"After the men had all gone, I amused myself the first day by getting
wood and cutting cedar limbs to finish our camp with. My companion,
Billy Coon, was partially insane, and was no company at all. He would
get up in the morning, eat his food, and then lie down and sleep for two
or three hours. He would only talk when he was spoken to; and all he
knew was to sleep and eat. I got very lonesome, and would sit for hours
thinking of our situation. Sixty miles from any human habitation!
Surrounded with wild Indians and wild beasts! Then, when I would look
away at the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra, and think that my father
and the rest of the men where there, toiling under the heavy loads which
they carried, I became still more gloomy. When night would come, the big
gray wolves that had collected on the mountains facing to the south,
where the snow had melted off, would set up their howlings. This, with
the dismal sound of the wind roaring through the tall pine trees, was
almost unendurable. To this day, when I am in pine timber, and hear the
wind sighing through the tree-tops, I always think of the Donner Party
and of those lonely days in the mountains.
"The third day after the men left I became so lonesome that I took the
gun and went down in the direction in which I had heard the wolves
howling. When I got down out of the snow, I found the deer had collected
there by the hundreds. I killed two deer; went up and got Billy Coon,
and we carried them up to camp. We hung one on each corner of our brush
tent, not more than six feet from our bed, and not more than four feet
from the fire. Next morning one of the deer was gone! I supposed the
Indians had found us out and stolen it; but when I looked for tracks I
found the thief had been a California lion. I tracked him two or three
hundred yards, but he had walked off with the deer so easily, I thought
he might keep it. That afternoon I went down to kill another deer, but
when I reached a point from which I could see down to the river, I saw
the smoke of an Indian camp. I was afraid to shoot for fear the Indians
would hear the gun, and finding out we were there, would come up and
give us trouble. I started back, and when in sight of camp I sat down on
a log to rest. While sitting there I saw three Indians coming up the
hill. I sat still to see what they would do. They came up to within
sight of the camp, and all crawled up behind a large sugar-pine tree,
and sat there watching the camp. I did not like their movements, so
thought I would give them a scare. I leveled the old gun at the tree,
about six feet above their heads, and fired away. They got away from
there faster than they came, and I never saw them afterwards."
"On the fifth day after the men left, three of them came back to the
camp. They informed me they had been three days in traveling from Mule
Springs to Bear Valley, a distance of twelve miles. These three had
found it impossible to stand the journey, but the other seven had
started on from Bear Valley. It was thought they could never get over to
Truckee Lake, for the snow was so soft it was impossible to carry their
heavy loads through from ten to thirty feet of it."
M. D. Ritchie and R. P. Tucker kept a diary of the journey of the first
relief party, which, thanks to Patty Reed, now Mrs. Frank Lewis, is
before us. It is brief, concise, pointed, and completes the narration of
Mr. George W. Tucker. Mr. Ritchie's diary reads:
"Feb. 5, 1847. First day traveled ten miles. Bad roads; often miring down
horses and mules. On the sixth and seventh traveled fifteen miles. Road
continued bad; commenced raining before we got to camp, and continued to
rain all that day and night very severe. Lay by here on the eighth to
dry our provisions and clothing."
"Feb. 9. Traveled fifteen miles. Swam the animals over one creek, and
carried the provisions over on a log."
"Feb. 10. Traveled four miles; came to the snow; continued about four
miles further. Animals floundering in snow, and camped at the Mule
"Feb. 11. Mr. Eddy started back with the animals; left William Coon and
George Tucker to guard what provisions were left in camp; the other ten
men, each taking about fifty pounds, except Mr. Curtis, who took about
twenty-five pounds. Traveled on through the snow, having a very severe
day's travel over mountains, making about six miles. Camped on Bear
River, near a cluster of large pines."
"Feb. 12. Moved camp about two miles, and stopped to make snow-shoes;
tried them on and found them of no benefit; cast them away."
"Feb. 13. Made Bear Valley. Upon digging for Curtis' wagon, found the
snow ten feet deep, and the provisions destroyed by the bears. Rain and
snow fell on us all night."
By Curtis' wagon is meant a cache made by Reed and McCutchen, which will
be described in the next chapter.
"Feb. 14. Fine weather."
From this time forward, the journal was kept by Reasin P. Tucker.
"Feb. 15. Fine day. Three of our men decline going any further - W. D.
Ritchie, A. Brueheim, and James Curtis. Only seven men being left, the
party was somewhat discouraged. We consulted together, and under
existing circumstances I took it upon myself to insure every man who
persevered to the end, five dollars per day from the time they entered
the snow. We determined to go ahead, and camped to-night on Yuba River,
after traveling fifteen miles."
"Feb. 16. Traveling very bad, and snowing. Made but five miles, and
camped in snow fifteen feet deep."
"Feb. 17. Traveled five miles."
"Feb. 18. Traveled eight miles, and camped on the head of the Yuba; on
the pass we suppose the snow to be thirty feet deep."
The "pass" was the Summit. Relief was close at hand. Would it find the
Hardships of Reed and Herron
Generosity of Captain Sutter
Attempts to Cross the Mountains with Provisions
Compelled to Turn Back
Hostilities with Mexico
Memorial to Gov. Stockton
Yerba Buena's Generosity
Pitiful Scenes at Donner Lake
Dying rather than Eat Human Flesh
A Mother's Prayer
Tears of Joy
Eating the Shoestrings.
James F. Reed encountered the most disheartening trials after leaving
the Donner Party. He and Walter Herron were reduced to the utmost verge
of starvation while on the Sierra Nevada. At one time they discovered
five beans in the road, one after the other, and at another time they
ate of the rancid tallow which was found in a tar bucket under an old
Mr. Reed has told the rest in an article contributed by him to the Rural
Press. It explains so well the difficulties of getting relief to the
emigrants, that it is copied:
"When I arrived at Captain Sutter's, making known my situation to him,
asking if he would furnish me horses and saddles to bring the women and
children out of the mountains (I expected to meet them at the head of
Bear Valley by the time I could return there), he at once complied with
the request, also saying that he would do everything possible for me and
the company. On the evening of my arrival at the Captain's, I found
Messrs. Bryant, Lippencott, Grayson, and Jacobs, some of the early
voyagers in the Russel Company, they having left that company at Fort
Laramie, most of them coming on horseback.
"During the evening a meeting was held, in which I participated,
adopting a memorial to the commander of Sutter's Fort, to raise one or
more companies of volunteers, to proceed to Los Angeles, we being at war
with Mexico at this time. The companies were to be officered by the
petitioners. Being requested to take command of one of the companies, I
declined, stating that it would be necessary for the captain to stay
with the company; also that I had to return to the mountains for the
emigrants, but that I would take a lieutenancy. This was agreed to, and
I was on my return to the emigrants to enlist all the men I could
between there and Bear Valley. On my way up I enlisted twelve or
"The second night after my arrival at Captain Sutter's, we had a light
rain; next morning we could see snow on the mountains. The Captain
stated that it was low down and heavy for the first fall of the season.
The next day I started on my return with what horses and saddles Captain
Sutter had to spare. He furnished us all the flour needed, and a hind
quarter of beef, giving us an order for more horses and saddles at Mr.
Cordway's, near where Marysville is located. In the mean time, Mr.
McCutchen joined us, he being prevented from returning with Mr. Stanton
on account of sickness. After leaving Mr. Johnson's ranch we had thirty
horses, one mule, and two Indians to help drive.
"Nothing happened until the evening before reaching the head of Bear
Valley, when there commenced a heavy rain and sleet, continuing all
night. We drove on until a late hour before halting. We secured the
flour and horses, the rain preventing us from kindling a fire. Next
morning, proceeding up the valley to where we were to take the mountain,
we found a tent containing a Mr. Curtis and wife. They hailed us as
angels sent for their delivery, stating that they would have perished
had it not been for our arrival. Mrs. Curtis stated that they had killed
their dog, and at the time of our arrival had the last piece in the
Dutch oven baking. We told them not to be alarmed about anything to eat,
for we had plenty, both of flour and beef, and that they were welcome to
all they needed. Our appetites were rather keen, not having eaten
anything from the morning previous. Mr. Curtis remarked that in the oven
was a piece of the dog and we could have it. Raising the lid of the
oven, we found the dog well baked, and having a fine savory smell. I cut
out a rib, smelling and tasting, found it to be good, and handed it over
to McCutchen, who, after smelling it some time, tasted it and pronounced
it very good dog. We partook of Curtis' dog. Mrs. Curtis immediately
commenced making bread, and in a short time had supper for all.
"At the lower end of the valley, where we entered, the snow was eighteen
inches in depth, and when we arrived at the tent, it was two feet.
Curtis stated that his oxen had taken the back track, and that he had
followed them by the trail through the snow. In the morning, before
leaving, Mrs. Curtis got us to promise to take them into the settlement
when on our return with the women and children. Before leaving, we gave
them flour and beef sufficient to keep them until our return, expecting
to do so in a few days."
"We started, following the trail made by the oxen, and camped a number
of miles up the mountain. In the night, hearing some of the horses going
down the trail, we went to where the Indians had lain down, and found
them gone. McCutchen mounted his horse and rode down to Curtis' camp,
and found that the Indians had been there, stopped and warmed
themselves, and then started down the valley. He returned to camp about
the middle of the night.
"Next morning we started, still on the trail of the oxen, but
unfortunately, the trail turned off to the left from our direction. We
proceeded on, the snow deepening rapidly, our horses struggling to get
through; we pushed them on until they would rear upon their hind feet to
breast the snow, and when they would alight they would sink in it until
nothing was seen of them but the nose and a portion of the head. Here we
found that it was utterly impossible to proceed further with the horses.
Leaving them, we proceeded further on foot, thinking that we could get
in to the people, but found that impossible, the snow being soft and
"I may here state that neither of us knew anything about snow-shoes,
having always lived in a country where they never were used."
"With sorrowful hearts, we arrived that night at the camp of Mr. Curtis,
telling them to make their arrangements for leaving with us in the
morning. Securing our flour in the wagon of Mr. Curtis, so that we could
get it on our return, we packed one horse with articles belonging to Mr.
and Mrs. Curtis, and started down the valley to where the snow was
light, and where there was considerable underbrush, so that our famished
animals could browse, they not having eaten anything for several days."
"After packing Mr. Curtis' horse for him the next morning, we started;
in a short time, Mr. and Mrs. Curtis proceeded ahead, leaving the
pack-horse behind for us to drive, instead of his leading him; we having
our hands full in driving the loose ones, they scattering in all
directions. The pack turned on the horse. Mr. Curtis was requested to
return and help repack and lead his horse, but he paid no attention to
us. We stood this for some time; finally, McCutchen became angry,
started after him, determined to bring him back; when he got with him he
paid no attention to McCutchen's request to return; Mac becoming more
exasperated, hit him several times over the shoulders with his riatta.
This brought him to his senses. He said that if Mac would not kill him,
he would come back and take care of the pack animal, and he did."
"As soon as we arrived at Captain Sutter's, I made a statement of all
the circumstances attending our attempt to get into the mountains. He
was no way surprised at our defeat. I also gave the Captain the number
of head of cattle the company had when I left them. He made an estimate,
and stated that if the emigrants would kill the cattle, and place the
meat in the snow for preservation, there was no fear of starvation until
relief could reach them. He further stated that there were no
able-bodied men in that vicinity, all having gone down the country with
and after Fremont to fight the Mexicans. He advised me to proceed to
Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, and make my case known to the naval
officer in command."
"I left Captain Sutter's, by the way of San Jose, for San Francisco,
being unable to come by water. When I arrived at San Jose, I found the
San Francisco side of the bay was occupied by the Mexicans. Here I
remained, and was attached to a company of volunteers, commanded by
Captain Webber, until after the fight at Santa Clara."
"The road now being clear, I proceeded to San Francisco with a petition
from some of the prominent citizens of San Jose, asking the commander of
the navy to grant aid to enable me to return to the mountains."