Eliza Poor Donner Houghton.

The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate online

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ghastliness of death, telling us Aunt Betsy and both our little cousins
had gone to heaven. She said Lewis had been first to go, and his
mother had soon followed; that she herself had carried little Sammie
from his sick mother's tent to ours the very day we three were taken
away; and in order to keep him warm while the storm raged, she had laid
him close to father's side, and that he had stayed with them until "day
before yesterday."

I asked her if Sammie had cried for bread. She replied, "No, he was not
hungry, for your mother saved two of those little biscuits which the
relief party brought, and every day she soaked a tiny piece in water
and fed him all he would eat, and there is still half a biscuit left."

How big that half-biscuit seemed to me! I wondered why she had not
brought at least a part of it to us. While she was talking with Mrs.
Murphy, I could not get it out of my mind. I could see that broken
half-biscuit, with its ragged edges, and knew that if I had a piece, I
would nibble off the rough points first. The longer I waited, the more
I wanted it. Finally, I slipped my arm around mother's neck, drew her
face close to mine and whispered,

"What are you going to do with the half-biscuit you saved?"

"I am keeping it for your sick father," she answered, drawing me closer
to her side, laying her comforting cheek against mine, letting my arm
keep its place, and my fingers stroke her hair.

The two women were still talking in subdued tones, pouring the oil of
sympathy into each others' gaping wounds. Neither heard the sound of
feet on the snow above; neither knew that the Third Relief Party was
at hand, until Mr. Eddy and Mr. Foster came down the steps, and each
asked anxiously of Mrs. Murphy, "Where is my boy?"

Each received the same sorrowful answer - "Dead."



It will be remembered that Mr. Eddy, being ill, was dropped out of the
First Relief at Mule Springs in February, and sent back to Johnson's
Ranch to await the return of this party, which had promised to bring
out his family. Who can realize his distress when it returned with
eighteen refugees, and informed him that his wife and little Maggie had
perished before it reached the camps, and that it had been obliged to
leave his baby there in care of Mrs. Murphy?

Disappointed and aggrieved, the afflicted father immediately set out on
horseback, hoping that he would meet his child on the trail in charge
of the Second Relief, which it seemed reasonable to expect would follow
closely in the footsteps of the first. He was accompanied by Mr.
Foster, of the Forlorn Hope, who had been forced to leave his own
little son at the camp in charge of Mrs. Murphy, its grandmother.

On the evening of the second day, the two reached Woodworth's camp,
established as a relay station pursuant to the general plan of rescue
originally adopted. They found the midshipman in snug quarters with
several men to do his bidding. He explained that the lack of competent
guides had prevented his venturing among the snow peaks. Whereupon, Mr.
Eddy earnestly assured him that the trail of those who had already gone
up outlined the way.

After much deliberation, Woodworth and his men agreed to start out next
morning for the mountain camps, but tried to dissuade Mr. Eddy from
accompanying them on account of his apparent depleted condition.
Nevertheless both he and Mr. Foster remained firm, and with the party,
left the relay camp, crossed the low foothills and encamped for the
night on the Yuba River.

At dusk, Woodworth was surprised by the arrival of two forlorn-looking
individuals, whom he recognized as members of the Reed-Greenwood
Relief, which had gone up the mountain late in February and was
overdue. The two implored food for themselves, also for their seven
companions and three refugees, a mile back on the trail, unable to come

When somewhat refreshed, they were able to go more into detail, and the
following explanation of their plight was elicited:

"One of our men, Clark, is at Donner's Camp, and the other nine of us
left the cabins near the lake on the third of March, with seventeen of
the starving emigrants. The storm caught us as we crossed the summit,
and ten miles below, drove us into camp. It got so bad and lasted so
long that our provisions gave out, and we almost froze to death cutting
wood. We all worked at keeping the fires until we were completely
exhausted, then seeing no prospects of help coming to us, we left, and
made our way down here, bringing Reed's two children and Solomon Hook,
who said he could and would walk. The other fourteen that we brought
over the summit are up there at what we call Starved Camp. Some are
dead, the rest without food."

Woodworth and two followers went at once with provisions to the near-by
sufferers, and later brought them down to camp.

Messrs. Reed and Greenwood stated that every available means had been
tried by them to get the seventeen unfortunates well over the summit
before the great storm reached its height. They said the physical
condition of the refugees was such, from the very start, that no
persuasion, nor warnings, nor threats could quicken their feeble steps.
All but three of the number were children, with their hands and feet
more or less frozen. Worse still, the caches on which the party had
relied for sustenance had been robbed by wild animals, and the severity
of the storm had forced all into camp, with nothing more than a
breastwork of brush to shelter them. Mrs. Elisabeth Graves died the
first night, leaving to the party the hopeless task of caring for her
emaciated babe in arms, and her three other children between the ages
of nine and five years. Soon, however, the five-year-old followed his
mother, and the number of starving was again lessened on the third
night when Isaac Donner went to sleep beside his sister and did not
waken. The storm had continued so furiously that it was impossible to
bury the dead. Days and nights were spent in steadfast struggling
against the threatening inevitable, before the party gave up; and
Greenwood and Reed, taking the two Reed children and also Solomon Hook,
who walked, started down the mountain, hoping to save their own lives
and perhaps get fresh men to complete the pitiful work which they had
been forced to abandon.

When Messrs. Reed and Greenwood closed their account of the terrible
physical and mental strain their party had undergone, "Mr. Woodworth
asked his own men of the relay camp, if they would go with him to
rescue those unfortunates at 'Starved Camp,' and received an answer in
the negative."[10]

The following morning there was an earnest consultation, and so
hazardous seemed the trail and the work to be done that for a time all
except Eddy and Foster refused to go farther. Finally, John Stark
stepped forward, saying,

"Gentlemen, I am ready to go and do what I can for those sufferers,
without promise of pay."



By guaranteeing three dollars per day to any man who would get supplies
to the mountain camps, and fifty dollars in addition to each man who
should carry a helpless child, not his own, back to the settlement,
Mr. Eddy[11] secured the services of Hiram Miller, who had just come
down with the Second Relief; and Mr. Foster hired, on the same terms,
Mr. Thompson from the relay camp. Mr. Woodworth offered like
inducements, on Government account, to the rest of his men, and before
the morning was far advanced, with William H. Eddy acting as leader,
William Foster, Hiram Miller, Mr. Thompson, John Stark, Howard Oakley,
and Charles Stone (who had left us little ones at the lake camp)
shouldered their packs and began the ascent.

Meanwhile how fared it at Starved Camp? Mr. and Mrs. Breen being left
there with their own five suffering children and the four other poor,
moaning little waifs, were tortured by situations too heart-rending for
description, too pitiful to seem true. Suffice it to relate that Mrs.
Breen shared with baby Graves the last lump of loaf sugar and the last
drops of tea, of that which she had denied herself and had hoarded for
her own babe. When this was gone, with quivering lips she and her
husband repeated the litany and prayed for strength to meet the
ordeal, - then, turning to the unburied dead, they resorted to the only
means left to save the nine helpless little ones.

When Mr. Eddy and party reached them, they found much suffering from
cold and crying for "something to eat," but not the wail which precedes
delirium and death.

This Third Relief Party settled for the night upon the snow near these
refugees, who had twice been in the shadow of doom; and after giving
them food and fire, Mr. Eddy divided his force into two sections.
Messrs. Stark, Oakley, and Stone were to remain there and nurture the
refugees a few hours longer, then carry the small children, and conduct
those able to walk to Mule Springs, while Eddy and three companions
should hasten on to the cabins across the summit.[12]

Section Two, spurred on by paternal solicitude, resumed travel at four
o'clock the following morning, and crossed the summit soon after
sunrise. The nearer they approached camp, the more anxious Messrs. Eddy
and Foster became to reach the children they hoped to find alive.
Finally, they rushed ahead, as we have seen, to the Murphy cabin. Alas!
only disappointment met them there.

Even after Mrs. Murphy had repeated her pitiful answer, "Dead," the
afflicted fathers stood dazed and silent, as if waiting for the loved
ones to return.

Mr. Eddy was the first to recover sufficiently for action. Presently
Simon Murphy and we three little girls were standing on the snow under
a clear blue sky, and saw Hiram Miller and Mr. Thompson coming toward

The change was so sudden it was difficult to understand what had
happened. How could we realize that we had passed out of that loathsome
cabin, never to return; or that Mrs. Murphy, too ill to leave her bed,
and Keseberg, too lame to walk, by reason of a deep cleft in his heel,
made by an axe, would have to stay alone in that abode of wretchedness?

Nor could we know our mother's anguish, as she stepped aside to arrange
with Mr. Eddy for our departure. She had told us at our own camp why
she would remain. She had parted from us there and put us in charge of
men who had risked much and come far to do a heroic deed. Later she had
found us, abandoned by them, in time of direst need, and in danger of
an awful death, and had warmed and cheered us back to hope and
confidence. Now, she was about to confide us to the care of a party
whose leader swore either to save us or die with us on the trail. We
listened to the sound of her voice, felt her good-bye kisses, and
watched her hasten away to father, over the snow, through the pines,
and out of sight, and knew that we must not follow. But the influence
of her last caress, last yearning look of love and abiding faith will
go with us through life.

The ordeal through which she passed is thus told by Colonel Thornton,
after a personal interview with Mr. Eddy:

Mrs. George Donner was able to travel. But her husband was in a
helpless condition, and she would not consent to leave him while he
survived. She expressed her solemn and unalterable purpose, which no
danger or peril could change, to remain and perform for him the last
sad office of duty and affection. She manifested, however, the
greatest solicitude for her children, and informed Mr. Eddy that she
had fifteen hundred dollars in silver, all of which she would give
him, if he would save the lives of the children.

He informed her that he would not carry out one hundred dollars of
all she had, but that he would save her children or die in the
effort. The party had no provisions to leave for the sustenance of
these unhappy, unfortunate beings.

After remaining about two hours, Mr. Eddy informed Mrs. Donner that
he was constrained by force of circumstances to depart. It was
certain that George Donner would never rise from the miserable bed
upon which he had lain down, worn by toil and wasted by famine.

A woman was probably never before placed in circumstances of greater
or more peculiar trial; but her duty and affection as a wife
triumphed over all her instincts of reason.

The parting scene between parent and children is represented as
being one that will never be forgotten, so long as life remains or
memory performs its functions.

My own emotions will not permit me to attempt a description which
language, indeed, has not power to delineate. It is sufficient to
say that it was affecting beyond measure; and that the last words
uttered by Mrs. Donner in tears and sobs to Mr. Eddy were, "Oh,
save, save my children!"

[Footnote 10: Extract from Thornton's work.]

[Footnote 11: Thornton saw Eddy pay Hiram Miller the promised fifty
dollars after the Third Relief reached the settlement.]

[Footnote 12: See McGlashan's "History of the Donner Party."]



When we left the lake cabin, we still wore the clothing we had on when
we came from our tent with Messrs. Cady and Stone. Georgia and I were
clad in quilted petticoats, linsey dresses, woollen stockings, and
well-worn shoes. Our cloaks were of a twilled material, garnet, with a
white thread interwoven, and we had knitted hoods to match. Frances'
clothing was as warm; instead of cloak, however, she wore a shawl, and
her hood was blue. Her shoes had been eaten by our starving dog before
he disappeared, and as all others were buried out of reach, mother had
substituted a pair of her own in their stead.

Mr. Foster took charge of Simon Murphy, his wife's brother, and Messrs.
Eddy and Miller carried Georgia and me. Mr. Eddy always called Georgia
"my girl," and she found great favor in his eyes, because in size and
looks she reminded him of his little daughter who had perished in that
storm-bound camp.

Our first stop was on the mountain-side overlooking the lake, where we
were given a light meal of bread and meat and a drink of water. When we
reached the head of the lake, we overtook Nicholas Clark and John
Baptiste who had deserted father in his tent and were hurrying toward
the settlement. Our coming was a surprise to them, yet they were glad
to join our party.

After our evening allowance of food we were stowed snugly between
blankets in a snow trench near the summit of the Sierras, but were so
hungry that we could hardly get to sleep, even after being told that
more food would do us harm.

Early next morning we were again on the trail. I could not walk at all,
and Georgia only a short distance at a time. So treacherous was the way
that our rescuers often stumbled into unseen pits, struggled among snow
drifts, and climbed icy ridges where to slip or fall might mean death
in the yawning depth below.

Near the close of this most trying day, Hiram M. Miller put me down,
saying wearily, "I am tired of carrying you. If you will walk to that
dark thing on the mountain-side ahead of us, you shall have a nice lump
of loaf sugar with your supper."

My position in the blanket had been so cramped that my limbs were stiff
and the jostling of the march had made my body ache. I looked toward
the object to which he pointed. It seemed a long way off; yet I wanted
the sugar so much that I agreed to walk. The wind was sharp. I
shivered, and at times could hardly lift my feet; often I stumbled and
would have fallen had he not held my hand tightly, as he half led,
half drew me onward. I did my part, however, in glad expectation of the
promised bit of sweetness. The sun had set before we reached our
landmark, which was a felled and blackened tree, selected to furnish
fuel for our night fire. When we children were given our evening
allowance of food, I asked for my lump of sugar, and cried bitterly on
being harshly told there was none for me. Too disappointed and fretted
to care for anything else, I sobbed myself to sleep.

Nor did I waken happy next morning. I had not forgotten the broken
promise, and was lonesome for mother. When Mr. Miller told me that I
should walk that day as far as Frances and Georgia did, I refused to go
forward, and cried to go back. The result was that he used rough means
before I promised to be good and do as he commanded. His act made my
sister Frances rush to my defence, and also, touched a chord in the
fatherly natures of the other two men, who summarily brought about a
more comfortable state of affairs.

When we proceeded on our journey, I was again carried by Mr. Miller in
a blanket on his back as young children are carried by Indians on long
journeys. My head above the blanket folds bobbed uncomfortably at every
lurch. The trail led up and down and around snow peaks, and under
overhanging banks that seemed ready to give way and crush us.

At one turn our rescuers stopped, picked up a bundle, and carefully
noted the fresh human foot prints in the snow which indicated that a
number of persons were moving in advance. By our fire that night, Mr.
Eddy opened the bundle that we had found upon the snow, and to the
surprise of all, Frances at once recognized in it the three silk
dresses, silver spoons, small keepsakes, and articles of children's
clothing which mother had intrusted to the care of Messrs. Cady and

The spoons and smaller articles were now stowed away in the pockets of
our rescuers for safekeeping on the journey; and while we little girls
dressed ourselves in the fresh underwear, and watched our discarded
garments disappear in the fire, the dresses, which mother had planned
should come to us later in life, were remodelled for immediate use.

Mr. Thompson pulled out the same sharp pocket-knife, coarse black
thread, and big-eyed needle, which he had used the previous evening,
while making Frances a pair of moccasins out of his own gauntlet
gloves. With the help of Mr. Eddy, he then ripped out the sleeves, cut
off the waists about an inch above the skirt gathers, cut slits in the
skirts for arm-holes, and tacked in the sleeves. Then, with mother's
wish in mind, they put the dove-colored silk on Frances, the light
brown on Georgia, and the dark coffee-brown on me. Pleats and laps in
the skirt bands were necessary to fit them to our necks. Strings were
tied around our waists, and the skirts tacked up until they were of
walking length. These ample robes served for cloaks as well as dresses
for we could easily draw our hands back through the sleeves and keep
our arms warm beneath the folds. Thus comfortably clad, we began
another day's journey.

Before noon we overtook and passed Messrs. Oakley, Stone, and Stark,
having in charge the following refugees from Starved Camp: Mr. and Mrs.
Patrick Breen and their five children; Mary Donner, Jonathan Graves,
Nancy Graves, and baby Graves. Messrs. Oakley and Stone were in
advance, the former carrying Mary Donner over his shoulder; and the
latter baby Graves in his arms. Great-hearted John Stark had the care
of all the rest. He was broad-shouldered and powerful, and would stride
ahead with two weaklings at a time, deposit them on the trail and go
back for others who could not keep up. These were the remnant of the
hopeful seventeen who had started out on the third of March with the
Second Relief, and with whom mother had hoped we children would cross
the mountains.

It was after dark when our own little party encamped at the crossing of
the Yuba River. The following morning Lieutenant Woodworth and
attendants were found near-by. He commended the work done by the Third
Relief; yet, to Mr. Eddy's dismay, he declared that he would not go to
the rescue of those who were still in the mountains, because the warmer
weather was melting the snow so rapidly that the lives of his men would
be endangered should he attempt to lead them up the trail which we had
just followed down. He gave our party rations, and said that he would
at once proceed to Johnson's Ranch and from there send to Mule Springs
the requisite number of horses to carry to the settlement the persons
now on the trail.

Our party did not resume travel until ten o'clock that morning;
nevertheless, we crossed the snow line and made our next camp at Mule
Springs. There we caught the first breath of spring-tide, touched the
warm, dry earth, and saw green fields far beyond the foot of that cold,
cruel mountain range. Our rescuers exclaimed joyfully, "Thank God, we
are at last out of the snow, and you shall soon see Elitha and Leanna,
and have all you want to eat."

Our allowance of food had been gradually increased and our improved
condition bore evidence of the good care and kind treatment we had
received. We remained several days at Mule Springs, and were
comparatively happy until the arrival of the unfortunates from Starved
Camp, who stretched forth their gaunt hands and piteously begged for
food which would have caused death had it been given to them in
sufficient quantities to satisfy their cravings.

When I went among them I found my little cousin Mary sitting on a
blanket near Mr. Oakley, who had carried her thither, and who was
gently trying to engage her thoughts. Her wan face was wet with tears,
and her hands were clasped around her knee as she rocked from side to
side in great pain. A large woollen stocking covered her swollen leg
and frozen foot which had become numb and fallen into the fire one
night at Starved Camp and been badly maimed before she awakened to
feel the pain. I wanted to speak to her, but when I saw how lonesome
and ill she looked, something like pain choked off my words.

Her brother Isaac had died at that awful camp and she herself would not
have lived had Mr. Oakley not been so good to her. He was now
comforting her with the assurance that he would have the foot cared for
by a doctor as soon as they should reach the settlement; and she,
believing him, was trying to be brave and patient.

We all resumed travel on horseback and reached Johnson's Ranch about
the same hour in the day. As we approached, the little colony of
emigrants which had settled in the neighborhood the previous Autumn
crowded in and about the two-roomed adobe house which Mr. Johnson had
kindly set apart as a stopping place for the several relief parties on
their way to and from the mountains. All were anxious to see the
sufferers for whose rescue they had helped to provide.

Survivors of the Forlorn Hope and of the First Relief were also there
awaiting the arrival of expected loved ones. There Simon Murphy, who
came with us, met his sisters and brother; Mary Graves took from the
arms of Charles Stone, her slowly dying baby sister; she received from
the hands of John Stark her brother Jonathan and her sister Nancy, and
heard of the death of her mother and of her brother Franklin at Starved
Camp. That house of welcome became a house of mourning when Messrs.
Eddy and Foster repeated the names of those who had perished in the
snows. The scenes were so heart-rending that I slipped out of doors and
sat in the sunshine waiting for Frances and Georgia, and thinking of
her who had intrusted us to the care of God.

Before our short stay at the Johnson Ranch ended, we little girls had a
peculiar experience. While standing in a doorway, the door closed with
a bang upon two of my fingers. My piercing cry brought several persons
to the spot, and one among them sat down and soothed me in a motherly
way. After I was myself again, she examined the dress into which
Messrs. Thompson and Eddy had stitched so much good-will, and she said:

"Let me take off this clumsy thing, and give you a little blue dress
with white flowers on it." She made the change, and after she had
fastened it in the back she got a needle and white thread and bade me
stand closer to her so that she might sew up the tear which exposed my
knees. She asked why I looked so hard at her sewing, and I replied,

"My mother always makes little stitches when she sews my dresses."

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Online LibraryEliza Poor Donner HoughtonThe Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate → online text (page 8 of 23)