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A Grave of Salt
Members of the Mystic Tie
A Desolate Alkaline Waste
Abandoned on the Desert
A Night of Horror
A Steer Maddened by Thirst
Yoking an Ox and a Cow
The Emigrant's Silent Logic
A Cry for Relief
Two Heroic Volunteers
A Perilous Journey
Letters to Capt. Sutter.
Near the southern shore of great Salt Lake the Donner Party encamped on the third or fourth of September, 1846. The summer had vanished, and autumn had commenced tinting, with crimson and gold, the foliage on the Wahsatch Mountains. While encamped here, the party buried the second victim claimed by death. This time it was a poor consumptive named Luke Halloran. Without friend or kinsman, Halloran had joined the train, and was traveling to California in hopes that a change of climate might effect a cure. Alas! for the poor Irishman, when the leaves began to fall from the trees his spirit winged its flight to the better land. He died in the wagon of Captain George Donner, his head resting in Mrs. Tamsen Donner's lap. It was at sundown. The wagons had just halted for the night. The train had driven up slowly, out of respect to the dying emigrant. Looking up into Mrs. Donner's face, he said: "I die happy." Almost while speaking, he died. In return for the many kindnesses he had received during the journey, he left Mr. Donner such property as he possessed, including about fifteen hundred dollars in coin. Hon. Jas. F. Breen, of South San Juan, writes: "Halloran's body was buried in a bed of almost pure salt, beside the grave of one who had perished in the preceding train. It was said at the time that bodies thus deposited would not decompose, on account of the preservative properties of the salt. Soon after his burial, his trunk was opened, and Masonic papers and regalia bore witness to the fact that Mr. Halloran was a member of the Masonic Order. James F. Reed, Milton Elliott, and perhaps one or two others in the train, also belonged to the mystic tie."
On the sixth day of September they reached a meadow in a valley called "Twenty Wells," as there were that number of wells of various sizes, from six inches to several feet in diameter. The water in these wells rose even with the surface of the ground, and when it was drawn out the wells soon refilled. The water was cold and pure, and peculiarly welcome after the saline plains and alkaline pools they had just passed. Wells similar to these were found during the entire journey of the following day, and the country through which they were passing abounded in luxuriant grass. Reaching the confines of the Salt Lake Desert, which lies southwest of the lake, they laid in, as they supposed, an ample supply of water and grass. This desert had been represented by Bridger and Vasquez as being only about fifty miles wide. Instead, for a distance of seventy-five miles there was neither water nor grass, but everywhere a dreary, desolate, alkaline waste. Verily, it was
"A region of drought, where no river glides,
Nor rippling brook with osiered sides;
Where sedgy pool, nor bubbling fount,
Nor tree, nor cloud, nor misty mount
Appears to refresh the aching eye,
But the barren earth and the burning sky,
And the blank horizon round and round
Spread, void of living sight or sound."
When the company had been on the desert two nights and one day, Mr. Reed volunteered to go forward, and, if possible, to discover water. His hired teamsters were attending to his teams and wagons during his absence. At a distance of perhaps twenty miles he found the desired water, and hastened to return to the train. Meantime there was intense suffering in the party. Cattle were giving out and lying down helplessly on the burning sand, or frenzied with thirst were straying away into the desert. Having made preparations for only fifty miles of desert, several persons came near perishing of thirst, and cattle were utterly powerless to draw the heavy wagons. Reed was gone some twenty hours. During this time his teamsters had done the wisest thing possible, unhitched the oxen and started to drive them ahead until water was reached. It was their intention, of course, to return and get the three wagons and the family, which they had necessarily abandoned on the desert. Reed passed his teamsters during the night, and hastened to the relief of his deserted family. One of his teamster's horses gave out before morning and lay down, and while the man's companions were attempting to raise him, the oxen, rendered unmanageable by their great thirst, disappeared in the desert. There were eighteen of these oxen. It is probable they scented water, and with the instincts of their nature started out to search for it. They never were found, and Reed and his family, consisting of nine persons, were left destitute in the midst of the desert, eight hundred miles from California. Near morning, entirely ignorant of the calamity which had befallen him in the loss of his cattle, he reached his family. All day long they looked and waited in vain for the returning teamsters. All the rest of the company had driven ahead, and the majority had reached water. Toward night the situation grew desperate. The scanty supply of water left with the family was almost gone, and another day on the desert would mean death to all he held dear. Their only way left was to set out on foot. He took his youngest child in his arms, and the family started to walk the twenty miles. During this dreadful night some of the younger children became so exhausted that, regardless of scoldings or encouragements, they lay down on the bleak sands. Even rest, however, seemed denied the little sufferers, for a chilling wind began sweeping over the desert, and despite their weariness and anguish, they were forced to move forward. At one time during the night the horror of the situation was changed to intense fright. Through the darkness came a swift-rushing animal, which Reed soon recognized as one of his young steers. It was crazed and frenzied with thirst, and for some moments seemed bent upon dashing into the frightened group. Finally, however, it plunged madly away into the night, and was seen no more. Reed suspected the calamity which had prevented the return of the teamsters, but at the moment, the imminent peril surrounding his wife and children banished all thought of worrying about anything but their present situation. God knows what would have become of them had they not, soon after daylight, discovered the wagon of Jacob Donner. They were received kindly by his family, and conveyed to where the other members of the party were camped. For six or eight days the entire company remained at this spot. Every effort was made to find Reed's lost cattle. Almost every man in the train was out in the desert, searching in all directions. This task was attended with both difficulty and danger; for when the sun shone, the atmosphere appeared to distort and magnify objects so that at the distance of a mile every stone or bush would appear the size of an ox. Several of the men came near dying for want of water during this search. The desert mirage disclosed against the horizon, clear, distinct, and perfectly outlined rocks, mountain peaks, and tempting lakelets. Each jagged cliff, or pointed rock, or sharply-curved hill-top, hung suspended in air as perfect and complete as if photographed on the sky. Deceived, deluded by these mirages, in spite of their better judgment, several members of the company were led far out into the pathless depths of the desert.
The outlook for Reed was gloomy enough. One cow and one ox were the only stock he had remaining. The company were getting exceedingly impatient over the long delay, yet be it said to their honor, they encamped on the western verge of the desert until every hope of finding Reed's cattle was abandoned. Finally, F. W. Graves and Patrick Breen each lent an ox to Mr. Reeds and by yoking up his remaining cow and ox, he had two yoke of cattle. "Cacheing," or concealing such of his property on the desert, as could not be placed in one wagon, he hitched the two yoke of cattle to this wagon and proceeded on the journey. The word cache occurs so frequently in this history that a brief definition of the interesting process of cacheing might not be amiss. The cache of goods or valuables was generally made in a wagon bed, if one, as in the present instance, was to be abandoned. A square hole, say six feet in depth, was dug in the earth, and in the bottom of this the box or wagon bed containing the articles was placed. Sand, soil, or clay of the proper stratum was filled in upon this, so as to just cover the box from sight. The ground was then tightly packed or trampled, to make it resemble, as much as possible, the earth in its natural state. Into the remaining hole would be placed such useless articles as could be spared, such as old tins, cast-off clothing, broken furniture, etc., and upon these the earth was thrown until the surface of the ground was again level. These precautions were taken to prevent the Indians from discovering and appropriating the articles cached. It was argued that the Indians, when digging down, would come to the useless articles, and not thinking there was treasure further down would abandon the task. "But," says Hon. James F. Breen, in speaking on this subject, "I have been told by parties who have crossed the plains, that in no case has the Indian been deceived by the emigrant's silent logic." The Indians would leave nothing underground, not even the dead bodies buried from time to time. One of the trains in advance of the Donner Party buried two men in one grave, and succeeding parties found each of the bodies unearthed, and were compelled to repeat the last sad rites of burial.
Before the Donner Party started from the Desert camp, an inventory of the provisions on hand was accurately taken, and an estimate was made of the quantity required for each family, and it was found that there was not enough to carry the emigrants through to California. As if to render more emphatic the terrible situation of the party, a storm came during their last night at the camp, and in the morning the hill-tops were white with snow. It was a dreadful reminder of the lateness of the season, and the bravest hearts quailed before the horrors they knew must await them. A solemn council was held. It was decided that some one must leave the train, press eagerly forward to California, and obtaining a supply of provisions, return and meet the party as far back on the route as possible. It was a difficult undertaking, and perilous in the extreme. A call was made for volunteers, and after a little reflection two men offered their services. One was Wm. McCutchen, who had joined the train from Missouri, and the other was C. T. Stanton, of Chicago, a man who afterwards proved himself possessed of the sublimest heroism. Taking each a horse, they received the tearful, prayerful farewells of the doomed company, and set out upon their solitary journey.
Would they return? If they reached the peaceful, golden valleys of California, would they turn back to meet danger, and storms, and death, in order to bring succor to those on the dreary desert? McCutchen might come, because he left dear ones with the train, but would Stanton return? Stanton was young and unmarried. There were no ties or obligations to prompt his return, save his plighted word and the dictates of honor and humanity.
They bore letters from the Donner Party to Captain Sutter, who was in charge at Sutter's Fort. These letters were prayers for relief, and it was believed would secure assistance from the generous old Captain. Every eye followed Stanton and McCutchen until they disappeared in the west. Soon afterward the train resumed its toilsome march.