Short URL for this page:
https://bit.ly/DEVYOD12


[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail:
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]
Italiano

[Link to a series of help pages]
Help
[Link to the next level up]
Up
[Link to my homepage]
Home
previous:

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Interlude

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Year of Decision

by
Bernard DeVoto

published by Little, Brown and Company,
Boston, 1943

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

next:

[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p330  Chapter 12:
Atomization

The power of religion and the fascination of psychology are that they try to explain character. What gives men standards of responsibility, called honor? What is it that, in extremity, forces some men to betray those standards in the hope of escaping death, and what forces other men to hold by them, let death come? Why does danger paralyze the will and make purposive the intelligence of others? Why, when death must be faced, do some personalities disintegrate whereas others abide by the qualities of resolution, fortitude, and courage which have persuaded the human race that it has dignity? Why, at the inexorable test, do some men yield to the suddenly loosed primordial terror that is our inheritance, whereas some are able to hold the monsters in check and act as their God has promised them they will? What are self-command, hardihood, gallantry, audacity, and valor?

It would be helpful to know the answers to such questions when we look at a train of twenty emigrant wagons parked near the crossing of the Weber River on the evening of August 11, when James Frazier Reed gets back to them from Great Salt Lake, not accompanied by Lansford Hastings. For the long, inexorable testing begins here.

There is no point in devoting to the Donner party the space it receives in this book except as it provides one of the varieties of frontier experience. It has been a favorite story of historians and novelists because it is concentrated, because the horror composes a drama. But the reader of this book will understand that the disaster which overtook the Donner party was part of the trail's if, one factor in the equation of chance under which emigration across the mountains and desert traveled. The fate of the Donners or its equivalent was, as a hazard, part of the equipment packed in every white‑top that pulled up the sleep beyond Fort Laramie, this year, the years before it, and for some years still to come. Whether the risk was to be taken successfully or unsuccessfully depended on chance, weather, skill, intelligence, and character — all inscrutable.

No part of the tragedy is unique. There is more horror in the Mountain  p331 Meadows massacre of September, 1857. An armed band of Mormons led by John D. Lee, and under the superior command of William Dame and Isaac Haight, murdered one hundred and twenty men, women, and children. (In the entire history of the West no massacre by Indians was so large-scale or so complete.) Equal folly and suffering, and equal heroism, can be found in the story of the "Jayhawkers" and the Stevens-Murphy party who. in the autumn of 1849, tried to find another shorter way to California. Jefferson Hunt, of the Mormon Battalion, was guiding them by a safe route which had been blazed to escape the Salt Desert where the Donners foundered, but they left him and wandered off to disaster in the region which, because of them, has ever since been known as Death Valley. The Donners were not the only emigrants who disintegrated in panic, and the fact which the public chiefly remembers about them, their cannibalism, was no novelty in the West. It had occurred along the route they traveled, and when, in the last days of 1848, Frémont's fourth expedition stalled in the San Juan snows, Bill Williams' detachment probably killed and ate one of their companions. Kit Carson remarked of Bill Williams that in starving times no man should walk ahead of him on the trail, and old Bill shared that reputation with numerous others. In fact, the last resource of starving men is a commonplace.

It is as the commonplace or typical just distorted that the Donners must be seen. Beyond Fort Laramie every stretch of the trail they traveled, at some time during the history of emigration, saw one or another party just escaping disaster, and a number of stretches saw some parties not altogether escaping it. Just west of the Salt Desert the Donners crossed the trail of the Bartleson party of 1841 (mentioned earlier in a footnote), who had no trail at all across the Sierra, wandered lost for weeks in the mountains, starving, and just contrived to live till they could reach the universal succorer, John Augustus Sutter. The cabin which some of the Donner party camped in at the foot of Truckee Lake had been built two years before, in November, 1844, by the Stevens-Murphy party in the fear that they might have to spend the winter in the snow. One member of that party, Moses Schallenberger, did in fact spend the winter in that cabin alone. The others got across the divide which the Donners could not cross only because they had a master mountain man with them. Old Caleb Greenwood got them over by a heroic feat of will, intelligence, and ingenuity. And we have seen how close the Harlan-Young party, under Hastings' personal direction, came to disaster in the Salt Desert. . . . Finally, there is not much difference between dying of  p332 starvation in the snow and dying of exhaustion, as some of their former companions had done before they reached Truckee Lake, or dying of pneumonia in the Oregon rains, as others of their former companions did a month after the Donners turned back from the divide. Death on the trail was a hazard of emigration. You took your chances. Our concern with the Donners comes from the fact that the common chance turned against them.

* * *

The Wasatch are one of the most beautiful of Rocky Mountain ranges, but not among the highest. Characteristic of them are small, narrow, twisting canyons which have no logic except the laws of flowing water. These canyons are adventurous for mountain climbers but their discouraging attribute for those who travel them seriously is the way they lead into one another. The Union Pacific Railroad takes the one direct pass through the north and south main chain of the Wasatch, Weber Canyon, which we have seen Bryant and the Harlan-Young party traveling — but takes it by virtue of dynamite.​a All other passages of the Wasatch are circuitous, by small canyons which lead into other small canyons, sometimes widen into circular valleys off which a number of canyons lead (only one of which will be the right way onward), and by degrees take their streams westward round cliffs, the base of peaks, and the jutting ends of spinal ledges. Modern highways cross the Wasatch by such oblique routes now. The Donner party had to find such a route when, on the morning of August 12, they started out from their five‑day encampment a little west of the mouth of Echo Canyon.
 (p340)  
[image ALT: A sketch relief map of a strip of the western United States from western Wyoming to California, showing the route taken by the Donner party in 1846. The principal landmarks are the Wind River Range, Fort Bridger, the Great Salt Lake and Salt Lake City, the Great Salt Desert, Elko, Winnemucca, the Humboldt River and Humboldt Sink, the Truckee River and Truckee Lake, Lake Tahoe, and Sutter's Fort.]

Route Taken by the Donner Party

[A much larger version, fully readable, opens here (704 kB).]

Fifteen days later, on August 27, they reached Salt Lake Valley, having covered a distance estimated, but probably underestimated, at thirty‑six miles. In the meantime, Stanton and McCutchen, who had not been able to keep up with Reed, had rejoined the party, and the Graves family, thirteen altogether, with three wagons, had caught up with them from the east.

They had had to make a road for wagons, by a route which no wagon had ever taken before. With two of the able-bodied men absent and at least four other men disqualified by age or sickness, they had had to chop through aspen and popple and cottonwoods (and the underbrush that is just as bad) which choked the small canyons. They had to dig tracks and fell trees and level off centers high up on mountainsides, pry boulders out of their course, riprap swampy patches, sometimes bridge brooks that could not be crossed otherwise, grunt and strain and curse while the oxen  p333 heaved the wagons up inclines, over ridges, and around spurs of rock. Every ridge they topped showed a haze of further ridges beyond it. Every canyon that opened out closed in again. Every canyon that might be the last one ended in another one that might also be the last one. Three times they found that they could go no farther, had to go back over part of the road they had built, and, abandoning it as wasted, try again, chopping and shoveling a new road. When they camped at the end of the fifteenth day they were almost out of the last canyon, the narrow defile which the Mormons were to call Parley's Canyon. The next morning they decided that they could not get through a tortuous place where the canyon walls almost met and the notch between was choked with loose rock. So they retraced their way up Parley's Canyon and the gulch by which they had entered it, and took the wagons straight up a mountain, over the ridge, and down into what is now called Emigration Canyon, and out, at last, into the valley of the lake.1

Edwin Bryant, who left Fort Bridger on July 20, reached the valley of Great Salt Lake on July 26. The Donner party, leaving Fort Bridger on July 31, reached the valley on August 27. That difference in traveling time states the first circumstance of their disaster but does not reveal all that had happened to them in the Wasatch. Their morale had begun to break. The morale of any emigrant train can be judged by its success in solving a fundamental conflict. On one hand there is any American frontiersman's impulse to go his own way, make his own choices, reap the rewards of his own intelligence and skill, and pay the penalties for his own mistakes. On the other is the co‑operation enforced by the wilderness, which requires choices to be made in the common interest, assesses against the group penalties for every mistake made by individuals, and pools intelligence and skill for the use of everyone. We have seen the wagon trains breaking up and re‑forming. Every new grouping was an attempt to establish a small social system which would function effectively; a success­ful passage along the trail meant the creation of a group spirit.

The feeling of being members one of another cracked in the Wasatch. They had to have a scapegoat and Hastings was not enough. James Frazier Reed began to be the focus of blame. He was responsible, or could be thought responsible, for the route they took; also, Stewart​b points out, he was now being paid back for his superior wealth and his aristocratic bearing. Furthermore, in fourteen days of heartbreaking labor some had begun to resent the weakness of companions who could not do their full share, and some had refused to do their share, accepting the common labor without putting into it all they had. The membrane that incloses the  p334 primordial inheritance was thus wearing through, and an even more dangerous pressure had been put on it. They had thought that Big Mountain was the last ridge that they must cross, but Stanton and McCutchen rejoined them just as they got down from it and told them that it was not. Then, Eliza Donner Houghton says, "Sudden fear of being lost in the trackless mountains almost precipitated a panic, and it was with difficulty that my father [George Donner] and other cool-headed persons kept excited families from scattering rashly into greater dangers. They had at last realized the danger they were in, and the realization was centrifugal, tending to drive them apart. It would dominate them from now on.

Overstrained and fearful but less exhausted than their stock, with the wagons jolted and shaken into a universal brittleness, they headed for the south end of Great Salt Lake and the Salt Desert beyond. One of George Donner's wagons stopped in blistering sun, and Luke Halloran, the consumptive, died, his head in Tamsen's lap.​2 They examined his possessions, which he had bequeathed to George Donner, and found $1500 in gold coin and the insignia of Masonry. The other Masons in the party convened a lodge and tossed the symbolic evergreen in a grave dug in salt mud. It was not far from the grave of Hargrave of the Harlan-Young party, and the land of Canaan had claimed its second life from the emigration of '46.

There were eighty‑six of them now, and twenty-three wagons. They toiled on, hurrying as fast as the condition of the oxen permitted, and in five days reached the last oasis east of the Salt Desert, Skull Valley. Here they found fragments of paper tacked to a board. Tamsen Donner gathered them up and pieced them together, and they proved to be a note from Hastings. The author of their ills was confessing another enthusiasm. He had originally said that the Salt Desert was no more than forty miles wide and could be crossed in one day. Now he was telling them that the crossing would take two days and nights.3

It took them six days and they traveled all or most of every night.

Here is where the membrane broke, where the group was atomized to individuals. The blinding glare, the burning blue sky with the insolent peace of bellying clouds, the horizon of mountains blue and purple and amethyst, the reds of sunset and greens of dawn — the cruel beauty of the death-giver could be observed in irony. Twisting whirlwinds or high walls of salt blew past them. Mirages offered them lakes and streams or showed them fields of grass blowing in the wind. William Eddy saw a file of men moving across the distance; they were himself repeated twenty times. Others saw similar processions and once some of them cried out,  p335 for this must be Hastings, the deliverer, coming back to help his victims. But none of this mattered for fear and the pit were upon them. They might die . . . here . . . now. The social system disintegrated. Some drove their oxen to the uttermost exertion, some tried to conserve their strength, some merely went on. Following the tracks of Hastings' wagons, they strung out across the white hell, under sun or full moon, formless, disorganized, at random, the stock failing, men and women with death in their hearts, all of them forced to observe the stoic, uncomprehending agony of the children.

The heavily loaded outfits of Reed and the Donners fell to the rear, where shrewdness would have put them anyway in a crisis of sauve qui peut. But too much had been required of the oxen in the Wasatch, and by the third night there was no water left in the casks. Men and stock must have water or die in the salt. Reed rode ahead, passing most of the others. Some had abandoned their wagons, driving the teams toward the water that was somewhere ahead. Others, frail, black-faced, stolid, were trying to keep to the wheel tracks. At the end of the fourth day (if he had slept at all, it was during part of the first night) he got to Pilot Peak first of all. Eddy, taking water to an exhausted ox, went back a few miles with Reed, who again in the moon's unreality passed down the frayed line of specters. He met his own teamsters, who had unhitched the oxen and were trying to get them and his horses to water in time. Then the Donners, driving their stock and some wagons. Then an abandoned Donner wagon and at last, toward dawn, his wife and children and some employes. One of the employes took Reed's horse back. The others waited for the drivers and the oxen.

They sat there in the salt, under the sun, blistered by the wind, all the next day. No oxen and no drivers came. . . The herd, maddened by thirst, had stampeded into the wasteland and would never be recovered. . . . So at the end of the day, Reed carrying the three-year‑old Tommy, the others packing some food from the wagons and the remaining gills of water, they started out to walk it. When the children could go no farther, they made a kind of camp. An insane ox charged them and they got up again and went on. They reached Jacob Donner's wagon, Reed heard that he had lost his teams, and, leaving his family, hurried on. Nearly everyone was getting to Pilot Peak now, some with their wagons, some with only their teams, some staggering in alone. The last day stretched out its agony, Jacob Donner came in with Reed's family, and, with no one dead, they had crossed the Salt Desert in six days. September 8.

 p336  Thirty‑six oxen all told, just half of them Reed's, had died or stampeded into emptiness. As soon as they had drunk and let the surviving oxen drink, they started back to round up any stock they could find and bring the wagons in. When at last they had finished, the extent of disaster was clear. Those of high degree had been cast down, Reed altogether. They had futilely cached most of his possessions and abandoned two of his wagons, one of them the great van which his stepdaughter Virginia was to call the Pioneer Palace Car. He still had one ox and a cow; he hired two oxen from others and yoked the two teams thus formed to his remaining wagon. The surplus food supplies he had carried were distributed among his companions, who would presently refuse to share them with his family. Jacob Donner also abandoned a wagon, and so did the opulent Keseberg.

There were few spare teams left now, and all the stock was dangerously worn down. No more dangerously so, however, than their owners. The Salt Desert had accelerated the collapse which the Wasatch had begun.

They started toward the Humboldt. They had no way of knowing how to get there except by following Hastings' tracks — and the booster had taken the Harlan-Young party on a wide detour instead of using the trail which Clyman had found for him three months before.​4 Instead of taking a straight line, then, they tacked westward by long north and south courses which added at least a week to their traveling time. The oxen weakened and some of them died, and the wagons kept falling apart. The travelers repeatedly lightened their loads, sometimes making caches in the dream that they would be able later on to come back and open them, sometimes just leaving the stuff there in the desert. The process of doubling up had begun as the oxen failed: your remaining team and my wagons, whichever looks stronger, and as much food as we think we can carry.

Now they realized that it wasn't enough food. To the terror that they might not get across the Sierra before the snow came (now stimulated by a typical September snowstorm) there was added the terror that they might starve before they could freeze. So they did what the desert-bound in these parts always did: they resolved to appeal to Sutter. After a debate in which the nakedest suspicions must have found utterance, two who had previously served them volunteered and were accepted, the bachelor Stanton and the tall, power­ful McCutchen, who would leave a wife and child behind him. On September 18 they rode ahead, hoping to bring supplies back from the Sacramento Valley in time. There was the plain danger that they might not get through to Sutter's. But in the  p337 minds of those they left behind, what assurance could there be that, if they should get through to food, comfort, and safety, they would commit the folly of coming back?

The going was dreadful all the way to the Humboldt. Even on the trail the Nevada stretches were always felt to be the worst of all. Except for occasional dry drives there was always water, and the double-teaming, the struggle with narrow gaps of rock or sudden and insane vertical hills or knife wedges of rock or stinking quicksand, was by now so routine that no one noticed. But it was here that the reserves of physical strength and moral stamina were exhausted. Here the cumulative strain of emigration precipitated trouble for man and beast and outfit alike, if it was going to. And here, if you were going to, you encountered the Diggers, their half-gram brains vibrating with the remembered murders of hundreds of kinsmen and with desire for oxen and other plunder.

The term "Digger" is an epithet, not a classification. It was properly applied to Indians who, being unskilful hunters or residing in country where game was scarce, lived on roots. But it came to mean certain degenerate bands of various tribes who can be exactly described as the technological unemployed. Unable to stand competition with hardier Indians, they had been pushed into the deserts and, living there on the subsistence level, had lost their culture. Many of them were physically decadent. The weapons overall were crude. Mostly they lived in caves or brush huts. Some had lost the use of fire. Some "Diggers" were Bannack or Shoshoni in origin; those in Great Salt Lake Valley were Paiute and Gosiute; fragments of other neighboring tribes also degenerated, and the Indians who harassed the Donners probably belonged to the Kuyuidika band of the Paviotso. But the whites who used the term meant no particular tribe; they meant only that they hated skulking, theft, and malicious mischief. From Ewing Young and Joseph Walker on, they had massacred Diggers idly, for fun, or in punishment for theft. The Diggers remembered. . . If they had not, they might have succored the Donners in the snow.

* * *

Hastings' route followed down the valley of the south fork of the Humboldt and the Donner party reached its junction with the main trail on September 30. They had come back (just west of Elko) to the road from Fort Hall which they should have taken from the Little Sandy or Fort Bridger. Exactly a month before, on August 30, Edwin Bryant had come down to Johnson's ranch on the far side of the Sierra.

 p338  The party split in two, one group forming round the Donners, whose outfits had survived in the best condition and could travel faster. The division was made on the theory that they could thus make more efficient use of the sparse grass. But it was really an act of anxiety, further evidence that the bonds of the community had been broken.

Some Diggers who came into camp seemed amiable and they were fed and allowed to spend the night. They were gone in the morning and so were two oxen. Some of their kin got a horse presently, and others began shooting arrows, not yet fatally, into the hides of oxen. And on October 5 the constraints of human association snapped apart. Note that in approximately the same place Bryant had stepped between two companions who were bent on killing each other.

It was double-teaming up one more of a thousand slopes that did the business. The Reeds had by now merged their small remaining outfit with Eddy's. Reed's teamster, Milt Elliott, who was driving the single wagon, had hitched Pike's team to it for the ascent. Elliott got into a quarrel with John Snyder, of the Graves party, over precedence up the hill. Snyder flamed into a rage and became violently abusive. Reed intercepted his threats. Snyder began to beat Reed over the head with his bull-whip, gashing him badly. Reed drew a knife and stabbed Snyder, just as another below from the whip knocked him down. Snyder died almost at once. And at once this band of pilgrims traveling the frontier of death were atomized to armed men threatening one another. The Graveses demanded Reed's life. Keseberg, whom Reed had once insisted on temporarily banishing from the train for rifling an Indian grave and thus risking all their lives, propped up his wagon tongue — they were sufficiently veteran to know that this was how you hanged a man on the trail. Reed, supported by Eddy and Elliott, would not be hanged without some shooting first. When due fear of loaded guns had made itself felt above the blood lust, the party convened as a court, Reed's wounds bandaged and his wife's face showing the bruise where Snyder's whip had struck her. Sentence: on promise of the others to take care of his family, Reed must hereafter travel alone. And unarmed.

Such a verdict could not have been reached if the more stable Donners had been with this half of the party. Not only the cruelty but the grotesque folly of the sentence shows what inroads fear and exhaustion had made on their intelligence. They were depriving themselves of their strongest personality.

Prevailed on by his family, and by the thought that he might bring help to them all, Reed rode ahead the next day. Someone — either Virginia  p339 Reed or William Eddy — defied the common will by taking his rifle to him and so giving him a chance to survive. He overtook the forward section and had breakfast with George Donner. One of his teamsters who was traveling with them, Walter Herron, joined him and they went on. They carried a letter from George Donner to Sutter, asking him to send help and containing Donner's promise to pay all the expenses that might be involved. So there were now two pairs of messengers ahead of the divided train.

As the rack twists, certain of these people are seen to be more resistant than the others. In that inscrutable area of the personality which we call moral, Reed and his wife, George and Tamsen Donner, Mary Grieves, Stanton, McCutchen, and William Eddy had a greater richness than their companions. It goes into the total sum for what it is worth. It proved to be worth much.

They were six days along the Humboldt stretch of the trail when the quarrel occurred. It took them the entire month of October to travel that stretch, go up the Truckee, and reach Truckee Lake just east of the final Sierra crossing. They had ceased to be a group long since. Some of them now ceased to acknowledge membership in the human race. Obeying the law of avalanches, the daily disasters grew worse.

Hardkoop, who was more than sixty years old, had been traveling with Keseberg and had suffered badly from the desert. One morning he could walk no more. Keseberg, with the limpid logic of the German mind, would not take him in a wagon, condemning the unfit for the preservation of the strong.​c Eddy was at the end of the caravan that day — it was of course no longer a caravan but only an irregular line. He saw Hardkoop, promised to take him in after crossing a difficult stretch, found the stretch longer than he had thought, and forgot Hardkoop. That night he did not come in, and that night and the next day Eddy, Elliot, and Pike would obey the obligations of humanity and go back for him. But they had no horse to ride. Those who had horses would not lend them for such an errand. Let him die. He died.

They caught up with the section that had been leading — at a place where a member of the Harlan-Young party had been killed, and his grave rifled, by Diggers. At once the Diggers ran off Graves's horses. The next night they got eighteen oxen and a cow. The following night they playfully shot arrows into some oxen without killing them. The third night they shot twenty‑one oxen, and those which were not killed were useless. . . . If there had been one mountain man along, the Diggers would not have struck more than once.

 p340  The last massacre of cattle occurred at the Sink of the Humboldt. Other horses and oxen had been dying. Wagons were abandoned. The dreary process of combining outfits and caching possessions in the hope of sometime reclaiming them went on. Wolfinger stayed behind one day to cache some of his wealth. Probably he wore a money belt. His countrymen, Reinhardt and Spitzer, stayed to help him, and Keseberg was also making a cache that day. When Keseberg, alone, caught up with the rest, he was suspected of having killed Wolfinger, but that was one offense Keseberg refrained from committing. It was Reinhardt and Spitzer who murdered Wolfinger, got his money belt if he had one, and reported that Indians had killed him and burned his outfit.

Many of the oxen killed by Diggers had belonged to the Donner brothers, and serious inroads had now been made on that opulent outfit. Tamsen had dreamed of founding a polite academy for girls in the never-never land of California. Now a great crate of books designed for its library was buried in the desert. They would come back and get it sometime. . . . Neither Eddy nor the Donners could help Mrs. Reed and her children. All of Eddy's stock was finished and he could get none from anyone. He had smashed the lock of his rifle. No one would take his three-year‑old son or the year‑old Peggy into a wagon. He made a pack of some powder and bullets and three pounds of sugar. His wife carried the baby, he carried the three-year‑old. On the last day in the desert the children nearly died of thirst. When they came into camp, old Patrick Breen, whose casks were  p341 full, refused them water. Eddy announced that he would kill Breen if he interfered and got some water for the cordilleras. The next day, with a borrowed gun, Eddy killed nine geese. He distributed them among the families. The Diggers killed some more oxen.

At the end of that desert was the Truckee River. They rested for a day. Reinhardt and Spitzer came in and told their Wild West romance. The widow Wolfinger attached herself to the Donners, who crawled ahead of the rest again, and Eddy could get no food for his children. They headed up Truckee Canyon. And then, on the third day, October 19, Stanton came riding in from the west with seven pack mules and two Indians driving them. Sutter, whose mules and Indians they were, had not failed them. Nor had Stanton and McCutchen failed them. McCutchen had given out on the crossing and was laid up at Sutter's. But Stanton, a bachelor, moved solely by the obligation which most of them daily refused to acknowledge, had, after reaching safety, put his life in jeopardy again and brought back over the divide the food which, for a time, saved the lives of all.

He could report that Reed and Herron had got through, though barely. For game had failed in the mountains and they had nearly starved. At one point they had found five navy beans spilled from some wagon and later a tar bucket discarded from another, at the bottom of which was some tallow that they could eat, though it puked Reed. They got down into Bear Valley, however, and, catching up with the rear guard of the emigration, got food and met Stanton.

 p342  So, besides Stanton, Reed and Herron had reached the golden shore. From now on the man they had banished to die alone was the focus of their hope.

And why should Stanton, whose strength was restored and who had five strong mules and two Indians in his charge, stay on and share their journey? There was only one reason but it sufficed. He stayed on, and he died for it.

Also he took Mrs. Reed and her children under his protection. They came up to the Truckee Meadows. Here they were all together again — something over a dozen decayed wagons, and the oxen and the cows that were yoked with them all but dead. They were a tangle of fear, hatred, family love, friendship, fortitude, panic, and desperate hope. Ahead of them was the worst ascent of all, to the divide above Truckee Lake. If their teams had been sound they could have made it in at most three days. But their teams were hardly alive. They had to rest their stock at the Truckee Meadows — but there had been a number of snowstorms already and the sky above the pass was leaden with the threat of winter. The two dreads made a cruel dilemma. They solved it — though no longer in the orderly, debating-club process of the long vanished days when Owl Russell's big train had put Indian Creek behind them — by lingering to recruit the teams. They were thus following Stanton's advice. Stanton had been told at Sutter's, where the best judgment was to be had, that they could expect nearly a full month before the snows would begin to block the pass.

They could not even be careful now. William Pike, the husband of Harriet Murphy, handed his pistol to his brother-in‑law, Foster, and the gun went off. Pike died. Naomi and Catherine were fatherless.

There was another snow. It scared them and, without decision, merely as they could, they started for the pass, traveling in three rough sections. When the first section made camp, the first evening, a Digger skewered nineteen oxen. Eddy killed him. October 25. (According to Stewart's authoritative calculation. Thornton says October 22. The party itself had been unable to keep an accurate account of time.)

Back of them in the last section, one of George Donner's wagons broke an axle and overturned, nearly killing Georgia and Eliza. While they were making a new axle Jacob's chisel slipped and gashed George Donner's hand. The wound was eventually to save him from dying of starvation.

The peaks above them were blanketed with snow, and clouds hung round the summits. The advance party reached the lake — or rather a couple of miles short of it, a mile from the Schallenberger cabin — on the  p343 evening of the last day of October. It had taken them just three months to get here from Fort Bridger. Three and a half or four months would have been about right for a normal crossing from Independence to the Sacramento.

The terrible cold of the high places wrapped them round. On November 1 they tried the ascent. They found five feet of snow in the pass. They came back to the Schallenberger cabin, which the Breens pre‑empted. They decided to stay there. on November 2 it rained all day. The middle group, Stanton traveling with them, came up. Stanton found them in the apathy of despair, but roused them, or most of them, to try again on November 3.

Even when there was no snow wagons were taken up that terrible slope only by an all‑out labor of man and beast, by doubling teams, prying with crowbars, blocking wheels with stones and drags, all hands manning ropes. Before they reached the ascent, before they had even passed the lake they saw that the snow was impassable. They abandoned the wagons, packed what they could on the backs of oxen, tied the now crippled Keseberg to a horse, shouldered the children, and drove the stock ahead of them, to pack down a trail through the snow.

Stanton and an Indian got to the divide . . . and could have gone down the western slope. He came back. To help the others.

But they had reached the extremity and he could not rally them. No more. Don't call on the outraged flesh or the defeated soul for what is beyond its power. Evening was coming up and they made a fire and stayed close to it, quarreling. Make the effort, don't make it, stay here for the night, don't try till morning. They stayed here. So it came on to snow. Strange weights woke them, their companions were sitting up from white mounds and the cattle had disappeared. They understood. The next morning, while the snow fell steadily, they straggled back to their abandoned wagons and on to the little cabin at the lake.

That snow caught the rear guard, the Donner families, a few miles farther east. They turned up Alder Creek Valley, made camp, and hurriedly felled trees for cabins. There was not time enough for cabins, brush huts must do. The snow fell, almost continuously, for eight days. Little Georgia and Eliza Donner loved the whirling storm. "It made pictures" for them. . . "it gathered in a ridge beside us upon the log; it nestled in piles on our buffalo robe; and by the time our quarters were finished, it was veiling Uncle Jacob's from view." Pictures, no doubt, of whirling snow in a farmyard of Sangamon County and children running through it from the barns of steaming cattle and on to the house, where they would stand at windows watching dusk come up through the storm, while firelight shimmered on  p344 the ceiling, and overhead was the children's room with the pitch of the roof sloping down.

Not more than thirty miles to the west, on the far slope of the divide, Reed and McCutchen with a pack train struggled toward them ever more slowly through the same snow, and at last were stopped. They had come up from Sutter's to Johnson's ranch with two Indians and thirty‑one horses packed with food. Ignorant of what had happened since they left the train, they expected to meet their families on the way down from the divide, doubtless very hungry but out of danger. They thought of their desperate journey as one of alleviation only, not rescue. The only refugees they found, however, were a man named Curtis and his wife, emigrants who had quarreled with their companions as their train came down from the Sierra, weeks before, and had foolishly decided to spend the winter in Bear Valley. Reed and McCutchen left them supplies, horses, and one Indian, and labored on upward. The next day they made three miles to the head of Emigrant Gap. That night their remaining Indian deserted, fled back to the winter-bound Curtises and, gathering up his companion and three of the horses, vanished. Reed and McCutchen kept going for another day, snow to their shoulders, snow so deep that sometimes they had to dig the horses out of it. Finally it stopped them. They could go no farther. The Sierra and the snow had defeated them on the western slope, as they had defeated the sufferers on the eastern slope. And while their families and former companions, hardly thirty miles away, built shelters in a realization that the long snow had brought the winter in, Reed and McCutchen, with the same realization, turned back to lower altitudes. They got down to Bear Valley, picked up the forlorn Curtises, cached their provisions for a later attempt at rescue, and pushed on to Johnson's and finally Sutter's. Sutter told them that this premature snow had made it impossible for them to do anything till February.5

* * *

The Breens and Dolan reoccupied the Schallenberger cabin. Keseberg built a lean‑to against one of its walls. The Murphys (including the Fosters and the widow Pike and her children) and the Eddys built another log cabin, not far away. Another double cabin was built, one half of it for the Graveses and Mrs. McCutchen and her child, the other for the Reeds, John Denton and the surviving teamsters, Stanton, and Sutter's two Indians. These were crude log structures, the roofs being merely poles covered with whatever would turn water, or partly turn it.

They were better than the huts which the Donners were able to build  p345 in Alder Creek Valley. George Donner built a semicircular hut of boughs and canvas against a tall pine, interlacing small branches and covering them with quilts and wagon covers. It was divided into two crude rooms and had a hole in the ground for a fireplace. Mrs. Wolfinger lived with the George Donners. Jacob Donner built a similar but even cruder structure, across the brook from George. The four teamsters had a Digger-like tipi of brush. There were twenty‑one people here at Alder Creek, sixty at the lake.

Perhaps Reed and McCutchen would get through to them. Perhaps Sutter, the friend of the starving, would be able to drive a pack train through the snow by the sheer authority of his name. They could look up to the crest above them when the snow paused and the clouds withdrew: any help that might reach them would come from the west. But they could not depend on help. They must prepare to pass the winter here without help. The only food they were certain of was the surviving cattle — the last of the supply that Stanton had brought was gone. They saw clearly that they did not have enough for more than half the winter. They tried to catch fish: the trout of the mountain lake would not bite at this season. They tried to hunt: practically all the game had gone down to lower levels. Eddy, tirelessly roaming the snow with his borrowed rifle, killed a coyote, an owl, two ducks, a gray squirrel, and finally a grizzly. Most days he killed nothing.

Here in the snow, with the shadow of death stretched over them, they could still traffic and barter with their thoughts on the future in California. When one of Graves's oxen died, he would sell it to Eddy only on a promissory note for twenty-five dollars, which Eddy later paid to his heirs. Pat Breen, who was now the millionaire, being spacious in the possession of oxen, took Fosdick's gold watch for two of them. When it was proposed to kill for food the mules which Stanton had brought, Graves successfully prevented the butchering (he was a Vermonter), on the ground that Sutter would expect payment for them. They killed most of the oxen, some of which were dying anyway. The snow and cold, they hoped, would preserve the meat — all of it, intestines, hooves, horns.

Successive storms, some of them several shrieking days long, steadily deepened the snow at the camps. The refugees got weaker and more lethargic, making relentless inroads on their stores. The Donner women, Eliza says, had to do a man's work; all the women had to. But in this camp of slowly approaching death, one thinks most painfully of the children.

On November 12, thirteen men and Mary Graves and Sarah Fosdick tried to get over the divide. It was a question of those most able to go, not only for their sakes but for the sake of the children as well — they might be  p346 able to get relief for those left behind. Of course, both Eddy and Stanton made this attempt. They fell a full three miles short of the divide. The snow "was soft and about ten feet deep." They were back, defeated, by midnight.

After more storms it was possible to make another attempt on November 21. Eddy and Stanton again led the endeavor; there were twenty‑two all told, six of them women. They were weaker than they had been before and could not allow themselves even so many of the meager slices of this beef as they had previously taken. This time, on a firmer snow crust, they actually got over the divide, where Eddy measured the snow and found it twenty-five feet deep, and started down the far side. They were barely strong enough to gather wood for fire but spent the night in the snow. And spent part of it, the two most resolute, Eddy and Stanton, fatally disagreeing. They had been using Sutter's mules to break a trail; the mules were done in and must be abandoned. Stanton would not go on without the mules — they belonged to Sutter and the sacred rights of property required him to return them. Eddy pleaded the imminence of death, in a great gust of rage. No use. The next day they went back over the divide to camp. "Mrs. Eddy and her children were very weak but exhibited great courage and fortitude."

Another storm lasted more than a week, while everyone's strength waned. When it was over, all the oxen that had remained alive were dead and lost beyond recovery under the snow. So were Sutter's mules, which Graves had not let them kill for food and Stanton had refused to abandon beyond the divide. December had come in during the storm which, Eliza Donner says, made fires unsafe, froze all the water, and shut out the light. At the other camp Graves and Stanton, who were Easterners, were showing their companions how to make snowshoes, out of split oxbows and strips of oxhide. There was another storm, which lasted for five days. It was almost impossible to get firewood.

At the upper camp Baylis Williams died; he had been one of Reed's teamsters. Others were obviously failing. They went faster at Alder Creek. Before the storm ended old Jacob Donner, Shoemaker, Reinhardt, and another of Reed's teamsters, James Smith, were dead. They buried them, more or less.

At the lake the snowshoes were ready, fourteen pairs of them. A party of seventeen prepared to start out: ten men, five women, and two boys. The three who had no snowshoes would trudge behind the others, in the trail they hoped to make. They took a rifle and an axe, a blanket apiece, and minute rations which they expected to last for six days. Stanton and  p347 his Indians and William Eddy were again the dominant spirits. Uncle Billy Graves, fifty-seven years old and the principal author of the snowshoes, went along. Mrs. McCutchen left her year‑old baby in the care of the invalids and joined the party. Their principal hope was Stanton and the two Indians, who knew the route. December 16 was a clear day after a night of vicious cold. They started out.

It took them a full day to get to the upper end of the lake, about four miles. Two Murphy boys and Burger, Keseberg's teamster, were the three who started out on foot. Burger and one of the boys gave it up and turned back. That night they made a crude pair of snowshoes for the other boy and he kept on with them. On December 17 they got over the divide, all but dead. They could go down the far slope now but they were eating an ounce of food a day and the sun gave them snow blindness. Their movement was slow and agonizing, the travel of the half dead. Stanton, besides being snowblind, was weakening. On the march he fell behind, coming in to the campfire at night. There were brief, wild, swirling snowstorms. Their feet froze. Mary Graves had a hallucination. They had seen no game.

On December 20 they camped far down, beyond the Yuba Bottoms, about five miles. Stewart makes it, from Reed and McCutchen's cache of food at the Curtis wagon, near the head of Bear Valley. Stanton came in late to that campfire too. And Stanton was done.

December 21. That morning, going through his little pack, Eddy found half a pound of bear meat which, unknown to him, his wife Eleanor had put there, taking it from her own small store in order, her note said, to save his life in extremity. And when the others prepared to set out, Stanton sat quietly smoking a pipe. They asked him if he were coming. Yes, he said honorably, he would be along. He sat there, smoking.

It was up to William Eddy now.


The Author's Notes:

1 Because the Wasatch are the country of my boyhood I have been interested, rather irrelevantly to our purpose, to state the various routes through it. By the efforts of Mr. J. Roderic Korns and Mr. Dale Morgan, I am able to print the route of the Donners more in detail than it is usually given. If the reader will refer to note 4 of Chapter XI, he will be able to see the differences. The best maps are the Fort Douglas Quadrangle of the Geographical Survey, the "Wasatch National Forest" by the Forest Service, and the Salt Lake City sheet of the Sectional Aeronautical Chart.

In June, Clyman, Hastings, and Hudspeth had traveled eastward out of Great Valley by way of Parley's Canyon. (Camp's James Clyman says by way of Emigration Canyon, but Mr. Camp, in a letter to me, corrects the statement to agree with mine.) Clyman's language is obscure but certainly they left Parley's Canyon by way of Mountain Dell Canyon and very likely came down to East Canyon Creek by way of Little Dutch Hollow — that is to say, by exactly the route which the Donners used. (However, they may have traveled down Little Emigration Canyon instead of Little Dutch Hollow.) They followed down East Canyon Creek to Dixie Hollow, turned up that to the divide, and went down Little East Canyon to Weber River.

Bryant's party, in their effort to detour Upper Weber Canyon, had turned south at Henefer and gone up Little East Canyon, over the divide, and down Dixie Hollow. Whereas Clyman and Hastings had followed the bed of Dixie Hollow, however, Bryant and his companions, reaching the narrows, took an Indian trail over the western wall of the canyon, along the ridge, and down to the site of the present dam across East Canyon Creek (approximately). Here they turned northwest down East Canyon to the Weber again.

The Donners also left the Weber River at the site of Henefer, having perhaps camped rather farther south and west. They followed Bryant's route up Little East Canyon, over the divide and down to East Canyon. All this way, of course, they had been building a road that wagons could follow, whereas their predecessors had been on horseback.

At the site of the present East Canyon Creek reservoir (approximately), the route which Bryant had taken turned down East Canyon northwest to the Weber River. If the Donners had taken that trail (an Indian trail) they would eventually have reached the Weber at the Morgan meadows and could have continued west through Weber Canyon along a road which had been made passable, if barely passable, for wagons by the Harlan-Young party. Whether they might not have made better, even much better, time if they had done so is an unprofitable speculation. Presumably it would have been easier and faster to improve a road already built, however crudely, than to build an entirely new one, but Hastings had advised against their doing so and that settled it.

They turned south up East Canyon Creek, along the trail which Clyman and Hastings had followed in the opposite direction. They struck off to the right (southwest) up Dutch Hollow (Little Dutch Hollow on the Fort Douglas Quadrangle). At the head of Dutch Hollow they began the most formidable part of their labor, the ascent of Big Mountain — 8100 feet, a half mile higher than East Canyon Creek. Here is where the first panic occurred. The descent on the far side took them to Mountain Dell Canyon and they went down it to Parley's Canyon, which they followed almost to the mouth. Turning back, they went up Parley's Canyon and up Mountain Dell Canyon again, over Little Mountain, down into Emigration Canyon, and so down into the valley.

[decorative delimiter]

2 "Near the springs at Lakepoint, west of Garfield." (Charles Kelly.)

[decorative delimiter]

3 Stewart thinks that Hastings had posted this notice before taking the Harlan-Young party across. He argues that it had actually taken that party more than two days and that Hastings would not have sent back across the desert information he actually knew to be false. But the Harlan-Young party had actually crossed in just less than two days; the additional time was consumed in going back to salvage abandoned outfits. Kelly thinks that Hastings sent Hudspeth back with the note, after the two‑day crossing, while the salvage was going on. If so, Hudspeth made three crossings.

[decorative delimiter]

4 Kelly suggests that Hastings took this route in the belief that he could not get wagons through Humboldt Pass.

[decorative delimiter]

5 Thornton, who got his facts from Reed and McCutchen themselves, tells the story of this first attempt at relief in considerable detail. He gets into it a note of macabre humor, one of the very few touches that lighten the tragedy.


Thayer's Notes:

a J. D. Galloway, The Transcontinental Railroad, pp273‑274, 276.

[decorative delimiter]

b George R. Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger; see further in DeVoto's bibliographical notes.

[decorative delimiter]

c A reminder may not be out of place: this book was published in 1943, when yet other Germans were systematically condemning the "unfit".


[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 3 Dec 21