|Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 8|
Starvation at Donner Lake
Preparing Rawhide for Food
Eating the Firerug
Shoveling Snow off the Beds
Playing they were Tea-cups of Custard
A Starving Baby
Pleading with Silent Eloquence
Patrick Breen's Diary
Jacob Donner's Death
A Child's Vow
A Christmas Dinner
Lost on the Summits
A Stump Twenty-two Feet High
Seven Nursing Babes at Donner Lake
A Devout Father
A Dying Boy
Sorrow and Suffering at the Cabins.
How fared it with those left at Donner Lake? About the time the fifteen began their terrible journey, Baylis Williams starved to death. Such food as the rest had was freely given to him, but it did not is satisfy the demands of his nature. Quietly, uncomplainingly, he had borne the pangs of famine, and when the company first realized his dreadful condition, he was in the delirium which preceded death. What words can portray the emotions of the starving emigrants, when they saw one of their number actually perish of hunger before their eyes! Williams died in the Graves cabin, and was buried near the house by W. C. Graves and John Denton.
All the Donner Party were starving. When the cattle were killed the hides had been spread over the cabins in lieu of shingles. These were now taken down and eaten. All the survivors describe the method of preparing this miserable substitute for food. The narration by Mrs. J. M. Murphy (Virginia E. Reed), of San Jose, is among the most vivid. She says the green rawhides were cut into strips and laid upon the coals, or held in the flames until the hair was completely singed off. Either side of the piece of hide was then scraped with a knife until comparatively clean, and was placed in a kettle and boiled until soft and pulpy. There was no salt, and only a little pepper, and yet this substance was all that was between them and starvation. When cold, the boiled hides and the water in which they were cooked, became jellied and exactly resembled glue. The tender stomachs of many of the little children revolted at this disagreeable diet, and the loathing they acquired for the sight of this substance still exists in the minds of some of the survivors. To this day, Thomas K. Reed, of San Jose, who was then a tiny three-year-old, can not endure the sight of calf's-foot jelly, or of similar dishes, because of its resemblance to the loathed food which was all his mother could give him in the cabins at Donner Lake.
William G. Murphy describes how they gathered up the old, castaway bones of the cattle-bones from which all the flesh had been previously picked-and boiled, and boiled, and boiled them until they actually would crumble between the teeth, and were eaten. The little children, playing upon the fire-rug in his mother's cabin, used to cut off little pieces of the rug, toast them crisp upon the coals, and then eat them. In this manner, before any one was fairly aware of the fact, the fire-rug was entirely consumed.
The Donner families, at Prosser Creek, were, if possible, in even a sadder condition. In order to give a glimpse of the suffering endured in these two tents, the following is quoted from a letter written by Mrs. W. A. Babcock (Georgia A. Donner, now residing at Mountain View, Santa Clara County: "The families shared with one another as long as they had anything to share. Each one's portion was very small. The hides were boiled, and the bones were burned brown and eaten. We tried to eat a decayed buffalo robe, but it was too tough, and there was no nourishment in it. Some of the few mice that came into camp were caught and eaten. Some days we could not keep a fire, and many times, during both days and nights, snow was shoveled from off our tent, and from around it, that we might not be buried alive. Mother remarked one day that it had been two weeks that our beds and the clothing upon our bodies had been wet. Two of my sisters and myself spent some days at Keseberg's cabin. The first morning we were there they shoveled the snow from our bed before we could get up. Very few can believe it possible for human beings to live and suffer the exposure and hardships endured there."
Oh! how long and dreary the days were to the hungry children! Even their very plays and pastimes were pathetic, because of their piteous silent allusion to the pangs of starvation. Mrs. Frank Lewis (Patty Reed), of San Jose, relates that the poor, little, famishing girls used to fill the pretty porcelain tea-cups with freshly fallen snow, daintily dip it out with teaspoons and eat it, playing it was custard.
Dear Mrs. Murphy had the most sacred and pitiful charge. It was the wee nursing babe, Catherine Pike, whose mother had gone with the "Forlorn Hope," to try, if possible, to procure relief. All there was to give the tiny sufferer, was a little gruel made from snow water, containing a slight sprinkling of coarse flour. This flour was simply ground wheat, unbolted. Day after day the sweet little darling would lie helplessly upon its grandmother's lap, and seem with its large, sad eyes to be pleading for nourishment. Mrs. Murphy carefully kept the little handful of flour concealed - there was only a handful at the very beginning - lest some of the starving children might get possession of the treasure. Each day she gave Catherine a few teaspoonfuls of the gruel. Strangely enough, this poor little martyr did not often cry with hunger, but with tremulous, quivering mouth, and a low, subdued sob or moan, would appear to be begging for something to eat. The poor, dumb lips, if gifted with speech, could not have uttered a prayer half so eloquent, so touching. Could the mother, Mrs. Pike, have been present, it would have broken her heart to see her patient babe dying slowly, little by little. Starvation had dried the maternal breasts long before Mrs. Pike went away, so that no one can censure her for leaving her baby. She could only have done as Mrs. Murphy did, give it the plain, coarse gruel, and watch it die, day by day, upon her lap.
Up to this time, but little has been said of Patrick Breen. He was an invalid during the winter of 1846 and '47. A man of more than ordinary intelligence, a devout Catholic, a faithful and devoted father, his life furnishes a rare type of the pioneer Californian. To Mr. Breen we are indebted for the most faithful and authentic record of the days spent at the cabins. This record is in the form of a diary, in which the events of the day were briefly noted in the order of their occurrence. Lewis Keseberg kept a similar diary, but it was subsequently accidentally destroyed. Mrs. Tamsen Donner kept a journal, but this, with her paintings and botanical collections, disappeared at the fatal tent on Alder Creek. Mr. Breen's diary alone was preserved. He gave it into Col. McKinstry's possession in the spring of 1847, and on the fourth of September of that year it was published in the Nashville (Tenn.) Whig. A copy of the Whig of that date is furnished by Wm. G. Murphy, of Marysville. Other papers have published garbled extracts from this diary, but none have been reliable. The future history of the events which transpired at the cabins will be narrated in connection with this diary.
It must be remembered that the lake had always been known as "Truckee Lake," it having been named after an old Indian guide who had rendered much assistance to the Schallenberger party in 1844. The record appears without the slightest alteration. Even the orthography of the name of the lake is printed as it was written, "Truckey."
The diary commences as follows:
"Truckey's Lake, November 20, 1846."
"Came to this place on the thirty-first of last month; went into the pass; the snow so deep we were unable to find the road, and when within three miles from the summit, turned back to this shanty on Truckey's Lake; Stanton came up one day after we arrived here; we again took our teams and wagons, and made another unsuccessful attempt to cross incompany with Stanton; we returned to this shanty; it continued to snow all the time. We now have killed most part of our cattle, having to remain here until next spring, and live on lean beef, without bread or salt. It snowed during the space of eight days, with little intermission, after our arrival, though now clear and pleasant, freezing at night; the snow nearly gone from the valleys."
"November 21. Fine morning; wind northwest; twenty-two of our company about starting to cross the mountains this day, including Stanton and his Indians."
"Nov. 22. Froze last night; fine and clear to-day; no account from those on the mountains."
"Nov. 23. Same weather; wind west; the expedition cross the mountains returned after an unsuccessful attempt."
"Nov. 25. Cloudy; looks like the eve of a snow-storm; our mountaineers are to make another trial to-morrow, if fair; froze hard last night."
"Nov. 26. Began to snow last evening; now rains or sleets; the party do not start to-day."
"Nov. 27. Still snowing; now about three feet deep; wind west; killed my last oxen to-day; gave another yoke to Foster; wood hard to be got."
"Nov. 30. Snowing fast; looks as likely to continue as when it commenced; no living thing without wings can get about."
"Dec. 1. Still snowing; wind west; snow about six or seven and a half feet deep; very difficult to get wood, and we are completely housed up; our cattle all killed but two or three, and these, with the horses and Stanton's mules, all supposed to be lost in the snow; no hopes of finding them alive."
"Dec. 3. Ceases snowing; cloudy all day; warm enough to thaw."
"Dec. 5. Beautiful sunshine; thawing a little; looks delightful after the long storm; snow seven or eight feet deep."
"Dec. 6. The morning fine and clear; Stanton and Graves manufacturing snow-shoes for another mountain scrabble; no account of mules."
"Dec. 8. Fine weather; froze hard last night; wind south-west; hard work to find wood sufficient to keep us warm or cook our beef."
"Dec. 9. Commenced snowing about eleven o'clock; wind northwest; took in Spitzer yesterday, so weak that he can not rise without help; caused by starvation. Some have scanty supply of beef; Stanton trying to get some for him self and Indians; not likely to get much."
"Dec. 10. Snowed fast all night, with heavy squalls of wind; continues to snow; now about seven feet in depth."
"Dec. 14. Snows faster than any previous day; Stanton and Graves, with several others, making preparations to cross the mountains on snow-shoes; snow eight feet on a level."
"Dec. 16. Fair and pleasant; froze hard last night; the company started on snow-shoes to cross the mountains; wind southeast."
"Dec. 17. Pleasant; William Murphy returned from the mountain party last evening; Baylis Williams died night before last; Milton and Noah started for Donner's eight days ago; not returned yet; think they are lost in the snow."
"Dec. 19. Snowed last night; thawing to-day; wind northwest; a little singular for a thaw."
"Dec. 20. Clear and pleasant; Mrs. Reed here; no account from Milton yet. Charles Burger started for Donner's; turned back; unable to proceed; tough times, but not discouraged. Our hope is in God. Amen."
"Dec. 21. Milton got back last night from Donner's camp. Sad news; Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Rhinehart, and Smith are dead; the rest of them in a low situation; snowed all night, with a strong southwest wind."
Jacob Donner was the first to die at Prosser Creek. He expired while sitting at the table in his tent, with his head bowed upon his hands, as if in deep meditation. The following terse account is from the gifted pen of Mrs. S. O. Houghton (Eliza P. Donner), of San Jose: "Jacob Donner was a slight man, of delicate constitution, and was in poor health when we left Springfield, Illinois. The trials of the journey reduced his strength and exhausted his energy. When we reached the place of encampment in the mountains he was discouraged and gave up in despair. Not even the needs of his family could rouse him to action. He was utterly dejected and made no effort, but tranquilly awaited death."
"Dec. 23. Clear to-day; Milton took some of his meat away; all well at their camp. Began this day to read the 'Thirty Days' Prayers;' Almighty God, grant the requests of unworthy sinners!
"Dec. 24. Rained all night, and still continues; poor prospect for any kind of comfort, spiritual or temporal."
As will be seen by various references throughout this diary, Mr. Breen was a devout Catholic. During the darkest hour of trial the prayers were regularly read. That this might be done during the long weary evenings, as well as by day, pieces of pitch pine were split and laid carefully in one corner of the cabin, which would be lighted at the fire, and would serve as a substitute for candles. Those of the survivors who are living often speak of the times when they held these sticks while Mr. Breen read the prayers. So impressive were these religious observances that one girl, a bright, beautiful child, Virginia E. Reed, made a solemn vow that if God would hear these prayers, and deliver her family from the dangers surrounding them, she would become a Catholic. God did save her family, and she kept her vow. She is to-day a fervent Catholic.
"Dec. 25. Began to snow yesterday, snowed all night, and snows yet rapidly; extremely difficult to find wood; uttered our prayers to God this Christmas morning; the prospect is appalling, but we trust in Him."
What a desolate Christmas morning that was for the snow-bound victims! All were starving. Something to eat, something to satisfy the terrible cravings of appetite, was the constant wish of all. Sometimes the wishes were expressed aloud, but more frequently a gloomy silence prevailed. When anything was audibly wished for, it was invariably something whose size was proportional to their hunger. They never wished for a meal, or a mouthful, but for a barrel full, a wagon load, a house full, or a storehouse full.
On Christmas eve the children spoke in low, subdued tones, of the visits Santa Claus used to make them in their beautiful homes, before they started across the plains. Now they knew that no Santa Claus could find them in the pathless depths of snow.
One family, the Reeds, were in a peculiarly distressing situation. They knew not whether the father was living or dead. No tidings had reached them since his letters ceased to be found by the wayside. The meat they had obtained from the Breen and Graves families was now gone, and on Christmas morning their breakfast was a "pot of glue," as the boiled rawhide was termed. But Mrs. Reed, the dear, tender-hearted mother, had a surprise in store for her children this day. When the last ox had been purchased, Mrs. Reed had placed the frozen meat in one corner of the cabin, so that pieces could be chipped off with a knife or hatchet. The tripe, however, she cleaned carefully and hung on the outside of the cabin, on the end of a log, close to the ground. She knew that the snow would soon conceal this from view. She also laid away secretly, one teacupful of white beans, about half that quantity of rice, the same measure of dried apples, and a piece of bacon two inches square. She knew that if Christmas found them alive, they would be in a terribly destitute condition. She therefore resolved to lay these articles away, and give them to her starving children for a Christmas dinner. This was done. The joy and gladness of these poor little children knew no bounds when they saw the treasures unearthed and cooking on the fire. They were, just this one meal, to have all they could eat! They laughed, and danced, and cried by turns. They eagerly watched the dinner as it boiled. The pork and tripe had been cut in dice like pieces. Occasionally one of these pieces would boil up to the surface of the water for an instant, then a bean would take a peep at them from the boiling kettle, then a piece of apple, or a grain of rice. The appearance of each tiny bit was hailed by the children with shouts of glee. The mother, whose eyes were brimming with tears, watched her famished darlings with emotions that can be imagined. It seemed too sad that innocent children should be brought to such destitution that the very sight of food should so affect them! When the dinner was prepared, the mother's constant injunction was, "Children, eat slowly, there is plenty for all." When they thought of the starvation of to-morrow, they could not repress a shade of sadness, and when the name of papa was mentioned all burst into tears. Dear, brave papa! Was he struggling to relieve his starving family, or lying stark and dead 'neath the snows of the Sierra? This question was constantly uppermost in the mother's mind.
"Dec. 27. Cleared off yesterday, and continues clear; snow nine feet deep; wood growing scarce; a tree, when felled, sinks into the snow, and is hard to be got at."
"Dec. 30. Fine clear morning; froze hard last night. Charles Burger died last evening about 10 o'clock."
"Dec. 31. Last of the year. May we, with the help of God, spend the coming year better than we have the past, which we propose to do if it is the will of the Almighty to deliver us from our present dreadful situation. Amen. Morning fair, but cloudy; wind east by south; looks like another snow-storm. Snow-storms are dreadful to us. The snow at present is very deep."
"Jan. 1, 1847. We pray the God of mercy to deliver us from our present calamity, if it be His holy will. Commenced snowing last night, and snows a little yet. Provisions getting very scanty; dug up a hide from under the snow yesterday; have not commenced on it yet."
"Jan. 3. Fair during the day, freezing at night. Mrs. Reed talks of crossing the mountains with her children."
"Jan. 4. Fine morning; looks like spring. Mrs. Reed and Virginia, Milton Elliott, and Eliza Williams started a short time ago with the hope of crossing the mountains; left the children here. It was difficult for Mrs. Reed to part with them."
This expedition was only one of many that the emigrants attempted. The suffering that was endured at these times was indescribable. The broken, volcanic nature of the summits rendered it extremely difficult to keep from getting lost. The white, snowy cliffs were everywhere the same. This party became bewildered and lost near the beautiful Lake Angeline, which is close to the present "Summit Station" of the Central Pacific. Had they attempted to proceed, all would undoubtedly have perished.
Within half a mile of the wagon road which now extends from Donner Lake to the Summit are places where rocks and cliffs are mingled in wildest confusion. Even in summertime it is difficult to find one's way among the broken, distorted mountain tops. In the mighty upheaval which produced the Sierra Nevada, these vast mounds or mountains of frowning granite were grouped into weird, fantastic labyrinths. Time has wrought little effect upon their hold precipitous sides, and made slight impress upon their lofty and almost inaccessible crests. Between these fragmentary mountains, in shapely, symmetrical bowls which have been delved by the fingers of the water nymphs and Undines, lie beautiful lakelets. Angeline is but one of a dozen which sparkle like a chain of gems between Donner Lake and the snowy, overhanging peaks of Mount Stanford. The clefts and fissures of the towering granite cliffs are filled, in summer, with dainty ferns, clinging mosses, and the loveliest of mountain wild flowers, and the rims of the lakelets are bordered with grasses, shrubbery, and a wealth of wild blossoms. But in winter this region exhibits the very grandeur of desolation. No verdure is visible save the dwarfed and shattered pines whose crushed branches mark the path of the rushing avalanche. The furious winds in their wild sport toss and tumble the snow-drifts here and there, baring the sterile peaks, and heaping the white masses a hundred feet deep into chasm and gorge. The pure, clear lakes, as if in very fear, hide their faces from the turbulent elements in mantles of ice. The sun is darkened by dense clouds, and the icy, shivering, shrieking stormfiends hold undisturbed their ghastly revels. On every side are lofty battlements of rock, whose trembling burden of snow seems ever ready to slide from its glassy foundations of ice, and entomb the bewildered traveler.
Into this interminable maze of rocks and cliffs and frozen lakelets, the little party wandered. Elliott had a compass, but it soon proved worthless, and only added to their perplexed and uncertain state of mind. They were out five days. Virginia's feet became so badly frozen that she could not walk. This occurrence saved the party. Reluctantly they turned back toward the cabins, convinced that it was madness to attempt to go forward. They reached shelter just as one of the most terrible storms of all that dreadful winter broke over their heads. Had they delayed their return a few hours, the path they made in ascending the mountains, and by means of which they retraced their steps, would have been concealed, and death would have been certain.
"Jan. 6. Eliza came back yesterday evening from the mountains, unable to proceed; the others kept ahead."
"Jan. 8. Mrs. Reed and the others came back; could not find their way on the other side of the mountains. They have nothing but hides to live on."
"Jan. 10. Began to snow last night; still continues; wind west-north-west."
"Jan. 13. Snowing fast; snow higher than the shanty; it must be thirteen feet deep. Can not get wood this morning; it is a dreadful sight for us to look upon."
One of the stumps near the Graves-Reed cabin, cut while the snow was at its deepest, was found, by actual measurement, to be twenty-two feet in height. Part of this stump is standing to-day.
"Jan. 14. Cleared off yesterday. The sun, shining brilliantly, renovates our spirits. Praise be to the God of heaven."
"Jan. 15. Clear to-day again. Mrs. Murphy blind; Landrum not able to get wood; has but one ax between him and Keseberg. It looks like another storm; expecting some account from Sutter's soon."
"Jan. 17. Eliza Williams came here this morning; Landrum crazy last night; provisions scarce; hides our main subsistence. May the Almighty send us help."
"Jan. 21. Fine morning; John Baptiste and Mr. Denton came this morning with Eliza; she will not eat hides. Mrs. - sent her back to live or die on them."
The blanks which occasionally occur were in the original diary. The delicacy which prompted Patrick Breen to omit these names can not fail to be appreciated. What, if there was sometimes a shade of selfishness, or an act of harshness? What if some families had more than their destitute neighbors? The best provided had little. All were in reality strangely generous. All divided with their afflicted companions. The Reeds had almost nothing to eat when they arrived at the cabins, yet this family is the only one which reached the settlements without some one member having to partake of human flesh.
"Jan. 22. Began to snow after sunrise; likely to continue; wind north."
"Jan. 23. Blew hard and snowed all night; the most severe storm we have experienced this winter; wind west."
"Jan. 26. Cleared up yesterday; to-day fine and pleasant: wind south; in hopes we are done with snow-storms. Those who went to Sutter's not yet returned; provisions getting scant; people growing weak, living on a small allowance of hides."
"Jan. 27. Commenced snowing yesterday; still continues to-day. Lewis Keseberg, Jr., died three days ago; food growing scarce; don't have fire enough to cook our hides."
"Jan. 30. Fair and pleasant; wind west; thawing in the sun. John and Edward Breen went to Graves' this morning. Mrs. - seized on Mrs. 's goods until they would be paid; they also took the hides which herself and family subsisted upon. She regained two pieces only, the balance they have taken. You may judge from this what our fare is in camp. There is nothing to be had by hunting, yet perhaps there soon will be."
"Jan. 31. The sun does not shine out brilliant this morning; froze hard last night; wind northwest. Landrum Murphy died last night about ten o'clock; Mrs. Reed went to Graves' this morning to look after goods."
Landrum Murphy was a large and somewhat overgrown young man. The hides and burnt bones did not contain sufficient nourishment to keep him alive. For some hours before he died, he lay in a semi-delirious state, breathing heavily and seemingly in little or no pain. Mrs. Murphy went to the Breen camp, and asked Mrs. Breen for a piece of meat to save her starving boy. Mrs. Breen gave her the meat, but it was too late, Landrum could not eat. Finally he sank into a gentle slumber. His breathing grew less and less distinct, and ere they were fairly aware of it life was extinct.
"Feb. 4. Snowed hard until twelve o'clock last night; many uneasy for fear we shall all perish with hunger; we have but little meat left, and only three hides; Mrs. Reed has nothing but one hide, and that is on Graves' house; Milton lives there, and likely will keep that. Eddy's child died last night."
"Feb. 5. It snowed faster last night and to-day than it has done this winter before; still continues without intermission; wind south-west. Murphy's folks and Keseberg say they can not eat hides. I wish we had enough of them. Mrs. Eddy is very weak."
"Feb. 7. Ceased to snow at last; to-day it is quite pleasant. McCutchen's child died on the second of this month."
This child died and was buried in the Graves cabin. Mr. W. C. Graves helped dig the grave near one side of the cabin, and laid the little one to rest. One of the most heart-rending features of this Donner tragedy is the number of infants that suffered. Mrs. Breen, Pike, Foster, McCutchen, Eddy, Keseberg, and Graves each had nursing babes when the fatal camp was pitched at Donner Lake.
"Feb. 8. Fine, clear morning. Spitzer died last night, and we will bury him in the snow; Mrs. Eddy died on the night of the seventh."
"Feb. 9. Mrs. Pike's child all but dead; Milton is at Murphy's, not able to get out of bed; Mrs. Eddy and child were buried to-day; wind south-east."
Feb. 10. Beautiful morning; thawing in the sun; Milton Elliott died last night at Murphy's cabin, and Mrs. Reed went there this morning to see about his effects. John Denton trying to borrow meat for Graves; had none to give; they had nothing but hides; all are entirely out of meat, but a little we have; our hides are nearly all eat up, but with God's help spring will soon smile upon us."
"Feb. 12. Warm, thawy morning."
"Feb. 14. Fine morning, but cold. Buried Milton in the snow; John Denton not well."
"Feb. 15. Morning cloudy until nine o'clock, then cleared off warm. Mrs. - refused to give Mrs. - any hides. Put Sutter's pack hides on her shanty, and would not let her have them."
"Feb. 16. Commenced to rain last evening, and turned to snow during the night, and continued until morning; weather changeable, sunshine and then light showers of hail, and wind at times. We all feel unwell. The snow is not getting much less at present."