The greatest precaution was taken to keep the suffering emigrants from
overeating. Cady, Stone, and Clark had distributed a small portion of
food to each of the famished beings. Patty Reed was intrusted with the
task of giving to each person a single biscuit. Taking the biscuits in
her apron she went in turn to each member of the company. Who shall
describe the rejoicings that were held over those biscuits? Several of
the survivors, in speaking of the subject, say that to their hungry eyes
these small pieces of bread assumed gigantic proportions. Never did the
largest loaves of bread look half so large. Patty Reed says that some of
the little girls cut their portions into thin slices, so as to eat them
slowly and enjoy them more completely.
The names of the members of this second relief party were James F. Reed,
Charles Cady, Charles Stone, Nicholas Clark, Joseph Jondro, Mathew
Dofar, John Turner, Hiram Miller, Wm. McCutchen, and Brit. Greenwood. A
portion of the party went to the Donner tents, and the remainder
assisted the emigrants in preparing to start over the mountains. The
distress and suffering at each camp was extreme. Even after the children
had received as much food as was prudent, it is said they would stretch
out their little arms and with cries and tears beg for something to eat.
Mrs. Murphy informed Mr. Reed that some of the children had been
confined to their beds for fourteen days. It was clearly to be seen that
very few of the sufferers could cross the Sierra without being almost
carried. They were too weak and helpless to walk. The threatening
appearance of the weather and the short supply of provisions urged the
party to hasten their departure, and it was quickly decided who should
go, and who remain. Those who started from Donner Lake on the third of
March with Mr. Reed and his party were Patrick Breen, Mrs. Margaret
Breen, John Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., James F. Breen, Peter Breen, and
Isabella M. Breen, Patty Reed and Thomas Reed, Isaac Donner and Mary M.
Donner, Solomon Hook, Mrs. Elizabeth Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan
Graves, Franklin Graves, and Elizabeth Graves, Jr. Many of the younger
members of this party had to be carried. All were very much weakened and
emaciated, and it was evident that the journey over the mountains would
be slow and painful. In case a storm should occur on the summits, it was
fearfully apparent that the trip would be exceedingly perilous.
Reed’s party encamped the first night near the upper end of Donner Lake.
They had scarcely traveled three miles. Upon starting from the Graves
cabin, Mrs. Graves had taken with her a considerable sum of money. This
money, Mr. McCutchen says, had been ingeniously concealed in auger holes
bored in cleats nailed to the bed of the wagon. These cleats, as W. C.
Graves informs us, were ostensibly placed in the wagon-bed to support a
table carried in the back part of the wagon. On the under side of these
cleats, however, were the auger-holes, carefully filled with coin. The
sum is variously stated at from three to five hundred dollars. At the
camping-ground, near the upper end of Donner Lake, one of the relief
party jokingly proposed to another to play a game of euchre to see who
should have Mrs. Graves’ money. The next morning, Mrs. Graves remained
behind when the party started, and concealed her money. All that is
known is, that she buried it behind a large rock on the north side of
Donner Lake. So far as is known, this money has never been recovered,
but still lies hidden where it was placed by Mrs. Graves.
Leaving Three Men in the Mountains
The Emigrants Quite Helpless
Bear Tracks in the Snow
The Clumps of Tamarack
Wounding a Bear
Bloodstains upon the Snow
A Weary Chase
A Momentous Day
Stone and Cady Leave the Sufferers
A Mother Offering Five Hundred Dollars
Mrs. Donner Parting from her Children
“God will Take Care of You”
Buried in the Snow, without Food or Fire
Pines Uprooted by the Storm
A Grave Cut in the Snow
The Cub’s Cave
Firing at Random
A Desperate Undertaking
Preparing for a Hand-to-Hand Battle
Precipitated into the Cave
Seizing the Bear
Mrs. Elizabeth Donner’s Death
Clark and Baptiste Attempt to Escape
A Death more Cruel than Starvation.
Before Reed’s party started to return, a consultation was held, and it
was decided that Clark, Cady, and Stone should remain at the mountain
camps. It was intended that these men should attend to procuring wood,
and perform such other acts as would assist the almost helpless
sufferers. It was thought that a third relief party could be sent out in
a few days to get all the emigrants who remained.
Nicholas Clark, who now resides in Honey Lake Valley, Lassen County,
California, says that as he and Cady were going to the Donner tents,
they saw the fresh tracks of a bear and cub crossing the road. In those
days, there were several little clumps of tamarack along Alder Creek,
just below the Donner tents, and as the tracks led towards these, Mr.
Clark procured a gun and started for an evening’s hunt among the
tamaracks. He found the bear and her cub within sight of the tents, and
succeeded in severely wounding the old bear. She was a black bear, of
medium size. For a long distance, over the snow and through the forests,
Clark followed the wounded animal and her cub. The approach of darkness
at last warned him to desist, and returning to the tents, he passed the
night. Early next morning, Clark again set out in pursuit of the bear,
following her readily by the blood-stains upon the snow. It was another
windy, cloudy, threatening day, and there was every indication that a
severe storm was approaching. Eagerly intent upon securing his game, Mr.
Clark gave little heed to weather, or time, or distance. The endurance
of the wounded animal was too great, however, and late in the afternoon
he realized that it was necessary for him to give up the weary chase,
and retrace his steps. He arrived at the tents hungry, tired, and
footsore, long after dark.
That day, however, had been a momentous one at the Donner tents. Stone
had come over early in the morning, and he and Cady concluded that it
was sheer madness for them to remain in the mountains. That a terrible
storm was fast coming on, could not be doubted. The provisions were
almost exhausted, and if they remained, it would only be to perish with
the poor emigrants. They therefore concluded to attempt to follow and
overtake Reed and his companions.
Mrs. Tamsen Donner was able to have crossed the mountains with her
children with either Tucker’s or Reed’s party. On account of her
husband’s illness, however, she had firmly refused all entreaties, and
had resolutely determined to remain by his bedside. She was extremely
anxious, however, that her children should reach California; and Hiram
Miller relates that she offered five hundred dollars to any one in the
second relief party, who would take them in safety across the mountains.
When Cady and Stone decided to go, Mrs. Donner induced them to attempt
the rescue of these children, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza. They took the
children as far the cabins at the lake, and left them. Probably they
became aware of the impossibility of escaping the storm, and knew that
it would be sure death, for both themselves and the children, should
they take them any farther. In view of the terrible calamity which
befell Reed’s party on account of this storm, and the fact that Cady and
Stone had a terrible struggle for life, every one must justify these men
in leaving the children at the cabins. The parting between the devoted
mother and her little ones is thus briefly described by Georgia Donner,
now Mrs. Babcock: “The men came. I listened to their talking as they
made their agreement. Then they took us, three little girls, up the
stone steps, and stood us on the bank. Mother came, put on our hoods and
cloaks, saying, as if she was talking more to herself than to us: ‘I may
never see you again, but God will take care of you.’ After traveling a
few miles, they left us on the snow, went ahead a short distance, talked
one to another, then came back, took us as far as Keseberg’s cabin, and
Mr. Cady recalls the incident of leaving the children on the snow, but
says the party saw a coyote, and were attempting to get a shot at the
When Nicholas Clark awoke on the morning of the third day, the tent was
literally buried in freshly fallen snow. He was in what is known as
Jacob Donner’s tent. Its only occupants besides himself were Mrs.
Elizabeth Donner, her son Lewis, and the Spanish boy, John Baptiste.
George Donner and wife were in their own tent, and with them was Mrs.
Elizabeth Donner’s youngest child, Samuel. Mr. Clark says he can not
remember how long the storm lasted, but it seems as if it must have been
at least a week. The snow was so deep that it was impossible to procure
wood, and during all those terrible days and nights there was no fire in
either of the tents. The food gave out the first day, and the dreadful
cold was rendered more intense by the pangs of hunger. Sometimes the
wind would blow like a hurricane, and they could plainly hear the great
pines crashing on the mountain side above them, as the wind uprooted
them and hurled them to the ground. Sometimes the weather would seem to
moderate, and the snow would melt and trickle in under the sides of the
tent, wetting their clothes and bedding, and increasing the misery of
When the storm cleared away, Clark found himself starving like the rest.
He had really become one of the Donner Party, and was as certain to
perish as were the unfortunates about him. It would necessarily be
several days before relief could possibly arrive, and utter despair
seemed to surround them. Just as the storm was closing, Lewis Donner
died, and the poor mother was well-nigh frantic with grief. As soon as
she could make her way to the other tent, she carried her dead babe over
and laid it in Mrs. George Donner’s lap. With Clark’s assistance, they
finally laid the child away in a grave cut out of the solid snow.
In going to a tamarack grove to get some wood, Mr. Clark was surprised
to find the fresh track of the bear cub, which had recrossed Alder Creek
and ascended the mountain behind the tents. It was doubtless the same
one whose mother he had wounded. The mother had probably died, and after
the storm the cub had returned. Mr. Clark at once followed it, tracking
it far up the mountain side to a cliff of rocks, and losing the trail at
the mouth of a small, dark cave. He says that all hope deserted him when
he found that the cub had gone into the cave. He sat down upon the snow
in utter despair. It was useless to return to the tents without food; he
might as well perish upon the mountain side. After reflecting for some
time upon the gloomy situation, he concluded to fire his gun into the
cave, and see if the report might not frighten out the cub. He placed
the muzzle of the gun as far down into the cave as he could, and fired.
When the hollow reverberation died away among the cliffs, no sound
disturbed the brooding silence. The experiment had failed. He seriously
meditated whether he could not watch the cave day and night until the
cub should be driven out by starvation. But suddenly a new idea occurred
to him. Judging from the track, and from the size of the cub he had
seen, Mr. Clark concluded that it was possible he might be able to enter
the cave and kill the cub in a hand-to-hand fight. It was a desperate
undertaking, but it was preferable to death from starvation. He
approached the narrow opening, and tried again to peer into the cave and
ascertain its depth. As he was thus engaged the snow suddenly gave way,
and he was precipitated bodily into the cave. He partly fell, partly
slid to the very bottom of the hole in the rocks. In endeavoring to
regain an erect posture, his hand struck against some furry animal.
Instinctively recoiling, he waited for a moment to see what it would do.
Coming from the dazzling sunlight into the darkness, he could see
nothing whatever. Presently he put out his foot and again touched the
animal. Finding that it did not move, he seized hold of it and found
that it was the cub-dead! His random shot had pierced its brain, and it
had died without a struggle. The cave or opening in the rocks was not
very deep, and after a long time he succeeded in dragging his prize to
There was food in the Donner tents from this time forward. It came too
late, however, to save Mrs. Elizabeth Donner or her son Samuel. This
mother was quite able to have crossed the mountains with either of the
two relief parties; but, as Mrs. E. P. Houghton writes: “Her little boys
were too young to walk through the deep snows, she was not able to carry
them, and the relief parties were too small to meet such emergencies.
She stayed with them, hoping some way would be provided for their
rescue. Grief, hunger, and disappointed hopes crushed her spirit, and so
debilitated her that death came before the required help reached her or
her children. For some days before her death she was so weak that Mrs.
George Donner and the others had to feed her as if she had been a child.
At last, one evening, as the sun went down, she closed her eyes and
awoke no more. Her life had been sacrificed for her children. Could
words be framed to express a more fitting tribute to her memory! Does
not the simple story of this mother’s love wreathe a chaplet of glory
about her brow far holier than could be fashioned by human hands!
Samuel Donner lingered but a few days longer. Despite the tenderest care
and attention, he grew weaker day by day, until he slept by the side of
his mother and brother in their snowy grave.
All this time Mrs. Tamsen Donner was tortured with fear and dread, lest
her children had perished in the dreadful storm on the summits. At last
Clark yielded to her importunities, and decided to visit the cabins at
Donner Lake, and see if there was any news from beyond the Sierra. Clark
found the children at Keseberg’s cabin, and witnessed such scenes of
horror and suffering that he determined at once to attempt to reach
California. Returning to Alder Creek, he told Mrs. Donner of the
situation of her children, and says he informed her that he believed
their lives were in danger of a death more violent than starvation. He
informed her of his resolution to leave the mountains, and taking a
portion of the little meat that was left, he at once started upon his
journey. John Baptiste accompanied him.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.