Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 9

Previous Page Home
Up One Level
Next Page

Chapter 9 Starting Decoration

Chapter IX.

The Last Resort
Two Reports of a Gun
Only Temporary Relief
Weary Traveling
The Snow Bridges
Human Tracks!
An Indian Rancherie
Acorn Bread
Starving Five Times!
Carried Six Miles
Bravery of John Rhodes
A Thirty-two Days Journey
Organizing the First Relief Party
Alcalde Sinclair's Address
Captain R. P. Tucker's Companions.

It is recorded of Lewis and Salvador that they came willingly to the relief of the emigrants. Two of Sutter's best trained vaqueros, faithful, honest, reliable, they seemed rather proud when chosen to assist Stanton in driving the mules laden with provisions for the starving train. Now they were dying! Horrified at the sight of human beings eating the flesh of their comrades, they withdrew from the whites at the "Camp of Death." After that they always camped apart, but continued to act as guides until they became certain that their own lives were in danger. Then they fled. Starving, exhausted, with frozen and bleeding feet, the poor wretches dragged their weary bodies onward until they reached a little streamlet, and here they lay down to die. Nine days, with no other food than they could find in the snow, was too much even for their hardy natures. They were unable to move when the famished "Seven" passed. Yes, passed! for the starving emigrants went on by the poor fellows, unable to deprive them of the little spark of life left in their wasted bodies. Traveling was now slow work for the dying whites. They only went about two hundred yards. In a few more hours, perhaps that very night, they would die of starvation. Already the terrible phantasies of delirium were beginning to dance before their sunken eyes. Ere the Indians would cease breathing some of the Seven would be past relief. There were two men and five women. William Foster could see that his wife - the woman who was all the world to him - was fast yielding to the deadly grasp of the fiends of starvation. For the sake of his life she had stifled the most sacred instincts of her womanly nature, and procured him food from Fosdick's body. Should he see her die the most terrible of deaths without attempting to rescue her? Reader, put yourself in this man's place. Brave, generous, heroic, full of lion-like nobility, William Foster could not stoop to a base action. Contemplate his position! Lying there prostrate upon the snow was Mrs. Pike, the woman whom, accidentally, he had rendered a widow. Her babes were dying in the cabins. His own boy was at the cabins. His comrades, his wife, were in the last stages of starvation. He, also, was dying. Eddy had not nerve enough, the women could not, and William Foster must-what! Was it murder? No! Every law book, every precept of that higher law, self- preservation, every dictate of right, reason or humanity, demanded the deed. The Indians were past all hope of aid. They could not lift their heads from their pillow of snow. It was not simply justifiable - it was duty; it was a necessity.

He told them, when he got back, that he was compelled to take their lives. They did not moan or struggle, or appear to regret that their lingering pain was to cease. The five women and Eddy heard two reports of a gun.

The "Forlorn Hope" might yet save those who were dying at Donner Lake.

Even this relief was but temporary. Taking the wasted flesh from the bones, drying it, and staggering forward, the little band speedily realized that they were not yet saved. It was food for only a few days. Then they again felt their strength failing. Once more they endured the excruciating torments which precede starvation.

In the very complete account of this trip, which is kindly furnished by Mary Graves, are many interesting particulars concerning the suffering of these days. "Our only chance for camp-fire for the night," she says, "was to hunt a dead tree of some description, and set fire to it. The hemlock being the best and generally much the largest timber, it was our custom to select the driest we could find without leaving our course. When the fire would reach the top of the tree, the falling limbs would fall all around us and bury themselves in the snow, but we heeded them not. Sometimes the falling, blazing limbs would brush our clothes, but they never hit us; that would have been too lucky a hit. We would sit or lie on the snow, and rest our weary frames. We would sleep, only to dream of something nice to eat, and awake again to disappointment. Such was our sad fate! Even the reindeer's wretched lot was not worse! 'His dinner and his bed were snow, and supper he had not.' Our fare was the same! We would strike fire by means of the flintlock gun which we had with us. This had to be carried by turns, as it was considered the only hope left in case we might find game which we could kill. We traveled over a ridge of mountains, and then descended a deep canyon, where one could scarcely see the bottom. Down, down we would go, or rather slide, for it is very slavish work going down hill, and in many cases we were compelled to slide on our shoes as sleds. On reaching the bottom we would plunge into the snow, so that it was difficult getting out, with the shoes tied to our feet, our packs lashed to our backs, and ourselves head and ears under the snow. But we managed to get out some way, and one by one reached the bottom of the canyon. When this was accomplished we had to ascend a hill as steep as the one we had descended. We would drive the toes of our shoes into the loose snow, to make a sort of step, and one by one, as if ascending stair-steps, we climbed up. It took us an entire day to reach the top of the mountain. Each time we attained the summit of a mountain, we hoped we should be able to see something like a valley, but each time came disappointment, for far ahead was always another and higher mountain. We found some springs, or, as we called them, wells, from five to twenty feet under ground, as you might say, for they were under the snow on which we walked. The water was so warm that it melted the snow, and from some of these springs were large streams of running water. We crossed numbers of these streams on bridges of snow, which would sometimes form upon a blade of grass hanging over the water; and from so small a foundation would grow a bridge from ten to twenty-five feet high, and from a foot and a half to three feet across the top. It would make you dizzy to look down at the water, and it was with much difficulty we could place our clumsy ox-bow snow-shoes one ahead of the other without falling. Our feet had been frozen and thawed so many times that they were bleeding and sore. When we stopped at night we would take off our shoes, which by this time were so badly rotted by constant wetting in snow, that there was very little left of them. In the morning we would push our shoes on, bruising and numbing the feet so badly that they would ache and ache with walking and the cold, until night would come again. Oh! the pain! It seemed to make the pangs of hunger more excruciating."

Thus the party traveled on day after day, until absolute starvation again stared them in the face. The snow had gradually grown less deep, until finally it disappeared or lay only in patches. Their strength was well-nigh exhausted, when one day Mary Graves says: "Some one called out, 'Here are tracks!' Some one asked, 'What kind of tracks human?' 'Yes, human!' Can any one imagine the joy these footprints gave us? We ran as fast as our strength would carry us."

Turning a chaparral point, they came in full view of an Indian rancherie. The uncivilized savages were amazed. Never had they seen such forlorn, wretched, pitiable human beings, as the tattered, disheveled, skeleton creatures who stood stretching out their arms for assistance. At first, they all ran and hid, but soon they returned to the aid of these dying wretches. It is said that the Indian women and children cried, and wailed with grief at the affecting spectacle of starved men and women. Such food as they had was speedily offered. It was bread made of acorns. This was eagerly eaten. It was at least a substitute for food. Every person in the rancherie, from the toddling papooses to the aged chief, endeavored to aid them.

After what had recently happened, could anything be more touching than these acts of kindness of the Indians?

After briefly resting, they pressed forward. The Indians accompanied and even led them, and constantly supplied them with food. With food? No, it was not such food as their weakened, debilitated systems craved. The acorn bread was not sufficient to sustain lives already so attenuated by repeated starvations. All that the starved experience in the way of pain and torture before they die, had been experienced by these people at least four different times. To their horror, they now discovered that despite the acorn bread, they must die of hunger and exhaustion a fifth and last time. So sick and weak did they become, that they were compelled to lie down and rest every hundred yards. Finally, after being with the Indians seven days, they lay down, and felt that they never should have strength to take another step. Before them, in all its beauty and loveliness, spread the broad valley of the Sacramento. Behind them were the ever-pleading faces of their starving dear ones. Yet neither hope nor affection could give them further strength. They were dying in full view of the long-desired haven of rest.

One of the number was hardly so near death's door as his companions. It was W. H. Eddy. As a last resort, their, faithful allies, the Indians, took him upon either side, and fairly carried him along. His feet moved, but they were frozen, and blistered, and cracked, and bleeding. Left alone, he would have fallen helplessly to the earth. It was as terrible a journey as ever mortal man performed. How far he traveled, he knew not. During the last six miles his path was marked by blood-stains from his swollen feet.

By making abridgments from valuable manuscript contributed by George W. Tucker, of Calistoga, this narrative may be appropriately continued. Mr. Tucker's father and relatives had reached Johnson's Ranch on the twenty-fifth of October, 1846. They had been with the Donner Party until Fort Bridger was reached, and then took the Fort Hall road. Their journey had been full of dangers and difficulties, and reaching Johnson's Ranch, the first settlement on the west side of the Sierra, they determined to remain during the winter.

One evening, about the last of January, Mr. Tucker says a man was seen coming down Bear River, accompanied by an Indian. His haggard, forlorn look showed he was in great distress. When he reached us, he said he was of the Donner Party. He told briefly how the train had been caught in the snow east of the mountains, and was unable to get back or forward. He told how the fifteen had started, and that six beside himself were still alive. That the six were back in the mountains, almost starved. R. P. Tucker and three other men started at once with provisions, the Indian acting as guide. They reached them, fifteen miles back, some time during the night, and brought them in the next day. The names of the seven were W. H. Eddy, William Foster, Mrs. S. A. C. Foster, Mrs. H. F. Pike, Mrs. William McCutchen, Mrs. Sarah Fosdick, and Mary Graves. It had been thirty-two days since they left Donner Lake!

At Johnson's Ranch there were only three or four families of poor emigrants. Nothing could be done toward relieving those at Donner Lake until help could arrive from Sutter's Fort. A rainy winter had flooded Bear River, and rendered the Sacramento plains a vast quagmire. Yet one man volunteered to go to Sacramento with the tale of horror, and get men and provisions. This man was John Rhodes. Lashing two pine logs together with rawhides, and forming a raft, John Rhodes was ferried over Bear River. Taking his shoes in his hands, and rolling his pants up above his knees, he started on foot through water that frequently was from one to three feet deep. Some time during the night he reached the Fort.

A train in the mountains! Men, women, and children starving! It was enough to make one's blood curdle to think of it! Captain Sutter, generous old soul, and Alcalde Sinclair, who lived at Norris' Ranch two and a half miles from the Fort, offered provisions, and five or six men volunteered to carry them over the mountains. In about a week, six men, fully provided with supplies, reached Johnson's Ranch. Meantime the Tuckers and their neighbors had slaughtered five or six fat cattle, and had dried or "jerked" the meat. The country was scoured for horses and mules, and for saddles and pack-saddles, but at last, in ten or twelve days, they were ready to start. Alcalde Sinclair had come up from the Fort, and when all were ready to begin their march, he made them a thrilling little address. They were, he said, starting out upon a hazardous journey. Nothing could justify them in attempting so perilous an undertaking except the obligations due to their suffering fellow-men. He urged them to do all in their power, without sacrificing their lives, to save the perishing emigrants from starvation and death. He then appointed Reasin P. Tucker, the father of our informant, captain of the company. With a pencil he carefully wrote down the name of each man in the relief party. The names were John Rhodes, Daniel Rhodes, Aquilla Glover, R. S. Mootrey, Joseph Foster, Edward Coffeemire, M. D. Ritchie, James Curtis, William H. Eddy, William Coon, R. P. Tucker, George W. Tucker, and Adolph Brueheim. Thus the first relief party started.

Chapter 9 Ending Decoration

Previous Page
Up One Level
Next Page