History of the Donner Party

A Tragedy of the Sierra

By C. F. McGlashan

Truckee, Cal.

To Mrs. Elizabeth A. Keiser,
One of the Pioneer Mothers of California,

This Book is Respectfully Dedicated by the Author.


The delirium preceding death by starvation, is full of strange
phantasies. Visions of plenty, of comfort, of elegance, flit ever before
the fast-dimming eyes. The final twilight of death is a brief
semi-consciousness in which the dying one frequently repeats his weird
dreams. Half rising from his snowy couch, pointing upward, one of the
death-stricken at Donner Lake may have said, with tremulous voice:
“Look! there, just above us, is a beautiful house. It is of costliest
walnut, inlaid with laurel and ebony, and is resplendent with burnished
silver. Magnificent in all its apartments, it is furnished like a
palace. It is rich with costly cushions, elegant tapestries, dazzling
mirrors; its floor is covered with Oriental carpets, its ceiling with
artistic frescoings; downy cushions invite the weary to repose. It is
filled with people who are chatting, laughing, and singing, joyous and
care-free. There is an abundance of warmth, and rare viands, and
sparkling wines. Suspended among the storm-clouds, it is flying along
the face of the precipice at a marvelous speed. Flying? no! it has
wheels and is gliding along on a smooth, steel pathway. It is sheltered
from the wind and snow by large beams and huge posts, which are bolted
to the cliffs with heavy, iron rods. The avalanches, with their burden
of earth and rocks and crushed pines, sweep harmlessly above this
beautiful house and its happy inmates. It is drawn by neither oxen nor
horses, but by a fiery, hot-breathed monster, with iron limbs and thews
of, steel. The mountain trembles beneath his tread, and the rocks for
miles re-echo his roar.”

If such a vision was related, it but indicates, prophetically, the
progress of a few years. California’s history is replete with tragic,
startling events. These events are the landmarks by which its
advancement is traced. One of the most mournful of these is recorded in
this work – a work intended as a contribution, not to the literature,
but to the history of the State. More thrilling than romance, more
terrible than fiction, the sufferings of the Donner Party form a bold
contrast to the joys of pleasure-seekers who to-day look down upon the
lake from the windows of silver palace cars.

The scenes of horror and despair which transpired in the snowy Sierra in
the winter of 1846-7, need no exaggeration, no embellishment. From all
the works heretofore published, from over one thousand letters received
from the survivors, from ample manuscript, and from personal interviews
with the most important actors in the tragedy, the facts have been
carefully compiled. Neither time, pains, nor expense have been spared in
ferreting out the truth. New and fragmentary versions of the sad story
have appeared almost every year since the unfortunate occurrence. To
forever supplant these distorted and fabulous reports – which have
usually been sensational new articles – the survivors have deemed it
wise to contribute the truth. The truth is sufficiently terrible.

Where conflicting accounts of particular scenes or occurrences have been
contributed, every effort has been made to render them harmonious and
reconcilable. With justice, with impartiality, and with strict adherence
to what appeared truthful and reliable, the book has been written. It is
an honest effort – toward the truth, and as such is given to the world.

C. F. McGlashan.

Truckee, Cal., June 30, 1879.


Chapter I.

Donner Lake
A Famous Tourist Resort
Building the Central Pacific
California’s Skating Park
The Pioneers
The Organization of the Donner Party
Ho! for California!
A Mammoth Train
The Dangers by the Way
False Accounts of the Sufferings Endured
Complete Roll of the Company
Impostors Claiming to Belong to the Party
Killed by the Pawnees
An Alarmed Camp
Resin Indians
A Mother’s Death

Chapter II.

Mrs. Donner’s Letters
Life on the Plains
An Interesting Sketch
The Outfit Required
The Platte River
Five Hundred and Eighteen Wagons for California
Burning “Buffalo Chips”
The Fourth of July at Fort Laramie
Indian Discipline
Sioux Attempt to Purchase Mary Graves
George Donner Elected Captain
Letter of Stanton
One Company Split up into Five
The Fatal Hastings Cut-off
Lowering Wagons over a Precipice
The First View of Great Salt Lake

Chapter III.

A Grave of Salt
Members of the Mystic Tie
Twenty Wells
A Desolate Alkaline Waste
Abandoned on the Desert
A Night of Horror
A Steer Maddened by Thirst
The Mirage
Yoking an Ox and a Cow
“Cacheing” Goods
The Emigrants’ Silent Logic
A Cry for Relief
Two Heroic Volunteers
A Perilous journey
Letters to Captain Sutter

Chapter IV.

Gravelly Ford
The Character of James F. Reed
Causes which Led to the Reed-Snyder Tragedy
John Snyder’s Popularity
The Fatal Altercation
Conflicting Statements of Survivors
Snyder’s Death
A Brave Girl
A Primitive Trial
A Court of Final Resort
Verdict of Banishment
A Sad Separation
George and Jacob Donner Ahead at the Time
Finding Letters in Split Sticks
Danger of Starvation

Chapter V.

Great Hardships
The Sink of the Humboldt
Indians Stealing Cattle
An Entire Company Compelled to Walk
Abandoned to Die
Wolfinger Murdered
Rhinehart’s Confession
Arrival of C. T. Stanton
A Temporary Relief
A Fatal Accident
The Sierra Nevada Mountains
Imprisoned in Snow
Struggles for Freedom
A Hopeless Situation
Digging for Cattle in Snow
How the Breen Cabin Happened to be Built
A Thrilling Sketch of a Solitary Winter
Putting up Shelters
The Donners Have Nothing but Tents
Fishing for Trout.

Chapter VI.

Endeavors to Cross the Mountains
Discouraging Failures
Eddy Kills a Bear
Making Snow-Shoes
Who composed the “Forlorn Hope”
Mary A. Graves
An Irishman
A Generous Act
Six Days’ Rations
Mary Graves’ Account
C. T. Stanton’s Death
“I Am Coming Soon”
Sketch of Stanton’s Early Life
His Charity and Self-sacrifice
The Diamond Breastpin
Stanton’s Last Poem

Chapter VII.

A Wife’s Devotion
The Smoky Gorge
Caught in a Storm
Casting Lots to See Who Should Die
A Hidden River
The Delirium of Starvation
Franklin Ward Graves
His Dying Advice
A Frontiersman’s Plan
The Camp of Death
A Dread Resort
A Sister’s Agony
The Indians Refuse to Eat
Lewis and Salvador Flee for Their Lives
Killing a Deer
Tracks Marked by Blood
Nine Days without Food

Chapter VIII.

Starvation at Donner Lake
Preparing Rawhide for Food
Eating the Firerug
Shoveling Snow off the Beds
Playing they were Tea-cups of Custard
A Starving Baby
Pleading with Silent Eloquence
Patrick Breen’s Diary
Jacob Donner’s Death
A Child’s Vow
A Christmas Dinner
Lost on the Summits
A Stump Twenty-two Feet High
Seven Nursing Babes at Donner Lake
A Devout Father
A Dying Boy
Sorrow and Suffering at the Cabins

Chapter IX.

The Last Resort
Two Reports of a Gun
Only Temporary Relief
Weary Traveling
The Snow Bridges
Human Tracks!
An Indian Rancherie
Acorn Bread
Starving Five Times!
Carried Six Miles
Bravery of John Rhodes
A Thirty-two Days’ Journey
Organizing the First Relief Party
Alcalde Sinclair’s Address
Capt. R. P. Tucker’s Companions.

Chapter X.

A Lost Age in California History
The Change Wrought by the Discovery of Gold
The Start from Johnson’s Ranch
A Bucking Horse
A Night Ride
Lost in the Mountains
A Terrible Night
A Flooded Camp
Crossing a Mountain Torrent
Mule Springs
A Crazy Companion
Howlings of Gray Wolves
A Deer Rendezvous
A Midnight Thief
Frightening Indians
The Diary of the First Relief Party

Chapter XI.

Hardships of Reed and Herron
Generosity of Captain Sutter
Attempts to Cross the Mountains with Provisions
Curtis’ Dog
Compelled to Turn Back
Hostilities with Mexico
Memorial to Gov. Stockton
Yerba Buena’s Generosity
Johnson’s Liberality
Pitiful Scenes at Donner Lake
Noble Mothers
Dying rather than Eat Human Flesh
A Mother’s Prayer
Tears of Joy
Eating the Shoestrings

Chapter XII.

A Wife’s Devotion
Tamsen Donner’s Early Life
The Early Settlers of Sangamon County
An Incident in School
Teaching and Knitting
School Discipline
Capt. George Donner’s Appearance
Parting Scenes at Alder Creek
Starting over the Mountains
A Baby’s Death
A Mason’s Vow
Crossing the Snow Barrier
More Precious than Gold or Diamonds
Elitha Donner’s Kindness

Chapter XIII.

Death of Ada Keseberg
Denton Discovering Gold
A Poem Composed while Dying
The Caches of Provisions Robbed by Fishers
The Sequel to the Reed-Snyder Tragedy
Death from Overeating
The Agony of Frozen Feet
An Interrupted Prayer
Stanton, after Death, Guides the Relief Party!
The Second Relief Party Arrives
A Solitary Indian
Patty Reed and Her Father
Starving Children Lying in Bed
Mrs. Graves’ Money still Buried at Donner Lake

Chapter XIV.

Leaving Three Men in the Mountains
The Emigrants Quite Helpless
Bear Tracks in the Snow
The Clumps of Tamarack
Wounding a Bear
Blood Stains upon the Snow
A Weary Chase
A Momentous Day
Stone and Cady Leave the Sufferers
A Mother Offering Five Hundred Dollars
Mrs. Donner Parting from her Children
“God will Take Care of You”
Buried in Snow without Food or Fire
Pines Uprooted by the Storm
A Grave Cut in the Snow
The Cub’s Cave
Firing at Random
A Desperate Undertaking
Preparing for a Hand-to-hand Battle
Precipitated into the Cave
Seizing the Bear
Mrs. Elizabeth Donner’s Death
Clarke and Baptiste Attempt to Escape
A Death more Cruel than Starvation

Chapter XV.

A Mountain Storm
Provisions Exhausted
Battling the Storm Fiends
Black Despair
Icy Coldness
A Picture of Desolation
The Sleep of Death
A Piteous Farewell
Falling into the Fire-well
Isaac Donner’s Death
Living upon Snow Water
Excruciating Pain
A Vision of Angels
“Patty is Dying!”
The Thumb of a Mitten
A Child’s Treasures
The “Dolly” of the Donner Party

Chapter XVI.

A Mother at Starved Camp
Repeating the Litany
Hoping in Despair
Wasting Away
The Precious Lump of Sugar
“James is Dying”
Restoring a Life
Relentless Hunger
The Silent Night Vigils
The Sight of Earth
Descending the Snow Pit
The Flesh of the Dead
Refusing to Eat
The Morning Star
The Mercy of God
The Mutilated Forms
The Dizziness of Delirium
Faith Rewarded
“There is Mrs. Breen.”

Chapter XVII.

The Rescue
California Aroused
A Yerba Buena Newspaper
Tidings of Woe
A Cry of Distress
Noble Generosity
Subscriptions for the Donner Party
The First and Second Reliefs
Organization of the Third
The Dilemma
Voting to Abandon a Family
The Fatal Ayes
John Stark’s Bravery
Carrying the Starved Children
A Plea for the Relief Party

Chapter XVIII.

Arrival of the Third Relief
The Living and the Dead
Captain George Donner Dying
Mrs. Murphy’s Words
Foster and Eddy at the Lake
Tamsen Donner and Her Children
A Fearful Struggle
The Husband’s Wishes
Walking Fourteen Miles
Wifely Devotion
Choosing Death
The Night Journey
An Unparalleled Ordeal
An Honored Name
Three Little Waifs
“And Our Parents are Dead.”

Chapter XIX.

False Ideas about the Donner Party
Accused of Six Murders
Interviews with Lewis Keseberg
His Statement
An Educated German
A Predestined Fate
Keseberg’s Lameness
Slanderous Reports
Covered with Snow
“Loathsome, Insipid, and Disgusting”
Longings toward Suicide
Tamsen Donner’s Death
Going to Get the Treasure
Suspended over a Hidden Stream
“Where is Donner’s Money?”
Extorting a Confession

Chapter XX.

Dates of the Rescues
Arrival of the Fourth Relief
A Scene Beggaring Description
The Wealth of the Donners
An Appeal to the Highest Court
A Dreadful Shock
Saved from a Grizzly Bear
A Trial for Slander
Keseberg Vindicated
Two Kettles of Human Blood
The Enmity of the Relief Party
“Born under an Evil Star”
“Stone Him! Stone Him!”
Fire and Flood
Keseberg’s Reputation for Honesty
A Prisoner in His Own House
The Most Miserable of Men

Chapter XXI.

Sketch of Gen. John A. Sutter
The Donner Party’s Benefactor
The Least and Most that Earth Can Bestow
The Survivors’ Request
His Birth and Parentage
Efforts to Reach California
New Helvetia
A Puny Army
Uninviting Isolation
Ross and Bodega
Unbounded Generosity
Sutter’s Wealth
Effect of the Gold Fever
Wholesale Robbery
The Sobrante Decision
A “Genuine and Meritorious” Grant
Utter Ruin
Hock Farm
Gen. Sutter’s Death
Mrs. E. P. Houghton’s Tribute

Chapter XXII.

The Death List
The Forty-two Who Perished
Names of Those Saved
Forty-eight Survivors
Traversing Snow-belt Five Times
Burying the Dead
An Appalling Spectacle
Tamsen Donner’s Last Act of Devotion
A Remarkable Proposal
Twenty-six Present Survivors
The Graves Family
The Murphys
Naming Marysville
The Reeds
The Breens

Chapter XXIII.

The Orphan Children of George and Tamsen Donner
Sutter, the Philanthropist
“If Mother Would Only Come”
Christian and Mary Brunner
An Enchanting Home
“Can’t You Keep Both of Us?”
Eliza Donner Crossing the Torrent
Earning a Silver Dollar
The Gold Excitement
Getting an Education
Elitha C. Donner
Leanna C. Donner
Frances E. Donner
Georgia A. Donner
Eliza P Donner

Chapter XXIV.

Yerba Buena’s Gift to George and Mary Donner
An Alcalde’s Negligence
Mary Donner’s Land Regranted
Squatters Jump George Donner’s Land
A Characteristic Land Law-suit
Vexatious Litigation
Twice Appealed to Supreme Court, and once to United States Supreme Court
A Well-taken Law Point
Mutilating Records
A Palpable Erasure
Relics of the Donner Party
Five Hundred Articles Buried Thirty-two Years
Knives, Forks, Spoons
Pretty Porcelain
Identifying Chinaware
Beads and Arrow-heads
A Quaint Bridle-bit
Remarkable Action of Rust
A Flint-Lock Pistol
A Baby’s Shoe
The Resting Place of the Dead
Vanishing Land-marks

Chapter I.

Donner Lake
A Famous Tourist Resort
Building the Central Pacific
California’s Skating Park
The Pioneers
The Organization of the Donner Party
Ho! for California!
A Mammoth Train
The Dangers by the Way
False Accounts of the Sufferings Endured
Complete Roll of the Company
Impostors Claiming to Belong to the Party
Killed by the Pawnees
An Alarmed Camp
Resin Indians
A Mother’s Death.

Three miles from Truckee, Nevada County, California, lies one of the
fairest and most picturesque lakes in all the Sierra. Above, and on
either side, are lofty mountains, with casteliated granite crests, while
below, at the mouth of the lake, a grassy, meadowy valley widens out and
extends almost to Truckee. The body of water is three miles long, one
and a half miles wide, and four hundred and eighty-three feet in depth.

Tourists and picnic parties annually flock to its shores, and Bierstadt
has made it the subject of one of his finest, grandest paintings. In
summer, its willowy thickets, its groves of tamarack and forests of
pine, are the favorite haunts and nesting places of the quail and
grouse. Beautiful, speckled mountain trout plentifully abound in its
crystalline waters. A rippling breeze usually wimples and dimples its
laughing surface, but in calmer moods it reflects, as in a polished
mirror, the lofty, overhanging mountains, with every stately pine,
bounding rivulet; blossoming shrub, waving fern, and – high above all,
on the right – the clinging, thread-like line of the snow-sheds of the
Central Pacific. When the railroad was being constructed, three thousand
people dwelt on its shores; the surrounding forests resounded with the
music of axes and saws, and the terrific blasts exploded in the lofty,
o’ershadowing cliffs, filled the canyons with reverberating thunders,
and hurled huge bowlders high in the air over the lake’s quivering

In winter it is almost as popular a pleasure resort as during the
summer. The jingling of sleighbells, and the shouts and laughter of
skating parties, can be heard almost constantly. The lake forms the
grandest skating park on the Pacific Coast.

Yet this same Donner Lake was the scene of one of the most thrilling,
heart-rending tragedies ever recorded in California history. Interwoven
with the very name of the lake are memories of a tale of destitution,
loneliness, and despair, which borders on the incredible. It is a tale
that has been repeated in many a miner’s cabin, by many a hunter’s
campfire, and in many a frontiersman’s home, and everywhere it has been
listened to with bated breath.

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