|Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 10
A Lost Age in California History
The Change Wrought by the Discovery of Gold
The Start from Johnson's Ranch
A Bucking Horse
A Night Ride
Lost in the Mountains
A Terrible Night
A Flooded Camp
Crossing a Mountain Torrent
A Crazy Companion
Howlings of Gray Wolves
A Deer Rendezvous
A Midnight Thief
The Diary of the First Relief Party.
California, at this time, was sparsely settled, and it was a fearful undertaking to cross the snowy mountains to the relief of the storm-bound emigrants. A better idea of the difficulties to be encountered by the various relief parties can not be presented than by quoting from the manuscript of George W. Tucker. This gentleman was sixteen years old at the time of the occurrences narrated, and his account is vouched for as perfectly truthful and reliable. This sketch, like the remainder of this book, treats of an epoch in California history which has been almost forgotten. The scene of his adventures is laid in a region familiar to thousands of miners and early Californians. Along the route over which he passed with so much difficulty, scores of mining camps sprung up soon after the discovery of gold, and every flat, ravine, and hill-slope echoed to pick, and shovel, and pan, and to voices of legions of men. Truly, his narration relates to a lost, an almost unremembered era in the history of the famous mining counties, Placer and Nevada. In speaking of the first relief party, he says:
"We mounted our horses and started. The ground was very soft among the foothills, but we got along very well for two or three miles after leaving Johnson's ranch. Finally, one of our packhorses broke through the crust, and down he went to his sides in the mud. He floundered and plunged until the pack turned underneath his body. He then came out of the mud, bucking and kicking; and he bucked and kicked, and kicked and bucked, till he cleared himself of the pack, pack-saddle and all, and away he went back to the ranch. We gathered up the pack, put it upon the horse Eddy was riding, and the party traveled on. Eddy and myself were to go back to the ranch, catch the horse, and returning, overtake them. We failed to find the horse that day, but the next morning an Indian got on my horse, and, about nine o'clock, succeeded in finding the missing animal. My horse, however, was pretty well run down when he got back. Eddy and myself started about ten o'clock. We had to travel in one day what the company had traveled in two days. About the time we started it commenced clouding up, and we saw we were going to have a storm. We went on until about one o'clock, when my horse gave out. It commenced raining and was very cold. Eddy said he would ride on and overtake the company, if possible, and have them stop. He did not overtake them until about dark, after they had camped.
"My horse could only go in a slow walk, so I walked and led him to keep from freezing. The rain continued to increase in volume, and by dark it was coming down in torrents. It was very cold. The little stream began to rise, but I waded through, though sometimes it came up to my armpits. It was very dark, but I kept going on in hopes I would come in sight of the camp-fire. But the darkness increased, and it was very difficult to find the road. I would get down on my knees and feel for the road with my hands. Finally, about nine o'clock, it became so dark that I could not see a tree until I would run against it, and I was almost exhausted dragging my horse after me. I had lost the road several times, but found it by feeling for the wagon-ruts. At last I came to where the road made a short turn around the point of a hill, and I went straight ahead until I got forty or fifty yards from the road. I crawled around for some time on my knees, but could not find it. I knew if the storm was raging in the morning as it was then, if I got very far from the road, I could not tell which was east, west, north, or south, I might get lost and perish before the storm ceased, so I concluded to stay right there until morning. I had no blanket, and nothing on me but a very light coat and pair of pants. I tied my horse to a little pine tree, and sitting down, leaned against the tree. The rain came down in sheets. The wind blew, and the old pine trees clashed their limbs together. It seemed to me that a second deluge had come. I would get so cold that I would get up and walk around for a while. It seemed to me I should surely freeze. Toward morning I began to get numb, and felt more comfortable, but that was the longest and hardest night I ever experienced.
"In the morning, when it became light enough so that I could see two or three rods, I got up, but my legs were so numb that I could not walk. I rolled around until I got up a circulation, and could stand on my feet. Leaving my horse tied to the tree, I found the road, went about a hundred yards around the point of a hill, and saw the camp-fire up in a little flat about a quarter of a mile from where I had spent the night. Going up to camp, I found the men all standing around a fire they had made, where two large pines had fallen across each other. They had laid down pine bark and pieces of wood to keep them out of the water. They had stood up all night. The water was running two or three inches deep all through the camp. When I got to the fire, and began to get warm, my legs and arms began to swell so that I could hardly move or get my hands to my face.
"It never ceased raining all that day nor the next night, and we were obliged to stand around the fire. Everything we had was wet. They had stacked up our dried beef and flour in a pile, and put the saddles and pack saddles over it as well as they could, but still it got more or less wet. The third morning it stopped raining about daylight, and the sun came out clear and warm. We made scaffolds and spread our meat all out, hung up our blankets and clothing on lines, and by keeping up fires and with the help of the sun, we managed to get everything dry by night. The next morning we packed up and started on until we came to a little valley, where we found some grass for our horses. We stayed there that night. The next day we got to Steep Hollow Creek, one of the branches of Bear River. This stream was not more than a hundred feet wide, but it was about twenty feet deep, and the current was very swift. We felled a large pine tree across it, but the center swayed down so that the water ran over it about a foot deep. We tied ropes together and stretched them across to make a kind of hand railing, and succeeded in carrying over all our things. We undertook to make our horses swim the creek, and finally forced two of them into the stream, but as soon as they struck the current they were carried down faster than we could run. One of them at last reached the bank and got ashore, but the other went down under the tree we had cut, and the first we saw of him he came up about twenty yards below, heels upward. He finally struck a drift about a hundred yards below, and we succeeded in getting him out almost drowned. We then tied ropes together, part of the men went over, and tying a rope to each horse, those on one side would force him into the water, and the others would draw him across. We lost a half day at this place. That night we climbed a high mountain, and came to snow. Camped that night without any feed for our horses. The next day, about noon, we reached Mule Springs. The snow was from three to four feet deep, and it was impossible to go any farther with the horses. Unpacking the animals, Joe Varro and Wm. Eddy started back with them to Johnson's Ranch. The rest of us went to work and built a brush tent in which to keep our provisions. We set forks into the ground, laid poles across, and covered them with cedar boughs. We finished them that evening, and the next morning ten of the men fixed up their packs, consisting of dried beef and flour, and started on foot, each one carrying about seventy-five pounds. They left Billy Coon and myself to watch the provisions until they returned. I have never been in that country since, but I think Mule Springs is on the opposite side of Bear River from Dutch Flat.
"After the men had all gone, I amused myself the first day by getting wood and cutting cedar limbs to finish our camp with. My companion, Billy Coon, was partially insane, and was no company at all. He would get up in the morning, eat his food, and then lie down and sleep for two or three hours. He would only talk when he was spoken to; and all he knew was to sleep and eat. I got very lonesome, and would sit for hours thinking of our situation. Sixty miles from any human habitation! Surrounded with wild Indians and wild beasts! Then, when I would look away at the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra, and think that my father and the rest of the men where there, toiling under the heavy loads which they carried, I became still more gloomy. When night would come, the big gray wolves that had collected on the mountains facing to the south, where the snow had melted off, would set up their howlings. This, with the dismal sound of the wind roaring through the tall pine trees, was almost unendurable. To this day, when I am in pine timber, and hear the wind sighing through the tree-tops, I always think of the Donner Party and of those lonely days in the mountains.
"The third day after the men left I became so lonesome that I took the gun and went down in the direction in which I had heard the wolves howling. When I got down out of the snow, I found the deer had collected there by the hundreds. I killed two deer; went up and got Billy Coon, and we carried them up to camp. We hung one on each corner of our brush tent, not more than six feet from our bed, and not more than four feet from the fire. Next morning one of the deer was gone! I supposed the Indians had found us out and stolen it; but when I looked for tracks I found the thief had been a California lion. I tracked him two or three hundred yards, but he had walked off with the deer so easily, I thought he might keep it. That afternoon I went down to kill another deer, but when I reached a point from which I could see down to the river, I saw the smoke of an Indian camp. I was afraid to shoot for fear the Indians would hear the gun, and finding out we were there, would come up and give us trouble. I started back, and when in sight of camp I sat down on a log to rest. While sitting there I saw three Indians coming up the hill. I sat still to see what they would do. They came up to within sight of the camp, and all crawled up behind a large sugar-pine tree, and sat there watching the camp. I did not like their movements, so thought I would give them a scare. I leveled the old gun at the tree, about six feet above their heads, and fired away. They got away from there faster than they came, and I never saw them afterwards."
"On the fifth day after the men left, three of them came back to the camp. They informed me they had been three days in traveling from Mule Springs to Bear Valley, a distance of twelve miles. These three had found it impossible to stand the journey, but the other seven had started on from Bear Valley. It was thought they could never get over to Truckee Lake, for the snow was so soft it was impossible to carry their heavy loads through from ten to thirty feet of it."
M. D. Ritchie and R. P. Tucker kept a diary of the journey of the first relief party, which, thanks to Patty Reed, now Mrs. Frank Lewis, is before us. It is brief, concise, pointed, and completes the narration of Mr. George W. Tucker. Mr. Ritchie's diary reads:
"Feb. 5, 1847. First day traveled ten miles. Bad roads; often miring down horses and mules. On the sixth and seventh traveled fifteen miles. Road continued bad; commenced raining before we got to camp, and continued to rain all that day and night very severe. Lay by here on the eighth to dry our provisions and clothing."
"Feb. 9. Traveled fifteen miles. Swam the animals over one creek, and carried the provisions over on a log."
"Feb. 10. Traveled four miles; came to the snow; continued about four miles further. Animals floundering in snow, and camped at the Mule Springs."
"Feb. 11. Mr. Eddy started back with the animals; left William Coon and George Tucker to guard what provisions were left in camp; the other ten men, each taking about fifty pounds, except Mr. Curtis, who took about twenty-five pounds. Traveled on through the snow, having a very severe day's travel over mountains, making about six miles. Camped on Bear River, near a cluster of large pines."
"Feb. 12. Moved camp about two miles, and stopped to make snow-shoes; tried them on and found them of no benefit; cast them away."
"Feb. 13. Made Bear Valley. Upon digging for Curtis' wagon, found the snow ten feet deep, and the provisions destroyed by the bears. Rain and snow fell on us all night."
By Curtis' wagon is meant a cache made by Reed and McCutchen, which will be described in the next chapter.
"Feb. 14. Fine weather."
From this time forward, the journal was kept by Reasin P. Tucker.
"Feb. 15. Fine day. Three of our men decline going any further - W. D. Ritchie, A. Brueheim, and James Curtis. Only seven men being left, the party was somewhat discouraged. We consulted together, and under existing circumstances I took it upon myself to insure every man who persevered to the end, five dollars per day from the time they entered the snow. We determined to go ahead, and camped to-night on Yuba River, after traveling fifteen miles."
"Feb. 16. Traveling very bad, and snowing. Made but five miles, and camped in snow fifteen feet deep."
"Feb. 17. Traveled five miles."
"Feb. 18. Traveled eight miles, and camped on the head of the Yuba; on the pass we suppose the snow to be thirty feet deep."
The "pass" was the Summit. Relief was close at hand. Would it find the emigrants?