History of the Donner Party

There, in the deep, pitiless storm, surrounded on all sides by desolate
wastes of snow, the idea was first advanced that life might be sustained
if some one were to perish. Since leaving the cabins, they had at no
time allowed themselves more than one ounce of meat per meal, and for
two entire days they had not tasted food. The terrible pangs of hunger
must be speedily allayed or death was inevitable. Some one proposed that
lots be cast to see who should die. The terrible proposition met with
opposition from Foster and others, but slips of paper were actually
prepared by some of the men, and he who drew the longest – the fatal
slip – was Patrick Dolan. Who should take Dolan’s life? Who was to be
the executioner of the man who had so generously given up the food which
might have sustained his life, and joined the forlorn hope that others
might live? With one accord they rose to their feet and staggered
forward. As if to banish from their minds the horrid thought of taking
Dolan’s life, they attempted to pursue their journey.

With the greatest exertion and suffering they managed to crawl, and
stagger, and flounder along until they attained a distance of two or
three miles. Here they camped, and passed a most wretched, desolate
night. The morning dawned; it was dreary, rainy, and discouraging. The
little party set out as usual, but were too weak and lifeless to travel.
The soft snow clung to their feet in heavy lumps like snow-balls.
Instead of making a fire in a new place, Mary Graves says they crawled
back to the camp-fire of the night previous. Here they remained until
night came on – a night full of horrors. The wind howled through the
shrieking forests like troops of demons. The rain had continued all day,
but finally changed to snow and sleet, which cut their pinched faces,
and made them shiver with cold. All the forces of nature seemed to
combine for their destruction. At one time during the night, in
attempting to kindle a fire, the ax or hatchet which they had carried
was lost in the loose snow.

A huge fire was kindled at last, with the greatest difficulty, and in
order to obtain more warmth, all assisted in piling fuel upon the
flames. Along in the night, Mr. Foster thinks it was near midnight, the
heat of the flames and the dropping coals and embers thawed the snow
underneath the fire until a deep, well-like cavity was formed about the
fire. Suddenly, as if to intensify the dreadful horrors of the
situation, the bottom of this well gave way, and the fire disappeared!
The camp and the fire had been built over a stream of water, and the
fire had melted through the overlying snow until it had fallen into the
stream! Those who peered over the brink of the dark opening about which
they were gathered, could hear, far down in the gloom, during the lull
of the storm, the sound of running waters.

If there is anything lacking in this picture of despair, it is furnished
in the groans and cries of the shivering, dying outcasts, and the
demoniacal shrieks and ravings of Patrick Dolan, who was in the delirium
which precedes death. It was not necessary that life should be taken by
the members of the company. Death was busily at work, and before the
wild winter night was ended, his ghastly victims were deaf to wind or
storm.

When the fire disappeared, it became apparent that the entire forlorn
hope would perish before morning if exposed to the cold and storm. W. H.
Eddy says the wind increased until it was a perfect tornado. About
midnight, Antoine overcome by starvation, fatigue, and the bitter cold,
ceased to breathe. Mr. F. W. Graves was dying. There was a point beyond
which an iron nerve and a powerful constitution were unable to sustain a
man. This point had been reached, and Mr. Graves was fast passing away.
He was conscious, and calling his weeping, grief-stricken daughters to
his side, exhorted them to use every means in their power to prolong
their lives. He reminded them of their mother, of their little brothers
and sisters in the cabin at the lake. He reminded Mrs. Pike of her poor
babies. Unless these daughters succeeded in reaching Sutter’s Fort, and
were able to send back relief, all at the lake must certainly die.
Instances had been cited in history, where, under less provocation,
human flesh had been eaten, yet Mr. Graves well knew that his daughters
had said they would never touch the loathsome food.

Was there not something noble and grand in the dying advice of this
father? Was he not heroic when he counseled that all false delicacy be
laid aside and that his body be sacrificed to support those that were to
relieve his wife and children?

Earnestly pleading that these afflicted children rise superior to their
prejudices and natural instincts – Franklin Ward Graves died. A sublimer
death seldom is witnessed. In the solemn darkness, in the tempestuous
storm, on the deep, frozen snow-drifts, overcome by pain and exposure,
with the pangs of famine gnawing away his life, this unselfish father,
with his latest breath urged that his flesh be used to prolong the lives
of his companions. Truly, a soul that could prompt such utterances had
no need, after death, for its mortal tenement – it had a better
dwelling-place on high.

With two of their little number in the icy embraces of death, some plan
to obtain warmth for the living was immediately necessary. W. H. Eddy
proposed a frontiersman’s method. It was for all to huddle closely
together in a circle, lie down on a blanket with their heads outward,
and be covered with a second blanket. Mr. Eddy arranged his companions,
spread the blanket over them, and creeping under the coverlid, completed
the circle. The wind swept the drifting snow in dense clouds over their
heads. The chilling air, already white with falling snowflakes, became
dense with the drifting masses. In a little while the devoted band were
completely hidden from wind, or storm, or piercing cold, by a deep
covering of snow. The warmth of their bodies, confined between the
blankets, under the depth of snow, soon rendered them comfortably warm.
Their only precaution now was to keep from being buried alive.
Occasionally some member of the party would shake the rapidly
accumulating snow from off their coverlid.

They no longer were in danger of freezing. But while the elements were
vainly waging fierce war above their heads, hunger was rapidly sapping
the fountains of life, and claiming them for its victims. When, for a
moment, sleep would steal away their reason, in famished dreams they
would seize with their teeth the hand or arm of a companion. The
delirium of death had attacked one or two, and the pitiful wails and
cries of these death-stricken maniacs were heart-rending. The dead, the
dying, the situation, were enough to drive one crazy.

The next day was ushered in by one of the most furious storms ever
witnessed on the Sierra. All the day long, drifts and the fast-falling
snow circled above them under the force of the fierce gale. The air was
a frozen fog of swift-darting ice-lances. The fine particles of snow and
sleet, hurled by maddened storm-fiends, would cut and sting so that
one’s eyes could not be opened in the storm, and the rushing gale would
hurl one prostrate on the snow. Once or twice the demented Dolan escaped
from his companions and disappeared in the blinding storm. Each time he
returned or was caught and dragged ‘neath the covering, but the fatal
exposure chilled the little life remaining in his pulses. During the
afternoon he ceased to shriek, or struggle, or moan. Patrick Dolan, the
warm-hearted Irishman, was starved to death.

Mr. Eddy states, in Thornton’s work, that they entered this Camp of
Death, Friday, December 25, Christmas. According to his version they
started from the cabins on the sixteenth day of December, with scanty
rations for six days. On the twenty-second they consumed the last morsel
of their provisions. Not until Sunday noon, December 27, did the storm
break away. They had been over four days without food, and two days and
a half without fire. They were almost dead.

Is there a mind so narrow, so uncharitable, that it can censure these
poor dying people for the acts of this terrible day? With their loved
ones perishing at Donner Lake, with the horror of a lingering death
staring them in the face, can the most unfeeling heart condemn them?

Emerging from the dreary prison-house, they attempted to kindle a fire.
Their matches were wet and useless. Their flint-lock gun would give
forth a spark, but without some dry material that would readily ignite,
it was of no avail.

On this morning of the twenty-seventh Eddy says that he blew up a
powder-horn in an effort to strike fire under the blankets. His face and
hands were much burned. Mrs. McCutchen and Mrs. Foster were also burned,
but not seriously. For some time all efforts to obtain a fire proved
fruitless. Their garments were drenched by the storm. Mrs. Pike had a
mantle that was lined with cotton. The lining of this was cut open, and
the driest portion of the cotton was exposed to the sun’s rays, in the
hope that it could be made to catch the spark from the flint. At last
they were successful. A fire was kindled in a dead tree, and the flames
soon leaped up to the loftiest branches. The famished, shivering
wretches gathered round the burning tree. So weak and lifeless were they
that when the great pine limbs burned off and fell crashing about them,
neither man nor woman moved or attempted to escape the threatening
danger. All felt that sudden death would be welcome. They were stunned
and horrified by the dreadful alternative which it was evident they must
accept.

The men finally mustered up courage to approach the dead. With averted
eyes and trembling hand, pieces of flesh were severed from the inanimate
forms and laid upon the coals. It was the very refinement of torture to
taste such food, yet those who tasted lived. One could not eat. Lemuel
Murphy was past relief. A boy about thirteen years old, Lemuel was
dearly loved by his sisters, and, full of courage, had endeavored to
accompany them on the fearful journey. He was feeble when he started
from the cabins, and the overwhelming sufferings of the fatal trip had
destroyed his remaining strength. Starvation is agony during the first
three days, apathy and inanition during the fourth and perhaps the
fifth, and delirium from that time until the struggle ceases. When the
delirium commences, hope ends. Lemuel was delirious Sunday morning, and
when food was placed to his lips he either could not eat or was too near
death to revive. All day Mrs. Foster held her brother’s head in her lap,
and by every means in her power sought to soothe his death agonies. The
sunlight faded from the surrounding summits. Darkness slowly emerged
from the canyons and enfolded forest and hill-slope in her silent
embrace. The glittering stars appeared in the heavens, and the bright,
full moon rose over the eastern mountain crests. The silence, the
profound solitude, the ever-present wastes of snow, the weird moonlight,
and above all the hollow moans of the dying boy in her lap, rendered
this night the most impressive in the life of Mrs. Foster. She says she
never beholds a bright moonlight without recurring with a shudder to
this night on the Sierra. At two o’clock in the morning Lemuel Murphy
ceased to breathe. The warm tears and kisses of the afflicted sisters
were showered upon lips that would never more quiver with pain.

Until the twenty-ninth of December they remained at the “Camp of Death.”
Would you know more of the shuddering details? Does the truth require
the narration of the sickening minutiae of the terrible transactions of
these days? Human beings were never called upon to undergo more trying
ordeals. Dividing into groups, the members of each family were spared
the pain of touching their own kindred. Days and perhaps weeks of
starvation were awaiting them in the future, and they dare not neglect
to provide as best they might. Each of the four bodies was divested of
its flesh, and the flesh was dried. Although no person partook of
kindred flesh, sights were often witnessed that were blood-curdling.
Mrs. Foster, as we have seen, fairly worshiped her brother Lemuel. Has
human pen power to express the shock of horror this sister received when
she saw her brother’s heart thrust through with a stick, and broiling
upon the coals? No man can record or read such an occurrence without a
cry of agony! What, then, did she endure who saw this cruel sight?

These are facts. They are given just as they came from the lips of Mrs.
Foster, a noble woman, who would have died of horror and a broken heart
but for her starving babe, her mother, and her little brothers and
sisters who were at Donner Lake. Mary Graves corroborates Mrs. Foster,
and W. H. Eddy gave a similar version to Judge Thornton.

The Indian guides, Lewis and Salvador, would not eat this revolting
food. They built a fire away from the company, and with true Indian
stoicism endured the agonies of starvation without so much as beholding
the occurrences at the other camp-fire.

Starved bodies possess little flesh, and starving people could carry but
light burdens through such snow-drifts. On these accounts, the provision
which the Almighty seemed to have provided to save their lives, lasted
only until the thirty-first On New Year’s morning they ate their
moccasins and the strings of their snow-shoes. On the night before,
Lewis and Salvador caught the sound of ominous words, or perceived
glances that were filled with dreadful import, and during the darkness
they fled.

For several days past the party had been lost. The Indians could not
recognize the country when it was hidden from thirty to fifty feet in
snow. Blindly struggling forward, they gradually separated into three
parties. On the fourth, W. H. Eddy and Mary Graves were in advance with
the gun. A starved deer crossed their path and providentially was slain.
Drinking its warm blood and feasting upon its flesh, this couple waited
for the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Foster, Mrs. McCutchen, and Mrs. Pike,
who were some distance behind. Night came and passed and they did not
arrive. Indeed, Foster was dying for lack of nourishment. Behind this
party were Mr. and Mrs. Jay Fosdick. During the night, Mr. Fosdick
perished, and the faithful wife, after remaining with him until morning,
struggled forward and met Mrs. Foster and a companion. Mrs. Fosdick
related the death of her husband, and upon being informed of Foster’s
condition, consented that her husband’s body be converted into food. It
was done. This was the first time that women’s hands had used the knife,
but by the act a life was saved. Mrs. Fosdick, although dying, would not
touch the food, and but for the venison would not have lived to see the
setting of the sun. But what was one small deer among so many famished
people? Hide, head, feet, entrails, all were eaten. On the sixth, the
last morsel was consumed. They were now without hope. Their journey was
apparently interminable. Wearied, foot-sore, freezing at night and
tortured by hunger during the day, life could not last many hours. Some
one must die; else none could live and reach the long-talked-of relief.
Would it be Eddy, whose wife and two children were behind? Would it be
Mrs. Pike, who left two babes? Mrs. McCutchen, who left one? Mr. or Mrs.
Foster, whose baby boy was at the cabin? Or would it be Mary Graves or
Mrs. Fosdick, who had left mother and family? On the night of the
seventh, they lay down upon the snow without having tasted a mouthful of
food during the day. Continued famine and exhaustion had so weakened
their frames that they could not survive another day. Yet, on the
morning of the seventh, they arose and staggered onward. Soon they
halted and gathered about some freshly made tracks. Tracks marked by
blood! Tracks that they knew had been made by Lewis and Salvador, whose
bare feet were sore and bleeding from cuts and bruises inflicted by the
cruel, jagged rocks, the frozen snow, and flinty ice. These Indians had
eaten nothing for nine days, and had been without fire or blankets for
four days. They could not be far ahead.

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