History of the Donner Party

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On the ninth of October a death had resulted from this necessity of
having to walk. It was a case of desertion, which, under other
circumstances, would have been unpardonably heartless. An old man named
Hardcoop was traveling with Keseberg. He was a cutler by trade, and had
a son and daughter in the city of Antwerp, in Belgium. It is said he
owned a farm near Cincinnati, Ohio, and intended, after visiting
California to dispose of this farm, and with the proceeds return to
Antwerp, for the purpose of spending his declining years with his
children. He was a man of nearly three-score years, and the hardships of
the journey had weakened his trembling limbs and broken down his health.
Sick, feeble, helpless as he was, this old man was compelled to walk
with the others. At last, when his strength gave way, he was forced to
lie down by the roadside to perish of cold and hunger. Who can picture
the agony, the horror, the dreary desolation of such a death? The poor
old man walked until his feet actually burst! - walked until he sank
utterly exhausted by the roadside! It was a terrible death! To see the
train disappear in the distance; to know he was abandoned to die of
exposure and starvation; to think that the wolves would devour his flesh
and gnaw his bones; to lie down on the great desert, hungry, famished,
and completely prostrated by fatigue - to meet death thus is too
dreadful to contemplate.

No one made any attempt to return and find the poor old fellow. This,
however, is partially excused by the overwhelming dangers which now
threatened the entire company. Each hour's delay rendered death in the
Sierra Nevada Mountains more imminent.

About the fourteenth of October, beyond the present site of Wadsworth,
another tragedy occurred. Wolfinger, who was supposed to be quite
wealthy, was in the rear of the train, traveling with Keseberg. At
nightfall, neither of the Germans made his appearance. It happened that
both their wives had walked ahead, and were with the emigrants.
Considering it suspicious that the men did not arrive, and fearing some
evil had befallen them, a party returned to ascertain the cause of the
delay. Before proceeding far, however, Keseberg was met traveling
leisurely along. He assured them that Wolfinger was only a little way
behind, and would be along in a few moments. Reassured by this
information, the party returned with Keseberg to camp and awaited the
arrival of Wolfinger. The night passed, and the missing man had not
appeared. Mrs. Wolfinger was nearly frantic. She was a tall,
queenly-looking lady, of good birth and much refinement. She was
recently from Germany, and understood but little English, yet she was
evidently a wellbred lady. Nearly all the survivors remember the elegant
dresses and costly jewelry she wore during the first part of the
journey. Her grief at her husband's disappearance was so heart-rending
that three young men at last consented to start back in the morning and
endeavor to find Wolfinger. W. C. Graves, from whom this information is
obtained, was one of the three who returned. Five miles back the wagon
was found standing in the road. The oxen had been unhitched, but were
still chained together, and were quietly grazing at a little distance.
There were no signs of Indians, but Wolfinger was not to be found. At
the time it was strongly conjectured that Keseberg had murdered
Wolfinger for his money, and had concealed the body. This was doubtless
unjust, for when Joseph Rhinehart was dying, some weeks later, in George
Donner's tent, he confessed that he (Rhinehart) had something to do with
the murder of Wolfinger. The men hitched the oxen to the wagon, and
drove on until they overtook the emigrants, who, owing to the dangers by
which they were encompassed, felt compelled to pursue their onward
journey. The team was given to Mrs. Wolfinger, and she employed a German
by the name of Charles Burger to drive it thereafter. Little was said
about the affair at the time. Mrs. Wolfinger supposed the Indians had
killed her husband.

On the nineteenth of October, C. T. Stanton was met returning with
provisions. The company was near the present town of Wadsworth, Nevada.
A great rejoicing was held over the brave man's return. McCutchen had
been severely ill, and was unable to return with Stanton. But the
latter, true to his word, recrossed the Sierra, and met the emigrants at
a time when they were on the verge of starvation. He had brought seven
mules, five of which were loaded with flour and dried beef. Captain
Sutter had furnished these mules and the provisions, together with two
Indian vaqueros, without the slightest compensation or security. The
Indians, Lewis and Salvador, would assist in caring for the
pack-animals, and would also be efficient guides. Without Stanton's aid
the entire party would have been lost; not a single soul would have
escaped. The provisions, though scant, were sufficient to entirely alter
the situation of affairs. Had the party pressed immediately forward,
they could have passed the summits before the storms began. For some
cause, however, it was concluded to rest the cattle for a few days near
the present site of Reno, preparatory to attempting to ascend the
difficult Sierra. Three or four days' time was lost. This loss was
fatal. The storms on the mountains generally set in about Thanksgiving,
or during the latter days of November. The emigrants trusted that the
storm season of 1846 would not begin earlier than usual. Alas! the
terrible consequences of this mistaken trust!

After the arrival of Stanton, it was still deemed necessary to take
further steps for the relief of the train. The generosity of Captain
Sutter, as shown to Stanton, warranted them in believing that he would
send still further supplies to the needy emigrants. Accordingly, two
brothers-in-law, William Foster and William Pike, both brave and daring
spirits, volunteered to go on ahead, cross the summits, and return with
provisions as Stanton had done. Both men had families, and both were
highly esteemed in the company. At the encampment near Reno, Nevada,
while they were busily preparing to start, the two men were cleaning or
loading a pistol. It was an old-fashioned "pepper-box." It happened,
while they were examining it, that wood was called for to replenish the
fire. One of the men offered to procure it, and in order to do so,
handed the pistol to the other. Everybody knows that the "pepper-box" is
a very uncertain weapon. Somehow, in the transfer, the pistol was
discharged. William Pike was fatally wounded, and died in about twenty
minutes. Mrs. Pike was left a widow, with two small children. The
youngest, Catherine, was a babe of only a few months old, and Naomi was
only three years of age. The sadness and distress occasioned by this
mournful accident, cast a gloom over the entire company, and seemed an
omen of the terrible fate which overshadowed the Donner Party.

Generally, the ascent of the Sierra brought joy and gladness to weary
overland emigrants. To the Donner Party it brought terror and dismay.
The company had hardly obtained a glimpse of the mountains, ere the
winter storm clouds began to assemble their hosts around the loftier
crests. Every day the weather appeared more ominous and threatening. The
delay at the Truckee Meadows had been brief, but every day ultimately
cost a dozen lives. On the twenty-third of October, they became
thoroughly alarmed at the angry heralds of the gathering storm, and with
all haste resumed the journey. It was too late! At Prosser Creek, three
miles below Truckee, they found themselves encompassed with six inches
of snow. On the summits, the snow was from two to five feet in depth.
This was October 28, 1846. Almost a month earlier than usual, the Sierra
had donned its mantle of and snow. The party were prisoners. All was
consternation. The wildest confusion prevailed. In their eagerness,
many, went far in advance of the main train. There was little concert of
action or harmony of plan. All did not arrive at Donner Lake the same
day. Some wagons and families did not reach the lake until the
thirty-first day of October, some never went further than Prosser Creek,
while others, on the evening of the twenty-ninth, struggled through the
snow, and reached the foot of the precipitous cliffs between the summit
and the upper end of the lake. Here, baffled, wearied, disheartened,
they turned back to the foot of the lake.

Several times during the days which succeeded, parties attempted to
cross the mountain barrier. W. C. Graves says the old emigrant road
followed up Cold Stream, and so crossed the dividing ridge. Some wagons
were drawn up this old road, almost to the top of the pass, others were
taken along the north side of Donner Lake, and far up toward the summit.
Some of these wagons never were returned to the lake, but were left
imbedded in the snow. These efforts to cross the Sierra were quite
desultory and irregular, and there was great lack of harmony and system.
Each family or each little group of emigrants acted independently.

At last, one day, a determined and systematic attempt was made to cross
the summit. Nearly the entire train was engaged in the work. The road,
of course, was entirely obliterated by the snow. Guided only by the
general contour of the country, all hands pressed resolutely forward.
Here, large bowlders and irregular jutting cliffs would intercept the
way; there, dizzy precipices, yawning chasms, and deep, irregular
canyons would interpose, and anon a bold, impassable mountain of rock
would rear its menacing front directly across their path. All day long
the men and animals floundered through the snow, and attempted to break
and trample a road. Just before nightfall they reached the abrupt
precipice where the present wagon-road intercepts the snow-sheds of the
Central Pacific. Here the poor mules and oxen had been utterly unable to
find a foothold on the slippery, snow-covered rocks. All that day it had
been raining slightly - a dismal, drizzling, discouraging rain. Most of
the wagons had been left at the lake, and the mules and oxen had been
packed with provisions and necessary articles. Even at this day some of
the survivors are unable to repress a ripple of merriment as they recall
the manner in which the oxen bucked and bellowed when the unaccustomed
packs were strapped upon their backs. Stanton had stoutly insisted upon
taking the mules over the mountains. Perhaps he did not wish to return
to Capt. Sutter without the property which he had borrowed. Many in the
train dissented from this proposition, and endeavored to induce the
Indians, Lewis and Salvador, to leave Stanton, and guide them over the
summits. The Indians realized the imminent danger of each hour's delay,
and would probably have yielded to the solicitations of these
disaffected parties, had not Stanton made them believe that Capt. Sutter
would hang them if they returned to the Fort without the mules. This
incident is mentioned to illustrate the great differences of opinion and
interest which prevailed. Never, from the moment the party encountered
the first difficulties on the Hastings Cut-off until this fatal night in
November, did the members of the company ever agree upon any important
proposition. This night all decided upon a plan for the morrow. The
great and overwhelming danger made them forget their petty animosities,
and united them in one harmonious resolve. On the morrow the mules and
cattle were all to be slain, and the meat was to be stored away for
future emergency. The wagons, with their contents, were to be left at
the lake, and the entire party were to cross the summits on foot.
Stanton had become perfectly satisfied that the mules could not reach
the mountain-top, and readily consented to the proposed plan.

Returning to the lake they sought their weary couches, comforted with
the thought that tomorrow should see all the Donner Party safely over
the summit. That night a heavy snow fell at the lake. It was a night of
untold terror! The emigrants suffered a thousand deaths. The pitiless
snow came down in large, steady masses. All understood that the storm
meant death. One of the Indians silently wrapped his blanket about him
and in deepest dejection seated himself beside a tall pine. In this
position he passed the entire night, only moving occasionally to keep
from being covered with snow. Mrs. Reed spread down a shawl, placed her
four children, Virginia, Patty, James, and Thomas, thereon, and putting
another shawl over them, sat by the side of her babies during all the
long hours of darkness. Every little while she was compelled to lift the
upper shawl and shake off the rapidly accumulating snow.

With slight interruptions, the storm continued several days. The mules
and oxen that had always hovered about camp were blinded and bewildered
by the storm, and straying away were literally buried alive in the
drifts. What pen can describe the horror of the position in which the
emigrants found themselves! It was impossible to move through the deep,
soft snow without the greatest effort. The mules were gone, and were
never found. Most of the cattle had perished, and were wholly hidden
from sight. The few oxen which were found were slaughtered for beef. All
were not killed during any one day, but the emigrants gave this business
their immediate attention, because aside from the beef and a few slight
provisions, the entire party were completely destitute. Mrs. Breen was
compelled to attend personally to the slaughtering of their cattle,
because her husband was an invalid. This family had by far the largest
stock of meat. Too great praise can not be ascribed to Mrs. Breen for
the care and forethought with which she stored up this food for her
children. The meat was simply laid away in piles, like cordwood, and by
the action of the frost was kept fresh until consumed. Mrs. Reed had no
cattle to kill. She succeeded, however, in purchasing two beeves from
Mr. Graves, and two from Mr. Breen, pledging herself to pay when the
journey was ended. Mr. Eddy also purchased one ox of Mr. Graves.

The flesh of many of the cattle which strayed away, and were buried
several feet under the snow, was nevertheless recovered by their owners.
It was soon ascertained that the cattle had endeavored to seek shelter
from the fury of the storm by getting under the branches of the bushiest
trees. Going to these trees, the emigrants would thrust down long poles
with sharpened nails in the ends of them. By thus probing about in the
snow, the whereabouts of a number of cattle was discovered, and the
bodies were speedily dug out of the drifts.

Realizing that the winter must be passed in the mountains, the emigrants
made such preparations as they could for shelter. One cabin was already
constructed. It was located about a quarter of a mile below the foot of
the lake. It had been built in November, 1844, by Moses Schallenberger,
Joseph Foster, and Allen Montgomery. Moses Schallenberger now resides
three and a half miles from San Jose, and when recently interviewed by
Mrs. S. O. Houghton, nŽe Eliza P. Donner, gave a very complete and
interesting account of the building of this cabin, and the sufferings
endured by his party. This cabin, known as the Breen cabin, is so
intimately connected and interwoven with future chapters in the History
of the Donner Party, that the following items, taken from Mr.
Schallenberger's narration, can not prove uninteresting:

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