History of the Donner Party

Thus the party traveled on day after day, until absolute starvation
again stared them in the face. The snow had gradually grown less deep,
until finally it disappeared or lay only in patches. Their strength was
well-nigh exhausted, when one day Mary Graves says: “Some one called
out, ‘Here are tracks!’ Some one asked, ‘What kind of tracks human?’
‘Yes, human!’ Can any one imagine the joy these footprints gave us? We
ran as fast as our strength would carry us.”

Turning a chaparral point, they came in full view of an Indian
rancherie. The uncivilized savages were amazed. Never had they seen such
forlorn, wretched, pitiable human beings, as the tattered, disheveled,
skeleton creatures who stood stretching out their arms for assistance.
At first, they all ran and hid, but soon they returned to the aid of
these dying wretches. It is said that the Indian women and children
cried, and wailed with grief at the affecting spectacle of starved men
and women. Such food as they had was speedily offered. It was bread made
of acorns. This was eagerly eaten. It was at least a substitute for
food. Every person in the rancherie, from the toddling papooses to the
aged chief, endeavored to aid them.

After what had recently happened, could anything be more touching than
these acts of kindness of the Indians?

After briefly resting, they pressed forward. The Indians accompanied and
even led them, and constantly supplied them with food. With food? No, it
was not such food as their weakened, debilitated systems craved. The
acorn bread was not sufficient to sustain lives already so attenuated by
repeated starvations. All that the starved experience in the way of pain
and torture before they die, had been experienced by these people at
least four different times. To their horror, they now discovered that
despite the acorn bread, they must die of hunger and exhaustion a fifth
and last time. So sick and weak did they become, that they were
compelled to lie down and rest every hundred yards. Finally, after being
with the Indians seven days, they lay down, and felt that they never
should have strength to take another step. Before them, in all its
beauty and loveliness, spread the broad valley of the Sacramento. Behind
them were the ever-pleading faces of their starving dear ones. Yet
neither hope nor affection could give them further strength. They were
dying in full view of the long-desired haven of rest.

One of the number was hardly so near death’s door as his companions. It
was W. H. Eddy. As a last resort, their, faithful allies, the Indians,
took him upon either side, and fairly carried him along. His feet moved,
but they were frozen, and blistered, and cracked, and bleeding. Left
alone, he would have fallen helplessly to the earth. It was as terrible
a journey as ever mortal man performed. How far he traveled, he knew
not. During the last six miles his path was marked by blood-stains from
his swollen feet.

By making abridgments from valuable manuscript contributed by George W.
Tucker, of Calistoga, this narrative may be appropriately continued. Mr.
Tucker’s father and relatives had reached Johnson’s Ranch on the
twenty-fifth of October, 1846. They had been with the Donner Party until
Fort Bridger was reached, and then took the Fort Hall road. Their
journey had been full of dangers and difficulties, and reaching
Johnson’s Ranch, the first settlement on the west side of the Sierra,
they determined to remain during the winter.

One evening, about the last of January, Mr. Tucker says a man was seen
coming down Bear River, accompanied by an Indian. His haggard, forlorn
look showed he was in great distress. When he reached us, he said he was
of the Donner Party. He told briefly how the train had been caught in
the snow east of the mountains, and was unable to get back or forward.
He told how the fifteen had started, and that six beside himself were
still alive. That the six were back in the mountains, almost starved. R.
P. Tucker and three other men started at once with provisions, the
Indian acting as guide. They reached them, fifteen miles back, some time
during the night, and brought them in the next day. The names of the
seven were W. H. Eddy, William Foster, Mrs. S. A. C. Foster, Mrs. H. F.
Pike, Mrs. William McCutchen, Mrs. Sarah Fosdick, and Mary Graves. It
had been thirty-two days since they left Donner Lake!

At Johnson’s Ranch there were only three or four families of poor
emigrants. Nothing could be done toward relieving those at Donner Lake
until help could arrive from Sutter’s Fort. A rainy winter had flooded
Bear River, and rendered the Sacramento plains a vast quagmire. Yet one
man volunteered to go to Sacramento with the tale of horror, and get men
and provisions. This man was John Rhodes. Lashing two pine logs together
with rawhides, and forming a raft, John Rhodes was ferried over Bear
River. Taking his shoes in his hands, and rolling his pants up above his
knees, he started on foot through water that frequently was from one to
three feet deep. Some time during the night he reached the Fort.

A train in the mountains! Men, women, and children starving! It was
enough to make one’s blood curdle to think of it! Captain Sutter,
generous old soul, and Alcalde Sinclair, who lived at Norris’ Ranch two
and a half miles from the Fort, offered provisions, and five or six men
volunteered to carry them over the mountains. In about a week, six men,
fully provided with supplies, reached Johnson’s Ranch. Meantime the
Tuckers and their neighbors had slaughtered five or six fat cattle, and
had dried or “jerked” the meat. The country was scoured for horses and
mules, and for saddles and pack-saddles, but at last, in ten or twelve
days, they were ready to start. Alcalde Sinclair had come up from the
Fort, and when all were ready to begin their march, he made them a
thrilling little address. They were, he said, starting out upon a
hazardous journey. Nothing could justify them in attempting so perilous
an undertaking except the obligations due to their suffering fellow-men.
He urged them to do all in their power, without sacrificing their lives,
to save the perishing emigrants from starvation and death. He then
appointed Reasin P. Tucker, the father of our informant, captain of the
company. With a pencil he carefully wrote down the name of each man in
the relief party. The names were John Rhodes, Daniel Rhodes, Aquilla
Glover, R. S. Mootrey, Joseph Foster, Edward Coffeemire, M. D. Ritchie,
James Curtis, William H. Eddy, William Coon, R. P. Tucker, George W.
Tucker, and Adolph Brueheim. Thus the first relief party started.

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.

California, at this time, was sparsely settled, and it was a fearful
undertaking to cross the snowy mountains to the relief of the
storm-bound emigrants. A better idea of the difficulties to be
encountered by the various relief parties can not be presented than by
quoting from the manuscript of George W. Tucker. This gentleman was
sixteen years old at the time of the occurrences narrated, and his
account is vouched for as perfectly truthful and reliable. This sketch,
like the remainder of this book, treats of an epoch in California
history which has been almost forgotten. The scene of his adventures is
laid in a region familiar to thousands of miners and early
Californians. Along the route over which he passed with so much
difficulty, scores of mining camps sprung up soon after the discovery of
gold, and every flat, ravine, and hill-slope echoed to pick, and shovel,
and pan, and to voices of legions of men. Truly, his narration relates
to a lost, an almost unremembered era in the history of the famous
mining counties, Placer and Nevada. In speaking of the first relief
party, he says:

“We mounted our horses and started. The ground was very soft among the
foothills, but we got along very well for two or three miles after
leaving Johnson’s ranch. Finally, one of our packhorses broke through
the crust, and down he went to his sides in the mud. He floundered and
plunged until the pack turned underneath his body. He then came out of
the mud, bucking and kicking; and he bucked and kicked, and kicked and
bucked, till he cleared himself of the pack, pack-saddle and all, and
away he went back to the ranch. We gathered up the pack, put it upon the
horse Eddy was riding, and the party traveled on. Eddy and myself were
to go back to the ranch, catch the horse, and returning, overtake them.
We failed to find the horse that day, but the next morning an Indian got
on my horse, and, about nine o’clock, succeeded in finding the missing
animal. My horse, however, was pretty well run down when he got back.
Eddy and myself started about ten o’clock. We had to travel in one day
what the company had traveled in two days. About the time we started it
commenced clouding up, and we saw we were going to have a storm. We went
on until about one o’clock, when my horse gave out. It commenced raining
and was very cold. Eddy said he would ride on and overtake the company,
if possible, and have them stop. He did not overtake them until about
dark, after they had camped.

“My horse could only go in a slow walk, so I walked and led him to keep
from freezing. The rain continued to increase in volume, and by dark it
was coming down in torrents. It was very cold. The little stream began
to rise, but I waded through, though sometimes it came up to my armpits.
It was very dark, but I kept going on in hopes I would come in sight of
the camp-fire. But the darkness increased, and it was very difficult to
find the road. I would get down on my knees and feel for the road with
my hands. Finally, about nine o’clock, it became so dark that I could
not see a tree until I would run against it, and I was almost exhausted
dragging my horse after me. I had lost the road several times, but found
it by feeling for the wagon-ruts. At last I came to where the road made
a short turn around the point of a hill, and I went straight ahead until
I got forty or fifty yards from the road. I crawled around for some time
on my knees, but could not find it. I knew if the storm was raging in
the morning as it was then, if I got very far from the road, I could not
tell which was east, west, north, or south, I might get lost and perish
before the storm ceased, so I concluded to stay right there until
morning. I had no blanket, and nothing on me but a very light coat and
pair of pants. I tied my horse to a little pine tree, and sitting down,
leaned against the tree. The rain came down in sheets. The wind blew,
and the old pine trees clashed their limbs together. It seemed to me
that a second deluge had come. I would get so cold that I would get up
and walk around for a while. It seemed to me I should surely freeze.
Toward morning I began to get numb, and felt more comfortable, but that
was the longest and hardest night I ever experienced.

“In the morning, when it became light enough so that I could see two or
three rods, I got up, but my legs were so numb that I could not walk. I
rolled around until I got up a circulation, and could stand on my feet.
Leaving my horse tied to the tree, I found the road, went about a
hundred yards around the point of a hill, and saw the camp-fire up in a
little flat about a quarter of a mile from where I had spent the night.
Going up to camp, I found the men all standing around a fire they had
made, where two large pines had fallen across each other. They had laid
down pine bark and pieces of wood to keep them out of the water. They
had stood up all night. The water was running two or three inches deep
all through the camp. When I got to the fire, and began to get warm, my
legs and arms began to swell so that I could hardly move or get my hands
to my face.

“It never ceased raining all that day nor the next night, and we were
obliged to stand around the fire. Everything we had was wet. They had
stacked up our dried beef and flour in a pile, and put the saddles and
pack saddles over it as well as they could, but still it got more or
less wet. The third morning it stopped raining about daylight, and the
sun came out clear and warm. We made scaffolds and spread our meat all
out, hung up our blankets and clothing on lines, and by keeping up fires
and with the help of the sun, we managed to get everything dry by night.
The next morning we packed up and started on until we came to a little
valley, where we found some grass for our horses. We stayed there that
night. The next day we got to Steep Hollow Creek, one of the branches of
Bear River. This stream was not more than a hundred feet wide, but it
was about twenty feet deep, and the current was very swift. We felled a
large pine tree across it, but the center swayed down so that the water
ran over it about a foot deep. We tied ropes together and stretched them
across to make a kind of hand railing, and succeeded in carrying over
all our things. We undertook to make our horses swim the creek, and
finally forced two of them into the stream, but as soon as they struck
the current they were carried down faster than we could run. One of them
at last reached the bank and got ashore, but the other went down under
the tree we had cut, and the first we saw of him he came up about twenty
yards below, heels upward. He finally struck a drift about a hundred
yards below, and we succeeded in getting him out almost drowned. We then
tied ropes together, part of the men went over, and tying a rope to each
horse, those on one side would force him into the water, and the others
would draw him across. We lost a half day at this place. That night we
climbed a high mountain, and came to snow. Camped that night without any
feed for our horses. The next day, about noon, we reached Mule Springs.
The snow was from three to four feet deep, and it was impossible to go
any farther with the horses. Unpacking the animals, Joe Varro and Wm.
Eddy started back with them to Johnson’s Ranch. The rest of us went to
work and built a brush tent in which to keep our provisions. We set
forks into the ground, laid poles across, and covered them with cedar
boughs. We finished them that evening, and the next morning ten of the
men fixed up their packs, consisting of dried beef and flour, and
started on foot, each one carrying about seventy-five pounds. They left
Billy Coon and myself to watch the provisions until they returned. I
have never been in that country since, but I think Mule Springs is on
the opposite side of Bear River from Dutch Flat.

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