The tragic journey of the Donner Party
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
To the brothers George and Jacob Donner the way to California seemed clear and simple. Both in their sixties, solid and well-to-do thanks to their own hard work, but beginning now to feel their age and the long Illinois winters in their bones, the two men sat in the glow of the hearthfire that winter of 1845-46 and turned again the wellthumbed pages of The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California . With the snow piled outside and the Sangamon River lying frozen in its bed, the brothers read with wonder the book’s description of a golden land. In California, winter was warmer than summer, said the author—one Lansford W. Hastings. Hollyhocks and sweet william bloomed at Christmastime. Clover stood five feet high and the cattle never had to be fed or housed. “Here perpetual summer is in the midst of unceasing winter; perennial spring and never failing autumn stand side by side, and towering snow clad mountains forever look down upon eternal verdure.”
Oh, yes, Oregon had its virtues, Hastings admitted. It was more like the country most Americans knew: green and wooded. And it was claimed by the United States, not by Mexico. Also, the trail was shorter. But for much of the year Oregon was gray and misty; and the last stretch of the trail—the part that took you through the Cascades—was dreadfully difficult. No, it was better to try for California. Besides, said Hastings, it was possible to shorten the trip.
All you had to do was follow the regular wagon route toward Fort Bridger—the road used by emigrants ever since the first small band of American settlers made its way overland in 1841. You started at the Missouri frontier town of Independence, headed northwest across the grassy plains of what is now Kansas and Nebraska, followed the North Fork of the Platte River to Fort Laramie, and continued westward to South Pass, the broad, gently sloping plain that took you over the crest of the Continental Divide. From there you headed southwest to Fort Bridger.
Then, instead of making the long, northward swing to Fort Hall and down the Humboldt River, you took Hastings’ shortcut: “bearing west southwest, to the Salt Lake, and then continuing down to the Bay of St. Francisco.”
What could be more sensible? Anyone who glanced at a map could see that the Fort Hall trail made sense for Oregon but not for California. Was it not reasonable to suppose that there was a more direct route across the still unmapped spaces that lay due west of Fort Bridger? Now here was this man Hastings saying it was so. And in print. Between the polished leather covers of a book!
So George and Jacob Donner made their decision: they would venture the new route and get to California just that much sooner. It was a decision that would have them remembering fondly, before another winter was out, the comforts of their Illinois homesteads.
The trouble was that in 1845, when The Emigrants’ Guide was published, neither its author nor anyone else had yet broken the new route to California. So far, the so-called shortcut existed only in Hastings’ imagination. A restless young schemer from Ohio in whose head swirled dreams of empire, Hastings had written his book and created the cutoff as a means of attracting enough American settlers to California to overthrow the Mexican regime and declare an independent republic. Then, of course, the new government would need leaders and there he would be: Lansford Hastings himself, California’s own Sam Houston.
Unfortunately the abstract logic of Hastings’ new emigrant trail bore no relation to the uncompromising facts of geography. The country that Hastings so blithely swept away with his pen was some of the worst for wagon travel in the United States. Between Fort Bridger and the Great Salt Lake lay the Wasatch Range—boulder-strewn, canyoncut, and covered in many places with miles of tangled scrub forest. And beyond the Salt Lake lay the alkaline wastes of the Great Salt Lake Desert. It was a country that the Rocky Mountain fur trappers had known and avoided for twenty years but had failed to record except in their own heads. The fact was that in the spring of 1846 the general public had plenty of legend but little hard information about the Far West. It was as though no white man had ever trod the Wasatch or the Salt Desert wilderness. No map showed what that terrible country was like. John Charles Frémont, whose widely read accounts were full of wonderful descriptions and adventure stories, inspired any number of restless young easterners to strike out for the far country—or to dream of doing so. But Frémont did not concern himself with opening new wagon routes, nor did he offer much information that would be useful to emigrants on the trail.
Hence the popularity of Hastings’ Emigrants’ Guide . Grossly inaccurate and not nearly so well written as Frémont’s book, it nonetheless seemed to give the emigrants just what they needed—practical information about the Great Trek: how they could prepare for it, what they could expect along the way, and what they would find in the Promised Land. All up and down the Ohio and Mississippi valleys that winter Hastings’ book was being read, talked over, and passed from hand to hand.
As to Hastings’ proposed new route, vague as it was, there was about it that air of self-evident logic. Moreover, the theory of a more direct route seemed to be confirmed by Frémont’s exploration of 1845. Arriving at Sutler’s Fort (now Sacramento) at the end of that year, Frémont reported that he had crossed the Salt Desert and had pushed his way over the high Sierra just ahead of the snow. He was gaunt and worn from the ordeal, even though he had made the journey on horseback. Yet he declared grandly that the route he had just explored was “decidedly better” for wagons, being considerably shorter and “less mountainous, with good pasturage and well watered.” Frémont, it seems, was cut from the same cloth as Hastings. Both were optimistic to the point of being irresponsible.
Encouraged by Frémont’s report, Hastings started east from Suiter’s Fort in mid-April, 1846, to scoul the trail for himself finally and Io persuade as many westwardbound emigrants as he could to follow him back to California. The party with which he traveled seems Io have included a number of people who did nol share his enlhusiasm for lhe golden shore. As the saying went, they “had seen the elephanl” and were going home. But Hastings was seldom perturbed by opposition; and at any rate, a man could not always choose his traveling companions. So the party moved easl, over lhe Sierra and along the Humboldt River trail: a lrickle of humanity against the westward tide.
In Illinois, meanwhile, George and Jacob Donner, together with their friend James Frazier Reed, a local furniture manufacturer, prepared to join the more than two thousand emigrants who were starting for Oregon and California that spring. Mustering in Springfield on April 15, lhey made a buslling and prosperous confusion: women in homespun, impalienl to get started; whitetopped wagons; dogs; children; high-booted teamsters; the unruly herd of cattle and horses.
They were probably among the besl-ofFemigranls on lhe trail lhal year. The Donner brolhers—wilh their wives, with twelve children beiween ihem, and wilh four young men hired to help with the animals—were setting off wilh three wagons apiece: one packed with goods to be used for setting up trade and housekeeping in California; one loaded wilh supplies for lhe journey; and one Io live in. George Donner’s wife Tamsen was laking waler colors, oil painls, and “apparatus for preserving botanical specimens.” She was bringing books and school supplies for the young ladies’ seminary she planned to establish in California; and she was bringing a quilt into which she had sewn ten ihousand dollars in bank notes.
Reed, who was forty-six years old, who had served in the Black Hawk War with a would-be politician named Abraham Lincoln, and who had later done well for himself in the furniture business, had loaded his ihree wagons with all lhe luxuries of a successful life, including cushions, bunks, a stove, and a store of gourmet wines and brandies. Heading west in hopes of improving his prosperity, he was traveling with his wife, his ailing mother-in-law, four children, and five employees, all in their twenties and all Sangamon County neighbors: Baylis Williams, his sister Eliza, and three young men working their way west.
This was the company that set out from Springfield on April 16, heading west at last along the muddy Illinois springtime roads. At different stages along the trail, the caravan was lengthened by the wagons of other travelers, the numbers fluctuating as emigrant parties grouped and regrouped. There was Patrick Breen, for one. Rejoined up at Independence, bringing with him his wife, six sons, a daughter, and a friend named Patrick Dolan. Breen, a transplanted Irishman, had enjoyed enough success at farming on the Iowa side of the Mississippi Valley to be traveling with three wagons and his own substantial herd of horses and cattle.
Then there was an Illinois carriage maker named William Eddy with his wife and two children; and the Fosters; the Pikes; the Graveses; the Kesebergs and Wolfingers (both from Germany); the McCutchens; a cutler named Hardcoop, who was in his sixties; and various unattached young men. Among these last were a few who seem to have come along simply for the adventure.
But there were a number, among both the single men and the married, who neither shared the prosperity of the Donners and the Reeds nor were particularly adventuresome, but who hoped only to escape the hard times that had beaten down so many people in the Mississippi Valley during the depression of the late thirties and early forties. In the West, at least, a man might still be able to buy land cheaply and get a fair price for the fruits of his labor.
So they had headed for Independence. And having traveled first with one party then with another, as chance, convenience, and temperament seemed to dictate, they had fallen in at last with the Donners. One train, after all, was much like another. It was the people that made the difference. The numbers grew, and when the Donner Party was complete it contained a total of eighty-seven men, women, and children.
The trek was hard going right from the start. The emigrants were townspeople and farmers, not frontiersmen. They were used to having regular meals and a roof over their heads. For them, life on the trail took some getting used to. It was not just the strain of traveling for weeks at a time in an unknown country, but also of struggling with the cattle and of repairing broken wagons; of sleeping on the damp ground or on a hard wagon bed; of eating poorly; and of being soaked through by rain and blistered by the sun. Quarrels were frequent even in the first days of the journey. Illness, too, was commonplace: colds, bronchitis, agues, bouts of diarrhea. Reed’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Sarah Keyes, aged and feeble, lasted only a few weeks. She was buried under an oak near the Big Blue River in May.
The Donners and their friends were faring neither better nor worse than most bands of emigrants on the trail that spring. Indeed, they were even managing to enjoy themselves a little. Having joined an enormous train of seventy-two wagons (itself a conglomerate of smaller trains), they found in that village on wheels as much congenial company as they wished—more even than they had known at home. There were sewing circles, glee clubs, debating societies, open-air church services on Sundays, the pleasant rituals of the campfire, and any number of playmates for the children. And they enjoyed as much as anyone the ample beauties of the springtime prairie—that luxurious rolling plain of grass and wildflowers, where diarists waxed eloquent at the thought of “prairie schooners” sailing gracefully upon an emerald sea.
But as they climbed the long slope toward the Rockies, a subtle change occurred. The heat of summer was coming on and enthusiasm was giving way to boredom and a gnawing anxiety. The country, too, was different now. Instead of the broad, smooth prairie highway, the wagons had to be pulled through a hard, dry land that was cut up by ravines and dusty alkaline hills. Water and grass had grown scarce, and now there were Indians to worry about. This was Pawnee country, and a man had to be constantly on his guard to prevent his cattle from being driven off or himself from falling behind and becoming a victim of a Pawnee raiding party. Tempers flared and quarrels turned into fist fights. The big parties began splitting up.
Then came new frustrations. Just east of Fort Laramie the now fragmented party to which the Donners were attached met up with a grubby old wanderer named James Clyman, who told them that Hastings’ route was a mistake. Clyman, it turned out, was an old friend of James Reed: a mountain man who had first crossed the Missouri in 1823, had later settled in Illinois and Wisconsin, and had been in the same company as Reed (and Lincoln) during the Black Hawk War. Restlessness had turned his needle for California in 1844. But this spring of 1846, satisfied that there was little promise in the Promised Land, he had started for home, traveling east with Lansford Hastings over the very trail the emigrants were planning to take.
That trail, Clyman had found, was appallingly difficult even on horseback. Hastings was waiting at Fort Bridger to tell the emigrants otherwise. But Clyman, nominating himself a one-man safety committee, was riding ahead to warn everyone he met against taking the supposed shortcut. Now, on this night of June 27, 1846, he found himself sitting beside an emigrant campfire, telling his friend Reed and a number of other wagon captains (including, probably, George and Jacob Donner) about the terrible country they would encounter if they took Hastings’ route. Clyman’s advice (as he later recalled in his journal) was for the emigrants to stick to the regular wagon route. “It is barely possible to get through if you follow it,” he told them, “and may be impossible if you don’t.”
No one welcomed the news. It was too disheartening to think of stretching their tedious journey still further by making the long swing north to Fort Hall. Besides, they were already beginning to feel the pressure of time. By their constant quarreling and reorganizing, by taking time out for fishing and sight-seeing and fist fights, they had fallen behind schedule. After two months of travel they were barely a third of the way to California. At this rate, they would not get to the Sierra until the end of October, when they would be running low on provisions and when the mountain passes were likely to be blocked by snow. Fear of such a prospect had already prompted one of those at the campfire, a Louisville newspaperman named Edwin Bryant, to trade his wagon and oxen for mules and packsaddles. Several of his companions had done likewise.
Bryant put Clyman down for a liar, suspecting ulterior motives, though he had no idea what they might be. Another wagon captain, an old Santa Fe trader and former governor of Missouri named Lilliburn Boggs, took just the opposite view. Impressed by Clyman’s report, he decided to take his party to Oregon by way of Fort Hall. But Reed held out. Did Hastings’ book count for nothing? And all those months of planning? Tense and irritable, Reed spoke up: “There is a nigher route,” he insisted, “and it is of no use to take so much of a roundabout course.”
So in the end it came down to the word of one man against another: the word of Clyman, who had no more to his name than a pack and a horse and a timber claim in Wisconsin (and that probably worthless), against the word of a man who had written a book! No, Reed would go the way he had planned and the Donners would go with him. They were respectable men. They listened to respectable voices.
One chronicler, an Oregon-bound emigrant who took leave of the Donner Party a short time later, noted in his journal that “The Californians were generally much elated and in fine spirits, with the prospect of a better and nearer road to the country of their destination. Mrs. George Donner [Tamsen] was an exception. She was gloomy, sad, and dispirited, in view of the fact that her husband and others could think for a moment of leaving the old road and confide in the statement of a man of whom they knew nothing but who was probably some selfish adventurer.”
Yet the soundness of their judgment seemed only to be confirmed when, having trekked across the Wyoming desert and up the long slope to South Pass, Reed and the Donner brothers came down on the westward side of the Great Divide and rolled up to Jim Bridger’s ramshackle trading post. There they found that a large party of emigrants had already started westward over the new trail, with Hastings himself at its head. Bryant’s party, too, had stuck to its plan despite his misgivings and was taking the new route. Even better, here was Jim Bridger himself, one of the greatest mountain men of all, telling them just what they wanted to hear: that the new trail was open and easy, and that Hastings would be marking the route for those who followed.
Perhaps it was Bridger’s name, perhaps it was his manner, or perhaps it was their own anxieties and frustrations that prompted Reed and the Donner brothers to trust “Old Gabe” where they had failed to trust Clyman. In any case, their trust was misplaced. Bridger was lying. Why? Old Gabe had his reasons. Two years before, a new shortcut had been established between South Pass and Fort Hall—one that bypassed Fort Bridger and so threatened to put its proprietor out of business. If, by some fluke, Hastings and his followers did stumble on a new route out of Fort Bridger, why then Old Gabe stood to regain his share of the emigrant trade.
But the members of the Donner Party knew nothing of Bridger’s motives. They took him at his word. The matter was settled. After stopping a few days to rest the oxen, the party left Fort Bridger on the last day of July and headed west toward the Wasatch Range.
Meanwhile, the parties that had gone ahead were finding the trail infinitely more difficult than Hastings had led them to believe. Even Bryant and his friends, mounted though they were on mules, were almost beaten by the rugged canyons of the Wasatch, and they were half dead with thirst before they got across the Salt Desert.
For the party of wagons led by Hastings the journey was hellish. Called the Harlan-Young Party, after two of its captains, it consisted of four fragmentary trains totaling about sixty wagons. Having been delayed on the trail, and having found Hastings himself awaiting them at Fort Bridger, the leaders of the party had been persuaded to risk the new route in hopes of saving time. Hastings, confident as ever, had agreed to guide them. At last he had found his following. After that, his only problem was deciding where to lead them.
Hoping to find an easier route over the Wasatch than the one he and Clyman had traveled on their eastward journey, Hastings led them straight into the narrow canyon of the Weber River, where the wagons at times had to be alternately driven and floated in the river bed, and at other times, dragged up and over the sheer cliffs with a windlass. Once on the desert—eighty miles of glaring salt and sand instead of the forty that Hastings had promised—oxen died and wagons were abandoned. The sun wore down even the strongest men.
Eventually the party found its way to the Humboldt River. But instead of gaining time, the emigrants had lost nearly three weeks. Hastings’ cutoff had proved to be not only more difficult but also 125 miles longer than the Fort Hall route. When the Harlan-Young Party crossed the Sierra in early October the snow was already beginning to fly. They were the last party on the trail that year—except for that of the Donner brothers.
The Donner Party, now numbering its full complement of twenty-three wagons and eighty-seven people, had been running into delays almost from the time it had left Fort Bridger. Thirteen-year-old Eddie Breen broke his leg in a fall from a horse and needed tending. That took time. Then, at the head of Weber canyon, the party found a forked stick with a note stuck on it, instructing any that followed to send a messenger forward to Hastings, who would come back and personally direct them to a better route. So the party went into camp and Reed and two others rode ahead to find Hastings. Five days the party waited, while supplies dwindled and the season grew shorter. When Reed returned he was alone. The other men’s horses, he said, had broken down. Hastings had decided he must stay with the Harlan-Young Party, but from the top of a rise, he had pointed Reed a new path between the hazy peaks of the Wasatch.
Crossing the forty miles to the valley of the Great Salt Lake took the Donner Party fifteen days of almost unimaginable labor—of pushing aside boulders, hacking through trees and underbrush, bridging swamps and rivers, backtracking out of blind canyons, and dragging the wagons up one ridge after another. The road they cut was a good one—a godsend to the Mormons, who poured over it a year later. But, for their contribution, the men and women of the Donner Party paid dearly in time and energy.
The ordeal was taking its toll. Cumulative fatigue and a growing sense of the danger they faced was beginning to drive them apart. Reed was blamed for the bad trail, another man for not doing his share. Some no doubt blamed the consumptive waif named Halloran for eating but being too weak to work. But Halloran died, his head on Tamsen’s lap, and was buried near the trail.
The party went ahead as best it could and reached the oasis east of the Salt Desert at the beginning of September. Another note from Hastings: they should load up with all the grass and water they could carry, for the desert, instead of taking only one day to cross, would take two days and two nights.
The crossing took them six days and most of six nights, and it strained still further the sorry fabric of their morale. A few drove their teams hard, hoping to shorten the journey. Others went slowly, hoping to spare the animals and so insure they got across. Reed and the Donners fell far behind, their progress slowed by their fine wagons, so grandly laden with the comforts of home. Eventually they left the wagons and set off on foot, Reed carrying his three-year-old Tommy on his shoulders.
Everyone made it to the spring at the foot of Pilot Peak. No one died. But they had lost precious days in the crossing, and now they spent more days recuperating, searching for lost and dying cattle, and bringing up their wagons. Few of them had come through without some loss. A number, finding their herds reduced, set about lightening their loads. Reed, who had lost most of his cattle, had to abandon two of his opulent wagons and divide his gourmet delicacies among his companions. Lewis Keseberg left a wagon behind, and so did Jacob Donner, who had exchanged his solid prairie home and his wealth of Illinois land for wagons and teams and cash in hand. But one team was gone now. He had no choice. No matter how painful the decision, a wagon simply had to be left behind.
When they moved on again, September was almost half gone and they were at least a month away from the Sierra. But they had to keep going. They were too far along to turn back (it would have meant the desert again). Ahead, if they were lucky, the mountain passes might still be open. Yet already the fall chill was in the air, and one day, as they pushed on toward the Humboldt, the people of the Donner Party encountered a little desert snowstorm.
Meanwhile, beginning to fear that their food supplies would run out before they even got to the mountains, they sent two men ahead on horseback to appeal to Captain Sutter for provisions. One was young Charles Stanton, a bachelor; the other, a family man, William McCutchen, who left behind a wife and child. The rest pressed on and reached the main Humboldt River trail on September 30. Hoping to make better use of the sparse grass, the company had split into two sections and spread out, traveling a mile or so apart. The Donners led one group, Reed the other.
Everyone was on edge now. The most trifling matters sent men flying into senseless rages. It was an experience common to all parties on this last stretch of the trail, when the novelty of the trip had long since worn off and everyone was travel weary. But the toll was seldom as grievous as it now became for the Donner Party. Shortly after striking the main trail, Reed jumped into a quarrel between two teamsters and ended by killing one of them with a knife. Banished from the company (some had wanted him hanged), Reed rode off toward the mountains, leaving his wife and children in the care of his friends. A short time later, the old cutler Hardcoop fell behind and never caught up, and the men with horses refused to wear out their mounts by going back to look for him. Then another man mysteriously disappeared: the German Wolfinger, who was thought to be carrying a lot of money. Having lost most of his team on a difficult stretch of Nevada desert, he had stayed behind to cache his belongings. Two single men —partners, also from Germany—stayed to help, and returned in a few days with a story about how the Indians had killed Wolfinger and burned his outfit. (But later, on his deathbed, one of them confessed to the murder.)
By the time it reached the meadows at the foot of the Sierra, the Donner Party was a party no more, but a straggling collection of individuals bound by family ties alone. There were only a dozen or so wagons left. The great crate of books that was to be the germ of Tamsen Donner’s girls’ academy had been cached in the Nevada desert. Loosely guarded, the cattle wandered away or were driven off by “Diggers"—impoverished bands of desert Indians, most of them Paiutes. A gun went off by accident and a man was killed. William Eddy, who had lost all his stock, could find no one to take his children into a wagon.
But then at last they had some encouragement: a pack train came loping down the trail out of the west. It was Stanton, returning from Suiter’s Fort with seven pack mules loaded with food and with two of Sutler’s Indian vaqueras to guide them. Here was hope for ihe first time in weeks: food, and word that Reed had gotlen ihrough (lhough he had nearly slarved), and that McCutchen had given out on the crossing and was laid up at Sutler’s. Word, too, that the mountain passes were still open. Yes, there had been snow. They could see it on the peaks above them when the clouds gave way. But at this time of year, Stanton had been told, it would be nearly a month before the pass was blocked.
So they still had time, they told themselves. They could even afford to rest a few days in this grassy meadow before starting the push for the summit. (How long it had been since they had seen grass so tall, so green!) And having rested, they started in three small groups up the rugged canyon of the Truckee River, and reached Truckee (now Donner) Lake at the end of October. Just ahead loomed the summit: a wall of granite rising two thousand feet above the lake.
It was the worst obstacle on the whole grueling journey, not least because it came at the end, when men and animals were so worn down. Even the parties that had gone before—in good time and in fair weather—had found the effort exhausting. As many as fifteen yoke of oxen had to be used to pull a single wagon up the steep trail that led to the summit at Emigrant Gap. Every man was needed to handle the ropes and crowbars and to block the wheels. More than one wagon had gone over the side. But the job could be done, and now the first group of the Donner Party began struggling up the slope.
They found the pass already blanketed with five feet of snow—too deep for the wagons. They went back to the lake, waited out a day of rain (snow higher up), and started again, this time with their belongings packed on the backs of oxen. Stanton and one of Sutler’s Indians made it to the summit. They could have gone down the western slope, but they turned back to help the others. The others were spent. They could not go on. They camped. They would go over the summit in the morning. But that night a snowstorm blew in and they awoke to find themselves half buried, the cattle gone, the snow too deep for them to move ahead. So again they turned back. Later, when the snow stopped, they could try again. (The season was still early; the snow might still melt.) Meantime, the men set to work building huts of logs and brush and canvas from the wagon tops. The lead group set up near the lake, while the Donner brothers, their families, and their teamsters went into camp five or six miles down the trail, at Alder Creek.
It snowed almost continuously for eight days. Reed and McCutchen, leading a relief train of pack horses up the western slope, pushed through shoulder-deep snow until they could go no further and had to turn back. The Donner Party was on its own.
It numbered eighty-two people now, many of them children. And they knew the worst: winter had come early and they were trapped. They could still hope that a relief party would reach them from Sutler’s, but in the meantime they would have to survive as best they could by eating their cattle and hunting. But who among them could have imagined that snow could get so deep? They were plains people, not mountaineers. They did not know what to expect of a winter in the Sierra. There, in the high passes, thirty feet of snow has been known to fall in a month. By February it can be packed sixty feet deep.
Day by day the weather grew colder and the snow grew deeper. The people killed most of the cattle, hoping that the snow and cold would preserve the meat. William Eddy, the party’s one good shot, managed to bag a coyote with a borrowed rifle: also an owl, two ducks, a squirrel, and then a grizzly bear. But after that there was nothing. The deer and elk had descended below the snow line and the bears were staying in their dens.
Twice in November those who were most able tried to get over the divide in hopes of saving themselves and their children and of bringing relief to the others. The second time, they actually got over and started down the other side. They had been using Sutler’s mules to break a trail, however, and when the animals gave out, Stanton refused to go on without them. The mules were Captain Sutler’s property; lhey musl be relumed. The party went back, and soon afterward anolher storm broke. All lhe remaining caille and horses were losl under lhe snow, and so were Sutler’s mules. The huts, too, were buried, leaving only ' tunnels to the doorways and holes where the chimneys stood. The light was shut out.
Early in December, young Baylis Williams died—nol from slarvalion, for some food was left, but from malnulrition. A few days later, old Jacob Donner (who had dreamed of warm California) died and was buried in snow. Stanion and Uncle Billy Graves, who knew New England winters, showed the olhers how to make snowshoes. Thus equipped, a few, perhaps, could gel out and get help.
The snowshoers (the party later known as lhe Forlorn Hope) slarted for the pass in mid-December—fifteen men and women, including a boy of twelve, Stanion, Eddy, and Suiter’s iwo Indians, who knew the trail. They took with them all the food thai could be spared—two mouthfuls a day for six days—for a journey thai was Io lasl more lhan a month.
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.
The seven who continued on foot found the climb hard going, even though they were healthy and well fed. Beset by violent rainstorms, fresh snow, and then a blizzard, they would have died if the storms had continued. But they came through it, and crossed over the divide on February 18. When they dropped down to the snowy silence of the lake, they saw nothing but a level plain of snow; no smoke, no sign of life. In the stillness, they wondered if anyone was still alive—until a shout brought a strange, half-human creature clawing its way up out of a hole. Then others appeared. Skinny and white they were, with staring eyes and tiny, lunatic voices. Still others were found under the snow, in their dark, reeking huts: the sick and the dying, who could not move from their beds. The bodies of those who had died since the last storm lay at the top of the ramps, the survivors having had strength to drag them up, but not to bury them.
What had occurred at the camp during the two months since the Forlorn Hope had started for the pass was recorded in the nightmare memories of those who survived and in the diary of Patrick Breen—a spare chronicle of weather and death, of courage, meanness, faith, insanity. The indomitable Mrs. Reed, taking with her her daughter Virginia, Eliza Williams, and a teamster named Milt Elliot, had tried just after New Year’s to get over the pass between storms and had to turn back. “I could get along very well while I thought we were going ahead,” Virginia later recalled, “but as soon as we had to turn back I could hardly walk.” Keseberg’s child had died, and Eddy’s daughter, and a man named Spitzer, and Eddy’s wife, and Milt Elliot. Keseberg had stayed in bed, hoarding valuables that were not his. Eliza Williams’ mind had dimmed; she was an infant now.
At Alder Creek, George Donner lay dying, and Tamsen would not leave his side to go with the relief party. She had come with her husband this far, had followed him despite his stubborn insistence on taking Hastings’ word when all wisdom went against it. She would not abandon him now, nor would Jacob’s wife Elizabeth leave her youngest children or the body of her husband. The rescuers chose the four strongest of the Donner children, and the women dressed them in the good heavy clothes that had been packed the previous spring on the Sangamon. The others would have to wait for the next relief party, which was expected in a few days.
Twenty-three started out with the First Relief, including all of the Reeds. But Tommy and his eight-year-old sister Patty had to be sent back. They were too weak, too slow; they were endangering the whole party. “Well, Mother,” Patty said, “if you never see me again, do the best you can.”
James Reed, leading the Second Relief up the western slopes, met his wife and two children coming down. On March i he arrived at the lake camp, where he found his Tommy and Patty still alive. But Reed had come too late to spare the survivors the final horror. Bones were scattered about, tufts of human hair, half-consumed limbs. Reed recognized the bearded head of his friend Jacob Donner lying in the snow, the skull opened. Inside the Donner hut, he found Jacob’s remaining children devouring the half-roasted heart and liver of their father. Elizabeth was dying. She would not eat the food she had prepared for her children. Reed led her and the children and fourteen others back down the mountain.
Eddy and Foster, who had fought viciously in the snow two months before, led the Third Relief over the divide in March. They discovered that their sons had died, and heard the now deranged Keseberg tell them he had eaten the two boys. George Donner, they found, was somehow still alive. Tamsen wrapped her three remaining children in warm clothes and bade them good-bye. Her body had stood her well; she was still in good strength. She would stay to care for her husband and to close his eyes when he died. Foster’s mother-in-law, aged and dying, would have to stay; she was too far gone to travel. So, it seemed, was Keseberg.
It was the end of April before the last survivor was brought down from the mountains. The final party of rescuers found only carnage at Donner Lake and Donner Creek (as the campsites were soon being called)—carnage and the demented Keseberg. He was lying down, one of the rescuers remembered, “amidst the human bones, and beside him a large pan full of fresh liver and lights.” At the creek, the relief party had found a kettle full of pieces of the body of George Donner. Nearby, on a chair, were ox legs which had been perfectly preserved in the now melting snow but which had not been eaten. Why, they asked Keseberg, had he not used the meat of the bullock instead of human flesh? “Oh! it’s too dry eating!” he’d answered.
And what of Tamsen, who had been in such good health just three weeks before? The party could find no trace of her body, but they believed that Keseberg had killed her. He denied it for the rest of his life. After George Donner died, Keseberg maintained, she had come to the lake in delirium. Keseberg said he had warmed her and put her to bed, and the next morning had found her dead. But he also told the rescuers that “he ate her body and found her flesh the best he had ever tasted. He further stated that he obtained from her body at least four pounds of fat.”
When the Donner Party reached the Sierra, it had included eighty-two people, five having died on the way there. Thirty-five died in the mountains, along with the two Indians who had come to rescue them. As Bernard DeVoto points out in his classic Year of Decision: Eighteen Forty Six , the party had shared the common chance of the emigrant trail and “the common chance turned against them.” But chance alone is not enough to explain that disastrous combination of events, personalities, and interests that overwhelmed them. Chance was one factor, but so was the ambition of Lansford Hastings, the business enterprise of Jim Bridger, the cumbersome prosperity of the Donner wagons, the obstinate temper of Reed, the early winter, the tardiness of the relief parties … perhaps even so little a thing as James Clyman’s grubby looks.
Among the forty-seven survivors there were not many who came through without being haunted for the rest of their lives by the memories of what they had had to endure. The sight of a rising moon forever reminded Mrs. Foster of that moonlit night in the mountains when her companions in the Forlorn Hope set to work on the body of Patrick Dolan, while her brother Lemuel Murphy lay dead in her arms. Eliza Donner never forgot how she had eaten the bark of trees to ease the pain in her stomach.
For the most part the survivors settled into blessedly ordinary lives. Fourteen-year-old Virginia Reed, for one, received a marriage proposal even before she reached Sutler’s Fort. “Tell the girls that this is the greatest place for marrying they ever saw,” she wrote home to Illinois. Keseberg, for a time, reveled in his notoriety, finding an audience for his ghoulish tales in the bars of Gold Rush San Francisco—until the town grew more respectable and he sometimes found himself taunted and stoned when he stepped outside his house.
And then there was Lansford Hastings, whom William Eddy set out one day to kill. But Eddy was dissuaded by a friend from carrying out his plan. The Ohio schemer lived on, forever optimistic, chasing one elusive dream after another. During the Civil War he went to Richmond with a plan for seizing Arizona and southern California for the Confederacy, but nothing came of it. Later, he tried to establish a colony in Brazil for ex-Confederate soldiers. To forward his scheme he even published an Emigrants’ Guide to South America . But in 1870, before his plans were well under way, he died of a tropical disease. Not for him a cold winter death, starvation in the snow.