The Donner Party
Families of Springfield
©Illinois Trails History and Genealogy
When the Donner Party ascended the Sierra Nevadas on the last day of October, 1846, it comprised eighty-one souls:
Charles Berger, Patrick Breen, Margaret Breen (his wife), John Breen, Edward Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., Simon Breen, James Breen, Peter Breen, Isabella Breen
Jacob Donner, Elizabeth Donner (his wife) eorge Donner, Jr., Mary Donner, Isaac Donner, Lewis Donner, Samuel Donner, George Donner, Sr., Tamsen Donner (his wife), Elitha Donner, Leanna C. Donner, Frances Eustis Donner, Georgia Anna Donner, Eliza Poor Donner
William Hook, Solomon Hook
William Eddy, Eleanor (his wife), Margaret Eddy, and James Eddy
Jay Fosdick and Sarah Fosdick (his wife)
William Foster, Sarah Foster (his wife) and George Foster
Franklin W. Graves, Sr., Elisabeth Graves (his wife), Mary Graves, William C. Graves, Eleanor Graves, Lovina Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan B. Graves, Franklin W. Graves, Jr., and Elizabeth Graves, Jr.,
Lewis S. Keseberg, Philippine Keseberg (his wife), Ada Keseberg and Lewis S. Keseberg, Jr.
Mrs. Lovina Murphy (a widow), John Landrum Murphy, Lemuel Murphy, Mary Murphy, William G. Murphy and Simon Murphy
Mrs. Amanda Mcutchen and Harriet McCutchen
Mrs. Harriet Pike (widow), Nioma Pike and Catherine Pike
Mrs. Margaret Reed, Virginia Reed, Martha J. Reed, James F. Reed, Jr., and Thomas K. Reed
John Baptiste Trubode
Bailis Williams and Eliza Williams (his sister)
Mrs. Woolfinger (widow)
Antonio (a Mexican) and Lewis and Salvador (the two Indians sent with Stanton
by General Sutter).
Stated in brief, the result of the disaster to the party in the mountains was as follows:
The total number of deaths was thirty-six, as follows: fourteen in the mountains while en route to the settlement; fourteen at camp near Donner Lake; and eight at Donner's Camp.
The total number who reached the settlement was forty-five; of whom five were men, eight were women, and thirty-two were children.
The family of James F. Reed and that of Patrick Breen survived in unbroken numbers. The only other family in which all the children reached the settlement was that of Captain George Donner.
Fourteen of the eighty-one souls constituting the Donner Party were boys and girls between the ages of nineteen and twelve years; twenty-six ranged from twelve years to a year and a half; and seven were nursing babes. There were only thirty-four adults, twenty-two men and twelve women.
Of the first-named group, eleven survived the disaster. One youth died en route with the Forlorn Hope; one at the Lake Camp; and one at Bear Valley in charge of the First Relief.
Twenty of the second-named group also reached the settlements. One died en route with the First Relief; two at Donner's Camp (in March, 1847); two at Starved Camp, in charge of the Second Relief; and one at the Lake Camp (in March).
Two of the seven babes lived, and five perished at the Lake Camp. They hungered and slowly perished after famine had dried the natural flow, and infant lips had drawn blood from maternal breasts.
The first nursling's life to ebb was that of Lewis Keseberg, Jr., on January 24, 1847. His griefstricken mother could not be comforted. She hugged his wasted form to her heart and carried it far from camp, where she dug a grave and buried it in the snow.
Harriet McCutchen, whose mother had struggled on with the Forlorn Hope in search of succor, breathed her last on the second of February, while lying upon the lap of Mrs. Graves; and the snow being deep and hard frozen, Mrs. Graves bade her son William make the necessary excavation near the wall within their cabin, and they buried the body there, where the mother should find it upon her return. Catherine Pike died in the Murphy cabin a few hours before the arrival of food from the settlement and was buried on the morning of February 22.
Those were the only babes that perished before relief came. Does not the fact that so many young children survived the disaster refute the charges of parental selfishness and inhumanity, and emphasize the immeasurable self-sacrifice, love, and care that kept so many of the little ones alive through that long, bitter siege of starvation?
Mrs. Elinor Eddy, who passed away in the Murphy cabin on the seventh of February, was the only wife and mother called by death, in either camp, before the arrival of the First Relief. Both Patrick Breen's diary and William G. Murphy, then a lad of eleven years, assert that Mrs. Eddy and little Margaret, her only daughter, were buried in the snow near the Murphy cabin on the ninth of February. Furthermore, the Breen Diary and the death-list of the Donner Party show that not a husband or father died at the Lake Camp during the entire period of the party's imprisonment in the mountains. Note : Franklin W. Graves and Jay Fosdick perished in December, 1846, while en route to the settlement with the Forlorn Hope.
How, then, could that First Relief, or either of the other relief parties see--how could they even have imagined that they saw--“wife sitting at the side of her husband who had just died, mutilating his body,” or “the daughter eating her father,” or “mother that of her children,” or” children that of father and mother”? The same questions might be asked regarding the other revolting scenes pictured by the Star.
The seven men who first braved the dangers of the icy trail in the work of rescue came over a trackless, rugged waste of snow, varying from ten to forty feet in depth, and approached the camp-site near the lake at sunset. They halloed, and up the snow steps came those able to drag themselves to the surface. When they descended into those cabins, they found no cheering lights. Through the smoky atmosphere, they saw smouldering fires, and faced conditions so appalling that words forsook them; their very souls were racked with agonizing sympathy. There were the famine-stricken and the perishing, almost as wasted and helpless as those sufferings had ceased. Too weak to show rejoicing, they could only beg with quivering lips and trembling hands, “Oh, give us something to eat! Give us something to drink! We are starving!”
True, their hands were grimy, their clothing tattered, and the floors were bestrewn with hair from hides and bits of broken bullock bones; but of connubial, parental, or filial inhumanity, there were no signs.
With what deep emotion those seven heroic men contemplated the conditions in camp may be gathered from Mr. Aguilla Glover's own notes, published in Thornton's work:
Feb. 19, 1847. The unhappy survivors were, in short, in a condition most deplorable, and beyond power of language to describe, or imagination to conceive.
The emigrants had not yet commenced eating the dead. Many of the sufferers had been living on bullock hides for weeks and even that sort of food was so nearly exhausted that they were about to dig up from the snow the bodies of their companions for the purpose of prolonging their wretched lives.
Thornton's work contains the following statement by a member of one of the relief corps:
On the morning of February 20,
Racine Tucker, John Rhodes, and Riley Moutrey went to the camp of George Donner eight miles distant, taking a little jerked beef. These sufferers (eighteen) had but one hide remaining. They had determined that upon consuming this they would dig from the snow the bodies of those who had died from starvation. Mr. Donner was helpless, Mrs. Donner was weak but in good health, and might have come to the settlement with this party; yet she solemnly but calmly determined to remain with her husband and perform for him the last sad offices of affection and humanity. And this she did in full view that she must necessarily perish by remaining behind. The three men returned the same day with seven refugees from Donner Camp.
John Baptiste Trubode has distinct recollections of the arrival and departure of Tucker's party, and of the amount of food left by it.
He said to me in that connection:
“To each of us who had to stay in camp, one of the First Relief Party measured a teacupful of flour, two small biscuits, and thin pieces of jerked beef, each piece as long as his first finger, and as many pieces as he could encircle with that first finger and thumb brought together, end to end. This was all that could be spared, and to last until the next party could reach us.
“Our outlook was dreary and often hopeless. I don't know what I would have done sometimes without the comforting talks and prayers of those two women, your mother and Aunt Elizabeth. Then evenings after you children went to sleep, Mrs. George Donner would read to me from the book she wrote in every day. If that book had been saved, every one would know the truth of what went on in camp, and not spread these false tales. Note : The journal, herbarium, manuscript, and drawings of Mrs. George Donner were not among the goods delivered at the Fort by the Fallon Party, and no trace of them was ever found.]
“I dug in the snow for the dead cattle, but found none, and we had to go back to our saltless old bullock hide, days before the Second Relief got to us, on the first of March.”
Virginia Reed's Letter Home - Coming Soon
Virginia Reed's Published Memoirs - Coming Soon
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