|Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 15|
A Mountain Storm
Battling the Storm-Fiends
A Picture of Desolation
The Sleep of Death
A Piteous Farewell
Falling into the Firewell
Isaac Donner's Death
Living upon Snow-water
A Vision of Angels
"Patty is Dying"
The Thumb of a Mitten
A Child's Treasures
The "Dolly" of the Donner Party.
On the evening of the second day after leaving Donner Lake, Reed's party and the little band of famished emigrants found themselves in a cold, bleak, uncomfortable hollow, somewhere near the lower end of Summit Valley. Here the storm broke in all its fury upon the doomed company. In addition to the cold, sleet-like snow, a fierce, penetrating wind seemed to freeze the very marrow in their bones. The relief party had urged the tired, hungry, enfeebled emigrants forward at the greatest possible speed all day, in order to get as near the settlements as they could before the storm should burst upon them. Besides, their provisions were exhausted, and they were anxious to reach certain caches of supplies which they had made while going to the cabins. Fearing that the storm would prevent the party from reaching these caches, Mr. Reed sent Joseph Jondro, Matthew Dofar, and Hiram Turner forward to the first cache, with instructions to get the provisions and return to the suffering emigrants. That very night the storm came, and the three men had not been heard from.
The camp was in a most inhospitable spot. Exposed to the fury of the wind and storm, shelterless, supperless, overwhelmed with discouragements, the entire party sank down exhausted upon the snow. The entire party? No! There was one man who never ceased to work. When a fire had been kindled, and nearly every one had given up, this one man, unaided, continued to strive to erect some sort of shelter to protect the defenseless women and children. Planting large pine boughs in the snow, he banked up the snow on either side of them so as to form a wall. Hour after hour, in the darkness and raging storm, he toiled on alone, building the sheltering breastwork which was to ward off death from the party who by this time had crept shiveringly under its protection. But for this shelter, all would have perished before morning. At midnight the man was still at work. The darting snow particles seemed to cut his eye-balls, and the glare of the fire and the great physical exhaustion under which he was laboring, gradually rendered him blind. Like his companions, he had borne a child in his arms all day over the soft, yielding snow. Like them, he was drenched to the skin, and his clothing was frozen stiff and hard with ice. Yet he kept up the fire, built a great sheltering wall about the sufferers, and went here and there amongst the wailing and dying. With unabated violence the storm continued its relentless fury. The survivors say it was the coldest night they ever experienced. There is a limit to human endurance. The man was getting stone-blind. Had he attempted to speak, his tongue would have cloven to the roof of his mouth. His senses were chilled, blunted, dead. Sleep had stilled the plaintive cries of those about him. All was silent save the storm. Without knowing it, this heroic man was yielding to a sleep more powerful than that which had overcome his companions. While trying to save those who were weaker than himself, he had been literally freezing. Sightless, benumbed, moving half unconsciously about his work, he staggered, staggered, staggered, and finally sank in the snow. All slept! As he put no more fuel upon the fire, the flames died down. The logs upon which the fire had rested gave way, and most of the coals fell upon the snow. They were in almost total darkness.
Presently some one awoke. It was Mrs. Breen, whose motherly watchfulness prevented more than a few consecutive moments' sleep. The camp was quickly aroused. All were nearly frozen. Hiram Miller's hands were so cold and frosted that the skin on the fingers cracked open when he tried to split some kindlings. At last the fire was somehow renewed. Meantime they had discovered their leader - he who had been working throughout the night-lying cold, speechless, and apparently dead upon the snow. Hiram Miller and Wm. McCutchen carried the man to the fire, chafed his hands and limbs, rubbed his body vigorously, and worked with him as hard as they could for two hours before he showed signs of returning consciousness. Redoubling their exertions, they kept at work until the cold, gray morning dawned, ere the man was fully restored. Would you know the name of this man, this hero? It was James Frazier Reed.
From this time forward, all the toil, all the responsibility devolved upon Wm. McCutchen and Hiram Miller. Jondro, Dofar, and Turner were caught in the drifts ahead. The fishers or other wild animals had almost completely devoured the first cache of provisions, and while these men were trying to reach the second cache, the storm imprisoned them. They could neither go forward nor return. Cady and Stone were between Donner Lake and Starved Camp, and were in a like helpless condition. McCutchen and Miller were the only ones able to do anything toward saving the poor creatures who were huddled together at the miserable camp. All the other men were completely disheartened by the fearful calamity which had overtaken them. But for the untiring exertions of these two men, death to all would have been certain. McCutchen had on four shirts, and yet he became so chilled while trying to kindle the fire, that in getting warm he burned the back out of his shirts. He only discovered the mishap by the scorching and burning of his flesh.
What a picture of desolation was presented to the inmates of Starved Camp during the next three days! It stormed incessantly. One who has not witnessed a storm on the Sierra can not imagine the situation. A quotation from Bret Harte's "Gabriel Conroy" will afford the best idea of the situation:
"Snow. Everywhere. As far as the eye could reach fifty miles, looking southward from the highest white peak. Filling ravines and gulches, and dropping from the walls of canyons in white shroud-like drifts, fashioning the dividing ridge into the likeness of a monstrous grave, hiding the bases of giant pines, and completely covering young trees and larches, rimming with porcelain the bowl-like edges of still, cold lakes, and undulating in motionless white billows to the edge of the distant horizon. Snow lying everywhere on the California Sierra, and still falling. It had been snowing in finely granulated powder, in damp, spongy flakes, in thin, feathery plumes; snowing from a leaden sky steadily, snowing fiercely, shaken out of purple-black clouds in white flocculent masses, or dropping in long level lines like white lances from the tumbled and broken heavens. But always silently! The woods were so choked with it, it had so cushioned and muffled the ringing rocks and echoing hills, that all sound was deadened. The strongest gust, the fiercest blast, awoke no sigh or complaint from the snow-packed, rigid files of forest. There was no cracking of bough nor crackle of underbrush; the overladen branches of pine and fir yielded and gave away without a sound. The silence was vast, measureless, complete!"
In alluding to these terrible days, in his diary, Mr. Reed says, under date of March 6:
"With the snow there is a perfect hurricane. In the night there is a great crying among the children, and even with the parents there is praying, crying, and lamentation on account of the cold and the dread of death from hunger and the howling storm. The men up nearly all night making fires. Some of the men began praying. Several of them became blind. I could not see the light of the fire blazing before me, nor tell when it was burning. The light of heaven is, as it were, shut out from us. The snow blows so thick and fast that we can not see twenty feet looking against the wind. I dread the coming night. Three of my men only, able to get wood. The rest have given out for the present. It is still snowing, and very cold. So cold that the few men employed in cutting the dry trees down, have to come and, warm about every ten minutes. 'Hungry!' 'Hungry!' is the cry with the children, and nothing to give them. 'Freezing!' is the cry of the mothers who have nothing for their little, starving, freezing children. Night closing fast, and with it the hurricane increases.
"Mar. 7. Thank God day has once more appeared, although darkened by the storm. Snowing as fast as ever, and the hurricane has never ceased for ten minutes at a time during one of the most dismal nights I have ever witnessed. I hope I shall never witness another such in a similar situation. Of all the praying and crying I ever heard, nothing ever equaled it. Several times I expected to see the people perish of the extreme cold. At one time our fire was nearly gone, and had it not been for McCutchen's exertions it would have entirely disappeared. If the fire had been lost, two thirds of the camp would have been out of their misery before morning; but, as God would have it, we soon had it blazing comfortably, and the sufferings of the people became less for a time. Hope began to animate the bosoms of many, young and old, when the cheering blaze rose through the dry pine logs we had piled together. One would say, 'Thank God for the fire!' Another, 'How good it is!' The poor, little, half-starved, half-frozen children would say, 'I'm glad, I'm glad we have got some fire! Oh, how good it feels! It is good our fire didn't go out!' At times the storm would burst forth with such fury that I felt alarmed for the safety of the people on account of the tall timber that surrounded us."
Death entered the camp on the first night. He came to claim one who was a true, faithful mother. One who merits greater praise than language can convey. Though comparatively little has been told concerning her life by the survivors, doubt not that Mrs. Elizabeth Graves was one of the noblest of the mothers of the Donner Party. Her charity is kindly remembered by all who have spoken her name. To her companions in misfortune she always gave such food as she possessed; for her children she now gave her life. The last morsels of food, the last grain of flour, she had placed in the mouths of her babes, though she was dying of starvation.
Mrs. Farnham, who talked personally with Mrs. Breen, gives the following description of that terrible night:
"Mrs. Breen told me that she had her husband and five children together, lying with their feet to the fire, and their heads under shelter of the snow breast-work. She sat by them, with only moccasins on her feet, and a blanket drawn over her shoulders and head, within which, and a shawl she constantly wore, she nursed her poor baby on her knees. Her milk had been gone several days, and the child was so emaciated and lifeless that she scarcely expected at any time on opening the covering to find it alive. Mrs. Graves lay with her babe and three or four older children at the other side of the fire. The storm was very violent all night, and she watched through it, dozing occasionally for a few minutes, and then rousing herself to brush the snow and flying sparks from the covering of the sleepers. Toward morning she heard one of the young girls opposite call to her mother to cover her. The call was repeated several times impatiently, when she spoke to the child, reminding her of the exhaustion and fatigue her mother suffered in nursing and carrying the baby, and bidding her cover herself, and let her mother rest. Presently she heard the mother speak, in a quiet, unnatural tone, and she called to one of the men near her to go and speak to her. He arose after a few minutes and found the poor sufferer almost past speaking. He took her infant, and after shaking the snow from her blanket, covered her as well as might be. Shortly after, Mrs. Breen observed her to turn herself slightly, and throw one arm feebly up, as if to go to sleep. She waited a little while, and seeing her remain quite still, she walked around to her. She was already cold in death. Her poor starving child wailed and moaned piteously in the arms of its young sister, but the mother's heart could no more warm or nourish it."
The members of the second relief party realized that they were themselves in imminent danger of death. They were powerless to carry the starving children over the deep, soft, treacherous snow, and it was doubtful if they would be able to reach the settlements unencumbered. Isaac Donner, one of the sons of Jacob and Elizabeth Donner, perished during one of the stormy nights. He was lying on the bed of pine boughs between his sister Mary and Patty Reed, and died so quietly that neither of the sleeping girls awoke.
The relief party determined to set out over the snow, hasten to the settlements, and send back relief. Solomon Hook, Jacob Donner's oldest boy, insisted that he was able to walk, and therefore joined the party. Hiram Miller, an old friend of the Reed family, took little Thomas Reed in his arms, and set out with the others. Patty Reed, full of hope and courage, refused to be carried by her father, and started on foot.
With what emotions did the poor sufferers in Starved Camp watch the party as it disappeared among the pines! There was no food in camp, and death had already selected two of their number. What a pitiable group it was! Could a situation more desolate or deplorable be imagined? Mr. Breen, as has been heretofore mentioned, was feeble, sickly, and almost as helpless as the children. Upon Mrs. Breen devolved the care, not only of her husband, but of all who remained in the fatal camp, for all others were children. John Breen, their eldest son, was the strongest and most vigorous in the family, yet the following incident shows how near he was to death's door. It must have occurred the morning the relief party left. The heat of the fire had melted a deep, round hole in the snow. At the bottom of the pit was the fire. The men were able to descend the sides of this cavity, and frequently did so to attend to the fire. At one time, while William McCutchen was down by the fire, John Breen was sitting on the end of one of the logs on which the fire had originally been kindled. Several logs had been laid side by side, and the fire had been built in the middle of the floor thus constructed. While the central logs had burned out and let the fire descend, the outer logs remained with their ends on the firm snow. On one of these logs John Breen was sitting. Suddenly overcome by fatigue and hunger, he fainted and dropped headlong into the fire-pit. Fortunately, Mr. McCutchen caught the falling boy, and thus saved him from a horrible death. It was some time before the boy was fully restored to consciousness. Mrs. Breen had a small quantity of sugar, and a little was placed between his clenched teeth. This seemed to revive him, and he not only survived, but is living to-day, the head of a large family, in San Benito County.
Mrs. Breen's younger children, Patrick, James, Peter, and the nursing babe, Isabella, were completely helpless and dependent. Not less helpless were the orphan children of Mr. and Mrs. Graves. Nancy was only about nine years old, and upon her devolved the task of caring for the babe, Elizabeth. Nancy Graves is now the wife of the earnest and eloquent divine, Rev. R. W. Williamson, of Los Gatos, Santa Clara County. To her lasting honor be it said, that although she was dying of hunger in Starved Camp, yet she faithfully tended, cared for, and saved her baby sister. Aside from occasional bits of sugar, this baby and Mrs. Breen's had nothing for an entire week, save snow-water. Besides Nancy and Elizabeth, there were of the Graves children, Jonathan, aged seven, and Franklin, aged five years. Franklin soon perished. Starvation and exposure had so reduced his tiny frame, that he could not endure these days of continual fasting.
Mary M. Donner, whom all mention as one of the most lovely girls in the Donner Party, met with a cruel accident the night before the relief party left Starved Camp. Her feet had become frozen and insensible to pain. Happening to lie too near the fire, one of her feet became dreadfully burned. She suffered excruciating agony, yet evinced remarkable fortitude. She ultimately lost four toes from her left foot, on account of this sad occurrence.
Seven of the Breens, Mary Donner, and the three children of Mr. and Mrs. Graves, made the eleven now waiting for relief at Starved Camp. Mrs. Graves, her child Franklin, and the boy, Isaac Donner, who lay stark in death upon the snow, completed the fourteen who were left by the relief party.
Meantime, how fared it with those who were pressing forward toward the settlements? At each step they sank two or three feet into the snow. Of course those who were ahead broke the path, and the others, as far as possible, stepped in their tracks. This, Patty Reed could not do, because she was too small. So determined was she, however, that despite the extra exertion she was compelled to undergo, she would not admit being either cold or fatigued. Patty Reed has been mentioned as only eight years old. Many of the survivors speak of her, however, in much the same terms as John Breen, who says: "I was under the impression that she was older. She had a wonderful mind for one of her age. She had, I have often thought, as much sense as a grown person." Over Patty's large, dark eyes, on this morning, gradually crept a film. Previous starvation had greatly attenuated her system, and she was far too weak to endure the hardship she had undertaken. Gradually the snow-mantled forests, the forbidding mountains, the deep, dark canyon of Bear River, and even the forms of her companions, faded from view. In their stead came a picture of such glory and brightness as seldom comes to human eyes. It was a vision of angels and of brilliant stars. She commenced calling her father, and those with him, and began talking about the radiant forms that hovered over her. Her wan, pale face was illumined with smiles, and with an ecstasy of joy she talked of the angels and stars, and of the happiness she experienced. "Why, Reed," exclaimed McCutchen, "Patty is dying!" And it was too true.
For a few moments the party forgot their own sufferings and trials, and ministered to the wants of the spiritual child, whose entrance into the dark valley had been heralded by troops of white-winged angels. At Starved Camp, Reed had taken the hard, frozen sacks in which the provisions had been carried, and by holding them to the fire had thawed out the seams, and scraped therefrom about a teaspoonful of crumbs. These he had placed in the thumb of his woolen mitten to be used in case of emergency. Little did he suppose that the emergency would come so soon. Warming and moistening these crumbs between his own lips, the father placed them in his child's mouth. Meantime they had wrapped a blanket around her chilled form, and were busily chafing her hands and feet. Her first return to consciousness was signaled by the regrets she expressed at having been awakened from her beautiful dream. To this day she cherishes the memory of that vision as the dearest, most enchanting of all her life. After this, some of the kindhearted Frenchmen in the party took turns with Reed in carrying Patty upon their backs.
Past-midshipman S. E. Woodworth is a name that in most published accounts figures conspicuously among the relief parties organized to rescue the Donner Party. At the time Reed and his companions were suffering untold horrors on the mountains, and those left at Starved Camp were perishing of starvation, Woodworth, with an abundance of supplies, was lying idle in camp at Bear Valley. This was the part that Selim E. Woodworth took in the relief of the sufferers.
The three men who had been sent forward to the caches, left the remnant of the provisions which had not been destroyed, where it could easily be seen by Reed and his companions. Hurrying forward, they reached Woodworth's camp, and two men, John Stark and Howard Oakley, returned and met Reed's party. It was quite time. With frozen feet and exhausted bodies, the members of the second relief were in a sad plight. They left the settlements strong, hearty men. They returned in a half-dead condition. Several lost some of their toes on account of having them frozen, and one or two were crippled for life. They had been three days on the way from Starved Camp to Woodworth's. Cady and Stone overtook Reed and his companions on the second day after leaving Starved Camp. On the night of the third day, they arrived at Woodworth's.
When Patty Reed reached Woodworth's and had been provided with suitable food, an incident occurred which fully illustrates the tenderness and womanliness of her nature. Knowing that her mother and dear ones were safe, knowing that relief would speedily return to those on the mountains, realizing that for her there was to be no more hunger, or snow, and that she would no longer be separated from her father, her feelings may well be imagined. In her quiet joy she was not wholly alone. Hidden away in her bosom, during all the suffering and agony of the journey over the mountains, were a number of childish treasures. First, there was a lock of silvery gray hair which her own hand had cut from the head of her Grandmother Keyes way back on the Big Blue River. Patty had always been a favorite with her grandma, and when the latter died, Patty secured this lock of hair. She tied it up in a little piece of old-fashioned lawn, dotted with wee blue flowers, and always carried it in her bosom. But this was not all. She had a dainty little glass salt-cellar, scarcely larger than the inside of a humming-bird's nest, and, what was more precious than this, a tiny, wooden doll. This doll had been her constant companion. It had black eyes and hair, and was indeed very pretty. At Woodworth's camp, Patty told "Dolly" all her joy and gladness, and who can not pardon the little girl for thinking her dolly looked happy as she listened?
Patty Reed is now Mrs. Frank Lewis, of San Jose, Cal. She has a pleasant home and a beautiful family of children. Yet oftentimes the mother, the grown-up daughters, and the younger members of the family, gather with tear-dimmed eyes about a little sacred box. In this box is the lock of hair in the piece of lawn, the tiny salt-cellar, the much loved "Dolly," and an old woolen mitten, in the thumb of which are yet the traces of fine crumbs.