The Tragic Donner Party
Starving - Stranded - What Would You Have Done?
by lyle e davis
It was 160 years ago, almost to the day, that the final episodes of a tragic and legendary adventure began coming to an end.
At the start of spring in the year 1846 an appealing advertisement appeared in the Springfield, Illinois, Gazette. ''Westward ho,'' it declared. ''Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men of good character who can drive an ox team will be accommodated. Come, boys, you can have as much land as you want without costing you anything.''
The notice was signed G. Donner, George Donner, leader of what was to become the most famous of all the hundreds of wagon trains to start for the far west, the tragic, now nearly mythic Donner Party.
If ever there was a moment when America seemed in the grip of some great, out-of-the-ordinary pull, it was in 1846. The whole mood was for movement, expansion, and the whole direction was westward. It was in 1846 that the Mormons set out on their trek to the Great Salt Lake. It was in 1846 that the Mexican war began and effectively all of Texas, Mexico and California were added to the United States.
The journey began in 1846, three years before the Gold Rush, as part of the large tide of American emigration that was just beginning to settle the Mexican province of Upper California. In July of that year, following the advice of a guide book written by a persuasive promoter named Lansford W. Hastings, the Donner party split off from the main body of emigrants heading for California to take an untried "shortcut" across the barren reaches of the Great Basin which is bordered by the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.
The torturously difficult route was their undoing. Weeks behind schedule and desperately short of food, the Donner party did not reach the mountains of California until late October -- where they were stopped by the first blizzard of what would prove to be the worst winter in the history of the Sierra Nevada.
They were stalled over what is now known as Donner Pass. Demoralized and low on supplies, about two thirds of the emigrants camped at a lake (now called Donner Lake), while the Donner families and a few others camped about six miles (ten kilometers) away, at Alder Creek.
The emigrants slaughtered their remaining oxen, but there was not enough meat to feed so many for long. In mid-December, fifteen of the trapped emigrants, later known as the Forlorn Hope, set out on crudely fashioned snowshoes for Sutter's Fort, about 100 miles away, to seek help. This group consisted of 10 men and five women. When one man gave out and had to be left behind, the others continued, but soon became lost and ran out of food. Caught without shelter in a raging blizzard, four of the party died. The survivors resorted to cannibalism, then continued on their journey; three more died and were also cannibalized. Close to death, the seven surviving snowshoers—two men and all five of the women—finally reached safety on the western side of the mountains on January 18, 1847.
The five months the rest of the group spent trapped on the eastern side of the Sierra also culminated in death and cannibalism. Of the 87 men, women and children in the Donner Party, 46 survived: two thirds of the women and children, but only one third of the men.
Californians rallied to save the Donner Party and equipped a total of four rescue parties, or "reliefs." When the First Relief arrived, 14 emigrants had died at the camps and the rest were extremely weak. Most had been surviving on boiled ox hide, but there had been no cannibalism. The First Relief set out with 21 refugees on February 22.
When the Second Relief arrived a week later, they found that some of the 31 emigrants left behind at the camps had begun to eat the dead. The Second Relief took 17 emigrants with them, the Third Relief four. By the time the Fourth Relief had reached the camp, only one man was alive. The last member of the Donner Party arrived at Sutter's Fort on April 29.
James Frazier Reed, his wife Margaret Keyes-Backenstoe-Reed,
he raised three children, and his stepdaughter, Virginia Backenstoe-Reed.
All survived the Donner tragedy.
One is struck by how many women there were in the Donner party and how many of them survived the horrific ordeal they met. Imagine packing up an entire household, saying good-bye to all you've known and setting off essentially to walk to California, a continent away, little knowing what was in store.
From November 20, 1846, to March 1, 1847, Irish immigrant Patrick Breen, a Donner party member, kept a diary of his ordeal in the mountains. Clinging to survival with his wife Margaret and their seven children, Breen described the harsh winter weather, the leather hides they resorted to eating, and the deaths of their traveling companions.
As spring approached, rescuers made their way to the Donner party's mountain encampment. By March, Breen and his family were safely at Sutter's Fort in California. All seven children and both parents had survived. Baby Isabella, who remembered nothing of the ordeal, lived until 1935, the last survivor of the Donner party.
Margaret, Patrick and John Breen
A Long Walk
There is probably no way, unless you get out and walk the trail, to understand what it would mean to walk one mile an hour, about the pace of an average ox, 1,500 miles from the stepping off point into California. As the days went by and the landscape went from being something more or less familiar, more or less like landscape you could see back East and became increasingly harsh and rugged and beautiful in a new and different kind of way. People began to not lose their memories of home, but not be able to remember how long it had been since they'd left, that the experience became for them so all-encompassing that it began to feel like it had been forever since they left home.
They usually started after the rivers had subsided in the spring. Sometime around June, when they got out along the Platte River in Nebraska and the heat increased and the Platte itself seemed to go on forever, people began psychologically to lose track of what day it was. Each day one day would follow so much like the previous day, and that sense of having really embarked on a journey from which there was no going back was always there.. There's almost a dream-like quality of following this ribbon of river west as it gradually sloped up the continent towards the Rocky Mountains and that sense of everything familiar falling away.
The Donner Party traces the emigrants' 2500-mile journey from Springfield, Illinois, to Sutter's Fort in California.
One of the most striking and often noted statistics from the Donner party, which had 87 people in it, was that of the half or so who died, two thirds of the survivors -- rather, two thirds of the people who survived the disaster -- were women. There are many theories that have been put forward as to why that was, ranging from biology-like more subcutaneous fatty tissue so you have more calories on board to burn, to psychological theories that women do not panic as quickly under adversity; and two sort of parallel psychological theories, that men for many reasons, most of them biological and psychological, wish to dig themselves out of any emergency they find themselves in, therefore, burnt more calories by exerting themselves too strenuously in a circumstance they couldn't actually do that much to change.
In the end the most striking reason why women survived in much greater number is likely that single women didn't tend to go across the Oregon/California trail. Almost all the women were in family units in one kind or another. In the Donner party, out of the 87 people in the Donner party -- there were 22 single men who were attached to the party as teamsters, servants, drivers, hired help of one kind or another. Of the 22 single men, many of the men not in families, 19 of them died. So that pretty much accounts in and of itself for that disparate survival statistic between men and women. What it means is that if you didn't have a family to help you, you fell by the wayside.
Diary Entires from
Monday, February 8, 1847
"Mond 8th fine clear morning wind S.W. froze hard last Spitzer died last night about 3 Oclock today we will bury him in the snow Mrs Eddy died on the night of the 7th"
In her 1856 book California In-Doors and Out, Eliza Farnham wrote this account based on her conversations with the Breens: "One day a man came down the snow-steps of Mrs. Breen's cabin, and fell at full length within the doorway. He was quickly raised, and some broth, made of beef and hide, ... put into his lifeless lips. It revived him so he spoke. He was a hired driver. His life was of value to no one. Those who would have divided their morsel with him, were in a land of plenty. She said that when a new call was made upon her slender store, and she thought of her children, she felt she could not withhold what she had. ... The man who had fallen in their door, died with them."
In 1879, Patty Reed wrote a letter to C.F. McGlashan: "Spitzer died ... imploring, Mrs. Breen, to put a little meat in his mouth, so he could just know, it was there, & he could die easy, & in peace. I do not think the meat was given to him, but he gave up the ghost, & was no more."
Wednesday, February 10, 1847
"Wednd. 10th beautiful morning Wind W. froze hard last night, to day thawing in the Sun Milt Elliot died las night at Murphys Shanty about 9 Oclock P.M. Mrs Reid went there this morning to see after his effects, J Denton trying to borrow meat for Graves had none to give they have nothing but hides all are entirely out of meat but a little we have our hides are nearly all eat up but with Gods help spring will smile upon us"
In 1891, Virginia Reed wrote "Across the Plains in the Donner Party" in Century Magazine: "When Milt Elliott died,--our faithful friend, who seemed so like a brother,--my mother and I dragged him up out of the cabin and covered him with snow. Commencing at his feet, I patted the pure white snow down softly until I reached his face. Poor Milt! it was hard to cover that face from sight forever, for with his death our best friend was gone."
Thursday, February 11, 1847
"Thursd 11th fine morning wind W. froze hard last night some clouds lying in the E. looks like thaw John Denton here last night very delicate, John and Mrs Reid went to Graves this morning"
Friday, February 12, 1847
"Frid, 12th A warm thawey morning wind S-E. we hope with the assistance of Almighty God to be able to live to see the bare surface of the earth once more O God of Mercy, grant it if it be thy holy will Amen"
Saturday, February 13, 1847
"Sat. 13th fine morning clouded up yesterday evening snowd a little & Continued cloudy all night, cleared off about daylight wind about S.W Mrs Reid has headacke the rest in health"
Sunday, February 14, 1847
"Sund 14th fine morning but cold before the sun got up, now thawing in the sun wind S-E Ellen Graves here this morning John Denton not well froze hard last night John & Edw.d burried Milt. this morning in the Snow"
Monday, February 15, 1847
"Mond. 15 moring Cloudy, until 9 Oclock then Cleared off Sun shine wind W. Mrs Graves refusd. to give Mrs Reed any hides put Suitors pack hides on her shanty would not let her have them says if I say it will thaw it will not, she is a case"
Tuesday, February 16, 1847
"Tuesd. 16th Commenced. to rain yesterday Evening turned to Snow during the night & continued until after daylight this morning it is now sun shine & light showers of hail at times wind N. W by W. we all very weakly today snow not getting much less in quantity"
Wednesday, February 17, 1847
"Wedd. 17th froze hard last night with heavy clouds running from the N. W. & light showers of hail at times today same kind of Weather wind N. W. very cold & Cloudy no sign of much thaw"
Thursday, February 18, 1847
"Thur.y 18th Froze hard last night today clear & warm in the sun cold in the shanty or in the shade wind S. E all in good health Thanks to Almighty God Amen"
Friday, February 19, 1847
"Frid. 19th froze hard last night 7 men arrived from California yesterday evening with som provisions but left the greatest part on the way to day clear & warm for this region some of the Men are gone to day to Donnos Camp will start back on Monday" [Diary of Patrck Breen.]
There were corresponding diary entries in the two Relief Parties. Here is one from the First Relief Party:
February 19, 1847
"19th at sundown reached the Cabins and found the people in great distress such as I never before witnessed there having been twelve deaths and more expected every hour the sight of us appeared to put life into their emaciated frames" [Diary of the First Relief.]
In 1847, Daniel Rhoads wrote to his father-in-law: "We were seven days going to them. The people were dying every day. They had been living on dead bodies for weeks."
In 1873, Daniel Rhoads dictated an account for Prof. Bancroft: "At sunset on the 16th day we crossed Truckee lake on the ice and came to the spot where we had been told we should find the emigrants. We looked all around but no living thing except ourselves was in sight and we thought that all must have perished. We raised a loud halloo and then we saw a woman emerge from a hole in the snow. As we approached her several others made their appearance in like manner coming out of the snow. They were gaunt with famine and I never can forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice very much agitated & said 'are your men from California or do you come from heaven.' ... We gave them food very sparingly and retired for the night having some one on guard until morning to keep close watch on our provisions to prevent the starving emigrants from eating them which they would have done until they died of repletion."
Riley "Sept" Moutrey gave this statement in the Santa Cruz Sentinel of August 31, 1888: "On the 18th of February we crossed the summit and made down the other side toward Truckee lake.
"About sundown me and Mr. Glover saw the cabins and tents o’ their party. We come nigh on fifty yard to ’em before we saw ’em. Ther camp stood ’bout sixty yards from the east end of the lake that’s now called Donner. The snow was about twelve to fourteen feet deep an’ covered everything. Where the water was ther’ war a broad, clean sheet of snow.
"No one come up to greet us but when we got nearer an’ yelled, they came tumbling out of the cabins.
"They were an awful looking sight--a white and starved looking lot, I can tell you. There were pretty glad to see us. They took on awful, anyhow. Men, wimmen and children crying and prayin’.
"After we was there a bit they told us how the had suffered for months. The food all gone an’ death takin’ ’em on all sides.
"Then they showed us up into their cabins, and we saw the bodies of them who had gone. Most of the flesh was all stripped off an’ eaten. The rest was rotten It was just awful. Ten war already dead and we could see some of ther others was going. They were too weak ter eat, an’ our pervisions bein’ scant, we thought it were best to let ’em go an’ look after th’ stronger ones.
"We had ter guard the pervisions close, or they would have just swooped down and stolen ’em all. We slept there that night and gave out as much food as we could, " [Moutrey has embellished the story, as there are no other accounts of cannibalism at the Lake cabins before the arrival of the First Relief.]
13 year old Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin on May 16, 1847: "we had not ate any thing for 3 days & we had onely a half a hide and we was out on top of the cabin and we seen them a coming O my Dear Cousin you dont now how glad i was, we run and met them one of them we knew we had traveled with them on the road"
In 1891, Virginia Reed wrote in "Across the Plains in the Donner Party" in Century Magazine: "On the evening of February 19th, 1847, they reached our cabins, where all were starving. They shouted to attract attention. Mr. Breen, clambered up the icy steps from our cabin, and soon we heard the blessed words, "Relief, thank God, relief!" There was joy at Donner Lake that night, for we did not know the fate of the Forlorn Hope and we were told that relief parties would come and go until all were across the mountains. But with the joy sorrow was strangely blended. There were tears in other eyes than those of children; strong men sat down and wept. For the dead were lying about on the snow, some were even unburied, since the living had not had strength to bury their dead."
Saturday, February 20, 1847
"Saturd. 20th pleasant weather" [Diary of Patrck Breen.]
From the diary of the First Relief:
"20th My self and two others went to Donnors camp 8 miles and found them in a starving condition the most of the men had died one of them leaving a wife and 8 children, the two familes had but one beef head amongst them, there was two cows buried in the snow but it was doubtful if they would be able to find them we left them telling them that they would soon have assistance if possible on the road back I gave out but struggled on until sundown when I reached the other cabins--" [Diary of the First Relief.]
Sunday, February 21, 1847
"Sund 21st Thawey warm day" [Diary of Patrick Breen.]
Monday, February 22, 1847
"Mond 22nd the Californians started this morning 24 in number some in a very weak state fine morning wind S. W. for the 3 last days Mrs Key burg started & left Keysburg here unable to go I Burried pikes Child this Moring in the snow it died 2 days ago, Paddy Reid & Thos. Came back Messrs Grover & Mutry"
The Diary of the First Relief:
"22d Left camp with twenty three of the sufferers 2 of the children soon gave out and two of our men carried them back and left them with Mr. Brin they were children of Mrs. Reed"
Riley "Sept" Moutrey gave this statement in the Santa Cruz Sentinel of August 31, 1888: "We took twenty-one of ’em; mostly wimmen and children. The strong ones we chose, as we couldn’t get the weak ones across. They were bound to die, so we left ’em. It was pitiful to hear ’em cryin’ for us, but we had to go. It was sure death to stay there."
Tuesday, February 23, 1847
"Tuesd. 23 froze hard last night today fine & thawey has the appearance of Spring all but the deep Snow wind S. S. E. shot Towser today & dressed his flesh Mrs Graves Come here this morning, to borrow meat dog or ox they think I have meat to spare but I know to the Contrary they have plenty hides I live principally on the same"
The First Relief Party continued over the mountains:
"23 Got to the first cash and found half of the contents taken by the Bear being on short allowance death stared us in the face. I made an equal divide and charged them to be careful--" [This first cache was located at the Pass]
Thursday, February 25, 1847
"Thursd. 25th froze hard last night fine & sun shiney to day wind W. Mrs Murphy says the wolves are about to dig up the dead bodies at her shanty, the nights are too cold to watch them, we hear them howling"
The Diary of the First Relief:
"25th This day a child died and was buried in the snow travelled 5 miles and there met with some provisions half of a cash small allowance--" [The child was 3 year old Ada Keseburg. Five miles would have brought the Party to present Cisco Butte.]
In 1873, Daniel Rhoads of the First Relief wrote an account for H.H. Bancroft: "John Rhoads carried a child in his arms which died the second night."
William Graves wrote in his 1877 article "Crossing the Plains in '46": "The second day, Mrs. Keisburg offered twenty-five dollars and a gold watch to anyone who would carry her child through; but it died that night and was buried the next morning in the snow."
Friday, February 26, 1847
"Frid 26th froze hard last night to day clear & warm Wind S:E. blowing briskly Marthas jaw swelled with the tooth ache; hungry times in camp, plenty hides but the folks will not eat them we eat them with a tolerable good appetite, Thanks be to Almighty God, Amen Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would Commence on Milt. & eat him, I dont that she has done so yet, it is distressing The Donnos told the California folks that they Commence to eat the dead people 4 days agoe, if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know the spot or near it I suppose They have done so ere this time"
The Diary of the First Relief:
"26--at noon had a small divide of shoe strings roasted and eat them and then proceeded about half a mile when we met two of our men with provisions we struck fire and feasted on our dry beef when we travelled about one mile farther and camped--" [The Party probably camped near present Crystal Lake.]
Sunday, February 28, 1847
"Sund. 28th froze hard. last night to day fair & sun shiney wind S. E. 1 Solitary Indian passed by yesterday come from the lake had aheavy pack on his back gave me 5 or 6 roots resembling Onions in shape taste some like a sweet potatoe, all full of little tough fibres"
In her 1856 book California, In-Doors and Out, Eliza Farnham wrote that Mr. Breen says: "About this time an incident occurred which greatly surprised us all. One evening, as I was gazing around, I saw an Indian coming from the mountains. He came to the house and said something which we could not understand. He had a small pack on his back, consisting of a fur blanket, and about two dozen of what is called California soaproot, which, by some means, could be made good to eat. He appeard very friendly, gave us two or three of the roots, and went on his way. When he was going I could never imagine. He walked upon snow-shoes, the strings of which were made of bark. He went east; and as the snow was very deep for many miles on all sides, I do not know how he passed the nights."
The First Relief was at Bear Valley:
"28th remained in camp but after all our precaution three of the party eat to excess and had to be left in the care of an attendant--"
In 1873, Daniel Rhoads of the First Relief wrote an account for H.H. Bancroft: "When we reached the camp where we had left our mules we remained until the next day During the night, the food in Camp not being guarded sufficiently, the eldest boy of the Donner family managed to eat so much dried meat that he died the next day" [The boy was 12 year old William Hook, Elizabeth Donner's son from a previous marriage.]
In 1877, William Graves wrote in his article "Crossing the Plains in '46": "On the fifth day, about ten o'clock, I and some of the stronger, reached camp where the provisions were; but the weaker ones did not get in till night. Wm. Donner ate so much he died the next day about 10 o'clock."
In 1896 William Murphy gave a lecture at Truckee, as reported in the Marysville Appeal: "at Bear Valley, my sister who was with me, cut my shoes off my feet, when they swelled so that I could not puth them into men's moccasins; and being unable as I thought, to walk I was left there, until the party [William Hook] died, when the nurse left with him determined to go, as provisions had failed, and we were in need of relief. So I took the biscuits and jerked beef out of the pocket of the corpse, which furnished us food on our journey of two days. I found I could walk when then was no place to stay and as I followed the snow I could get along, though I was barefooted when I came to camp, and my blood marked my trail. I was eleven and a few days old."
The Diary of the Second Relief:
"28 Sund left Camp about 12 o'clock at night and was Compl to Camp about 2 o'cl, the Snow Still being soft. left again a bout 4 all hands and made this day 14 miles in camp early Snow soft, Snow her 30 feet 3 of my men Cady, Clark & Stone kept on during the night which they intended but halted to within 2 miles of the Cabins and remained without fire during the night on acct of 10 Indians which they saw the boys not having arms and supposed they had taken the cabins and destroyed the people in the morning they started and arrived all alive in the houses give provisions to Keesberger, Brinn, Graves and two then left for Donners a distance of ten miles which they made by the middle of the day I came up with the Main body of my party Informed the people that all who ware able Should have to Start day after tomorrow made soup the infirm washed and clothed afresh Mrs Eddy & Fosters with Keesbergs people Mr Stone to cook and watch the eating of Mrs Murphy Keesberge & 3 children" [Reed's reference to "Mrs Eddy & Fosters" is a reference to their surviving children, James Eddy, 3, and George Foster, 4. Mrs. Foster had left with the Snowshoe Party, and Mrs. Eddy had died at the cabin on February 7. Reed's use of the term "the eating of Mrs Murphy..." is unfortuntate, in that he means the feeding of the people in the cabin, and is not referring to cannibalism.]
James Reed sent sent notes of his travels to J.H. Merryman, who published them as "Narrative of Suffering Of a Company of Emigrants" in the December 9, 1847 Illinois Journal: "they saw the top of a cabin just peering above the silvery surface of the snow. As they approached it, Mr. Reed beheld his youngest daughter, sitting upon the corner of the roof, her feet resting upon the snow. Nothing could exceed the joy of each, and Mr. Reed was in raptures, when on going into the cabin he found his son alive. The family at this cabin still had a little provisions left from the supplies furnished by Mr. Glover. His party immediately commenced distributing their provisions among the sufferers, all of whom they found in the most deplorable condition. Among the cabins lay the fleshless bones and half eaten bodies of the victims of famine."
Georgia and Eliza Donner with Mary Brunner in about 1850