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.
How fared it with those left at Donner Lake? About the time the fifteen
began their terrible journey, Baylis Williams starved to death. Such
food as the rest had was freely given to him, but it did not is satisfy
the demands of his nature. Quietly, uncomplainingly, he had borne the
pangs of famine, and when the company first realized his dreadful
condition, he was in the delirium which preceded death. What words can
portray the emotions of the starving emigrants, when they saw one of
their number actually perish of hunger before their eyes! Williams died
in the Graves cabin, and was buried near the house by W. C. Graves and
All the Donner Party were starving. When the cattle were killed the
hides had been spread over the cabins in lieu of shingles. These were
now taken down and eaten. All the survivors describe the method of
preparing this miserable substitute for food. The narration by Mrs. J.
M. Murphy (Virginia E. Reed), of San Jose, is among the most vivid. She
says the green rawhides were cut into strips and laid upon the coals, or
held in the flames until the hair was completely singed off. Either side
of the piece of hide was then scraped with a knife until comparatively
clean, and was placed in a kettle and boiled until soft and pulpy. There
was no salt, and only a little pepper, and yet this substance was all
that was between them and starvation. When cold, the boiled hides and
the water in which they were cooked, became jellied and exactly
resembled glue. The tender stomachs of many of the little children
revolted at this disagreeable diet, and the loathing they acquired for
the sight of this substance still exists in the minds of some of the
survivors. To this day, Thomas K. Reed, of San Jose, who was then a tiny
three-year-old, can not endure the sight of calf's-foot jelly, or of
similar dishes, because of its resemblance to the loathed food which was
all his mother could give him in the cabins at Donner Lake.
William G. Murphy describes how they gathered up the old, castaway bones
of the cattle-bones from which all the flesh had been previously
picked-and boiled, and boiled, and boiled them until they actually would
crumble between the teeth, and were eaten. The little children, playing
upon the fire-rug in his mother's cabin, used to cut off little pieces
of the rug, toast them crisp upon the coals, and then eat them. In this
manner, before any one was fairly aware of the fact, the fire-rug was
The Donner families, at Prosser Creek, were, if possible, in even a
sadder condition. In order to give a glimpse of the suffering endured in
these two tents, the following is quoted from a letter written by Mrs.
W. A. Babcock (Georgia A. Donner, now residing at Mountain View, Santa
Clara County: "The families shared with one another as long as they had
anything to share. Each one's portion was very small. The hides were
boiled, and the bones were burned brown and eaten. We tried to eat a
decayed buffalo robe, but it was too tough, and there was no nourishment
in it. Some of the few mice that came into camp were caught and eaten.
Some days we could not keep a fire, and many times, during both days and
nights, snow was shoveled from off our tent, and from around it, that we
might not be buried alive. Mother remarked one day that it had been two
weeks that our beds and the clothing upon our bodies had been wet. Two
of my sisters and myself spent some days at Keseberg's cabin. The first
morning we were there they shoveled the snow from our bed before we
could get up. Very few can believe it possible for human beings to live
and suffer the exposure and hardships endured there."
Oh! how long and dreary the days were to the hungry children! Even their
very plays and pastimes were pathetic, because of their piteous silent
allusion to the pangs of starvation. Mrs. Frank Lewis (Patty Reed), of
San Jose, relates that the poor, little, famishing girls used to fill
the pretty porcelain tea-cups with freshly fallen snow, daintily dip it
out with teaspoons and eat it, playing it was custard.
Dear Mrs. Murphy had the most sacred and pitiful charge. It was the wee
nursing babe, Catherine Pike, whose mother had gone with the "Forlorn
Hope," to try, if possible, to procure relief. All there was to give the
tiny sufferer, was a little gruel made from snow water, containing a
slight sprinkling of coarse flour. This flour was simply ground wheat,
unbolted. Day after day the sweet little darling would lie helplessly
upon its grandmother's lap, and seem with its large, sad eyes to be
pleading for nourishment. Mrs. Murphy carefully kept the little handful
of flour concealed - there was only a handful at the very beginning -
lest some of the starving children might get possession of the treasure.
Each day she gave Catherine a few teaspoonfuls of the gruel. Strangely
enough, this poor little martyr did not often cry with hunger, but with
tremulous, quivering mouth, and a low, subdued sob or moan, would appear
to be begging for something to eat. The poor, dumb lips, if gifted with
speech, could not have uttered a prayer half so eloquent, so touching.
Could the mother, Mrs. Pike, have been present, it would have broken her
heart to see her patient babe dying slowly, little by little. Starvation
had dried the maternal breasts long before Mrs. Pike went away, so that
no one can censure her for leaving her baby. She could only have done as
Mrs. Murphy did, give it the plain, coarse gruel, and watch it die, day
by day, upon her lap.
Up to this time, but little has been said of Patrick Breen. He was an
invalid during the winter of 1846 and '47. A man of more than ordinary
intelligence, a devout Catholic, a faithful and devoted father, his life
furnishes a rare type of the pioneer Californian. To Mr. Breen we are
indebted for the most faithful and authentic record of the days spent at
the cabins. This record is in the form of a diary, in which the events
of the day were briefly noted in the order of their occurrence. Lewis
Keseberg kept a similar diary, but it was subsequently accidentally
destroyed. Mrs. Tamsen Donner kept a journal, but this, with her
paintings and botanical collections, disappeared at the fatal tent on
Alder Creek. Mr. Breen's diary alone was preserved. He gave it into Col.
McKinstry's possession in the spring of 1847, and on the fourth of
September of that year it was published in the Nashville (Tenn.) Whig. A
copy of the Whig of that date is furnished by Wm. G. Murphy, of
Marysville. Other papers have published garbled extracts from this
diary, but none have been reliable. The future history of the events
which transpired at the cabins will be narrated in connection with this
It must be remembered that the lake had always been known as "Truckee
Lake," it having been named after an old Indian guide who had rendered
much assistance to the Schallenberger party in 1844. The record appears
without the slightest alteration. Even the orthography of the name of
the lake is printed as it was written, "Truckey."
The diary commences as follows:
"Truckey's Lake, November 20, 1846."
"Came to this place on the thirty-first of last month; went into the
pass; the snow so deep we were unable to find the road, and when within
three miles from the summit, turned back to this shanty on Truckey's
Lake; Stanton came up one day after we arrived here; we again took our
teams and wagons, and made another unsuccessful attempt to cross in
company with Stanton; we returned to this shanty; it continued to snow
all the time. We now have killed most part of our cattle, having to
remain here until next spring, and live on lean beef, without bread or
salt. It snowed during the space of eight days, with little
intermission, after our arrival, though now clear and pleasant, freezing
at night; the snow nearly gone from the valleys."
"November 21. Fine morning; wind northwest; twenty-two of our company
about starting to cross the mountains this day, including Stanton and
"Nov. 22. Froze last night; fine and clear to-day; no account from those
on the mountains."
"Nov. 23. Same weather; wind west; the expedition cross the mountains
returned after an unsuccessful attempt."
"Nov. 25. Cloudy; looks like the eve of a snow-storm; our mountaineers
are to make another trial to-morrow, if fair; froze hard last night."
"Nov. 26. Began to snow last evening; now rains or sleets; the party do
not start to-day."
"Nov. 27. Still snowing; now about three feet deep; wind west; killed my
last oxen to-day; gave another yoke to Foster; wood hard to be got."
"Nov. 30. Snowing fast; looks as likely to continue as when it
commenced; no living thing without wings can get about."
"Dec. 1. Still snowing; wind west; snow about six or seven and a half
feet deep; very difficult to get wood, and we are completely housed up;
our cattle all killed but two or three, and these, with the horses and
Stanton's mules, all supposed to be lost in the snow; no hopes of
finding them alive."
"Dec. 3. Ceases snowing; cloudy all day; warm enough to thaw."
"Dec. 5. Beautiful sunshine; thawing a little; looks delightful after
the long storm; snow seven or eight feet deep."
"Dec. 6. The morning fine and clear; Stanton and Graves manufacturing
snow-shoes for another mountain scrabble; no account of mules."
"Dec. 8. Fine weather; froze hard last night; wind south-west; hard work
to find wood sufficient to keep us warm or cook our beef."
"Dec. 9. Commenced snowing about eleven o'clock; wind northwest; took in
Spitzer yesterday, so weak that he can not rise without help; caused by
starvation. Some have scanty supply of beef; Stanton trying to get some
for him self and Indians; not likely to get much."
"Dec. 10. Snowed fast all night, with heavy squalls of wind; continues
to snow; now about seven feet in depth."
"Dec. 14. Snows faster than any previous day; Stanton and Graves, with
several others, making preparations to cross the mountains on
snow-shoes; snow eight feet on a level."
"Dec. 16. Fair and pleasant; froze hard last night; the company started
on snow-shoes to cross the mountains; wind southeast."
"Dec. 17. Pleasant; William Murphy returned from the mountain party last
evening; Baylis Williams died night before last; Milton and Noah started
for Donner's eight days ago; not returned yet; think they are lost in
"Dec. 19. Snowed last night; thawing to-day; wind northwest; a little
singular for a thaw."
"Dec. 20. Clear and pleasant; Mrs. Reed here; no account from Milton
yet. Charles Burger started for Donner's; turned back; unable to
proceed; tough times, but not discouraged. Our hope is in God. Amen."
"Dec. 21. Milton got back last night from Donner's camp. Sad news; Jacob
Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Rhinehart, and Smith are dead; the rest of
them in a low situation; snowed all night, with a strong southwest
Jacob Donner was the first to die at Prosser Creek. He expired while
sitting at the table in his tent, with his head bowed upon his hands, as
if in deep meditation. The following terse account is from the gifted
pen of Mrs. S. O. Houghton (Eliza P. Donner), of San Jose: "Jacob Donner
was a slight man, of delicate constitution, and was in poor health when
we left Springfield, Illinois. The trials of the journey reduced his
strength and exhausted his energy. When we reached the place of
encampment in the mountains he was discouraged and gave up in despair.
Not even the needs of his family could rouse him to action. He was
utterly dejected and made no effort, but tranquilly awaited death."
"Dec. 23. Clear to-day; Milton took some of his meat away; all well at
their camp. Began this day to read the 'Thirty Days' Prayers;' Almighty
God, grant the requests of unworthy sinners!
"Dec. 24. Rained all night, and still continues; poor prospect for any
kind of comfort, spiritual or temporal."
As will be seen by various references throughout this diary, Mr. Breen
was a devout Catholic. During the darkest hour of trial the prayers were
regularly read. That this might be done during the long weary evenings,
as well as by day, pieces of pitch pine were split and laid carefully in
one corner of the cabin, which would be lighted at the fire, and would
serve as a substitute for candles. Those of the survivors who are living
often speak of the times when they held these sticks while Mr. Breen
read the prayers. So impressive were these religious observances that
one girl, a bright, beautiful child, Virginia E. Reed, made a solemn vow
that if God would hear these prayers, and deliver her family from the
dangers surrounding them, she would become a Catholic. God did save her
family, and she kept her vow. She is to-day a fervent Catholic.
"Dec. 25. Began to snow yesterday, snowed all night, and snows yet
rapidly; extremely difficult to find wood; uttered our prayers to God
this Christmas morning; the prospect is appalling, but we trust in Him."
What a desolate Christmas morning that was for the snow-bound victims!
All were starving. Something to eat, something to satisfy the terrible
cravings of appetite, was the constant wish of all. Sometimes the wishes
were expressed aloud, but more frequently a gloomy silence prevailed.
When anything was audibly wished for, it was invariably something whose
size was proportional to their hunger. They never wished for a meal, or
a mouthful, but for a barrel full, a wagon load, a house full, or a
On Christmas eve the children spoke in low, subdued tones, of the visits
Santa Claus used to make them in their beautiful homes, before they
started across the plains. Now they knew that no Santa Claus could find
them in the pathless depths of snow.
One family, the Reeds, were in a peculiarly distressing situation. They
knew not whether the father was living or dead. No tidings had reached
them since his letters ceased to be found by the wayside. The meat they
had obtained from the Breen and Graves families was now gone, and on
Christmas morning their breakfast was a "pot of glue," as the boiled
rawhide was termed. But Mrs. Reed, the dear, tender-hearted mother, had
a surprise in store for her children this day. When the last ox had been
purchased, Mrs. Reed had placed the frozen meat in one corner of the
cabin, so that pieces could be chipped off with a knife or hatchet. The
tripe, however, she cleaned carefully and hung on the outside of the
cabin, on the end of a log, close to the ground. She knew that the snow
would soon conceal this from view. She also laid away secretly, one
teacupful of white beans, about half that quantity of rice, the same
measure of dried apples, and a piece of bacon two inches square. She
knew that if Christmas found them alive, they would be in a terribly
destitute condition. She therefore resolved to lay these articles away,
and give them to her starving children for a Christmas dinner. This was
done. The joy and gladness of these poor little children knew no bounds
when they saw the treasures unearthed and cooking on the fire. They
were, just this one meal, to have all they could eat! They laughed, and
danced, and cried by turns. They eagerly watched the dinner as it
boiled. The pork and tripe had been cut in dice like pieces.
Occasionally one of these pieces would boil up to the surface of the
water for an instant, then a bean would take a peep at them from the
boiling kettle, then a piece of apple, or a grain of rice. The
appearance of each tiny bit was hailed by the children with shouts of
glee. The mother, whose eyes were brimming with tears, watched her
famished darlings with emotions that can be imagined. It seemed too sad
that innocent children should be brought to such destitution that the
very sight of food should so affect them! When the dinner was prepared,
the mother's constant injunction was, "Children, eat slowly, there is
plenty for all." When they thought of the starvation of to-morrow, they
could not repress a shade of sadness, and when the name of papa was
mentioned all burst into tears. Dear, brave papa! Was he struggling to
relieve his starving family, or lying stark and dead 'neath the snows of
the Sierra? This question was constantly uppermost in the mother's mind.