San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco


In the spring of 1846 some two thousand emigrants were gathered at Independence, Missouri, waiting for the grass of the plains to attain sufficient growth for feed for their cattle before commencing the long journey to the Pacific coast. Some of these were bound for Oregon and the rest for California. Among the latter a large company under command of Lilburn W. Boggs, ex-governor of Missouri, started about the beginning of May. The party was found to be too large for convenience in handling and three days after the start it was cut in two, Boggs taking charge of the advance, the second division being placed under command of Judge Moran of Missouri. Each of these two large companies was subsequently divided into smaller ones having various commanders who were changed from time to time as the emigrants proceeded on their journey, while the families changed from one company to another and new combinations were constantly being formed.

In one of these companies, commanded by William H. Russell of Kentucky, was the party known as the Donner, or the Reed and Donner party. It consisted of the brothers George and Jacob Donner, and their families, James F. Reed and family, Baylis Williams and his half sister, Eliza Williams, John Denton, Milton Elliott, James Smith, Walter Herron, and Noah James, all from Springfield, Illinois, William H. Eddy and family, from Bellefield, Illinois, Patrick Breen and family and Patrick Dolan, from Keokuk, Iowa, Mrs. Murphy, widow, and children, from Tennessee, her sons in-law, William H. Pike and William M. Foster, with their families, William McCutchen and family, from Jackson county, Missouri, Lewis Keseburg and family, Mr. and Mrs. Wolfinger, Joseph Rhinehart, Augustus Spitzer, and Charles Burger, natives of Germany, Samuel Shoemaker, of Springfield, Ohio, Charles T. Stanton, of Chicago, Luke Halloran, of St. Joseph, Missouri, Mr. Hardcoop, a Belgian, Antonio and Juan Bautista, Spaniards, from New Mexico. West of Fort Bridger the party was joined by Franklin W. Graves and family, his son-in-law, Jay Fosdick and wife, and John Snyder, all from Marshall county, Illinois, eighty-eight souls, all told.

It was a well equipped party, and George Donner, a man of some wealth, was carrying a stock of merchandise for sale in California. He had several milch cows and the family was plentifully supplied with milk and butter. For a time all was well and the company thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of their situation. The weather was delightful, and the country between the Blue and Platte rivers, a beautiful rolling prairie, was covered with grass and wild flowers. Game abounded and the men would ride twenty miles from the train on their hunting excursions. The Indians were friendly and the cattle grazed quietly around the camp unmolested. Several musical instruments and many excellent voices were in the party and all was good-fellowship and joyous anticipation. The first death occurred just before the crossing of the Big Blue river. Mrs. Sarah Keyes, the aged mother of Mrs. James F. Reed, had been in feeble health and was unable to endure the fatigues of such a journey, but having no one to leave her with they had been obliged to bring her. She was buried on the bank of the Big Blue, and the emigrants moved on. The route was the usual one: up the north fork of the Platte, up the Sweetwater, through the South pass, down the Big Sandy and the valley of Green river. At Fort Bridger, then a new trading post on Black's fork of Green river, a consultation was held regarding the next stage of the journey. Bridger and Vasquez, the owners of the fort, were old trappers of the American Fur company. They had been in the region many years and had established this fort which they expected to make a great trading post, and they hoped to induce the government to make it the principal military post of the intermountain region. They had also traced out a road from Fort Laramie to Fort Bridger which they claimed was easier, had more grass and water, and was much shorter than the road through the Black hills and South pass. It followed up the Laramie river, came through Bridger pass and down Bitter creek to the Green. This route, surveyed by Captain Stansbury, U. S. topographical engineers, in 1850, was that followed later by the Union Pacific railroad from the Laramie to the Green river. At Fort Bridger the emigrants met a man whose advice, taken by them, was to cause their ruin. Lansford W. Hastings had commanded a party of emigrants across the plains to Oregon in 1842. The excessive rains of that country through the winter had produced dissatisfaction in the party and they determined to seek the sunnier skies of California. This they did the following year and reached Sutter's fort about the middle of July 1843. Bidwell says that Hastings came with a half-formed purpose of exciting a revolution, of wresting California from Mexico, and of establishing an independent republic with himself as president. {Bidwell: California in 1841-8 MS. Bancroft Collection.} The foreigners in the country were however too few for a successful revolt and Hastings devoted himself to the work of promoting emigration to California. He returned to the United States and published an emigrants' guide to Oregon and California, wherein he gives a most glowing account of California, whose people were "scarcely a visible grade in the scale of intelligence above the barbarous tribes by whom they are surrounded," but who, nevertheless, treated foreigners with kindness and freely granted them lands. {Hastings: Emigrants' Guide, pages 64-133.} He also, it is said, supplemented his publication by lectures. In 1845 he brought a small party through to California and then turned himself to diverting the Oregon emigration to California. It was on this business that he now presented himself to our party of emigrants at Fort Bridger. Many of them knew who he was and some had seen his book. The most of the people were bound for Oregon, but Donner, Harlan, Boggs, and some other parties were going to California. Hastings assembled the emigrants and told them of a new route he had discovered around the south end of Salt Lake and striking the Humboldt river one hundred and fifty miles above the sink. He told them that they would, by taking this route, save two hundred miles of travel over the old road by Fort Hall. Bridger and Vasquez added their testimony in favor of the new route and all three, for their own interests, exaggerated its advantages and underrated its difficulties. The deliberations lasted three or four days and the historian of the Donner party states that but for the earnest advice and solicitation of Bridger and Vasquez the entire party would have continued by the accustomed route. After mature deliberation, the emigrants divided; the greater portion, going by Fort Hall, reached California in safety. The Donner party, which had a few days before elected George Donner captain, decided to take the Hastings' cut-off, as did the Harlan party, whose chief was George Harlan. These two parties left Fort Bridger on July 28th, and for several days traveled in company. The route was fairly good and they had little difficulty until they reached Weber cañon, where the road seemed impassable for the wagons. They halted and held a council. Harlan and some of his party maintained that the road could be made passable and that they could get through. Reed and Donner refused to go on and with their party turned back. The Harlan party spent six days in building a road through the cañon and on the seventh passed over it and reached Salt Lake. They crossed the desert, losing by death one of their members, and after a hard struggle and a loss of many cattle, reached the Humboldt near the vicinity of the present Palisade, where they ascertained that the Boggs' party, which had gone by Fort Hall, was seventy-five miles ahead of them. Pushing on with all possible speed they crossed the mountains and reached Johnson's rancho, the first habitation west of the sierra, on the twenty-fourth of October. They were the last party to cross the mountains.

After leaving Harlan the Donner party traveled back for two days and then struck across the Wasatch range to the south and followed down the cañon of a small stream towards Salt Lake. Some three weeks were spent in making roads and mending wagons, only to find the mouth of the cañon so narrow and so filled with huge rocks as to be impassable. With great exertion they succeeded in getting out of the cañon and reached Salt Lake about September 1st—some thirty-four days from Fort Bridger, a journey they were told would be made in six. It appears that Edwin Bryant, afterwards alcalde of San Francisco, had passed through the Hastings' cut-off ahead of the Harlan party. Bryant was traveling with a small party with pack-mules, and was guided by James M. Hudspeth, an associate of Hastings. He left letters for emigrants in the rear warning those with wagons not to take the cut-off but keep to the old trail by Fort Hall; {Bryant: What I Saw in California, p. 144.} letters that were not delivered.

Encamped at the southern end of the lake, death claimed on September 3d, another member of the Donner party. Luke Halloran was a consumptive, without friends or kinsman, who had joined the train hoping to find health in the change of climate. He succumbed to the hardships of the journey and was buried in a bed of salt at the foot of the lake. From September 9th to the 15th the party were crossing the Salt Lake desert, which Bridger and Vasquez had assured them was but fifty miles across, but which they found to be seventy-five. Reed's oxen, driven by thirst, disappeared in the desert leaving him helpless with three wagons and a family of six, the rest of the party having passed on. With his youngest child in his arms and followed by the others, Reed walked twenty miles to the camp on the head waters of a stream flowing into the Humboldt. Several days were passed here while an unsuccessful search was made for the lost cattle. Reed's only remaining cattle were one ox and one cow. Graves and Breen each loaned him an ox, and by yoking his cow and ox, together he had two yokes which he hitched to one wagon, and loading on that all he could, he abandoned the other two and cached such of his property as could not be carried.

Before leaving the desert camp a careful account of provisions was taken, and deeming the amount insufficient Stanton and McCutchen volunteered to go forward to California and bring back a supply. Their services were accepted and they started, each with a horse, about September 20th. All were put on short rations and resuming the march they reached the emigrant road on the Humboldt river about the end of September, long after the last parties had passed. They now began to realize their danger. A storm came on and in the morning the mountain tops were covered with snow. It was a dreadful reminder of the lateness of the season and of the horrors they feared must await them. The company now fairly demoralized, pushed on as rapidly as possible, each family looking out for itself. All organization seems to have come to an end. The Indians, ever hostile, hovered about the train and stole the cattle at every opportunity. The poor animals were in a pitiable condition. The grass was scanty and of a poor quality, and the water was bad, causing much loss among them. At every slight ascent the teams would have to double up and it required five or six yokes of oxen to move one wagon. The days of feasting and merrymaking, of song and story around the evening camp fire, had long departed; they could not survive the deadly monotony of the journey. The people became irritable and quarrelsome under the never ceasing toil, the constant sense of danger, the scanty food, and the difficulties of their position. The differences that had existed among them from the beginning were greatly increased and they regarded each other with feelings of suspicion and dislike, that only needed opportunity to break forth in acts of hostility. At Gravelly Ford, on October 5th, in a quarrel between Snyder and Reed, the latter was savagely beaten by Snyder. Mrs. Reed rushed between the furious men and received a blow on the head from the butt end of Snyder's heavy whip stock. In an instant Reed's hunting knife was out and Snyder fell, mortally wounded, and died in fifteen minutes. Consternation siezed the emigrants. Camp was immediately pitched and after burying the dead man a council was held to determine the fate of the slayer. All the animosity of the company now centered on Reed. It was first proposed to hang him, and one man fastened up his wagon pole for that purpose; but it was finally decided to banish him to the wilderness, alone, with neither food nor arms. Reed accepted the verdict and mounting his horse rode out into the desert. His little daughter Virginia followed him after dark, and carried him his rifle, some ammunition and food. George and Jacob Donner with their wagons and families were two days in advance of the main train. Walter Herron was with them, and when Reed came up, Herron determined to accompany him to California. The two set out together and of Herron we hear nothing further.

On the 12th of October the train reached the sink of the Humboldt, and the cattle, closely guarded, were turned out to graze. At daybreak the guard came into camp to breakfast, leaving the cattle unguarded, and during their absence twenty-one head were stolen by the Indians. This left the company in a bad plight. Several families had neither oxen nor horses left. All who could must walk. Men, women, and children were forced to travel on foot and, in many cases, carry heavy burdens to lighten the loads for the oxen. Eddy and his wife each carried a child and such personal effects as they were able. No one was allowed to ride but the little children, the sick, and the utterly exhausted. Seven of the women had nursing babies and all were on the smallest allowance of food that would sustain life. In this condition the company began the desert lying between the sink of the Humboldt and the lower crossing of the Truckee river. The Belgian, Hardcoop, an old and feeble man, fell; he could walk no further, and the train passed on, leaving him to his fate. I suppose the old man had no money to purchase the place of a bale of goods on one of the wagons. On October 14th the German, Wolfinger, failed to come into camp. He had been walking in the rear with Keseberg. His wife induced three young men to go back in the morning and look for him. Keseberg had said that Wolfinger was but a short distance behind him and would soon be along. The searchers failed to find him, but about five miles back came upon his wagon, and near it, the oxen, still chained together. There were no signs of Indians. The men hitched the oxen to the wagon and drove them in. It was thought that Keseberg murdered Wolfinger for his money, but no inquiry was made concerning the missing man and the wife supposed the Indians had killed him. McGlashan says that Joseph Rhinehart, when dying of starvation in George Donner's tent, confessed that he had something to do with the murder of Wolfinger.

On the nineteenth of October, at the lower crossing of the Truckee (site of Wadsworth) the starving emigrants met Stanton with relief. Captain Sutter, without compensation or security, had sent them seven mules, five of them loaded with flour and beef. McCutchen had been ill and unable to return and Sutter had sent two Indian vaqueros, Luis and Salvador, to assist Stanton with the train and guide the emigrants over the mountains. The relief was timely and had the party pushed resolutely forward there is little doubt that they could have crossed the mountains; but with a lack of decision that had characterized them from the start, they concluded to rest three or four days at the Truckee meadows (Reno). The delay was fatal. On the twenty-third, alarmed by the threatening appearance of the weather, they hastily resumed their journey. It was too late. At Prosser creek they found six inches of snow and at the summit the snow was from two to five feet deep. With an efficient leader and a definite plan of action, the party might yet have succeeded in crossing the range. But there was no leader, all was confusion and the panic stricken emigrants, each for himself, made frantic efforts to break through the snow barrier that imprisoned them. Some families reached Truckee lake, as it was then called, on October 28th; some on the 29th; some on the 31st, and others never got beyond Prosser creek. Several wagons passed up the old emigrant road on the south side of the lake almost to the summit and were there abandoned. Some took the north side of the lake and passed far up towards the top of the pass, only to be left imbedded in the snow. For two weeks the emigrants wasted their strength in desultory efforts to escape, and then realizing the hopelessness of such attempts, determined upon an organized effort. Never before, from the formation of the Donner party, had they ever agreed upon any important proposition. The terrible situation they were in caused them to forget for a time their petty differences and united them in one cause. They decided to kill all the animals, preserve the meat, and on foot cross the summit. That night a heavy snow fell and for a week the storm continued with slight intermissions. Ten feet or more of snow fell at the lake, and, for a time, all their energies were required for the preservation of life. The mules and oxen, their main reliance for food, blinded and bewildered by the storm, strayed away and most of them perished, being buried in the snow where only a few were ever found. Those remaining were slaughtered and the meat preserved in the snow. The emigrants now realized that the winter must be spent in the mountains and made such preparations as they could for shelter. One cabin, built by an earlier party, was still standing and others were hastily constructed. These were built below the foot of the lake on what is now Donner creek. Seven miles to the eastward, on Alder creek, a branch of Prosser creek, the two Donner families with several of the unmarried men were encamped in tents and brush wood huts over which were stretched rubber coats, quilts, etc. Truckee lake and river are famous for the beautiful trout with which they abound, but after two or three unsuccessful attempts to catch them the effort was abandoned and soon the lake was covered over with thick ice. The entire party seemed dazed by the calamity which had overtaken them.

Before leaving the Truckee meadows death had taken another of the party. While engaged in loading a revolver, William Foster accidentally shot and killed William Pike. This reduced the original company to seventy-nine persons. In the party must now be counted Luis and Salvador, the Indians sent by Sutter, making eighty-one souls in the camps: namely, twenty-four men, fifteen women, and forty-three children. Some of the children may have been grown but as the chroniclers do not give the ages, it is impossible to tell. Of the company, the women were the bravest, the most resourceful, and most successfully endured the struggle with cold and hunger, as will be seen later. The unmarried men, fifteen in number, most of whom were young and vigorous, gave way to despair, and after the first attempts to escape made no further effort. The only exceptions were Stanton, Denton, and Dolan, whose feeble exertions were soon ended. Of the fifteen only two survived.

In all the company there was but one gun. It belonged to Foster, and with it, Eddy shot a bear and two or three ducks. After that no more game was seen.

On December 16th a party known as the "forlorn hope" started on improvised snowshoes in an attempt to cross the mountains. There was a possibility of their getting through and their going would leave fewer hungry mouths in camp. The party consisted of Eddy, Graves, Stanton, Dolan, Fosdick and wife, Foster and wife, Lemuel Murphy (age 13), Mrs. Pike, Mary Graves, Mrs. McCutchen, Antonio, Luis, and Salvador: nine men, five women, and a boy.

Taking rations for six days they started and on the second day crossed the summit. On December 22d they had consumed the last morsel of food. This day Stanton gave out. He had been snow-blind for two days and was too weak to keep up. It was he who had brought the relief from Sutter's fort and had remained and cast his lot with the party, when he might have escaped, having no ties of kindred among them. They left him sitting by the camp fire. It was I suppose the only thing they could do. They could not help him and their own case was desperate. On Christmas they reached the "camp of death" where a snow storm confined them for a week. Dolan, Graves, Antonio, and Lemuel Murphy died and were eaten by their starving companions. By the thirty-first, this food was gone and on New Year's day they ate their moccasins and the strings of their snowshoes. The two Indians, Luis and Salvador, had refused to eat of the dead bodies, and kept themselves apart from the rest of the company, enduring the pangs of hunger with Indian stoicism; but seeing ominous glances cast in their direction they fled during the night of December 31st. The party again pressed on. Fosdick died on the fourth of January and was eaten. His wife would not touch the food, but on this day, Eddy, who had Foster's gun, shot a deer. This lasted until January 6th. There was no food on the seventh and on the eighth Foster took the trail left by the bare and bleeding feet of the Indians, overtook them, shot both, and again the party, now reduced to two men and five women, was supplied with food. On the eleventh they passed out of the snow and came upon an Indian ranchería. Amazed to see such tattered, disheveled, skeleton creatures emerge from the sierra, the Indians ran off in fright, but soon returned to furnish such relief as they could and supplied them with acorn bread, all the food they had. After a brief rest the march was resumed and accompanied by the Indians the refugees traveled for seven days, being compelled to rest frequently. At last they could go no further and here, in the full view of the beautiful valley of the Sacramento, laid themselves down to die. The Indians, however, took Eddy, and partly leading, partly carrying him, brought him to Johnson's rancho. Four men started at once with provisions and guided by the Indians, found Eddy's companions fifteen miles back and brought them in the next day. It was January 17th; they had been thirty-two days coming from Donner lake, and of the fifteen that started, eight had perished.

At Johnson's rancho there were only three or four families of poor immigrants, but a volunteer set off at once for Sutter's fort, forty miles below, for aid for the snow-bound people in the mountains. Captain Sutter and John Sinclair, alcalde of the district and manager of Rancho Del Paso, offered to furnish provisions, and men volunteered to carry them over the mountains. There was considerable delay in organizing the relief and securing saddle and pack animals, the country having been pretty well cleared of men and animals by the formation and equipment of the California battalion; but on February 5th, the first relief, a well appointed party of fifteen, under command of Reasin P. Tucker, started for the rescue of the beleagured immigrants. The ground was very wet and their progress was slow, while heavy rains on the sixth and seventh kept them three days in camp. On the tenth they reached Mule springs on the Bear river, opposite the site of the present Dutch Flat, having traveled the last four miles in snow, which, at the camp, was between three and four feet deep. The animals could go no further and sending them back under charge of William H. Eddy, who was one of the volunteers, ten men, carrying from twenty-five to fifty pounds of provisions, pushed forward on foot leaving two men to guard the provisions left. On the twelfth they halted to make snowshoes but could not use them and went on without. The next day they reached Bear valley which was covered with ten feet of snow. They examined a cache made by Reed and McCutchen and found that the provisions had been destroyed by bears. Here it rained or snowed all night. The next morning, February 15th, three of the men refused to go further and started for home. This left but seven of the original thirteen and it looked discouraging. They held a consultation and determined to go forward. Captain Tucker guaranteed to each man who persevered to the end, five dollars per day from the time they entered the snow. That day they made fifteen miles and the next day five miles through a heavy snow storm, and camped in snow fifteen feet deep. Five miles were made the following day, eight the day after, and they camped in Summit valley. The next day, February 19th, they crossed the summit, with thirty feet of snow on the pass, and reached the camp at the foot of the lake on the evening of that day.

We have seen the safe arrival of the Harlan party at Johnson's rancho, October 24th. The day following, in the midst of a heavy rain storm, a man was seen riding slowly towards the camp. It was James F. Reed, who after great suffering, having been reduced to the verge of starvation, had reached California. The fate of his companion, Herron, does not appear. After a rest, Reed went to Sutter's fort where he met Bryant, Lippincott, Grayson, and others of the Russell party. Here steps were being taken to raise a company for the California battalion, and immigrants were being enlisted as they came in. Reed was made a lieutenant and leave given him to return to the mountains for his family whom he expected to meet at Bear valley, forty miles west of the summit. Sutter furnished Reed with horses and provisions and gave him an order on Theodore Cordua of the Honcut rancho (near the present Marysville) for more horses. At Sutter's fort Reed was joined by McCutchen, who had recovered his health, and together they set out from Johnson's rancho for the mountain camps with thirty horses, one mule, and two Indian vaqueros. At Bear valley they found a man named Jotham Curtis who with his wife had come over the mountains and both were in a starving condition. Reed relieved their necessities and leaving provisions to last until his return, continued on his way. The snow was two feet deep in the upper part of the valley. That night their Indians deserted them and the next day the deepening snow rendered further travel with horses impossible. After an ineffectual attempt to proceed on foot they returned to Curtis' camp in Bear valley. Securing their flour in the wagon of Curtis (the cache looked for by Captain Tucker) they returned to Sutter' s fort, taking Curtis and his wife with them. Sutter considered the number of cattle the emigrants were supposed to have and stated that if they killed the cattle and preserved the meat in the snow there need be no fear of starvation before relief could reach them. He told Reed that there were no able-bodied men in that region, all having enlisted under Frémont, and advised him to go to Yerba Buena and lay the case before the naval commander. Proceeding by way of San José Reed found the lower peninsula in possession of the Californians under Sanchez, and joining the volunteers took part in the famous battle of Santa Clara as first lieutenant of the San José company. On the happy conclusion of the Santa Clara campaign Reed was relieved of further military duty, having served a month and a half, and after receiving the commendation of his commander for gallant conduct on the plains of Santa Clara, continued his journey to Yerba Buena, where he arrived in the latter part of January; a somewhat leisurely proceeding, considering the starving families. At Yerba Buena a mass meeting was called and steps were being taken for the relief of the party when the news was received of the arrival at Johnson's rancho of the survivors of the forlorn hope. It was now realized that immediate action was necessary if any emigrants were to be saved. A relief party was organized under command of Selim Woodworth, and leaving them to follow by boat up the Sacramento, Reed and McCutchen, with Brittan Greenwood, a half breed mountaineer and guide, hurried on by way of Sonoma to Sacramento, thence to Johnson's rancho. Johnson drove up his cattle and said, "Take what you want." They killed five head and with the aid of Johnson and his Indians, had the meat fire-dried and ready for packing. Other Indians were making flour by hand mills and by morning had two hundred pounds ready. The war had taken so many men that it was difficult to find any willing to brave the dangers of the Sierra Nevada, and well might they fear it, as we shall see. At Johnson's Reed learned of the party commanded by Captain Tucker which had passed in seventeen days before. Reed packed his provisions and with seven volunteers—making with himself, Greenwood, and McCutchen, ten in all—started from Johnson's, February 22d, carrying seven hundred pounds of flour and the dried beef of five head of cattle. This was the "second relief."

It is now time to look after the emigrants in the mountains. The snow-fall continued, alternating with rain and hard frosts until the cabins were buried and steps had to be cut in the snow to reach the surface, now some twenty feet above the ground. Wood there was in abundance but it was difficult for these weak hands to cut down a tree, and sometimes when it fell it would be so buried in snow that they could not get at it, and many days they had no fire. By the sixth of January their only food was the hides of such animals as they had slaughtered. {The green hides were cut into strips and laid upon the coals or held in the flames until the hair was completely singed off. Each side of the piece of hide was then scraped with a knife until comparatively clean, and was placed in a kettle and boiled until soft and pulpy. There was no salt and only a little pepper for seasoning. When cold, the boiled hides and the water in which they were cooked, became jellied and resembled glue. The stomachs of the little children and of some of the grown people revolted at this loathsome food.} They also gathered up the bones that had been cast away and boiled or burnt them until they crumbled, then ate them. Mrs. Murphy's little children used to cut pieces from a rug in the cabin, toast them crisp on the coals and eat them. Mrs. Reed and her children had been without other food than hides since Christmas. At Alder creek the families were even worse off since they had only brush huts and tents. George Donner had met with an accident which disabled him, and of which, aggravated by want of nourishment, he finally died. Jacob Donner, a man in feeble health, never rallied from the shock of finding himself imprisoned in the mountains. He gave up in despair and died early in December. Williams died at the lake December 15th, and Shoemaker, Rhinehart, and Smith at Alder creek before the twenty-first. Patrick Breen's diary written from day to day, from November 20th to March 1st, is the principal source of information. He frequently comments on the scarcity of wood as well as food. "Hard work to get wood"; "Don't have enough fire to cook our hides"; "No wood,” are some of his many entries. Burger, young Keseburg, John L. Murphy, Eddy's wife and child, McCutchen's child, Spitzer, and Elliott, all died between December 30th and February 9th. Without fire, without food, without protection from the dampness occasioned by the melting snows, the men, women, and children were huddled together, the living and the dead, in the gloom of their buried cabins, while above them raged the tempest with a sound that was dreadful in their ears. From time to time small parties made feeble efforts to cross the mountains but these ceased after January 4th, and the unfortunates waited with lessening numbers and growing despair for the relief that seemed far away. Day after day they looked for help to come and day after day they became more hopeless. For nearly four months they had been held prisoners in the snow and it was more than two months since the forlorn hope made its desperate effort to break through the barrier and bring succor to the people. All food was gone! Even the repulsive hide was no longer to be had and the last resort must be to the bodies of the dead. On the evening of the 19th of February, the silence was broken by a shout from the direction of the lake. In an instant weakness and infirmity were forgotten and up from the depths, climbing the icy stairways leading to the surface, came the poor, starving wretches. It was Captain Tucker and his men, the seven heroes of the first relief. Coming down from the summit to find a wide expanse of snow covering forest and lake and a stillness that was like the silence of the grave, they sent up a loud shout to see if happily any could answer. The cry was answered, and around the relief party came the weak and trembling forms of little children, of delicate women, and of what had once been strong men. The pitiful sight was too much for the men of the relief and they sat down in the snow and wept. Half a miles below the lake was the cabin of the Graves and Reed families. Captain Tucker, who had crossed the plains in company with the Graves family, before the latter took the Hastings' cut-off with the Donners hastened down the creek to see them. He saw smoke issuing from a hole in the snow, and, as before, he shouted, and up to the surface came Mrs. Graves and Mrs. Reed and the little children. Mrs. Graves' first question was for her husband and daughters. Did all reach the valley? The stout heart of Tucker failed him. How could he tell this starving woman of the fate of her husband and her son-in-law! He assured her that all were well. The same answer was given to the rest. Had the truth been told, the survivors of the camps would not have had the courage to attempt the journey. Food was given to the sufferers carefully and in small quantities, and the provisions were guarded lest the famished people should obtain more than was good for them. The members of the relief party camped in the snow, unable to endure the sights within the cabins, and in the morning three of them visited the Donner tents on Alder creek, seven miles below.

The relief party determined to return on the twenty-second and would take such as were able to travel. To those who remained, they said other relief parties would soon come. The question was, who should go? George Donner had become helpless and his wife would not leave him, though urged to go. From the Donner camp came the two oldest daughters of George Donner:
Elitha and Leana; George Donner, Jr., son of Jacob, and William Hook his step-son; Mrs. Wolfinger, and Noah James. Mrs. Jacob Donner's two little boys were not big enough to walk and the mother preferred to wait for a larger party to come for them. From the upper camp came Mrs. Reed, her daughter Virginia, and son, James F., Jr. Her two other children, Martha (8 years), and Thomas (3 years), started with the company but they had proceeded only two miles when Glover, of the relief party, told Mrs. Reed that they showed such signs of weakness it was not safe to allow them to go on and that he would take them back. The poor mother was frantic at having to send her little ones back to that dreadful camp, and Mr. Glover promised to return as soon as he arrived at Bear valley and bring Martha and Thomas over the mountains. To this the mother was obliged to consent. Two Murphy children, William G. and Mary M.; Naomi L. Pike; three Graves children, William C., Eleanor, and Lovina; Mrs. Keseburg and her baby girl, Ada; Edward and Simon Breen, children; Eliza Williams, and John Denton, twenty-one, all told, made up the number brought out by the first relief. The seven men constituting this party were: Reasin P. Tucker, captain, Aquila Glover, Riley S. Moultry, John Rhoads, David Rhoads, Edward Coffeemire, and Joseph Sells. When Mrs. Pike, whose husband had been accidentally killed at Truckee meadows, joined the forlorn hope, she left her two year old Naomi, and her infant Catherine, with her mother, Mrs. Murphy. Starvation had dried her milk and she could no longer nurse the babe. The grandmother succeeded in keeping the infant alive until the arrival of the relief party by administering to it a little gruel made from coarse flour— a small quantity of which Mrs. Murphy had saved— mixed with snow water. On February 20th the baby died, and little Naomi was carried to her mother by John Rhoads, who bore her through the snow slung over his back in a blanket. Another of the men of the relief carried Mrs. Keseberg's baby, but the little one could not survive. She died on the evening of the first day out and was buried in the snow. The second day the company reached Summit valley. When camp was pitched John Denton was missed. John Rhoads went back and found him asleep on the snow, and with much exertion aroused and brought him into camp. He said it was impossible for him to travel another day, and on the morrow he gave out before proceeding very far. His companions built a fire for him and giving him such food as they could, left him. When Captain Tucker's party were going to Donner lake, they had left a portion of their provisions in Summit valley, tied up in a tree. They had found it difficult to carry all they had started with, and besides, thought it well to have something provided for their return should the famished emigrants eat all they carried in, which proved to be the case. The scanty allowances were all eaten, and when the party reached the cache they were horrified to find that wild animals, by gnawing the ropes by which the provisions had been suspended, had obtained and consumed all. Starvation now stared them in the face and they pushed on as rapidly as possible. On the twenty-seventh they were met by the second relief under James F. Reed, and being thus succored they reached Johnson's March 2d. In his diary Reed says: "Left camp (head of Bear valley) 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 snow-trail, 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 cannot describe the death-like 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." At Bear valley another cache had been made and this was found unmolested. The utmost caution was taken to prevent the famished people from eating too much. One boy, William Hook, got at the provisions and ate until his hunger was satisfied and in the morning was found to be dying. Finding him past relief they left two of their company with him and continued on their way. Had it not been for the relief afforded by Reed many of the party must have perished.

Realizing the terrible situation of the emigrants Reed hurried on as fast as possible. On February 28th, he made fourteen miles through very soft snow, and on camping sent three of his men ahead who kept on through the night and camped for a short rest within two miles of the cabins, which they reached early in the morning. They found all alive and after feeding them went on to the Donner camp, where they arrived by noon. During the day Reed and the rest of the party came up.

On March 3d Reed started his return taking Mr. and Mrs. Breen and five children, which cleaned up the Breen family—two having gone with the first relief; his own two children, Isaac and Mary M., who had been living with the Breens; two children of Jacob Donner; Solomon Hook, Mrs. Jacob Donner's child by a former husband; and Mrs. Graves and her four remaining children, seventeen in all. The relief party consisted of James F. Reed, Charles Cady, Charles Stone, Nicholas Clark, Joseph Gendreau, Mathew Dofar, John Turner, Hiram Miller, William McCutchen, and Brittan Greenwood. Many of the younger children had to be carried and all were so weak and emaciated that it was evident the journey would be a slow and painful one, and should a storm arise before they got over the mountains, the situation of the party would be extremely grave.

It was decided that Clark, Cady, and Stone should remain at the mountain camps to attend to the helpless sufferers, procure wood for them, and perform such other service as they might need, until the third relief, which, it was thought, would be sent at once, should arrive to bring in all that remained. The second day after the departure of the second relief, while Clark was absent following the tracks of a bear he had wounded, Stone and Cady concluded that it would be madness to remain in the mountains and be caught in the storm they saw coming. They deserted their post, therefore, and endeavored to overtake Reed and his party. Clark, returning from an unsuccessful hunt late at night, found them gone. When Mrs. George Donner found that the men were going to leave, she persuaded them to take her three little girls, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza, with them over the mountains. She had previously offered five hundred dollars to any one who would take them safely over, and that, or perhaps more, was what induced the two men to undertake the charge. They took the children as far as Keseberg's cabin at the lake, and there left them.

When Clark awoke on the morning after his hunt, he found a fierce storm raging and the tent of Jacob Donner, where he was, literally buried in fresh snow. The storm lasted about a week. The snow was so deep that it was impossible to procure wood and during these 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, while the wind blew like a hurricane, hurling great pines crashing to the ground about them. In the tent with Clark were Mrs. Jacob Donner, her son Lewis, and the Spanish boy, Juan Bautista. George Donner and his wife were in their tent and with them Jacob Donner's youngest son, Samuel.

When the storm cleared away Clark found himself starving like the rest. He had become one of the Donner party. As the storm was ending Lewis Donner died and was buried in the snow. Then Clark succeeded in killing a bear cub and the camp again had food. It had come too late for Mrs. Jacob Donner and her little Samuel. They died and were buried in the snow.

Clark now determined to leave the mountains, and dividing the bear meat with Mrs. George Donner, he started on his journey, accompanied by Juan Bautista.

The little band conducted by Reed had reached the lower end of Summit valley on the evening of the second day out, when the storm burst upon them with fury. All day the men of the relief had urged the party forward with the greatest possible speed, that they might get as near the settlements as they could before the storm caught them. Their provisions were exhausted and Reed sent Gendreau, Dofar, and Turner forward to a cache a few miles below Summit valley. They found the cache destroyed by wild animals and were pushing on for the next one, a few miles beyond, when they were caught by the storm and could neither proceed nor return.

In a bleak and desolate spot in the Summit valley Reed's party was forced to halt. The cold sleet-like snow beat upon them, and a fierce, penetrating wind seemed to freeze the marrow in their bones. With much difficulty they succeeded in building a fire, and the hungry, freezing immigrants crowded around it while Reed planted pine boughs in the snow and banked up the snow both within and without, forming, with the boughs, a wall to protect the party from the cruel wind. Warmed by the fire the others slept while Reed labored far into the night, perfecting his breastwork and keeping up the fire. At length the fire died down and the cold awakened Mrs. Breen. In an instant she aroused the camp. All were nearly frozen. The fire was renewed and Reed, who had been missed, was found lying unconscious upon the snow. He had fallen exhausted, and, overcome by the fatal drowsiness which proceeds death from freezing, would soon have passed beyond earthly help. They carried him to the fire and after two hours of vigorous rubbing he showed signs of returning consciousness. It was daybreak before he was fully restored.

For several days the storm continued in all its violence and it required the utmost exertions of McCutchen and Miller to keep alive the fire. The other men, disheartened by this calamity, gave up in despair. Mrs. Graves died from exhaustion the first night in camp, and her death was followed by that of her little son, Franklin, and of the boy, Isaac Donner. The men of the second relief realized that unless they could get help all in the camp would starve. They could not carry all the children through the deep snow, but they determined to set out for the settlements and send back help. They accordingly started, taking with them Solomon Hook and Martha Reed, who could walk, while Hiram Miller carried little Thomas Reed in his arms.

The relief party which had started from Yerba Buena under command of Selim Woodworth reached Bear valley where they were encamped in the deep snow, when the advance of the second relief, Gendreau, Dofar, and Turner reached that point. These men had found food in the second cache, but instead of returning with it to the party they had undertaken to save, they satisfied their own hunger and pushed on for the settlements leaving the remnant of the provisions where it could be seen by Reed and his men. In Bear valley they came upon Woodworth's camp and two men, John Stark and Howard Oakley, started for the Reed camp and met Reed and his men coming out. They had been three days on the way from "starved camp" to Woodworth's, and were in a sad plight, with frozen feet and exhausted bodies. Cady and Stone, from Donner lake, overtook Reed on the second day from starved camp and accompanied the party to Woodworth's.

Meanwhile in the desolate camp in Summit valley eleven unfortunates awaited the coming of a rescuing party. There was no food save a few seeds tied in bits of cloth, a lump of loaf sugar, saved for the babies, and a few teaspoons of tea. Patrick Breen, a feeble man, now worn to a skeleton, and his wife, Margaret, were the only adults; the rest were children, two being nursing infants—Mrs. Graves' Elizabeth, and Mrs. Breen's Isabella. Mrs. Breen waited upon all and attended to all. She fed the babies on snow water and sugar and when she found a child sunken and speechless she broke with her teeth a morsel of the sugar and put it between his lips. She watched by night as well as by day and all received her care. She gathered wood and kept up the fire, without which they could not live. The fire had melted the snow to a considerable depth and at length it was so far beneath them that they felt but little of its warmth. Mrs. Breen sent her son John down into the snow pit and he reported the fire on the bare earth, thirty feet below the surface of the snow. By great exertion she got all her helpless company down into the pit where they would be well sheltered and she constructed a kind of ladder from a tree top which enabled her to ascend and descend. Above, on the snow, lay the bodies of the dead, and to them Patrick Breen resorted for food. His wife would not touch it and declared she would die and see her children die rather than have her life or theirs preserved by such means. She never did eat of the bodies herself, and if the father gave to the children, it was without her consent or knowledge. Eight days had passed since Reed and his men left. It seemed as if the very limit of human endurance had been reached. On the morning of the ninth day Mrs. Breen ascended to the surface for her daily supply of wood and to look, as she crawled from tree to tree, for the help that did not come. She felt that if succor did not arrive that day, it would come too late. She descended to the helpless ones and together they repeated the Litany. Then after a rest she again climbed out of the pit to resume her watch for the coming of relief. She was so faint and weak from starvation and from the effort of ascending that her brain whirled and it required all her power to control her own wavering life; but she thought of the miserable ones in the pit who had only her to depend on and she grew steadier. She thought she heard sound of voices, but could see nothing for her eyes were dimmed by the sudden excitement. It must be a delusion of her overtaxed brain. Then the sounds came again, and she heard the words, "There is Mrs. Breen alive yet anyhow." The relief had come.

When Reed and his party had been brought into Woodworth's camp in Bear valley and had been told of the fourteen unfortunates left behind without food, the third relief was at once organized. So dreadful was the condition of the members of the first and second relief parties, that men hesitated to expose themselves to the danger of such frightful suffering. At Yerba Buena, Foster and Eddy, survivors of the forlorn hope, had endeavored to form a relief party, but were unable to obtain volunteers. They set out, therefore, on the trail of Woodworth's party and arrived at his camp the day Reed's advance party came in. When Reed's story was told, Foster and Eddy, joined by Hiram Miller, proposed to start at once, and with William Thompson, John Stark, Howard Oakley, and Charles Stone, set out from Woodworth's camp. It was arranged that Stark, Oakley and Stone were to bring in the sufferers at starved camp while Foster, Eddy, Thompson, and Miller were to press forward to the relief of those at Donner lake. Of the eleven at starved camp only two could walk: Mrs. Breen and her son John. A storm appeared to be gathering, and the supply of provisions brought by the three men was limited. The lonely situation, the sights in the camp, and the threatening aspect of the weather, filled the minds of Oakley and Stone with terror. It was proposed to take the three Graves children and Mary Donner, all that the three men could carry, to Woodworth's camp, and abandon the Breens, for the mother would not leave her helpless ones and John was in a semi-lifeless condition. To this programme Stark would not agree. He had come, he said, on a mission of mercy; he would not half do the work; the other two could go if they would; he refused to abandon the helpless. They went, and Stark was left to work out his plan of salvation as best he could. Just how he managed with the seven left to him, the narrator (McGlashan) does not say. Five of the number had to be carried, and the provisions besides. He was a powerful man, weighing two hundred and twenty pounds, of a determined will and undaunted courage. He would carry one or two a distance ahead, put them down, and return for the others. In this way he succeeded in getting them all to Woodworth's, where the others of the third relief had arrived.

Eddy and his companions reached the lake about the middle of March. They found Nicholas Clark and Juan Bautista at the head of the lake, where they waited until the return of the relief party. At the lake were Mrs. Murphy, her son Simon, the three little Donner girls: Frances, Georgia, and Eliza, and Lewis Keseberg. At Alder creek were George Donner and his wife, Tamsen. The injury George Donner had received resulted in erysipelas, and it was evident that he had but a few hours to live. Mrs. Donner had come up from Alder creek to see her little girls and assure herself that they were still safe, and was with them in Mrs. Murphy's cabin when the relief party arrived. They urged her to accompany them and her children over the mountains, and argued that there could only be a few hours of life left to George Donner. She knew this and asked them to remain until she could return to Alder creek and see if he were yet alive. This they refused, as the gathering storm-clouds over the summit warned them to be away, lest they be caught in the storm and all perish. Mrs. Donner refused to leave her husband; she returned to close his eyes and to her own certain death. Eddy and Foster found their children, little James Eddy and baby George Foster, dead, and on the day following their arrival at the lake, started on their return; Eddy carrying Georgia Donner; Thompson, Francis Donner; Miller, Eliza Donner; and Foster, Simon Murphy. Mrs. Murphy had cared for the children and was now sick and entirely helpless. She could not walk. They left her with such provisions as they could, brought her wood, and made her as confortable as possible, promising to return with assistance and carry her over the mountains.

The departure of the third relief left at the lake Mrs. Murphy and Keseberg, who had injured his foot and could not walk, and at Alder creek Mr. and Mrs. George Donner. I have no account of the return march of the third relief. They took up Clark and Juan Bautista and all reached Woodworth's camp and ultimately Johnson's rancho and Sutter's fort. {It appears that on the arrival of the third relief at Woodworth's the entire expedition returned to Johnson's, abandoning the four persons still remaining in the mountains. I have seen no explanation of this action.}

On April 13th the fourth relief party started from Johnson's rancho under command of William O. Fallon, a mountaineer trapper and guide. With him were William M. Foster, John Rhoads, R. P. Tucker, J. Foster, Sebastian Keyser, and Edward Coffeemire. Alcalde Sinclair of Sutter's fort had, by an offer of half of any property that might be saved, induced these men to attempt the rescue of the four left in the mountain camps by the third relief. George Donner was a man of some wealth, and in addition to the valuable stock of goods he was bringing to California, was supposed to have with him twelve or fourteen thousand dollars in coin. It was the hope of recovering this wealth that actuated most of the men of the fourth relief. Foster went with them hoping to save Mrs. Murphy, his wife's mother. They reached the lake April 17th, and found that of the four left by the third relief, Mrs. Murphy and Mr. and Mrs. Donner had died, and Keseberg alone was living. Paying no attention to Keseberg the "rescuers" began a search for the money, breaking open trunks and scattering their contents. Failing to find any money they came to Keseberg's cabin and demanded of him George Donner's money. Keseberg asked them to give him something to eat but they threatened to kill him if he did not instantly give up the money. At this he gave them some five hundred dollars which he said Mrs. Donner had given him to take to her children, and this was all they could find. They accused Keseberg of being a murderer and robber and so treated him. They were rough and unkind towards him, left him to his fate, and busied themselves in getting Donner's goods over the mountains; each man, according to Keseberg, carried two bales of silks or other goods, taking one a certain distance and then going back and bringing up the other. Keseberg with his wounded foot could not keep up with them, but dragged himself along and managed to reach their camp each night. Arriving at Sutter' s fort Keseberg was accused by some members of the relief party of the murder of Mrs. Donner. In Fallon's diary he is also accused of the murder of Wolfinger, of having killed and eaten George Foster, and of having been responsible for the abandonment of Hardcoop. The most revolting statements are made by Fallon concerning what he saw at the camp—statements that have been repeated by others but which are most absurd and impossible. McGlashan who wrote his story from interviews with and statements from the survivors, including Keseberg, discredits the accusations as do other writers. The stories, however, found ready belief and people shunned Keseberg and children fled from him with aversion. At the suggestion of Sutter Keseberg brought suit against Fallon, Coffeemire, and others, for slander, and the jury gave him a verdict of one dollar damages. He became a marked man and misfortune pursued him wherever he went. As a sample of the ridiculous stuff published about him, I quote an extract from Sights in the Gold Region, by Theodore T. Johnson

"Within a half a mile of our encampment (on the Sacramento river) we saw the house of old Keysburg, the cannibal, who reveled in the awful feast on human flesh and blood during the sufferings of a party of emigrants near the pass of the Sierra Nevada, in the winter of 1847. * * * It is said that the taste which Keysburg then acquired had not left him and that he often declares with evident gusto, 'I would like to eat a piece of you'; and several have sworn to shoot him if he ventures on such fond declarations to them. We therefore looked at the den of this wild beast in human form with a good deal of disgusted curiosity, and kept our bowie knives handy for a slice of him, if necessary."

This ends the story of the Donner party whose tragic fate was known and feared by belated parties of the overland emigration of 1849 and later years. I have followed mainly the narrative of C. F. McGlashan in his History of the Donner Party, and have tried to connect his somewhat loose and disjointed story, omitting as much of the dreadful details as possible, and all laudation of the various actors in the tragedy. That there was great heroism and self-sacrifice displayed by certain members of the Donner and of the relief parties, will be seen by any one who reads the story; but it is, at best, a pitiful story of weakness and incompetence; nor can I see, as McGlashan can, anything brave, generous, or heroic in William Foster's trailing and potting for food the Indians, Luis and Salvador, who had come to serve them.

The destruction of the party may be ascribed, after the preliminary error in taking the wrong route, to internal discord, jealousy, and hatred among them, and to the lack of organization and leadership. That any of the party were saved seems quite remarkable when their condition is realized and the deliberation with which the work of relief was conducted is considered. The abandonment of the four left in the mountains must be strongly condemned. Granting that the saving of Mrs. Murphy and George Donner was impossible and of Keseberg immaterial, the life of Tamsen Donner was worth all the exertion that could have been made, even at the peril of the lives of the rescuers.

We have seen that of the eighty-eight persons who started with or became joined to the Donner party, six died before entering the sierra, and three—Reed, Herron, and McCutchen—were in California, leaving of the party seventy-nine, and of this number must be added the Indians, Luis and Salvador, making eighty-one in the mountain camps. Of this number, forty-five were saved, including two of the nursing infants, and thirty-six perished. Only five of the fifteen women died, and four of the five died for those dependent on them. Tamsen Donner gave up her life that she might comfort her husband's last hours. Mrs. Jacob Donner remained and died with her little children. Both women were able to travel. Mrs. Graves sent her husband and eldest daughter, a grown woman, with the forlorn hope; she sent the next three children with the first relief party, and waited, with the four little ones remaining for the second relief. Her life was sacrificed for these children, three of whom were saved. Mrs. Murphy's life was given for the children—her little Simon and her grandchildren, Naomi and Catherine Pike, and George Foster. The third relief found her unable to walk. Mrs. Eddy died before the coming of the first relief.

The altitude of the Great Basin averages about forty two or forty-three hundred feet. From Truckee meadows, an altitude of forty-five hundred feet, the trail enters the sierra and following up the cañon of the Truckee river reaches Prosser creek, thirty miles above, at an elevation of fifty-six hundred feet. Thence to Donner lake, seven miles, elevation six thousand feet. From the camp on Donner creek to the head of the lake is four miles. A mile from the upper end of the lake the trail comes to the foot of precipitous cliffs and the greatest difficulty of the ascent. It is a mile and a half to the summit of the pass and the rise is twelve hundred feet. Crossing the summit, altitude seven thousand two hundred feet, Summit valley is reached in a mile and a half, altitude sixty-seven hundred and fifty feet. From Summit valley to Bear valley is about twenty-five miles, elevation forty-five hundred feet; thence to Mule springs (Dutch Flat) fifteen miles, elevation thirty-five hundred feet. Twelve or fifteen miles below this point the forlorn hope emerged from the snow of the sierra.

In June 1847 General Kearny, with whom was William O. Fallon and Edwin Bryant, passed the camps on his way to the Missouri, buried such remains as he could find and burned the cabins. The work of burial was completed by returning Mormons of the battalion in September of the same year.

As this work goes to press the book of Mrs. Houghton is received: Expedition of the Donner Party, by Eliza P. Donner Houghton. Mrs. Houghton states that Oakley and Stone of the third relief did not desert the helpless ones at Starved Camp, but assisted in bringing them out; a statement which is probably correct. Otherwise her story does not conflict with the foregoing in any material detail.


Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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