The Graves Tragedy

This information was generously donated by Kristin Johnson and the Crossroads Website.  


Among the saddest episodes in the frontier history of the West is the narrative of the Reed and Donner party of ninety persons, which, in attempting to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains late in the fall of 1846, were overwhelmed in one of the great storms peculiar to that section, and one half of them perished. With this party were a family of emigrants from Sparland, whose history we propose briefly to follow.

From time to time vague and unreliable accounts have appeared, made up from rumors and "facts" supplied by the vivid imagination of enthusiastic writers, but until the past year no authentic history has ever been given. The experience was too dreadful, the recollection of their sufferings too horrible to be dwelt upon, and no persuasions could induce the survivors to recall their superhuman sufferings. So much had been and was being told that was false, and so little was really known upon the subject, that for the benefit of correct history the survivors were at last persuaded to unseal their lips, and give to the world their awful experience. To C. F. McGlashan, of Truckee, California, is due the credit of bringing this about, and to whom we are indebted for the particulars which follow:

Franklin Ward Graves was a Vermonter by birth, who came to Putnam County in 1831, where a couple of half brothers resided. He spent some time looking up a location, and finally purchased a claim of the Indians where Sparland stands, erected a cabin near the present residence of Dr. Tesmer, and moved into it probably in the fall of 1831. During the Black Hawk war he enlisted and served as Drum Major in Strawn's Regiment of Infantry, his famliy remaining most of the time in their cabin. Mr. Graves was a genuine backwoodsman and pioneer, who found his most congenial associations on the frontier. He despised the trammels of civilization, and loved the unshackled freedom of the red man. In summer he went shoeless, hatless and coatless, his long coarse hair his only protection. He was a man of large frame, good natured, hospitable and ever ready to do a kindness.

Mrs. Graves was tall and thin, her good natured sunburnt face wreathed in smiles. She wore a blue calico frock, an old sun-bonnet and a faded shawl, on dress occasions, and like her liege lord, went barefoot. It was her custom to cross the river daily in fair weather, laden with honey, wild fruits or soft soap, and dispose of them to the settlers of Columbia (Lacon). There was not a woman in the place but knew her and loved to see her kind face make its appearance. She would cross the river in the coldest days and stormiest weather in her little canoe to convey some remedy to the sick or do a kindness.

Mr. Graves was more hunter than farmer, but managed to secure a large tract of land and open up a considerable farm upon the bottoms. For some time before leaving he grew restless and longed to explore the then little known Pacific States, and sought a purchaser for his property, finding one in Geo. Sparr, to whom he sold 500 acres of land for $1500. This was in the spring of 1846, and immediate preparations were made for departure. His family consisted of himself and wife, and nine children as follows: Mary A., William C., Eleanor, Lovina, Nancy, Jonathan, Franklin Ward Jr., Elizabeth, and Sarah. The latter was engaged to Jay Fosdick, and did not design accompanying her parents, but when the time for departure drew nigh her heart failed, and she decided to go. Her lover chose to accompany his wife, and they were married a few days before leaving. Along with the went John Snyder, a tall, good looking young man afterward engaged to Mary.

Mr. Graves had an extensive outfit, and was equipped in the best posible manner for the journey. He had three teams drawn by oxen, and took along with him several head of cattle and cows besides. The payment for his land was mostly in silver half dollars, and for their safe conveyance he put heavy cleats in the corners of his wagon box, bored holes from below with an auger sufficiently large for the purpose, and then deposited them.They journeyed leisurely to New Boston, where they crossed the Mississippi, traversed Iowa and reached Independence.

Records of Olden Times; or, Fifty Years on the Prairies. Lacon, Ill.: Home Journal Steam Printing Establishment, 1880. 588-590

W.C. Graves, a resident of Pine Flat, called in to chat with the Flag folks the other day, and from him we incidentally gleaned the following general circumstances of the terrible ordeal through which the Downer party passed in the Winter of 1846-7, and of which he was an eye-witness and participant. Though the details have often been given this synopsis will not be without interest:

The Graves family consisted of the father and mother, two sons and six daughters. They left Illinois for California in a "train" consisting of ten or twelve families. George Downer was elected Captain and the train bore his name. Leaving Illinois in April they traveled till the next Fall, arriving at Donner Lake, in the Sierra Nevada in November, where they were stopped by a terrific snow storm At Johnson's ranch, on Bear river, 150 miles distant, was the nearest habitation.

For four months they remained here snowed in b[e]fore relief came or any communication whatever was had with the outer world. Having exhausted their provision on the road, as soon as they found all progress barred they slaughtered their draft cattle and for want of salt, froze the meat and corded it up under shelter. This provision kept all of the company alive but four till relief came. But food being so scarce and of but one kind fearful suffering ensued toward the last, three men and one child dying of starvation, their systems refusing the meat.

A party of fifteen started for relief, seven of whom died on the way either from cold or starvation, after the most horrible sufferings, among them Graves, the father. The remainder reached Johnson's and in due time retur[n]ing to the camp, started out again with an addition to their number, among which were H[W]. C. Graves and two sisters; three of their party perished before reaching the ranch. With the third party that set out were Mrs. Graves, the other son and two daughters. Three of this party also died before reaching Johnson's, including Mrs. Graves. Between the first and second reliefs three died in camp; between the second and third reliefs two died in camp; two of the Graves children, a son and a daughter, died the next Summer from the effects of the privations and exposures of the previous Winter--making twenty-four lives lost by this awful calamity.

W. C. Graves was 18 years old at the time and retains a vivid impression of all the details, but as they have been frequently published we have given only the outlines. Two of the daughters now reside in this vicinity--Mrs. Wm. McDonald, Knight's Valley, and Mrs. Cyrus, Calistoga. W. C. Graves is now a prospector and has mining interests at Pine Flat--he is emphatically a pioneer.

--Russian River Flag (Healdsburg, California), December 30, 1875.