Salvage Operations

Most of the members of the James Reed’s Second Relief were motivated as much by the opportunity to recover property as to rescue suffering emigrants. Clark, Stone and Cady, among others, purchased some of the Donner family’s goods upon their arrival at the camp. In addition to the goods they purchased, members of the Second Relief brought out goods belonging to the Donner Party. The following document was found among the papers donated by the estate of Patty Reed to the Sutter’s Fort Museum in 1945.

Rancho del Paso 22d May 1847

Received of Mr. John Sinclair five dollars in payment for a gun brought from the Mountains by Nicholas Clark, and for which ten dollars was claimed. If said Clark is not satisfied with the five dollars he can then refund the money and hold his claim on the gun.

C. Mason"

The Fourth Relief, led by William Fallon, was intended as a salvage effort, but became a rescue mission when the members discovered that Lewis Keseberg had survived for a month after the Third Relief left. The month after authorizing Fallon’s salvage effort, Sinclair wrote the following document, found among the Reed estate papers:

United States of America
Magistrates Office
Sacramento District
Territory of California

Know all men by these presents that it is mutually agreed by John Sinclair on the one part acting in behalf of the Heirs of Jacob and George Donner deceased and by the undersigned on the other part, that they shall proceed to the Cabins in the California Mountains where the property of said Jacob & George Donner now is (or was lately) and if the property still remains there that they shall bring away all or as much of said property as they possibly can, the property so brought away to be delivered into the hands of said John Sinclair when an equal division shall be made the undersigned receiving one half of said property for their services and the said John Sinclair retaining the other half for the benefit of the Heirs of said Jacob & George Donner.

John Rhoads
P.A. House
P.C. Stice
Thomas Rhoads

Signed in my presence this 5th day of May A.D. 1847
John Sinclair, Justice of the Peace

The leader of this salvage effort, John Rhoads, had already been to the cabins twice, with the First Relief and with the Fourth Relief, led by William Fallon. In a ledger of arrivals and departures kept at Sutter’s Fort is the following entry for May 29, 1847: O Fallon arrived back again from the mountains.

It is not known if Fallon accompanied Rhoads and the others who had obtained salvage rights from Sinclair on May 5. However, Fallon clearly expected to profit from his trips to the cabins, as shown in the following letter, found among the papers of the Reed estate, and addressed to Reed at Nappa Valley:

Rancho del Paso 23d June 1847
James F. Reed Esq.
Dear Sir

Enclosed you will find a list of articles belonging to yourself and Miss Williams in possession of Mrs Fosdick.

Mrs. Fosdick informs me that she gave Mr. Fallon no authority to bring in any of your property she says that Fallon remarked he supposed Reed would be willing to pay as much as other people for bringing in his property and she replied she reckoned so and she can prove that by persons who were present--She tells me that her Mother offered you the goods when you was at the cabins and that you said you would cash them.

It is needless for me to enumerate all that I have heard as there can be no settlement until the case is settled by law or refferees, which will make it necessary for you to come up and at same time bring such wittnesses as you think can give any evidence in the matter.

I am very busy or I should write you more fully haveing barely time to notify you how affairs stand---

What Mrs. Reed means by being ready to come up at any time I do not know but presume there is some plot between her and a certain lady who as Shakespeare has it rounds space and grows exceedingly lusty but whether the breeding subject between them is good or evil time must reveal.

My wife joins me in sending our best respects to self and family tell Mrs. Reed to kiss Martha for me and drop calling her Pat as we are informed that St. Patrick was a jontleman and she is a young lady who I hope will live to be a very old one--Excuse scribbling and believe me

Yours truly

J. Sinclair"

The Orphans

The following documents were found among the papers donated by the estate of Patty Reed to the Sutter’s Fort Museum in 1945.

I, Edwin Bryant, Chief Magistrate of the San Francisco District and of the Northern department of California, do hereby certify that on this the 12th day of May A.D. 1847 I have appointed and do by these presents appoint James F. Reed as guardian of the persons, and property of George Donner and Mary Donner, being orphan children and minors under the age of twenty one years.

Witness my hand and seal of office the day and year above written.

Edwin Bryant
Chief Magistrate
Dist San

Received from Mr. Hiram Miller administrator of the Estate of George Donner deceased, Thirty Nine Dollars & Seventy five Cents for Boarding of the Children of the deceased. New Helvetia June 5th 1847

John C. McCracken

Clean-Up Operations

In June, 1847, General Kearny led his detachment back to the United States. As Sargeant Nathaniel Jones recorded in his journal for June 22, 1847:

We came down the lake to some cabins that had been built by some emigrants last fall. ... The general called a halt and ordered 5 men to bury the deserted bodies that were lying on the ground. Those who lived the longest lived on the dead bodies of the others. One man lived about four months on human flesh. This place now goes by the name of cannibal camp. ... After we had buried the bones of the dead we set fire to the cabin. I started about two in the afternoon came 7 miles and camped. One mile above here there was another cabin and more dead bodies, but the general did not order them buried.

Edwin Bryant, in his book What I Saw In California, wrote:

When the return party of Gen. Kearny (which I accompanied) reached the scene of these horrible and tragical occurrences, on the 22d of June, 1847, a halt was ordered, for the purpose of collecting and interring the remains. Near the principal cabins, I saw two bodies, entire with the exception that the abdomens had been cut open and the entrails extracted. Their flesh had been either wasted by famine or evaporated by exposure to the dry atmosphere, and they presented the appearance of mummies. Strewn around the cabins were dislocated and broken bones--skulls, (in some instances sawed asunder with care for the purpose of extracting the brains,)--human skeletons, in short, in every variety of mutilation. A more revolting and appalling spectacle I never witnessed. The remains were, by an order of Gen. Kearny, collected and buried under the superintendence of Major Swords. They were interred in a pit which had been dug in the centre of one of the cabins for a cache. These melancholy duties to the dead being performed, the cabins, by order of Major Swords, were fired, and with every thing surrounding them connected with this horrid and melancholy tragedy, were consumed. The body of George Donner was found at his camp, about eight or ten miles distant, wrapped in a sheet. He was buried by a party of men detailed for that purpose.

The Mormon Batallion passed the same site in September. Henry William Bigler made the following entry in his diary for September 5, 1847:

Passing down the mountain to the head of Truckee River some six or eight miles, we came to a shanty built last winter, and about this cabin we found the skeletons of several human beings. I discovered a hand. It was nearly entire. It had been partly burned to a crisp. The little finger was not burnt. The flesh seemed to be a little dried. I judged it to be the hand of a woman. I do not believe that the wolves disturbed them. The place had the appearance that they had been burned after death.

Drawing of cabins at the lake

Drawing of Lake Cabins, by Thompson and West, 1880

Later Remains

For years afterwards, the cabins and human remains were stark warning to other travelers to hurry along the trail. 49er John Markle recorded the following entry in his diary for August 20, 1849:

The first 2 miles brought us to the valley where Donner camped. One mile more brought us opposite to where his cabins were, which were situated about 1 or 2 miles from the road on the righthand side. There were any number of fragments left but more human bones than anything. Six miles more and we came to where the Graves family wintered .... The road now leaves and we came to Fosters and Breen’s cabins where they camped. The road now leaves them to the right, but the old road runs just past, leaving them on the left.

Graves and Fosters cabins are the only ones that are standing yet and they represent a gloomy appearance. In Foster’s cabin there were old cloths which were worn by females and, also, long female hair which appeared as if it had fallen from the head, and any quantity of bones in and around the cabin.

Augustus Ripley Burbank recorded the following entry in his diary for September 10, 1849: /

The donor cabins stood 200 yards above the road & some distance from the Lake. Their remains or ashes & the bottom logs are only to be seen to designate to the passing traveler the spot where the painful sufferings occurred .... 1/4 of a mile below near the stream or outlet, & on the East side of a large oveling rock is an other cabin (it is standing) the bones & hornes of oxen lay thick about the door. These cabins in this vicinity have been covered with logs, brush & C. The stumps of fallen trees near the front of the cabins, stand at the height of 5 & 10 feet, Some probably over the latter, showing the depth of the snow when the trees were fallen for fire wood.

Prof. Hardesty in The Archaeology of the Donner Party concludes that the Kearny detachment burned the Breen cabin. McGlashan claimed that the site is now the location of the Pioneer Monument. The Murphy cabin was built against a large rock a short distance away, below. The Murphy site was excavated in 1984 and revealed no signs of a mass grave, although several very small human bone fragments were found. Mostly, the site yielded artifact fragments such as lead balls, tobacco pipes, beads, jewelry, buttons, tableware, and bones of cattle, horse or mule, and bear.

Large rock with plaque

The Large Rock which formed the Western Wall of the Murphy Cabin