History of the Donner Party

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It is proper, perhaps, to interrupt the narrative in the Rural Press for
the purpose of introducing the memorial referred to by Mr. Reed. The
copy of the original document was recently found among his papers by his
daughter, Patty Reed.

"To his Excellency, R. F. Stockton, Governor and Commander-in-Chief, by
sea and land, of the United States Territory of California: We, the
undersigned citizens and residents of the Territory of California, beg
leave respectfully to present to your Excellency the following memorial,
viz.: That, whereas, the last detachment of emigrants from the United
States to California have been unable, from unavoidable causes, to reach
the frontier settlements, and are now in the California mountains,
seventy-five or one hundred miles east from the Sacramento Valley,
surrounded by snow, most probably twenty feet deep, and being about
eighty souls in number, a large proportion of whom are women and
children, who must shortly be in a famishing condition from scarcity of
provisions, therefore, the undersigned most earnestly beseech your
Excellency to take into consideration the propriety of fitting out an
expedition to proceed on snowshoes immediately to the relief of the
sufferers. Your memorialists beg leave to subscribe themselves, very
respectfully, yours, etc."

"January, 1847."

The article in the Rural Press continues: "Arriving at San Francisco, I
presented my petition to Commodore Hull, also making a statement of the
condition of the people in the mountains as far as I knew, the number of
them, and what would be needed in provisions and help to get them out.
He made an estimate of the expense, and said that he would do anything
within reason to further the object, but was afraid that the department
at Washington would not sustain him if he made the general outfit. His
sympathy was that of a man and a gentleman.

"I also conferred with several of the citizens of Yerba Buena; their
advice was not to trouble the Commodore further; that they would call a
meeting of the citizens and see what could be done. At the meeting, the
situation of the people was made known, and committees were appointed to
collect money. Over a thousand dollars was raised in the town, and the
sailors of the fleet gave over three hundred dollars. At the meeting,
Midshipman Woodworth volunteered to go into the mountains. Commodore
Hull gave me authority to raise as many men, with horses, as would be
required. The citizens purchased all the supplies necessary for the
outfit, and placed them on board the schooner, for Hardy's Ranch, mouth
of Feather River. Midshipman Woodworth took charge of the schooner, and
was the financial agent of the government."

"I left in a boat for Napa by way of Sonoma, to procure men and horses,
and when I arrived at Mr. Gordon's, on Cache Creek, I had all the men
and horses needed. From here I proceeded to the mouth of Feather River
for the purpose of meeting Mr. Woodworth with the provisions. When we
reached the river the boat had not arrived. The water was very high in
the river, the tule lands being overflowed. From here I sent a man to a
point on the Sacramento River opposite Sutter's Fort, to obtain
information of the boat with our provisions; he returned and reported
the arrival of the boat at the Fort."

"Before leaving Yerba Buena, news came of a party of fifteen persons
having started from the emigrant encampment, and only seven getting to
Johnson's. I was here placed in a quandary - no boat to take us across
the river, and no provisions for our party to take into the mountains.
We camped a short distance back from the river, where we killed a number
of elk for the purpose of using the skins in covering a skeleton boat.
Early next morning we started for the river, and to our delight saw a
small schooner, belonging to Perry McCan, which had arrived during the
night. We immediately crossed, McCutchen and myself, to the opposite
bank of the river. I directed the men to cross and follow us to
Johnson's Ranch. We arrived there early that day. Making known our
situation, he drove his cattle up to the house, saying, 'There are the
cattle, take as many as you need.' We shot down five head, staid up all
night, and with the help of Mr. Johnson and his Indians, by the time the
men arrived the next morning, we had the meat fire-dried and ready to be
placed in bags. Mr. Johnson had a party of Indians making flour by hand
mills, they making, during the night, nearly two hundred pounds."

"We packed up immediately and started. After reaching the snow, the meat
and flour was divided into suitable packs for us to carry, we leaving
the horses here. At Johnson's I learned that a relief party had passed
in a few days previous, being sent by Captain Sutter and Mr. Sinclair."

This was the party commanded by Captain Reasin P. Tucker, whose journey
over the mountains as far as the summit was described in the last
chapter. Reed was faithful and energetic in endeavoring to recross the
mountains. Mr. McCutchen, also, did all in his power to reach the wife
and baby he left behind. The snow belt is about four times as wide on
the west side of the summit as it is on the east side. It was almost
impossible for relief parties to cross the mountains. Captain Tucker's
party was composed of men of great nerve and hardihood, yet, as will be
seen, the trip was almost as much as their lives were worth.

On the morning of the nineteenth of February, 1847, the relief party of
Captain R. P. Tucker began the descent of the gorge leading to Donner

Let us glance ahead at the picture soon to be unfolded to their gaze.
The mid-winter snows had almost concealed the cabins. The inmates lived
subterranean lives. Steps cut in the icy snow led up from the doorways
to the surface. Deep despair had settled upon all hearts. The dead were
lying all around, some even unburied, and nearly all with only a
covering of snow. So weak and powerless had the emigrants become, that
it was hardly possible for them to lift the dead bodies up the steps out
of the cabins. All were reduced to mere skeletons. They had lived on
pieces of rawhide, or on old, castaway bones, which were boiled or
burned until capable of being eaten. They were so reduced that it seemed
as if only a dry, shriveled skin covered their emaciated frames. The
eyes were sunken deep in their sockets, and had a fierce, ghastly,
demoniacal look. The faces were haggard, woe-begone, and sepulchral. One
seldom heard the sound of a voice, and when heard, it was weak,
tremulous, pitiful. Sometimes a child would moan and sob for a mouthful
of food, and the poor, helpless mothers, with breaking hearts, would
have to soothe them, as best they could, with kind words and tender
caresses. Food, there was none. Oh! what words can fitly frame a tribute
for those noble mothers! When strong men gave up, and passively awaited
the delirium of death, the mothers were actively administering to the
wants of the dying, and striving to cheer and comfort the living. Marble
monuments never bore more heroic names than those of Margaret W. Reed,
Lavina Murphy, Elizabeth Graves, Margaret Breen, Tamsen Donner, and
Elizabeth Donner. Their charity, fortitude, and self-sacrifice failed
not in the darkest hour. Death came so often now, that little notice was
taken of his approach, save by these mothers. A dreadful want of
consciousness precedes starvation. The actual death is not so terrible.
The delirious would rave of feasts, and rich viands, and bountiful
stores of food. As the shadows of death more closely enveloped the poor
creatures, the mutterings grew unintelligible, and were interrupted, now
and then, by startled cries of frenzy, which gradually grew fainter,
until the victims finally slumbered. From this slumber there was no
awakening. The breathing became feebler and more irregular, and finally
ceased. It was not so terrible to the unconscious dying, as to the
weeping mother who watched by the sufferer's side.

It was always dark and gloomy enough in the snow-covered cabins, but
during the fierce, wild storms, the desolation became almost
unendurable. The rushing gale, the furious storm, the lashing of
storm-rent pine boughs, or the crash of giant trees overthrown by the
hurricane, filled the souls of the imprisoned emigrants with nameless
dread. Sometimes the silent darkness of the night would shudder with the
howl of the great gray wolves which in those days infested the
mountains. Too well did they know that these gaunt beasts were howling
for the bodies of the living as well as of the dead.

Wood grew plentifully at short distances from the cabins, but for these
weak, starving creatures to obtain it was a herculean task. To go out
when the storms were raging, would be almost impossible for a well,
strong man. To struggle through the deep, loose drifts, reaching
frequently to the waist, required, at any time, fearful exertion. The
numb, fleshless fingers could hardly guide, or even wield the ax. Near
the site of the Breen cabin, to-day, stands a silent witness of the
almost superhuman exertions that were made to procure fuel. On the side
of a pine tree are old seams and gashes, which, by their irregular
position, were evidently made by hands too weak to cut down a tree.
Hundreds of blows, however, were struck, and the marks of the ax-blade
extend up and down the side of the tree for a foot and a half. Bark
seared with age has partly covered portions of the cuts, but in one
place the incision is some inches deep. At the foot of this pine was
found a short, decayed ax-handle, and a broad-bladed, old-fashioned
ax-head. The mute story of these witnesses is unmistakable. The poor
starved being who undertook the task, never succeeded.

Trees felled, frequently buried themselves out of sight in the loose
snow, or at best, only the uppermost branches could be obtained. Without
fire, without food, without proper shelter from the dampness occasioned
by the melting snows, in the bitter, biting wintry weather, the men,
women, and children were huddled together, the living and the dead. When
Milton Elliott died, there were no men to assist in removing the body
from the deep pit. Mrs. Reed and her daughter, Virginia, bravely
undertook the task. Tugging, pushing, lifting as best they could, the
corpse was raised up the icy steps. He died in the Murphy cabin by the
rock. A few days before he died, he crawled over to the Breen cabin,
where were Mrs. Reed and her children. For years he had been one of the
members of this family, he worked for Mr. Reed in the mill and furniture
establishment owned by the latter in Jamestown, Illinois. He drove the
same yoke of oxen, "Bully" and "George," who were the wheel-oxen of
Reed's family team on the plains. When Mr. Reed proposed crossing the
plains, his wife and children refused to go, unless Milt. could be
induced to drive. He was a kind, careful man, and after Mr. Reed had
been driven away from the company, Elliott always provided for them as
best he was able. Now that he was going to die, he wanted to see "Ma"
and the children once more. "Ma" was the term he always used in
addressing Mrs. Reed. None realized better than he the sorrowful
position in which she was placed by having no husband upon whom to lean
in this time of great need. Poor Elliott! he knew that he was starving!
starving! "Ma, I am not going to starve to death, I am going to eat of
the bodies of the dead." This is what he told Mrs. Reed, yet when he
attempted to do so, his heart revolted at the thought. Mrs. Reed
accompanied him a portion of the way back to the Murphy cabin, and
before leaving him, knelt on the snow and prayed as only a mother can,
that the Good Father would help them in this hour of distress. It was a
starving Christian mother praying that relief might come to her starving
children, and especially to this, her starving boy. From the granite
rocks, the solemn forests, and the snow-mantled mountains of Donner
Lake, a more fervent prayer never ascended heavenward. Could Elliott
have heard, in his dying moments, that this prayer was soon to be
answered, so far as Mrs. Reed and her little ones were concerned, he
would have welcomed death joyfully.

As time wore wearily on, another and more severe trial awaited Mrs.
Reed. Her daughter Virginia was dying. The innutritious rawhide was not
sufficient to sustain life in the poor, famished body of the delicate
child. Indeed, toward the last, her system became so debilitated that
she found it impossible to eat the loathsome, glue-like preparation
which formed their only food. Silently she had endured her sufferings,
until she was at the very portals of death. This beautiful girl was a
great favorite of Mrs. Breen's. Oftentimes during the days of horror and
despair, this good Irish mother had managed, unobserved, to slip an
extra piece of meat or morsel of food to Virginia. Mrs. Breen was the
first to discover that the mark of death was visible upon the girl's
brow. In order to break the news to Mrs. Reed, without giving those in
the cabin a shock which might prove fatal, Mrs. Breen asked the mother
up out of the cabin on the crisp, white snow.

It was the evening of the nineteenth of February, 1847. The sun was
setting, and his rays, in long, lance-like lines, sifted through the
darkening forests. Far to the eastward, the summits of the Washoe
mountains lay bathed in golden sunlight, while the deep gorges at their
feet were purpling into night. The gentle breeze which crept over the
bosom of the ice-bound lake, softly wafted from the tree-tops a muffled
dirge for the dying girl. Ere another day dawned over the expanse of
snow, her spirit would pass to a haven of peace where the demons of
famine could never enter.

In the desolate cabin, all was silence. Living under the snow, passing
an underground life, as it were, seldom visiting each other, or leaving
the cabins, these poor prisoners learned to listen rather than look for
relief. During the first days they watched hour after hour the upper end
of the lake where the "fifteen" had disappeared. With aching eyes and
weary hearts, they always turned back to their subterranean abodes
disappointed. Hope finally deserted the strongest hearts. The brave
mothers had constantly encouraged the despondent by speaking of the
promised relief, yet this was prompted more by the necessities of the
situation than from any belief that help would arrive. It was human
nature, however, to glance toward the towering summits whenever they
ascended to the surface of the snow, and to listen at all times for an
unfamiliar sound or footstep. So delicate became their sense of hearing,
that every noise of the wind, every visitor's tread, every sound that
ordinarily occurred above their heads, was known and instantly detected.

On this evening, as the two women were sobbing despairingly upon the
snow, the silence of the twilight was broken by a shout from near Donner
Lake! In an instant every person forgot weakness and infirmity, and
clambered up the stairway! It was a strange voice, and in the distance
the discovered strange forms approaching. The Reed and the Breen
children thought, at first, that it was a band of Indians, but Patrick
Breen, the good old father, soon declared that the strangers were white
men. Captain Tucker and his men had found the wide expanse of snow
covering forest and lake, and had shouted to attract attention, if any
of the emigrants yet survived. Oh! what joy! There were tears in other
eyes than those of the little children. The strong men of the relief
party sat down on the snow and wept with the rest. It is related of one
or two mothers, and can readily be believed, that their first act was to
fall upon their knees, and with faces turned to God, to pour out their
gratitude to Him for having brought assistance to their dying children.
Virginia Reed did not die.

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