|Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 6|
Endeavors to Cross the Mountains
Eddy Kills a Bear
Who Composed the "Forlorn Hope"
Mary A. Graves
A Generous Act
Six Days' Rations
Mary Graves Account
C. T. Stanton's Death
"I am Coming Soon"
Sketch of Stanton's Early Life
His Charity and Self-Sacrifice
The Diamond Breastpin
Stanton's Last Poem.
All knew that death speedily awaited the entire company unless some could cross over the mountain barrier and hasten back relief parties. Out of the list of ninety persons mentioned in the first chapter, only Mrs. Sarah Keyes, Halloran, Snyder, Hardcoop, Wolfinger, and Pike had perished, and only three, Messrs. Reed, Herron, and McCutchen, had reached California. This left eighty-one persons at the mountain camps. It was resolved that at the earliest possible moment the strongest and ablest of the party should endeavor to cross the summits and reach the settlements. Accordingly, on the twelfth of November, a party of twelve or fifteen persons set out from the cabins. It was found impossible, however, to make any considerable headway in the soft, deep snow, and at midnight they returned to the cabins. They had not succeeded in getting more than a mile above the head of the lake. In this party were Mr. F. W. Graves and his two daughters, Mary A. Graves, and Mrs. Sarah Fosdick. The rest, with the exception of Jay Fosdick and Wm. H. Eddy, were young, unmarried men, as, for instance, Stanton, Smith, Spitzer, Elliott, Antoine, John Baptiste, and the two Indians. It was comparatively a trifling effort, but it seemed to have the effect of utterly depressing the hopes of several of these men. With no one in the camps dependent upon them, without any ties of relationship, or bonds of affection, these young men were be first to attempt to escape from their prison walls of snow. Failing in this, many of them never again rallied or made a struggle for existence. Not so, however, with those who were heads of families. A gun was owned by William Foster, and with it, on the fourteenth of November, three miles north of Truckee, near the present Alder Creek Mill, Mr. Eddy succeeded in killing a bear. This event inspired many hearts with courage; but, alas it was short-lived. No other game could be found except two or three wild ducks. What were these among eighty-one people! Mr. F. W. Graves was a native of Vermont, and his boyhood days had been spent in sight of the Green Mountains. Somewhat accustomed to snow, and to pioneer customs, Mr. Graves was the only member of the party who understood how to construct snow-shoes. The unsuccessful attempt made by the first party proved that no human being could walk upon the loose snow without some artificial assistance. By carefully sawing the ox-bows into strips, so as to preserve their curved form, Mr. Graves, by means of rawhide thongs, prepared very serviceable snow-shoes. Fourteen pair of shoes were made in this manner. It was certain death for all to remain in camp, and yet the first attempt had shown that it was almost equally certain death to attempt to reach the settlements. There was not food for all, and yet the ones who undertook to cross the mountains were undoubtedly sacrificing their lives for those who remained in camp. If some should go, those who were left behind might be able to preserve life until spring, or until relief came. The stoutest hearts quailed before the thought of battling with the deep drifts, the storms, and the unknown dangers which lurked on the summits. The bravest shuddered at the idea of leaving the cabins and venturing out into the drear and dismal wilderness of snow. Yet they could count upon their fingers the days that would elapse before the provisions would be exhausted, and starvation would ensue, if none left the camps.
Day after day, with aching hearts and throbbing brows, the poor imprisoned wretches gazed into each other's faces in blank despair. Who should be sacrificed? Who would go out and seek a grave 'neath the crashing avalanche, the treacherous drifts, or in the dreary famished wilderness, that those left behind might live? Who would be the forlorn hope of the perishing emigrants?
Once, Messrs. Patrick Breen, Patrick Dolan, Lewis Keseberg, and W. H. Eddy, are said to have attempted to reach the summit. On another occasion these same parties, with Mrs. Reed and family, Mr. Stanton and the two Indians, made an unsuccessful attempt. Still another time, a large party, among whom were Mrs. Murphy and the older members of her family, made the effort, and even succeeded in crossing the topmost ridge and reaching Summit Valley, one and a half miles west of the summit. But all these parties were forced to return to the cabins, and each failure confirmed the belief that no living being could cross the mountains. In this manner time dragged wearily along until the tenth, or, as some say, the sixteenth of December. The mere matter of the date is of trifling importance. At all events a forlorn hope was organized. Seventeen names were enrolled as volunteers. Of these, Charles Burger went only a short distance, turning back weary and exhausted. Wm. G. Murphy, who is described as a most brave and resolute boy of eleven years of age, accompanied the party as far as the head of Donner Lake. He and his brother Lemuel were without snowshoes. It was expected they would step in the beaten tracks of those who had shoes, but this was soon proven to be utterly impracticable. The party made snow-shoes for Lemuel on the first night, out of the aparajos which had been brought by Stanton from Sutter's Fort. Wm. G. Murphy saved his life by returning to the cabins. No human being could have endured the trip without snow-shoes. Fifteen remained in the party, and these pressed forward without so much as daring to look back to the dear ones whose lives depended upon this terrible venture. Without forgetting William G. Murphy and Charles Burger, who started with this little band, the first party who crossed the Sierra will in future be termed the fifteen. Who composed this party? Mothers, whose babes would starve unless the mothers went; fathers, whose wives and children would perish if the fathers did not go; children, whose aged parents could not survive unless the children, by leaving, increased the parents' share of food. Each were included in the forlorn hope.
It was time for some one to leave the cabins. During the days that had elapsed, no word had been received from the Donner brothers at Alder Creek, nor from the emigrants who camped with them. Alder Creek is a branch of Prosser Creek, and the Donners encamped on the former stream about a mile and a half above the junction.
On the ninth of December, Milton Elliott and Noah James started back to learn some tidings of these people. Soon after they left the camps at the lake, a terrific storm came down from the mountains, and as nothing had been heard from them, it was considered certain they had perished.
About this time, starvation and exposure had so preyed upon one of the company, Augustus Spitzer, that one day he came reeling and staggering into the Breen cabin and fell prostrate and helpless upon the floor. Poor fellow, he never rallied, although by careful nursing and kindest attentions he lingered along for some weeks. The emigrants were no longer on short allowance, they were actually starving! Oh! the horror! the dread alarm which prevailed among the company! C. T. Stanton, ever brave, courageous, lion-hearted, said, "I will bring help to these famishing people or lay down my life." F. W. Graves, who was one of the noblest men who ever breathed the breath of life, was next to volunteer. Mr. and Mrs. Graves had nine children, the youngest being only nine months old. Generously had they parted with the cattle which they brought to the lake, dividing equally with those families who had no food. Mary A. Graves and her elder sister, Mrs. Sarah Fosdick, determined to accompany their father, and as will presently be seen, their hearts failed not during trials which crushed strong men. Mary Graves was about nineteen years old. She was a very beautiful girl, of tall and slender build, and exceptionally graceful carriage. Her features, in their regularity, were of classic Grecian mold. Her eyes were dark, bright, and expressive. A fine mouth and perfect set of teeth, added to a luxuriant growth of dark, rebelliously wavy hair, completed an almost perfect picture of lovely girlhood. Jay Fosdick resolved to share with his wife the perils of the way. Mrs. Murphy offered to take care of the infant children of her married daughters, Mrs. Foster and Mrs. Pike, if they would join the party. The dear, good mother argued that what the daughters would eat would keep her and the little ones from starving. It was nobly said, yet who can doubt but that, with clearer vision, the mother saw that only by urging them to go, could she save her daughters' lives. With what anguish did Mrs. Harriet F. Pike enroll her name among those of the "Forlorn Hope," and bid good-by to her little two-year-old Naomi and her nursing babe, Catherine! What bitter tears were shed by Mr. and Mrs. Foster when they kissed their beautiful baby boy farewell! Alas! though they knew it not, it was a long, long farewell. Mrs. Eddy was too feeble to attempt the journey, and the family were so poorly provided with food that Mr. Eddy was compelled to leave her and the two little children in the cabins, and go with the party. Mrs. McCutchen also had an infant babe, and Mrs. Graves employed the same reasoning with her that Mrs. Murphy had so effectively used with Mrs. Pike and Mrs. Foster. That these three young mothers left their infant children, their nursing babes, with others, and started to find relief, is proof stronger than words, of the desperate condition of the starving emigrants. The Mexican Antoine, the two Indians Lewis and Salvador, and an Irishman named Patrick Dolan, completed the fifteen. This Patrick Dolan deserves more than a passing word. He had owned a farm in Keokuk, Iowa, and selling it, had taken as the price, a wagon, four oxen, and two cows. With these he joined the Donner Party, and on reaching the lake had killed his cattle and stored them away with those killed by the Breens. Dolan was a bachelor, and about forty years of age. He was possessed of two or three hundred dollars in coin, but instead of being miserly or selfish, was characterized by generous openheartedness. "When it became apparent that there was to be suffering and starvation" (this quotation is from the manuscript of Hon. James F. Breen), "Dolan determined to lighten the burden at the camps, and leave with the party that was to attempt the passage of the summit, so that there should be less to consume the scant supply of provisions. Previous to his departure, he asked my father (Patrick Breen) to attend to the wants of Reed's family, and to give of his (Dolan's) meat to Reed's family as long as possible." Accordingly, Mrs. Reed and her children were taken into Breen's cabin, where, as mentioned above, Dolan's meat was stored. Was ever a more generous act recorded? Patrick Dolan had no relative in the Donner Party, and no friends, save those whose friendship had been formed upon the plains. With the cattle which belonged to him he could have selfishly subsisted until relief came, but, whole-souled Irishman that he was, he gave food to the mothers and the children and went out into the waste of snow to perish of starvation! How many who live to-day owe their existence to Patrick Dolan's self-sacrifice! This blue-eyed, brown haired Irishman is described as being of a jovial disposition, and inclined to look upon the bright side of things. Remembering how he gave his life for strangers, how readily can we appreciate Mr. Breen's tender tribute: "He was a favorite with children, and would romp and play with a child." As a token of appreciation for his kindness, Mrs. Reed gave Patrick Dolan a gold watch and a Masonic emblem belonging to her husband, bidding him to keep them until he was rewarded for his generosity. The good mother's word had a significance she wot not of. When Mrs. Reed reached Sutter's Fort she found these valuables awaiting her. They had been brought in by Indians. Patrick Dolan had kept them until his death - until the angels came and bore him away to his reward.
This party of fifteen had taken provisions to last only six days. At the end of this time they hoped to reach Bear Valley, so they said, but it is more than probable they dared not take more food from their dear ones at the cabins. Six days' rations! This means enough of the poor, shriveled beef to allow each person, three times a day, a piece the size of one's two fingers. With a little coffee and a little loaf sugar, this was all. They had matches, Foster's gun, a hatchet, and each a thin blanket. With this outfit they started to cross the Sierra. No person, unaccustomed to snow-shoes, can form an idea of the difficulty which is experienced during one's first attempt to walk with them. Their shoes would sink deep into the loose, light snow, and it was with great effort they made any progress. They had been at Donner Lake from forty-two to forty-six days, and on this first night of their journey had left it four miles behind them. After a dreadful day's work they encamped, in full sight of the lake and of the cabins. This was harder for the aching hearts of the mothers than even the terrible parting from their little ones. To see the smoke of the cabins, to awake from their troubled dreams, thinking they heard the cry of their starving babes, to stifle the maternal yearnings which prompted them to turn back and perish with their darlings clasped to their breasts, were trials almost unbearable. The next day they traveled six miles. They crossed the summit, and the camps were no longer visible. They were in the solemn fastnesses of the snow-mantled Sierra. Lonely, desolate, forsaken apparently by God and man, their situation was painfully, distressingly terrible. The snow was, wrapped about cliff and forest and gorge. It varied in depth from twelve to sixty feet.
Mrs. M. A. Clarke (Mary Graves), now of White River, Tulare County, speaking of this second day, says: "We had a very slavish day's travel, climbing the divide. Nothing of interest occurred until reaching the summit. The scenery was too grand for me to pass without notice, the changes being so great; walking now on loose snow, and now stepping on a hard, slick rock a number of hundred yards in length. Being a little in the rear of the party, I had a chance to observe the company ahead, trudging along with packs on their. backs. It reminded me of some Norwegian fur company among the icebergs. My shoes were ox-bows, split in two, and rawhide strings woven in, something in form of the old-fashioned, split-bottomed chairs. Our clothes were of the bloomer costume, and generally were made of flannel. Well do I remember a remark one of the company made here, that we were about as near heaven as we could get. We camped a little on the west side of the summit the second night."
Here they gathered a few boughs, kindled a fire upon the surface of the snow, boiled their coffee, and ate their pitiful allowance of beef; then wrapping their toil-worn bodies in their blankets, lay down upon the snow. As W. C. Graves remarks, it was a bed that was soft, and white, and beautiful, and yet it was a terrible bed - a bed of death. The third day they walked five miles. Starting almost at dawn, they struggled wearily through the deep drifts, and when the night shadows crept over crag and pine and mountain vale, they were but five miles on their journey. They did not speak during the day, except when speech was absolutely necessary. All traveled silently, and with downcast eyes. The task was beginning to tell upon the frames of even the strongest and most resolute. The hunger that continually gnawed at their vitals, the excessive labor of moving the heavy, clumsy snow-shoes through the soft, yielding snow, was too much for human endurance. They could no longer keep together and aid each other with words of hope. They struggled along, sometimes at great distances apart. The fatigue and dazzling sunlight rendered some of them snowblind. One of these was the noble-hearted Stanton. On this third day he was too blind and weak to keep up with the rest, and staggered into the camp long after the others had finished their pitiful supper. Poor, brave, generous Stanton! He said little, but in his inner heart he knew that the end of his journey was almost at hand.
Who was this heroic being who left the beautiful valleys of the Sacramento to die for strangers? See him wearily toiling onward during the long hours of the fourth day. The agony and blindness of his eyes wring no cry from his lips, no murmur, no word of complaint. With patient courage and heroic fortitude he strives to keep pace with his companions, but finds it impossible. Early in the morning he drops to the rear, and is soon lost to sight. At night he drags his weary limbs into camp long after his comrades are sleeping 'neath the silent stars. It must be remembered that they had been accustomed to short allowance of food for months, while he had been used to having an abundance. Their bodies had been schooled to endure famine, privations, and long, weary walks. For many days before reaching the mountains, they had been used to walking every day, in order to lighten the burdens of the perishing oxen. Fatigues which exhausted them crushed Stanton. The weather was clear and pleasant, but the glare of the sun during the day had been like molten fire to their aching eyes.
On the morning of the fifth day Stanton was sitting smoking by the smoldering fire when the company resumed its journey. Mary Graves, who had a tender heart for the suffering of others, went kindly up to him, and asked him if he were coming. "Yes," he replied, "I am coming soon." Was he answering her, or the unseen spirits that even then were beckoning him to the unknown world? "Yes, I am coming soon!" These were his last words. His companions were too near death's door to return when they found he came not, and so he perished. He had begged them piteously to lead him, during the first days of his blindness, but seeming to realize that they were unable to render assistance, he ceased to importune, and heroically met his fate. He did not blame his comrades. They were weak, exhausted, and ready to die of starvation. With food nearly gone, strength failing, hope lost, and nothing left but the last, blind, clinging instinct of life, it was impossible that the perishing company should have aided the perishing Stanton. He was a hero of the highest, noblest, grandest stamp. No words can ever express a fitting tribute to his memory. He gave his life for strangers who had not the slightest claim to the sacrifice. He left the valleys where friends, happiness, and abundance prevailed, to perish amidst chilling snow-drifts - famished and abandoned. The act of returning to save the starving emigrants is as full of heroic grandeur as his death is replete with mournful desolation.
In May, 1847, W. C. Graves, in company with a relief party, found the remains of C. T. Stanton near the spot where he had been left by his companions. The wild animals had partially devoured his body, but the remains were easily identified by means of his clothing and pistols.
The following sketch of this hero is kindly furnished by his brother, Sidney Stanton, of Cazenovia, New York:
"Charles Tyler Stanton was born at Pompey, Onondaga County, New York, March 11, 1811. He was five feet five inches in height. He had brown eyes and brown hair. He possessed a robust constitution, and although rather slender during his youth, at the age of fifteen he became strong and hearty, and could endure as great hardships as any of his brothers. He had five brothers and four sisters, and was the seventh child. His grandparents, on his father's side, were well off at the close of the revolutionary war, but sold their large farms, and took Continental money in payment. Soon afterward this money became worthless, and they lost all. They were at the time living in Berkshire, Massachusetts, but soon after removed west to the county where C. T. Stanton was born. There were in his father's family fourteen children - seven sons and seven daughters."
In his younger days Stanton was engaged as a clerk in a store. He was honest, industrious, and greatly beloved by those with whom he came in contact. His early education was limited, but during his employment as clerk he used every possible endeavor to improve his mind. During his journey across the plains, he was regarded as somewhat of a savant, on account of his knowledge of botany, geology, and other branches of natural science. His disposition was generous to a fault. He never was happier than when bestowing assistance upon needy friends. His widowed mother, for whom he entertained the most devoted affection, was kindly cared for by him until her death in 1835. After this sad event he removed to Chicago. At Chicago he made money rapidly for a time, and his hand was ever ready to give aid to those about him. Charity and heroic self-sacrifice appear to have been his predominant characteristics. They stand out in bold relief, not only in his early history, but during his connection with the Donner Party. While in the mountains he had no money to give, but instead he gave his strength, his energy, his love, his all, his very life, for his companions.
That he had a premonition of the gloomy fate which overtook him in the Sierra, or at least that he fully realized the perils to which he was exposing his life, is indicated by the following incident: When he set out from Sutter's Fort to return to the Donner train with provisions, he left a vest with Captain Sutter. In one of the pockets of this vest was subsequently found a package directed to the Captain with the following memorandum: "Captain Sutter will send the within, in the event of my death, to Sidney Stanton, Syracuse, New York." The package contained a diamond breastpin. Mr. Sidney Stanton writes as follows concerning this keepsake:
"I will give you a short history or account of the pin which was left for me at Sutter's Fort, which Mr. McKinstry forwarded to me. This was an event so peculiar at the time. He visited me here at Syracuse, while he was prospering in Chicago. He was on his way to New York, and wanted a sum of money, which I advanced. Before leaving he fastened this pin on the dress of my wife, remarking that she must consider it as a present from him. Nothing more was thought of this event until he again wanted money. Misfortune had overtaken him, and this event gave him much pain, not so much on his own account as because he could not relieve the distress of dear friends when asked for aid. I sent him a little more money; I had not much to spare, and in talking the matter over with my wife, she asked, 'Why not send him the pin? It is valuable, and in time of need he might dispose of it for his comfort.' In saying this she took the ground that it was left with her as a pledge, not as a gift. I therefore handed it to my sister to send to him for this purpose. But it appears by his keeping it and sending it back in the way he did, that he did consider it a gift, and hence he would not and did not dispose of it for necessary things for his own comfort. This pin was the only thing of value which he had at the time of his death."
Stanton was an excellent writer. His descriptions of his travels from Chicago to the South would make a good-sized and a very interesting book. His last composition is given below. It is an appropriate ending to this brief outline of the history of one who should be regarded as one of the noblest of California's pioneer heroes:
"To My Mother In Heaven."
"Oh, how that word my soul inspires
With holy, fond, and pure desires!
Maternal love, how bright the flame!
For wealth of worlds I'd not profane
Nor idly breathe thy sacred name,
"Thy sainted spirit dwells on high.
How oft I weep, how oft I sigh
Whene'er I think of bygone time,
Thy smile of love, which once was mine,
That look so heavenly and divine,
"Thy warning voice in prayers of love,
Ascending to the throne above
With tones of eloquence so rife,
Hath turned my thoughts from wordly strife,
And cheered me through my wayward life,
"When death shall close my sad career,
And I before my God appear
There to receive His last decree
My only prayer there will be
Forever to remain with thee,