History of the Donner Party

Leanna C. Donner, now Mrs. John App, of Jamestown, Tuolumne County,
Cal., gives a vivid description of the trip from George Donner’s tent to
the cabins at Donner Lake Miss Rebecca E. App, acting as her mother’s
amanuensis, writes:

“Mother says: Never shall I forget the day when my sister Elitha and
myself left our tent. Elitha was strong and in good health, while I was
so poor and emaciated that I could scarcely walk. All we took with us
were the clothes on our backs and one thin blanket, fastened with a
string around our necks, answering the purpose of a shawl in the
day-time, and which was all we had to cover us at night. We started
early in the morning, and many a good cry I had before we reached the
cabins, a distance of about eight miles. Many a time I sat down in the
snow to die, and would have perished there if my sister had not urged me
on, saying, ‘The cabins are just over the hill.’ Passing over the hill,
and not seeing the cabins, I would give up, again sit down and have
another cry, but my sister continued to help and encourage me until I
saw the smoke rising from the cabins; then I took courage, and moved
along as fast as I could. When we reached the Graves cabin it was all I
could do to step down the snow-steps into the cabin. Such pain and
misery as I endured that day is beyond description.”

In Patrick Breen’s diary are found the following entries, which allude
to Captain Tucker’s relief party:

“Feb. 19. Froze hard last night. Seven men arrived from California
yesterday with provisions, but left the greater part on the way. To-day
it is clear and warm for this region; some of the men have gone to
Donner’s camp; they will start back on Monday.”

“Feb. 22. The Californians started this morning, twenty-three in number,
some in a very weak state. Mrs. Keseberg started with them, and left
Keseberg here, unable to go. Buried Pike’s child this morning in the
snow; died two days ago.”

Poor little Catherine Pike lingered until this time! It will be
remembered that this little nursing babe had nothing to eat except a
little coarse flour mixed in snow water. Its mother crossed the
mountains with the “Forlorn Hope,” and from the sixteenth of December to
the twentieth of February it lived upon the miserable gruel made from
unbolted flour. How it makes the heart ache to think of this little
sufferer, wasting away, moaning with hunger, and sobbing for something
to eat. The teaspoonful of snow water would contain only a few particles
of the flour, yet how eagerly the dying child would reach for the
pitiful food. The tiny hands grew thinner, the sad, pleading eyes sank
deeper in their fleshless sockets, the face became hollow, and the wee
voice became fainter, yet, day after day, little Catherine Pike
continued to breathe, up to the very arrival of the relief party.

Patrick Breen says twenty-three started across the mountains. Their
names were: Mrs. Margaret W. Reed and her children – Virginia E. Reed,
Patty Reed, Thomas Reed, and James F. Reed, Jr.; Elitha C. Donner,
Leanna C. Donner, Wm. Hook, and George Donner, Jr.; Wm. G. Murphy, Mary
M. Murphy, and Naomi L. Pike; Wm. C. Graves, Eleanor Graves, and Lovina
Graves; Mrs. Phillipine Keseberg, and Ada Keseberg; Edward J. and Simon
P. Breen, Eliza Williams, John Denton, Noah James, and Mrs. Wolfinger.

In starting from the camps at Donner Lake, Mrs. Keseberg’s child and
Naomi L. Pike were carried by the relief party. In a beautiful letter
received from Naomi L. Pike (now Mrs. Schenck, of the Dalles, Oregon),
she says: “I owe my life to the kind heart of John Rhodes, whose
sympathies were aroused for my mother. He felt that she was deserving of
some relic of all she had left behind when she started with the first
party in search of relief, and he carried me to her in a blanket.” We
have before spoken of this noble man’s bravery in bearing the news of
the condition of the “Forlorn Hope” and of the Donner Party to Sutter’s
Fort. Here we find him again exhibiting the nobility of his nature by
saving this little girl from starvation by carrying her on his back over
forty miles of wintry snow.

Before the party had proceeded two miles, a most sad occurrence took
place. It became evident that Patty and Thomas Reed were unable to stand
the fatigue of the journey. Already they exhibited signs of great
weakness and weariness, and it was not safe to allow them to proceed.
Mr. Aquila Glover informed Mrs. Reed that it was necessary that these
two children go back. Who can portray the emotions of this fond mother?
What power of language can indicate the struggle which took place in the
minds of this stricken family? Mr. Glover promised to return as soon as
he arrived at Bear Valley, and himself bring Patty and Thomas over the
mountains. This promise, however, was but a slight consolation for the
agonized mother or weeping children, until finally a hopeful thought
occurred to Mrs. Reed. She turned suddenly to Mr. Glover, and asked,
“Are you a Mason?’ He replied, “I am.” “Do you promise me,” she said,
“upon the word of a Mason, that when you arrive at Bear Valley, you will
come back and get my children?” Mr. Glover made the promise, and the
children were by him taken back to the cabins. The mother had
remembered, in this gloomiest moment of life, that the father of her
little ones was a Mason, and that he deeply reverenced the order. If her
children must be left behind in the terrible snows, she would trust the
promise of this Mason to return and save them. It was a beautiful trust
in a secret order by a Mason’s wife in deep distress.

Rebecca E. App, writing for her mother, gives a vivid description of
this journey across the summits, from which is taken the following brief
extract:

“It was a bright Sunday morning when we left the cabins. Some were in
good health, while others were so poor and emaciated that they could
scarcely walk. I was one of the weakest in the party, and not one in the
train thought I would get to the top of the first hill. We were a sad
spectacle to look upon as we left the cabins. We marched along in single
file, the leader wearing snow-shoes, and the others following after, all
stepping in the leader’s tracks. I think my sister and myself were about
the rear of the train, as the strongest were put in front. My sister
Elitha and I were alone with strangers, as it were, having neither
father, mother, nor brothers, to give us a helping hand or a word of
courage to cheer us onward. We were placed on short allowance of food
from the start, and each day this allowance was cut shorter and shorter,
until we received each for our evening and morning meal two small pieces
of jerked beef, about the size of the index finger of the hand. Finally,
the last ration was issued in the evening. This was intended for that
evening and the next morning, but I was so famished I could not resist
the temptation to eat all I had – the two meals at one time. Next
morning, of course, I had nothing for breakfast. Now occurred an
incident which I shall never forget. While I sat looking at the others
eating their morsels of meat, which were more precious than gold or
diamonds, my sister saw my distress, and divided her piece with me. How
long we went without food after that, I do not know. I think we were
near the first station.”

Chapter XIII.

Death of Ada Keseberg
Denton Discovering Gold
A Poem Composed While Dying
The Caches of Provisions Robbed by Fishers
The Sequel to the Reed-Snyder Tragedy
Death from Over-eating
The Agony of Frozen Feet
An Interrupted Prayer
Stanton, after Death, Guides the Relief Party
The Second Relief Party Arrives
A Solitary Indian
Patty Reed and her Father
Starving Children Lying in Bed
Mrs. Graves’ Money Still Buried at Donner Lake.

Peasin P. Tucker’s relief party had twenty-one emigrants with them after
Patty and Thomas Reed returned to the desolate cabins. On the evening of
the first day, one of the twenty-one died. It was the baby child of
Lewis Keseberg. The mother had fairly worshiped her girl. They buried
the little one in the snow. It was all they could do for the pallid form
of the starved little girl. Mrs. Keseberg was heart-broken over her
baby’s death. At the very outset she had offered everything she
possessed – twenty-five dollars and a gold watch-to any one who would
carry her child over the mountains. After the starved band resumed their
weary march next morning, it is doubtful if many thought of the niche
hollowed out of the white snow, or of the pulseless heart laid therein.
Death had become fearfully common, and his victims were little heeded by
the perishing company. The young German mother, however, was
inconsolable. Her only boy had starved to death at the cabins, and now
she was childless.

The next day the company reached Summit Valley. An incident of this
day’s travel illustrates the exhausted condition of the members of the
Donner Party. John Denton, an Englishman, was missed when camp was
pitched, and John Rhodes returned and found him fast asleep upon the
snow. He had become so weary that he yielded to a slumber that would
soon have proven fatal. With much labor and exertion he was aroused and
brought to camp. Denton appreciated the kindness, but at the same time
declared that it would be impossible for him to travel another day. Sure
enough, after journeying a little way on the following morning, his
strength utterly gave way. His companions built a fire for him, gave him
such food as they were able, and at his earnest request continued their
sorrowful march. If another relief came soon, he would, perhaps, be
rescued. Denton was well educated and of good family, was a gunsmith by
trade, and was skilled in metals. It is related, that while in the Reed
cabin, he discovered in the earth, ashes, and burnt stones in the
fireplace, some small pieces of yellowish metal, which he declared to be
gold. These he made into a small lump, which he carefully preserved
until he left the lake, and it was doubtless lost on the mountains at
his death. This was in the spring of 1847, before the discovery of gold
in California. The strange little metallic lump was exhibited to several
who are yet living, and who think there is reason for believing it was
really gold. A few years before the construction of the Central Pacific,
Knoxville, about ten miles south of Donner Lake, and Elizabethtown, some
six miles from Truckee, were famous mining camps. Gold never has been
found on the very shore of Donner Lake, but should the discovery be
made, and especially should gold be found in the rocks or earth near the
Reed cabin, there would be reason to believe that this poor unfortunate
man was in reality the first discoverer of the precious metal in
California. Left alone in the snow-mantled forests of the Sierra, what
were this man’s emotions? In the California Star of 1847, a bound volume
of which is in the State Library in Sacramento, appears the following
poem. The second relief party found it written on the leaf of a
memorandum book by the side of Denton’s lifeless body. The pencil with
which it was written lay also by the side of the unfortunate man. Ere
the lethargy of death stole away his senses, John Denton’s thoughts had
been of his boyhood’s beautiful home in merry England. These thoughts
were woven into verse. Are they not strangely pathetic and beautiful?
Judge Thornton, in 1849, published them with the following prefatory
words: “When the circumstances are considered in connection with the
calamities in which the unhappy Denton was involved, the whole compass
of American and English poetry may be challenged to furnish a more
exquisitely beautiful, a more touching and pathetic piece. Simple and
intimate to the last degree, yet coming from the heart, it goes to the
heart. Its lines are the last plaintive notes which wintry winds have
wakened from an Lolian harp, the strings of which rude hands have
sundered. Bring before your mind the picture of an amiable young man who
has wandered far from the paternal roof, is stricken by famine, and left
by his almost equally unhappy companions to perish among the terrible
snows of the great Sierra Nevada. He knows that his last, most solemn
hour is near. Reason still maintains her empire, and memory, faithful to
the last, performs her functions. On every side extends a boundless
waste of trackless snow. He reclines against a bank of it, to rise no
more, and busy memory brings before him a thousand images of past beauty
and pleasure, and of scenes he will never revisit. A mother’s image
presents itself to his mind, tender recollections crowd upon his heart,
and the scenes of his boyhood and youth pass in review before him with
an unwonted vividness. The hymns of praise and thanksgiving that in
harmony swelled from the domestic circle around the family altar are
remembered, and soothe the sorrows of the dying man, and finally, just
before he expires, he writes:”

“Oh! after many roving years,
How sweet it is to come
Back to the dwelling-place of youth,
Our first and dearest home;
To turn away our wearied eyes
From proud ambition’s towers,
And wander in those summer fields,
The scenes of boyhood’s hours.”

“But I am changed since last I gazed
Upon that tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch elm
That shades the village green;
And watched my boat upon the brook
It was a regal galley
And sighed not for a joy on earth,
Beyond the happy valley.”

“I wish I could once more recall
That bright and blissful joy,
And summon to my weary heart –
The feelings of a boy.
But now on scenes of past delight
I look, and feel no pleasure,
As misers on the bed of death
Gaze coldly on their treasure.”

When Captain Tucker’s relief party were going to Donner Lake, they left
a portion of their provisions in Summit Valley, tied up in a tree. They
had found these provisions difficult to carry, and besides, it was best
to have something provided for their return, in case the famished
emigrants ate all they carried over the summit. It was indeed true that
all was eaten which they carried over. All the scanty allowances were,
one after another, consumed. When the relief party, and those they were
rescuing, reached the place where the provisions had been cached, they
were in great need of the reserve store which they expected to find. To
their horror and dismay, they found that wild animals had gnawed the
ropes by which the cache had been suspended, and had destroyed every
vestige of these provisions! Death stared them in the face, and the
strongest men trembled at the prospect.

Here comes the sequel to the Reed-Snyder tragedy. Had it not been for
Reed’s banishment, there is every reason to believe that these people
would have died for want of food. It will be remembered, however, that
the relief party organized by Reed was only a few days behind Captain
Tucker’s. On the twenty-seventh of February, just as the horror and
despair of their dreadful situation began to be realized, Tucker, and
those with him, were relieved by the second relief party.

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