Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 14

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Chapter 14 Starting Decoration

Chapter XIV.

Leaving Three Men in the Mountains
The Emigrants Quite Helpless
Bear Tracks in the Snow
The Clumps of Tamarack
Wounding a Bear
Bloodstains upon the Snow
A Weary Chase
A Momentous Day
Stone and Cady Leave the Sufferers
A Mother Offering Five Hundred Dollars
Mrs. Donner Parting from her Children
"God will Take Care of You"
Buried in the Snow, without Food or Fire
Pines Uprooted by the Storm
A Grave Cut in the Snow
The Cub's Cave
Firing at Random
A Desperate Undertaking
Preparing for a Hand-to-Hand Battle
Precipitated into the Cave
Seizing the Bear
Mrs. Elizabeth Donner's Death
Clark and Baptiste Attempt to Escape
A Death more Cruel than Starvation.

Before Reed's party started to return, a consultation was held, and it was decided that Clark, Cady, and Stone should remain at the mountain camps. It was intended that these men should attend to procuring wood, and perform such other acts as would assist the almost helpless sufferers. It was thought that a third relief party could be sent out in a few days to get all the emigrants who remained.

Nicholas Clark, who now resides in Honey Lake Valley, Lassen County, California, says that as he and Cady were going to the Donner tents, they saw the fresh tracks of a bear and cub crossing the road. In those days, there were several little clumps of tamarack along Alder Creek, just below the Donner tents, and as the tracks led towards these, Mr. Clark procured a gun and started for an evening's hunt among the tamaracks. He found the bear and her cub within sight of the tents, and succeeded in severely wounding the old bear. She was a black bear, of medium size. For a long distance, over the snow and through the forests, Clark followed the wounded animal and her cub. The approach of darkness at last warned him to desist, and returning to the tents, he passed the night. Early next morning, Clark again set out in pursuit of the bear, following her readily by the blood-stains upon the snow. It was another windy, cloudy, threatening day, and there was every indication that a severe storm was approaching. Eagerly intent upon securing his game, Mr. Clark gave little heed to weather, or time, or distance. The endurance of the wounded animal was too great, however, and late in the afternoon he realized that it was necessary for him to give up the weary chase, and retrace his steps. He arrived at the tents hungry, tired, and footsore, long after dark.

That day, however, had been a momentous one at the Donner tents. Stone had come over early in the morning, and he and Cady concluded that it was sheer madness for them to remain in the mountains. That a terrible storm was fast coming on, could not be doubted. The provisions were almost exhausted, and if they remained, it would only be to perish with the poor emigrants. They therefore concluded to attempt to follow and overtake Reed and his companions.

Mrs. Tamsen Donner was able to have crossed the mountains with her children with either Tucker's or Reed's party. On account of her husband's illness, however, she had firmly refused all entreaties, and had resolutely determined to remain by his bedside. She was extremely anxious, however, that her children should reach California; and Hiram Miller relates that she offered five hundred dollars to any one in the second relief party, who would take them in safety across the mountains. When Cady and Stone decided to go, Mrs. Donner induced them to attempt the rescue of these children, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza. They took the children as far the cabins at the lake, and left them. Probably they became aware of the impossibility of escaping the storm, and knew that it would be sure death, for both themselves and the children, should they take them any farther. In view of the terrible calamity which befell Reed's party on account of this storm, and the fact that Cady and Stone had a terrible struggle for life, every one must justify these men in leaving the children at the cabins. The parting between the devoted mother and her little ones is thus briefly described by Georgia Donner, now Mrs. Babcock: "The men came. I listened to their talking as they made their agreement. Then they took us, three little girls, up the stone steps, and stood us on the bank. Mother came, put on our hoods and cloaks, saying, as if she was talking more to herself than to us: 'I may never see you again, but God will take care of you.' After traveling a few miles, they left us on the snow, went ahead a short distance, talked one to another, then came back, took us as far as Keseberg's cabin, and left us."

Mr. Cady recalls the incident of leaving the children on the snow, but says the party saw a coyote, and were attempting to get a shot at the animal.

When Nicholas Clark awoke on the morning of the third day, the tent was literally buried in freshly fallen snow. He was in what is known as Jacob Donner's tent. Its only occupants besides himself were Mrs. Elizabeth Donner, her son Lewis, and the Spanish boy, John Baptiste. George Donner and wife were in their own tent, and with them was Mrs. Elizabeth Donner's youngest child, Samuel. Mr. Clark says he can not remember how long the storm lasted, but it seems as if it must have been at least a week. The snow was so deep that it was impossible to procure wood, and during all those terrible days and nights there was no fire in either of the tents. The food gave out the first day, and the dreadful cold was rendered more intense by the pangs of hunger. Sometimes the wind would blow like a hurricane, and they could plainly hear the great pines crashing on the mountain side above them, as the wind uprooted them and hurled them to the ground. Sometimes the weather would seem to moderate, and the snow would melt and trickle in under the sides of the tent, wetting their clothes and bedding, and increasing the misery of their situation.

When the storm cleared away, Clark found himself starving like the rest. He had really become one of the Donner Party, and was as certain to perish as were the unfortunates about him. It would necessarily be several days before relief could possibly arrive, and utter despair seemed to surround them. Just as the storm was closing, Lewis Donner died, and the poor mother was well-nigh frantic with grief. As soon as she could make her way to the other tent, she carried her dead babe over and laid it in Mrs. George Donner's lap. With Clark's assistance, they finally laid the child away in a grave cut out of the solid snow.

In going to a tamarack grove to get some wood, Mr. Clark was surprised to find the fresh track of the bear cub, which had recrossed Alder Creek and ascended the mountain behind the tents. It was doubtless the same one whose mother he had wounded. The mother had probably died, and after the storm the cub had returned. Mr. Clark at once followed it, tracking it far up the mountain side to a cliff of rocks, and losing the trail at the mouth of a small, dark cave. He says that all hope deserted him when he found that the cub had gone into the cave. He sat down upon the snow in utter despair. It was useless to return to the tents without food; he might as well perish upon the mountain side. After reflecting for some time upon the gloomy situation, he concluded to fire his gun into the cave, and see if the report might not frighten out the cub. He placed the muzzle of the gun as far down into the cave as he could, and fired. When the hollow reverberation died away among the cliffs, no sound disturbed the brooding silence. The experiment had failed. He seriously meditated whether he could not watch the cave day and night until the cub should be driven out by starvation. But suddenly a new idea occurred to him. Judging from the track, and from the size of the cub he had seen, Mr. Clark concluded that it was possible he might be able to enter the cave and kill the cub in a hand-to-hand fight. It was a desperate undertaking, but it was preferable to death from starvation. He approached the narrow opening, and tried again to peer into the cave and ascertain its depth. As he was thus engaged the snow suddenly gave way, and he was precipitated bodily into the cave. He partly fell, partly slid to the very bottom of the hole in the rocks. In endeavoring to regain an erect posture, his hand struck against some furry animal. Instinctively recoiling, he waited for a moment to see what it would do. Coming from the dazzling sunlight into the darkness, he could see nothing whatever. Presently he put out his foot and again touched the animal. Finding that it did not move, he seized hold of it and found that it was the cub-dead! His random shot had pierced its brain, and it had died without a struggle. The cave or opening in the rocks was not very deep, and after a long time he succeeded in dragging his prize to the surface.

There was food in the Donner tents from this time forward. It came too late, however, to save Mrs. Elizabeth Donner or her son Samuel. This mother was quite able to have crossed the mountains with either of the two relief parties; but, as Mrs. E. P. Houghton writes: "Her little boys were too young to walk through the deep snows, she was not able to carry them, and the relief parties were too small to meet such emergencies. She stayed with them, hoping some way would be provided for their rescue. Grief, hunger, and disappointed hopes crushed her spirit, and so debilitated her that death came before the required help reached her or her children. For some days before her death she was so weak that Mrs. George Donner and the others had to feed her as if she had been a child. At last, one evening, as the sun went down, she closed her eyes and awoke no more. Her life had been sacrificed for her children. Could words be framed to express a more fitting tribute to her memory! Does not the simple story of this mother's love wreathe a chaplet of glory about her brow far holier than could be fashioned by human hands!

Samuel Donner lingered but a few days longer. Despite the tenderest care and attention, he grew weaker day by day, until he slept by the side of his mother and brother in their snowy grave.

All this time Mrs. Tamsen Donner was tortured with fear and dread, lest her children had perished in the dreadful storm on the summits. At last Clark yielded to her importunities, and decided to visit the cabins at Donner Lake, and see if there was any news from beyond the Sierra. Clark found the children at Keseberg's cabin, and witnessed such scenes of horror and suffering that he determined at once to attempt to reach California. Returning to Alder Creek, he told Mrs. Donner of the situation of her children, and says he informed her that he believed their lives were in danger of a death more violent than starvation. He informed her of his resolution to leave the mountains, and taking a portion of the little meat that was left, he at once started upon his journey. John Baptiste accompanied him.

The cub would have weighed about seventy pounds when killed; and now that its flesh was nearly gone, there was really very little hope for any one unless relief came speedily. In attempting to make their way across the mountains, Clark and Baptiste did the wisest thing possible, yet they well knew that they would perish by the way unless they met relief.

Mrs. Tamsen Donner did not dare to leave her husband alone during the night, but told Clark and Baptiste that she should endeavor to make the journey to the cabins on the following day. It was a long, weary walk over the pitiless snow, but she had before her yearning eyes not only the picture of her starving children, but the fear that they were in danger of a more cruel death than starvation.

Chapter 14 Ending Decoration

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