a cold sweat dampened my clothes. I was afraid to move or to turn my eyes. Listening, I tried to remember how many Indians he was talking about. I knew it must be a great many, for it was such a long word. After they went away and the house was dark, I still seemed to see his excited manner and to hear him say:
“Mrs. Lennox, we've got to get out of here right away, for I heard tell at the store before I come up that there's bound to be an Injun outbreak. Them savages from Sonora are already on their way up, and they'll kill and scalp every man, woman, and child they can ketch, and there's nothing to keep them from ketching us, if we stay at this here little fort any longer.”
I lay awake a long while. I did not dare call out because I imagined some of those Indians might have got ahead of the rest and be sneaking up to our house at that very moment. I wondered where I could hide if they should climb through the window, and I felt that Georgia would never know what had become of me, if they should kill and scalp me.
As soon as Mrs. Lennox stirred in the morning, I ran to her and had a good cry. She threatened all sorts of things for the man who had caused me such torture, and declared that he believed everything he heard. He did not seem to remember how many hundred miles away Sonora was, nor how many loaded cannon there were at the Fort. I felt better satisfied, however, when she told me that she had made up her mind to start for Sonoma the next day.
After breakfast her younger boys wanted to see the Walla-Wallas, and took me along. A cold breath from the Sierra Nevadas made me look up and shiver. Soon Captains Sutter and Kern passed us, the former on his favorite white horse, and the latter on a dark bay. I was delighted to catch a glimpse of those two good friends, but they did not know it. They had been to see the Indian ponies, and before we got to the big gate, they had gone in and the Walla-Wallas were forming in line on both sides of the road between the gate and the front of the store.
Only two Indians at a time were allowed to enter the building, and as they were slow in making their trades, we had a good chance to see them all. The men, the boys, and most of the women were dressed in fringed buckskin suits and their hands and faces were painted red, as the Sioux warriors of Fort Laramie painted their cheeks.
The Lennox boys took greatest interest in the little fellows with the bows and arrows, but I could not keep my eyes from the young princess, who stood beside her father, the chief. She was all shimmering with beads. They formed flowers on her moccasins; fringed the outer seams of her doeskin trousers and the hem of her tunic; formed a stripe around her arm holes and her belt; glittered on a band which held in place the eagle plume in her hair; dangled from her ears; and encircled her neck and arms. Yet she did not seem to wear one too many. She looked so winsome and picturesque that I have never forgotten the laughing, pretty picture.
We started back over ground where my little sisters and I had wandered the previous Spring. The people whom I remembered had since gone to other settlements, and strangers lived in the old huts. I could not help looking in as we passed, for I still felt that mother might not be dead. She might have come down the mountain alone and perhaps I could find her. The boys, not knowing why I lagged behind, tried to hurry me along; and finally left me to go home by myself. This, not from unkindness, but rather love of teasing, and also oblivion of the vain hope I cherished.
Mrs. Lennox let me dry the dishes for her after the noon meal, then sent me to visit the neighbor in the next house, while she should stow her things in the wagon and get ready for the journey. I loved this lady* in the next house as soon as she spoke to me, and I was delighted with her baby, who reached out his little arms to have me take him, and raised his head for me to kiss his lips. While he slept, his mother sewed and talked with me. She had known my parents on the plains, and now let me sit at her feet, giving me her workbox, that I might look at its bobbins of different-colored thread and the pretty needle-book. When I told her that the things looked a little like mother's and that sometimes mother let me take the tiniest bit of her wax, she gave me permission to take a tiny taste of that which I held in my hand to see if it was like that which I remembered. [*Note : Mrs. Andrew J. Grayson, wife of the well-known ornithologist, frequently referred to as the “Audubon of the West.”]
Only she, the baby, and I sat down to tea, yet she said that she was glad she had company, for baby's papa was away with Captain Frémont, and she was lonesome.
After I learned that she would have to stay until he came back, I was troubled, and told what I had heard in the night. She assured me that those in charge of the Fort heard every day all that was going on for miles and miles around, and that if they should learn that fighting Indians were coming, they would take all the white people and the good Indians into the fort, and then shoot the bad ones with the cannon that peeped through its embrasures.
The dainty meal and her motherly talk kept me a happy child until I heard the footsteps of the Lennox boys. I knew they were coming for me, and that I should have to sleep in that dark room where I had been so afraid. Quickly slipping from my chair, under the table, and hiding behind my new friend's dress skirt, I begged her not to let them know where I was, and please, to let me stay with her all night. I listened as she sent the boys back to tell their mother that she would keep me until morning, adding that she would step in and explain matters after she put her baby to bed. Before I went to sleep she heard me say my prayers and kissed me good-night.
When I awoke next morning, I was not in her house, but in Mrs. Lennox's Wagon, on the way to Sonoma.
The distance between the Fort and Sonoma was only about eighty miles, yet the heavy roads and the frequent showers kept us on the journey more than a week. It was still drizzling when we reached the town and Mrs. Lennox learned where the Brunners lived. I had been told that they would be looking for me, and I expected to go to them at once.
As we approached the west bank of the creek, which winds south past the town, we could see the branches on the trees in grandma's dooryard swaying. Yet we could not reach there, because a heavy mountain storm had turned a torrent into the creek channel, washed away the foot bridge, and overflowed the low land. Disappointed, we encamped on high ground to wait for the waters to recede.
Toward evening, Jackie gathering his cows on the opposite side, noticed our emigrant wagon, and oxen, and as he drew nearer recognized Mrs. Lennox. Both signalled from where they stood, and soon he descried me, anxious to go to him. He, also, was disappointed at the enforced delay, and returned often to cheer us, and to note the height of the water. It seemed to me that we had been there days and days, when a Mission Indian on a gray pony happened to come our way, and upon learning what was wanted, signalled that he would carry me over for a Mexican silver dollar. Jakie immediately drew the coin from his pocket and held it between thumb and forefinger, high above his head in the sunshine, to show the native that his price would be paid.
Quickly the Indian dismounted, looked his pony over carefully, cinched the blanket on tighter, led him to the water's edge, and turned to me. I shuddered, and when all was ready, drew near the deep flowing current tremblingly, yet did not hesitate; for my loved ones were beyond, and to reach them I was willing to venture.
The Indian mounted and I was placed behind him. By sign, he warned me not to loosen my hold, lest I, like the passing branches, should become the water's prey. With my arms clasped tightly about his dusky form, and his elbows clamped over them, we entered the stream. I saw the water surge up around us, felt it splash over me! Oh, how cold it was! I held my breath as we reached the deepest part, and in dread clung closer to the form before me. We were going down stream, drifting past where Jakie stood! How could I know that we were heading for the safe slope up the bank where we landed?
The Indian took his dollar with a grunt of satisfaction, and Jakie bade me wave to the friends I had left behind, as he put me on old Lisa's back and hurried off to grandma, Leanna, and Georgia, waiting at the gate to welcome me home.
Georgia had a number of patches of calico and other trinkets which she had collected for me, and offered them as soon as we had exchanged greetings, then eagerly conducted me about the place.
Grandma was more energetic and busier than at the Fort, and I could only talk with her as she worked, but there was so much to see and hear that before night fall my feet were heavy and my brain was weary. However, a good sleep under the roof of those whom I loved was all the tonic I needed to prepare me for a fair start in the new career, and grandma's assurance, “This be your home so long as you be good,” filled me with such gladness that, childlike, I promised to be good always and to do everything that should be required of me.
Most of the emigrants in and around the Pueblo of Sonoma were Americans from the western frontiers of the United States. They had reached the province in the Summer or early Autumn of 1846, and for safety had settled near this United States Army post. Here they had bought land and made homes within neighboring distance of each other and begun life anew in simple, happy, pioneer fashion. The Brunners were a different type. They had immigrated from Switzerland and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana, when young, and by toil and economy had saved the snug sum of money which they brought to invest in California enterprises.
They could speak and read French and German, and had some knowledge of figures. Being skilled in the preparation of all the delicacies of the meat market, and the products of the dairy, they had brought across the plains the necessary equipment for both branches of business, and had already established a butcher shop in the town and a dairy on the farm, less than a mile from it.
Jakie was busy and useful at both places, but grandpa was owner of the shop, and grandma of the dairy. Her hand had the cunning of the Swiss cheesemaker, and the deftness of the artist in butter moulding. She was also an experienced cook, and had many household commodities usually unknown to pioneer homes. They were thus eminently fitted for life in a crude new settlement, and occupied an important place in the community.
A public road cut their land into two unequal parts. The cattle corrals and sheds were grouped on one side of the road, and the family accommodations on the other. Three magnificent oaks and a weird, blackened tree-trunk added picturesqueness to the ground upon which the log cabin and outbuildings stood. The trim live oak shaded the adobe milk-room and smoke-house, while the grand old white oak spread its far-reaching boughs over the curbed well and front dooryard.
The log cabin was a substantial three-roomed structure. Its two outer doors opened with latch strings and were sawed across just above the middle, so that the lower sections might be kept closed against the straying pigs and fowls, while the upper part remained open to help the windows opposite give light and ventilation. The east end formed the ample store-room with shelves for many stages of ripening cheese. The west end served as sleeping apartment for all except Jakie. The large middle room was set apart as kitchen and general living room. Against its wall were braced the dear old clock and conveniences for holding dishes, and the few keepsakes which had shared the wanderings of their owners on two continents.
The adobe chimney, which formed part of the partition between the living and the sleeping apartment, gave a huge fireplace to each. From the side of the one that cheered the living room, swung a crane worthy of the great copper cheese kettle that hung on its arm. In tidy rows on the chimney shelf stood bottles and boxes of medicine, two small brass kettles, and six bright candlesticks with hoods, trays, and snuffers to match. On the wide hearth beneath were ranged the old-fashioned three-legged iron pots, dominated by the large round one, used as a bake oven. Hovering over the fire sat the iron tea-kettle, with its slender throat and pointed lips, now warmed to song by the blazing logs, now rattling its lid with increasing fervor.
A long table with rough redwood benches around it, a few straight-backed chairs against the wall, and Jakie's half-concealed bed, in the far corner, constituted the visible furnishings of this memorable room, which was so spick and span in German order and cleanliness, that even its clay floor had to be sprinkled in regular spots and rings before being swept.
It was under the great oaks that most of the morning work was done. There the pails and pans were washed and sunned, the meats chopped, the sausage made, head-cheese moulded, ham and bacon salted, and the lard tried out over the out-door fires. Among those busy scenes, Georgia and I spent many happy hours, and learned some of our hardest lessons; for to us were assigned regular tasks, and we were also expected to do the countless little errands which save steps to grown people, and are supposed not to tire the feet of children.
Grandma, stimulated by the success of her mixing and moulding, and elated by the profit she saw in it, was often too happy and bustling to remember how young we were, or that we got tired, or had worries of our own to bear.
Our small troubles, however, were soon forgotten, when we could slip away for a while to the lovely playhouse which Leanna had secretly made for us in an excavation in the back yard. There we forgot work, used our own language, and played we were like other children; for we owned the beautiful cupboard dug in the wall, and the pieces of Delft and broken glass set in rows upon the shelves, also the furniture, made of stumps and blocks of wood, and the two bottles standing behind the brush barricade to act as sentries in case of danger during our absence.
One stolen visit to that playhouse led me into such disgrace, that grandma did not speak to me the rest of the day, and told Jakie all about it.
In the evening, when no one else was near, he called me to him. I obeyed with downcast head. Putting his hand under my chin, and turning my face up, he made me look straight into his eyes, as he asked,
“Who broke dat glass cup vat grandma left on die dinner table full of milk, and telled you watch it bis Hendrik come to his dinner, or bis she be done mit her nap?”
I tried to turn my eyes down, but he would not let me, and I faltered, “The chicken knocked it off, --but he left the door open so it could get in.”
Then, he raised his other hand, shook his finger, and in awe-inspiring tone continued: “Yes, I be sure die chicken do dat, but vot for you tell grandma dat Heinrick do dat? Der debil makes peoples tell lies, and den he ketch sie for his fire, und he vill ketch you, if you do dat some more. Gott, who you mutter telled you 'bout, will not love you. I will not love you, if you do dat some more. I be sorry for you, because I tought you vas His little girl, and mine little girl.”
Jakie must have spent much time in collecting so many English words, and they were effective, for before he got through repeating them to me, I was as heart-sore and penitent as a child could be.
After he had forgiven me, he sent me to grandma, later to acknowledge my wrong to Hendrik, and before I slept, I had to tell God what a bad child I had been, and ask Him to make me good.
I had promised to be very careful and to try never to tell another lie, and I had been unhappy enough to want to keep the promise. But, alas, my sympathy for Jakie led me into more trouble, and it must have been on Sunday too, for he was not working, but sitting reverently under the tree with his elbows upon a table, and his cheeks resting in the hollows of his hands.
Before him lay the Holy Scriptures from which he was slowly reading aloud in solemn tones.
Georgia and I standing a short distance from him, listened very intently. Not hearing a single English word, and not understanding many of the German, I became deeply concerned and turning to her asked,
“Aren't you awful sorry for poor Jakie? There he is, reading to God in German, and God can't understand him. I'm afraid Jakie won't go to heaven when he dies.”
My wise little sister turned upon me indignantly, assuring me that “God sees everybody and understands everybody's talk.” To prove the truth of her statement, she rushed to the kitchen and appealed to grandma, who not only confirmed Georgia's words, but asked me what right I had to believe that God was American only, and could not understand good German people when they read and spoke to Him? She wanted to know if I was not ashamed to think that they, who had loved me, and been kind to me would not go to Heaven as well as I who had come to them a beggar? Then she sent me away by myself to think of my many sins; and I, weeping, accepted banishment from Georgia, lest she should learn wickedness from me.
Georgia was greatly disturbed on my account, because she believed I had willfully misrepresented God, and that He might not forgive me. When Jakie learned what had happened, he declared that I had spoken like a child, and needed instruction more than punishment. So for the purpose of broadening my religious views, and keeping before me the fact that “God can do all things and knows all languages,” grandma taught me the Lord's Prayer in French and German, and heard me repeat it each night in both languages, after I had said it as taught me by my mother.
It was about this time, that Leanna confided to me that she was homesick for Elitha, and she would go to her very soon. She said that I must not object when the time came, for she loved her own sister just as much as I did mine, and was as anxious to go to Elitha as I had been to come to Georgia. She had been planning several weeks, and knew of a family with which she could travel to Sutter's Fort. Later, when she collected her things to go away, she left with us a pair of beautifully knit black silk stockings, marked near the top in fine cross-stitch in white, “D,” and under that “5.” The stockings had been our mother's. She had knit them herself and worn them. Georgia gave one to me and kept the other. We both felt that they were almost too sacred to handle. They were our only keepsakes.
Later, Georgia found a small tin box in which mother had kept important papers. Recently, when referring to that circumstance, Georgia said: “Grandma for a long time had used it for a white-sugar box, and kept it on a shelf so high that we could see it only when she lifted it down; and I don't think we took our eyes from it until it was put back. We felt that it was too valuable for us ever to own. One day, I found it thrown away. One side had become unsoldered from the ends and the bottom also was hanging loose. With a full heart, I grasped the treasure and put it where we could often see it. Long afterwards, Harry Huff kindly offered to repair it; and the solder that still holds it together is also regarded as a keepsake from a dear friend.”
[Note: end of transcribed material, though the book continues on with the rest of Eliza's life]
DEATH OF LAST SURVIVOR RECALLS TRAGIC STORY OF DONNER PARTY
FRIDAY DECEMBER 30 1921
San Francisco, Dec 14 -- The recent death at Byron California of Mrs. Frances E Wilder a daughter of Captain George Donner has recalled the tragic story of the Donner party forty two of whom perished in deserts and mountains in the winter of 1846-47 while en route to California Only a half dozen survivors remain today to tell the tale of that most disastrous of all migrations of the Argonauts in which they participated as children
Among these half dozen are three sisters of Mrs. Wilder, children of the captain from whom the party took its name. They are Mrs. Eliza P Houghton of Los Angeles 78; Mrs. Leana App of Jamestown California, 86; and Mrs. Elitha C Wilder of Bruceville California, 89. A daughter of James F. Reed, a member of the party who forced his way over the snow capped Sierra mountains and then returned with relief for his dying companions, is living at Capitola, California. Her name is Mrs. Mattie Lewis and she is a bright eyed lady 77 years young
Of all the companies that made their way by ox wagons on the Overland Trail across desert and mountain to California before the railroad linked East with West, the experiences of the Donner party were the worst. Theirs was the greatest loss of life and it was attended by a slow starvation during the six months they were held in the high Sierras that finally drove the stronger members of the party to that last expedient of man feeding upon his own kind.
Of the eighty-eight men women and children that started with or joined the Donner party, forty-two perished. Six died in the deserts of Utah and Nevada and thirty-six succumbed to the horrors of the mountain camps.
All the suffering and loss of life may be ascribed to the primary mistake in taking a southerly course around the Great Salt Lake from Fort Bridger, Wyoming, instead of the usual course around the northern end. The rocky passes in the Wasatch mountains of Utah delayed them one month, the sands of the Great American Desert and the Humboldt Sink stalled their wagons and starved their cattle.
The party was in starving condition when it reached Truckee Meadows site of the present city of Reno, Nevada October 19, 1846. The emigrants were met there by Charles T. Stanton who had preceded them to California and returned with two Indians, Luis and Salvador, bringing five mule loads of provisions. After some delay the party pushed on, but October 23 found themselves stalled in snow at the foot of precipices at an elevation of 6000 feet from which the trail rose in one mile and a half 12,000 feet to the summit, where two to five feet of snow lay. They were in a pocket of the mountains. A snowfall began that in a week placed ten feet of snow about them.
Some were at Prosser Creek, some at Alder Creek, and some at Donner Lake. They erected tents and brushwood huts about which they wrapped rubber coats and quilts. There were at this time 81 persons in the camps - 24 men, 16 women and 43 children. In the subsequent happenings the women showed the greater courage and endurance. Of the fifteen, only five died and four of these gave their lives to aid or comfort their children or companions
On December 16, the forlorn group started over the snow on foot. It consisted of nine men, five women and a boy. Six days later Stanton, the rescuer, gave out and was abandoned. A storm that began Christmas Day halted them a week. Three men died and were eaten January 4; another man succumbed and was eaten. William Foster pursued and shot the Indians Luis and Salvador who were eaten. The party came out of the snow January 1, were aided by Indians who gave them acorn bread and helped them to Johnsons Ranch. They had been 32 days coming from Donners Lake and eight had died. Two men survived and all the five women.
The experiences of the four relief parties from the first that left Sutters Fort February 5 to the last April 13 were similar to those of the forlorn party. Going in on their return trips, in several instances, these caches were destroyed by wild animals so that the return trips with the emaciated weakened Donner party became struggles with death in which many died and were eaten by their starving companions.
The fourth and last relief party started from Johnson's Ranch April 13. They had been promised by the alcalde half of the fortune of several thousand dollars in money and goods which George Donner was supposed to possess.
The seven men of the party under William O Pallon reached Donner Lake in four days. Lewis Keseberg was the only one alive of the many who had not been able to accompany the relief parties who had preceded them. Of Keseberg, the relief men demanded money accusing him of having robbed killed and eaten George Donner and his wife Tamsen. Keseberg finally gave them $500 which he said Mrs. Donner had requested him to give to her children should he reach California.
The fourth relief started back next day, Keseberg following them as well as he could with an injured leg. Each night he managed to make camp and finally reached civilization. To the end of his life, he was an object of accusation and aversion, although most survivors and historians agree that he was innocent.
The brightest part of the story was the heroism of the women. Of the five who died, Mrs. Donner gave her life to be with her husband at his death. Mrs. Jacob Donner remained with her four children, Mrs. Graves stayed for the sake of four little ones and Mrs. Murphy cared for her son and three grandchildren until too ill to accompany the rescuers.
To the zeal of Mrs. Patrick Breen was mainly due the rescue of her husband and eleven children who had been left in the snow while the relief party went forward for help when they discovered a cache had been destroyed. Mrs. Breen kept fires burning, nursed children with a little sugar and water and kept them alive until rescue came. She would not feed up on the bodies of some who had died nor did the children with her knowledge.
The efforts of James F. Reed undoubtedly saved many lives. Banished to the desert in Nevada for having fatally stabbed James Snyder when Snyder struck Mrs. Reed with a whip while the two men were fighting, Reed made his way by horseback over the mountains to California ahead of the Donner party. Although he did not fully realize the seriousness of their condition, he caused the first relief party to be dispatched and himself led the second expedition.
[Source: "Mohave County Miner and our Mineral Wealth". (Kingman, Ariz.), December 30, 1921 - Sub. by Barb Z.
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