- Historic Sites
The tragic journey of the Donner Party
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
They were weak from hunger before they even began. The snowshoes slowed them down. They got over the divide, though, and started down the western slope. The first to give out was Stanion. He had been in California once and had come back. He had made the attempt twice in November. But he was finished now. One morning, when lhe others were preparing to set out, he sat quietly smoking his pipe. “Yes,” he said, “I am coming soon.” The olhers weni ahead. Sianton never rejoined them.
By the day before Christmas they had been laboring through snow, at eight thousand feet, for more than a week, and had been without food for four days. Pat Breen’s friend, Patrick Dolan, was lhe first to speak what lhey all were lhinking: They should draw lots, Dolan said, to see who should be killed. Some agreed. Olhers objected. Eddy suggested that two of them, selected by lots, shoot it out with revolvers. Again objections. Then it occurred to them: someone would die soon anyway.
That night a blizzard engulfed them. Most of them were ready to die now. They would have died, except that Eddy remembered a mountain man’s trick: he made them huddle together under the blankets, until the snow covered them up and they were warmed by the heat of their bodies. And there they stayed for two days. Delirium overtook many of them. They were raving and shrieking. When it was over, four were dead: Dolan, Uncle Billy, a Mexican herder named Antoine, and the boy Lemuel Murphy. The survivors, crawling out of their mound, managed to strike a fire against a dead pine tree. They cut strips from the legs and arms of Patrick Dolan and roasted them. Eddy and the Indians refused to eat, but after another day, they, too, gave in. The other bodies were butchered and the flesh dried at the fire for the journey ahead.
Back at the huts below the divide Christmas was nearly as grim. The refugees had not yet reached the final extreme. But five were dead, and many of the others were reduced to catching and eating the field mice that came burrowing into the huts. They had begun eating oxhides, which they first boiled into a thick glue, and some of them were easing the pains of hunger by chewing tree bark. At the lake camp, a little frozen meat was still left, and one woman had hoarded a few handfuls of flour, from which she made a kind of gruel for the infant in her care. But probably none felt themselves more fortunate that Christmas than the four children of Mrs. Reed. For nearly eight weeks their mother had kept hidden away the fixings for a holiday stew, which she now brought forth in all its meager glory: a mess of ox tripe, a cupful of white beans, a few dried apples, half a cup of rice, and a tiny square of bacon. “Children, eat slowly,” she warned, “there is plenty for all.”
Across the divide, the snowshoers stumbled on—ten of them now. The weather cleared and held, and the snow, in places, had finally crusted over enough for them to walk without their snowshoes. Eventually they started to see patches of bare ground. But by then the dried flesh was gone and they were eating the rawhide of their snowshoes. The Indians! Kill the Indians! But Eddy warned them and they slipped away. It was the edge now. Even Eddy was failing. Spotting a deer, he hardly had the strength to lift the rifle to his shoulder. Uncle Billy’s daughter, Mary Graves, stood by, weeping. But that night they ate venison and slept soundly.
Another man died. They cut out his heart. His wife saw it roasted on a stick.
Seven of them were left now, five women and two men, one of them mad: William Foster pleaded with Eddy to kill one of the women, pleaded until suddenly Eddy was at him with a knife, threatening to kill him if he said it again.
Days later, food gone, they came upon the two Indians, collapsed and dying. Eddy would not kill them, but left the gun for Foster. They ate again. Eddy ate only grass.
By the end they were crawling as much as they were walking. A small log in the path became a major obstacle. Their feet were bloody pulp. On January 12 they stumbled into a poor Indian camp, were given acorn meal, and were helped on their way. They managed to go five days more before the last bit of strength was used up and they lay down to die. Eddy alone, helped by two Indians, dragged himself the last six miles to Johnson’s Ranch, the first settlement on the edge of the Sacramento Valley. His bloody footprints marked the trail for those who would go to rescue his companions.
It was two more weeks before the first relief party got under way. The American settlers in northern California had just fought their last campaign against the Mexicans and it took time to raise enough volunteers. Incredibly, William Eddy, who was determined to rescue his wife and children, was among those who started from Johnson’s on February 4; and he got well up into the mountains before being sent back with the horses.