History of the Donner Party

Mrs. Breen’s younger children, Patrick, James, Peter, and the nursing
babe, Isabella, were completely helpless and dependent. Not less
helpless were the orphan children of Mr. and Mrs. Graves. Nancy was only
about nine years old, and upon her devolved the task of caring for the
babe, Elizabeth. Nancy Graves is now the wife of the earnest and
eloquent divine, Rev. R. W. Williamson, of Los Gatos, Santa Clara
County. To her lasting honor be it said, that although she was dying of
hunger in Starved Camp, yet she faithfully tended, cared for, and saved
her baby sister. Aside from occasional bits of sugar, this baby and Mrs.
Breen’s had nothing for an entire week, save snow-water. Besides Nancy
and Elizabeth, there were of the Graves children, Jonathan, aged seven,
and Franklin, aged five years. Franklin soon perished. Starvation and
exposure had so reduced his tiny frame, that he could not endure these
days of continual fasting.

Mary M. Donner, whom all mention as one of the most lovely girls in the
Donner Party, met with a cruel accident the night before the relief
party left Starved Camp. Her feet had become frozen and insensible to
pain. Happening to lie too near the fire, one of her feet became
dreadfully burned. She suffered excruciating agony, yet evinced
remarkable fortitude. She ultimately lost four toes from her left foot,
on account of this sad occurrence.

Seven of the Breens, Mary Donner, and the three children of Mr. and Mrs.
Graves, made the eleven now waiting for relief at Starved Camp. Mrs.
Graves, her child Franklin, and the boy, Isaac Donner, who lay stark in
death upon the snow, completed the fourteen who were left by the relief
party.

Meantime, how fared it with those who were pressing forward toward the
settlements? At each step they sank two or three feet into the snow. Of
course those who were ahead broke the path, and the others, as far as
possible, stepped in their tracks. This, Patty Reed could not do,
because she was too small. So determined was she, however, that despite
the extra exertion she was compelled to undergo, she would not admit
being either cold or fatigued. Patty Reed has been mentioned as only
eight years old. Many of the survivors speak of her, however, in much
the same terms as John Breen, who says: “I was under the impression that
she was older. She had a wonderful mind for one of her age. She had, I
have often thought, as much sense as a grown person.” Over Patty’s
large, dark eyes, on this morning, gradually crept a film. Previous
starvation had greatly attenuated her system, and she was far too weak
to endure the hardship she had undertaken. Gradually the snow-mantled
forests, the forbidding mountains, the deep, dark canyon of Bear River,
and even the forms of her companions, faded from view. In their stead
came a picture of such glory and brightness as seldom comes to human
eyes. It was a vision of angels and of brilliant stars. She commenced
calling her father, and those with him, and began talking about the
radiant forms that hovered over her. Her wan, pale face was illumined
with smiles, and with an ecstasy of joy she talked of the angels and
stars, and of the happiness she experienced. “Why, Reed,” exclaimed
McCutchen, “Patty is dying!” And it was too true.

For a few moments the party forgot their own sufferings and trials, and
ministered to the wants of the spiritual child, whose entrance into the
dark valley had been heralded by troops of white-winged angels. At
Starved Camp, Reed had taken the hard, frozen sacks in which the
provisions had been carried, and by holding them to the fire had thawed
out the seams, and scraped therefrom about a teaspoonful of crumbs.
These he had placed in the thumb of his woolen mitten to be used in case
of emergency. Little did he suppose that the emergency would come so
soon. Warming and moistening these crumbs between his own lips, the
father placed them in his child’s mouth. Meantime they had wrapped a
blanket around her chilled form, and were busily chafing her hands and
feet. Her first return to consciousness was signaled by the regrets she
expressed at having been awakened from her beautiful dream. To this day
she cherishes the memory of that vision as the dearest, most enchanting
of all her life. After this, some of the kindhearted Frenchmen in the
party took turns with Reed in carrying Patty upon their backs.

Past-midshipman S. E. Woodworth is a name that in most published
accounts figures conspicuously among the relief parties organized to
rescue the Donner Party. At the time Reed and his companions were
suffering untold horrors on the mountains, and those left at Starved
Camp were perishing of starvation, Woodworth, with an abundance of
supplies, was lying idle in camp at Bear Valley. This was the part that
Selim E. Woodworth took in the relief of the sufferers.

The three men who had been sent forward to the caches, left the remnant
of the provisions which had not been destroyed, where it could easily be
seen by Reed and his companions. Hurrying forward, they reached
Woodworth’s camp, and two men, John Stark and Howard Oakley, returned
and met Reed’s party. It was quite time. With frozen feet and exhausted
bodies, the members of the second relief were in a sad plight. They left
the settlements strong, hearty men. They returned in a half-dead
condition. Several lost some of their toes on account of having them
frozen, and one or two were crippled for life. They had been three days
on the way from Starved Camp to Woodworth’s. Cady and Stone overtook
Reed and his companions on the second day after leaving Starved Camp. On
the night of the third day, they arrived at Woodworth’s.

When Patty Reed reached Woodworth’s and had been provided with suitable
food, an incident occurred which fully illustrates the tenderness and
womanliness of her nature. Knowing that her mother and dear ones were
safe, knowing that relief would speedily return to those on the
mountains, realizing that for her there was to be no more hunger, or
snow, and that she would no longer be separated from her father, her
feelings may well be imagined. In her quiet joy she was not wholly
alone. Hidden away in her bosom, during all the suffering and agony of
the journey over the mountains, were a number of childish treasures.
First, there was a lock of silvery gray hair which her own hand had cut
from the head of her Grandmother Keyes way back on the Big Blue River.
Patty had always been a favorite with her grandma, and when the latter
died, Patty secured this lock of hair. She tied it up in a little piece
of old-fashioned lawn, dotted with wee blue flowers, and always carried
it in her bosom. But this was not all. She had a dainty little glass
salt-cellar, scarcely larger than the inside of a humming-bird’s nest,
and, what was more precious than this, a tiny, wooden doll. This doll
had been her constant companion. It had black eyes and hair, and was
indeed very pretty. At Woodworth’s camp, Patty told “Dolly” all her joy
and gladness, and who can not pardon the little girl for thinking her
dolly looked happy as she listened?

Patty Reed is now Mrs. Frank Lewis, of San Jose, Cal. She has a pleasant
home and a beautiful family of children. Yet oftentimes the mother, the
grown-up daughters, and the younger members of the family, gather with
tear-dimmed eyes about a little sacred box. In this box is the lock of
hair in the piece of lawn, the tiny salt-cellar, the much loved “Dolly,”
and an old woolen mitten, in the thumb of which are yet the traces of
fine crumbs.

Chapter XVI.

A Mother at Starved Camp
Repeating the Litany
Hoping in Despair
Wasting Away
The Precious Lump of Sugar
“James is Dying”
Restoring a Life
Relentless Hunger
The Silent Night-Vigils
The Sight of Earth
Descending the Snow-Pit
The Flesh of the Dead
Refusing to Eat
The Morning Star
The Mercy of God
The Mutilated Forms
The Dizziness of Delirium
Faith Rewarded
“There is Mrs. Breen!”

Very noble was the part which Mrs. Margaret Breen performed in this
Donner tragedy, and very beautifully has that part been recorded by a
woman’s hand. It is written so tenderly, so delicately, and with so
much reverence for the maternal love which alone sustained Mrs. Breen,
that it can hardly be improved. This account was published by its
author, Mrs. Farnham, in 1849, and is made the basis of the following
sketch. With alterations here and there, made for the sake of brevity,
the article is as it was written:

There was no food in Starved Camp. There was nothing to eat save a few
seeds, tied in bits of cloth, that had been brought along by some one,
and the precious lump of sugar. There were also a few teaspoonfuls of
tea. They sat and lay by the fire most of the day, with what heavy
hearts, who shall know! They were upon about thirty feet of snow. The
dead lay before them, a ghastlier sight in the sunshine that succeeded
the storm, than when the dark clouds overhung them. They had no words of
cheer to speak to each other, no courage or hope to share, but those
which pointed to a life where hunger and cold could never come, and
their benumbed faculties were scarcely able to seize upon a consolation
so remote from the thoughts and wants that absorbed their whole being.

A situation like this will not awaken in common natures religious trust.
Under such protracted suffering, the animal outgrows the spiritual in
frightful disproportion. Yet the mother’s sublime faith, which had
brought her thus far through her agonies, with a heart still warm toward
those who shared them, did not fail her now. She spoke gently to one and
another; asked her husband to repeat the litany, and the children to
join her in the responses; and endeavored to fix their minds upon the
time when the relief would probably come. Nature, as unerringly as
philosophy could have done, taught her that the only hope of sustaining
those about her, was to set before them a termination to their
sufferings.

What days and nights were those that went by while they waited! Life
waning visibly in those about her; not a morsel of food to offer them;
her own infant – and the little one that had been cherished and saved
through all by the mother now dead-wasting hourly into the more perfect
image of death; her husband worn to a skeleton; it needed the fullest
measure of exalted faith, of womanly tenderness and self-sacrifice, to
sustain her through such a season. She watched by night as well as by
day. She gathered wood to keep them warm. She boiled the handful of tea
and dispensed it to them, and when she found one sunken and speechless,
she broke with her teeth a morsel of the precious sugar, and put it in
his lips. She fed her babe freely on snow-water, and scanty as was the
wardrobe she had, she managed to get fresh clothing next to its skin two
or three times a week. Where, one asks in wonder and reverence, did she
get the strength and courage for all this? She sat all night by her
family, her elbows on her knees, brooding over the meek little victim
that lay there, watching those who slept, and occasionally dozing with a
fearful consciousness of their terrible condition always upon her. The
sense of peril never slumbered. Many times during the night she went to
the sleepers to ascertain if they all still breathed. She put her hand
under their blankets, and held it before the mouth. In this way she
assured herself that they were yet alive. But once her blood curdled to
find, on approaching her hand to the lips of one of her own children,
there was no warm breath upon it. She tried to open his mouth, and found
the jaws set. She roused her husband, “Oh! Patrick, man! arise and help
me! James is dying!” “Let him die!” said the miserable father, “he will
be better off than any of us.” She was terribly shocked by this reply.
In her own expressive language, her heart stood still when she heard it.
She was bewildered, and knew not where to set her weary hands to work,
but she recovered in a few moments and began to chafe the breast and
hands of the perishing boy. She broke a bit of sugar, and with
considerable effort forced it between his teeth with a few drops of
snow-water. She saw him swallow, then a slight convulsive motion stirred
his features, he stretched his limbs feebly, and in a moment more opened
his eyes and looked upon her. How fervent were her thanks to the Great
Father, whom she forgot not day or night.

Thus she went on. The tea leaves were eaten, the seeds chewed, the sugar
all dispensed. The days were bright, and compared with the nights,
comfortable. Occasionally, when the sun shone, their voices were heard,
though generally they sat or lay in a kind of stupor from which she
often found it alarmingly difficult to arouse them. When the gray
evening twilight drew its deepening curtain over the cold glittering
heavens and the icy waste, and when the famishing bodies had been
covered from the frost that pinched them with but little less keenness
than the unrelenting hunger, the solitude seemed to rend her very brain.
Her own powers faltered. But she said her prayers over many times in the
darkness as well as the light, and always with renewed trust in Him who
had not yet forsaken her, and thus she sat out her weary watch. After
the turning of the night she always sat watching for the morning star,
which seemed every time she saw it rise clear in the cold eastern sky,
to renew the promise, “As thy day is, so shall thy strength be.”

Their fire had melted the snow to a considerable depth, and they were
lying on the bank above. Thus they had less of its heat than they
needed, and found some difficulty in getting the fuel she gathered
placed so it would burn. One morning after she had hailed her messenger
of promise, and the light had increased so as to render objects visible
in the distance, she looked as usual over the white expanse that lay to
the south-west, to see if any dark moving specks were visible upon its
surface. Only the tree-tops, which she had scanned so often as to be
quite familiar with their appearance, were to be seen. With a heavy
heart she brought herself back from that distant hope to consider what
was immediately about her. The fire had sunk so far away that they had
felt but little of its warmth the last two nights, and casting her eyes
down into the snow-pit, whence it sent forth only a dull glow, she
thought she saw the welcome face of beloved mother Earth. It was such a
renewing sight after their long, freezing separation from it She
immediately aroused her eldest son, John, and with a great deal of
difficulty, and repeating words of cheer and encouragement, brought him
to understand that she wished him to descend by one of the tree-tops
which had fallen in so as to make a sort of ladder, and see if they
could reach the naked earth, and if it were possible for them all to go
down. She trembled with fear at the vacant silence in which he at first
gazed at her, but at length, after she had told him a great many times,
he said “Yes, mother,” and went.

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