"Dec. 27. Cleared off yesterday, and continues clear; snow nine feet
deep; wood growing scarce; a tree, when felled, sinks into the snow, and
is hard to be got at."
"Dec. 30. Fine clear morning; froze hard last night. Charles Burger died
last evening about 10 o'clock."
"Dec. 31. Last of the year. May we, with the help of God, spend the
coming year better than we have the past, which we propose to do if it
is the will of the Almighty to deliver us from our present dreadful
situation. Amen. Morning fair, but cloudy; wind east by south; looks
like another snow-storm. Snow-storms are dreadful to us. The snow at
present is very deep."
"Jan. 1, 1847. We pray the God of mercy to deliver us from our present
calamity, if it be His holy will. Commenced snowing last night, and
snows a little yet. Provisions getting very scanty; dug up a hide from
under the snow yesterday; have not commenced on it yet."
"Jan. 3. Fair during the day, freezing at night. Mrs. Reed talks of
crossing the mountains with her children."
"Jan. 4. Fine morning; looks like spring. Mrs. Reed and Virginia, Milton
Elliott, and Eliza Williams started a short time ago with the hope of
crossing the mountains; left the children here. It was difficult for
Mrs. Reed to part with them."
This expedition was only one of many that the emigrants attempted. The
suffering that was endured at these times was indescribable. The broken,
volcanic nature of the summits rendered it extremely difficult to keep
from getting lost. The white, snowy cliffs were everywhere the same.
This party became bewildered and lost near the beautiful Lake Angeline,
which is close to the present "Summit Station" of the Central Pacific.
Had they attempted to proceed, all would undoubtedly have perished.
Within half a mile of the wagon road which now extends from Donner Lake
to the Summit are places where rocks and cliffs are mingled in wildest
confusion. Even in summertime it is difficult to find one's way among
the broken, distorted mountain tops. In the mighty upheaval which
produced the Sierra Nevada, these vast mounds or mountains of frowning
granite were grouped into weird, fantastic labyrinths. Time has wrought
little effect upon their hold precipitous sides, and made slight impress
upon their lofty and almost inaccessible crests. Between these
fragmentary mountains, in shapely, symmetrical bowls which have been
delved by the fingers of the water nymphs and Undines, lie beautiful
lakelets. Angeline is but one of a dozen which sparkle like a chain of
gems between Donner Lake and the snowy, overhanging peaks of Mount
Stanford. The clefts and fissures of the towering granite cliffs are
filled, in summer, with dainty ferns, clinging mosses, and the loveliest
of mountain wild flowers, and the rims of the lakelets are bordered with
grasses, shrubbery, and a wealth of wild blossoms. But in winter this
region exhibits the very grandeur of desolation. No verdure is visible
save the dwarfed and shattered pines whose crushed branches mark the
path of the rushing avalanche. The furious winds in their wild sport
toss and tumble the snow-drifts here and there, baring the sterile
peaks, and heaping the white masses a hundred feet deep into chasm and
gorge. The pure, clear lakes, as if in very fear, hide their faces from
the turbulent elements in mantles of ice. The sun is darkened by dense
clouds, and the icy, shivering, shrieking stormfiends hold undisturbed
their ghastly revels. On every side are lofty battlements of rock, whose
trembling burden of snow seems ever ready to slide from its glassy
foundations of ice, and entomb the bewildered traveler.
Into this interminable maze of rocks and cliffs and frozen lakelets, the
little party wandered. Elliott had a compass, but it soon proved
worthless, and only added to their perplexed and uncertain state of
mind. They were out five days. Virginia's feet became so badly frozen
that she could not walk. This occurrence saved the party. Reluctantly
they turned back toward the cabins, convinced that it was madness to
attempt to go forward. They reached shelter just as one of the most
terrible storms of all that dreadful winter broke over their heads. Had
they delayed their return a few hours, the path they made in ascending
the mountains, and by means of which they retraced their steps, would
have been concealed, and death would have been certain.
"Jan. 6. Eliza came back yesterday evening from the mountains, unable to
proceed; the others kept ahead."
"Jan. 8. Mrs. Reed and the others came back; could not find their way on
the other side of the mountains. They have nothing but hides to live
"Jan. 10. Began to snow last night; still continues; wind
"Jan. 13. Snowing fast; snow higher than the shanty; it must be thirteen
feet deep. Can not get wood this morning; it is a dreadful sight for us
to look upon."
One of the stumps near the Graves-Reed cabin, cut while the snow was at
its deepest, was found, by actual measurement, to be twenty-two feet in
height. Part of this stump is standing to-day.
"Jan. 14. Cleared off yesterday. The sun, shining brilliantly, renovates
our spirits. Praise be to the God of heaven."
"Jan. 15. Clear to-day again. Mrs. Murphy blind; Landrum not able to get
wood; has but one ax between him and Keseberg. It looks like another
storm; expecting some account from Sutter's soon."
"Jan. 17. Eliza Williams came here this morning; Landrum crazy last
night; provisions scarce; hides our main subsistence. May the Almighty
send us help."
"Jan. 21. Fine morning; John Baptiste and Mr. Denton came this morning
with Eliza; she will not eat hides. Mrs. - sent her back to live or die
The blanks which occasionally occur were in the original diary. The
delicacy which prompted Patrick Breen to omit these names can not fail
to be appreciated. What, if there was sometimes a shade of selfishness,
or an act of harshness? What if some families had more than their
destitute neighbors? The best provided had little. All were in reality
strangely generous. All divided with their afflicted companions. The
Reeds had almost nothing to eat when they arrived at the cabins, yet
this family is the only one which reached the settlements without some
one member having to partake of human flesh.
"Jan. 22. Began to snow after sunrise; likely to continue; wind north."
"Jan. 23. Blew hard and snowed all night; the most severe storm we have
experienced this winter; wind west."
"Jan. 26. Cleared up yesterday; to-day fine and pleasant: wind south; in
hopes we are done with snow-storms. Those who went to Sutter's not yet
returned; provisions getting scant; people growing weak, living on a
small allowance of hides."
"Jan. 27. Commenced snowing yesterday; still continues to-day. Lewis
Keseberg, Jr., died three days ago; food growing scarce; don't have fire
enough to cook our hides."
"Jan. 30. Fair and pleasant; wind west; thawing in the sun. John and
Edward Breen went to Graves' this morning. Mrs. - seized on Mrs. Ñ 's
goods until they would be paid; they also took the hides which herself
and family subsisted upon. She regained two pieces only, the balance
they have taken. You may judge from this what our fare is in camp. There
is nothing to be had by hunting, yet perhaps there soon will be."
"Jan. 31. The sun does not shine out brilliant this morning; froze hard
last night; wind northwest. Landrum Murphy died last night about ten
o'clock; Mrs. Reed went to Graves' this morning to look after goods."
Landrum Murphy was a large and somewhat overgrown young man. The hides
and burnt bones did not contain sufficient nourishment to keep him
alive. For some hours before he died, he lay in a semi-delirious state,
breathing heavily and seemingly in little or no pain. Mrs. Murphy went
to the Breen camp, and asked Mrs. Breen for a piece of meat to save her
starving boy. Mrs. Breen gave her the meat, but it was too late, Landrum
could not eat. Finally he sank into a gentle slumber. His breathing grew
less and less distinct, and ere they were fairly aware of it life was
"Feb. 4. Snowed hard until twelve o'clock last night; many uneasy for
fear we shall all perish with hunger; we have but little meat left, and
only three hides; Mrs. Reed has nothing but one hide, and that is on
Graves' house; Milton lives there, and likely will keep that. Eddy's
child died last night."
"Feb. 5. It snowed faster last night and to-day than it has done this
winter before; still continues without intermission; wind south-west.
Murphy's folks and Keseberg say they can not eat hides. I wish we had
enough of them. Mrs. Eddy is very weak."
"Feb. 7. Ceased to snow at last; to-day it is quite pleasant.
McCutchen's child died on the second of this month."
This child died and was buried in the Graves cabin. Mr. W. C. Graves
helped dig the grave near one side of the cabin, and laid the little one
to rest. One of the most heart-rending features of this Donner tragedy
is the number of infants that suffered. Mrs. Breen, Pike, Foster,
McCutchen, Eddy, Keseberg, and Graves each had nursing babes when the
fatal camp was pitched at Donner Lake.
"Feb. 8. Fine, clear morning. Spitzer died last night, and we will bury
him in the snow; Mrs. Eddy died on the night of the seventh."
"Feb. 9. Mrs. Pike's child all but dead; Milton is at Murphy's, not able
to get out of bed; Mrs. Eddy and child were buried to-day; wind
Feb. 10. Beautiful morning; thawing in the sun; Milton Elliott died last
night at Murphy's cabin, and Mrs. Reed went there this morning to see
about his effects. John Denton trying to borrow meat for Graves; had
none to give; they had nothing but hides; all are entirely out of meat,
but a little we have; our hides are nearly all eat up, but with God's
help spring will soon smile upon us."
"Feb. 12. Warm, thawy morning."
"Feb. 14. Fine morning, but cold. Buried Milton in the snow; John Denton
"Feb. 15. Morning cloudy until nine o'clock, then cleared off warm. Mrs.
- refused to give Mrs. - any hides. Put Sutter's pack hides on her
shanty, and would not let her have them."
"Feb. 16. Commenced to rain last evening, and turned to snow during the
night, and continued until morning; weather changeable, sunshine and
then light showers of hail, and wind at times. We all feel unwell. The
snow is not getting much less at present."
The Last Resort
Two Reports of a Gun
Only Temporary Relief
The Snow Bridges
An Indian Rancherie
Starving Five Times!
Carried Six Miles
Bravery of John Rhodes
A Thirty-two Days Journey
Organizing the First Relief Party
Alcalde Sinclair's Address
Captain R. P. Tucker's Companions.
It is recorded of Lewis and Salvador that they came willingly to the
relief of the emigrants. Two of Sutter's best trained vaqueros,
faithful, honest, reliable, they seemed rather proud when chosen to
assist Stanton in driving the mules laden with provisions for the
starving train. Now they were dying! Horrified at the sight of human
beings eating the flesh of their comrades, they withdrew from the whites
at the "Camp of Death." After that they always camped apart, but
continued to act as guides until they became certain that their own
lives were in danger. Then they fled. Starving, exhausted, with frozen
and bleeding feet, the poor wretches dragged their weary bodies onward
until they reached a little streamlet, and here they lay down to die.
Nine days, with no other food than they could find in the snow, was too
much even for their hardy natures. They were unable to move when the
famished "Seven" passed. Yes, passed! for the starving emigrants went on
by the poor fellows, unable to deprive them of the little spark of life
left in their wasted bodies. Traveling was now slow work for the dying
whites. They only went about two hundred yards. In a few more hours,
perhaps that very night, they would die of starvation. Already the
terrible phantasies of delirium were beginning to dance before their
sunken eyes. Ere the Indians would cease breathing some of the Seven
would be past relief. There were two men and five women. William Foster
could see that his wife - the woman who was all the world to him - was
fast yielding to the deadly grasp of the fiends of starvation. For the
sake of his life she had stifled the most sacred instincts of her
womanly nature, and procured him food from Fosdick's body. Should he see
her die the most terrible of deaths without attempting to rescue her?
Reader, put yourself in this man's place. Brave, generous, heroic, full
of lion-like nobility, William Foster could not stoop to a base action.
Contemplate his position! Lying there prostrate upon the snow was Mrs.
Pike, the woman whom, accidentally, he had rendered a widow. Her babes
were dying in the cabins. His own boy was at the cabins. His comrades,
his wife, were in the last stages of starvation. He, also, was dying.
Eddy had not nerve enough, the women could not, and William Foster
must-what! Was it murder? No! Every law book, every precept of that
higher law, self- preservation, every dictate of right, reason or
humanity, demanded the deed. The Indians were past all hope of aid. They
could not lift their heads from their pillow of snow. It was not simply
justifiable - it was duty; it was a necessity.
He told them, when he got back, that he was compelled to take their
lives. They did not moan or struggle, or appear to regret that their
lingering pain was to cease. The five women and Eddy heard two reports
of a gun.
The "Forlorn Hope" might yet save those who were dying at Donner Lake.
Even this relief was but temporary. Taking the wasted flesh from the
bones, drying it, and staggering forward, the little band speedily
realized that they were not yet saved. It was food for only a few days.
Then they again felt their strength failing. Once more they endured the
excruciating torments which precede starvation.
In the very complete account of this trip, which is kindly furnished by
Mary Graves, are many interesting particulars concerning the suffering
of these days. "Our only chance for camp-fire for the night," she says,
"was to hunt a dead tree of some description, and set fire to it. The
hemlock being the best and generally much the largest timber, it was our
custom to select the driest we could find without leaving our course.
When the fire would reach the top of the tree, the falling limbs would
fall all around us and bury themselves in the snow, but we heeded them
not. Sometimes the falling, blazing limbs would brush our clothes, but
they never hit us; that would have been too lucky a hit. We would sit or
lie on the snow, and rest our weary frames. We would sleep, only to
dream of something nice to eat, and awake again to disappointment. Such
was our sad fate! Even the reindeer's wretched lot was not worse! 'His
dinner and his bed were snow, and supper he had not.' Our fare was the
same! We would strike fire by means of the flintlock gun which we had
with us. This had to be carried by turns, as it was considered the only
hope left in case we might find game which we could kill. We traveled
over a ridge of mountains, and then descended a deep canyon, where one
could scarcely see the bottom. Down, down we would go, or rather slide,
for it is very slavish work going down hill, and in many cases we were
compelled to slide on our shoes as sleds. On reaching the bottom we
would plunge into the snow, so that it was difficult getting out, with
the shoes tied to our feet, our packs lashed to our backs, and ourselves
head and ears under the snow. But we managed to get out some way, and
one by one reached the bottom of the canyon. When this was accomplished
we had to ascend a hill as steep as the one we had descended. We would
drive the toes of our shoes into the loose snow, to make a sort of step,
and one by one, as if ascending stair-steps, we climbed up. It took us
an entire day to reach the top of the mountain. Each time we attained
the summit of a mountain, we hoped we should be able to see something
like a valley, but each time came disappointment, for far ahead was
always another and higher mountain. We found some springs, or, as we
called them, wells, from five to twenty feet under ground, as you might
say, for they were under the snow on which we walked. The water was so
warm that it melted the snow, and from some of these springs were large
streams of running water. We crossed numbers of these streams on bridges
of snow, which would sometimes form upon a blade of grass hanging over
the water; and from so small a foundation would grow a bridge from ten
to twenty-five feet high, and from a foot and a half to three feet
across the top. It would make you dizzy to look down at the water, and
it was with much difficulty we could place our clumsy ox-bow snow-shoes
one ahead of the other without falling. Our feet had been frozen and
thawed so many times that they were bleeding and sore. When we stopped
at night we would take off our shoes, which by this time were so badly
rotted by constant wetting in snow, that there was very little left of
them. In the morning we would push our shoes on, bruising and numbing
the feet so badly that they would ache and ache with walking and the
cold, until night would come again. Oh! the pain! It seemed to make the
pangs of hunger more excruciating."