The Donner Party

.. eberg claimed hanging was the rightful punishment for such a crime. Reed was last seen riding off towards the west. Another example of the harshness of the Donner party occurred on October 7, when Lewis Keseberg turned Mr. Hardcoop, a Belgian traveling with him, out of his wagon. Mr.

Hardcoop went around knocking on the wagon doors, but no one would let him in. He was last seen sitting by the roadside, unable to walk. On October 12 another tragedy occurred. The Piute Indians killed twenty-one oxen with poison tipped arrows, which made a grand total of one hundred animals dead on the trip. On October 16, they reached the Truckee River, the gateway to the Sierra Nevada. On October 19, when their food source was completely wiped out, Stanton and McCutcheon emerged leading seven mules loaded with food, two Indian guides, and news of a clear path through the Sierra Nevada.

On October 31, when they were 1,000 feet from the summit, the Donner wagon broke, and when George Donner was fixing it he cut his hand. The party fell greatly behind. While the rest of the party was waiting for the Donners to come, snow began to fall. The party made a dash for the path, but by the time they had reached the midpoint, five new feet of snow had already fallen. Stanton and the two Indians made it as far as the summit, but could go no further. Hopeless, they retraced their steps to the lake to make a winter camp. Meanwhile at Sutter’s Fort, everyone, including James Reed who had stumbled into the fort in late October, waited anxiously for the Donner Party.

James Reed pressed Sutter for horses and men to travel with him to rescue the party, and when this was granted he began traveling towards the summit that the Donners intended to cross. Reed and his party, however, had to turn back only twelve miles from the summit due to the horrid weather. It was obvious, though no one wanted to admit It. that the Donner Party was on its own until the snow cleared. Back at the lake, after two more attempts were made to get over the pass in the twenty-foot snow pack, the Donner Party realized that they would be stuck until the snow cleared, so they set up camp.

The nine Breens slept in a small shack, the Eddys were also in a small shack, the Murphys, the Fosters, and the Pikes all slept together, and the Reeds, the Kesebergs, and the Graves all slept in different shacks. The two Donner families, six miles away, huddled together near a small river. There were now twenty-one men, fifteen women, thirty-five children and, six infants in the Donner party. On Thanksgiving, it began to snow again, and on November 29, the last of the oxen were killed. On November 30, five more feet of snow fell, and they realized that any plans of departure would have to be put off. Two days later the cattle were all killed (except three or four), and the party began eating boiled hides, twigs, bones, bark, etc.

On December 15, Bails Williams died of malnutrition and realizing that something had to be done before they all died, five men, nine women, and one child departed for the summit. Eddie Graves was among those who left. He made snowshoes for the fifteen travelers, and they each had six days of starvation rations. On the sixth day of travel the food ran out. They were desperate for food. Some suggested drawing straws to decide who would be a human sacrifice and provide food for the rest of the group.

Patrick Dolan got the smallest piece of paper, but no one had the heart to kill him. The party went three days without food, barely surviving the tornado winds. Antonio, a Mexican teamster, and Frank Graves both died of starvation and hypothermia. Patrick Dolan went crazy, slipped into a coma, and eventually died. While Lemuel Murphy, the twelve year-old boy, just lay on the ground shuddering. Desperate and starving, the survivors began to eat Patrick Dolan. The Indians would not engage in this act of cannibalism, and left when they were told that many were planning to eat them after the others were roasted.

The party made sure that no one ate his or her kin by the labeling of the meat. This small expedition was an obvious failure. Many died in the months at the lake. Among the dead were: Milt Donner, Jacob Donner, Margaret Graves, Mr. Elliot, Mrs. Eddy, Sam Schumaker, Joseph Reinhart, and James Smith.

On New Year’s another storm hit and many prayers were said. On January 17, 1847, a bleeding skeleton of a man showed up at the Grave’s door. It was William Eddy and the six other survivors from the recent expedition. Only two out of the ten men survived, but all five women lived through the journey. The seven survivors told their stories: Sarah Fos*censored* told of the eating of her husband and the others talked about their discovery of the two starved/dead Indians.

They had endured twenty days in the wilderness with no food but each other. Relief for the Donner party was being arranged at Sutter’s Fort. On January 10, James Reed rushed to San Francisco to obtain relief for his family and friends, but it was two weeks before anyone agreed to come. On February 5, the first relief party left Johnson’s ranch, and the second, headed by James Reed, left two days later. On February 19, the first party made up of seven freezing men, reached the lake.

At first they thought that it was deserted, but a ghostly figure of a woman soon appeared followed by anyone who was able to move. The party found twelve emigrants dead and forty-eight who had either gone crazy or were barely clinging to life. Only twenty-four individuals could leave with the first relief party, and since no children had died in the Reed, Donner, or Breen families, they (the Donners and the Breens) stayed behind along with eight others. The first relief party left and during the party’s voyage back to Sutter’s Fort, two children died. Margaret Reed and her children had been separated from their father for five months, and when the first and second relief parties ran into each other, they were finally reunited.

By February 26, the second relief party still hadn’t come and the remaining survivors began to eat dead human flesh. When the second relief party had finally come and gone, the worst storm of the season occurred. Mrs. Graves and two Donner children died during the journey to the fort and were eventually consumed. The party was stranded for two days before the third relief party found them.

The fourth party was stranded for one month due to horrid storms, and when they finally reached the lake they found seven more survivors. Among them was Lewis Keseberg who was found crazy with many half consumed bodies around him. It took two months and four relief parties to rescue the entire surviving Donner party. There were many statistics gathered from this horrid event. Two-thirds of the men in the party perished, while two-thirds of the women and children lived.

Forty-one individuals died, and forty-six survived. The Donners suffered the most; everyone in their family died, but the entire families of the Breens and the Reeds survived. The survivors of the tragic Donner party went on to do various things. Some got married, others sought gold, and one individual, Lewis Keseberg, opened a restaurant. It is human nature to want to blame an individual for the tragedies that occur in our lives.

Some blame power hungry Lansford W. Hastings for this tragedy. Others blame James Reed for not heeding Clyman’s warning about the deadly route, and others just plain blame the weather for this horrible occurrence. Blame is an excuse that we have invented to cover up our mistakes and in my opinion this was a vast mistake of the human mind. If we weren’t always so eager to take the easy or the short way, we would save ourselves expansive amounts of trouble. It’s funny how we learn the most valuable lessons from tragedies such as this, but I guess that’s just another example of our human nature.

Word Cited King, Joseph A., The Donner Party New York: G. Braziller, 1972 McGlachan, C.F., History of the Donner Party Ann Arbor University: Microfilms, 1966 History Essays.