|Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 1|
A Famous Tourist Resort
Building the Central Pacific
California's Skating Park
The Organization of the Donner Party
Ho! for California!
A Mammoth Train
The Dangers by the Way
False Accounts of the Sufferings Endured
Complete Roll of the Company
Impostors Claiming to Belong to the Party
Killed by the Pawnees
An Alarmed Camp
A Mother's Death.
Three miles from Truckee, Nevada County, California, lies one of the fairest and most picturesque lakes in all the Sierra. Above, and on either side, are lofty mountains, with casteliated granite crests, while below, at the mouth of the lake, a grassy, meadowy valley widens out and extends almost to Truckee. The body of water is three miles long, one and a half miles wide, and four hundred and eighty-three feet in depth.
Tourists and picnic parties annually flock to its shores, and Bierstadt has made it the subject of one of his finest, grandest paintings. In summer, its willowy thickets, its groves of tamarack and forests of pine, are the favorite haunts and nesting places of the quail and grouse. Beautiful, speckled mountain trout plentifully abound in its crystalline waters. A rippling breeze usually wimples and dimples its laughing surface, but in calmer moods it reflects, as in a polished mirror, the lofty, overhanging mountains, with every stately pine, bounding rivulet; blossoming shrub, waving fern, and - high above all, on the right - the clinging, thread-like line of the snow-sheds of the Central Pacific. When the railroad was being constructed, three thousand people dwelt on its shores; the surrounding forests resounded with the music of axes and saws, and the terrific blasts exploded in the lofty, o'ershadowing cliffs, filled the canyons with reverberating thunders, and hurled huge bowlders high in the air over the lake's quivering bosom.
In winter it is almost as popular a pleasure resort as during the summer. The jingling of sleighbells, and the shouts and laughter of skating parties, can be heard almost constantly. The lake forms the grandest skating park on the Pacific Coast.
Yet this same Donner Lake was the scene of one of the most thrilling, heart-rending tragedies ever recorded in California history. Interwoven with the very name of the lake are memories of a tale of destitution, loneliness, and despair, which borders on the incredible. It is a tale that has been repeated in many a miner's cabin, by many a hunter's campfire, and in many a frontiersman's home, and everywhere it has been listened to with bated breath.
The pioneers of a new country are deserving of a niche in the country's history. The pioneers who became martyrs to the cause of the development of an almost unknown land, deserve to have a place in the hearts of its inhabitants. The far-famed Donner Party were, in a peculiar sense, pioneer martyrs of California. Before the discovery of gold, before the highway across the continent was fairly marked out, while untold dangers lurked by the wayside, and unnumbered foes awaited the emigrants, the Donner Party started for California. None but the brave and venturesome, none but the energetic and courageous, could undertake such a journey. In 1846, comparatively few had dared attempt to cross the almost unexplored plains which lay between the Mississippi and the fair young land called California. Hence it is that a certain grandeur, a certain heroism seems to cling about the men and women composing this party, even from the day they began their perilous journey across the plains. California, with her golden harvests, her beautiful homes, her dazzling wealth, and her marvelous commercial facilities, may well enshrine the memory of these noble-hearted pioneers, pathfinders, martyrs.
The States along the Mississippi were but sparsely settled in 1846, yet the fame of the fruitfulness, the healthfulness, and the almost tropical beauty of the land bordering the Pacific, tempted the members of the Donner Party to leave their homes. These homes were situated in Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Missouri, and Ohio. Families from each of these States joined the train and participated in its terrible fate; yet the party proper was organized in Sangamon County, Illinois, by George and Jacob Donner and James F. Reed. Early in April, 1846, the party set out from Springfield, Illinois, and by the first week in May reached Independence, Missouri. Here the party was increased by additional members, and the train comprised about one hundred persons.
Independence was on the frontier in those days, and every care was taken to have ample provisions laid in and all necessary preparations made for the long journey. Ay, it was a long journey for many in the party! Great as was the enthusiasm and eagerness with which these noble-hearted pioneers caught up the cry of the times, "Ho! for California!" it is doubtful if presentiments of the fate to be encountered were not occasionally entertained. The road was difficult, and in places almost unbroken; warlike Indians guarded the way, and death, in a thousand forms, hovered about their march through the great wilderness.
In the party were aged fathers with their trusting families about them, mothers whose very lives were wrapped up in their children, men in the prime and vigor of manhood, maidens in all the sweetness and freshness of budding womanhood, children full of glee and mirthfulness, and babes nestling on maternal breasts. Lovers there were, to whom the journey was tinged with rainbow hues of joy and happiness, and strong, manly hearts whose constant support and encouragement was the memory of dear ones left behind in home-land. The cloud of gloom which finally settled down in a death-pall over their heads was not yet perceptible, though, as we shall soon see, its mists began to collect almost at the outset, in the delays which marked the journey.
The wonderment which all experience in viewing the scenery along the line of the old emigrant road was peculiarly vivid to these people. Few descriptions had been given of the route, and all was novel and unexpected. In later years the road was broadly and deeply marked, and good camping grounds were distinctly indicated. The bleaching bones of cattle that had perished, or the broken fragments of wagons or cast-away articles, were thickly strewn on either side of the highway. But in 1846 the way was through almost trackless valleys waving with grass, along rivers where few paths were visible, save those made by the feet of buffaloes and antelope, and over mountains and plains where little more than the westward course of the sun guided the travelers. Trading-posts were stationed at only a few widely distant points, and rarely did the party meet with any human beings, save wandering bands of Indians. Yet these first days are spoken of by all of the survivors as being crowned with peaceful enjoyment and pleasant anticipations. There were beautiful flowers by the roadside, an abundance of game in the meadows and mountains, and at night there were singing, dancing, and innocent plays. Several musical instruments, and many excellent voices, were in the party, and the kindliest feeling and good-fellowship prevailed among the members.
The formation of the company known as the Donner Party was purely accidental. The union of so many emigrants into one train was not occasioned by any preconcerted arrangement. Many composing the Donner Party were not aware, at the outset, that such a tide of emigration was sweeping to California. In many instances small parties would hear of the mammoth train just ahead of them or just behind them, and by hastening their pace, or halting for a few days, joined themselves to the party. Many were with the train during a portion of the journey, but from some cause or other became parted from the Donner company before reaching Donner Lake. Soon after the train left Independence it contained between two and three hundred wagons, and when in motion was two miles in length.
With much bitterness and severity it is alleged by some of the survivors of the dreadful tragedy that certain impostors and falsifiers claim to have been members of the Donner Party, and as such have written untruthful and exaggerated accounts of the sufferings of the party. While this is unquestionably true, it is barely possible that some who assert membership found their claim upon the fact that during a portion of the journey they were really in the Donner Party. Bearing this in mind, there is less difficulty in reconciling the conflicting statements of different narrators.
The members of the party proper numbered ninety, and were as follows:
George Donner, Tamsen Donner (his wife), Elitha C. Donner, Leanna C. Donner, Frances E. Donner, Georgia A. Donner and Eliza P. Donner. The last three were children of George and Tamsen Donner; Elitha and Leanna were children of George Donner by a former wife.
Jacob Donner, Elizabeth Donner (his wife), Solomon Hook, William Hook, George Donner, Jr., Mary M. Donner, Isaac Donner, Lewis Donner and Samuel Donner. Jacob Donner was a brother of George; Solomon and William Hook were sons of Elizabeth Donner by a former husband.
James Frazier Reed, Margaret W. Reed (his wife), Virginia E. Reed, Martha F. (Patty) Reed, James F. Reed, Jr., Thomas K. Reed, and Mrs. Sarah Keyes, the mother of Mrs. Reed.
The two Donner families and the Reeds were from Springfield, Illinois. From the same place were Baylis Williams and his half-sister Eliza Williams, John Denton, Milton Elliott, James Smith, Walter Herron and Noah James.
From Marshall County, Illinois, came Franklin Ward Graves, Elizabeth Graves (his wife), Mary A. Graves, William C. Graves, Eleanor Graves, Lovina Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan B. Graves, F. W. Graves, Jr., Elizabeth Graves, Jr., Jay Fosdick and Mrs. Sarah Fosdick (née Graves). With this family came John Snyder.
From Keokuk, Lee County, Iowa, came Patrick Breen, Mrs. Margaret Breen, John Breen, Edward J. Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., Simon P. Breen, James F. Breen, Peter Breen, and Isabella M. Breen. Patrick Dolan also came from Keokuk.
William H. Eddy, Mrs. Eleanor Eddy, James P. Eddy, and Margaret Eddy came from Belleville, Illinois.
From Tennessee came Mrs. Lavina Murphy, a widow, and her family, John Landrum Murphy, Mary M. Murphy, Lemuel B. Murphy, William G. Murphy, Simon P. Murphy, William M. Pike, Mrs. Harriet F. Pike (née Murphy), Naomi L. Pike, and Catherine Pike. Another son-in-law of Mrs. Murphy, William M. Foster, with his wife, Mrs. Sarah A. C. Foster, and infant boy George Foster, came from St. Louis, Missouri.
William McCutchen, Mrs. W. McCutchen, and Harriet McCutchen were from Jackson County, Missouri.
Lewis Keseberg, Mrs. Phillipine Keseberg, Ada Keseberg, and L. Keseberg, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Wolfinger, Joseph Rhinehart, Augustus Spitzer, and Charles Burger, came from Germany.
Samuel Shoemaker came from Springfield, Ohio, Charles T. Stanton from Chicago, Illinois, Luke Halloran from St. Joseph, Missouri, Mr. Hardcoop from Antwerp, in Belgium, Antoine from New Mexico. John Baptiste was a Spaniard, who joined the train near the Santa Fé trail, and Lewis and Salvador were two Indians, who were sent out from California by Captain Sutter.
The Breens joined the company at Independence, Missouri, and the Graves family overtook the train one hundred miles west of Fort Bridger. Each family, prior to its consolidation with the train, had its individual incidents. William Trimble, who was traveling with the Graves family, was slain by the Pawnee Indians about fifty miles east of Scott's Bluff. Trimble left a wife and two or three children. The wife and some of her relatives were so disheartened by this sad bereavement, and by the fact that many of their cattle were stolen by the Indians, that they gave up the journey to California, and turned back to the homes whence they had started.
An amusing incident is related in the Healdsburg (Cal.) Flag, by Mr. W. C. Graves, of Calistoga, which occurred soon after his party left St. Joseph, Missouri. It was on the fourth night out, and Mr. Graves and. four or five others were detailed to stand guard. The constant terror of the emigrants in those days was Indians. Both the Pawnees, the Sioux, and the Snakes were warlike and powerful, and were jealous, revengeful, and merciless toward the whites. That night a fire somehow started in the prairie grass about half a mile from camp. The west wind, blowing fierce and strong, carried the flames in great surging gusts through the tall prairie grass. A resin weed grows in bunches in this part of the country, generally attaining the height of four or five feet. The night being very dark, these weeds could be seen standing between the fire and the guards. As the flames swayed past the weeds, the impression was very naturally produced upon the mind of a timid beholder that the weeds were moving in the opposite direction. This optical illusion caused some of the guards to believe that the Indians had set fire to the grass, and were moving in immense numbers between them and the fire with intent to surround them, stampede the cattle, and massacre the entire party. The watcher next to Mr. Graves discovered the enemy, and rushed breathlessly to his comrade to impart the intelligence. Scarcely had Mr. Graves quieted him before it was evident that a general alarm had been spread in the camp. Two other guards had seen the Indians, and the aroused camp, armed to the teeth, marched out to give battle to the imaginary foe. It was a rich joke, and it was some time before those who were scared heard the last of the resin Indians.
Only once, before reaching Salt Lake, did death invade the joyous Donner company. It was near the present site of Manhattan, Kansas, and Mrs. Sarah Keyes was the victim. This estimable lady was the mother of Mrs. J. F. Reed, and had reached her four score and ten years. Her aged frame and feeble health were not equal to the fatigues and exposure of the trip, and on the thirtieth of May they laid her tenderly to rest. She was buried in a coffin carefully fashioned from the trunk of a cottonwood tree, and on the brow of a beautiful knoll overlooking th valley. A grand old oak, still standing, guards the lonely grave of the dear old mother who was spared the sight of the misery in store for her loved ones. Could those who performed the last sad rites have caught a vision of the horrors awaiting the party, they would have known how good was the God who in mercy took her to Himself.