|Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 5|
The Sink of the Humboldt
Indians Stealing Cattle
An Entire Company Compelled to Walk
Abandoned to Die
Arrival of C. T. Stanton
A Temporary Relief
A Fatal Accident
The Sierra Nevada Mountains
Imprisoned in Snow
Struggles for Freedom
A Hopeless Situation
Digging for Cattle in Snow
How the Breen Cabin Happened to be Built
A Thrilling Sketch of a Solitary Winter
Putting up Shelters
The Donners have Nothing but Tents
Fishing for Trout.
Starvation now stared the emigrants in the face. The shortest allowance capable of supporting life was all that was portioned to any member of the company. At times, some were forced to do without food for a day or more, until game was procured. The poor cattle were also in a pitiable condition. Owing to the lateness of the season, the grass was exceedingly scanty and of a poor quality. Frequently the water was bad, and filled with alkali and other poisonous deposits. George Donner, Jacob Donner, Wolfinger, and others, lost cattle at various points along the Humboldt. Mr. Breen lost a fine mare. The Indians were constantly hovering around the doomed train, ready to steal cattle, but too cowardly to make any open hostile attack. Arrows were shot into several of the oxen by Indians who slipped up near them during the night-time. At midnight, on the twelfth of October, the party reached the sink of the Humboldt. The cattle, closely guarded, were turned out to graze and recruit their wasted strength. About dawn on the morning of the thirteenth the guard came into camp to breakfast. During the night nothing had occurred to cause the least apprehension, and no indications of Indians had been observed. Imagine the consternation in camp when it was discovered that during the temporary absence of the guard twenty-one head of cattle had been stolen by the redskins. This left the company in terribly destitute circumstances. All had to walk who were able. Men, women, and children were forced to travel on foot all day long, and in many cases were compelled to carry heavy burdens in order to lessen the loads drawn by the weary cattle. Wm. G. Murphy remembers distinctly seeing his brother carrying a copper camp-kettle upon his head. The Graves family, the Breens, the Donners, the Murphys, the Reeds, all walked beside the wagons until overpowered with fatigue. The men became exhausted much sooner, as a rule, than the women. Only the sick, the little children, and the utterly exhausted, were ever allowed to ride. Eddy and his wife had lost all their cattle, and each carried one of their children and such personal effects as they were able. Many in the train were without shoes, and had to travel barefooted over the weary sands, and flinty, sharp-edged stones.
On the ninth of October a death had resulted from this necessity of having to walk. It was a case of desertion, which, under other circumstances, would have been unpardonably heartless. An old man named Hardcoop was traveling with Keseberg. He was a cutler by trade, and had a son and daughter in the city of Antwerp, in Belgium. It is said he owned a farm near Cincinnati, Ohio, and intended, after visiting California to dispose of this farm, and with the proceeds return to Antwerp, for the purpose of spending his declining years with his children. He was a man of nearly three-score years, and the hardships of the journey had weakened his trembling limbs and broken down his health. Sick, feeble, helpless as he was, this old man was compelled to walk with the others. At last, when his strength gave way, he was forced to lie down by the roadside to perish of cold and hunger. Who can picture the agony, the horror, the dreary desolation of such a death? The poor old man walked until his feet actually burst! - walked until he sank utterly exhausted by the roadside! It was a terrible death! To see the train disappear in the distance; to know he was abandoned to die of exposure and starvation; to think that the wolves would devour his flesh and gnaw his bones; to lie down on the great desert, hungry, famished, and completely prostrated by fatigue - to meet death thus is too dreadful to contemplate.
No one made any attempt to return and find the poor old fellow. This, however, is partially excused by the overwhelming dangers which now threatened the entire company. Each hour's delay rendered death in the Sierra Nevada Mountains more imminent.
About the fourteenth of October, beyond the present site of Wadsworth, another tragedy occurred. Wolfinger, who was supposed to be quite wealthy, was in the rear of the train, traveling with Keseberg. At nightfall, neither of the Germans made his appearance. It happened that both their wives had walked ahead, and were with the emigrants. Considering it suspicious that the men did not arrive, and fearing some evil had befallen them, a party returned to ascertain the cause of the delay. Before proceeding far, however, Keseberg was met traveling leisurely along. He assured them that Wolfinger was only a little way behind, and would be along in a few moments. Reassured by this information, the party returned with Keseberg to camp and awaited the arrival of Wolfinger. The night passed, and the missing man had not appeared. Mrs. Wolfinger was nearly frantic. She was a tall, queenly-looking lady, of good birth and much refinement. She was recently from Germany, and understood but little English, yet she was evidently a wellbred lady. Nearly all the survivors remember the elegant dresses and costly jewelry she wore during the first part of the journey. Her grief at her husband's disappearance was so heart-rending that three young men at last consented to start back in the morning and endeavor to find Wolfinger. W. C. Graves, from whom this information is obtained, was one of the three who returned. Five miles back the wagon was found standing in the road. The oxen had been unhitched, but were still chained together, and were quietly grazing at a little distance. There were no signs of Indians, but Wolfinger was not to be found. At the time it was strongly conjectured that Keseberg had murdered Wolfinger for his money, and had concealed the body. This was doubtless unjust, for when Joseph Rhinehart was dying, some weeks later, in George Donner's tent, he confessed that he (Rhinehart) had something to do with the murder of Wolfinger. The men hitched the oxen to the wagon, and drove on until they overtook the emigrants, who, owing to the dangers by which they were encompassed, felt compelled to pursue their onward journey. The team was given to Mrs. Wolfinger, and she employed a German by the name of Charles Burger to drive it thereafter. Little was said about the affair at the time. Mrs. Wolfinger supposed the Indians had killed her husband.
On the nineteenth of October, C. T. Stanton was met returning with provisions. The company was near the present town of Wadsworth, Nevada. A great rejoicing was held over the brave man's return. McCutchen had been severely ill, and was unable to return with Stanton. But the latter, true to his word, recrossed the Sierra, and met the emigrants at a time when they were on the verge of starvation. He had brought seven mules, five of which were loaded with flour and dried beef. Captain Sutter had furnished these mules and the provisions, together with two Indian vaqueros, without the slightest compensation or security. The Indians, Lewis and Salvador, would assist in caring for the pack-animals, and would also be efficient guides. Without Stanton's aid the entire party would have been lost; not a single soul would have escaped. The provisions, though scant, were sufficient to entirely alter the situation of affairs. Had the party pressed immediately forward, they could have passed the summits before the storms began. For some cause, however, it was concluded to rest the cattle for a few days near the present site of Reno, preparatory to attempting to ascend the difficult Sierra. Three or four days' time was lost. This loss was fatal. The storms on the mountains generally set in about Thanksgiving, or during the latter days of November. The emigrants trusted that the storm season of 1846 would not begin earlier than usual. Alas! the terrible consequences of this mistaken trust!
After the arrival of Stanton, it was still deemed necessary to take further steps for the relief of the train. The generosity of Captain Sutter, as shown to Stanton, warranted them in believing that he would send still further supplies to the needy emigrants. Accordingly, two brothers-in-law, William Foster and William Pike, both brave and daring spirits, volunteered to go on ahead, cross the summits, and return with provisions as Stanton had done. Both men had families, and both were highly esteemed in the company. At the encampment near Reno, Nevada, while they were busily preparing to start, the two men were cleaning or loading a pistol. It was an old-fashioned "pepper-box." It happened, while they were examining it, that wood was called for to replenish the fire. One of the men offered to procure it, and in order to do so, handed the pistol to the other. Everybody knows that the "pepper-box" is a very uncertain weapon. Somehow, in the transfer, the pistol was discharged. William Pike was fatally wounded, and died in about twenty minutes. Mrs. Pike was left a widow, with two small children. The youngest, Catherine, was a babe of only a few months old, and Naomi was only three years of age. The sadness and distress occasioned by this mournful accident, cast a gloom over the entire company, and seemed an omen of the terrible fate which overshadowed the Donner Party.
Generally, the ascent of the Sierra brought joy and gladness to weary overland emigrants. To the Donner Party it brought terror and dismay. The company had hardly obtained a glimpse of the mountains, ere the winter storm clouds began to assemble their hosts around the loftier crests. Every day the weather appeared more ominous and threatening. The delay at the Truckee Meadows had been brief, but every day ultimately cost a dozen lives. On the twenty-third of October, they became thoroughly alarmed at the angry heralds of the gathering storm, and with all haste resumed the journey. It was too late! At Prosser Creek, three miles below Truckee, they found themselves encompassed with six inches of snow. On the summits, the snow was from two to five feet in depth. This was October 28, 1846. Almost a month earlier than usual, the Sierra had donned its mantle of and snow. The party were prisoners. All was consternation. The wildest confusion prevailed. In their eagerness, many, went far in advance of the main train. There was little concert of action or harmony of plan. All did not arrive at Donner Lake the same day. Some wagons and families did not reach the lake until the thirty-first day of October, some never went further than Prosser Creek, while others, on the evening of the twenty-ninth, struggled through the snow, and reached the foot of the precipitous cliffs between the summit and the upper end of the lake. Here, baffled, wearied, disheartened, they turned back to the foot of the lake.
Several times during the days which succeeded, parties attempted to cross the mountain barrier. W. C. Graves says the old emigrant road followed up Cold Stream, and so crossed the dividing ridge. Some wagons were drawn up this old road, almost to the top of the pass, others were taken along the north side of Donner Lake, and far up toward the summit. Some of these wagons never were returned to the lake, but were left imbedded in the snow. These efforts to cross the Sierra were quite desultory and irregular, and there was great lack of harmony and system. Each family or each little group of emigrants acted independently.
At last, one day, a determined and systematic attempt was made to cross the summit. Nearly the entire train was engaged in the work. The road, of course, was entirely obliterated by the snow. Guided only by the general contour of the country, all hands pressed resolutely forward. Here, large bowlders and irregular jutting cliffs would intercept the way; there, dizzy precipices, yawning chasms, and deep, irregular canyons would interpose, and anon a bold, impassable mountain of rock would rear its menacing front directly across their path. All day long the men and animals floundered through the snow, and attempted to break and trample a road. Just before nightfall they reached the abrupt precipice where the present wagon-road intercepts the snow-sheds of the Central Pacific. Here the poor mules and oxen had been utterly unable to find a foothold on the slippery, snow-covered rocks. All that day it had been raining slightly - a dismal, drizzling, discouraging rain. Most of the wagons had been left at the lake, and the mules and oxen had been packed with provisions and necessary articles. Even at this day some of the survivors are unable to repress a ripple of merriment as they recall the manner in which the oxen bucked and bellowed when the unaccustomed packs were strapped upon their backs. Stanton had stoutly insisted upon taking the mules over the mountains. Perhaps he did not wish to return to Capt. Sutter without the property which he had borrowed. Many in the train dissented from this proposition, and endeavored to induce the Indians, Lewis and Salvador, to leave Stanton, and guide them over the summits. The Indians realized the imminent danger of each hour's delay, and would probably have yielded to the solicitations of these disaffected parties, had not Stanton made them believe that Capt. Sutter would hang them if they returned to the Fort without the mules. This incident is mentioned to illustrate the great differences of opinion and interest which prevailed. Never, from the moment the party encountered the first difficulties on the Hastings Cut-off until this fatal night in November, did the members of the company ever agree upon any important proposition. This night all decided upon a plan for the morrow. The great and overwhelming danger made them forget their petty animosities, and united them in one harmonious resolve. On the morrow the mules and cattle were all to be slain, and the meat was to be stored away for future emergency. The wagons, with their contents, were to be left at the lake, and the entire party were to cross the summits on foot. Stanton had become perfectly satisfied that the mules could not reach the mountain-top, and readily consented to the proposed plan.
Returning to the lake they sought their weary couches, comforted with the thought that tomorrow should see all the Donner Party safely over the summit. That night a heavy snow fell at the lake. It was a night of untold terror! The emigrants suffered a thousand deaths. The pitiless snow came down in large, steady masses. All understood that the storm meant death. One of the Indians silently wrapped his blanket about him and in deepest dejection seated himself beside a tall pine. In this position he passed the entire night, only moving occasionally to keep from being covered with snow. Mrs. Reed spread down a shawl, placed her four children, Virginia, Patty, James, and Thomas, thereon, and putting another shawl over them, sat by the side of her babies during all the long hours of darkness. Every little while she was compelled to lift the upper shawl and shake off the rapidly accumulating snow.
With slight interruptions, the storm continued several days. The mules and oxen that had always hovered about camp were blinded and bewildered by the storm, and straying away were literally buried alive in the drifts. What pen can describe the horror of the position in which the emigrants found themselves! It was impossible to move through the deep, soft snow without the greatest effort. The mules were gone, and were never found. Most of the cattle had perished, and were wholly hidden from sight. The few oxen which were found were slaughtered for beef. All were not killed during any one day, but the emigrants gave this business their immediate attention, because aside from the beef and a few slight provisions, the entire party were completely destitute. Mrs. Breen was compelled to attend personally to the slaughtering of their cattle, because her husband was an invalid. This family had by far the largest stock of meat. Too great praise can not be ascribed to Mrs. Breen for the care and forethought with which she stored up this food for her children. The meat was simply laid away in piles, like cordwood, and by the action of the frost was kept fresh until consumed. Mrs. Reed had no cattle to kill. She succeeded, however, in purchasing two beeves from Mr. Graves, and two from Mr. Breen, pledging herself to pay when the journey was ended. Mr. Eddy also purchased one ox of Mr. Graves.
The flesh of many of the cattle which strayed away, and were buried several feet under the snow, was nevertheless recovered by their owners. It was soon ascertained that the cattle had endeavored to seek shelter from the fury of the storm by getting under the branches of the bushiest trees. Going to these trees, the emigrants would thrust down long poles with sharpened nails in the ends of them. By thus probing about in the snow, the whereabouts of a number of cattle was discovered, and the bodies were speedily dug out of the drifts.
Realizing that the winter must be passed in the mountains, the emigrants made such preparations as they could for shelter. One cabin was already constructed. It was located about a quarter of a mile below the foot of the lake. It had been built in November, 1844, by Moses Schallenberger, Joseph Foster, and Allen Montgomery. Moses Schallenberger now resides three and a half miles from San Jose, and when recently interviewed by Mrs. S. O. Houghton, née Eliza P. Donner, gave a very complete and interesting account of the building of this cabin, and the sufferings endured by his party. This cabin, known as the Breen cabin, is so intimately connected and interwoven with future chapters in the History of the Donner Party, that the following items, taken from Mr. Schallenberger's narration, can not prove uninteresting:
"Mr. Schallenberger's party reached Donner Lake about the middle of November, 1844, having with them a large quantity of goods for California. Their cattle being very poor, and much fatigued by the journey, the party decided to remain here long enough to build a cabin in which to store their goods until spring. They also decided to leave some one to look after their stores, while the main portion of the party would push on to the settlement. Foster, Montgomery, and Schallenberger built the cabin. Two days were spent in its construction. It was built of pine saplings, and roofed with pine brush and rawhides. It was twelve by fourteen feet, and seven or eight feet high, with a chimney in one end, built "western style." One opening, through which light, air, and the occupants passed, served as a window and door. A heavy fall of snow began the day after the cabin was completed and continued for a number of days. Schallenberger, who was only seventeen years old, volunteered to remain with Foster and Montgomery. The party passed on, leaving very little provisions for the encamped. The flesh of one miserably poor cow was their main dependence, yet the young men were not discouraged. They were accustomed to frontier life, and felt sure they could provide for themselves. Bear and deer seemed abundant in the surrounding mountains. Time passed; the snow continued falling, until it was from ten to fifteen feet deep. The cow was more than half consumed, and the game had been driven out of the mountains by the storms.
"The sojourners in that lonely camp became alarmed at the prospect of the terrible fate which seemed to threaten them, and they determined to find their way across the mountains. They started and reached the summit the first night after leaving their camp. Here, young Schallenberger was taken ill with severe cramps. The following day he was unable to proceed more than a few feet without falling to the ground. It was evident to his companions that he could go no farther. They did not like to leave him, nor did they wish to remain where death seemed to await them. Finally Schallenberger told them if they would take him back to the cabin he would remain there and they could go on. This they did, and after making him as comfortable as possible, they bade him good-by, and he was left alone in that mountain wild. A strong will and an unflinching determination to live through all the threatening dangers, soon raised him from his bed and nerved him to action. He found some steel traps among the goods stored, and with them caught foxes, which constituted his chief or only article of food, until rescued by the returning party, March 1, 1845."
The Breen family moved into the Schallenberger cabin. Against the west side of this cabin, Keseberg built a sort of half shed, into which he and his family entered. The Murphys erected a cabin nearer the lake. The site of this cabin is plainly marked by a large stone about ten or twelve feet high, one side of which rises almost perpendicularly from the ground. Against this perpendicular side the Murphys erected the building which was to shelter them during the winter. It was about three hundred yards from the shore of Donner Lake, and near the wide marshy outlet. The Breen and Murphy cabins were distant from each other about one hundred and fifty yards. The Graves family built a house close by Donner Creek, and half or three quarters of a mile further down the stream. Adjoining this, forming a double cabin, the Reeds built. The Donner brothers, Jacob and George, together with their families, camped in Alder Creek Valley, six or seven miles from Donner Lake. They were, if possible, in a worse condition than the others, for they had only brush sheds and their tents to shield them from the wintry weather. Mrs. John App (Leanna C. Donner), of Jamestown, Tuolumne County, writes: "We had no time to build a cabin. The snow came on so suddenly that we had barely time to pitch our tent, and put up a brush shed, as it were, one side of which was open. This brush shed was covered with pine boughs, and then covered with rubber coats, quilts, etc. My uncle, Jacob Donner, and family, also had a tent, and camped near us."
Crowded in their ill-prepared dwellings, the emigrants could not feel otherwise than gloomy and despondent. The small quantity of provisions became so nearly exhausted that it is correct to say they were compelled to live on meat alone, without so much as salt to give it a relish. There was an abundance of beautiful trout in the lake, but no one could catch them. W. C. Graves tells how he went fishing two or three different times, but without success. The lake was not frozen over at first, and fish were frequently seen; but they were too coy and wary to approach such bait as was offered. Soon thick ice covered the water, and after that no one attempted to fish. In fact, the entire party seemed dazed by the terrible calamity which had overtaken them.