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Chapter 18 Starting Decoration

Chapter XVIII.

Arrival of the Third Relief
The Living and the Dead
Captain George Donner Dying
Mrs. Murphy's Words
Foster and Eddy at the Lake
Tamsen Donner and her Children
A Fearful Struggle
The Husband's Wishes
Walking Fourteen Miles
Wifely Devotion
Choosing Death
The Night Journey
An Unparalleled Ordeal
An Honored Name
Three Little Waifs
"And Our Parents are Dead."

Eddy, Foster, Thompson, and Miller passed Nicholas Clark and John Baptiste near the head of Donner Lake. These starving fugitives had journeyed thus far in their desperate effort to cross the mountains. Of all those encamped at Alder Creek the sole survivors now were George Donner, the captain of the Donner Party, and his faithful wife, Tamsen Donner. Under the snowdrifts which covered the valley, lay Jacob Donner, Elizabeth Donner, Lewis Donner, Samuel Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph Rhinehart, and James Smith. One more was soon to be added to the number. It was the man whose name had been given to the company; the only one who died of a lingering, painful disease. The injury of George Donner's hand had grown into a feverish, virulent ulceration, which must have partaken of the nature of erysipelas. At all events, mortification had set in, and when the third relief party arrived it had reached his shoulder. In a few hours at most he must die.

Foster's party found that much suffering had occurred at Donner Lake during the tearful days which elapsed between Reed's departure and their own arrival. Mrs. Lavina Murphy had charge of her son, Simon Murphy, her grandchild, George Foster, of the child James Eddy, and of the three little Donner girls, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza. All dwelt in the same cabin, and with them was Lewis Keseberg. Foster and Eddy found all there, save their own children. They were both dead. Keseberg has generally been accused of the murder of little George Foster. Except Mrs. Murphy, the oldest of those who were with Keseberg was only nine years of age. All that the children know is that Keseberg took the child to bed with him one night, and that it was dead next morning. One of the little ones who survived - one whose memory has proven exceedingly truthful upon all points wherein her evidence could be possibly substantiated - and who is now Mrs. Georgia A. Babcock - gives the mildest version of this sad affair which has ever appeared in print. She denies the story, so often reiterated, that Keseberg took the child to bed with him and ate it up before morning; but writes the following: "In the morning the child was dead. Mrs. Murphy took it, sat down near the bed where my sister and myself were lying, laid the little one on her lap, and made remarks to other persons, accusing Keseberg of killing it. After a while he came, took it from her, and hung it up in sight, inside the cabin, on the wall."

Foster, Eddy, Thompson, and Miller remained but a little while at the mountain camp. During this time Mr. Foster had no opportunity to talk with Mrs. Murphy save in Keseberg's presence. Afterwards, when the children told him of the suspicions expressed in their presence by Mrs. Murphy, Foster deeply regretted that he had not sought a private interview with her, for the purpose of learning the reasons for her belief.

In the morning the relief party was to start back to the settlements. Eddy was to carry Georgia Donner; Thompson, Frances Donner; Miller, Eliza Donner; and Foster was to carry Simon Murphy. John Baptiste and Nicholas Clark remained at the head of Donner Lake, and were to accompany the party. This left Mr. and Mrs. Donner at Alder Creek, and Keseberg and Mrs. Murphy at the cabins. Mrs. Murphy had cared for her children and her grandchildren, and ministered to the wants of those around her, until she was sick, exhausted, and utterly helpless. She could not walk. She could scarcely rise from her bed. With all the tenderness of a son, Mr. Foster gave her such provisions as he could leave, procured her wood, and did whatever he was able to do to render her comfortable. He also promised to return speedily, and with such assistance that he could carry her over the summits to her children.

The very afternoon that the third relief party reached the cabins, Simon Murphy discovered a woman wandering about in the snow as if lost. It proved to be Mrs. Tamsen Donner. She had wearily traveled over the deep snows from Alder Creek, as narrated in a previous chapter, to see her children, and, if necessary, to protect their lives. Oh! the joy and the pain of the meeting of those little ones and their mother. As they wound their arms about her neck, kissed her lips, laughed in her eyes, and twined their fingers in her hair, what a struggle must have been taking place in her soul. As the pleading, upturned faces of her babies begged her not to leave them, her very heart-strings must have been rent with agony. Well may the voice quiver or the hand tremble that attempts to portray the anguish of this mother during that farewell interview. From the very first moment, her resolution to return to her husband remained unshaken. The members of the relief party entreated her to go with her, children and save her own life. They urged that there could only be a few hours of life left in George Donner. This was so true that she once ventured the request that they remain until she could return to Alder Creek, and see if he were yet alive. The gathering storm-clouds, which had hovered over the summit for days, compelled them to refuse this request. An hour's delay might be fatal to all.

George Donner knew that he was dying, and had frequently urged his wife to leave him, cross the mountains, and take care of her children. As she held her darlings in her arms, it required no prophetic vision to disclose pictures of sadness, of lonely childhood, of longing girlhood, of pillows wet with tears, if these three little waifs were left to wander friendless in California. She never expressed a belief that she would see that land of promise beyond the Sierra. Often had her calm, earnest voice told them of the future which awaited them, and so far as possible had she prepared them to meet that future without the counsel or sympathy of father or mother.

The night-shadows, creeping through the shivering pines, warned her of the long, dreary way over which her tired feet must pass ere she reached her dying husband's side. She is said to have appeared strangely composed. The struggle was silent. The poor, bleeding heart brought not a single moan to the lips. It was a choice between life, hope, and her clinging babes, or a lonely vigil by a dying husband, and an unknown, shroudless death in the wintry mountains. Her husband was sixty-three; he was well stricken in years, and his life was fast ebbing away. If she returned through the frosty night-winds, over the crisp, freezing snow, she would travel fourteen miles that day. The strong, healthy men composing the relief parties frequently could travel but five or six miles in a day. If she made the journey, and found her husband was dead, she could have no hope of returning on the morrow. She had suffered too long from hunger and privation to hope to be able to return and overtake the relief party. It was certain life or certain death. On the side of the former was maternal love; on the side of the latter, wifely devotion. The whole wide range of history can not produce a parallel example of adherence to duty, and to the dictates of conjugal fidelity. With quick, convulsive pressure of her little ones to her heart; with a hasty, soul-throbbing kiss upon the lips of each; with a prayer that was stifled with a sob of agony, Tamsen Donner hurried away to her husband. Through the gathering darkness, past the shadowy sentinels of the forest, they watched with tearful eyes her retreating form. As if she dared not trust another sight of the little faces - as if to escape the pitiful wail of her darlings - she ran straight forward until out of sight and hearing. She never once looked back.

There are mental struggles which so absorb the being and soul that physical terrors or tortures are unnoticed. Tamsen Donner's mind was passing through such an ordeal. The fires of Moloch, the dreadful suttee, were sacrifices which long religious education sanctioned, and in which the devotees perished amidst the plaudits of admiring multitudes. This woman had chosen a death of solitude, of hunger, of bitter cold, of pain-racked exhaustion, and was actuated by only the pure principles of wifely love. Already the death-damp was gathering on George Donner's brow. At the utmost, she could hope to do no more than smooth the pillow of the dying, tenderly clasp the fast-chilling hand, press farewell kisses upon the whitening lips, and finally close the dear, tired eyes. For this, only this, she was yielding life, the world, and her darling babes. Fitted by culture and refinement to be an ornament to society, qualified by education to rear her daughters to lives of honor and usefulness, how it must have wrung her heart to allow her little ones to go unprotected into a wilderness of strangers. But she could not leave her husband to die alone. Rather solitude, better death, than desert the father of her children. O, Land of the Sunset! let the memory of this wife's devotion be ever enshrined in the hearts of your faithful daughters! In tablets thus pure, engrave the name of Tamsen Donner.


When the June sunshine gladdened the Sacramento Valley, three little barefooted girls walked here and there among the houses and tents of Sutter's Fort. They were scantily clothed, and one carried a thin blanket. At night they said their prayers, lay down in whatever tent they happened to be, and, folding the blanket about them, fell asleep in each other's arms. When they were hungry, they asked food of whomsoever they met. If any one inquired who they were, they answered as their mother had taught them: "We are the children of Mr. and Mrs. George Donner." But they added something they had learned since. It was, "And our parents are dead."

Chapter 18 Ending Decoration

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