|Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 13|
Death of Ada Keseberg
Denton Discovering Gold
A Poem Composed While Dying
The Caches of Provisions Robbed by Fishers
The Sequel to the Reed-Snyder Tragedy
Death from Over-eating
The Agony of Frozen Feet
An Interrupted Prayer
Stanton, after Death, Guides the Relief Party
The Second Relief Party Arrives
A Solitary Indian
Patty Reed and her Father
Starving Children Lying in Bed
Mrs. Graves' Money Still Buried at Donner Lake.
Peasin P. Tucker's relief party had twenty-one emigrants with them after Patty and Thomas Reed returned to the desolate cabins. On the evening of the first day, one of the twenty-one died. It was the baby child of Lewis Keseberg. The mother had fairly worshiped her girl. They buried the little one in the snow. It was all they could do for the pallid form of the starved little girl. Mrs. Keseberg was heart-broken over her baby's death. At the very outset she had offered everything she possessed - twenty-five dollars and a gold watch-to any one who would carry her child over the mountains. After the starved band resumed their weary march next morning, it is doubtful if many thought of the niche hollowed out of the white snow, or of the pulseless heart laid therein. Death had become fearfully common, and his victims were little heeded by the perishing company. The young German mother, however, was inconsolable. Her only boy had starved to death at the cabins, and now she was childless.
The next day the company reached Summit Valley. An incident of this day's travel illustrates the exhausted condition of the members of the Donner Party. John Denton, an Englishman, was missed when camp was pitched, and John Rhodes returned and found him fast asleep upon the snow. He had become so weary that he yielded to a slumber that would soon have proven fatal. With much labor and exertion he was aroused and brought to camp. Denton appreciated the kindness, but at the same time declared that it would be impossible for him to travel another day. Sure enough, after journeying a little way on the following morning, his strength utterly gave way. His companions built a fire for him, gave him such food as they were able, and at his earnest request continued their sorrowful march. If another relief came soon, he would, perhaps, be rescued. Denton was well educated and of good family, was a gunsmith by trade, and was skilled in metals. It is related, that while in the Reed cabin, he discovered in the earth, ashes, and burnt stones in the fireplace, some small pieces of yellowish metal, which he declared to be gold. These he made into a small lump, which he carefully preserved until he left the lake, and it was doubtless lost on the mountains at his death. This was in the spring of 1847, before the discovery of gold in California. The strange little metallic lump was exhibited to several who are yet living, and who think there is reason for believing it was really gold. A few years before the construction of the Central Pacific, Knoxville, about ten miles south of Donner Lake, and Elizabethtown, some six miles from Truckee, were famous mining camps. Gold never has been found on the very shore of Donner Lake, but should the discovery be made, and especially should gold be found in the rocks or earth near the Reed cabin, there would be reason to believe that this poor unfortunate man was in reality the first discoverer of the precious metal in California. Left alone in the snow-mantled forests of the Sierra, what were this man's emotions? In the California Star of 1847, a bound volume of which is in the State Library in Sacramento, appears the following poem. The second relief party found it written on the leaf of a memorandum book by the side of Denton's lifeless body. The pencil with which it was written lay also by the side of the unfortunate man. Ere the lethargy of death stole away his senses, John Denton's thoughts had been of his boyhood's beautiful home in merry England. These thoughts were woven into verse. Are they not strangely pathetic and beautiful? Judge Thornton, in 1849, published them with the following prefatory words: "When the circumstances are considered in connection with the calamities in which the unhappy Denton was involved, the whole compass of American and English poetry may be challenged to furnish a more exquisitely beautiful, a more touching and pathetic piece. Simple and intimate to the last degree, yet coming from the heart, it goes to the heart. Its lines are the last plaintive notes which wintry winds have wakened from an Lolian harp, the strings of which rude hands have sundered. Bring before your mind the picture of an amiable young man who has wandered far from the paternal roof, is stricken by famine, and left by his almost equally unhappy companions to perish among the terrible snows of the great Sierra Nevada. He knows that his last, most solemn hour is near. Reason still maintains her empire, and memory, faithful to the last, performs her functions. On every side extends a boundless waste of trackless snow. He reclines against a bank of it, to rise no more, and busy memory brings before him a thousand images of past beauty and pleasure, and of scenes he will never revisit. A mother's image presents itself to his mind, tender recollections crowd upon his heart, and the scenes of his boyhood and youth pass in review before him with an unwonted vividness. The hymns of praise and thanksgiving that in harmony swelled from the domestic circle around the family altar are remembered, and soothe the sorrows of the dying man, and finally, just before he expires, he writes:"
"Oh! after many roving years,
How sweet it is to come
Back to the dwelling-place of youth,
Our first and dearest home;
To turn away our wearied eyes
From proud ambition's towers,
And wander in those summer fields,
The scenes of boyhood's hours."
"But I am changed since last I gazed
Upon that tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch elm
That shades the village green;
And watched my boat upon the brook
It was a regal galley
And sighed not for a joy on earth,
Beyond the happy valley."
"I wish I could once more recall
That bright and blissful joy,
And summon to my weary heart -
The feelings of a boy.
But now on scenes of past delight
I look, and feel no pleasure,
As misers on the bed of death
Gaze coldly on their treasure."
When Captain Tucker's relief party were going to Donner Lake, they left a portion of their provisions in Summit Valley, tied up in a tree. They had found these provisions difficult to carry, and besides, it was best to have something provided for their return, in case the famished emigrants ate all they carried over the summit. It was indeed true that all was eaten which they carried over. All the scanty allowances were, one after another, consumed. When the relief party, and those they were rescuing, reached the place where the provisions had been cached, they were in great need of the reserve store which they expected to find. To their horror and dismay, they found that wild animals had gnawed the ropes by which the cache had been suspended, and had destroyed every vestige of these provisions! Death stared them in the face, and the strongest men trembled at the prospect.
Here comes the sequel to the Reed-Snyder tragedy. Had it not been for Reed's banishment, there is every reason to believe that these people would have died for want of food. It will be remembered, however, that the relief party organized by Reed was only a few days behind Captain Tucker's. On the twenty-seventh of February, just as the horror and despair of their dreadful situation began to be realized, Tucker, and those with him, were relieved by the second relief party.
In order to better understand these events, let us return and follow the motions of Reed and the members of the second relief party. In the article quoted in a former chapter from the Rural Press, Reed traced their progress as far as Johnson's ranch. Patty Reed (Mrs. Frank Lewis) has in her possession the original diary kept by her father during this journey. This diary shows that on the very morning Capt. Tucker, and the company with him, left Donner Lake to return to the valleys, Reed and the second relief party started from Johnson's ranch to go to Donner Lake. All that subsequently occurred, is briefly and pointedly narrated in the diary.
"February 22, 1847. All last night I kept fire under the beef which I had drying on the scaffolds, and Johnson's Indians were grinding flour in a small hand-mill. By sunrise this morning I had about two hundred pounds of beef dried and placed in bags. We packed our horses and started with our supplies. Including the meat Greenwood had dried, we had seven hundred pounds of flour, and five beeves. Mr. Greenwood had three men, including himself. Traveled this day about ten miles."
"Feb. 23. Left camp early this morning, and pushed ahead, but camped early on account of grass. To-morrow we will reach the snow."
"Feb. 24. Encamped at Mule Springs this evening. Made arrangements to take to the snow in the morning, having left in camp our saddles, bridles, etc."
"Feb. 25. Started with eleven horses and mules lightly packed, each having about eighty pounds. Traveled two miles, and left one mule and his pack. Made to-day, with hard labor for the horses, in the snow, about six miles. Our start was late."
"Feb. 26. Left our encampment, Cady thinking the snow would bear the horses. Proceeded two hundred yards with difficulty, when we were compelled to unpack the horses and take the provisions on our backs. Usually the men had kept in the best of spirits, but here, for a few moments, there was silence. When the packs were ready to be strung upon their backs, however, the hilarity and good feeling again commenced. Made the head of Bear Valley, a distance of fifteen miles. We met in the valley, about three miles below the camp, Messrs. Glover and Rhodes, belonging to the party that went to the lake. They informed me they had started with twenty-one persons, two of whom had died, John Denton, of Springfield, Ill., and a child of Mr. and Mrs. Keseberg. Mr. Glover sent two men back to the party with fresh provisions. They are in a starving condition, and all have nearly given out. I have lightened our packs with a sufficient quantity of provisions to do the people when they shall arrive at this place.
"Feb. 27. I sent back two men to our camp of night before last, to bring forward provisions. They will return to-morrow. I also left one man to prepare for the people who were expected today. Left camp on a fine, hard snow, and proceeded about four miles, when we met the poor, unfortunate, starved people. As I met them scattered along the snowtrail, I distributed some bread that I had baked last night. I gave in small quantities to each. Here I met my wife and two of my little children. Two of my children are still in the mountains. I can not describe the deathlike look all these people had. 'Bread!' 'Bread!' 'Bread!' 'Bread!' was the begging cry of every child and grown person. I gave all I dared to them, and set out for the scene of desolation at the lake. I am now camped within twenty-five miles of the place, which I hope to reach by traveling to-night and tomorrow. We had to camp early this evening, on account of the softness of the snow, the men sinking in to their waists, The party who passed us to-day were overjoyed when we told them there was plenty of provision at camp. I made a cache, to-day, after we had traveled about twelve miles, and encamped three miles further eastward, on the Yuba. Snow about fifteen feet deep."
The meeting between Reed and his family can better be imagined than described. For months they had been separated. While the father was battling with fate in endeavoring to reach California and return with assistance, the mother had been using every exertion to obtain food for her starving children. Now they met in the mountains, in the deep snows, amid pathless forests, at a time when the mother and children, and all with them, were out of provisions and ready to perish.
Meantime, the first relief; with their little company, now reduced to nineteen, passed forward toward the settlements. At Bear Valley, another cache of provisions had been made, and this was found unmolested. Camping at this place, the utmost precaution was taken to prevent the poor starved people from overeating. After a sufficient quantity of food had been distributed, the remainder of the provisions was hung up in a tree. Of course, the small portion distributed to each did not satisfy the cravings of hunger. Some time during the night, Wm. Hook quietly crept to the tree, climbed up to the food, and ate until his hunger was appeased. Poor boy, it was a fatal act. Toward morning it was discovered that he was dying. All that the company could do to relieve his sufferings was done, but it was of no avail. Finding that the poor boy was past relief; most of the emigrants moved on toward the settlements. Wm. G. Murphy's feet had been badly frozen, and he was suffering such excruciating agony that he could not travel and keep up with the others. At his request, his sister Mary had cut his shoes open, in order to get them off; and his feet thereupon swelled up as if they had been scalded. Because he could not walk, the company left him with William Hook. A camp-keeper also remained. This boy's death is thus described by Mr. Murphy, who writes:
"William Hook went out on the snow and rested on his knees and elbows. The camp-keeper called to him to come in. He then told me to make him come into camp. I went and put my hand on him, speaking his name, and he fell over, being already dead. He did not die in great agony, as is usually alleged. No groan, nor signs of dying, were manifested to us. The camp-keeper and myself took the biscuits and jerked beef from his pockets, and buried him just barely under the ground, near a tree which had been fired, and from around which the snow had melted." Those who were in the company thought Wm. G. Murphy could not possibly walk, but when all had gone, and Hook was dead, and no alternative remained but to walk or die, he did walk. It took him two days to go barefooted over the snow to Mule Springs, a journey which the others had made in one day. The agony which he endured during that trip can better be imagined than described. Nothing but an indomitable will could have sustained him during those two days.
All the members of this relief party suffered greatly, and several came near perishing. Little James F. Reed, Jr., was too small to step in the tracks made by the older members of the party. In order to travel with the rest he had to partly use his knees in walking. When one foot was in a track he would place the other knee on the untrodden snow, and was thus enabled to put his foot in the next track. John Denton was left with a good fire, and when last seen was reclining smoking, on a bed of freshly gathered pine boughs. He looked so comfortable that the little timid boy James begged hard to be allowed to remain with him. Mrs. Reed had hard work to coax him to come. Among other things, she promised that when he reached California he should have a horse "all for himself," and that he should never have to walk any more. This promise was literally fulfilled. James F. Reed, Jr., since reaching California, has always had a horse of his own. No matter what vicissitudes of fortune have overtaken him, he has always kept a saddle horse.
Sad scenes were occurring at the cabin at Donner Lake and the tents at Alder Creek. Starvation was fast claiming its victims. The poor sufferers tried to be brave and trust God, but sometimes hope well-nigh disappeared. The evening prayers were always read in Patrick Breen's cabin, and all the inmates knelt and joined in the responses. Once when they were thus praying, they heard the cries of wild geese flying over the cabin. With one accord all raised their heads and listened for a moment to the soul-inspiring sound. "Thank God, the spring is coming," was all Patrick Breen said, and again bowing their heads, the prayer was resumed.
Charles L. Cady, writing from Calistoga, says that Commodore Stockton employed Greenwood and Turner to guide the second relief party over the mountains to Donner Lake. Cady, Stone, and Clark, being young, vigorous men, left their companions, or were sent forward by Reed, and reached the cabins some hours in advance of the party. At one time, near the present station of Summit Valley, Cady and Stone became bewildered, thought they were lost, and wanted to return. Mr. Clark, however, prevailed upon them to press forward, agreeing that if they did not catch some glimpse of Donner Lake when they reached a certain mountain top in the distance, he would give up and return with them. Had they reached the mountain top they could not have seen the lake, and so would have turned back, but while they were ascending, they came to the lifeless body of C. T. Stanton sitting upright against a tree. There was no longer room for doubting that they were going in the right direction to reach Donner Lake. Poor Stanton! even in death he pointed out to the relief party the way to the starving emigrants, to save whom he had sacrificed his life.
Reed's diary continues:
"Feb. 28. Left camp about twelve o'clock at night, but was compelled to camp about two o'clock, the snow still being soft. Left again about four o'clock, all hands, and made this day fourteen miles. Encamped early; snow very soft. The snow here is thirty feet deep. Three of my men, Cady, Clark, and Stone, kept on during the night to within two miles of the cabins, where they halted, and remained without fire during the night, on account of having seen ten Indians. The boys did not have any arms, and supposed these Indians had taken the cabins and destroyed the people. In the morning they started, and reached the cabins. All were alive in the houses. They gave provisions to Keseberg, Breen, Graves, and Mrs. Murphy, and the two then left for Donner's, a distance of seven miles, which they made by the middle of the day."
"March 1. I came up with the remainder of my party, and told the people that all who were able should start day after to-morrow. Made soup for the infirm, washed and clothed afresh Eddy's and Foster's children, and rendered every assistance in my power. I left Mr. Stone with Keseberg's people to cook, and to watch the eating of Mrs. Murphy, Keseberg, and three children."
In Patrick Breen's diary is found the following:
"Feb. 23. Froze hard last night. To-day pleasant and thawy; has the appearance of spring, all but the deep snow. Wind south-south-east. Shot a dog to-day and dressed his flesh."
"Feb. 25. To-day Mrs. Murphy says the wolves are about to dig up the dead bodies around her shanty, and the nights are too cold to watch them, but we hear them howl."
"Feb. 26. Hungry times in camp; plenty of hides, but the folks will not eat them; we eat them with tolerably good appetite, thanks to the Almighty God. Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that she thought she would commence on Milton and eat him. I do not think she has done so yet; it is distressing. The Donners told the California folks four days ago that they would commence on the dead people if they did not succeed that day or the next in finding their cattle, then ten or twelve feet under the snow, and they did not know the spot or near it; they have done it ere this."
"Feb. 28. One solitary Indian passed by yesterday; came from the lake; had a heavy pack on his back; gave me five, or six roots resembling onions in shape; tasted some like a sweet potato; full of tough little fibers."
"March 1. Ten men arrived this morning from Bear Valley, with provisions. We are to start in two or three days, and cache our goods here. They say the snow will remain until June."
This closes Patrick Breen's diary. Its record has always been considered reliable. None of the statements made in this diary have ever been controverted.
The Indian spoken of refused to be interviewed. To quote the language of Mr. John Breen, "he did not seem to be at all curious as to how or why there was a white man alone (as it must have seemed to him) in the wilderness of snow." The Indian was trudging along with a heavy pack on his back. As soon as he saw Mr. Breen, he halted and warned him with a gesture not to approach. Taking from the pack a few of the fibrous roots, he laid them on the snow, still cautioning with his hand not to approach until he was well out of reach. As soon as the Indian was gone, Mr. Breen went out and got the roots, which were very palatable. It is probable that this was one of the band of Indians seen by Clark, Cady, and Stone.
When Patty and Thomas Reed had been returned to the cabins by Aquila Glover, they had been received by the Breen family, where they remained all the time until their father came. The Breen cabin was the first one at which Mr. Reed arrived. His meeting with his daughter is thus described by Mr. Eddy, in Thornton's work: "At this camp Mr. Reed saw his daughter Patty sitting on the top of the snow with which the cabin was covered. Patty saw her father at some distance, and immediately started to run and meet him, but such was her weakness that she fell. Her father took her up, and the affectionate girl, bathed in tears, embraced and kissed him, exclaiming: 'Oh, papa! I never expected to see you again when the cruel people drove you out of camp. But I knew that God was good, and would do what was best. Is dear mamma living? Is Mr. Glover living? Did you know that he was a Mason? Oh, my dear papa, I am so happy to see you. Masons must be good men. Is Mr. Glover the same sort of Mason we had in Springfield? He promised mamma upon the word of a Mason that he would bring me and Tommy out of the mountains.' Mr. Reed told Patty that Masons were everywhere the same, and that he had met her mother and Mr. Glover, and had relieved him from his pledge, and that he himself had come to her and little Tommy to redeem that pledge and to take out all that were able to travel."
The greatest precaution was taken to keep the suffering emigrants from overeating. Cady, Stone, and Clark had distributed a small portion of food to each of the famished beings. Patty Reed was intrusted with the task of giving to each person a single biscuit. Taking the biscuits in her apron she went in turn to each member of the company. Who shall describe the rejoicings that were held over those biscuits? Several of the survivors, in speaking of the subject, say that to their hungry eyes these small pieces of bread assumed gigantic proportions. Never did the largest loaves of bread look half so large. Patty Reed says that some of the little girls cut their portions into thin slices, so as to eat them slowly and enjoy them more completely.
The names of the members of this second relief party were James F. Reed, Charles Cady, Charles Stone, Nicholas Clark, Joseph Jondro, Mathew Dofar, John Turner, Hiram Miller, Wm. McCutchen, and Brit. Greenwood. A portion of the party went to the Donner tents, and the remainder assisted the emigrants in preparing to start over the mountains. The distress and suffering at each camp was extreme. Even after the children had received as much food as was prudent, it is said they would stretch out their little arms and with cries and tears beg for something to eat. Mrs. Murphy informed Mr. Reed that some of the children had been confined to their beds for fourteen days. It was clearly to be seen that very few of the sufferers could cross the Sierra without being almost carried. They were too weak and helpless to walk. The threatening appearance of the weather and the short supply of provisions urged the party to hasten their departure, and it was quickly decided who should go, and who remain. Those who started from Donner Lake on the third of March with Mr. Reed and his party were Patrick Breen, Mrs. Margaret Breen, John Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., James F. Breen, Peter Breen, and Isabella M. Breen, Patty Reed and Thomas Reed, Isaac Donner and Mary M. Donner, Solomon Hook, Mrs. Elizabeth Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan Graves, Franklin Graves, and Elizabeth Graves, Jr. Many of the younger members of this party had to be carried. All were very much weakened and emaciated, and it was evident that the journey over the mountains would be slow and painful. In case a storm should occur on the summits, it was fearfully apparent that the trip would be exceedingly perilous.
Reed's party encamped the first night near the upper end of Donner Lake. They had scarcely traveled three miles. Upon starting from the Graves cabin, Mrs. Graves had taken with her a considerable sum of money. This money, Mr. McCutchen says, had been ingeniously concealed in auger holes bored in cleats nailed to the bed of the wagon. These cleats, as W. C. Graves informs us, were ostensibly placed in the wagon-bed to support a table carried in the back part of the wagon. On the under side of these cleats, however, were the auger-holes, carefully filled with coin. The sum is variously stated at from three to five hundred dollars. At the camping-ground, near the upper end of Donner Lake, one of the relief party jokingly proposed to another to play a game of euchre to see who should have Mrs. Graves' money. The next morning, Mrs. Graves remained behind when the party started, and concealed her money. All that is known is, that she buried it behind a large rock on the north side of Donner Lake. So far as is known, this money has never been recovered, but still lies hidden where it was placed by Mrs. Graves.