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We are commanded by Captain Russell, an amiable man. George Donner
is himself yet. He crows in the morning and shouts out, "Chain up,
boys! chain up!" with as much authority as though he was "something
in particular." John Denton is still with us. We find him useful in
the camp. Hiram Miller and Noah James are in good health and doing
well. We have of the best people in our company, and some, too, that
are not so good.

Buffaloes show themselves frequently.

We have found the wild tulip, the primrose, the lupine, the eardrop,
the larkspur, and creeping hollyhock, and a beautiful flower
resembling the blossom of the beech tree, but in bunches as large as
a small sugar loaf, and of every variety of shade, to red and green.

I botanize and read some, but cook "heaps" more. There are four
hundred and twenty wagons, as far as we have heard, on the road
between here and Oregon and California.

Give our love to all inquiring friends. God bless them. Yours truly,


The following extract is part of a letter which appeared in _The
Springfield Journal_ of July 30, 1846[1]:


_Tuesday, June 16, 1846_


To-day, at nooning, there passed, going to the States, seven men
from Oregon, who went out last year. One of them was well acquainted
with Messrs. Ide and Cadden Keyes, the latter of whom, he says, went
to California. They met the advance Oregon caravan about 150 miles
west of Fort Laramie, and counted in all, for Oregon and California
(excepting ours), 478 wagons. There are in our company over 40
wagons, making 518 in all; and there are said to be yet 20 behind.
To-morrow we cross the river, and, by reckoning, will be over 200
miles from Fort Laramie, where we intend to stop and repair our
wagon wheels. They are nearly all loose, and I am afraid we will
have to stop sooner, if there can be found wood suitable to heat the
tires. There is no wood here, and our women and children are out now
gathering "buffalo chips" to burn, in order to do the cooking. These
chips burn well.


On the eighteenth of June, Captain Russell, who had been stricken with
bilious fever, resigned his office of leader. My father and other
subordinate officers also resigned their positions. The assembly
tendered the retiring officials a vote of thanks for faithful service;
and by common consent, ex-Governor Boggs moved at the head of the train
and gave it his name.


[Illustration: CHIMNEY ROCK]

We had expected to push on to Fort Laramie without stopping elsewhere,
but when we reached Fort Bernard, a small fur-trading post ten miles
east of Fort Laramie, we learned that the Sioux Indians were gathering
on Laramie Plain, preparing for war with the Crows, and their allies,
the Snakes; also that the emigrants already encamped there found
pasturage very short. Consequently, our train halted at this more
advantageous point, where our cattle could be sent in charge of herders
to browse along the Platte River, and where the necessary materials
could be obtained to repair the great damage which had been done to our
wagon wheels by the intense heat of the preceding weeks.

Meanwhile, Messrs. Russell and Bryant, with six young bachelor friends,
found an opportunity to finish their journey with pack animals. They
exchanged with traders from New Mexico their wagons and teams for the
requisite number of saddle-horses, mules, pack-saddles, and other
equipment, which would enable them to reach California a month earlier
than by wagon route.

Both parties broke camp at the same hour on the last day of June, they
taking the bridle trail to the right, and we turning to the left across
the ridge to Fort Laramie.

Not an emigrant tent was to be seen as we approached the fort, but
bands of horses were grazing on the plain, and Indians smeared with
war-paint, and armed with hunting knives, tomahawks, bows and arrows,
were moving about excitedly. They did not appear to notice us as we
drove to the entrance of the strongly fortified walls, surrounding the
buildings of the American Fur Company, yet by the time we were ready to
depart, large crowds were standing close to our wagons to receive the
presents which our people had to distribute among them. Many of the
squaws and papooses were gorgeous in white doe skin suits, gaudily
trimmed with beads, and bows of bright ribbons. They formed a striking
contrast to us, travel-stained wayfarers in linsey dresses and
sun-bonnets. Most of the white men connected with the fort had taken
Indian wives and many little children played around their doors.

Mr. Bourdeau, the general manager at the fort, explained to us that the
emigrants who had remained there up to the previous Saturday were on
that day advised by several of the Sioux chiefs, for whom he acted as
spokesman, "to resume their journey before the coming Tuesday, and to
unite in strong companies, because their people were in large force in
the hills, preparing to go out on the war-path in the country through
which the travellers had yet to pass; that they were not pleased with
the whites; that many of their warriors were cross and sulky in
anticipation of the work before them; and that any white persons found
outside the fort upon their arrival might be subject to robbery and
other bad treatment." This advice of the chiefs had awakened such fear
in the travellers that every camp-fire was deserted before sunrise the
ensuing morning. We, in turn, were filled with apprehension, and
immediately hurried onward in the ruts made by the fleeing wagons of
the previous day.

Before we got out of the country of the Sioux, we were overtaken by
about three hundred mounted warriors. They came in stately procession,
two abreast; rode on in advance of our train; halted, and opened ranks;
and as our wagons passed between their lines, the warriors took from
between their teeth, green twigs, and tossed them toward us in pledge
of friendship, then turned and as quietly and solemnly as they had come
to us, rode toward the hills. A great sigh of relief expressed the
company's satisfaction at being again alone; still no one could feel
sure that we should escape a night attack. Our trail led up into the
hills, and we travelled late into the night, and were again on the way
by morning starlight. We heard wolf yelps and owl hoots in the
distance, but were not approached by prowlers of any kind.

[Footnote 1: When Mr. Francis was appointed U.S. Consul by President
Lincoln, he stored his flies of _The Springfield, Illinois, Journal_,
and upon his return from Victoria, B.C., found the files almost
destroyed by attic rodents, and my mother's earlier contributions in
verse and prose, as well as her letters while _en route_ to California
were practically illegible.]



On the second of July we met Mr. Bryant returning to prevail on some
man of our company to take the place of Mr. Kendall of the bridle
party, who had heard such evil reports of California from returning
trappers that his courage had failed, and he had deserted his
companions and joined the Oregon company. Hiram Miller, who had driven
one of my father's wagons from Springfield, took advantage of this
opportunity for a faster method of travel and left with Mr. Bryant.

The following evening we encamped near the re-enforced bridle party,
and on the morning of the Fourth Messrs. Russell and Bryant came over
to help us to celebrate our national holiday. A salute was fired at
sunrise, and later a platform of boxes was arranged in a grove close
by, and by half-past nine o'clock every one in camp was in holiday
attire, and ready to join the procession which marched around the camp
and to the adjacent grove. There, patriotic songs were sung, the
Declaration of Independence was read, and Colonel Russell delivered an
address. After enjoying a feast prepared by the women of the company,
and drinking to the health and happiness of friends and kindred in
reverent silence, with faces toward the east, our guests bade us a
final good-bye and godspeed.

We had on many occasions entertained eastward-bound rovers whose varied
experiences on the Pacific coast made them interesting talkers. Those
who favored California extolled its excellence, and had scant praise
for Oregon. Those who loved Oregon described its marvellous advantages
over California, and urged home-seekers to select it as the wiser
choice; consequently, as we neared the parting of the ways, some of our
people were in perplexity which to choose.

On the nineteenth of July we reached the Little Sandy River and there
found four distinct companies encamped in neighborly groups, among them
our friends, the Thorntons and Rev. Mr. Cornwall. Most of them were
listed for Oregon, and were resting their cattle preparatory to
entering upon the long, dry drive of forty miles, known as "Greenwood's

There my father and others deliberated over a new route to California.

They were led to do so by "An Open Letter," which had been delivered to
our company on the seventeenth by special messenger on horseback. The
letter was written by Lansford W. Hastings, author of "Travel Among
the Rocky Mountains, Through Oregon and California." It was dated and
addressed, "At the Headwaters of the Sweetwater: To all California
Emigrants now on the Road," and intimated that, on account of war
between Mexico and the United States, the Government of California
would probably oppose the entrance of American emigrants to its
territory; and urged those on the way to California to concentrate
their numbers and strength, and to take the new and better route which
he had explored from Fort Bridger, by way of the south end of Salt
Lake. It emphasized the statement that this new route was nearly two
hundred miles shorter than the old one by way of Fort Hall and the
headwaters of Ogden's River, and that he himself would remain at Fort
Bridger to give further information, and to conduct the emigrants
through to the settlement.

The proposition seemed so feasible, that after cool deliberation and
discussion, a party was formed to take the new route.

My father was elected captain of this company, and from that time on it
was known as the "Donner Party." It included our original Sangamon
County folks (except Mrs. Keyes and Hiram Miller), and the following
additional members: Patrick Breen, wife, and seven children; Lewis
Keseberg, wife, and two children; Mrs. Lavina Murphy (a widow) and five
children; William Eddy, wife, and two children; William Pike, wife, and
two children; William Foster, wife, and child; William McCutchen, wife,
and child; Mr. Wolfinger and wife; Patrick Dolan, Charles Stanton,
Samuel Shoemaker, - - Hardcoop, - - Spitzer, Joseph Rhinehart, James
Smith, Walter Herron, and Luke Halloran.

While we were preparing to break camp, the last named had begged my
father for a place in our wagon. He was a stranger to our family,
afflicted with consumption, too ill to make the journey on horseback,
and the family with whom he had travelled thus far could no longer
accommodate him. His forlorn condition appealed to my parents and they
granted his request.

All the companies broke camp and left the Little Sandy on the twentieth
of July. The Oregon division with a section for California took the
right-hand trail for Fort Hall; and the Donner Party, the left-hand
trail to Fort Bridger.

After parting from us, Mr. Thornton made the following note in his

July 20, 1846. The Californians were much elated and in fine
spirits, with the prospect of better and nearer road to the country
of their destination. Mrs. George Donner, however, was an exception.
She was gloomy, sad, and dispirited in view of the fact that her
husband and others could think of leaving the old road, and confide
in the statement of a man of whom they knew nothing, but was
probably some selfish adventurer.

Five days later the Donner Party reached Fort Bridger, and were
informed by Hastings's agent that he had gone forward as pilot to a
large emigrant train, but had left instructions that all later arrivals
should follow his trail. Further, that they would find "an abundant
supply of wood, water, and pasturage along the whole line of road,
except one dry drive of thirty miles, or forty at most; that they would
have no difficult cañons to pass; and that the road was generally
smooth, level, and hard."

At Fort Bridger, my father took as driver for one of his wagons, John
Baptiste Trubode, a sturdy young mountaineer, the offspring of a French
father - a trapper - and a Mexican mother. John claimed to have a
knowledge of the languages and customs of various Indian tribes through
whose country we should have to pass, and urged that this knowledge
might prove helpful to the company.

The trail from the fort was all that could be desired, and on the third
of August, we reached the crossing of Webber River, where it breaks
through the mountains into the cañon. There we found a letter from
Hastings stuck in the cleft of a projecting stick near the roadside. It
advised all parties to encamp and await his return for the purpose of
showing them a better way than through the cañon of Webber River,
stating that he had found the road over which he was then piloting a
train very bad, and feared other parties might not be able to get their
wagons through the cañon leading to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.




He referred, however, to another route which he declared to be much
better, as it avoided the cañon altogether. To prevent unnecessary
delays, Messrs. Reed, Pike, and Stanton volunteered to ride over the
new route, and, if advisable, bring Hastings back to conduct us to
the open valley. After eight days Mr. Reed returned alone, and reported
that he and his companions overtook Hastings with his train near the
south end of Salt Lake; that Hastings refused to leave his train, but
was finally induced to go with them to the summit of a ridge of the
Wahsatch Mountains and from there point out as best he could, the
directions to be followed.

While exploring on the way back, Mr. Reed had become separated from
Messrs. Pike and Stanton and now feared they might be lost. He himself
had located landmarks and blazed trees and felt confident that, by
making occasional short clearings, we could get our wagons over the new
route as outlined by Hastings. Searchers were sent ahead to look up the
missing men, and we immediately broke camp and resumed travel.

The following evening we were stopped by a thicket of quaking ash,
through which it required a full day's hard work to open a passageway.
Thence our course lay through a wilderness of rugged peaks and
rock-bound cañons until a heavily obstructed gulch confronted us.
Believing that it would lead out to the Utah River Valley, our men
again took their tools and became roadmakers. They had toiled six days,
when W.F. Graves, wife, and eight children; J. Fosdick, wife, and
child, and John Snyder, with their teams and cattle, overtook and
joined our train. With the assistance of these three fresh men, the
road, eight miles in length, was completed two days later. It carried
us out into a pretty mountain dell, not the opening we had expected.

Fortunately, we here met the searchers returning with Messrs. Pike and
Stanton. The latter informed us that we must turn back over our newly
made road and cross a farther range of peaks in order to strike the
outlet to the valley. Sudden fear of being lost in the trackless
mountains almost precipitated a panic, and it was with difficulty that
my father and other cool-headed persons kept excited families from
scattering rashly into greater dangers.

We retraced our way, and after five days of alternate travelling and
road-making, ascended a mountain so steep that six and eight yoke of
oxen were required to draw each vehicle up the grade, and most careful
handling of the teams was necessary to keep the wagons from toppling
over as the straining cattle zigzaged to the summit. Fortunately, the
slope on the opposite side was gradual and the last wagon descended to
camp before darkness obscured the way.

The following morning, we crossed the river which flows from Utah Lake
to Great Salt Lake and found the trail of the Hastings party. We had
been thirty days in reaching that point, which we had hoped to make in
ten or twelve.

The tedious delays and high altitude wrought distressing changes in Mr.
Halloran's condition, and my father and mother watched over him with
increasing solicitude. But despite my mother's unwearying
ministrations, death came on the fourth of September.

Suitable timber for a coffin could not be obtained, so his body was
wrapped in sheets and carefully enclosed in a buffalo robe, then
reverently laid to rest in a grave on the shore of Great Salt Lake,
near that of a stranger, who had been buried by the Hastings party a
few weeks earlier.

Mr. Halloran had appreciated the tender care bestowed upon him by my
parents, and had told members of our company that in the event of his
death on the way, his trunk and its contents, and his horse and its
equipments should belong to Captain Donner. When the trunk was opened,
it was found to contain clothing, keepsakes, a Masonic emblem, and
fifteen hundred dollars in coin.

A new inventory, taken about this time, disclosed the fact that the
company's stock of supplies was insufficient to carry it through to
California. A call was made for volunteers who should hasten on
horseback to Sutter's Fort, procure supplies and, returning, meet the
train _en route_. Mr. Stanton, who was without family, and Mr.
McCutchen, whose wife and child were in the company, heroically
responded. They were furnished with necessaries for their personal
needs, and with letters to Captain Sutter, explaining the company's
situation, and petitioning for supplies which would enable it to reach
the settlement. As the two men rode away, many anxious eyes watched
them pass out of sight, and many heartfelt prayers were offered for
their personal safety, and the success of their mission.

In addressing this letter to Captain Sutter, my father followed the
general example of emigrants to California in those days, for Sutter,
great-hearted and generous, was the man to whom all turned in distress
or emergencies. He himself had emigrated to the United States at an
early age, and after a few years spent in St. Louis, Missouri, had
pushed his way westward to California.

There he negotiated with the Russian Government for its holdings on the
Pacific coast, and took them over when Russia evacuated the country. He
then established himself on the vast estates so acquired, which, in
memory of his parentage, he called New Helvetia. The Mexican
Government, however, soon assumed his liabilities to the Russian
Government, and exercised sovereignty over the territory. Sutter's
position, nevertheless, was practically that of a potentate. He
constructed the well-known fort near the present site of the city of
Sacramento, as protection against Indian depredations, and it became a
trading centre and rendezvous for incoming emigrants.



Our next memorable camp was in a fertile valley where we found twenty
natural wells, some very deep and full to the brim of pure, cold water.
"They varied from six inches to several feet in diameter, the soil
around the edges was dry and hard, and as fast as water was dipped out,
a new supply rose to the surface."[2] Grass was plentiful and wood
easily obtained. Our people made much of a brief stay, for though the
weather was a little sharp, the surroundings were restful. Then came a
long, dreary pull over a low range of hills, which brought us to
another beautiful valley where the pasturage was abundant, and more
wells marked the site of good camping grounds.

Close by the largest well stood a rueful spectacle, - a bewildering
guide board, flecked with bits of white paper, showing that the notice
or message which had recently been pasted and tacked thereon had since
been stripped off in irregular bits.

In surprise and consternation, the emigrants gazed at its blank face,
then toward the dreary waste beyond. Presently, my mother knelt before
it and began searching for fragments of paper, which she believed crows
had wantonly pecked off and dropped to the ground.

Spurred by her zeal, others also were soon on their knees, scratching
among the grasses and sifting the loose soil through their fingers.
What they found, they brought to her, and after the search ended she
took the guide board, laid it across her lap, and thoughtfully, began
fitting the ragged edges of paper together and matching the scraps to
marks on the board. The tedious process was watched with spell-bound
interest by the anxious group around her.

The writing was that of Hastings, and her patchwork brought out the
following words:

"2 days - 2 nights - hard driving - cross - desert - reach water."

This would be a heavy strain on our cattle, and to fit them for the
ordeal they were granted thirty-six hours' indulgence near the bubbling
waters, amid good pasturage. Meanwhile, grass was cut and stored, water
casks were filled, and rations were prepared for desert use.

We left camp on the morning of September 9, following dimly marked
wagon-tracks courageously, and entered upon the "dry drive," which
Hastings and his agent at Fort Bridger had represented as being
thirty-five miles, or forty at most. After two days and two nights of
continuous travel, over a waste of alkali and sand, we were still
surrounded as far as eye could see by a region of fearful desolation.
The supply of feed for our cattle was gone, the water casks were empty,
and a pitiless sun was turning its burning rays upon the glaring earth
over which we still had to go.

Mr. Reed now rode ahead to prospect for water, while the rest followed
with the teams. All who could walk did so, mothers carrying their babes
in their arms, and fathers with weaklings across their shoulders moved
slowly as they urged the famishing cattle forward. Suddenly an outcry
of joy gave hope to those whose courage waned. A lake of shimmering
water appeared before us in the near distance, we could see the wavy
grasses and a caravan of people moving toward it.

"It may be Hastings!" was the eager shout. Alas, as we advanced, the
scene vanished! A cruel mirage, in its mysterious way, had outlined the
lake and cast our shadows near its shore.

Disappointment intensified our burning thirst, and my good mother gave
her own and other suffering children wee lumps of sugar, moistened with
a drop of peppermint, and later put a flattened bullet in each child's
mouth to engage its attention and help keep the salivary glands in

Then followed soul-trying hours. Oxen, footsore and weary, stumbled
under their yokes. Women, heartsick and exhausted, could walk no
farther. As a last resort, the men hung the water pails on their arms,
unhooked the oxen from the wagons, and by persuasion and force, drove
them onward, leaving the women and children to await their return.
Messrs. Eddy and Graves got their animals to water on the night of the
twelfth, and the others later. As soon as the poor beasts were
refreshed, they were brought back with water for the suffering, and
also that they might draw the wagons on to camp. My father's wagons
were the last taken out. They reached camp the morning of the

Thirty-six head of cattle were left on that desert, some dead, some
lost. Among the lost were all Mr. Reed's herd, except an ox and a cow.
His poor beasts had become frenzied in the night, as they were being
driven toward water, and with the strength that comes with madness, had
rushed away in the darkness. Meanwhile, Mr. Reed, unconscious of his

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Online LibraryEliza Poor Donner HoughtonThe Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate → online text (page 3 of 23)