History of the Donner Party by CF McGlashan - HTML preview

PLEASE NOTE: This is an HTML preview only and some elements such as links or page numbers may be incorrect.
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.

Tamsen Donner’s Last Act of Devotion

A Remarkable Proposal

Twenty-six Present Survivors



The Graves Family

The Murphys

Naming Marysville

The Reeds

The Breens


Chapter XXIII.

The Orphan Children of George and Tamsen Donner

Sutter, the Philanthropist

”If Mother Would Only Come”

Christian and Mary Brunner

An Enchanting Home

”Can’t You Keep Both of Us?”

Eliza Donner Crossing the Torrent

Earning a Silver Dollar

The Gold Excitement

Getting an Education

Elitha C. Donner

Leanna C. Donner

Frances E. Donner

Georgia A. Donner

Eliza P Donner

Chapter XXIV.

Yerba Buena’s Gift to George and Mary Donner

An Alcalde’s Negligence

Mary Donner’s Land Regranted

Squatters Jump George Donner’s Land

A Characteristic Land Law-suit

Vexatious Litigation

Twice Appealed to Supreme Court, and once to United States Supreme Court

A Well-taken Law Point

Mutilating Records

A Palpable Erasure

Relics of the Donner Party

Five Hundred Articles Buried Thirty-two Years

Knives, Forks, Spoons

Pretty Porcelain

Identifying Chinaware

Beads and Arrow-heads

A Quaint Bridle-bit

Remarkable Action of Rust

A Flint-Lock Pistol

A Baby’s Shoe

The Resting Place of the Dead

Vanishing Land-marks


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.

Three miles from Truckee, Nevada County, California, lies one of the

fairest and most picturesque lakes in all the Sierra. Above, and on

either side, are lofty mountains, with casteliated granite crests, while

below, at the mouth of the lake, a grassy, meadowy valley widens out and

extends almost to Truckee. The body of water is three miles long, one

and a half miles wide, and four hundred and eighty-three feet in depth.

Tourists and picnic parties annually flock to its shores, and Bierstadt

has made it the sub ject of one of his finest, grandest paintings. In

summer, its willowy thickets, its groves of tamarack and forests of

pine, are the favorite haunts and nesting places of the quail and

grouse. Beautiful, speckled mountain trout plentifully abound in its

crystalline waters. A rippling breeze usually wimples and dimples its

laughing surface, but in calmer moods it reflects, as in a polished

mirror, the lofty, overhanging mountains, with every stately pine,

bounding rivulet; blossoming shrub, waving fern, and - high above all,

on the right - the clinging, thread-like line of the snow-sheds of the

Central Pacific. When the railroad was being constructed, three thousand

people dwelt on its shores; the surrounding forests resounded with the

music of axes and saws, and the terrific blasts exploded in the lofty,

o’ershadowing clis, filled the canyons with reverberating thunders,

and hurled huge bowlders high in the air over the lake’s quivering


In winter it is almost as popular a pleasure resort as during the

summer. The jingling of sleighbells, and the shouts and laughter of

skating parties, can be heard almost constantly. The lake forms the

grandest skating park on the Pacific Coast.


Yet this same Donner Lake was the scene of one of the most thrilling,

heart-rending tragedies ever recorded in California history. Interwoven

with the very name of the lake are memories of a tale of destitution,

loneliness, and despair, which borders on the incredible. It is a tale

that has been repeated in many a miner’s cabin, by many a hunter’s

campfire, and in many a frontiersman’s home, and everywhere it has been

listened to with bated breath.

The pioneers of a new country are deserving of a niche in the country’s

history. The pioneers who became martyrs to the cause of the development

of an almost unknown land, deserve to have a place in the hearts of its

inhabitants. The far-famed Donner Party were, in a peculiar sense,

pioneer martyrs of California. Before the discovery of gold, before the

highway across the continent was fairly marked out, while untold dangers

lurked by the wayside, and unnumbered foes awaited the emigrants, the

Donner Party started for California. None but the brave and venturesome,

none but the energetic and courageous, could undertake such a journey.

In 1846, comparatively few had dared attempt to cross the almost

unexplored plains which lay between the Mississippi and the fair young

land called California. Hence it is that a certain grandeur, a certain

heroism seems to cling about the men and women composing this party,

even from the day they began their perilous journey across the plains.

California, with her golden harvests, her beautiful homes, her dazzling

wealth, and her marvelous commercial facilities, may well enshrine the

memory of these noble-hearted pioneers, pathfinders, martyrs.

The States along the Mississippi were but sparsely settled in 1846, yet

the fame of the fruitfulness, the healthfulness, and the almost tropical

beauty of the land bordering the Pacific, tempted the members of the

Donner Party to leave their homes. These homes were situated in

Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Missouri, and Ohio. Families from each of

these States joined the train and participated in its terrible fate; yet

the party proper was organized in Sangamon County, Illinois, by George

and Jacob Donner and James F. Reed. Early in April, 1846, the party set

out from Springfield, Illinois, and by the first week in May reached

Independence, Missouri. Here the party was increased by additional

members, and the train comprised about one hundred persons.

Independence was on the frontier in those days, and every care was taken

to have ample provisions laid in and all necessary preparations made for

the long journey. Ay, it was a long journey for many in the party! Great

as was the enthusiasm and eagerness with which these noble-hearted

pioneers caught up the cry of the times, ”Ho! for California!” it is

doubtful if presentiments of the fate to be encountered were not

occasionally entertained. The road was dicult, and in places almost

unbroken; warlike Indians guarded the way, and death, in a thousand

forms, hovered about their march through the great wilderness.

In the party were aged fathers with their trusting families about them,

mothers whose very lives were wrapped up in their children, men in the


prime and vigor of manhood, maidens in all the sweetness and freshness

of budding womanhood, children full of glee and mirthfulness, and babes

nestling on maternal breasts. Lovers there were, to whom the journey was

tinged with rainbow hues of joy and happiness, and strong, manly hearts

whose constant support and encouragement was the memory of dear ones

left behind in home-land. The cloud of gloom which finally settled down

in a death-pall over their heads was not yet perceptible, though, as we

shall soon see, its mists began to collect almost at the outset, in the

delays which marked the journey.

The wonderment which all experience in viewing the scenery along the

line of the old emigrant road was peculiarly vivid to these people. Few

descriptions had been given of the route, and all was novel and

unexpected. In later years the road was broadly and deeply marked, and

good camping grounds were distinctly indicated. The bleaching bones of

cattle that had perished, or the broken fragments of wagons or cast-away

articles, were thickly strewn on either side of the highway. But in 1846

the way was through almost trackless valleys waving with grass, along

rivers where few paths were visible, save those made by the feet of

bualoes and antelope, and over mountains and plains where little more

than the westward course of the sun guided the travelers. Trading-posts

were stationed at only a few widely distant points, and rarely did the

party meet with any human beings, save wandering bands of Indians. Yet

these first days are spoken of by all of the survivors as being crowned

with peaceful enjoyment and pleasant anticipations. There were beautiful

flowers by the roadside, an abundance of game in the meadows and

mountains, and at night there were singing, dancing, and innocent plays.

Several musical instruments, and many excellent voices, were in the

party, and the kindliest feeling and good-fellowship prevailed among the


The formation of the company known as the Donner Party was purely

accidental. The union of so many emigrants into one train was not

occasioned by any preconcerted arrangement. Many composing the Donner

Party were not aware, at the outset, that such a

tide of emigration was

sweeping to California. In many instances small parties would hear of

the mammoth train just ahead of them or just behind them, and by

hastening their pace, or halting for a few days, joined themselves to

the party. Many were with the train during a portion of the journey, but

from some cause or other became parted from the Donner company before

reaching Donner Lake. Soon after the train left Independence it

contained between two and three hundred wagons, and when in motion was

two miles in length.


With much bitterness and severity it is alleged by some of the survivors

of the dreadful tragedy that certain impostors and falsifiers claim to

have been members of the Donner Party, and as such have written

untruthful and exaggerated accounts of the suerings of the party.

While this is unquestionably true, it is barely possible that some who

assert membership found their claim upon the fact that during a portion

of the journey they were really in the Donner Party. Bearing this in

mind, there is less diculty in reconciling the conflicting statements

of dierent narrators.

The members of the party proper numbered ninety, and were as follows:

George Donner, Tamsen Donner (his wife), Elitha C. Donner, Leanna C.

Donner, Frances E. Donner, Georgia A. Donner and Eliza P. Donner. The

last three were children of George and Tamsen Donner; Elitha and Leanna

were children of George Donner by a former wife.

Jacob Donner, Elizabeth Donner (his wife), Solomon Hook, William Hook,

George Donner, Jr., Mary M. Donner, Isaac Donner, Lewis Donner and

Samuel Donner. Jacob Donner was a brother of George; Solomon and William

Hook were sons of Elizabeth Donner by a former husband.

James Frazier Reed, Margaret W. Reed (his wife), Virginia E. Reed,

Martha F. (Patty) Reed, James F. Reed, Jr., Thomas K. Reed, and Mrs.

Sarah Keyes, the mother of Mrs. Reed.

The two Donner families and the Reeds were from Springfield, Illinois.

From the same place were Baylis Williams and his half-sister Eliza

Williams, John Denton, Milton Elliott, James Smith, Walter Herron and

Noah James.

From Marshall County, Illinois, came Franklin Ward Graves, Elizabeth

Graves (his wife), Mary A. Graves, William C. Graves, Eleanor Graves,

Lovina Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan B. Graves, F. W. Graves, Jr.,

Elizabeth Graves, Jr., Jay Fosdick and Mrs. Sarah Fosdick (ne Graves).

With this family came John Snyder.

From Keokuk, Lee County, Iowa, came Patrick Breen, Mrs. Margaret Breen,

John Breen, Edward J. Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., Simon P. Breen, James

F. Breen, Peter Breen, and Isabella M. Breen. Patrick Dolan also came

from Keokuk.

William H. Eddy, Mrs. Eleanor Eddy, James P. Eddy, and Margaret Eddy

came from Belleville, Illinois.

From Tennessee came Mrs. Lavina Murphy, a widow, and her family, John

Landrum Murphy, Mary M. Murphy, Lemuel B. Murphy, William G. Murphy,

Simon P. Murphy, William M. Pike, Mrs. Harriet F. Pike (ne Murphy),

Naomi L. Pike, and Catherine Pike. Another son-in-law of Mrs. Murphy,


William M. Foster, with his wife, Mrs. Sarah A. C. Foster, and infant

boy George Foster, came from St. Louis, Missouri.

William McCutchen, Mrs. W. McCutchen, and Harriet McCutchen were


Jackson County, Missouri.

Lewis Keseberg, Mrs. Phillipine Keseberg, Ada Keseberg, and L. Keseberg,

Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Wolfinger, Joseph Rhine