History of the Donner Party by CF McGlashan - HTML preview

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A Tragedy of the Sierra

By C. F. McGlashan

Truckee, Cal.

To Mrs. Elizabeth A. Keiser,

One of the Pioneer Mothers of California,

This Book is Respectfully Dedicated by the Author.


The delirium preceding death by starvation, is full of strange

phantasies. Visions of plenty, of comfort, of elegance, flit ever before

the fast-dimming eyes. The final twilight of death is a brief

semi-consciousness in which the dying one frequently repeats his weird

dreams. Half rising from his snowy couch, pointing upward, one of the

death-stricken at Donner Lake may have said, with tremulous voice:

”Look! there, just above us, is a beautiful house. It is of costliest

walnut, inlaid with laurel and ebony, and is resplendent with burnished

silver. Magnificent in all its apartments, it is furnished like a

palace. It is rich with costly cushions, elegant tapestries, dazzling

mirrors; its floor is covered with Oriental carpets, its ceiling with

artistic frescoings; downy cushions invite the weary to repose. It is

filled with people who are chatting, laughing, and singing, joyous and

care-free. There is an abundance of warmth, and rare viands, and

sparkling wines. Suspended among the storm-clouds, it is flying along

the face of the precipice at a marvelous speed. Flying? no! it has

wheels and is gliding along on a smooth, steel pathway. It is sheltered

from the wind and snow by large beams and huge posts, which are bolted

to the clis with heavy, iron rods. The avalanches, with their burden

of earth and rocks and crushed pines, sweep harmlessly above this

beautiful house and its happy inmates. It is drawn by neither oxen nor

horses, but by a fiery, hot-breathed monster, with iron limbs and thews

of, steel. The mountain trembles beneath his tread, and the rocks for

miles re-echo his roar.”

If such a vision was related, it but indicates, prophetically, the

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progress of a few years. California’s history is replete with tragic,

startling events. These events are the landmarks by which its

advancement is traced. One of the most mournful of these is recorded in

this work - a work intended as a contribution, not to the literature,

but to the history of the State. More thrilling than romance, more

terrible than fiction, the suerings of the Donner Party form a bold

contrast to the joys of pleasure-seekers who to-day look down upon the

lake from the windows of silver palace cars.

The scenes of horror and despair which transpired in the snowy Sierra in

the winter of 1846-7, need no exaggeration, no embellishment. From all

the works heretofore published, from over one thousand letters received

from the survivors, from ample manuscript, and from personal interviews

with the most important actors in the tragedy, the facts have been

carefully compiled. Neither time, pains, nor expense have been spared in

ferreting out the truth. New and fragmentary versions of the sad story

have appeared almost every year since the unfortunate occurrence. To

forever supplant these distorted and fabulous reports - which have

usually been sensational new articles - the survivors have deemed it

wise to contribute the truth. The truth is suciently terrible.

Where conflicting accounts of particular scenes or occurrences have been

contributed, every eort has been made to render them harmonious and

reconcilable. With justice, with impartiality, and with strict adherence

to what appeared truthful and reliable, the book has been written. It is

an honest eort - toward the truth, and as such is given to the world.

C. F. McGlashan.

Truckee, Cal., June 30, 1879.


Chapter I.

Donner Lake

A Famous Tourist Resort

Building the Central Pacific

California’s Skating Park

The Pioneers

The Organization of the Donner Party

Ho! for California!

A Mammoth Train

The Dangers by the Way

False Accounts of the Suerings Endured


Complete Roll of the Company

Impostors Claiming to Belong to the Party

Killed by the Pawnees

An Alarmed Camp

Resin Indians

A Mother’s Death

Chapter II.

Mrs. Donner’s Letters

Life on the Plains

An Interesting Sketch

The Outfit Required

The Platte River


Five Hundred and Eighteen Wagons for California

Burning ”Bualo Chips”

The Fourth of July at Fort Laramie

Indian Discipline

Sioux Attempt to Purchase Mary Graves

George Donner Elected Captain

Letter of Stanton


One Company Split up into Five

The Fatal Hastings Cut-o

Lowering Wagons over a Precipice

The First View of Great Salt Lake

Chapter III.

A Grave of Salt

Members of the Mystic Tie

Twenty Wells

A Desolate Alkaline Waste

Abandoned on the Desert

A Night of Horror

A Steer Maddened by Thirst

The Mirage

Yoking an Ox and a Cow

”Cacheing” Goods

The Emigrants’ Silent Logic

A Cry for Relief

Two Heroic Volunteers


A Perilous journey

Letters to Captain Sutter

Chapter IV.

Gravelly Ford

The Character of James F. Reed

Causes which Led to the Reed-Snyder Tragedy

John Snyder’s Popularity

The Fatal Altercation

Conflicting Statements of Survivors

Snyder’s Death

A Brave Girl

A Primitive Trial

A Court of Final Resort

Verdict of Banishment

A Sad Separation

George and Jacob Donner Ahead at the Time

Finding Letters in Split Sticks

Danger of Starvation

Chapter V.

Great Hardships

The Sink of the Humboldt

Indians Stealing Cattle

An Entire Company Compelled to Walk

Abandoned to Die

Wolfinger Murdered

Rhinehart’s Confession

Arrival of C. T. Stanton

A Temporary Relief

A Fatal Accident

The Sierra Nevada Mountains

Imprisoned in Snow

Struggles for Freedom

A Hopeless Situation

Digging for Cattle in Snow

How the Breen Cabin Happened to be Built

A Thrilling Sketch of a Solitary Winter

Putting up Shelters

The Donners Have Nothing but Tents

Fishing for Trout.


Chapter VI.

Endeavors to Cross the Mountains

Discouraging Failures

Eddy Kills a Bear

Making Snow-Shoes

Who composed the ”Forlorn Hope”

Mary A. Graves

An Irishman

A Generous Act

Six Days’ Rations

Mary Graves’ Account


C. T. Stanton’s Death

”I Am Coming Soon”

Sketch of Stanton’s Early Life

His Charity and Self-sacrifice

The Diamond Breastpin

Stanton’s Last Poem

Chapter VII.

A Wife’s Devotion

The Smoky Gorge

Caught in a Storm

Casting Lots to See Who Should Die

A Hidden River

The Delirium of Starvation

Franklin Ward Graves

His Dying Advice

A Frontiersman’s Plan

The Camp of Death

A Dread Resort

A Sister’s Agony

The Indians Refuse to Eat

Lewis and Salvador Flee for Their Lives

Killing a Deer

Tracks Marked by Blood

Nine Days without Food


Chapter VIII.

Starvation at Donner Lake

Preparing Rawhide for Food

Eating the Firerug

Shoveling Snow o the Beds

Playing they were Tea-cups of Custard

A Starving Baby

Pleading with Silent Eloquence

Patrick Breen’s Diary

Jacob Donner’s Death

A Child’s Vow

A Christmas Dinner

Lost on the Summits

A Stump Twenty-two Feet High

Seven Nursing Babes at Donner Lake

A Devout Father

A Dying Boy

Sorrow and Suering at the Cabins

Chapter IX.

The Last Resort

Two Reports of a Gun

Only Temporary Relief

Weary Traveling

The Snow Bridges

Human Tracks!

An Indian Rancherie

Acorn Bread

Starving Five Times!

Carried Six Miles

Bravery of John Rhodes

A Thirty-two Days’ Journey

Organizing the First Relief Party

Alcalde Sinclair’s Address

Capt. R. P. Tucker’s Companions.

Chapter X.

A Lost Age in California History

The Change Wrought by the Discovery of Gold


The Start from Johnson’s Ranch

A Bucking Horse

A Night Ride

Lost in the Mountains

A Terrible Night

A Flooded Camp

Crossing a Mountain Torrent

Mule Springs

A Crazy Companion

Howlings of Gray Wolves

A Deer Rendezvous

A Midnight Thief

Frightening Indians

The Diary of the First Relief Party

Chapter XI.

Hardships of Reed and Herron

Generosity of Captain Sutter

Attempts to Cross the Mountains with Provisions

Curtis’ Dog

Compelled to Turn Back

Hostilities with Mexico

Memorial to Gov. Stockton

Yerba Buena’s Generosity

Johnson’s Liberality

Pitiful Scenes at Donner Lake

Noble Mothers

Dying rather than Eat Human Flesh

A Mother’s Prayer

Tears of Joy

Eating the Shoestrings

Chapter XII.

A Wife’s Devotion

Tamsen Donner’s Early Life

The Early Settlers of Sangamon County

An Incident in School

Teaching and Knitting

School Discipline

Capt. George Donner’s Appearance


Parting Scenes at Alder Creek

Starting over the Mountains

A Baby’s Death