History of the Donner Party

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In order to better understand these events, let us return and follow the
motions of Reed and the members of the second relief party. In the
article quoted in a former chapter from the Rural Press, Reed traced
their progress as far as Johnson's ranch. Patty Reed (Mrs. Frank Lewis)
has in her possession the original diary kept by her father during this
journey. This diary shows that on the very morning Capt. Tucker, and the
company with him, left Donner Lake to return to the valleys, Reed and
the second relief party started from Johnson's ranch to go to Donner
Lake. All that subsequently occurred, is briefly and pointedly narrated
in the diary.

"February 22, 1847. All last night I kept fire under the beef which I
had drying on the scaffolds, and Johnson's Indians were grinding flour
in a small hand-mill. By sunrise this morning I had about two hundred
pounds of beef dried and placed in bags. We packed our horses and
started with our supplies. Including the meat Greenwood had dried, we
had seven hundred pounds of flour, and five beeves. Mr. Greenwood had
three men, including himself. Traveled this day about ten miles."

"Feb. 23. Left camp early this morning, and pushed ahead, but camped
early on account of grass. To-morrow we will reach the snow."

"Feb. 24. Encamped at Mule Springs this evening. Made arrangements to
take to the snow in the morning, having left in camp our saddles,
bridles, etc."

"Feb. 25. Started with eleven horses and mules lightly packed, each
having about eighty pounds. Traveled two miles, and left one mule and
his pack. Made to-day, with hard labor for the horses, in the snow,
about six miles. Our start was late."

"Feb. 26. Left our encampment, Cady thinking the snow would bear the
horses. Proceeded two hundred yards with difficulty, when we were
compelled to unpack the horses and take the provisions on our backs.
Usually the men had kept in the best of spirits, but here, for a few
moments, there was silence. When the packs were ready to be strung upon
their backs, however, the hilarity and good feeling again commenced.
Made the head of Bear Valley, a distance of fifteen miles. We met in the
valley, about three miles below the camp, Messrs. Glover and Rhodes,
belonging to the party that went to the lake. They informed me they had
started with twenty-one persons, two of whom had died, John Denton, of
Springfield, Ill., and a child of Mr. and Mrs. Keseberg. Mr. Glover sent
two men back to the party with fresh provisions. They are in a starving
condition, and all have nearly given out. I have lightened our packs
with a sufficient quantity of provisions to do the people when they
shall arrive at this place.

"Feb. 27. I sent back two men to our camp of night before last, to bring
forward provisions. They will return to-morrow. I also left one man to
prepare for the people who were expected today. Left camp on a fine,
hard snow, and proceeded about four miles, when we met the poor,
unfortunate, starved people. As I met them scattered along the
snowtrail, I distributed some bread that I had baked last night. I gave
in small quantities to each. Here I met my wife and two of my little
children. Two of my children are still in the mountains. I can not
describe the deathlike look all these people had. 'Bread!' 'Bread!'
'Bread!' 'Bread!' was the begging cry of every child and grown person. I
gave all I dared to them, and set out for the scene of desolation at the
lake. I am now camped within twenty-five miles of the place, which I
hope to reach by traveling to-night and tomorrow. We had to camp early
this evening, on account of the softness of the snow, the men sinking in
to their waists, The party who passed us to-day were overjoyed when we
told them there was plenty of provision at camp. I made a cache, to-day,
after we had traveled about twelve miles, and encamped three miles
further eastward, on the Yuba. Snow about fifteen feet deep."

The meeting between Reed and his family can better be imagined than
described. For months they had been separated. While the father was
battling with fate in endeavoring to reach California and return with
assistance, the mother had been using every exertion to obtain food for
her starving children. Now they met in the mountains, in the deep snows,
amid pathless forests, at a time when the mother and children, and all
with them, were out of provisions and ready to perish.

Meantime, the first relief; with their little company, now reduced to
nineteen, passed forward toward the settlements. At Bear Valley, another
cache of provisions had been made, and this was found unmolested.
Camping at this place, the utmost precaution was taken to prevent the
poor starved people from overeating. After a sufficient quantity of food
had been distributed, the remainder of the provisions was hung up in a
tree. Of course, the small portion distributed to each did not satisfy
the cravings of hunger. Some time during the night, Wm. Hook quietly
crept to the tree, climbed up to the food, and ate until his hunger was
appeased. Poor boy, it was a fatal act. Toward morning it was discovered
that he was dying. All that the company could do to relieve his
sufferings was done, but it was of no avail. Finding that the poor boy
was past relief; most of the emigrants moved on toward the settlements.
Wm. G. Murphy's feet had been badly frozen, and he was suffering such
excruciating agony that he could not travel and keep up with the others.
At his request, his sister Mary had cut his shoes open, in order to get
them off; and his feet thereupon swelled up as if they had been scalded.
Because he could not walk, the company left him with William Hook. A
camp-keeper also remained. This boy's death is thus described by Mr.
Murphy, who writes:

"William Hook went out on the snow and rested on his knees and elbows.
The camp-keeper called to him to come in. He then told me to make him
come into camp. I went and put my hand on him, speaking his name, and he
fell over, being already dead. He did not die in great agony, as is
usually alleged. No groan, nor signs of dying, were manifested to us.
The camp-keeper and myself took the biscuits and jerked beef from his
pockets, and buried him just barely under the ground, near a tree which
had been fired, and from around which the snow had melted." Those who
were in the company thought Wm. G. Murphy could not possibly walk, but
when all had gone, and Hook was dead, and no alternative remained but to
walk or die, he did walk. It took him two days to go barefooted over the
snow to Mule Springs, a journey which the others had made in one day.
The agony which he endured during that trip can better be imagined than
described. Nothing but an indomitable will could have sustained him
during those two days.

All the members of this relief party suffered greatly, and several came
near perishing. Little James F. Reed, Jr., was too small to step in the
tracks made by the older members of the party. In order to travel with
the rest he had to partly use his knees in walking. When one foot was in
a track he would place the other knee on the untrodden snow, and was
thus enabled to put his foot in the next track. John Denton was left
with a good fire, and when last seen was reclining smoking, on a bed of
freshly gathered pine boughs. He looked so comfortable that the little
timid boy James begged hard to be allowed to remain with him. Mrs. Reed
had hard work to coax him to come. Among other things, she promised that
when he reached California he should have a horse "all for himself," and
that he should never have to walk any more. This promise was literally
fulfilled. James F. Reed, Jr., since reaching California, has always had
a horse of his own. No matter what vicissitudes of fortune have
overtaken him, he has always kept a saddle horse.

Sad scenes were occurring at the cabin at Donner Lake and the tents at
Alder Creek. Starvation was fast claiming its victims. The poor
sufferers tried to be brave and trust God, but sometimes hope well-nigh
disappeared. The evening prayers were always read in Patrick Breen's
cabin, and all the inmates knelt and joined in the responses. Once when
they were thus praying, they heard the cries of wild geese flying over
the cabin. With one accord all raised their heads and listened for a
moment to the soul-inspiring sound. "Thank God, the spring is coming,"
was all Patrick Breen said, and again bowing their heads, the prayer was

Charles L. Cady, writing from Calistoga, says that Commodore Stockton
employed Greenwood and Turner to guide the second relief party over the
mountains to Donner Lake. Cady, Stone, and Clark, being young, vigorous
men, left their companions, or were sent forward by Reed, and reached
the cabins some hours in advance of the party. At one time, near the
present station of Summit Valley, Cady and Stone became bewildered,
thought they were lost, and wanted to return. Mr. Clark, however,
prevailed upon them to press forward, agreeing that if they did not
catch some glimpse of Donner Lake when they reached a certain mountain
top in the distance, he would give up and return with them. Had they
reached the mountain top they could not have seen the lake, and so would
have turned back, but while they were ascending, they came to the
lifeless body of C. T. Stanton sitting upright against a tree. There was
no longer room for doubting that they were going in the right direction
to reach Donner Lake. Poor Stanton! even in death he pointed out to the
relief party the way to the starving emigrants, to save whom he had
sacrificed his life.

Reed's diary continues:

"Feb. 28. Left camp about twelve o'clock at night, but was compelled to
camp about two o'clock, the snow still being soft. Left again about four
o'clock, all hands, and made this day fourteen miles. Encamped early;
snow very soft. The snow here is thirty feet deep. Three of my men,
Cady, Clark, and Stone, kept on during the night to within two miles of
the cabins, where they halted, and remained without fire during the
night, on account of having seen ten Indians. The boys did not have any
arms, and supposed these Indians had taken the cabins and destroyed the
people. In the morning they started, and reached the cabins. All were
alive in the houses. They gave provisions to Keseberg, Breen, Graves,
and Mrs. Murphy, and the two then left for Donner's, a distance of seven
miles, which they made by the middle of the day."

"March 1. I came up with the remainder of my party, and told the people
that all who were able should start day after to-morrow. Made soup for
the infirm, washed and clothed afresh Eddy's and Foster's children, and
rendered every assistance in my power. I left Mr. Stone with Keseberg's
people to cook, and to watch the eating of Mrs. Murphy, Keseberg, and
three children."

In Patrick Breen's diary is found the following:

"Feb. 23. Froze hard last night. To-day pleasant and thawy; has the
appearance of spring, all but the deep snow. Wind south-south-east. Shot
a dog to-day and dressed his flesh."

"Feb. 25. To-day Mrs. Murphy says the wolves are about to dig up the
dead bodies around her shanty, and the nights are too cold to watch
them, but we hear them howl."

"Feb. 26. Hungry times in camp; plenty of hides, but the folks will not
eat them; we eat them with tolerably good appetite, thanks to the
Almighty God. Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that she thought she would
commence on Milton and eat him. I do not think she has done so yet; it
is distressing. The Donners told the California folks four days ago that
they would commence on the dead people if they did not succeed that day
or the next in finding their cattle, then ten or twelve feet under the
snow, and they did not know the spot or near it; they have done it ere

"Feb. 28. One solitary Indian passed by yesterday; came from the lake;
had a heavy pack on his back; gave me five, or six roots resembling
onions in shape; tasted some like a sweet potato; full of tough little

"March 1. Ten men arrived this morning from Bear Valley, with
provisions. We are to start in two or three days, and cache our goods
here. They say the snow will remain until June."

This closes Patrick Breen's diary. Its record has always been considered
reliable. None of the statements made in this diary have ever been

The Indian spoken of refused to be interviewed. To quote the language of
Mr. John Breen, "he did not seem to be at all curious as to how or why
there was a white man alone (as it must have seemed to him) in the
wilderness of snow." The Indian was trudging along with a heavy pack on
his back. As soon as he saw Mr. Breen, he halted and warned him with a
gesture not to approach. Taking from the pack a few of the fibrous
roots, he laid them on the snow, still cautioning with his hand not to
approach until he was well out of reach. As soon as the Indian was gone,
Mr. Breen went out and got the roots, which were very palatable. It is
probable that this was one of the band of Indians seen by Clark, Cady,
and Stone.

When Patty and Thomas Reed had been returned to the cabins by Aquila
Glover, they had been received by the Breen family, where they remained
all the time until their father came. The Breen cabin was the first one
at which Mr. Reed arrived. His meeting with his daughter is thus
described by Mr. Eddy, in Thornton's work: "At this camp Mr. Reed saw
his daughter Patty sitting on the top of the snow with which the cabin
was covered. Patty saw her father at some distance, and immediately
started to run and meet him, but such was her weakness that she fell.
Her father took her up, and the affectionate girl, bathed in tears,
embraced and kissed him, exclaiming: 'Oh, papa! I never expected to see
you again when the cruel people drove you out of camp. But I knew that
God was good, and would do what was best. Is dear mamma living? Is Mr.
Glover living? Did you know that he was a Mason? Oh, my dear papa, I am
so happy to see you. Masons must be good men. Is Mr. Glover the same
sort of Mason we had in Springfield? He promised mamma upon the word of
a Mason that he would bring me and Tommy out of the mountains.' Mr. Reed
told Patty that Masons were everywhere the same, and that he had met her
mother and Mr. Glover, and had relieved him from his pledge, and that he
himself had come to her and little Tommy to redeem that pledge and to
take out all that were able to travel."

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