History of the Donner Party

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On the sixth day of September they reached a meadow in a valley called
"Twenty Wells," as there were that number of wells of various sizes,
from six inches to several feet in diameter. The water in these wells
rose even with the surface of the ground, and when it was drawn out the
wells soon refilled. The water was cold and pure, and peculiarly welcome
after the saline plains and alkaline pools they had just passed. Wells
similar to these were found during the entire journey of the following
day, and the country through which they were passing abounded in
luxuriant grass. Reaching the confines of the Salt Lake Desert, which
lies southwest of the lake, they laid in, as they supposed, an ample
supply of water and grass. This desert had been represented by Bridger
and Vasquez as being only about fifty miles wide. Instead, for a
distance of seventy-five miles there was neither water nor grass, but
everywhere a dreary, desolate, alkaline waste. Verily, it was

"A region of drought, where no river glides,
Nor rippling brook with osiered sides;
Where sedgy pool, nor bubbling fount,
Nor tree, nor cloud, nor misty mount
Appears to refresh the aching eye,
But the barren earth and the burning sky,
And the blank horizon round and round
Spread, void of living sight or sound."

When the company had been on the desert two nights and one day, Mr. Reed
volunteered to go forward, and, if possible, to discover water. His
hired teamsters were attending to his teams and wagons during his
absence. At a distance of perhaps twenty miles he found the desired
water, and hastened to return to the train. Meantime there was intense
suffering in the party. Cattle were giving out and lying down helplessly
on the burning sand, or frenzied with thirst were straying away into the
desert. Having made preparations for only fifty miles of desert, several
persons came near perishing of thirst, and cattle were utterly powerless
to draw the heavy wagons. Reed was gone some twenty hours. During this
time his teamsters had done the wisest thing possible, unhitched the
oxen and started to drive them ahead until water was reached. It was
their intention, of course, to return and get the three wagons and the
family, which they had necessarily abandoned on the desert. Reed passed
his teamsters during the night, and hastened to the relief of his
deserted family. One of his teamster's horses gave out before morning
and lay down, and while the man's companions were attempting to raise
him, the oxen, rendered unmanageable by their great thirst, disappeared
in the desert. There were eighteen of these oxen. It is probable they
scented water, and with the instincts of their nature started out to
search for it. They never were found, and Reed and his family,
consisting of nine persons, were left destitute in the midst of the
desert, eight hundred miles from California. Near morning, entirely
ignorant of the calamity which had befallen him in the loss of his
cattle, he reached his family. All day long they looked and waited in
vain for the returning teamsters. All the rest of the company had driven
ahead, and the majority had reached water. Toward night the situation
grew desperate. The scanty supply of water left with the family was
almost gone, and another day on the desert would mean death to all he
held dear. Their only way left was to set out on foot. He took his
youngest child in his arms, and the family started to walk the twenty
miles. During this dreadful night some of the younger children became so
exhausted that, regardless of scoldings or encouragements, they lay down
on the bleak sands. Even rest, however, seemed denied the little
sufferers, for a chilling wind began sweeping over the desert, and
despite their weariness and anguish, they were forced to move forward.
At one time during the night the horror of the situation was changed to
intense fright. Through the darkness came a swift-rushing animal, which
Reed soon recognized as one of his young steers. It was crazed and
frenzied with thirst, and for some moments seemed bent upon dashing into
the frightened group. Finally, however, it plunged madly away into the
night, and was seen no more. Reed suspected the calamity which had
prevented the return of the teamsters, but at the moment, the imminent
peril surrounding his wife and children banished all thought of worrying
about anything but their present situation. God knows what would have
become of them had they not, soon after daylight, discovered the wagon
of Jacob Donner. They were received kindly by his family, and conveyed
to where the other members of the party were camped. For six or eight
days the entire company remained at this spot. Every effort was made to
find Reed's lost cattle. Almost every man in the train was out in the
desert, searching in all directions. This task was attended with both
difficulty and danger; for when the sun shone, the atmosphere appeared
to distort and magnify objects so that at the distance of a mile every
stone or bush would appear the size of an ox. Several of the men came
near dying for want of water during this search. The desert mirage
disclosed against the horizon, clear, distinct, and perfectly outlined
rocks, mountain peaks, and tempting lakelets. Each jagged cliff, or
pointed rock, or sharply-curved hill-top, hung suspended in air as
perfect and complete as if photographed on the sky. Deceived, deluded by
these mirages, in spite of their better judgment, several members of the
company were led far out into the pathless depths of the desert.

The outlook for Reed was gloomy enough. One cow and one ox were the only
stock he had remaining. The company were getting exceedingly impatient
over the long delay, yet be it said to their honor, they encamped on the
western verge of the desert until every hope of finding Reed's cattle
was abandoned. Finally, F. W. Graves and Patrick Breen each lent an ox
to Mr. Reeds and by yoking up his remaining cow and ox, he had two yoke
of cattle. "Cacheing," or concealing such of his property on the desert,
as could not be placed in one wagon, he hitched the two yoke of cattle
to this wagon and proceeded on the journey. The word cache occurs so
frequently in this history that a brief definition of the interesting
process of cacheing might not be amiss. The cache of goods or valuables
was generally made in a wagon bed, if one, as in the present instance,
was to be abandoned. A square hole, say six feet in depth, was dug in
the earth, and in the bottom of this the box or wagon bed containing the
articles was placed. Sand, soil, or clay of the proper stratum was
filled in upon this, so as to just cover the box from sight. The ground
was then tightly packed or trampled, to make it resemble, as much as
possible, the earth in its natural state. Into the remaining hole would
be placed such useless articles as could be spared, such as old tins,
cast-off clothing, broken furniture, etc., and upon these the earth was
thrown until the surface of the ground was again level. These
precautions were taken to prevent the Indians from discovering and
appropriating the articles cached. It was argued that the Indians, when
digging down, would come to the useless articles, and not thinking there
was treasure further down would abandon the task. "But," says Hon. James
F. Breen, in speaking on this subject, "I have been told by parties who
have crossed the plains, that in no case has the Indian been deceived by
the emigrant's silent logic." The Indians would leave nothing
underground, not even the dead bodies buried from time to time. One of
the trains in advance of the Donner Party buried two men in one grave,
and succeeding parties found each of the bodies unearthed, and were
compelled to repeat the last sad rites of burial.

Before the Donner Party started from the Desert camp, an inventory of
the provisions on hand was accurately taken, and an estimate was made of
the quantity required for each family, and it was found that there was
not enough to carry the emigrants through to California. As if to render
more emphatic the terrible situation of the party, a storm came during
their last night at the camp, and in the morning the hill-tops were
white with snow. It was a dreadful reminder of the lateness of the
season, and the bravest hearts quailed before the horrors they knew must
await them. A solemn council was held. It was decided that some one must
leave the train, press eagerly forward to California, and obtaining a
supply of provisions, return and meet the party as far back on the route
as possible. It was a difficult undertaking, and perilous in the
extreme. A call was made for volunteers, and after a little reflection
two men offered their services. One was Wm. McCutchen, who had joined
the train from Missouri, and the other was C. T. Stanton, of Chicago, a
man who afterwards proved himself possessed of the sublimest heroism.
Taking each a horse, they received the tearful, prayerful farewells of
the doomed company, and set out upon their solitary journey.

Would they return? If they reached the peaceful, golden valleys of
California, would they turn back to meet danger, and storms, and death,
in order to bring succor to those on the dreary desert? McCutchen might
come, because he left dear ones with the train, but would Stanton
return? Stanton was young and unmarried. There were no ties or
obligations to prompt his return, save his plighted word and the
dictates of honor and humanity.

They bore letters from the Donner Party to Captain Sutter, who was in
charge at Sutter's Fort. These letters were prayers for relief, and it
was believed would secure assistance from the generous old Captain.
Every eye followed Stanton and McCutchen until they disappeared in the
west. Soon afterward the train resumed its toilsome march.

Chapter IV.

Gravelly Ford
The Character of James F. Reed
Causes Which Led to the Reed-Snyder Tragedy
John Snyder's Popularity
The Fatal Altercation
Conflicting Statements of Survivors
Snyder's Death
A Brave Girl
A Primitive Trial
A Court of Final Resort
Verdict of Banishment
A Sad Separation
George and Jacob Donner Ahead at the Time
Finding Letters in Split Sticks
Danger of Starvation.

Gravelly ford, on the Humboldt River, witnessed a tragedy which greatly
agitated the company. Its results, as will be seen, materially affected
the lives not only of the participants, but of several members of the
party during the days of horror on the mountains, by bringing relief
which would otherwise have been lacking. The parties to the tragedy were
James F. Reed and John Snyder. Reed was a man who was tender, generous,
heroic, and whose qualities of true nobility shone brilliantly
throughout a long life of usefulness. His name is intimately interwoven
with the history of the Donner Party, from first to last. Indeed, in the
Illinois papers of 1846-7 the company was always termed the "Reed and
Donner Party." This title was justly conferred at the time, because he
was one of the leading spirits in the organization of the enterprise. In
order to understand the tragedy which produced the death of John Snyder,
and the circumstances resulting therefrom, the reader must become better
acquainted with the character of Mr. Reed.

The following brief extract is from "Powers' Early Settlers of Sangamon
County:" "James Frazier Reed was born November 14, 1800, in County
Armagh, Ireland. His ancestors were of noble Polish birth, who chose
exile rather than submission to the Russian power, and settled in the
north of Ireland. The family name was originally Reednoski, but in
process of time the Polish termination of the name was dropped, and the
family was called Reed. James F. Reed's mother's name was Frazier, whose
ancestors belonged to Clan Frazier, of Scottish history. Mrs. Reed and
her son, James F., came to America when he was a youth, and settled in
Virginia. He remained there until he was twenty, when he left for the
lead mines of Illinois, and was engaged in mining until 1831, when he
came to Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois."

Among the papers of Mr. Reed is a copy of the muster roll of a company
which enlisted in the Blackhawk war, and in this roll are the names of
Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, and James F. Reed. At the
termination of this war, Mr. Reed returned to Springfield, engaged in
the manufacture of cabinet furniture, and amassed a considerable
fortune. He was married in 1835 to Mrs. Margaret Backenstoe, whose
maiden name was Keyes. The death of his wife's mother, Mrs. Sarah Keyes,
has already been mentioned as occurring on the Big Blue River, near
Manhattan, Kansas.

During the progress of the train, Mr. Reed was always a prominent,
active member. Full of life and enthusiasm, fearless of danger, he was
ready at all times to risk his life for the company's welfare. On the
desert, we have seen that his lonely expedition in search of water cost
him his valuable oxen, and left him and his family almost destitute.

The deplorable affair about to be narrated was only the natural
outgrowth of the trying circumstances in which the company were placed.
The reader must bear in mind that many petty causes combined to produce
discord and dissension among the members of the Donner Party. Coming
from so many different States, being of different nationalities and
modes of thought, delayed on the road much longer than was expected,
rendered irritable by the difficulties encountered on the journey,
annoyed by losses of stock, fearful of unknown disasters on the Sierra,
and already placed on short allowances of provisions, the emigrants were
decidedly inharmonious.

The action of the company, moreover, was doubtless influenced in a
greater or less degree by Snyder's popularity. A young man, not over
twenty-three years old, he was tall, straight, and of erect, manly
carriage, and his habits of life as a frontiersman had developed him
into a muscular, athletic being. He excelled and led in all the out-door
sports most in favor with Western men, such as jumping, running, and
wrestling. His manner was gentle, retired, and timid to a degree verging
on bashfulness, until roused by the influence of passion. The lion in
the man was dormant until evoked by the fiercer emotions. His complexion
was dark, but as you studied his face you could not repress the
suspicion that Nature had marked him for a blonde, and that constant
exposure to the wind and sun and rain of the great plains of the West
had wrought the color change, and the conviction was strong that the
change was an improvement on Nature. His features were cast in a mold of
great beauty - such beauty as we seldom look for in a man. He was never
moody, despondent, or cast down, and at all times, and under all
circumstances, possessed the faculty of amusing himself and entertaining
others. In the evening camp, when other amusements failed, or when
anticipated troubles depressed the spirits of the travelers, it was his
custom to remove the "hindgate" of his wagon, lay it on the ground, and
thereon perform the "clog dance," "Irish jigs," the "pigeon wing," and
other fantastic steps. Many an evening the Donner Party were prevented
from brooding over their troubles by the boyish antics of the
light-hearted youth.

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