History of the Donner Party

“Mr. Schallenberger’s party reached Donner Lake about the middle of
November, 1844, having with them a large quantity of goods for
California. Their cattle being very poor, and much fatigued by the
journey, the party decided to remain here long enough to build a cabin
in which to store their goods until spring. They also decided to leave
some one to look after their stores, while the main portion of the party
would push on to the settlement. Foster, Montgomery, and Schallenberger
built the cabin. Two days were spent in its construction. It was built
of pine saplings, and roofed with pine brush and rawhides. It was twelve
by fourteen feet, and seven or eight feet high, with a chimney in one
end, built “western style.” One opening, through which light, air, and
the occupants passed, served as a window and door. A heavy fall of snow
began the day after the cabin was completed and continued for a number
of days. Schallenberger, who was only seventeen years old, volunteered
to remain with Foster and Montgomery. The party passed on, leaving very
little provisions for the encamped. The flesh of one miserably poor cow
was their main dependence, yet the young men were not discouraged. They
were accustomed to frontier life, and felt sure they could provide for
themselves. Bear and deer seemed abundant in the surrounding mountains.
Time passed; the snow continued falling, until it was from ten to
fifteen feet deep. The cow was more than half consumed, and the game had
been driven out of the mountains by the storms.

“The sojourners in that lonely camp became alarmed at the prospect of
the terrible fate which seemed to threaten them, and they determined to
find their way across the mountains. They started and reached the summit
the first night after leaving their camp. Here, young Schallenberger was
taken ill with severe cramps. The following day he was unable to proceed
more than a few feet without falling to the ground. It was evident to
his companions that he could go no farther. They did not like to leave
him, nor did they wish to remain where death seemed to await them.
Finally Schallenberger told them if they would take him back to the
cabin he would remain there and they could go on. This they did, and
after making him as comfortable as possible, they bade him good-by, and
he was left alone in that mountain wild. A strong will and an
unflinching determination to live through all the threatening dangers,
soon raised him from his bed and nerved him to action. He found some
steel traps among the goods stored, and with them caught foxes, which
constituted his chief or only article of food, until rescued by the
returning party, March 1, 1845.”

The Breen family moved into the Schallenberger cabin. Against the west
side of this cabin, Keseberg built a sort of half shed, into which he
and his family entered. The Murphys erected a cabin nearer the lake. The
site of this cabin is plainly marked by a large stone about ten or
twelve feet high, one side of which rises almost perpendicularly from
the ground. Against this perpendicular side the Murphys erected the
building which was to shelter them during the winter. It was about three
hundred yards from the shore of Donner Lake, and near the wide marshy
outlet. The Breen and Murphy cabins were distant from each other about
one hundred and fifty yards. The Graves family built a house close by
Donner Creek, and half or three quarters of a mile further down the
stream. Adjoining this, forming a double cabin, the Reeds built. The
Donner brothers, Jacob and George, together with their families, camped
in Alder Creek Valley, six or seven miles from Donner Lake. They were,
if possible, in a worse condition than the others, for they had only
brush sheds and their tents to shield them from the wintry weather. Mrs.
John App (Leanna C. Donner), of Jamestown, Tuolumne County, writes: “We
had no time to build a cabin. The snow came on so suddenly that we had
barely time to pitch our tent, and put up a brush shed, as it were, one
side of which was open. This brush shed was covered with pine boughs,
and then covered with rubber coats, quilts, etc. My uncle, Jacob Donner,
and family, also had a tent, and camped near us.”

Crowded in their ill-prepared dwellings, the emigrants could not feel
otherwise than gloomy and despondent. The small quantity of provisions
became so nearly exhausted that it is correct to say they were compelled
to live on meat alone, without so much as salt to give it a relish.
There was an abundance of beautiful trout in the lake, but no one could
catch them. W. C. Graves tells how he went fishing two or three
different times, but without success. The lake was not frozen over at
first, and fish were frequently seen; but they were too coy and wary to
approach such bait as was offered. Soon thick ice covered the water, and
after that no one attempted to fish. In fact, the entire party seemed
dazed by the terrible calamity which had overtaken them.

Chapter VI.

Endeavors to Cross the Mountains
Discouraging Failures
Eddy Kills a Bear
Making SnowShoes
Who Composed the “Forlorn Hope”
Mary A. Graves
An Irishman
A Generous Act
Six Days’ Rations
Mary Graves Account
Snow-Blind
C. T. Stanton’s Death
“I am Coming Soon”
Sketch of Stanton’s Early Life
His Charity and Self-Sacrifice
The Diamond Breastpin
Stanton’s Last Poem.

All knew that death speedily awaited the entire company unless some
could cross over the mountain barrier and hasten back relief parties.
Out of the list of ninety persons mentioned in the first chapter, only
Mrs. Sarah Keyes, Halloran, Snyder, Hardcoop, Wolfinger, and Pike had
perished, and only three, Messrs. Reed, Herron, and McCutchen, had
reached California. This left eighty-one persons at the mountain camps.
It was resolved that at the earliest possible moment the strongest and
ablest of the party should endeavor to cross the summits and reach the
settlements. Accordingly, on the twelfth of November, a party of twelve
or fifteen persons set out from the cabins. It was found impossible,
however, to make any considerable headway in the soft, deep snow, and at
midnight they returned to the cabins. They had not succeeded in getting
more than a mile above the head of the lake. In this party were Mr. F.
W. Graves and his two daughters, Mary A. Graves, and Mrs. Sarah Fosdick.
The rest, with the exception of Jay Fosdick and Wm. H. Eddy, were young,
unmarried men, as, for instance, Stanton, Smith, Spitzer, Elliott,
Antoine, John Baptiste, and the two Indians. It was comparatively a
trifling effort, but it seemed to have the effect of utterly depressing
the hopes of several of these men. With no one in the camps dependent
upon them, without any ties of relationship, or bonds of affection,
these young men were be first to attempt to escape from their prison
walls of snow. Failing in this, many of them never again rallied or made
a struggle for existence. Not so, however, with those who were heads of
families. A gun was owned by William Foster, and with it, on the
fourteenth of November, three miles north of Truckee, near the present
Alder Creek Mill, Mr. Eddy succeeded in killing a bear. This event
inspired many hearts with courage; but, alas it was short-lived. No
other game could be found except two or three wild ducks. What were
these among eighty-one people! Mr. F. W. Graves was a native of Vermont,
and his boyhood days had been spent in sight of the Green Mountains.
Somewhat accustomed to snow, and to pioneer customs, Mr. Graves was the
only member of the party who understood how to construct snow-shoes. The
unsuccessful attempt made by the first party proved that no human being
could walk upon the loose snow without some artificial assistance. By
carefully sawing the ox-bows into strips, so as to preserve their curved
form, Mr. Graves, by means of rawhide thongs, prepared very serviceable
snow-shoes. Fourteen pair of shoes were made in this manner. It was
certain death for all to remain in camp, and yet the first attempt had
shown that it was almost equally certain death to attempt to reach the
settlements. There was not food for all, and yet the ones who undertook
to cross the mountains were undoubtedly sacrificing their lives for
those who remained in camp. If some should go, those who were left
behind might be able to preserve life until spring, or until relief
came. The stoutest hearts quailed before the thought of battling with
the deep drifts, the storms, and the unknown dangers which lurked on the
summits. The bravest shuddered at the idea of leaving the cabins and
venturing out into the drear and dismal wilderness of snow. Yet they
could count upon their fingers the days that would elapse before the
provisions would be exhausted, and starvation would ensue, if none left
the camps.

Day after day, with aching hearts and throbbing brows, the poor
imprisoned wretches gazed into each other’s faces in blank despair. Who
should be sacrificed? Who would go out and seek a grave ‘neath the
crashing avalanche, the treacherous drifts, or in the dreary famished
wilderness, that those left behind might live? Who would be the forlorn
hope of the perishing emigrants?

Once, Messrs. Patrick Breen, Patrick Dolan, Lewis Keseberg, and W. H.
Eddy, are said to have attempted to reach the summit. On another
occasion these same parties, with Mrs. Reed and family, Mr. Stanton and
the two Indians, made an unsuccessful attempt. Still another time, a
large party, among whom were Mrs. Murphy and the older members of her
family, made the effort, and even succeeded in crossing the topmost
ridge and reaching Summit Valley, one and a half miles west of the
summit. But all these parties were forced to return to the cabins, and
each failure confirmed the belief that no living being could cross the
mountains. In this manner time dragged wearily along until the tenth,
or, as some say, the sixteenth of December. The mere matter of the date
is of trifling importance. At all events a forlorn hope was organized.
Seventeen names were enrolled as volunteers. Of these, Charles Burger
went only a short distance, turning back weary and exhausted. Wm. G.
Murphy, who is described as a most brave and resolute boy of eleven
years of age, accompanied the party as far as the head of Donner Lake.
He and his brother Lemuel were without snowshoes. It was expected they
would step in the beaten tracks of those who had shoes, but this was
soon proven to be utterly impracticable. The party made snow-shoes for
Lemuel on the first night, out of the aparajos which had been brought by
Stanton from Sutter’s Fort. Wm. G. Murphy saved his life by returning to
the cabins. No human being could have endured the trip without
snow-shoes. Fifteen remained in the party, and these pressed forward
without so much as daring to look back to the dear ones whose lives
depended upon this terrible venture. Without forgetting William G.
Murphy and Charles Burger, who started with this little band, the first
party who crossed the Sierra will in future be termed the fifteen. Who
composed this party? Mothers, whose babes would starve unless the
mothers went; fathers, whose wives and children would perish if the
fathers did not go; children, whose aged parents could not survive
unless the children, by leaving, increased the parents’ share of food.
Each were included in the forlorn hope.

It was time for some one to leave the cabins. During the days that had
elapsed, no word had been received from the Donner brothers at Alder
Creek, nor from the emigrants who camped with them. Alder Creek is a
branch of Prosser Creek, and the Donners encamped on the former stream
about a mile and a half above the junction.

On the ninth of December, Milton Elliott and Noah James started back to
learn some tidings of these people. Soon after they left the camps at
the lake, a terrific storm came down from the mountains, and as nothing
had been heard from them, it was considered certain they had perished.

About this time, starvation and exposure had so preyed upon one of the
company, Augustus Spitzer, that one day he came reeling and staggering
into the Breen cabin and fell prostrate and helpless upon the floor.
Poor fellow, he never rallied, although by careful nursing and kindest
attentions he lingered along for some weeks. The emigrants were no
longer on short allowance, they were actually starving! Oh! the horror!
the dread alarm which prevailed among the company! C. T. Stanton, ever
brave, courageous, lion-hearted, said, “I will bring help to these
famishing people or lay down my life.” F. W. Graves, who was one of the
noblest men who ever breathed the breath of life, was next to volunteer.
Mr. and Mrs. Graves had nine children, the youngest being only nine
months old. Generously had they parted with the cattle which they
brought to the lake, dividing equally with those families who had no
food. Mary A. Graves and her elder sister, Mrs. Sarah Fosdick,
determined to accompany their father, and as will presently be seen,
their hearts failed not during trials which crushed strong men. Mary
Graves was about nineteen years old. She was a very beautiful girl, of
tall and slender build, and exceptionally graceful carriage. Her
features, in their regularity, were of classic Grecian mold. Her eyes
were dark, bright, and expressive. A fine mouth and perfect set of
teeth, added to a luxuriant growth of dark, rebelliously wavy hair,
completed an almost perfect picture of lovely girlhood. Jay Fosdick
resolved to share with his wife the perils of the way. Mrs. Murphy
offered to take care of the infant children of her married daughters,
Mrs. Foster and Mrs. Pike, if they would join the party. The dear, good
mother argued that what the daughters would eat would keep her and the
little ones from starving. It was nobly said, yet who can doubt but
that, with clearer vision, the mother saw that only by urging them to
go, could she save her daughters’ lives. With what anguish did Mrs.
Harriet F. Pike enroll her name among those of the “Forlorn Hope,” and
bid good-by to her little two-year-old Naomi and her nursing babe,
Catherine! What bitter tears were shed by Mr. and Mrs. Foster when they
kissed their beautiful baby boy farewell! Alas! though they knew it not,
it was a long, long farewell. Mrs. Eddy was too feeble to attempt the
journey, and the family were so poorly provided with food that Mr. Eddy
was compelled to leave her and the two little children in the cabins,
and go with the party. Mrs. McCutchen also had an infant babe, and Mrs.
Graves employed the same reasoning with her that Mrs. Murphy had so
effectively used with Mrs. Pike and Mrs. Foster. That these three young
mothers left their infant children, their nursing babes, with others,
and started to find relief, is proof stronger than words, of the
desperate condition of the starving emigrants. The Mexican Antoine, the
two Indians Lewis and Salvador, and an Irishman named Patrick Dolan,
completed the fifteen. This Patrick Dolan deserves more than a passing
word. He had owned a farm in Keokuk, Iowa, and selling it, had taken as
the price, a wagon, four oxen, and two cows. With these he joined the
Donner Party, and on reaching the lake had killed his cattle and stored
them away with those killed by the Breens. Dolan was a bachelor, and
about forty years of age. He was possessed of two or three hundred
dollars in coin, but instead of being miserly or selfish, was
characterized by generous openheartedness. “When it became apparent that
there was to be suffering and starvation” (this quotation is from the
manuscript of Hon. James F. Breen), “Dolan determined to lighten the
burden at the camps, and leave with the party that was to attempt the
passage of the summit, so that there should be less to consume the scant
supply of provisions. Previous to his departure, he asked my father
(Patrick Breen) to attend to the wants of Reed’s family, and to give of
his (Dolan’s) meat to Reed’s family as long as possible.” Accordingly,
Mrs. Reed and her children were taken into Breen’s cabin, where, as
mentioned above, Dolan’s meat was stored. Was ever a more generous act
recorded? Patrick Dolan had no relative in the Donner Party, and no
friends, save those whose friendship had been formed upon the plains.
With the cattle which belonged to him he could have selfishly subsisted
until relief came, but, whole-souled Irishman that he was, he gave food
to the mothers and the children and went out into the waste of snow to
perish of starvation! How many who live to-day owe their existence to
Patrick Dolan’s self-sacrifice! This blue-eyed, brown haired Irishman is
described as being of a jovial disposition, and inclined to look upon
the bright side of things. Remembering how he gave his life for
strangers, how readily can we appreciate Mr. Breen’s tender tribute: “He
was a favorite with children, and would romp and play with a child.” As
a token of appreciation for his kindness, Mrs. Reed gave Patrick Dolan a
gold watch and a Masonic emblem belonging to her husband, bidding him to
keep them until he was rewarded for his generosity. The good mother’s
word had a significance she wot not of. When Mrs. Reed reached Sutter’s
Fort she found these valuables awaiting her. They had been brought in by
Indians. Patrick Dolan had kept them until his death – until the angels
came and bore him away to his reward.

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