History of the Donner Party

The cub would have weighed about seventy pounds when killed; and now
that its flesh was nearly gone, there was really very little hope for
any one unless relief came speedily. In attempting to make their way
across the mountains, Clark and Baptiste did the wisest thing possible,
yet they well knew that they would perish by the way unless they met
relief.

Mrs. Tamsen Donner did not dare to leave her husband alone during the
night, but told Clark and Baptiste that she should endeavor to make the
journey to the cabins on the following day. It was a long, weary walk
over the pitiless snow, but she had before her yearning eyes not only
the picture of her starving children, but the fear that they were in
danger of a more cruel death than starvation.

Chapter XV.

A Mountain Storm
Provisions Exhausted
Battling the Storm-Fiends
Black Despair
Icy Coldness
A Picture of Desolation
The Sleep of Death
A Piteous Farewell
Falling into the Firewell
Isaac Donner’s Death
Living upon Snow-water
Excruciating Pain
A Vision of Angels
“Patty is Dying”
The Thumb of a Mitten
A Child’s Treasures
The “Dolly” of the Donner Party.

On the evening of the second day after leaving Donner Lake, Reed’s party
and the little band of famished emigrants found themselves in a cold,
bleak, uncomfortable hollow, somewhere near the lower end of Summit
Valley. Here the storm broke in all its fury upon the doomed company. In
addition to the cold, sleet-like snow, a fierce, penetrating wind seemed
to freeze the very marrow in their bones. The relief party had urged the
tired, hungry, enfeebled emigrants forward at the greatest possible
speed all day, in order to get as near the settlements as they could
before the storm should burst upon them. Besides, their provisions were
exhausted, and they were anxious to reach certain caches of supplies
which they had made while going to the cabins. Fearing that the storm
would prevent the party from reaching these caches, Mr. Reed sent Joseph
Jondro, Matthew Dofar, and Hiram Turner forward to the first cache, with
instructions to get the provisions and return to the suffering
emigrants. That very night the storm came, and the three men had not
been heard from.

The camp was in a most inhospitable spot. Exposed to the fury of the
wind and storm, shelterless, supperless, overwhelmed with
discouragements, the entire party sank down exhausted upon the snow. The
entire party? No! There was one man who never ceased to work. When a
fire had been kindled, and nearly every one had given up, this one man,
unaided, continued to strive to erect some sort of shelter to protect
the defenseless women and children. Planting large pine boughs in the
snow, he banked up the snow on either side of them so as to form a wall.
Hour after hour, in the darkness and raging storm, he toiled on alone,
building the sheltering breastwork which was to ward off death from the
party who by this time had crept shiveringly under its protection. But
for this shelter, all would have perished before morning. At midnight
the man was still at work. The darting snow particles seemed to cut his
eye-balls, and the glare of the fire and the great physical exhaustion
under which he was laboring, gradually rendered him blind. Like his
companions, he had borne a child in his arms all day over the soft,
yielding snow. Like them, he was drenched to the skin, and his clothing
was frozen stiff and hard with ice. Yet he kept up the fire, built a
great sheltering wall about the sufferers, and went here and there
amongst the wailing and dying. With unabated violence the storm
continued its relentless fury. The survivors say it was the coldest
night they ever experienced. There is a limit to human endurance. The
man was getting stone-blind. Had he attempted to speak, his tongue would
have cloven to the roof of his mouth. His senses were chilled, blunted,
dead. Sleep had stilled the plaintive cries of those about him. All was
silent save the storm. Without knowing it, this heroic man was yielding
to a sleep more powerful than that which had overcome his companions.
While trying to save those who were weaker than himself, he had been
literally freezing. Sightless, benumbed, moving half unconsciously about
his work, he staggered, staggered, staggered, and finally sank in the
snow. All slept! As he put no more fuel upon the fire, the flames died
down. The logs upon which the fire had rested gave way, and most of the
coals fell upon the snow. They were in almost total darkness.

Presently some one awoke. It was Mrs. Breen, whose motherly watchfulness
prevented more than a few consecutive moments’ sleep. The camp was
quickly aroused. All were nearly frozen. Hiram Miller’s hands were so
cold and frosted that the skin on the fingers cracked open when he tried
to split some kindlings. At last the fire was somehow renewed. Meantime
they had discovered their leader – he who had been working throughout
the night-lying cold, speechless, and apparently dead upon the snow.
Hiram Miller and Wm. McCutchen carried the man to the fire, chafed his
hands and limbs, rubbed his body vigorously, and worked with him as hard
as they could for two hours before he showed signs of returning
consciousness. Redoubling their exertions, they kept at work until the
cold, gray morning dawned, ere the man was fully restored. Would you
know the name of this man, this hero? It was James Frazier Reed.

From this time forward, all the toil, all the responsibility devolved
upon Wm. McCutchen and Hiram Miller. Jondro, Dofar, and Turner were
caught in the drifts ahead. The fishers or other wild animals had almost
completely devoured the first cache of provisions, and while these men
were trying to reach the second cache, the storm imprisoned them. They
could neither go forward nor return. Cady and Stone were between Donner
Lake and Starved Camp, and were in a like helpless condition. McCutchen
and Miller were the only ones able to do anything toward saving the poor
creatures who were huddled together at the miserable camp. All the other
men were completely disheartened by the fearful calamity which had
overtaken them. But for the untiring exertions of these two men, death
to all would have been certain. McCutchen had on four shirts, and yet he
became so chilled while trying to kindle the fire, that in getting warm
he burned the back out of his shirts. He only discovered the mishap by
the scorching and burning of his flesh.

What a picture of desolation was presented to the inmates of Starved
Camp during the next three days! It stormed incessantly. One who has not
witnessed a storm on the Sierra can not imagine the situation. A
quotation from Bret Harte’s “Gabriel Conroy” will afford the best idea
of the situation:

“Snow. Everywhere. As far as the eye could reach fifty miles, looking
southward from the highest white peak. Filling ravines and gulches, and
dropping from the walls of canyons in white shroud-like drifts,
fashioning the dividing ridge into the likeness of a monstrous grave,
hiding the bases of giant pines, and completely covering young trees and
larches, rimming with porcelain the bowl-like edges of still, cold
lakes, and undulating in motionless white billows to the edge of the
distant horizon. Snow lying everywhere on the California Sierra, and
still falling. It had been snowing in finely granulated powder, in damp,
spongy flakes, in thin, feathery plumes; snowing from a leaden sky
steadily, snowing fiercely, shaken out of purple-black clouds in white
flocculent masses, or dropping in long level lines like white lances
from the tumbled and broken heavens. But always silently! The woods were
so choked with it, it had so cushioned and muffled the ringing rocks and
echoing hills, that all sound was deadened. The strongest gust, the
fiercest blast, awoke no sigh or complaint from the snow-packed, rigid
files of forest. There was no cracking of bough nor crackle of
underbrush; the overladen branches of pine and fir yielded and gave away
without a sound. The silence was vast, measureless, complete!”

In alluding to these terrible days, in his diary, Mr. Reed says, under
date of March 6:

“With the snow there is a perfect hurricane. In the night there is a
great crying among the children, and even with the parents there is
praying, crying, and lamentation on account of the cold and the dread of
death from hunger and the howling storm. The men up nearly all night
making fires. Some of the men began praying. Several of them became
blind. I could not see the light of the fire blazing before me, nor tell
when it was burning. The light of heaven is, as it were, shut out from
us. The snow blows so thick and fast that we can not see twenty feet
looking against the wind. I dread the coming night. Three of my men
only, able to get wood. The rest have given out for the present. It is
still snowing, and very cold. So cold that the few men employed in
cutting the dry trees down, have to come and, warm about every ten
minutes. ‘Hungry!’ ‘Hungry!’ is the cry with the children, and nothing
to give them. ‘Freezing!’ is the cry of the mothers who have nothing for
their little, starving, freezing children. Night closing fast, and with
it the hurricane increases.

“Mar. 7. Thank God day has once more appeared, although darkened by the
storm. Snowing as fast as ever, and the hurricane has never ceased for
ten minutes at a time during one of the most dismal nights I have ever
witnessed. I hope I shall never witness another such in a similar
situation. Of all the praying and crying I ever heard, nothing ever
equaled it. Several times I expected to see the people perish of the
extreme cold. At one time our fire was nearly gone, and had it not been
for McCutchen’s exertions it would have entirely disappeared. If the
fire had been lost, two thirds of the camp would have been out of their
misery before morning; but, as God would have it, we soon had it blazing
comfortably, and the sufferings of the people became less for a time.
Hope began to animate the bosoms of many, young and old, when the
cheering blaze rose through the dry pine logs we had piled together. One
would say, ‘Thank God for the fire!’ Another, ‘How good it is!’ The
poor, little, half-starved, half-frozen children would say, ‘I’m glad,
I’m glad we have got some fire! Oh, how good it feels! It is good our
fire didn’t go out!’ At times the storm would burst forth with such fury
that I felt alarmed for the safety of the people on account of the tall
timber that surrounded us.”

Death entered the camp on the first night. He came to claim one who was
a true, faithful mother. One who merits greater praise than language can
convey. Though comparatively little has been told concerning her life by
the survivors, doubt not that Mrs. Elizabeth Graves was one of the
noblest of the mothers of the Donner Party. Her charity is kindly
remembered by all who have spoken her name. To her companions in
misfortune she always gave such food as she possessed; for her children
she now gave her life. The last morsels of food, the last grain of
flour, she had placed in the mouths of her babes, though she was dying
of starvation.

Mrs. Farnham, who talked personally with Mrs. Breen, gives the following
description of that terrible night:

“Mrs. Breen told me that she had her husband and five children together,
lying with their feet to the fire, and their heads under shelter of the
snow breast-work. She sat by them, with only moccasins on her feet, and
a blanket drawn over her shoulders and head, within which, and a shawl
she constantly wore, she nursed her poor baby on her knees. Her milk had
been gone several days, and the child was so emaciated and lifeless that
she scarcely expected at any time on opening the covering to find it
alive. Mrs. Graves lay with her babe and three or four older children at
the other side of the fire. The storm was very violent all night, and
she watched through it, dozing occasionally for a few minutes, and then
rousing herself to brush the snow and flying sparks from the covering of
the sleepers. Toward morning she heard one of the young girls opposite
call to her mother to cover her. The call was repeated several times
impatiently, when she spoke to the child, reminding her of the
exhaustion and fatigue her mother suffered in nursing and carrying the
baby, and bidding her cover herself, and let her mother rest. Presently
she heard the mother speak, in a quiet, unnatural tone, and she called
to one of the men near her to go and speak to her. He arose after a few
minutes and found the poor sufferer almost past speaking. He took her
infant, and after shaking the snow from her blanket, covered her as well
as might be. Shortly after, Mrs. Breen observed her to turn herself
slightly, and throw one arm feebly up, as if to go to sleep. She waited
a little while, and seeing her remain quite still, she walked around to
her. She was already cold in death. Her poor starving child wailed and
moaned piteously in the arms of its young sister, but the mother’s heart
could no more warm or nourish it.”

The members of the second relief party realized that they were
themselves in imminent danger of death. They were powerless to carry the
starving children over the deep, soft, treacherous snow, and it was
doubtful if they would be able to reach the settlements unencumbered.
Isaac Donner, one of the sons of Jacob and Elizabeth Donner, perished
during one of the stormy nights. He was lying on the bed of pine boughs
between his sister Mary and Patty Reed, and died so quietly that neither
of the sleeping girls awoke.

The relief party determined to set out over the snow, hasten to the
settlements, and send back relief. Solomon Hook, Jacob Donner’s oldest
boy, insisted that he was able to walk, and therefore joined the party.
Hiram Miller, an old friend of the Reed family, took little Thomas Reed
in his arms, and set out with the others. Patty Reed, full of hope and
courage, refused to be carried by her father, and started on foot.

With what emotions did the poor sufferers in Starved Camp watch the
party as it disappeared among the pines! There was no food in camp, and
death had already selected two of their number. What a pitiable group it
was! Could a situation more desolate or deplorable be imagined? Mr.
Breen, as has been heretofore mentioned, was feeble, sickly, and almost
as helpless as the children. Upon Mrs. Breen devolved the care, not only
of her husband, but of all who remained in the fatal camp, for all
others were children. John Breen, their eldest son, was the strongest
and most vigorous in the family, yet the following incident shows how
near he was to death’s door. It must have occurred the morning the
relief party left. The heat of the fire had melted a deep, round hole in
the snow. At the bottom of the pit was the fire. The men were able to
descend the sides of this cavity, and frequently did so to attend to the
fire. At one time, while William McCutchen was down by the fire, John
Breen was sitting on the end of one of the logs on which the fire had
originally been kindled. Several logs had been laid side by side, and
the fire had been built in the middle of the floor thus constructed.
While the central logs had burned out and let the fire descend, the
outer logs remained with their ends on the firm snow. On one of these
logs John Breen was sitting. Suddenly overcome by fatigue and hunger, he
fainted and dropped headlong into the fire-pit. Fortunately, Mr.
McCutchen caught the falling boy, and thus saved him from a horrible
death. It was some time before the boy was fully restored to
consciousness. Mrs. Breen had a small quantity of sugar, and a little
was placed between his clenched teeth. This seemed to revive him, and he
not only survived, but is living to-day, the head of a large family, in
San Benito County.

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