History and Horror of the Donner Party
On February 19, 1847, a sturdy band of rescuers made their way through the treacherous, snow-filled passes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California to reach a stranded group of travelers at Truckee Lake. When the men reached the encampment with packs filled with food, a woman staggered out from one of the cabins and cried, “"Are you from California or Heaven?"
The rescuers found themselves in a snow-covered hell. The two camps they discovered were in a hideous state. At least sixteen of the pioneers had died, with others soon to follow them in death. Many of those still living were on the verge of insanity. With no food left at their disposal, they had begun eating the dead. After resorting to cannibalism, some of them lost their minds.
The legendary horror of what happened in those mountains still lives on today. The mere mention of the words “Donner Party” still conjures up a scene of nightmarish horror, even to those with little or no interest in the history of the west. But there is much more to the story than just the eating of human flesh – it is a tale of bravery, heroism, desperation and a lesson learned that nature can be a cruel and merciless creature.
The golden age of westward immigration began in the 1840s. After the opening of the Oregon Territory in 1846, settlers began to look to the West as a place of new hope and bright futures. One such man was George Donner, a well-to-do farmer from Riverton, Illinois. Donner was no ordinary emigrant, hoping for free land and open range in the West. He had been married three times, sired 13 children, and now, at the age of 62, was headed for California on one last great adventure. Donner traveled with his third wife, Tamsen, his five youngest children and three wagons. He also brought 12 yoke of oxen, five saddle horses, numerous milk and beef cattle, several hired hands, a dog and $10,000 in bank notes that had been sewn into a quilt. His older brother, Jacob, aged 65, had a similarly affluent train. The Donner brothers shared leadership in the expedition with James Reed, a Riverton neighbor who farmed and was known as a furniture maker. Reed, age 46, traveled with his wife, mother-in-law and four children. He also believed in traveling first class. He had stocked two support wagons with an assortment of fine foods and liquors. His main wagon was equipped with built-in beds and a stove. The Reeds, Donners and a number of other Illinois residents left Springfield, Illinois, by wagon train on April 14, 1846.
James Reed and his wife, Margaret
The expedition was a disaster from the beginning. The Donners and Reeds made every mistake that travelers could make. Not only did they overload their wagons but they left Springfield too late in the season. On the date that they departed, their schedule should have had them heading out from western Missouri. Then, at Fort Bridger in Wyoming, they decided to take an untested route to California.
The party made this decision based on a guidebook that had been published the year before by Lansford Hastings, a zealot for California settlement. He hoped to overthrow California's weak Mexican government by bringing in enough American settlers to start a revolution that would end with himself as president of the new independent republic. His guidebook, written to boost emigration, was the first step in that plan but the Donners and Reeds were completely unaware of this.
The shortcut that Hastings recommended directed parties to leave the main Oregon Trail at Fort Bridger, well before the usual turn to California at Fort Hall. It went directly west across the Wasatch Mountains, down into the Salt Lake Valley and across the Great Basin to join the standard California Trail along the Humboldt River, thus saving a distance of nearly 400 miles. Unbelievably, Hastings had never taken his own shortcut before publishing the book. He had gone west on the Oregon Trail in 1842. He never doubted his judgment, though, and tried the route backwards in 1846, carrying his gear and provisions on pack mules. He had no trouble and arrived at Fort Bridger a few weeks before the Donners. After arriving, he stayed a short time and persuaded a company of 200 emigrants and 66 wagons, guided by an old Indian fighter named Captain George Harlan, to follow him back to California. He was sure that wagons traveling westward would have no more trouble on the route than his mules had experienced coming east.
Cutting across the Wasatch Mountains, Hastings led the emigrants through the narrow gorge of the Weber River, a passage so close and treacherous that the wagons had to be pushed and dragged along the riverbed. The men in the party moved boulders and hacked away brush, and when the riverbed became too narrow they were forced to hoist the wagons onto the bluffs using block and tackle. On the average, the luckless wagon train moved at a rate of a mile or less each day.
As the wagon train managed to get beyond the mountains and into the Great Basin, travel became even rougher. The wagons traveled for two days in the desert without a sign of any water or grass. Many of the oxen simply fell down and refused to get up. Others ran about crazed with thirst and then died. A number of the wagons were abandoned but they finally made it across the trackless wastes to the Humboldt River. Unfortunately, it took them three weeks longer than the emigrants who had taken the usual route by way of Fort Hall. Rallying what resources they had, the group continued on across another dry stretch to the foot of the Sierra Nevada, hauled the wagons up and down sheer cliffs and arrived in California's Sacramento Valley as the first snow was starting to fall. Miraculously, only one pioneer died in the bungled effort.
The Donners would not be so fortunate.
When they arrived at Fort Bridger and heard that Hastings himself had started down his shortcut with another wagon train, they saw no reason not to follow. By now, a large number of other pioneers had joined their expedition and on July 31, 1846, they set out with a contingent of 74 men, women and children and 20 overloaded wagons.
The party followed the wagon tracks of the earlier company into the Wasatch, where they were joined by 13 other pioneers and three wagons, bringing the total number of the party to 87. Almost immediately, though, the expedition got into trouble. They lost four days trying to get through the Weber River gorge, which had been so bothersome for the Harlan party. The Donners decided that it was impassable and turned back to try and find an alternate path over the mountains. It took them 28 days to reach the Great Salt Lake -- a distance of only about 50 miles -- but they relentlessly pushed on.
The desert exacted a terrible toll on the Donner party. It took them six days to travel across this wasteland, during which time 100 oxen died and many of the emigrants, including James Reed, were forced to abandon their wagons and supplies. Legend has it that George Donner buried his money somewhere in the desert with plans to return for it, but never did. It is said to still be out there somewhere, long forgotten. By the time the group reached the Humboldt River on September 30, the Harlan party was more than 300 miles ahead of them.
Time was now running out for the expedition. Short of food, growing desperate and near the limits of their endurance, the emigrants added to their problems with constant fighting and bickering. On October 5, near the end of a hot day along the Humboldt River, aggravations boiled over. The wagons were stretched out in two columns and in the rear unit was John Snyder, a young, well-liked teamster. As he pushed the wagons along, he lashed furiously at some tangled oxen. James Reed, also in the rear, ordered him to stop. Snyder's anger at the oxen shifted to Reed, and he threatened the older man with his whip. Reed drew his hunting knife, a move that prompted Snyder to reverse his whip and begin flailing at Reed with the heavy handle. As the two men grappled, Reed plunged his knife into Snyder's chest. The teamster sank to the ground and bled to death.
Those who witnessed the incident were stunned. Snyder had been popular and Reed, although acknowledged as one of the leaders of the expedition, was arrogant and aloof. Many of the party members wanted to hang him on the spot. After further deliberation, though, the company decided to expel Reed from the wagon train, forcing him to leave his wife and four children with the expedition. Reed rode ahead to the lead unit, picked up a friend and struck out for California. After enduring days of hunger, the two men eventually caught up to the earlier party led by Hastings. They soon reached Sutter's Fort and began organizing an expedition to fetch Reed's family and to bring food and supplies back to the Donners. Reed was surprisingly forgiving about his ouster from the party and was more concerned with helping his friends than with his own injured feelings.
Far back on the trail, the emigrants were suffering and near starvation. Two days after Reed had been expelled, an elderly man named Hardkoop had fallen far behind. By then, many of the wagons had been abandoned and Hardkoop, along with many other men, had been forced to walk across the desert. Too weak to keep up and unable to find anyone who would let him ride in a wagon, he had simply given up. No one had the strength to go back and look for him and after some discussion, the emigrants decided that he was expendable and left him to die. A few days later, Patrick Breen, the father of seven children, refused a cup of water to William Eddy, who wanted it for his three year-old son and infant daughter. Threatening to kill Breen, Eddy took the water by force. Two days later, Eddy came to Mrs. Breen and a Mrs. Graves for food for his famished children, and they turned him down. It had become a case of survival of the fittest and everyone was looking out for themselves with little disregard for anyone outside of their own families.
Eleven weeks after leaving Fort Bridger on the Hastings shortcut, the battered remnants of the Donner party reached the meadows along the upper Truckee River, in the eastern shadows of the Sierra Nevada. It was now October 20 and far too late to attempt to cross the mountains. Early winter snows could be seen on the ridges ahead and a cold bite could be felt in the night air. For whatever reason, the expedition felt that they had no choice but to continue on. The emigrants voted and decided to push on. After grazing their emaciated cattle on the lush meadows for five days, they prepared for the final journey across the mountain range.
The trail led about 50 miles into the hills, just beyond Truckee Lake, and then climbed to its highest and most difficult point at Truckee Pass, the last major barrier between the emigrants and the Sacramento Valley. It was vital for the party to cross this pass before more snow made travel impossible.
The Donner Party reached Truckee Pass, the last major barrier before the Sacramento Valley, but could make it no further.
The first three families to arrive at Truckee Lake were the Patrick Breens, the William Eddys and the Lewis Keseburgs. On October 31, they camped near the lake and in an inch of snow, made the first attempt to cross the pass. By afternoon, they were floundering in five-foot snowdrifts and could make it no farther. The three families turned back to the lake and set up camp as a cold rain began to fall. The Breens moved into an abandoned cabin that had been left by earlier pioneers and waited for the other groups to arrive.
On the second day, during a pounding rain, a second group of wagons arrived at the lake. With this party came Charles T. Stanton, a diminutive bachelor who, weeks earlier, had ridden ahead to Sutter's Fort and returned with food, mules and two Indians to serve as guides. On the morning of November 3, Stanton led another assault on the pass. The storm that had drenched the lake had brought even more snow to the higher elevations and the wagons quickly bogged down. The party struggled to continue on foot, with adults carrying the children, but only Stanton and one of the Indians reached the summit of the pass. They returned when they saw that the others could not make it. That evening, another storm came up, and pelted with sleet and snow, the small party spent the night around a tree that they had cut down and set on fire. When morning came, they retrieved their wagons and descended to Truckee Lake.
By this time, it was plain that they were going to have to settle in at the lake and so shelters began to be constructed. A large lean-to was erected against the old cabin, which the Breens continued to claim it as their own and would allow no one to share. Two double cabins were built nearby.
Meanwhile, the far end of the wagon train had troubles of its own. They were stuck in a crude camp about five miles from the lake at Alder Creek. In this group were George Donner, his brother Jacob, their families and hired help and a widow, Mrs. Wolfinger -- 21 people in all. George Donner's wagon had broken an axle and they had fallen behind trying to fix it. Even more unluckily, Donner had gashed his hand while trying to carve a new axle, and while a small injury, it refused to heal. The storm that had swamped the other members of the expedition at the lake had also hit the Donner party at Alder Creek. For shelter, they had erected tents and a lean-to covered with brush, blankets and clothing. Huddled in these fragile shelters, they decided to stay put.
The snow continued to fall, on and off, for the next two weeks. When it ended, the emigrants at Truckee Lake made several more attempts to get through the pass but to no avail. It had become painfully obvious to everyone that they were imprisoned on the backside of the California mountains and would have to remain there all winter. There were 81 people desperately trapped in the two camps and 41 of them were children.
On the western side of the mountains, James Reed and his rescue party fared no better. They were trying to make their way eastward with food and supplies from Sutter's Fort but were also being bogged down by the snow. The Indian guides had deserted with three of the pack horses and soon the remaining animals dropped from exhaustion and died in the snow. The saddle horses also gave out and for a short time, the men pushed ahead on foot, with a single mule carrying the supplies. Within a day, they knew that it was useless to go on and they returned to the fort. Captain John Sutter, who had no other men to send, consoled them with the assurance that the Donner party could survive the winter on ox flesh and beef.
By December, though, the conditions in both camps were grim. Ignorance and carelessness had doomed the food supply when the oxen and cattle left to range on their own had wandered off and vanished in the deep snow. Their carcasses could not be found and it was realized that the remaining meat would not last until Christmas. A few cups of flour were hoarded to make a thin gruel for the infants and a little sugar, tea and coffee remained, but no salt. The trout in the lake had burrowed in for the winter and refused to bite. The deer had disappeared for the lower elevations but William Eddy shot a coyote one day and an owl the next. He wounded a bear on another day and when it fought him, he valiantly clubbed it to death. The small amount of meat did not last long among all of the settlers and the emigrants took to boiling hides and eating the glue that resulted. In one cabin, children cut up a fur rug, toasted it and ate it. At the camp on Alder Creek, water dripped continuously into the shelters and put out the fires that were supposed to keep the occupants warm.
The deepening winter brought more storms, less to eat -- and death. The first to die was Baylis Williams, a hired hand of the Reeds, on December 15. The shock of the young man's death sent a wave of panic through the stranded travelers at Truckee Lake. The following day, a small contingent of the strongest emigrants made another frantic effort to conquer the pass.
Ten men, five young women and two boys -- an escape party that called itself "the Forlorn Hope" -- set out on snowshoes fashioned from rawhide and hickory oxbows from the wagons. They each carried a blanket and had among them one rifle, a couple of pistols, a hatchet and finger-sized strips of meat that were meant to last for six days if each person only ate two strips three times a day. Stanton and the two Indians led the way, accompanied by William Eddy, "Uncle Billy" Graves, Sarah and Jay Fosdick, Uncle Billy's daughter, Mary, William and Sarah Foster, Lemuel and Billy Murphy, ages 12 and 11, and the recently widowed Harriet Pike. Amanda McCutchen joined them, as she was anxious to see her husband in California. She left her baby behind, likely in the care of Aunt Betsy Graves. Sarah Foster had left her own child and Harriet Pike had left two. It was a heartbreaking decision to have to abandon them, but it would have been impossible to carry young children through the snow. They were, of course, assured that the children would be safe. The remainder of the party included “Dutch Charley” Burger, Antoine the herder, and Patrick Dolan.
The Forlorn Hope started off in single file, the leaders breaking a trail for the others. Even with the snowshoes, they sank halfway to their knees with each step. There were not even enough snowshoes to go around, so Burger and the two Murphy boys brought up the rear, carefully stepping in the tracks left by the others. The snow rarely held them up and they found themselves stumbling and floundering in the drifts. They only made it four miles on the first day and young Billy Murphy gave up and decided to head back. Dutch Charley gave up, too, but no one noticed his absence for some time. They assumed that he had headed back with Billy but he actually got lost. He did make it back to the lake a day after the boy did.
The party valiantly made it to the top of the pass and after traveling six miles, was too exhausted to go any further. The snow at their campsite was 12 feet deep but the Forlorn Hope knew how to make a fire in such conditions. The trick was to cut down two green saplings and lay them parallel on the snow a few feet apart. More green wood was placed across them to make a platform and then the fire was built on top of this. As long as someone kept the fire going all night, the travelers could stay warm in their tents, even with only one paltry blanket each.
William Eddy, who became the leader of the “Forlorn Hope” rescue party
As they climbed over the pass on December 18, they reached the open, downward slope. They traveled only short distances at a time, blinded by the glare of the sun on the snow. Stanton, the worst affected by the glare, began to fall behind. He would often wander into the camp each night after sunset. Since he was the only one among them who actually knew the trail, his misfortune affected all of them.
By now, the travelers were not only starving but close to mental unbalance as well. They began to hallucinate as they dragged themselves through the snow, hearing strange sounds, eerie cries in the woods and seeing drifting shapes that appeared and then disappeared before their eyes. They began to believe that the ghosts of those who had died on the expedition were calling to them.
On the morning of the sixth day, the last for which the party had food, Stanton sat by the campfire as the group prepared to move on. He was asked if he was coming and he answered that he was coming soon and would catch up later. The Forlorn Hope started off, guided rather uncertainly by the Indians, who had only been on the trail once and then there was no snow on the ground. As it turned out, the Indians took them in the wrong direction, which would cost them many painful days and miles. They didn’t realize just how lost they were for more than a week. That night, they used up the last of the beef strips and waited for Stanton to come in to the warmth of the campfire -- but he never arrived.
The next day, they had traveled only about a mile before a heavy snow began to fall. They stopped and made camp and spent the day with no food, again waiting for Stanton. They watched for him but the little man still did not come staggering in through the snow. By nightfall, they gave him up for dead. A gentleman and a hero to the very end, Stanton had sacrificed his own life rather than endanger the lives of his friends by holding them back.
The following day, December 23, they climbed the barren, rocky surface of Cisco Butte, the highest point in the area, and tried to get their bearings. Without Stanton to guide them, they had to plot their own route. The easiest way appeared to be toward the south, where the mountains looked less fierce than in other directions. Unfortunately, this led them badly off the trail, but they had no way of knowing this at the time. The party continued on and survived by subsisting on a half-pound of bear meat that Eddy's wife had secretly placed in his pack. She had deprived herself and her children to provide extra food for the expedition.
Back at the lake, where the last of the livestock had been slaughtered and eaten, the miserable families gnawed on boiled hides and bones seasoned with pepper. Margaret Reed, accustomed to the comforts of her family wealth, killed the family dog, Cash, to feed her four children. They ate everything they could from his carcass and lived on the animal for an entire week.
Meanwhile, the Forlorn Hope struggled down the west face of the mountain through a series of horrific snowstorms. For several days, they were totally without food and shortly after, a series of gruesome events began -- events that would earn the Donner party a unique place in the annals of the West.
The painful journey continued on Christmas Eve, when another foot of snow fell. They limped along for two or three miles before finally sitting down to hold a meeting. All of the men except for Eddy wanted to give up and return to the camp at Truckee Lake but he argued that this was a foolish and suicidal plan. They had not eaten for two days and in their weakened state, they would die before they made it back. Eddy, along with the women, stood firm on this point and vowed to go through with the mission or die.
Finally, Patrick Dolan, a formerly carefree bachelor, voiced a thought that had crossed all of their minds -- that one of them might die to save the rest. Dolan proposed that they draw lots to determine who might be killed so that the others could eat but William Foster opposed this plan, not wanting to take the risk that he might draw the bad lot. Eddy offered a compromise, suggesting that two of the men take revolvers and shoot it out until one of them died. This sporting proposition was also voted down. Eddy then spoke up again and suggested that perhaps they should let nature take its course and continue on until someone died. After some argument, the others agreed and they staggered on into the storm for another few miles.
The night that followed this miserable day was one of disaster. First, the snow and wind made it almost impossible to get a fire started. When the flame at last caught, the travelers piled on enough wood to make a blazing bonfire. Even though they had nothing to cook at least they could be warm. But one of them did not enjoy the fire for long. Antoine, the cattle herder, lay in an exhausted slumber near the fire and in his sleep, he flung out an arm and his hand landed in the hot coals. Eddy saw it happen but was too tired to move and help the sleeping man. He thought sure that the heat from the burns would wake Antoine but they did not. Antoine was so bone-weary that he continued to sleep and his hand doubled up and began to roast. This was more than Eddy could bear, and he dragged himself forward to pull the unconscious herder from danger. Antoine soon flung out his arm again and Eddy realized that it was no use to try and help him, Antoine died without ever awakening from what, under normal circumstances, would have been excruciating pain.
Shortly after this, a terrible storm of wind, snow and hail swept down upon the camp. At the same time, the fire began to eat its way down into the snow, devouring the blazing logs, platform and all. When the supply of firewood ran out, one of the men took the party's lone hatchet and went to cut more wood. But as he chopped at a log, the head of the hatchet flew off and was lost to the depths of the snow. It was impossible to find in the darkness of the storm, even if he had managed to summon the strength to dig for it.
One small piece of luck occurred, however, when the fire managed to keep burning. It was shielded from the snow by the shelter that it had melted itself into, about eight feet below the surface of the snow. The emigrants were forced to crouch around it with their feet in ice-cold melted snow. They knew that the fire would soon sputter out in the water so a few of them stood the half-burned foundation logs on end and rebuilt the fire on top of it. At this point, one of the Indians stood up to get closer to the warmth, and clumsy with cold and weariness, lurched against the new platform. The rickety structure fell over and the fire hissed out in the icy pool of water in which the party was standing. It looked as though they were finally doomed to perish in the cold. Despair set in and everyone began to pray to God for a merciful death -- except for Eddy and one or two of the women.
Eddy, always resourceful, finally persuaded his companions to try a trick that he had heard about from someone on the trail. He prodded them all out of the pit made by the fire and made them spread their blankets on the surface of the snow. They then sat on their blankets in a tight circle with their feet in the center while Eddy dragged himself across the circle and spread other blankets over them. He then slipped into the circle himself, and the blankets, with the snow that fell on top of them, formed a snug, insulating tent that held in their body heat and kept them warm. It was simple enough to do but some of the emigrants were so apathetic that it took Eddy nearly an hour to bully them into position. Uncle Billy Graves had been growing weaker throughout the evening and he now told Eddy that he was dying. With his last words, he urged his daughters to eat his body when he was gone. He knew that it was the only way that they could survive.
The next day, on Christmas, Patrick Dolan also died. As a storm raged outside their tent of blankets, Dolan became delirious and began to babble incoherently. He then pulled off his boots and most of his clothing and shouted to Eddy to follow him down to the settlements --- they would be there in just a few hours, he promised. With great difficulty, the others managed to overpower him and subdue him under the blankets. He thrashed about as they held him down until eventually, his energy exhausted, he became quiet. He drifted into death, his companions later said, looking as he was enjoying a calm and pleasant sleep.
On December 26, Eddy tried to start a fire under the blanket tent with gunpowder but his cold hands were clumsy and a spark caused his powder horn to explode, burning his face and hands. Amanda McCutchen and Sarah Foster were also burned, but not seriously. The burns did not stop Eddy from creeping out from under the tent later that afternoon. The storm had passed by now and as he looked around, he discovered a huge, dead pine tree standing nearby. Using some scraps from the cotton lining of Harriet Pike's coat as tinder, he started a small fire with sparks from flint and steel and soon was able to set fire to the pine tree. The emigrants lay down around the burning tree to enjoy the warmth and were too weak and uncaring to dodge the big, burning limbs that began falling in their midst. Luckily, no one was injured.
As the day wore on, the survivors huddled under their blankets close to the fire, half-crazed with hunger but unable to take that final step toward cannibalism. Finally, late that afternoon, they gave in. Unable to look one another in the eye, they began to roast and eat strips of flesh from Dolan's body. Only Eddy and the two Indians, overcome by guilt and grief, refused to take part in the feast. The others dried what they did not eat and saved it for later. Within days, Eddy and the Indians, now almost mad from a lack of food, surrendered and ate some of the meat.
The depleted survivors stayed at this site for the next four days and more death followed. Sarah Murphy Foster and Harriet Murphy Pike tried to feed a little of Dolan's flesh to their little brother, Lemuel, but he was beyond hope by this time. He grew steadily weaker and then died in the early morning hours with his head in Sarah's lap. The living members of the Forlorn Hope were not far from death themselves and looked like walking skeletons. They had resigned themselves to dying. When Eddy, hiding his own fears, tried to cheer them up, they responded with sighs, tears and moans. But the meal of human flesh, as loathsome as it was, had given them new strength. The women regained a bit of spirit but most of the men continued to sulk.
On December 30, the Forlorn Hope left the “Camp of Death,” as they called the spot, and moved on. They carried with them the dried pieces of meat that had been carved from their dead friends and relatives. Although the first taboo against eating human flesh had been broken, no one touched the meat that had been carved from his or her own kin. The group struggled down the trail, barely able to walk. Their feet had become so swollen that the skin had burst. They wrapped their feet in rags to try and cushion them but the pain was so bad that the expedition could only travel short distances at a time.
On December 31, they traveled along a high-crested ridge and somehow, accidentally blundered back onto the trail that Charley Stanton had started them on. The Indians had confessed to Eddy a few days earlier that they were lost but he chose not to tell the others, believing they had no choice but to continue. But while the party was back on the right track, it was the most terrifying portion of the journey so far. They walked along the edges of icy, rock-strewn cliffs and crossed ravines on fragile bridges of snow. They teetered precariously on their clumsy snowshoes but their luck held out. After what seemed like an eternity of picking their way along, they reached a high point on the ridge and paused to take in the view. In the distance, to the west, they could see the vast, green plain of the Sacramento Valley. The sight gave them hope but their joy was dampened by the mountains and canyons that still lay in their path. Subdued, but not broken, they continued on.
Late that afternoon, they made it to the end of the ridge. Before them was a slope that plunged 2,000 or more feet to the bottom of a canyon. They could see that the canyon on the left made a bend below them and joined the canyon on their right. Unable to continue on that day, they made camp.
New Year's Day 1847 brought the emigrants no more cheer than Christmas had, save for the fact that there were no storms and no one died. The entire day was spent negotiating the canyon. They worked their way down the slope by squatting on their snowshoes and sliding down to the bottom, usually ending up in a snowdrift. The fierce cold had frozen the water below, the Bear River, and they were able to cross without difficulty. Climbing up the other side of the canyon was a nightmarish task. For the first 50 feet or so, the hunger-weakened men and women had to cling to cracks in the rock to keep from tumbling back down the steep slope. As it became less vertical, they dug their snowshoes into the snow and stair-stepped upwards, moving slowly and leaving blood from their damaged feet behind them on the trail. That night, after making camp, they ate the last of the human flesh they had brought with them.
They spent the next two days crossing a broad plateau over mostly level ground. The snow was firm enough that they could walk on it without their snowshoes but their feet could not heal while walking in the snow. To make matters worse, Jay Fosdick had become sick and his weakness forced the whole group to move slowly. One of the Indians was in even worse condition and the ends of his frostbitten toes began to drop off.
Things began to look more encouraging on January 3. The snow remained firm and it looked like they were coming down from the upper elevations as oaks could now be seen among the conifer trees. When they camped that night, the snow was only three feet deep, which was a cause for celebration. Believing that they would no longer need their snowshoes, they toasted the rawhide strings that held them together and ate them for dinner. Eddy also cooked a pair of worn-out moccasins and shared them with the group.
They set out again the next day with no food. Fosdick was now so weak that they were only able to travel about two miles. The only good news was that they camped that night for the first time on bare ground and in a grove of oak trees. After several days without food, William Foster proposed killing the two Indians so that the rest of the party could eat. To most white Westerners, an Indian was not quite human and so no one was shocked by the suggestion except for William Eddy, who was adamantly against it. To him, the two young men were not only fellow human beings, but faithful companions. To kill them would be an unjust reward for them having brought food over the Sierra Nevada with Charley Stanton a short time before. He argued with the others and finally realizing that he could not change their minds, he secretly warned the two young men. Horrified, they vanished into the forest.
The Forlorn Hope still had its lone rifle and a meager supply of ammunition, so Eddy became determined to take the gun and go hunting. If he had some luck, he knew he could save the lives of his remaining companions but if not, they would be no worse off. When he mentioned his plan to the women, they wept and begged him to stay with them, realizing that without him they would be lost. But Eddy's mind was made up and he started off the next morning. Harriet Pike threw her arms around his neck and implored him not to go. The others joined in, convinced that he was abandoning them and not coming back. The once-beautiful and now-emaciated Mary Graves decided to accompany Eddy; she was the only one left who was strong enough to keep up with him.
They trudged through the forest for more than two miles, keeping an eye out for signs of deer. Eddy was an experienced hunter and when he eventually found a place where an animal had laid for the night, he burst into tears. When he explained what he had found to Mary, she also began to weep. They continued on and, not much farther into the woods, they saw a large buck. Eddy raised the gun but found to his dismay that he was too weak to aim it. As much as he tried to hold it still, the gun wavered back and forth and dipped too low to fire. He changed his grip and tried again but failed once more. He heard Mary sobbing behind him. Eddy whispered for her to be quiet and she explained, "Oh, I am afraid that you will not kill it." Then, she fell silent.
Once more, Eddy lifted the rifle to his shoulder and raised the muzzle above the deer. As his weak arms started to let it fall, he pulled the trigger with the deer in his sights. The rifle thundered and the deer leaped three feet into the air and stood still. Although Mary feared that he had missed it, Eddy knew that his aim had been true. The deer dropped its tail between its legs, a sign that it was wounded, and began to run. Eddy and Mary limped after it until it crashed to the ground about 200 yards away. The animal was still alive when Eddy reached it and he cut its throat. Mary fell to Eddy's side and the two famished survivors drank as the animal's warm blood gushed out.
They rested a bit and then rolled the carcass to a spot where they could butcher it. They built a fire, and with their faces still covered with blood, ate part of the deer's liver and some of its other organs for supper. They gorged themselves on the heavy meat and that night, for the first time in many days, they enjoyed sleep without dreaming of food. During the night, Eddy fired his gun several times to alert their companions. At the camp, Fosdick heard the first crack and knew what it meant. "Eddy has killed a deer!" he weakly cried. "Now, if only I can get to him, I shall live."
But Fosdick’s hopes were not meant to be. He died during the night and Sarah, his wife for less than a year, wept as she wrapped his body in their one remaining blanket and lay down on the bare ground to die next to her husband. But death did not claim her. She survived the frigid night and in the morning, she felt better. To her horror, though, she saw two of her traveling companions -- likely William and Sarah Foster, although no records ever stated for sure -- approach her campsite to make sure that she and her husband had both died during the night. They planned to help themselves to not only their flesh, but to their jewelry, money and watches too. Embarrassed at finding Sarah still alive, they turned back to their own campsite and there they met Mary and Eddy, who had emerged from the forest with venison for everyone.
As Eddy dried the remaining meat on the fire, Sarah and the two Fosters returned to Jay Fosdick's body. Sarah gave him one last kiss and then, in spite of her entreaties, the Fosters, now numb to the atrocities they were committing, cut out Jay's heart and liver before her eyes and also took his arms and legs, the meatiest parts of the body. The young widow, only 22 years old, made a little bundle of her valuables and returned to the campfire with the two people who had just callously butchered her husband. Uncaring, they skewered Jay's heart on a stick and began to roast it in the fire as Sarah looked on. When she could stand it no more, she fled to Eddy's campsite a short distance away.
Over the next couple of days, the survivors made it to the north branch of the American River and crossed. They had to climb another steep canyon wall on the other side but when they made camp that night, they were cheered by the fact that the weather was good and sat down peacefully to eat the last of the venison. Eddy made a speech mourning their lost companions -- tactfully avoiding any mention of cannibalism.
After supper, William Foster took Eddy aside. From the time of the first hardships experienced by the group, Foster had been strangely unhelpful and weak, unable to make a decision on his own and totally dependent on Eddy. Suddenly seized by initiative, he asked for Eddy's approval to kill Amanda McCutchen. His excuse was that she was a nuisance and could not keep up but in truth, he had acquired a taste for human flesh and deep down, his guilt over it had driven him mad.
Needless to say, Eddy was shocked and revolted. He told Foster that Amanda had a husband and children and besides, she was one of their companions and depended on them for protection. Foster continued to argue until Eddy told him sternly that he was not going to kill her. Foster than turned to the sisters, Sarah Fosdick and Mary Graves. He pointed out that neither of them had children and Sarah no longer had a husband. At that, Eddy walked away in disgust and returned to the fire. He loudly warned Sarah and Mary of Foster's plans for them in front of the entire company.
At that, Foster became angry and said that he did not care what Eddy said for he could do whatever he wanted. Eddy, losing patience, challenged Foster to settle their differences on the spot. He grabbed a large stick, banged it on a log to see that it was solid and then tossed it to Foster, ordering him to defend himself. Sarah Fosdick gave Eddy her late husband's knife and he went for Foster as quickly as his weakened condition would permit. Eddy was ready to kill him when all of the women except for Sarah, two of whom Foster had just proposed to kill and eat, seized Eddy and dragged him to the ground. They took his knife away but luckily, Foster just stood there in a daze.
When Eddy recovered, he warned Foster once more that he would kill him if he ever again showed the slightest inclination to take the life of any member of the expedition. If anyone were to die, it would either be Foster or himself, he said. And they would settle the question in a fight to the death, since Foster had never been willing to draw lots, which Eddy believed was the only fair way of selecting a victim.
On January 8, they left the campsite and continued on. They had walked about two miles before coming on the bloody tracks of the Indian guides who had wisely deserted them some time back. Foster, now obviously deranged, vowed that he would track down the Indians and kill them. Another mile or two farther they found the two men on the trail, near death. Eddy wanted to let them die in peace, for they could not last more than an hour or two, but Foster, now in an almost manic state, refused to wait. He shot the two Indians in the head and then butchered their bodies. Then he cut the flesh from their bones and dried it over the fire.
That night, Eddy ate only dried grass, refusing to eat the flesh of the Indians. And from that night on, only Foster's wife and Harriet Pike camped with Foster. The others kept a safe distance away with one of them remaining on watch at all times, afraid of what their former friend might do next.
As they continued on and passed through the forests, they saw numerous deer but Eddy was so weak that he could no longer aim and the rifle. He was still living on nothing but handfuls of grass, as he refused to touch the meat taken from his Indian companions. They all staggered as they walked and were so weakened and weary that they could only travel for a quarter mile or so before they had to stop and rest. The slightest obstacles would cause them to stumble and fall. A cold rain began to fall on the wretched wraith-like figures and did not stop.
At last, on January 12, they reached an Indian village in the foothills. The occupants burst into tears of pity when they saw the skeletal figures. They hurried to bring the survivors their own staple food of acorn bread but the emigrants’ stomachs were unable to handle it and many of them got sick. Eddy was forced to go back to eating grass. The next day, the village chief sent runners ahead to a nearby encampment and told them to take care of the travelers and to have food ready for them. An escort accompanied them with two Indians walked with each of the party to support them and help them along. In this way, they passed from village to village toward the white settlements.
On January 17, they reached a village and one of the men had collected a large handful of pine nuts. For some reason, after eating them, Eddy felt miraculously restored and with this new energy, he pushed his comrades on. But the others gave out after a mile and collapsed on the ground, ready to die. The Indians were greatly distressed but were unable to get them to continue.
All Eddy could think about was his wife and children starving in the mountains and he resolved to make it through or die trying. One of the local Indians agreed to accompany him to the closest white settlement but after five miles, Eddy's strength gave out. Luckily, another Indian passed by and with the promise of tobacco, agreed to help Eddy continue on. They managed to make it another five miles before Eddy collapsed again, this time for good. His strength had completely failed but the Indians half-carried him along, dragging his bleeding feet on the ground.
At about a half hour before sunset, Eddy, starved beyond the point of recognition, came upon the home of a settler named M.D. Ritchie, who had arrived late in the fall of 1846 and had built a cabin to spend the winter in. Several other emigrants, who planned to claim their own spreads in the spring, lived in other winter quarters nearby. Ritchie's daughter, Harriet, heard a noise outside of the house and went to the door. There, she saw two Indians supporting a hideous-looking bundle between them. The shape lifted its head and, speaking in English, asked her for some bread. Harriet burst into tears and let the Indians bring Eddy into the house. Her family put him to bed, fed him and heard his story. He remained in bed for four days, too beaten to even turn over. He had traveled 18 miles on foot that day and he had been on the trail for 31 days.
Harriet Ritchie ran immediately to the neighbors with the news of starving travelers on the trail behind Eddy. The women collected all of the bread they could spare and added sugar, tea and coffee to go with the beef that had been butchered from California's immense herds. The men rode back and forth between the cabins bearing messages and collecting food. Four men took backpacks loaded with as much food as they could carry and set off on foot, for they did not want to risk their horses by riding at night. They were guided by the Indians and found the remaining members of the Forlorn Hope around midnight. One man stayed up all night cooking for them. Eddy had warned the rescue party not to give them too much to eat but the survivors wept and begged for food so pathetically that they could not deny them. As a result, gorging caused all of them to vomit.
In the morning, more men came with food, this time on horseback. They had no trouble following the trail for the last six miles were marked by Eddy's bloody footprints. The rescuers could not believe that he had covered such a distance, amazed at what had to have been a superhuman effort.
That night, the rest of the party was brought down into the California settlements. Of the 17 people who had left the lake camp a month earlier, only Eddy, Foster and five of the women had come down from the mountains alive.
A massive rescue operation was organized to try and reach the emigrants still on the other side of the mountains at Alder Creek and Truckee Lake. On February 4, the first expedition started out and began a journey into the mountains. Eddy, whose wife and children were still at the lake, started out with the rescuers but his ordeal had left him so weak and emaciated that he was forced to turn back. Two weeks later, on February 19, the relief team reached the encampment with packs filled with food. A woman staggered out from one of the cabins and cried "Are you from California or Heaven?"
The situation at the two camps was hideous. Thirteen people had died, including Eddy's wife and daughter. At the Alder Creek camp, Jake Donner and three of his hired men were dead. George Donner lay dying as the wound on his hand had become infected with gangrene. Many of those still living were on the verge of insanity. Cannibalism had become commonplace in the mountains as well. The emigrants had no other food at their disposal and after some brief objections, began eating the dead. It was almost too much for most of them to bear.
The rescuers headed back to California with 21 people, as many as they could safely take. Tamsen Donner refused to leave her dying husband and Mrs. Reed was forced to leave her son, Tommy, behind, as he was still too weak to travel. Young Patty Reed stayed behind to take care of him. "If I do not see you again, Mother,” she said, "do the best you can."
Halfway down the west side of the Sierra Nevada, the first relief party met a second band of rescuers, this one led by James Reed. After spending only a few minutes with his wife and the two children she had managed to bring with her, he continued on to the east. Reed's party gathered up 17 more survivors from the Alder Creek and lake encampments, most of them children, but almost as soon as they crossed the pass, a storm struck and snowed them in for two days and three nights. The fire they had built sank into the snow and was snuffed out and soon, the food supply was gone. Five-year-old Isaac Donner died during one dark night.
When the storm finally passed, Reed tried to get the party moving again but the Breens and the Graves family refused to go on. He had to leave them behind in a crude, snowy encampment, where they remained for six days until they were found by a third relief party from California. By that time, Elizabeth Graves and her son Franklin were also dead. Parts of their bodies were found boiling in pots when the rescuers arrived and Elizabeth's infant daughter was discovered wailing next to her mother's half-eaten corpse.
In this new rescue party was William Eddy and, surprisingly, William Foster. They had both recovered from their journey and Foster had also recovered from the madness that had gripped him on the trail. He had repaired his friendship with Eddy. Both men had come back because they had left children behind at the lake camp and hoped to save them. Unfortunately, they were too late. When they arrived, they were informed by Lewis Keseberg, a German immigrant and member of the party, that he had eaten Eddy’s and Foster's sons. Grief stricken, the two men collected George Donner's children and quickly departed. Donner, unable to walk, stayed behind to die and Tamsen remained with him. Lavina Murphy, nearly blind, stayed with Keseberg, whose wife had left with the first rescue team.
George Donner died on the night of March 29 and it was said that Tamsen went mad with grief. She ran all of the way from Alder Creek to the lake cabins to see if anyone there was left alive. On the way there, she fell into a stream and her clothing froze. Shivering and weak, she managed to make it to the cabins, where she found Keseberg. When she arrived, she was coughing and sick and burning up with fever. She told Keseberg that she had to see her children in California and she was willing to cross the mountains on foot, at that very moment, if necessary. The German realized how sick she was and put her to bed in the cabin.
When a fourth relief expedition arrived at Truckee Lake in April, the only survivor was the emaciated and spectral Keseberg. He was found lying unconscious next to a large pot that contained the liver and lungs of a young boy. He had been living on nothing but human flesh -- despite the fact that some supplies remained from the earlier rescue parties. There were also the carcasses of cattle that had been lost in the winter storms that were now thawing in the melting snow. Their meat was untouched because, as Keseberg explained to his rescuers, the oxen meat was "too dry eating." The German's mind was obviously completely gone. He was eventually charged with six murders but was reunited with his wife and settled in Sacramento.
The Reeds later settled in the area outside what would become San Francisco. Margaret Reed lived in relative peace and happiness until she died in poor health, several years later.
William Eddy, the hero of the Forlorn Hope, remarried and had children in Petaluma, California.
The Donner children were left as orphans. Some of the younger Donner children were adopted by various families, while the older girls, some as young as 14, married young Californians. The remaining Graves suffered a similar fate as the Donners. The more fortunate were adopted, while some had to survive without any home or family of their own. Sarah Fosdick later remarried, and she and her sister, Mary Graves, tried to support and care for their younger siblings when they could.
The various families of the Donner Party almost never saw each other after they were rescued and it's easy to understand why. They had endured a horrific experience and during the ordeal had engaged in what is still considered as one of the greatest human atrocities -- cannibalism. Some of the survivors lived as unhappy recluses, while some like William and Mary Graves, Virginia Reed, and Eliza Donner published accounts describing their ordeal. Virginia Reed was even featured in an 1891 magazine article.
Eventually, the cabins, shelters and bodies left behind at Alder Creek and Truckee Lake were erased by time. The chilling reminders of the Donner Party encouraged settlers to hurry along the trail for years to come, avoiding untested shortcuts, until the railroads put an end to the Oregon and California Trail. Time -- that great enemy of the Western emigrants -- defeated the physical remnants of the Donner Party's suffering but it could not erase the memories.
Of the 81 travelers who had made camp east of the pass on the night of October 31, only 48 survived. The area around Truckee Lake, later renamed Donner Lake, became known as a shunned and cursed place, and is it any wonder? Who could find a better place for a haunting?
As the years have passed, the legends of the lake state that the restless ghosts of the doomed expedition still wail and cry in fear and starvation here. There have been many tales told of travelers who, not knowing what had occurred in the ruined cabins along the lakeshore, stayed the night before crossing the pass and experienced the phantoms of those who died, or were murdered, years before. These same stories tell of mournful wails and ghostly figures whose confused spirits still roam the area.
Many years after the horrible events, the ruins at the site were turned into a monument of sorts to the tragedy that occurred. The crumbling stone walls of the Murphy cabin were marked with a monument, as were the sites of the Breen and Keseberg shelters. It is near the Keseberg cabin that an inordinate amount of strange activity has been reported over the years. Many believe that it may be the ghost of Tamsen Donner who lingers here, perhaps because of the mystery surrounding her cause of death. According to Lewis Keseberg, she had come to the shelter already sick from a fever, likely caught after falling into the creek and then running through the cold woods at night. Keseberg would later admit to cannibalizing Tamsen but some believe that he may have murdered her, rather than wait for her to die. He was charged with her murder but the case never went to trial. Eliza Donner always believed Keseberg's story that her mother had died from the fever, but the truth will never be known for sure.
These unanswered questions are what allegedly cause Tamsen's spirit to continue to walk. In recent years, there have been reports of an apparition sighted nearby that looks like a woman dressed in white. In addition, ghost researchers have also recorded voices and sounds with recording devices that sound like a woman weeping. Could these sounds be the voice of Tamsen Donner, still crying out from the other side?
Another active site is the former location of the Murphy cabin. The cabin is long gone now but a large stone remains that was used as a fireplace wall. This has long been thought to be the most eerie location in what is now a state park, dedicated to the Donner Party.
A number of years ago, while living in Utah, I took a trip to Donner Lake to see where the ill-fated expedition came to an end. I had been interested in the story of the emigrants lost in the wild for quite some time, and the promise of ghostly activity made the trip all the more inviting. As it turned out, though, my night at the lakeside camp was without incident -- and perhaps that was for the best.
I would be hard-pressed to think of a group of people who more deserved to rest in peace. The horrible days that they endured at the lake, and along the trail to the Sacramento Valley, were terrible enough that they should not be subjected to an endless purgatory here on earth. I would hate to think that the spirits of heroic figures like William Eddy or Charles Stanton are still lost out there, somewhere in the wilderness, forced to repeat their most hellish days over and over again.
Perhaps some ghost stories, and the ghosts who create them, just deserve to fade away.
The story of the Donner Party was excerpted from the book A Pale Horse was Death by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse. The book, along with the earlier title, And Hell Followed With it, both contain scores of stories of American disasters and the hauntings left in their wakes. Autographed copies of the book are available [Click Here for a Copy!] and also as Kindle and Nook editions.