Donner Party: Death of a Wagon Train
Posted on 25th January 2021
In 1845, John Louis O’Sullivan, the editor of the New York Morning Post wrote:
The Manifest Destiny of the United States is to overspread and possess the whole of the continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated government entrusted to us.
No doubt such high-flown ideals appealed to some but for most the journey west and the taming of the wilderness simply offered the opportunity for a new and better life.
The regions to be colonised were Oregon and California neither of which at the time were in the possession of the United States. Most of Oregon was governed by the British owned Hudson Bay Company whilst California remained in the possession of Spain, as such the journey West became known as the Emigrant Trail. Regardless of who owned what the popular belief was that the entire continent belonged to the United States of America, and it was therefore their responsibility to colonise it.
The notion of Manifest Destiny was all well and good and much spoken about but it was personal reasons that drove most who did to embark on the dangerous journey west.
The 1840’s were a time of deep economic recession in the United States and diseases such as typhoid and cholera were rife. The stories being circulated that California was a Garden of Eden, a Land of Milk and Honey where the air was clear, the water clean, game ran free and there was land in abundance just waiting to be settled was attractive to many. It was also a place of escape for those in debt or wanted by the law. As Tamsen Donner wrote: We have some of the best people in our company and some that are not so good.
Ever since the first routes west had been mapped in the 1830’s the trail had become a well-trod and familiar one. The starting point for any journey west was Missouri and from there it followed the line of a series of rivers, the Platte, the Sweetwater, the Bear, and the Snake with Fort Hall, Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger sited along the way as stop-off points.
Despite it being a long and arduous trek, most people could be expected to arrive safely. The last 150 miles into California were across the Sierra Nevada Mountains however, which in winter endured heavy snowfall and had peaks that could reach as high as 12,000 feet. To cross the mountain ranges safely was all about the timing and it had to be done before the snows came.
On 14 April, the Reed and Donner families in 9 wagons left Springfield, Illinois on the 2,500-mile trek west. There were 32 people in their party, George Donner, his wife Tamsen and 5 daughters, his brother Jacob, wife Elizabeth and seven children, and James Reed, his wife Margret and four children. There were also various other relatives and employees. They were not people who were being driven west by poverty as was reflected in the many goods they carried with them. For them the trek to California was the fulfilment of a desire to seek something even better, and they were optimistic about the journey. Their optimism appeared to be vindicated when making good time and with little difficulty on 10 May 1846, they arrived at the town of Independence, Missouri. Neither James Reed nor George Donner had known each other prior to the journey but were willing to share the hardships of their joint enterprise, they were however very different men.
James Frazier Reed was an Irish immigrant who by all accounts had a rather high opinion of himself. Indeed, this was reflected in the wagon he had had specially built for his family which it was said resembled an ornately carved two storey railway carriage that took 8 oxen to pull. He was prosperous having run several successful businesses in Illinois and had served briefly in the military during the Black Hawk Indian War of 1832, along with those two future Civil War adversaries Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, which he seemed to think made him a man of action and a natural leader of men. It wasn’t a view shared by others in the party who found him arrogant and overbearing and when it came to choose a leader he was overlooked in favour of the more amenable George Donner and his younger brother, Jacob.
George Donner was a 62-year-old farmer from North Carolina who despite being prosperous seemed unable to settle and had already moved many times. He continued to pursue the dream, though it is doubtful whether he could have defined what it was, but he was prepared to emigrate once again to achieve it. Despite the fact that he was much liked he was to prove himself unable to impose his will upon the party he was to be chosen to lead.
Even though by the 1840’s the trail to both California and Oregon were familiar ones it remained a slog and the problem of adequate provision remained a real one, and even if it were tackled correctly and remained relatively trouble-free mortality rates were often over 10%. Any possibility of shortening the journey would have great appeal. It would ease the strain on their livestock, be less costly in resources, and increase the survival rate.
Lansford Warren Hastings, an ambitious young lawyer from Mount Vernon, Ohio, had travelled to California four years earlier. He saw California as a place of opportunity and had big dreams of taking it from the Mexicans and establishing it as an independent State, with him as its first President. Desperate to encourage people to travel west and swamp California with Americans making its takeover a fait accompli he published his Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California promoting his so-called Hastings Cut-off, a route that would, he claimed, cut 350 miles from the distance to be journeyed, though at the time of its publication he had not even travelled the route.
Aware that a large wagon train was gathering in Independence Missouri, Lansford Hastings had been busy promoting his short-cut putting up posters, handing out leaflets, and distributing letters to the various parties. One of these had come into the hands of James Reed.
On 17 May, the Donner Party left Independence joining the rear of a 500 strong wagon train led by William H Russell. For the most part the journey was uneventful, but it wasn’t long before tragedy struck. On 29 May, Margret Reed’s 70-year-old mother, Sarah Keyes, succumbed to tuberculosis. She was to be the first of the party to die. It was not unexpected for she had been ill for some time, nevertheless the Reed family were distraught, especially the children.
The death of Sarah Keyes was a family affair and did not affect the others in the party. Thus, it was possible for Tamsen Donner to write:
I never could have believed that we could have travelled so far with so little difficulty. Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done I shall think that all the trouble is in getting started.
On 27 June, the Donner Party reached Fort Laramie. It was here that James Reed met an old friend James Clyman. He had just completed the Cut-off on horseback with Lansford Hastings who was travelling it for the first time. Reed asked Clyman what the journey was like and whether he should take the Hastings Cut-off.
Clyman told him about the roughness of the Great Desert and the Sierras and that a straight route would be impracticable. He told him to take the regular wagon track and never leave it. He continued, the journey could not be done with wagons and baggage. Reed chose to ignore the advice and would persuade the others to do so also. Why he chose to ignore the advice he had sought remains a mystery.
The Donner Party travelled on at the rear of the main wagon train. On 17 July they received an open letter from Lansford Hastings urging them to gather at Fort Bridger where he would be there to guide them through the Cut-off. The following day the wagon train crossed the Continental Divide and the Donner Party turned away from the regular trail and headed for Fort Bridger, they still had a thousand miles to go.
On 27 July, they arrived at Fort Bridger, also known as the Black Forts staging post, only to discover that Lansford Hastings had already left to lead another wagon train through the Cut-off. Despite this, James Reed remained determined to take Hastings Cut-off, but he sought reassurance. He wrote: Hastings Cut-off is said to be a saving of 350 to 400 miles and a better route. The rest of the Californians went the long route afraid of Hastings Cut-off. But Mr Bridger informs me that it is a fine, level road with plenty of water and grass. It is estimated that seven hundred miles will take us to Captain Sutter’s Fort which we hope to make in seven weeks from today. What he did not consider was the financial benefits to be made by Bridger from those choosing to travel via Hastings Cut-off. He was never going to say anything else.
The decision to travel to California via Hastings Cut-off was made largely at James Reeds insistence. It was not however agreed upon without dissent. Tamsen Donner expressed the view that Lansford Hastings was a selfish adventurer who did not know what he was talking about. She feared the worst and became depressed as a result. Her despair would have been even greater had she been aware of the warnings given by a journalist who was present named Edwin Bryant who did not believe that parties with oversized wagons, so much baggage and so many children could possibly make it through Hastings Cut-off safely. He wrote a series of letters advising the emigrants not to do so. He handed them to Jim Bridger for distribution, but it is believed that for commercial reasons he chose not to do so.
On 1 August, the Donner Party left Fort Bridger with no maps and only the vaguest of instructions. It was a real possibility that they could become lost, but they felt confident that as long as the rain stayed away they would be able to follow the tracks left by Lansford Hastings earlier trek through the Cut-off.
By this time the Donner Party had been joined by the Breen, Eddy, McCutchen, Murphy and Pike families, some 48 people in total 21 of whom were children. The entire party now numbered 75. On 6 August, at the foot of Echo Canyon they came across a letter attached to some brush from Lansford Hastings informing them that the road ahead was impassable and that they should make camp and wait for his arrival when he would show them another way through. George Donner did not think they had either the time or enough supplies to wait indefinitely and so James Reed volunteered to ride ahead to find Hastings. It took him five days to do so but despite his insistence that he must Hastings refused to return with him. Instead, he took Reed to a high peak, where pointing with his finger he indicated what the new route was. It was to prove a nightmare journey taken at a snail’s pace as they had to remove boulders from their path, fell trees and quite literally chop their way through the thickets and deep undergrowth. They were travelling at no more than two miles a day and at one point it took them eight days to make six miles.
On 12 August, they reached the Wasatch Mountains by which time they had been caught up and joined by Franklin Graves, his wife, 8 children, son-in-law Jay Fosdick, and a young employee, John Snyder bringing the number in the party to 87. In the Wasatch Mountains they were not only forced to build impromptu bridges to cross marshlands and swamps and physically haul their wagons over the steep inclines and narrow passes, but they also became lost. On 25 August, Luke Halloran, a young merchant from Missouri died of consumption.
The route that Reed had been told would take a week had taken take them a month.
At last, on 27 August they emerged from the dense woodland to reach the Great Salt Desert. This posed a whole new set of problems. The sun was scorching hot and there was no prospect of water. Another tattered and torn letter written by Hastings was found which once pieced together read: Two days, two nights hard driving, cross desert, reach water. He had earlier assured them that the Great Salt Desert was only 40 miles wide when it was in fact twice that distance.
Way behind schedule few any longer believed that they could cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains before the snows came but they had little choice but to press on. Even so, such was their state of exhaustion it was decided to rest for a few days.
On the 30 August, they set off across the Great Salt Desert, the searing heat had turned the salt into something like a soft, congealed, glue and the wagons quickly became bogged down and impossible to move. Many of the heavier wagons including the Reed’s had to be abandoned. They also lost 36 oxen some of which had died of exhaustion while others maddened by thirst had simply bolted.
Those in the lighter wagons now sped ahead not willing to wait for the others. The Donner and Reed families gathered up what they could and followed behind.
The, each man for himself attitude, being expressed by some caused a seething resentment that soured relations.
Again, it had taken them five days to cross the Great Salt Desert when Hastings had assured them it would take only two, and for three of those days they had barely any water. Over the following few days they returned to the Great Salt Desert to retrieve what goods they could and search for the missing oxen none of which were found.
It was time to take stock and on 10 September they completed an inventory of their supplies and concluded that they no longer had enough food to last them to California. Some berated James Reed for their plight but most blamed Hastings Lansford. Eliza Donner wrote:
Anguish and dismay now filled all hearts, husbands bowed their heads at the situation of their families, some cursed Hastings for the false statements of his open letter and for his broken pledge at Fort Bridger, they cursed him also for his misrepresentation of the distance across this cruel desert. Mother’s in tearless agony clasped their children to their bosoms with the old, old cry of Father thy Will, not mine, will be done. It was plain, try as we might, that we could not get back to Fort Bridger. We must proceed regardless of the fearful outlook.
On 26 September, the Donner Party reached the Humboldt River where they regained the regular trail. Their journey through Hastings Cut-off which it had been promised would shorten the trek west by 350 miles had actually been 125 miles longer.
The arduous journey, the many disagreements, and the constant bickering had caused tempers to fray, and it seemed as if the Donner Party was coming apart. James Reed who had always considered himself a man of action now tried to assert control. He asked for two volunteers to ride ahead to Fort Sutter for provisions, William McCutchen, a powerfully built Missouri farmhand and Charles Tyler Stanton, a Chicago businessman, agreed to go.
The Donner Party, many of whom were aggrieved at James Reed’s new-found assertiveness, were by now travelling in small groups. On 5 October the Graves family wagon and that of the Reed’s’ became entangled. John Snyder, the Graves teamster, impatiently began to beat the Reed’s oxen with his whip. A row soon broke out and Snyder was seen to turn his whip on an employee of James Reed’s, Milton Elliot. When Reed tried to intervene, Snyder struck him forcefully on the head and in the ensuing fight Reed stabbed Snyder in the chest. He was seen to reel from the blow before staggering a few yards and dropping down dead.
George Donner ordered that Reed be taken into custody to await the verdict of the others in the party. The always unpopular Reed did not help his cause by showing little remorse for what he had done. Lewis Keseberg demanded that he be hanged there and then but after his wife Margret pleaded for his life, they decided to banish him. They would provide him with a horse, but he was to have no food to eat and no rifle to hunt with which was considered by many to be as good as a death sentence. James Reed obviously thought so to because at first, he refused to leave.
Eventually he did so having been secretly provided with a gun and some little food by a more sympathetic member of the party. Many breathed a sigh of relief at his departure.
Things continued to go from bad to worse, however. On 7 October, Louis Keseberg turned a 70-year-old Belgian immigrant named Hardkoop from his wagon. None of the others would take him in and he was forced to walk. He could not keep up, gradually falling further and further behind until he disappeared and was never seen again.
Around the same time that Hardkoop disappeared so too did a German labourer named Jacob Wolfinger. Two other Germans, Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer were later to make death-bed confessions admitting to having murdered and robbed him. Louis Keseberg was also suspected of having been involved but this was never proved.
A little later, the Eddy family lost all their oxen and were forced to abandon their wagon. They were also out of food. The others refused to make room in their wagons, even for the children, though a small amount of food was provided. It seemed that no one trusted one another any longer or was willing to help. The only thing that still united them was a shared hatred of Lansford Hastings.
On 12 October, the party were attacked by the Paiute Indians they had earlier thought they had befriended. Though no one was injured 21 of their remaining oxen were killed and many others run off. By the 16 October, they reached the line of the Truckee River where they briefly made camp. They were desperately short of food and there was no desire on the part of people to share the little they had with anyone else.
They were cheered a little when on 19 October, Charles Stanton returned with seven mules carrying provisions and two Indians named Salvador and Luis who would help guide them through the approaching mountains. McCutchen, he told them, had had to remain in Fort Sutter because of illness and even though some expressed their disappointment that the provisions were barely enough to keep them going he reassured them that no snow was predicted to fall before November. But Patrick Breen wrote ominously: The weather was already very cold and the heavy clouds hanging over the mountains to the west were strong indications of an approaching storm, some wanted to stop and rest their cattle. Others, in fear of the snow, were in favour of pushing ahead as far as possible.
They were just 50 miles from the Sierra Nevada Mountains but now decided to make camp for five days before pushing on and making the summit. It was to be a mistake. That same day William Bayliss was killed in a shooting accident.
On 31 October, the axle on the Donner’s wagon broke and needed to be repaired. The others in the party were not willing to wait and pressed on without them. Later that night they reached their destination, the pass that would take them to the summit that loomed, hidden by the clouds, a thousand feet above them. Again, Patrick Breen noted in his journal: We pushed on as fast as our ailing cattle could haul our almost empty wagons. At last, we reached the foot of the main ridge near Truckee Lake. It was sundown, the weather was clear but a large circle around the room indicated an approaching storm.
That night it began to snow. In the morning they frantically tried to force the summit, but the weather was too inclement and the snow too deep. They had travelled so far, were just 150 miles from safety, but they had arrived a day too late. That night it snowed and snowed and snowed even so they were to make two further attempts to make the summit, but it proved impossible.
They retraced their steps to Truckee Lake where they hastily built log cabins and makeshift shelters. Now their only hope, it seemed, would be rescue.
The provisions provided by Stanton did not last long and attempts to catch fish in the lake itself were unsuccessful. Hunting parties were sent out from camp but in two weeks they managed to kill only a bear, a coyote, and an owl. It was barely enough to feed one family. Most of the food available was being given to the children and some of the adults were beginning to show the first signs of malnutrition.
Earlier on 28 October a bedraggled, half-starved James Reed had staggered into Sutter’s Fort. Despite his weakened condition he was desperate to organise a relief party to rescue his wife and four children, but he was in no fit state to do so. In truth he was lucky to be alive. By mid-November he had recovered sufficiently to press John Sutter to provide him with the men and supplies to attempt a rescue. Sutter agreed but just two days out from the fort the weather yet again took a turn for the worse. Torrential rain soon turned to snow and some of those who had only agreed to go for the $3 a day that had been on offer now returned to the Fort.
In a heavy snowstorm and just 12 miles from the encampment Reed was forced to abandon his rescue attempt. Upon his return to Sutter’s Fort, he tried to organise yet another relief party but most of the able young men had left to fight in the Mexican War and those who remained were disinclined to risk their lives. Any further attempt at rescue would have to wait.
There were 60 people trapped at Truckee Lake, 19 men, 12 women and 29 children. Six miles further away at Alder Creek the Donner’s had only been able to set up flimsy tents for the 6 men, 3 women, and 12 children in their party. The makeshift shelters they had been able to construct provided some protection from the wind and snow but not from the cold and there was every prospect that if they didn’t starve first then they would freeze to death.
Those snowed in at Truckee Lake looked to the skyline for any sign of rescue. They knew full well that if they remained where they were until the spring thaw, they would all be dead. By now they were already living on mice and strips of ox-hide which they boiled into a glue-like stew. This was soon to be supplemented by leaves and discarded bones. On 12 November, a small group tried once more to force a way through the pass but were unable to do so.
Some who still possessed a few oxen that had died of starvation and had barely any meat on them now sold them to those who had nothing at exorbitant prices. When Margret Reed could not pay for an ox, she had purchased the Graves family arrived at her shelter and removed the ox-hides she was using as a roof and which had also been her only remaining source of food.
Over the next few weeks things became increasingly desperate and few believed they would survive the winter. The condition of the many children was particularly distressing, something had to be done.
It was decided that seventeen of the fittest men, women and children remaining in the camp would make one last desperate attempt to traverse the mountain pass. They were pessimistic about their chances naming their group the Forlorn Hope. They had been made improvised snowshoes by the Vermont farmer, Franklin Graves. The snowshoes helped keep them buoyant in snow drifts that were by now as deep as 20 feet, but progress was to be slow. Provided with just six days starvation rations few ever expected to see them again.
On 16 December, the party led by Charles Stanton and William Eddy with the two Indians Salvador and Luis as their guides set off. It took them three days to make the summit. Exhausted and suffering from snow-blindness by the 20 December they had reached Yuba Bottoms. By this time Charles Stanton was so weak that he could not continue but he urged the others to go on without him. He knew he would die and was last seen propped up against a tree calmly smoking his pipe.
William Eddy now took command of the party, some wanted to return to Truckee Lake while they still could, but he urged them to continue and not give up. By 24 December however they were too exhausted to continue. They had not eaten for three days, and some were delirious, others were already dying. That night they managed to build a fire which they all now huddled around. Mary Graves wrote of what happened next: Even the wind seemed to hold its breath as the suggestion was made that if one should die the rest might live. Lots were cast and whoever should draw the longest slip would be sacrificed. The slips of paper were prepared, and Patrick Dolan drew the longest slip. But no one wished to commit murder. Later that night a Mexican teamster named Antonio died. He was followed shortly after by Franklin Graves, 12-year-old Lemuel Murphy, and Patrick Dolan who had already gone insane. Their corpses were carved up and butchered and that night the survivors ate. What remained of the bodies was preserved and packaged for future use, and carefully labelled so that no one would have to eat their relatives. Only the two Indians had refused to eat human flesh. The following morning revived by their cannibalistic fare, the party continued on its way.
Within days what remained of the preserved human flesh had been consumed and they were once more without food. William Foster driven half-mad by starvation suggested they kill and eat the Indians. William Eddy, appalled at the suggestion, informed the Indians of Foster’s intentions. Unbelieving at first, they soon fled into the woods but they had little more prospect of survival than anyone else.
In the meantime, Jay Fosdick had died. His wife Sarah had little choice but to watch as his remains were roasted over the open fire that she had to remain close to so as not to freeze to death. The following day the party came across Salvador and Luis so weak that they could no longer move. William Foster needing their flesh for food shot them both through the head.
Meanwhile, tragic news had reached those encamped at Truckee Lake. On 21 December, Milton Elliot had returned from visiting the Donner’s at Alder Creek to inform them that Jacob Donner, Joseph Reinhardt, James Smith, and Sam Shoemaker had all died.
On the 12 January, the survivors of the Forlorn Hope stumbled into a Miwok Indian village. Startled by the sudden emergence of these ghostly and ghastly apparitions the Indians were at first inclined to flee but soon took pity on their plight and gave them shelter providing them with what food they had. It was little more than a few acorns and boiled leaves, but it was at least something. A little later one of the Indians agreed to guide William Eddy to the nearest white settlement.
On 17 January, William Eddy arrived at the cabin of Harriet Ritchie which lay at the foot of the Sacramento Valley. She was shocked at his appearance, but this was as nothing compared to the story he had to tell. Of the 17 people who had started out from Truckee Lake a month earlier only 7 remained alive, all five women and two men.
The rescue of the survivors of the Forlorn Hope made the fate of the Donner Party still trapped at Truckee Lake a public event but getting people to join a rescue party remained problematic. Such a mission imperilled those who embarked upon it as much as those it was intended to save.
A week earlier on 10 January, Los Angeles had fallen to the United States Army effectively removing the Mexican presence from California. The war had previously not just focussed the attention of the press, but it had also disrupted communications and caused a shortage of both manpower and supplies. Now the fate of the Donner Party dominated the newspapers and James Reed immediately travelled to San Francisco to raise the funds for a relief party.
Finding the money was to prove easier than finding the men but the fate of the Donner Party could no longer be ignored, an attempt at rescue had to be tried. On 5 February the First Relief Party, accompanied by William Eddy, set out from Fort Sutter followed two days later by a Second Relief Party led by James Reed. As they were making their way across the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains, Patrick Breen continued the grim task recording in his journal the deaths of those awaiting rescue.
The weather was still dreadful, rivers were swollen, the snow was still falling, and temperatures were well below freezing. It was a hazardous journey and to try and complete it with a mule train stacked with food and supplies was impossible, so the Relief Party created food stations along the way which at least meant they could move unburdened. Even so, progress remained painfully slow and doubting that they would ever reach their destination alive three of the seven-man party returned to Sutter’s Fort.
At last, on 19 February they reached the encampment at Truckee Lake but there was little to be seen. The few dwellings were hidden by the snow and there was no visible sign of life. In a short time however, shadowy figures began slowly to emerge from the ice and snow. First was Lavinia Murphy who stumbled towards them asking, her voice weak and barely audible, are you men from California or do you come from Heaven?
As the four remaining men of the Relief Party looked about them, they could see the bodies of 12 victims dispersed upon the snow covered in blankets. The survivors had not had the strength to bury them. Two of the bodies were those of William Eddy’s wife Eleanor and his five-year-old daughter Margaret who had died just a week earlier.
William Eddy and the others cautiously handed out food aware of the danger that eating too much too quickly could prove fatal. Indeed, Elizabeth Donner’s son by a previous marriage, William Hook, died after breaking into the storehouse and gorging himself on all the food he could find.
On 22 February, it was decided that they could not remain any longer and had to return to Sutter’s Fort. They could take only 23 of the survivors with them, 17 from Truckee Lake and 6 from Alder Creek. They had little to give the 31 who remained.
Tamsen Donner, who was surprisingly fit and robust given her ordeal refused to leave her seriously ill husband George and would remain with their three children. It seems fair to assume that she had access to food which many of the others did not. The Breen’s also volunteered to remain. William Eddy, already distraught at the death of his wife and daughter now had to leave behind his three-year-old son James who was too weak to travel.
Margaret Reed was also faced with a dilemma. She was not willing to permit her children to return unaccompanied but her youngest son three-year-old Thomas was sick and no one any longer had the strength to carry him. They would have to remain behind. Margaret’s eight-year-old daughter Patty insisted that she must go and that she would remain behind to take care of her younger brother. She told her: Well, mother, if you never see me again, do the best you can.
The decision to leave so many behind to wait for a Second Relief Party that there was no guarantee would ever reach them was accepted with equanimity, but the sense of desperation was palpable.
The return journey of the First Relief Party was a fraught and difficult one. They were almost overwhelmed by one of the severest blizzards of the winter and were dismayed to find that most of the food stations they had prepared had been broken into and destroyed by animals.
By the time they encountered the Second Relief Party travelling the other way two children, Ada Keseberg and John Denton had already died, but it was a moment of unalloyed joy for James Reed to be reunited with members of his family whom he had long ago convinced himself must have perished. Upon hearing her husband’s voice Margret Reed fainted and had to be revived.
When, on 1 March, the Second Relief Party reached Truckee Lake they discovered that ten of those left behind had already died and the conditions to be truly appalling. Whereas the First Relief Party had seen no evidence of cannibalism now it was all around them. One of the rescuers wrote:
Among the cabins lay the fleshless bones and the half-eaten bodies of the victims of the famine. There lay the limbs, the skulls, the hair of the poor beings who had died of want and whose flesh preserved the lives of their surviving comrades, who shivering in their filthy rags and surrounded by the remains of their unholy feast looked more like demons than human beings.
Once more James Reed was overjoyed to discover that both Patty and young Thomas were still alive, but they still had to be got safely back to Sutter’s Fort. They were to take out 17 of the remaining survivors, most of them children. The weather was as bad as it had been all winter but with little prospect of it improving, they had no choice but to set off.
It was to get worse and just a few days into their journey the most violent blizzard many were to say they had ever witnessed struck them. They could go no further and struggling to build a fire they all huddled around it in a desperate attempt to keep from freezing. Here they remained for the next two days. One of Jacob Donner’s children, five-year-old Isaac, had already frozen to death. Many of the others were suffering from frostbite.
James Reed insisted they could remain no longer and had to push on but the Breen’s and Graves and a few others were too exhausted to continue. Reed went ahead without them and was intercepted by the Third Relief Party who provided them with enough food to make it to Sutter’s Fort. Ten days later they came across those who had been left behind in what would become known as the Starvation Camp. One of them described the scene:
The picture of distress was shocking indeed, they had consumed the two children of Jacob Donner. Mrs Graves body was lying there with almost all the flesh cut away from her arms and limbs, her breasts were cut off and her heart and liver taken out. Her little child, about thirteen months old, sat at her side, one arm upon the body of its mangled mother, sobbing bitterly.
By the time the Third Relief Party arrived at Truckee Lake only seven people remained alive. William Eddy who had returned once more along with William Foster in the hope of rescuing their two young children found that they were not among them. They were told that that they had died earlier.
When they demanded to know where their remains were Louis Keseberg admitted to having eaten them. An enraged William Eddy had to be restrained from attacking Keseberg and vowed that if he ever saw him alive in California, he would kill him.
The Third Relief Party had no intention of staying in such a charnel house for long and prepared to leave. Once more Tamsen Donner refused to leave her husband despite being told that there were no plans for a Fourth Relief Party and him being so near to death that he begged her to do so. She did however let her children depart along with the now dead Lavinia Murphy’s young son Simon.
They left Louis Keseberg behind.
On 10 April with the snows at last beginning to thaw a fourth and final party did indeed arrive at Truckee Lake to salvage what they could from the camp. There they found Louis Keseberg still alive but there was no trace of Tamsen Donner. Keseberg informed them that she was dead.
Tamsen Donner had let it be known before the Third Relief Party left that once her husband had passed away, she would attempt to cross the mountains on her own. She had seemed to them to have been in rude enough health to try and doubts were now cast as to the exact cause of her death. When a pot containing human flesh, Tamsen Donner’s jewellery and $273 dollars were found in his cabin accusatory fingers were pointed at Lewis Keseberg. He did not deny that she had been there but claimed that she had stumbled into his cabin appearing very weak and in great distress. He had permitted her to remain out of fear for her health but that sadly she passed away during the night. Fearing she was going to die she had left her money and jewellery in his care for the future benefit of her children. Barely able to move but a few yards he had been obliged to consume her remains merely to survive. Many doubted his story and suspected him of murdering Tamsen Donner for her money whilst others couldn’t understand why with no realistic prospect of being rescued, he should bother to do so.
The Fourth Relief Party was prevented from leaving for almost a month because of the return of the bad weather. When they did finally depart, they took Louis Keseberg with them.
In late June troops of the Mormon Battalion of the United States Army journeyed to Truckee Lake to bury the dead and retrieve what personal effects they could. Of the 89 people who participated in the Donner Party and took the fateful decision to travel via Hastings Cut-off 41 died - 22 men, 14 children and 5 women. Of these the bodies of at least 14 are recorded as having been cannibalised.
The tragic story of the doomed Donner Party soon began to make newspaper headlines across America but the initial sympathy for the survivors that this engendered soon turned to anger as the rumours of cannibalism began to spread. This was particularly so when some of those involved tried to cash in on their experience with detailed and often lurid accounts of what had occurred. It was also evident that not all were heroes as was first thought. Many had turned on their friends, some had abandoned children and an unknown number had taken to eating the flesh of their neighbours. It was even suggested that some of those who had participated in the actual rescue had only done so to suit their own ends and had returned to Sutter’s Fort laden with booty.
It wasn’t long before almost all denied ever having resorted to cannibalism and ceased to talk of their experiences. Soon their story would be overtaken by events and the discovery of gold near Sutter’s Fort and most of the survivors would quickly fade into obscurity.
James Reed whose wife Margret and their four children all survived went on to become a prosperous merchant in San Jose and a respected member of the local community. Though he would often talk of the perils he encountered trying to rescue his family he never spoke of his involvement in the murder of John Snyder.
The Donner family had not been as fortunate as the Reed’s with both George and Tamsen Donner having died but their three daughters had survived and were taken in by an elderly couple at Sutter’s Fort. Jacob Donner and his wife Elizabeth had also both died as did 4 of their 7 children.
William Eddy had lost both his wife and his two children. He never forgave Lewis Keseberg for what he had done but was dissuaded from carrying out his vow to kill him by James Reed who convinced him that there had been enough death. He settled in California and later remarried.
Patrick Breen and his formidable wife Peggy who had somehow managed to keep all their seven children alive settled in San Juan where they opened a tavern. His journal is the most detailed day-to-day account of events at Truckee Lake. He makes no mention of what occurred at the so-called Starvation Camp however, and despite his best efforts to put the past behind him he was never able to escape the stigma of being one of those who had resorted to cannibalism. He went onto open, with ghoulish irony some might suggest, a restaurant.
Lansford Hasting, the man who had been the cause of all their troubles reacted to the criticism that came his way by merely apologising and saying that he had acted with the best intentions before moving on. His ambition to be the first President of an independent California was overtaken by events, however, Nonetheless, he continued to dream. During the American Civil War, he proposed to Jefferson Davis that should he provide him with an army he would capture Arizona, the offer was declined. After the war he published his Emigrants Guide to Brazil and South America in the hope of establishing a colony for ex-Confederates with again him as its first President, but it all came to nothing.
Louis Keseberg, who had lost his wife and two children, believed that he was unfairly cast as the villain of the Donner Party. That he was made the scapegoat because he was the only one who’d had the courage to openly admit to eating human flesh, though his confession that he had enjoyed it did little to help his cause. An attempt to prosecute him for the murder of Tamsen Donner was dropped for insufficient evidence and he would later sued for defamation of character. He cleared his name but was awarded just $1 in compensation and forced to pay costs.
The tragic fate of the Donner Party long ago became part of the folklore of the West and of the pioneering spirit that drove Americans to settle the wilderness. Perhaps, the last word however should be left to Virginia Reed writing to her cousin Mary on 17 May 1847, not long after her rescue:
Oh Mary, I have not wrote you half of the trouble we have had but I have wrote you enough to let you know what trouble is, but thank God, that we are the only family that did not eat human flesh. We have left everything, but I do not care for that, we have got through with our lives. Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody. Remember, never take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can.
Tagged as: Miscellaneous
Share this post: