History of the Donner Party

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He reached the bottom safely, and presently spoke to her. There was
naked, dry earth under his feet; it was warm, and he wished her to come
down. She laid her baby beside some of the sleepers, and descended.
Immediately she determined upon taking them all down. How good, she
thought, as she descended the boughs, was the God whom she trusted. By
perseverance, by entreaty, by encouragement, and with her own aid, she
got them into this snug shelter.

Relief came not, and as starvation crept closer and closer to himself
and those about him, Patrick Breen determined that it was his duty to
employ the means of sustaining life which God seemed to have placed
before them. The lives of all might be saved by resorting to such food
as others, in like circumstances, had subsisted upon. Mrs. Breen,
however, declared that she would die, and see her children die, before
her life or theirs should be preserved by such means. If ever the father
gave to the dying children, it was without her consent or knowledge. She
never tasted, nor knew of her children partaking. Mrs. Farnham says that
when Patrick Breen ascended to obtain the dreadful repast, his wife,
frozen with horror, hid her face in her hands, and could not look up.
She was conscious of his return, and of something going on about the
fire, but she could not bring herself to uncover her eyes till all had
subsided again into silence. Her husband remarked that perhaps they were
wrong in rejecting a means of sustaining life of which others had
availed themselves, but she put away the suggestion so fearfully that it
was never renewed, nor acted upon by any of her family. She and her
children were now, indeed, reaching the utmost verge of life. A little
more battle with the grim enemies that had pursued them so relentlessly,
twenty-four, or at most forty-eight hours of such warfare, and all would
be ended. The infants still breathed, but were so wasted they could only
be moved by raising them bodily with the hands. It seemed as if even
their light weight would have dragged the limbs from their bodies.
Occasionally, through the day, she ascended the tree to look out. It was
an incident now, and seemed to kindle more life than when it only
required a turn of the head or a glance of the eye to tell that there
was no living thing near them. She could no longer walk on the snow, but
she had still strength enough to crawl from tree to tree to gather a few
boughs, which she threw along before her to the pit, and piled them in
to renew the fire. The eighth day was passed. On the ninth morning she
ascended to watch for her star of mercy. Clear and bright it stood over
against her beseeching gaze, set in the light liquid blue that overflows
the pathway of the opening day. She prayed earnestly as she gazed, for
she knew that there were but few hours of life in those dearest to her.
If human aid came not that day, some eyes, that would soon look
imploringly into hers, would be closed in death before that star would
rise again. Would she herself, with all her endurance and resisting
love, live to see it? Were they at length to perish? Great God! should
it be permitted that they, who had been preserved through so much,
should die at last so miserably?

Her eyes were dim, and her sight wavering. She could not distinguish
trees from men on the snow, but had they been near, she could have heard
them, for her ear had grown so sensitive that the slightest unaccustomed
noise arrested her attention. She went below with a heavier heart than
ever before. She had not a word of hope to answer the languid, inquiring
countenances that were turned to her face, and she was conscious that it
told the story of her despair. Yet she strove with some half-insane
words to suggest that somebody would surely come to them that day.
Another would be too late, and the pity of men's hearts and the mercy of
God would surely bring them. The pallor of death seemed already to be
stealing over the sunken countenances that surrounded her, and, weak as
she was, she could remain below but a few minutes together. She felt she
could have died had she let go her resolution at any time within the
last forty-eight hours. They repeated the Litany. The responses came so
feebly that they were scarcely audible, and the protracted utterances
seemed wearisome. At last it was over, and they rested in silence.

The sun mounted high and higher in the heavens, and when the day was
three or four hours old she placed her trembling feet again upon the
ladder to look out once more. The corpses of the dead lay always before
her as she reached the top-the mother and her son, and the little boy,
whose remains she could not even glance at since they had been
mutilated. The blanket that covered them could not shut out the horror
of the sight.

The rays of the sun fell on her with a friendly warmth, but she could
not look into the light that flooded the white expanse. Her eyes lacked
strength and steadiness, and she rested herself against a tree and
endeavored to gather her wandering faculties in vain. The enfeebled will
could no longer hold rule over them. She had broken perceptions,
fragments of visions, contradictory and mixed-former mingled with latter
times. Recollections of plenty and rural peace came up from her clear,
tranquil childhood, which seemed to have been another state of
existence; flashes of her latter life-its comfort and abundance-gleams
of maternal pride in her children who had been growing up about her to
ease and independence.

She lived through all the phases which her simple life had ever worn, in
the few moments of repose after the dizzy effort of ascending; as the
thin blood left her whirling brain and returned to its shrunken
channels, she grew more clearly conscious of the terrible present, and
remembered the weary quest upon which she came. It was not the memory of
thought, it was that of love, the old tugging at the heart that had
never relaxed long enough to say, "Now I am done; I can bear no more!"
The miserable ones down there - for them her wavering life came back; at
thought of them she turned her face listlessly the way it had so often
gazed. But this time something caused it to flush as if the blood, thin
and cold as it was, would burst its vessels! What was it? Nothing that
she saw, for her eyes were quite dimmed by the sudden access of
excitement! It was the sound of voices! By a superhuman effort she kept
herself from falling! Was it reality or delusion? She must at least live
to know the truth. It came again and again. She grew calmer as she
became more assured, and the first distinct words she heard uttered
were, "There is Mrs. Breen alive yet, anyhow!" Three men were advancing
toward her. She knew that now there would be no more starving. Death was
repelled for this time from the precious little flock he had so long
threatened, and she might offer up thanksgiving unchecked by the dreads
and fears that had so long frozen her.

Chapter XVII.

The Rescue
California Aroused
A Yerba Buena Newspaper
Tidings of Woe
A Cry of Distress
Noble Generosity
Subscriptions for the Donner Party
The First and Second Reliefs
Organization of the Third
The Dilemma
Voting to Abandon a Family
The Fatal Ayes
John Stark's Bravery
Carrying the Starved Children
A Plea for the Relief Party.

Foster and Eddy, it will be remembered, were of the fifteen who composed
the "Forlorn Hope." Foster was a man of strong, generous impulses, and
great determination. His boy was at Donner Lake, and his wife's mother
and brother. He hardly took time to rest and recruit his wasted strength
before he began organizing a party to go to their rescue. His efforts
were ably seconded by W. H. Eddy, whose wife and daughter had perished,
but whose boy was still alive at the cabins.

California was thoroughly aroused over tidings which had come from the
mountains. It was difficult to get volunteers to undertake the journey
over the Sierra, but horses, mules, provisions, and good wages were
allowed all who would venture the perilous trip. The trouble with Mexico
had caused many of the able-bodied citizens of California to enlist in
the service. Hence it was that it was so difficult to organize relief

The following extracts are made from the California Star, a newspaper
published at "Yerba Buena," as San Francisco was then called. They do
justice to the sentiment of the people of California, and indicate
something of the willingness of the pioneers to aid the Donner Party.
From the Star of January 16, 1847, is taken the following article, which
appeared as an editorial:

"Emigrants on the Mountains."

It is probably not generally known to the people that there is now in
the California mountains, in a most distressing situation, a party of
emigrants from the United States, who were prevented from crossing the
mountains by an early, heavy fall of snow. The party consists of about
sixty persons - men, women, and children. They were almost entirely out
of provisions when they reached the foot of the mountains, and but for
the timely succor afforded them by Capt. J. A. Sutter, one of the most
humane and liberal men in California, they must have all perished in a
few days. Capt. Sutter, as soon as he ascertained their situation, sent
five mules loaded with provisions to them. A second party was dispatched
with provisions for them, but they found the mountains impassable in
consequence of the snow. We hope that our citizens will do something for
the relief of these unfortunate people."

From the same source, under date of February 6, 1847, is taken the

"Public Meeting."

"It will be recollected that in a previous number of our paper, we
called the attention of our citizens to the situation of a company of
unfortunate emigrants now in the California mountains. For the purpose
of making their situation more fully known to the people, and of
adopting measures for their relief, a public meeting was called by the
Honorable Washington A. Bartlett, alcalde of the town, on Wednesday
evening last. The citizens generally attended, and in a very short time
the sum of $800 was subscribed to purchase provisions, clothing, horses,
and mules to bring the emigrants in. Committees were appointed to call
on those who could not attend the meeting, and there is no doubt but
that $500 or $600 more will be raised. This speaks well for Yerba

One other extract is quoted from the Star of February 13, 1847:

"Company Left."

"A company of twenty men left here on Sunday last for the California
mountains, with provisions, clothing, etc., for the suffering emigrants
now there. The citizens of this place subscribed about $1,500 for their
relief, which was expended for such articles as the emigrants would be
most likely to need. Mr. Greenwood, an old mountaineer, went with the
company as pilot. If it is possible to cross the mountains, they will
get to the emigrants in time to save them."

These three articles may aid the reader in better understanding what has
heretofore been said about the organization of the relief parties. It
will be remembered that James F. Reed and William McCutchen first
procured animals and provisions from Capt. Sutter, attempted to cross
the mountains, found the snow impassable, cached their provisions, and
returned to the valleys. Reed, as described in his letter to the Rural
Press, went to San Jose, Cal., and thence to Yerba Buena. McCutchen went
to Napa and Sonoma, and awakened such an interest that a subscription of
over $500 was subscribed for the emigrants, besides a number of horses
and mules. Lieut. W. L. Maury and M. G. Vallejo headed this
subscription, and $500 was promised to Greenwood if he succeeded in
raising a company, and in piloting them over the mountains. In order to
get men, Greenwood and McCutchen went to Yerba Buena, arriving there
almost at the same time with Reed. The above notices chronicle the
events which succeeded the announcement of their mission. The funds and
supplies contributed were placed in charge of Lieut. Woodworth. This
party set out immediately, and their journey has been described. They
form the second relief party, because immediately upon the arrival of
the seven who survived of the "Forlorn Hope," Capt. Tucker's party had
been organized at Johnson's and Sutter's, and had reached Dormer Lake

When Foster and Eddy attempted to form a relief party, they found the
same difficulty in securing volunteers which others had encountered. It
was such a terrible undertaking, that no man cared to risk his life in
the expedition.

Captain J. B. Hull, of the United States navy, and Commander of the
Northern District of California, furnished Foster and Eddy with horses
and provisions. Setting out from Johnson's ranch, they arrived at
Woodworth's camp in the afternoon. During that very night two of Reed's
men came to the camp, and brought news that Reed and a portion of his
party were a short distance back in the mountains. When Reed and his
companions were brought into camp, and it was ascertained that fourteen
people had been left in the snow, without food, the third relief party
was at once organized. The great danger and suffering endured by those
who had composed the first and second relief parties, prevented men from
volunteering. On this account greater honor is due those who determined
to peril their lives to save the emigrants. Hiram Miller, although weak
and exhausted with the fatigues and starvation he had just undergone in
the second relief party, joined Messrs. Foster and Eddy. These three,
with Wm. Thompson, John Stark, Howard Oakley, and Charles Stone, set out
from Woodworth's camp the next morning after Reed's arrival. It was
agreed that Stark, Oakley, and Stone were to remain with the sufferers
at Starved Camp, supply them with food, and conduct them to Woodworth's
camp. Foster, Eddy, Thompson, and Miller were to press forward to the
relief of those at Donner Lake. The three men, therefore, whose voices
reached Mrs. Breen, were Stark, Oakley, and Stone.

When these members of the third relief party reached the deep, well-like
cavity in which were the seven Breens, the three Graves children, and
Mary Donner, a serious question arose. None of the eleven, except Mrs.
Breen and John Breen, were able to walk. A storm appeared to be
gathering upon the mountains, and the supply of provisions was very
limited. The lonely situation, the weird, desolate surroundings, the
appalling scenes at the camp, and above all, the danger of being
overtaken by a snow-storm, filled the minds of Oakley and Stone with
terror. When it was found that nine out of the eleven people must be
carried over the snow, it is hardly to be wondered at that a proposition
was made to leave a portion of the sufferers. It was proposed to take
the three Graves children and Mary Donner. These four children would be
quite a sufficient burden for the three men, considering the snow over
which they must travel. The Breens, or at least such of them as could
not walk, were to be abandoned. This was equivalent to leaving the
father, mother, and five children, because the mother would not abandon
any member of her family, and John, who alone could travel, was in a
semi-lifeless condition. The members of the third relief party are said
to have taken a vote upon the question. This scene is described in the
manuscript of Hon. James F. Breen: "Those who were in favor of returning
to the settlements, and leaving the Breens for a future relief party
(which, under the circumstances, was equivalent to the death penalty),
were to answer 'aye.' The question was put to each man by name, and as
the names were called, the dreadful 'aye' responded. John Stark's name
was the last one called, because he had, during the discussion of the
question, strongly opposed the proposition for abandonment, and it was
naturally supposed that when he found himself in so hopeless a minority
he would surrender. When his name was called, he made no answer until
some one said to him: 'Stark, won't you vote?' Stark, during all this
proceeding of calling the roll, had stood apart from his companions with
bowed head and folded arms. When he was thus directly appealed to, he
answered quickly and decidedly: "No, gentlemen, I will not abandon these
people. I am here on a mission of mercy, and I will not half do the
work. You can all go if you want to, but I shall stay by these people
while they and I live."

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