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Chapter 11 Starting Decoration

Chapter XI.

Hardships of Reed and Herron
Generosity of Captain Sutter
Attempts to Cross the Mountains with Provisions
Curtis' Dog
Compelled to Turn Back
Hostilities with Mexico
Memorial to Gov. Stockton
Yerba Buena's Generosity
Johnson's Liberality
Pitiful Scenes at Donner Lake
Noble Mothers
Dying rather than Eat Human Flesh
A Mother's Prayer
Tears of Joy
Eating the Shoestrings.

James F. Reed encountered the most disheartening trials after leaving the Donner Party. He and Walter Herron were reduced to the utmost verge of starvation while on the Sierra Nevada. At one time they discovered five beans in the road, one after the other, and at another time they ate of the rancid tallow which was found in a tar bucket under an old wagon.

Mr. Reed has told the rest in an article contributed by him to the Rural Press. It explains so well the difficulties of getting relief to the emigrants, that it is copied:

"When I arrived at Captain Sutter's, making known my situation to him, asking if he would furnish me horses and saddles to bring the women and children out of the mountains (I expected to meet them at the head of Bear Valley by the time I could return there), he at once complied with the request, also saying that he would do everything possible for me and the company. On the evening of my arrival at the Captain's, I found Messrs. Bryant, Lippencott, Grayson, and Jacobs, some of the early voyagers in the Russel Company, they having left that company at Fort Laramie, most of them coming on horseback.

"During the evening a meeting was held, in which I participated, adopting a memorial to the commander of Sutter's Fort, to raise one or more companies of volunteers, to proceed to Los Angeles, we being at war with Mexico at this time. The companies were to be officered by the petitioners. Being requested to take command of one of the companies, I declined, stating that it would be necessary for the captain to stay with the company; also that I had to return to the mountains for the emigrants, but that I would take a lieutenancy. This was agreed to, and I was on my return to the emigrants to enlist all the men I could between there and Bear Valley. On my way up I enlisted twelve or thirteen.

"The second night after my arrival at Captain Sutter's, we had a light rain; next morning we could see snow on the mountains. The Captain stated that it was low down and heavy for the first fall of the season. The next day I started on my return with what horses and saddles Captain Sutter had to spare. He furnished us all the flour needed, and a hind quarter of beef, giving us an order for more horses and saddles at Mr. Cordway's, near where Marysville is located. In the mean time, Mr. McCutchen joined us, he being prevented from returning with Mr. Stanton on account of sickness. After leaving Mr. Johnson's ranch we had thirty horses, one mule, and two Indians to help drive.

"Nothing happened until the evening before reaching the head of Bear Valley, when there commenced a heavy rain and sleet, continuing all night. We drove on until a late hour before halting. We secured the flour and horses, the rain preventing us from kindling a fire. Next morning, proceeding up the valley to where we were to take the mountain, we found a tent containing a Mr. Curtis and wife. They hailed us as angels sent for their delivery, stating that they would have perished had it not been for our arrival. Mrs. Curtis stated that they had killed their dog, and at the time of our arrival had the last piece in the Dutch oven baking. We told them not to be alarmed about anything to eat, for we had plenty, both of flour and beef, and that they were welcome to all they needed. Our appetites were rather keen, not having eaten anything from the morning previous. Mr. Curtis remarked that in the oven was a piece of the dog and we could have it. Raising the lid of the oven, we found the dog well baked, and having a fine savory smell. I cut out a rib, smelling and tasting, found it to be good, and handed it over to McCutchen, who, after smelling it some time, tasted it and pronounced it very good dog. We partook of Curtis' dog. Mrs. Curtis immediately commenced making bread, and in a short time had supper for all.

"At the lower end of the valley, where we entered, the snow was eighteen inches in depth, and when we arrived at the tent, it was two feet. Curtis stated that his oxen had taken the back track, and that he had followed them by the trail through the snow. In the morning, before leaving, Mrs. Curtis got us to promise to take them into the settlement when on our return with the women and children. Before leaving, we gave them flour and beef sufficient to keep them until our return, expecting to do so in a few days."

"We started, following the trail made by the oxen, and camped a number of miles up the mountain. In the night, hearing some of the horses going down the trail, we went to where the Indians had lain down, and found them gone. McCutchen mounted his horse and rode down to Curtis' camp, and found that the Indians had been there, stopped and warmed themselves, and then started down the valley. He returned to camp about the middle of the night.

"Next morning we started, still on the trail of the oxen, but unfortunately, the trail turned off to the left from our direction. We proceeded on, the snow deepening rapidly, our horses struggling to get through; we pushed them on until they would rear upon their hind feet to breast the snow, and when they would alight they would sink in it until nothing was seen of them but the nose and a portion of the head. Here we found that it was utterly impossible to proceed further with the horses. Leaving them, we proceeded further on foot, thinking that we could get in to the people, but found that impossible, the snow being soft and deep."

"I may here state that neither of us knew anything about snow-shoes, having always lived in a country where they never were used."

"With sorrowful hearts, we arrived that night at the camp of Mr. Curtis, telling them to make their arrangements for leaving with us in the morning. Securing our flour in the wagon of Mr. Curtis, so that we could get it on our return, we packed one horse with articles belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Curtis, and started down the valley to where the snow was light, and where there was considerable underbrush, so that our famished animals could browse, they not having eaten anything for several days."

"After packing Mr. Curtis' horse for him the next morning, we started; in a short time, Mr. and Mrs. Curtis proceeded ahead, leaving the pack-horse behind for us to drive, instead of his leading him; we having our hands full in driving the loose ones, they scattering in all directions. The pack turned on the horse. Mr. Curtis was requested to return and help repack and lead his horse, but he paid no attention to us. We stood this for some time; finally, McCutchen became angry, started after him, determined to bring him back; when he got with him he paid no attention to McCutchen's request to return; Mac becoming more exasperated, hit him several times over the shoulders with his riatta. This brought him to his senses. He said that if Mac would not kill him, he would come back and take care of the pack animal, and he did."

"As soon as we arrived at Captain Sutter's, I made a statement of all the circumstances attending our attempt to get into the mountains. He was no way surprised at our defeat. I also gave the Captain the number of head of cattle the company had when I left them. He made an estimate, and stated that if the emigrants would kill the cattle, and place the meat in the snow for preservation, there was no fear of starvation until relief could reach them. He further stated that there were no able-bodied men in that vicinity, all having gone down the country with and after Fremont to fight the Mexicans. He advised me to proceed to Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, and make my case known to the naval officer in command."

"I left Captain Sutter's, by the way of San Jose, for San Francisco, being unable to come by water. When I arrived at San Jose, I found the San Francisco side of the bay was occupied by the Mexicans. Here I remained, and was attached to a company of volunteers, commanded by Captain Webber, until after the fight at Santa Clara."

"The road now being clear, I proceeded to San Francisco with a petition from some of the prominent citizens of San Jose, asking the commander of the navy to grant aid to enable me to return to the mountains."

It is proper, perhaps, to interrupt the narrative in the Rural Press for the purpose of introducing the memorial referred to by Mr. Reed. The copy of the original document was recently found among his papers by his daughter, Patty Reed.

"To his Excellency, R. F. Stockton, Governor and Commander-in-Chief, by sea and land, of the United States Territory of California: We, the undersigned citizens and residents of the Territory of California, beg leave respectfully to present to your Excellency the following memorial, viz.: That, whereas, the last detachment of emigrants from the United States to California have been unable, from unavoidable causes, to reach the frontier settlements, and are now in the California mountains, seventy-five or one hundred miles east from the Sacramento Valley, surrounded by snow, most probably twenty feet deep, and being about eighty souls in number, a large proportion of whom are women and children, who must shortly be in a famishing condition from scarcity of provisions, therefore, the undersigned most earnestly beseech your Excellency to take into consideration the propriety of fitting out an expedition to proceed on snowshoes immediately to the relief of the sufferers. Your memorialists beg leave to subscribe themselves, very respectfully, yours, etc."

"January, 1847."

The article in the Rural Press continues: "Arriving at San Francisco, I presented my petition to Commodore Hull, also making a statement of the condition of the people in the mountains as far as I knew, the number of them, and what would be needed in provisions and help to get them out. He made an estimate of the expense, and said that he would do anything within reason to further the object, but was afraid that the department at Washington would not sustain him if he made the general outfit. His sympathy was that of a man and a gentleman.

"I also conferred with several of the citizens of Yerba Buena; their advice was not to trouble the Commodore further; that they would call a meeting of the citizens and see what could be done. At the meeting, the situation of the people was made known, and committees were appointed to collect money. Over a thousand dollars was raised in the town, and the sailors of the fleet gave over three hundred dollars. At the meeting, Midshipman Woodworth volunteered to go into the mountains. Commodore Hull gave me authority to raise as many men, with horses, as would be required. The citizens purchased all the supplies necessary for the outfit, and placed them on board the schooner, for Hardy's Ranch, mouth of Feather River. Midshipman Woodworth took charge of the schooner, and was the financial agent of the government."

"I left in a boat for Napa by way of Sonoma, to procure men and horses, and when I arrived at Mr. Gordon's, on Cache Creek, I had all the men and horses needed. From here I proceeded to the mouth of Feather River for the purpose of meeting Mr. Woodworth with the provisions. When we reached the river the boat had not arrived. The water was very high in the river, the tule lands being overflowed. From here I sent a man to a point on the Sacramento River opposite Sutter's Fort, to obtain information of the boat with our provisions; he returned and reported the arrival of the boat at the Fort."

"Before leaving Yerba Buena, news came of a party of fifteen persons having started from the emigrant encampment, and only seven getting to Johnson's. I was here placed in a quandary - no boat to take us across the river, and no provisions for our party to take into the mountains. We camped a short distance back from the river, where we killed a number of elk for the purpose of using the skins in covering a skeleton boat. Early next morning we started for the river, and to our delight saw a small schooner, belonging to Perry McCan, which had arrived during the night. We immediately crossed, McCutchen and myself, to the opposite bank of the river. I directed the men to cross and follow us to Johnson's Ranch. We arrived there early that day. Making known our situation, he drove his cattle up to the house, saying, 'There are the cattle, take as many as you need.' We shot down five head, staid up all night, and with the help of Mr. Johnson and his Indians, by the time the men arrived the next morning, we had the meat fire-dried and ready to be placed in bags. Mr. Johnson had a party of Indians making flour by hand mills, they making, during the night, nearly two hundred pounds."

"We packed up immediately and started. After reaching the snow, the meat and flour was divided into suitable packs for us to carry, we leaving the horses here. At Johnson's I learned that a relief party had passed in a few days previous, being sent by Captain Sutter and Mr. Sinclair."

This was the party commanded by Captain Reasin P. Tucker, whose journey over the mountains as far as the summit was described in the last chapter. Reed was faithful and energetic in endeavoring to recross the mountains. Mr. McCutchen, also, did all in his power to reach the wife and baby he left behind. The snow belt is about four times as wide on the west side of the summit as it is on the east side. It was almost impossible for relief parties to cross the mountains. Captain Tucker's party was composed of men of great nerve and hardihood, yet, as will be seen, the trip was almost as much as their lives were worth.

On the morning of the nineteenth of February, 1847, the relief party of Captain R. P. Tucker began the descent of the gorge leading to Donner Lake.

Let us glance ahead at the picture soon to be unfolded to their gaze. The mid-winter snows had almost concealed the cabins. The inmates lived subterranean lives. Steps cut in the icy snow led up from the doorways to the surface. Deep despair had settled upon all hearts. The dead were lying all around, some even unburied, and nearly all with only a covering of snow. So weak and powerless had the emigrants become, that it was hardly possible for them to lift the dead bodies up the steps out of the cabins. All were reduced to mere skeletons. They had lived on pieces of rawhide, or on old, castaway bones, which were boiled or burned until capable of being eaten. They were so reduced that it seemed as if only a dry, shriveled skin covered their emaciated frames. The eyes were sunken deep in their sockets, and had a fierce, ghastly, demoniacal look. The faces were haggard, woe-begone, and sepulchral. One seldom heard the sound of a voice, and when heard, it was weak, tremulous, pitiful. Sometimes a child would moan and sob for a mouthful of food, and the poor, helpless mothers, with breaking hearts, would have to soothe them, as best they could, with kind words and tender caresses. Food, there was none. Oh! what words can fitly frame a tribute for those noble mothers! When strong men gave up, and passively awaited the delirium of death, the mothers were actively administering to the wants of the dying, and striving to cheer and comfort the living. Marble monuments never bore more heroic names than those of Margaret W. Reed, Lavina Murphy, Elizabeth Graves, Margaret Breen, Tamsen Donner, and Elizabeth Donner. Their charity, fortitude, and self-sacrifice failed not in the darkest hour. Death came so often now, that little notice was taken of his approach, save by these mothers. A dreadful want of consciousness precedes starvation. The actual death is not so terrible. The delirious would rave of feasts, and rich viands, and bountiful stores of food. As the shadows of death more closely enveloped the poor creatures, the mutterings grew unintelligible, and were interrupted, now and then, by startled cries of frenzy, which gradually grew fainter, until the victims finally slumbered. From this slumber there was no awakening. The breathing became feebler and more irregular, and finally ceased. It was not so terrible to the unconscious dying, as to the weeping mother who watched by the sufferer's side.

It was always dark and gloomy enough in the snow-covered cabins, but during the fierce, wild storms, the desolation became almost unendurable. The rushing gale, the furious storm, the lashing of storm-rent pine boughs, or the crash of giant trees overthrown by the hurricane, filled the souls of the imprisoned emigrants with nameless dread. Sometimes the silent darkness of the night would shudder with the howl of the great gray wolves which in those days infested the mountains. Too well did they know that these gaunt beasts were howling for the bodies of the living as well as of the dead.

Wood grew plentifully at short distances from the cabins, but for these weak, starving creatures to obtain it was a herculean task. To go out when the storms were raging, would be almost impossible for a well, strong man. To struggle through the deep, loose drifts, reaching frequently to the waist, required, at any time, fearful exertion. The numb, fleshless fingers could hardly guide, or even wield the ax. Near the site of the Breen cabin, to-day, stands a silent witness of the almost superhuman exertions that were made to procure fuel. On the side of a pine tree are old seams and gashes, which, by their irregular position, were evidently made by hands too weak to cut down a tree. Hundreds of blows, however, were struck, and the marks of the ax-blade extend up and down the side of the tree for a foot and a half. Bark seared with age has partly covered portions of the cuts, but in one place the incision is some inches deep. At the foot of this pine was found a short, decayed ax-handle, and a broad-bladed, old-fashioned ax-head. The mute story of these witnesses is unmistakable. The poor starved being who undertook the task, never succeeded.

Trees felled, frequently buried themselves out of sight in the loose snow, or at best, only the uppermost branches could be obtained. Without fire, without food, without proper shelter from the dampness occasioned by the melting snows, in the bitter, biting wintry weather, the men, women, and children were huddled together, the living and the dead. When Milton Elliott died, there were no men to assist in removing the body from the deep pit. Mrs. Reed and her daughter, Virginia, bravely undertook the task. Tugging, pushing, lifting as best they could, the corpse was raised up the icy steps. He died in the Murphy cabin by the rock. A few days before he died, he crawled over to the Breen cabin, where were Mrs. Reed and her children. For years he had been one of the members of this family, he worked for Mr. Reed in the mill and furniture establishment owned by the latter in Jamestown, Illinois. He drove the same yoke of oxen, "Bully" and "George," who were the wheel-oxen of Reed's family team on the plains. When Mr. Reed proposed crossing the plains, his wife and children refused to go, unless Milt. could be induced to drive. He was a kind, careful man, and after Mr. Reed had been driven away from the company, Elliott always provided for them as best he was able. Now that he was going to die, he wanted to see "Ma" and the children once more. "Ma" was the term he always used in addressing Mrs. Reed. None realized better than he the sorrowful position in which she was placed by having no husband upon whom to lean in this time of great need. Poor Elliott! he knew that he was starving! starving! "Ma, I am not going to starve to death, I am going to eat of the bodies of the dead." This is what he told Mrs. Reed, yet when he attempted to do so, his heart revolted at the thought. Mrs. Reed accompanied him a portion of the way back to the Murphy cabin, and before leaving him, knelt on the snow and prayed as only a mother can, that the Good Father would help them in this hour of distress. It was a starving Christian mother praying that relief might come to her starving children, and especially to this, her starving boy. From the granite rocks, the solemn forests, and the snow-mantled mountains of Donner Lake, a more fervent prayer never ascended heavenward. Could Elliott have heard, in his dying moments, that this prayer was soon to be answered, so far as Mrs. Reed and her little ones were concerned, he would have welcomed death joyfully.

As time wore wearily on, another and more severe trial awaited Mrs. Reed. Her daughter Virginia was dying. The innutritious rawhide was not sufficient to sustain life in the poor, famished body of the delicate child. Indeed, toward the last, her system became so debilitated that she found it impossible to eat the loathsome, glue-like preparation which formed their only food. Silently she had endured her sufferings, until she was at the very portals of death. This beautiful girl was a great favorite of Mrs. Breen's. Oftentimes during the days of horror and despair, this good Irish mother had managed, unobserved, to slip an extra piece of meat or morsel of food to Virginia. Mrs. Breen was the first to discover that the mark of death was visible upon the girl's brow. In order to break the news to Mrs. Reed, without giving those in the cabin a shock which might prove fatal, Mrs. Breen asked the mother up out of the cabin on the crisp, white snow.

It was the evening of the nineteenth of February, 1847. The sun was setting, and his rays, in long, lance-like lines, sifted through the darkening forests. Far to the eastward, the summits of the Washoe mountains lay bathed in golden sunlight, while the deep gorges at their feet were purpling into night. The gentle breeze which crept over the bosom of the ice-bound lake, softly wafted from the tree-tops a muffled dirge for the dying girl. Ere another day dawned over the expanse of snow, her spirit would pass to a haven of peace where the demons of famine could never enter.

In the desolate cabin, all was silence. Living under the snow, passing an underground life, as it were, seldom visiting each other, or leaving the cabins, these poor prisoners learned to listen rather than look for relief. During the first days they watched hour after hour the upper end of the lake where the "fifteen" had disappeared. With aching eyes and weary hearts, they always turned back to their subterranean abodes disappointed. Hope finally deserted the strongest hearts. The brave mothers had constantly encouraged the despondent by speaking of the promised relief, yet this was prompted more by the necessities of the situation than from any belief that help would arrive. It was human nature, however, to glance toward the towering summits whenever they ascended to the surface of the snow, and to listen at all times for an unfamiliar sound or footstep. So delicate became their sense of hearing, that every noise of the wind, every visitor's tread, every sound that ordinarily occurred above their heads, was known and instantly detected.

On this evening, as the two women were sobbing despairingly upon the snow, the silence of the twilight was broken by a shout from near Donner Lake! In an instant every person forgot weakness and infirmity, and clambered up the stairway! It was a strange voice, and in the distance the discovered strange forms approaching. The Reed and the Breen children thought, at first, that it was a band of Indians, but Patrick Breen, the good old father, soon declared that the strangers were white men. Captain Tucker and his men had found the wide expanse of snow covering forest and lake, and had shouted to attract attention, if any of the emigrants yet survived. Oh! what joy! There were tears in other eyes than those of the little children. The strong men of the relief party sat down on the snow and wept with the rest. It is related of one or two mothers, and can readily be believed, that their first act was to fall upon their knees, and with faces turned to God, to pour out their gratitude to Him for having brought assistance to their dying children. Virginia Reed did not die.

Captain Reasin P. Tucker, who had been acquainted with the Graves family on the plains before the Donner Party took the Hastings Cut-off, was anxious to meet them. They lived in the lower cabin, half a mile further down Donner Creek. When he came close enough to observe the smoke issuing from the hole in the snow which marked their abode, he shouted, as he had done at the upper cabins. The effect was as electrical as in the former instance. All came up to the surface, and the same unrestrained gladness was manifested by the famished prisoners. Famished they were. Mrs. Graves is especially praised by the survivors for her unstinted charity. Instead of selfishly hoarding her stores and feeding only her own children, she was generous to a fault, and no person ever asked at her door for food who did not receive as good as she and her little ones had to eat.

Dear Mrs. Graves! How earnestly she asked about her husband and daughters! Did all reach the valley? Captain Tucker felt his heart rise in his throat. How could he tell this weak, starved woman of the terrible fate which had be fallen her husband and her son-in-law! He could not! He answered with assumed cheerfulness in the affirmative. So, too, they deceived Mrs. Murphy regarding her dear boy Lemuel. It was best. Had the dreadful truth been told, not one of all this company would ever have had courage to attempt the dangerous journey.

Little sleep was there in the Donner cabins that night. The relief party were to start back in a couple of days, and such as were strong enough were to accompany them. Mrs. Graves had four little children, and told her son William C. Graves that he must remain with her to cut wood to keep the little ones from freezing. But William was anxious to go and help send back provisions to his mother. So earnestly did he work during the next two days, that he had two cords of wood piled up near the cabin. This was to last until he could return. His task was less difficult because this cabin was built in a dense grove of tamarack.

Food had been given in small quantities to the sufferers. Many of the snow-bound prisoners were so near death's door that a hearty meal would have proven fatal. The remnant of provisions brought by the relief party was carefully guarded lest some of the famished wretches should obtain more than was allotted them. This was rendered easier from the fact that the members of the relief party were unable to endure the scenes of misery and destitution in the cabins, and so camped outside upon the snow. So hungry were the poor people that some of them ate the strings of the snowshoes which part of the relief company had brought along.

On the twentieth of February, John Rhodes, R. S. Mootry, and R. P. Tucker visited the Donner tents on Alder Creek, seven miles from the cabins. Only one ox-hide remained to these destitute beings. Here, as well as at the cabins, the all-important question was, who should go with the relief party and who remain. In each family there were little children who could not go unless carried. Few of the Donner Party had more than enough strength to travel unencumbered across the deep snows. Should a storm occur on, the mountains, it was doubtful if even the members of the relief party could escape death. It was hopefully urged that other relief parties would soon arrive from California, and that these would bring over those who remained. In determining who should go and who stay, examples of heroism and devotion were furnished which were never surpassed in the history of man. Could their vision have penetrated the veil which interposed between them and the sad occurrences about to ensue, they would have known that almost every family, whose members separated, was bidding good-by to some member forever.

Chapter 11 Ending Decoration

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