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A Yerba Buena Newspaper
Tidings of Woe
A Cry of Distress
Subscriptions for the Donner Party
The First and Second Reliefs
Organization of the Third
Voting to Abandon a Family
The Fatal Ayes
John Stark's Bravery
Carrying the Starved Children
A Plea for the Relief Party.
Foster and Eddy, it will be remembered, were of the fifteen who composed the "Forlorn Hope." Foster was a man of strong, generous impulses, and great determination. His boy was at Donner Lake, and his wife's mother and brother. He hardly took time to rest and recruit his wasted strength before he began organizing a party to go to their rescue. His efforts were ably seconded by W. H. Eddy, whose wife and daughter had perished, but whose boy was still alive at the cabins.
California was thoroughly aroused over tidings which had come from the mountains. It was difficult to get volunteers to undertake the journey over the Sierra, but horses, mules, provisions, and good wages were allowed all who would venture the perilous trip. The trouble with Mexico had caused many of the able-bodied citizens of California to enlist in the service. Hence it was that it was so difficult to organize relief parties.
The following extracts are made from the California Star, a newspaper published at "Yerba Buena," as San Francisco was then called. They do justice to the sentiment of the people of California, and indicate something of the willingness of the pioneers to aid the Donner Party. From the Star of January 16, 1847, is taken the following article, which appeared as an editorial:
"Emigrants on the Mountains."
It is probably not generally known to the people that there is now in the California mountains, in a most distressing situation, a party of emigrants from the United States, who were prevented from crossing the mountains by an early, heavy fall of snow. The party consists of about sixty persons - men, women, and children. They were almost entirely out of provisions when they reached the foot of the mountains, and but for the timely succor afforded them by Capt. J. A. Sutter, one of the most humane and liberal men in California, they must have all perished in a few days. Capt. Sutter, as soon as he ascertained their situation, sent five mules loaded with provisions to them. A second party was dispatched with provisions for them, but they found the mountains impassable in consequence of the snow. We hope that our citizens will do something for the relief of these unfortunate people."
From the same source, under date of February 6, 1847, is taken the following:
"It will be recollected that in a previous number of our paper, we called the attention of our citizens to the situation of a company of unfortunate emigrants now in the California mountains. For the purpose of making their situation more fully known to the people, and of adopting measures for their relief, a public meeting was called by the Honorable Washington A. Bartlett, alcalde of the town, on Wednesday evening last. The citizens generally attended, and in a very short time the sum of $800 was subscribed to purchase provisions, clothing, horses, and mules to bring the emigrants in. Committees were appointed to call on those who could not attend the meeting, and there is no doubt but that $500 or $600 more will be raised. This speaks well for Yerba Buena."
One other extract is quoted from the Star of February 13, 1847:
"A company of twenty men left here on Sunday last for the California mountains, with provisions, clothing, etc., for the suffering emigrants now there. The citizens of this place subscribed about $1,500 for their relief, which was expended for such articles as the emigrants would be most likely to need. Mr. Greenwood, an old mountaineer, went with the company as pilot. If it is possible to cross the mountains, they will get to the emigrants in time to save them."
These three articles may aid the reader in better understanding what has heretofore been said about the organization of the relief parties. It will be remembered that James F. Reed and William McCutchen first procured animals and provisions from Capt. Sutter, attempted to cross the mountains, found the snow impassable, cached their provisions, and returned to the valleys. Reed, as described in his letter to the Rural Press, went to San Jose, Cal., and thence to Yerba Buena. McCutchen went to Napa and Sonoma, and awakened such an interest that a subscription of over $500 was subscribed for the emigrants, besides a number of horses and mules. Lieut. W. L. Maury and M. G. Vallejo headed this subscription, and $500 was promised to Greenwood if he succeeded in raising a company, and in piloting them over the mountains. In order to get men, Greenwood and McCutchen went to Yerba Buena, arriving there almost at the same time with Reed. The above notices chronicle the events which succeeded the announcement of their mission. The funds and supplies contributed were placed in charge of Lieut. Woodworth. This party set out immediately, and their journey has been described. They form the second relief party, because immediately upon the arrival of the seven who survived of the "Forlorn Hope," Capt. Tucker's party had been organized at Johnson's and Sutter's, and had reached Dormer Lake first.
When Foster and Eddy attempted to form a relief party, they found the same difficulty in securing volunteers which others had encountered. It was such a terrible undertaking, that no man cared to risk his life in the expedition.
Captain J. B. Hull, of the United States navy, and Commander of the Northern District of California, furnished Foster and Eddy with horses and provisions. Setting out from Johnson's ranch, they arrived at Woodworth's camp in the afternoon. During that very night two of Reed's men came to the camp, and brought news that Reed and a portion of his party were a short distance back in the mountains. When Reed and his companions were brought into camp, and it was ascertained that fourteen people had been left in the snow, without food, the third relief party was at once organized. The great danger and suffering endured by those who had composed the first and second relief parties, prevented men from volunteering. On this account greater honor is due those who determined to peril their lives to save the emigrants. Hiram Miller, although weak and exhausted with the fatigues and starvation he had just undergone in the second relief party, joined Messrs. Foster and Eddy. These three, with Wm. Thompson, John Stark, Howard Oakley, and Charles Stone, set out from Woodworth's camp the next morning after Reed's arrival. It was agreed that Stark, Oakley, and Stone were to remain with the sufferers at Starved Camp, supply them with food, and conduct them to Woodworth's camp. Foster, Eddy, Thompson, and Miller were to press forward to the relief of those at Donner Lake. The three men, therefore, whose voices reached Mrs. Breen, were Stark, Oakley, and Stone.
When these members of the third relief party reached the deep, well-like cavity in which were the seven Breens, the three Graves children, and Mary Donner, a serious question arose. None of the eleven, except Mrs. Breen and John Breen, were able to walk. A storm appeared to be gathering upon the mountains, and the supply of provisions was very limited. The lonely situation, the weird, desolate surroundings, the appalling scenes at the camp, and above all, the danger of being overtaken by a snow-storm, filled the minds of Oakley and Stone with terror. When it was found that nine out of the eleven people must be carried over the snow, it is hardly to be wondered at that a proposition was made to leave a portion of the sufferers. It was proposed to take the three Graves children and Mary Donner. These four children would be quite a sufficient burden for the three men, considering the snow over which they must travel. The Breens, or at least such of them as could not walk, were to be abandoned. This was equivalent to leaving the father, mother, and five children, because the mother would not abandon any member of her family, and John, who alone could travel, was in a semi-lifeless condition. The members of the third relief party are said to have taken a vote upon the question. This scene is described in the manuscript of Hon. James F. Breen: "Those who were in favor of returning to the settlements, and leaving the Breens for a future relief party (which, under the circumstances, was equivalent to the death penalty), were to answer 'aye.' The question was put to each man by name, and as the names were called, the dreadful 'aye' responded. John Stark's name was the last one called, because he had, during the discussion of the question, strongly opposed the proposition for abandonment, and it was naturally supposed that when he found himself in so hopeless a minority he would surrender. When his name was called, he made no answer until some one said to him: 'Stark, won't you vote?' Stark, during all this proceeding of calling the roll, had stood apart from his companions with bowed head and folded arms. When he was thus directly appealed to, he answered quickly and decidedly: "No, gentlemen, I will not abandon these people. I am here on a mission of mercy, and I will not half do the work. You can all go if you want to, but I shall stay by these people while they and I live."
It was nobly said. If the Breens had been left at Starved Camp, even until the return of Foster, Eddy, Miller, and Thompson from the lake, none would have ever reached the settlements. In continuation of the above narration, the following is taken from the manuscript of John Breen: "Stark was finally left alone. To his great bodily strength, and unexcelled courage, myself and others owe our lives. There was probably no other man in California at that time, who had the intelligence, determination, and what was absolutely necessary in that emergency, the immense physical powers of John Stark. He was as strong as two ordinary men. On his broad shoulders, he carried the provisions, most of the blankets, and most of the time some of the weaker children. In regard to this, he would laughingly say that he could carry them all, if there was room on his back, because they were so light from starvation."
By every means in his power, Stark would cheer and encourage the poor sufferers. Frequently he would carry one or two ahead a little way, put them down, and return for the others. James F. Breen says: "I distinctly remember that myself and Jonathan Graves were both carried by Stark, on his back, the greater part of the journey." Others speak similarly.
Regarding this brave man, Dr. J. C. Leonard has contributed much valuable information, from which is selected the following:
"John Stark was born in 1817, in Wayne County, Indiana. His father, William Stark, came from Virginia, and was one of the first settlers of Kentucky, arriving there about the same time as Daniel Boone. He married a cousin of Daniel Boone, and they had a family of eight children. T. J. Stark, the oldest son, now lives at French Corral, Nevada County, California. John Stark, the younger brother, started from Monmouth County, Illinois, in the spring of 1846, but taking the Fort Hall road, reached California in safety. He was a powerfully built man, weighing two hundred and twenty pounds. He was sheriff of Napa County for six years, and in 1852 represented that county in the State Legislature. He died near Calistoga, in 1875, of heart disease. His death was instantaneous, and occurred while pitching hay from a wagon. He was the father of eleven children, six of whom, with his wife, are now living."
Each one of the persons who were taken from Starved Camp by this man and his two companions, reached Sutter's Fort in safety. James F. Breen had his feet badly frozen, and afterwards burned while at the camp. No one had any hope that they could be saved, and when the party reached the fort, a doctor was sought to amputate them. None could be found, and kind nature effected a cure which a physician would have pronounced impossible.
In concluding this chapter, it is quite appropriate to quote the following, written by J. F. Breen: "No one can attach blame to those who voted to leave part of the emigrants. It was a desperate case. Their idea was to save as many as possible, and they honestly believed that by attempting to save all, all would be lost. But this consideration - and the further one that Stark was an entire stranger to every one in the camps, not bound to them by any tie of blood or kindred, nor having any hope of reward, except the grand consciousness of doing a noble act - makes his conduct shine more lustrously in the eyes of every person who admires nature's true and only nobility."