March, 1847

The First and Second Relief Parties brought in two groups of survivors, and the Third Relief set out from Johnson’s Ranch and returned with all the survivors who were able to travel.

The dated entries below are from the diary of Patrick Breen. Shortly after he moved his family into the cabin built two years earlier by the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy Party, Patrick Breen began a diary, recording in his terse fashion the events of that winter of entrapment. Upon his rescue, Breen gave his diary to George McKinstry, Sheriff and Inspector at Sutter’s Fort. McKinstry had himself traveled the Hastings Cut-off and arrived at Sutter’s Fort on October 19. McKinstry sent the diary to the California Star, which published in an abridged form on May 22, 1847. The diary has been more correctly transcribed, and published, by George Stewart in Ordeal by Hunger, Dale Morgan in Overland in 1846 and Joseph King in Winter of Entrapment. It is available online in original manuscript at the University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

The Diary of the First Relief is a copy made by Alcalde John Sinclair at Sutter’s Fort of a diary kept by M.D. Ritchie and Reasin P. Tucker. James Reed obtained Sinclair’s copy. Stewart suggests that Ritchie’s dates are one day late, because they don’t agree with Breen’s date for their arrival at the Lake.

The Diary of the Second Relief is a diary kept by James Reed. He kept the manuscript.

Patty Reed Lewis provided copies of both diaries to C.F. McGlashan in 1879 for his book. The diaries were donated to the Sutter’s Fort Historical State Park by the Reed estate in 1945. The diaries were transcribed by Carroll Hall in Donner Miscellany, and by Dale Morgan in Overland in 1846.

Monday, March 1, 1847

Mond. March the 1st to fine & pleasant froze hard last night there has 10 men arrived this morning from bear valley with provisions we are to start in two or three days & Cash our goods here there is amongst them some old they say the snow will be here untill June [This is the last entry in Patrick Breen’s Diary.]

James Reed’s Diary of the Second Relief:

Tus March 1st left early this morning with 3 of the men and went to Donners where Cady & Clark had arrivd on Yesty found all alive cheered them and sent Cady back for more provisions say 7 day found here but 3 child of J Donner that Could Com with us at George Doner tent there was 3 Stout harty children his wife was able to travel but preferred to stay with her husband until provisions should arrive, which was confidently expected by Comd Woodworth, who was at Cap Suters the day before I left Mr Johnsons, here I left two of my men Cady & Clark one with each tent to cook and as fast as possible resusitate the enfeebled so that they might in a few days Start, took 3 children of J Donner and the men I took in and returned the same day making the 20 miles carrying 2 of the child got back to the other cabins about 8 o’ck, much worn down, as I passed Mrs Graves told them I would be off in the morning, the men that remained with her today Cached the principal of her effects and got for her out of one of the waggons about 800 in gold & silver which was nailed in the middle of the bed the money being placed in grooves close made for the purpose.

In his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press, Reed wrote:

A number of the relief party remained here, while Messrs. Miller, McCutchen, and one of the men and myself, proceeded to the camp of the Messrs. Donner’s. This was a number of miles further east. We found Mrs. Jacob Donner in a very feeble condition. Her husband had died early in the winter. We removed the tent and placed it in a more comfortable situation. I then visited the tent of Geo. Donner, close by, and found him and his wife. He was helpless. Their children and two of Jacob’s had come out with the party we met at the head of Bear valley. I requested Mrs. George Donner to come out with us, as I would leave a man to take care of both Mr. George Donner and Mrs. Jacob Donner. Mrs. Geo. Donner positively refused, saying that as her children were all out she would not leave her husband in the situation he was in. After repeatedly urging her to come out, and she as positively refusing, I was satisfied in my own mind that Mrs. Geo. Donner remained with her husband for pure love and affection, and not for money, as stated by Mrs. Curtis. When I found that Mrs. Geo. Donner would not leave her husband, we took the three remaining children of Jacob Donner’s leaving a man to take care of the two camps. Leaving all the provisions we could spare, and expecting the party from Sutter’s fort would be in in a few days, we returned to the camp of Mrs. Graves, where all remained during the night except McCutchen, Miller, and myself, we going to the cabin of Mr. Breen, where two of my children were. Notice was given in all the camps that we would Start on Our Return To Sutter’s early the next day.

Location of Donner family camp on Alder Creek, photographed 2022

On the other side of the mountains, the First Relief continued down the mountain: March 1st Travelled 10 miles and camped on the mountain side in the morning Mrs. Reed was very sick and we had to stop that day" [The party camped on the ridge just above Mule Springs, which was actually less than 10 miles travel.]

Tuesday, March 2, 1847

Reed’s Diary of the Second Relief:

March 2 Weds after leaving with Keesberger Camp 7 day prov and Mr Stone to get wood cook and take care of the helpless I left with the following persons P Brin Mrs Brin, John Brin, young man and 4 other Smaller Children 2 of which had to be Caried in all of Brins. 7--Mrs Graves-- & 4 children 2 of which had to be Caried in all of her family 5 Solomon Hook youg man and May & Isaac Donner in all 3--with two Children of my own one a girl of 9 Years the other a little boy 4 in all 2--making in all 17 souls--proceded About 2 mies incamped on the edge of the lak on a bare spot of ground

In his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press, Reed wrote: About the middle of the day we started, taking with us all who were able to travel. In a short time we reached Donner Lake. Traveling on ice a short distance, we made camp on the eastern side. Here were several springs; in the water were many small fish.

Photograph of Donner Pass

Donner Lake and Pass, photographed 2022

Among the papers donated by the Reed estate to Sutter’s Fort in 1945, was this document in James Reed’s hand:

A list of merchandise belonging to the Estate of Jacob Donner Decd. Sold to Sundrice persons on the 2nd day of March 1847, by Hiram O. Miller.
Mathew Dofar
4 silk hdkfs. $1.25 $5.00
2 cotton d .75
1 vest pattern 1.00
1 pr shoes 2.00
2 yds Cassinett 3.00
Henry Dunn
To 1 pr Boots 4.00
Chas. Stone
To 1 pr Boots 4.00
Nicholas Clark
To 1 pr boots 4.00
7prs shoes 8.75
5prs cordevan shoes $3 15.00
1knife 1.00
Chas Cady
To 2 prs Boots @ $4.00 $8.00
5silk hdkfs 1.25 6.25
1 pr shoes 2.00
Joseph Jandro
To one old over Coat 4.00
5silk hdkfs 6.25
1pr shoes 1.50
4cotton hdkfs 1.50
3shawls 4.50
4yds Cassinett 6.00
4do " 6.00
3yds Jeans 1.87
Joseph Varo
To silk hdkfs 3.75
1vest pattern 1.00
1pr boots-- 4.00
1 comb .19
3cotton hdkf .75
3yds Cassinett 4.50
3d d 4.50
To 1 pr boots 4.00

Also found in the Reed papers was this document:

Money of J Donners given to H Miller
8 soverins 4.85 38.80
29 five Dolls. 145.00
7 ten Dolls 70.00
1 two & half Doll 2.50
Gold 256.30
Silver 45.00

In 1879, Lewis Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

When Reed’s relief party left the cabins, Mr. Reed left me a half teacupful of flour, and about half a pound of jerked beef. It was all he could give. Mrs. Murphy, who was left with me, because too weak and emaciated to walk, had no larger portion. Reed had no animosity toward me. He found me too weak to move. He washed me, combed my hair, and treated me kindly. Indeed, he had no cause to do otherwise. Some of my portion of the flour brought by Stanton from Sutter’s Fort I gave to Reed’s children, and thus saved their lives. When he left me, he promised to return in two weeks and carry me over the mountains. When this party left, I was not able to stand, much less to walk.

Keseberg was unable to walk due to an injury he suffered while hunting on the Humboldt River the previous October.

In her 1856 book California In-Doors and Out, Eliza Farnham wrote an account based on interviews with Margaret Breen and her son John:

So on the second day after the arrival of Mr. Reed’s party, twenty-one souls set out; many of them were children, and two infants who had been nursing till the maternal fountain had been dried. The wheaten-meal had been baked into biscuit for the journey, and the provident Mrs. Breen had reserved through all, a few strips of their poor beef dried, four pounds of coffee, and a small paper of tea. The latter article, with a lump of loaf sugar, weighing about a pound, she carried at her waist. ... The moving party camped the first night at the top of the mountain, a place bleak and cold enough to bodies well fed and clothed, but dreadfully chilling and wretched to the feeble starving creatures who had, with difficulty, reached it from the comparative shelter and warmth of their habitation below. Here a very scanty supper was made of the biscuit; a few spoonfuls of meal, thrown into some snow-water, made a little gruel for the infants, and after a night of aching wretchedness which can well be imagined, they rose early, and taking a few morsels, each, of the bread, journeyed on. Mrs. B. was not fortunate enough to taste her beef or coffee, which she had, at starting, committed to the keeping of one of the men. [The first night the party did not camp on the top of the mountain, but along the north shore of the lake.]

On the other side of the mountains, the First Relief received provisions:

on the 2d met Lieut. Woodworth and three men well loaded with provisions and blankets 10 miles from Bear Valley Travelled on 3 miles and reached the Mule Springs at our old encampment where we met with nourishment Tea and Sugar which revived us a good deal--

Photograph of Mule Springs

Mule Springs, photographed 2022

Wednesday, March 3, 1847

James Reed’s Diary of the Second Relief: 3 Thurs left Camp early traveled on the lake 2 miles an encamped under the mountain made this day about 4 miles, nothing of interest occd.

Apparently unknown to Reed, or not considered of interest, an event occurred as told by McGlashan in 1880:

At the camping-ground, near the upper end of Donner Lake, one of the relief party jokingly proposed to another to play a game of euchre to see who should have Mrs. Graves’ money. The next morning, Mrs. Graves remained behind when the party started, and concealed her money. All that is known is, that she buried it behind a large rock on the north side of Donner Lake. So far as is known, this money has never been recovered, but still lies hidden where it was placed by Mrs. Graves.

On May 14, 1891 Edward Reynolds, a miner from Sierra Valley, found some silver coins while prospecting on the north shore of the lake. Reynolds, McGlashan and Amos Lane searched the area and recovered 191 coins of various nationalities and denominations less than 30 feet from the large rock long reputed to be the site of the cache.

Old photograph of miners with coins

The Discovery of Mrs. Graves’ Coins, 1891

In his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press, Reed wrote:

The next day we traveled up to the head of the Lake on the ice, making camp here for the night. From this camp I sent in advance of us two of our men, Jondrieux and Dofar, good mountaineers, for the purpose of getting the provisions in our last cache and returning with them they to meet us on the road the next day.

On the other side of the mountains, the First Relief remained at Mule Springs:

3dMrs. Reed reached Mule Springs and was waited on by Mr Thompson about 4 o’clock John Gordon arrived with two of the three that were left behind sick the other a bout about 16 (Wm. Donner) had died and was buried in the ground by the side of a tree-- [The boy was William Hook, son of Elizabeth Donner.]

Thursday, March 4, 1847

James Reed’s Diary of the Second Relief:

4 Fri this morning after Breakfast I had 2 Scanty meals left for all hands, which would do to the night following I sent ahead 3 men J Jandrou M Dofar & Turner whoe ware of my best men for the occasion, to push to our first Cach and if not disturbed to bring it up while the other Two proceed on to bring up our Second and if they should meet our Supplies which we all expected clace at hand to hurrey them on, (but to our misfortune there was none nigher than 65 miles and at this Juncture no prospect of Starting which I learned afterwards) to be the fact from Comd Woodworth himself I mouved camp and after a fatiguing day arrivd at the praire now Starved Camp at the head of Juba it was made by the other Compy who had passed in but a few days previous. here the men began to fail being for several days on half allowance, or 1 1/2 pints of gruel or sizing per day. the Sky look like snow and everthing indicates a storm god for bid wood being got for the night & Bows for the beds of all, and night closing fast, the Clouds still thicking terror terror I feel a terrible foreboding but dare not Communicate my mind to any, death to all if our provisions do not Come, in a day or two and storm should fall on us. Very cold, a great lamentation about the Cold.

Reed’s reference to Starved Camp indicates that this entry was written after the events, and that rather than amazing prescience about the storm, Reed was possessed of normal hindsight.

Photograph of flat west of summit

Location of Starved Camp, on the West Side of Donner Pass, photographed 1997

In his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press, Reed wrote:

When coming in we made three caches, or deposits of beef. Two of them were made by taking a bag of dried beef to the top of a pine sapling, then securing it, cutting all the limbs off the tree to prevent animals from getting up and destroying the meat. The next morning we proceeded up the mountain and in the evening came to one of the camping places of the party we had met in Bear Valley. Starved Camp.

With a little repairs everything necessary for building a fire on the snow, which was twenty feet at least in depth, was here. We camped for the night. During all this day the sky had been overcast, threatening a storm. This night a heavy snow storm burst upon us, ...

In her 1856 book California In-Doors and Out, Eliza Farnham wrote an account based on interviews with Margaret Breen and her son John:

On the afternoon ... a snow-storm set in very violently, and increased to blinding thickness before the evening was far advanced. They encamped early, and the men of the relief party gathered and set brush in the snow, and threw up a bank against it, to break the storm off the fire and those who surrounded it. Mrs. B. told me that she had her husband and five children together, lying with their feet to the fire, and their heads under shelter of the snow breast-work; and she sat by them, with only moccasins on her feet, and a blanket drawn over her shoulders and head, within which, and a shawl she constantly wore, she nursed her poor baby on her knees. Her milk had been gone many days, and the child was so emaciated and lifeless, that she scarcely expected at any time, on opening the covering, to find it alive. The other lay with her babe and three or four older children, at the other side of the fire, were, also, most of the rest of the party. The storm was very violent all night; and she watched through it, dozing occasionally for a few moments, and then rousing herself, to brush the snow and flying sparks from the covering of the sleepers.

Toward morning, she heard one of the young girls opposite call to her mother to cover her. The call was repeated several times impatiently, when she spoke to the child, reminding her of the exhaustion and fatigue her mother suffered in nursing and carrying the baby, and bidding her cover herself and let her mother rest. Presently she heard the mother speak, in a quite unnatural tone, and she called to one of the men for to go and speak to her. He arose after a few minutes, and found the poor sufferer almost past speaking. He took her infant, and after shaking the snow from her blanket, covered her as well as might be, and left her. Shortly after, Mrs. B. observed her to turn herself slightly, and throw one arm feebly up, as if to go asleep. She waited a little while, and seeig her remain quite still, she walked around to her. She was already cold in death. Her poor, starving child wailed and moaned piteously in the arms of its young sister; but the mother’s heart could no more warm or nourish it.

The other mother was Elizabeth Graves, whose husband had left with the Snow Shoe Party and died on Christmas Day. With her at Starved Camp were her four youngest children Nancy, 9, Jonathon, 7, Franklin Jr., 5, and Elizabeth, 1. Neither Reed’s Diary, nor his two articles, mention the death of Mrs. Graves. It is possible that Mrs. Graves died after Reed left..]

On April 1, 1871, Wiliam McCutchen wrote an account in the Pacific Rural Press:

Starved Camp. We arrived at this camp about 3 o’clock in the afternoon; this camp was under the peak at the head of the Yuba River. The Glen party had made it when returning from the DonnerParty. Every thing necessary for building a fire on the snow was here. A storm commenced this night .... [McCutchen refers to Glen meaning Glover’s First Relief.]

Further down the mountains, the First Relief waited at Mule Springs:

March 4th Lay still waiting for Mr. Kern I am sorry to say but fear he dont do his duty the time is wasting and not much doing on his part. Mr Kern arrived at 9 o’clock with horses and packs--

Friday, March 5, 1847

At the Donner tents, according to McGlashan:

Stone had come over in the morning, and he and Cady concluded that it was sheer madness for them to remain in the mountains. ... They therefore concluded to attempt to follow and overtake Reed and his companions. Mrs. Tamsen Donner was able to have crossed the mountains with her children with either Tucker’s or Reed’s party. On account of her husband’s illness, however, she had firmly refused all entreaties, and had resolutely determined to remain by his bedside. She was extremely anxious, however, that her children should reach California; and Hiram Miller relates that she offered five hundred dollars to any one in the second relief party, who would take them in safety across the mountains. When Cady and Stone decided to go, Mrs. Donner induced them to attempt the rescue of these children, Frances, Georgia and Eliza. they took the children as far as the cabins at the lake, and left them. ... The parting between the devoted mother and her little ones is thus briefly described by Georgia Donner, now Mrs. Babcock:
The men came. I listened to their talking as they made their agreement. Then they took us, three little girls, up the stone steps, and stood us on the bank. Mother came, put on our hoods and cloaks, saying, as if she was talking more to herself than to us: I may never see you again, but God will take care of you. After traveling a few miles, they left us on the snow, went ahead a short distance, talked one to another, then came back, took us as far as Kesesberg’s cabin, and left us.
Mr. Cady recalls the incident of leaving the children on the snow, but says the party saw a coyote, and were attempting to get a shot at the animal.

In 1911, Eliza Donner obtained this statement from her sister Frances, who had been six years old at the time of the events:

Some days when you could get out on the snow you could see the smoke rise out of the snow. Able bodied men and women and strong children died, yet we poor helpless little mites survived. We went with two strangers, Cady and Stone, to Keseberg’s camp seven miles distant in hopes that we would be carried out by the next relief party. ... Cady and Stone wanted some package to carry with them into the settlement for mother. They were either paid for their services then or to be paid after delivery at the Fort. The package contained the three dress skirts, her silver spoons many other keep-sakes intended for us. In the package were a number of mother’s pretty white lace day caps trimmed with dainty ribbon bows. How dressed when we left mother: We had on Linsey dresses and good warm petticoats. Our cloaks were made of what was called ’Sushan’, a red garnet with a white thread woven through it were the colors of yours and Georgia’s, mine was of the same material only blue and white mixed. I left mine thrown over the logs of the cabin. We also wore some woolen hoods to match our cloaks. Cady and Stone took us to Keseburg’s camp, and there left us ....

Eliza Donner Houghton wrote in her 1911 book The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate:

Frances was six years and eight months old and could trudge along quite bravely, but Georgia, who was little more than five, and I, lacking a week of four years, could not do well on the heavy trail, and we were soon taken up and carried. After traveling some distance, the men left us sitting on a blanket upon the snow, and went ahead a short distance where they stopped and talked earnestly with many gesticulations. We watched them, trembling lest they leave us there to freeze. Then Frances said, Don’t feel afraid. If they go off and leave us, I can lead you back to mother by our foot tracks on the snow. After a seemingly long time, they returned, picked us up and took us on to one of the lake cabins, where without a parting word, they left us.

On the other side of the mountains, the Second Relief was trapped, as recorded in James Reed’s Diary:

5 Saturday Still in Camp the last of our provisions gone looking anxiously for our supplies none. My dreaded Storm is now on us commed snowing in the first part of the night and with the Snow Commed a perfect Hurricane in the night. A great crying and lamentation on acct of the Cold and the dread of death from the Howling Storm the men up nearly all night making fires, some of the men began to pray several became blind I could not see even the light of the fire when it was blazing before me I Continued so to the next day then my sight returned Young Brine fell of his feet into the pit the heat of the fire had made in the snow to a depth of 15 feet. it has snowed already 12 inches, still the storm Continues the light of Heaven, is as it ware shut in from us the snow blows so thick that we cannot see 20 feet looking against the wind I dread the Coming night 3 of my men only able to get wood the rest give out, for the present. After some time wood being secured we had a great difficulty in fixing a foundation for our fire the snow having melted to a great depth I think now 15 feet--and no earth in sight it must be from 6 to 10 feet Snow before the earth is seen in the fire pit. the manner of making our fires on the snow are as follows, we lay 2 pcs of timber or saplin about 10 feet apart--then Roll close together large green logs on the Two pcs in a transverse position these form a bed for the dry logs to lie on so as to prevent the coals of the dry wood which we lay on from falling through into this deep pit which was melted below. Still Storming verry cold so much so that the few men employed in Cutting the dry trees down have to Come and warm about very 10 minutes, hunger hunger is the Cry with the Children and nothing to give them freezing was the Cry of the mothers with reference to their little starving freezing Children Night Closing fast and with it the Hurricane Increases--not quite so much snow falling as before night.

In the December 9, 1847 article in the Illinois Journal based on Reed’s notes:

another night was passed in the relentless storm, and it was only by the most superhuman efforts of Mr. Reed and his men, that the lives of the party were preserved. The fire had sunk into a pit in the snow, twenty feet deep, and it required the most unceasing toil to save it from the destructive power of the snow.

In his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press, William McCutchen wrote:

The second night Mr. Reed became snow blind and chilled through; he had overexerted himself in securing shelter for the party. Now there was only Mr. Miller and myself who were able to do anything; the rest of the men were disheartened, and would not use any exertion; in fact they gave up all hope, and in despair, some of them commenced praying. I d----d them, telling them it was not time to pray but to get up, stir themselves and get wood, for it was a matter of life and death to us in a few minutes. The fire was nearly out; the snow in falling off the trees had nearly extinguished it before discovered; it was only rekindled by the exertion of Mr. Miller and myself. After we got the fire started I was so chilled that in getting warm I burned the back out of my shirts, having four on me; only discovering the mishap by the scorching of my skin.

The First Relief continued down the mountain: 5 left Mule Springs and came to Rocky Run to Kerns Camp their he had 8 Baqueros to tend camp he shared very close with us keeping the best for himself and his Indians

William Graves described the camp in his 1877 article Crossing the Plains in ’46:

then went to where the horses were; here was the main rendezvous. A man by the name of Kern, a Vaquero, and partner of Woodworth, reigned supreme and gave us a benefit by making some wild Indians drunk and allowing them to have a war dance. But, you say, where was the benefit. It was in giving the liquor to all to the Indians and keeping us from sleeping more than half the night. The Indians got some shirts there, too, but I don’t know how; only I am satisfied they did not steal them. However, they needed them worse than we did, for they were entirely naked, and we were not quite.

Attached to the Diary of the First Relief is this unsigned note:

to be attached to Mr Tuckers Journal of the 7 March
... I went Mr Kerns and asked him to give the onfortunate emigrants that I had under my Charge some pork that understood the good people of Yerba buna had bought for their benefit his answer was there was none for them, he had no mor than would do himself and Indians and at last handed me about two pounds which I Cut in small pieces and divide between the women and Children when on the next morning I saw hem Kerns and his Indians faring sumtiously on Pork and superfine flour and when I asked him for Some of the flour that was Sent for the use of the emigrants he told me he would give them none they might eat hard Tack old dry sea bread which was broke to Crumbs in a bag he also stated that he must and would take care of his boys meaning the Indians (about 8 in number) and did not care a dam for any one Else when I met Mr Woodworth he informed me he had left liqure at the camp where Kerns was and instructed me to get some for people and when I Came to the Camp I made application for it and was told by Kerns that there was none there for them when the same night he and one or two others of his party were drinking it

Saturday, March 6, 1847

Reed’s Diary of the Second Relief:

6th Sunday thank god day has once more appeared although darkened by the Storm Snowing as fast as ever and the Hurricane has never Ceased for ten minuts at a time during one of the most dismal nights I ever witnessed and I hope I never shall witness Such in a similar situate of all the praying and Crying I ever hear nothing ever equaled it Several time I expected to see the people perish by the extreme Cold at one time our fire was nearly gone and had it not been for Mr McCutchen’s exertions it would have entirely disappeared had the fire been lost Two thirds of the Camp would have been out of their misery before morning but as god would have it we soon got it blazing in Comfortable order and the sufferings of the people became less--At this time hope began to animate the bosoms of many Young and old when the Cheering blaze Rose through the dry Pine logs we had piled together, one would say thank god for this fire another how good it is the little half starved half frozen poor Children would say I’m Glad we have got some fire Oh how good it feels, it is good our fire didn’t go out At daylight I discovered the Storm to Slack by hushing as it ware entirely up for a few minutes and then it would burst forth with such fury that I felt often alarmed for the safety of the people on acct of the tall timber that surrounded us--the Storm Contines to lull Snow now nearly Ceased, the location of our camp a bleak point under the summit of the great California Range about 1000 feet Consequently our altitude about 8300 above the Sea with a small Praire on our south and west about 3 miles in length & one in breadth here the snow & wind had full sweep this Camp was used by the other party that had passed out of the mountain the under or bed logs for the fire having remained it saved the men from considerable labor in cutting and rolling green logs together I estimate the snow in this valley about 20 feet deep and at the cabins on the east side of the Mountain, about 10 feet on the average. the Storm did not rage with such fury on the east side of the great Chain as with us as I learned by two of my party that left the Cabins the day after the Storm was over. [This is the last entry in Reed’s Diary.]

Reed describes Summit Valley, which is at elevation 6,800’. The summits of the California Range surrounding Summit Valley include Donner Peak, 8,019’, Mount Judah, 8,243’, Mt. Lincoln, 8,383’, and Mt Disney, 7,953’. The latter two are part of Sugar Bowl ski area and are accessible by chair lift. The likely location of Starved Camp is just east of Summit Valley in the small clearing below the Pass, at 7,000’. This clearing is now partially filled by Lake Mary.

Photograph of Summit Valley

Summit Valley from the North, photographed 1997

In the December 9, 1847 article in the Illinois Journal based on Reed’s notes: Another morning dawned upon the vast white blank of nature, but brought no fair weather; another night spread its sable curtain over this world of snow, and still the pitiless storm howled among the towering silver coated pines, ....

In his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press, Reed wrote:

Our provisions gave out, and one of the children died. I expected the two men, Jondrieux and Dofar, at the latest, to be back in the morning after we made camp here. But the storm had overtaken them. They found the cache had been destroyed by animals and had proceeded on to the next one, finding that partly destroyed, there were they snow-bound, and were nearly perishing.

At Johnson’s Ranch, the Third Relief set out, as recounted by Eddy to Thornton:

Four days after Mr. Woodworth’s party left Johnson’s ranche, Messrs. Foster and Eddy obtained horses which had been purchased under the order of Captain Hull. With these they set out to meet Mr. Reed and his party. Mr. Eddy had heard that his wife and one of his children had perished, but he cherished a feeble hope that he was not left to mourn for the loss of all; and that he would find one of his children with Mr. Reed; .... Mr. Foster believed that his child yet survived. He hoped also to find his mother-in-law, Mrs. Murphy, and his brother-in-law, Simon Murphy, alive.

Sunday, March 7, 1847

McGlashan includes an account of events at the Donner tents, based on a statement from Nicholas Clark:

When Nicholas Clark awoke on the third day, the tent was literally buried in freshly fallen snow. He was in what is known as Jacob Donner’s tent. Its only occupants besides himself were Mrs. Elizabeth Donner, her son Lewis, and the Spanish boy, John Baptiste. George Donner and wife were in their own tent, and with them was Mrs. Elizabeth Donner’s youngest child, Samuel. Mr. Clark says he can not remember how long the storm lasted, but it seems as if it must have been at least a week. The snow was so deep that it was impossible to procure wood, and during all those terrible days and nights there was no fire in either of the tents. The food gave out the first day, and the dreadful cold was rendered more intense by the pangs of hunger. Sometimes the wind would blow like a hurricane, and they could plainly hear the great pines crashing on the mountain side above them, as the wind uprooted them and hurled them to the ground. Sometimes the weather would seem to moderate, and the snow would melt and trickle in under the sides of the tent, wetting their clothes and bedding, and increasing the misery of their situation.

When the storm cleared away, Clark found himself starving like the rest. ... Just as the storm was closing, Lewis Donner died, and the poor mother was well-nigh frantic with grief. As soon as she could make her way to the other tent, she carried her dead babe over and laid it in Mrs. George Donner’s lap. With Clark’s assistance, they finally laid the child away in a grave cut out of the solid snow.

James Reed sent his notes, including the Second Relief, to J.H. Merryman, who used them to write Of a Company of Emigrants in the Mountains of California in the December 9, 1847 edition of the Illinois Journal:

but morning dawned, fair and bright, the wind subsided, and the frozen mist sank upon the white bosom of the mountains; but now they had the misfortune to lose one of their number--little Isaac Donner, who died of starvation, for their provisions had given out when the storm first came on. When it was proposed to start once more, a portion of the party objected, and under no consideration could they be prevailed upon to leave the camp; the rest feeling bound, as long as life remained, to make every exertion to reach the settlement, proceeded on their way. Owing to the softness of the snow, their journey was very toilsome, and the air became colder until they reached camp, but they had no idea of the effect of the cold upon them until a fire was started, when reaction taking place in their limbs, their agony was intense. So severe was the pain they suffered that they forgot for a time the cravings of hunger. [The camp was likely at the lower end of Summit Valley.]

Reed wrote of this day in his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press:

As soon as the storm abated we made preparations for leaving. All that were able started, with the exception of Mr. Breen and family. He stated that if he had to die, he would rather die in camp that on the way. A strange proceeding of Mr. Breen, when he and his family were all strong enough to travel. We remonstrated with him, advising him to come with us; that if we perished, let us all die together in the effort to get out. Finding that we could not prevail upon him, I asked some of the men standing by to witness, that I then told Mr. Breen, that if his family died, their blood be upon his head, and not ours. We had not proceeded far before the weather became intensely cold and when we stopped for the night many of the party had their feet frozen. [Reed did not mention that he left not just the Breens, but also Mary Donner and four Graves children. Mrs. Graves might also have been alive when Reed left.]

The Breen family recounted the story to Eliza Farnham:

The storm continued through two days and great part of two nights, and the whole party were obliged to lie awaiting its close. As the third morning advanced, it abated; and the men, feeling how nearly impossible it would be for the young and feeble to move on over the deep fresh-fallen snow, and the certainty of death to all if they remained waiting, proposed going on rapidly, taking Mr. Reed’s two children, and hurrying out help to those who were obliged to stay behind. The provisions that had been brought out to this point had been consumed; so that those who remained, remained to certain death, unless relief came speedily. They departed, promising, in this respect, everything that was possible, and leaving poor Mrs. B., the only active, responsible adult, beside her feeble husband, to care for those ten starving children. ... They had no food-nothing to eat, save a few seeds, tied in bits of cloth, that had been brought along by some one, and a part of the precious lump of sugar. There were also a few spoonfuls of the tea remaining in the bottle. They sat and lay by the fire most of the day, with what heavy hearts who shall ever know?" [Besides five children of her own, Mrs. Breen cared for the four orphaned Graves children, and Mary Donner.]

In his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press, William McCutchen wrote of the Second Relief and Starved Camp:

On the third day about noon, the snow ceased falling, and it was agreed that all who were able should leave, all the provisions being consumed the day before. The day after our arrival at this camp Mr. Reed divided the remaining flour. A spoonful as each person’s share, young and old, and it was four days in all before we got anything to eat. ... All who were able to started to leave, except Mr. Brien and family. He said that if they had to die he would sooner die in camp than on the way, he was repeatedly urged to come, but positively refused. Then Mr. Reed called myself and others to witness, that if any of Mr. Brien’s family died, their death be upon him and not upon us. Mr. Brien had only one daughter; she was an infant. Before leaving, we did everything in our power for those who had to remain, cutting and leaving wood enough to last for several days. After leaving here, we traveled about five miles, then stopped. During this five miles of travel all of us were frost bitten except Mr. Miller. [Like Reed, McCutchen did not mention that besides the Breens, Reed had left Mary Donner and the four Graves children.]

Photograph of flat below Pass

Location of Starved Camp, on the west side of Donner Pass, photographed 1997

In the Valley, Tucker entered this last entry in the Diary of the First Relief: 7 at 3 in the evening reached Johnsons--

Found among the papers in the Miller-Reed Diary donated to Sutter’s Fort Museum in 1945, was a paper that reads:

A list of the names of emigrants which war brought over the Mountains in distress and now are transferred to Capt. Sutter as Commissary, to attend to their boarding etc. by request--
by Order of SE. Woodworth commd expedition to the Mountains pr J.F. Reed Assistant
    Wm Graves
    Mary Graves & Two Sisters
    Edward Brinn
    Simeon Brinn
    Solomon Hook
    Mrs. Keesbergh
    George Donner Jun.
    Two of George Donner Sr. girls
    Eliza Willams
    Noah James
            in all 13

This list includes some people rescued by the First Relief, and also one who came out of the mountains on her own with the Snowshoe Party (Mary Graves) and one rescued by the Second Relief (Solomon Hook).

William Graves wrote in his 1877 article Crossing the Plains in ’46:

From here we were taken to Johnson’s ranch, the first settlement in California; here we were left to look out for ourselves, but the people were very kind to us and we got along very well; but our flesh swelled up as if we had been stung all over by bees, and it was equally as sore. Our only flour at that time was wheat, ground in a common coffee mill. Beef was very cheap; we could buy a quarter of a full grown bullock for a dollar.

Photograph of Johnson’s Ranch site

Site of Johnson’s Ranch adobe, photographed 2022

Monday, March 8, 1847

Elizabeth Farnham, in her 1856 book California In-doors and Out, described Starved Camp, based on interviews with Mrs. Breen:

They were upon about thirty feet of snow, beside a fire made by falling several trees together from opposite directions. The stark mother lay there before them--a ghastlier sight in the sunshine that succeeded the storm, than when the dark clouds overhung them. They had no words of cheer to speak to each other--no courage or hope to share, but those which pointed to a life where hunger and cold could never come, .... yet the mother’s sublime faith, which had brought her thus far through her agonies with a heart still warm toward those who shared them, did not fail her now. She spoke gently to one and another--asked her husband to repeat the litany and the children to join her in the responses, and endeavored to fix their minds upon the time when relief would probably come.

The stark mother was Elizabeth Graves, who had died during the storm according to the Breens’ account. Reed does not mention her death in his accounts. It is possible she survived until after Reed left on the 7th, or it is just as likely that Reed had forgotten her.

Further down Summit Valley, Reed, his children and the Second Relief moved on, as recounted from Reed’s notes in the Illinois Journal article of December 9, 1847:

The next they traveled ten miles, and the great toes of many having bursted, they could have been tracked the whole distance by their blood. They now had been four days without provision, but at this camp, to their great joy, the three men, who had been despatched to the caches, came in with a little provision, the cause of their delay was, finding the first cache had been robbed by Marten, they proceeded to the next, and the great storm coming upon them, they were obliged to wait until it abated. Invigorated by these supplies they proceeded, ... [Ten miles would have brought the party to the end of the Yuba Bottoms, where the wagon road ascended the ridge below Cisco Butte.]

Reed’s account in his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press:

The next day our travel was slow, many in pain. When night came on those in advance camped, the next coming straggling in, making considerable noise. This gave the camp of Mr. Woodworth the first intimation of our proximity to them. He sent some of his party to us requesting that we would come down to his encampment; but the most of us having laid down for the night, declining going, but would be glad if he would sent us something to eat, which he did, and some of the party who had not camped, went down.

Virginia Reed, in her 1891 Century Magazine article, wrote of her brother and sister:

Hiram Miller picked up Tommy and started. Patty thought she could walk, but gradually everything faded from her sight, and she too seemed to be dying. All other sufferings were now forgotten, and everything was done to revive the child. My father found some crumbs in the thumb of his woolen mitten; warming and moistening them between his own lips, he gave them to her and thus saved her life, and she was carried along by different ones in the company.

Further down the mountains, the Third Relief approached. As told by Eddy to Thornton:

On the second day after they left, they arrived at Bear River valley, where they found Passed-midshipman Woodworth remaining in camp with one man to bring water, make fires, and cook for him. There were also other men in other ways to assist him. ... Mr. Woodworth promised that he would set forward on the following morning, but he advised Messrs. Foster and Eddy not to attempt the passage of the mountain. They informed him that they had passed over under vastly more difficult circumstances, and that they would certainly attempt it again.

Tuesday, March 9, 1847

Elizabeth Farnham, in her 1856 book California In-doors and Out, described Starved Camp, based on interviews with Mrs. Breen:

What days and nights were those which went by while they waited. Life waning visibly in those about her; not a morsel of food to offer them; her own infant, and that little one that had been cherished and saved through all by the mother now lying dead; wasting hourly into the more perfect image of death; her husband, worn to a skeleton, indifferent to his own fate or any one’s else. ... She watched by night as well as by day. She gathered wood to keep them warm. She boiled her handful of tea and dispensed it to them; and when she found one sunken and speechless, she broke with her teeth a morsel of the precious sugar and put it in his lips. She fed her babe freely on snow-water, and, scanty as was the wardrobe she had, she managed to get fresh clothing next to its skin two or three times a week. ... She put her hand under their blankets and held it before the mouth. In this way she assured herself that they were yet alive; but once her blood curdled to find, on approaching her hand to the lips of one of her own children, there was no warm breath upon it. She tried to open the mouth, and found the jaws set. She roused her husband. O, Patrick, man, rise and help me; James is dying! Let him die, said the miserable father; he will be better off than any of us. She was terribly shocked by this reply. In her own expressive language, her heart stood still when she heard it. She was bewildered, and knew not where to set her weary hands to work; but she recovered in a few moments, and began to chafe the chest and hands of the perishing boy. She broke a bit of sugar, and with considerable effort forced it between his teeth with a few drops of snow-water. She saw him swallow; then as light convulsive motion stirred his features; he stretched his hands feebly, and in a moment more opened his eyes and looked upon her.

Further down the mountain, the Third Relief set out from Bear Valley, as told by Eddy to Thornton:

They accordingly set out, eight in number, on the following morning. Having crossed a ridge, they arrived at Yuva river, where Passed-midshipman Woodworth, who had become tired from carrying his blanket, proposed, at about 3 o’clock, P.M., to encamp. That night two of Mr. Reed’s men came to Mr. Woodworth’s camp, and informed him that Mr. Reed’s party were encamped about one mile in advance.

Most likely, the Third Relief reached the Yuba River northeast of present Yuba Pass.

Reed’s wrote of this meeting in his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press: Next morning Mr. Woodworth proceeded on with all haste, and my impression is, that two or three of our party went back with them.

Wednesday, March 10, 1847

McGlashan includes an account of events at the Donner tents, based on a statement from Nicholas Clark:

In going to a tamarack grove to get some wood, Mr. Clark was surprised to find the fresh track of the bear cub, which had recrossed Alder Creek and ascended the mountain behind the tents. It was doubtless the same one whose mother he had wounded. The mother had probably died, and after the storm the cub had returned. Mr. Clark at once followed it, tracking it far up the mountain side to a cliff of rocks, and losing the trail at the mouth of a small, dark cave. He says that all hope deserted him when he found that the cub had gone into the cave. ... After reflecting for some time on the gloomy situation, he concluded to fire his gun into the cave, and see if the report might not frighten out the cub. ... His random shot had pierced its brain, and it had died without a struggle. ... after a long time he succeeded in dragging his prize to the surface. There was food in the Donner tents from this time forward. It came too late, however, to save Mrs. Elizabeth Donner or her son Samuel.

About this time, at the Murphy cabin at the Lake, according to McGlashan:

Mrs. Lavina Murphy had charge of her son, Simon Murphy, her grandchild, George Foster, of the child James Eddy, and of the three little Donner girls, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza. All dwelt in the same cabin, and with them was Lewis Keseberg. ... Keseberg has generally been accused of the murder of little George Foster. Except Mrs. Murphy, the oldest of those who were with Keseberg was only nine years of age. All that the children know is that Keseberg took the child to bed with him one night, and that it was dead next morning. One of the little ones who survived-- ... and who is now Mrs. Georgia A. Babcock--gives the mildest version of this sad affair which has ever appeared in print. ... She ... writes the following: In the morning the child was dead. Mrs. Murphy took it, sat down near the bed where my sister and myself were lying, laid the little one on her lap, and made remarks to other persons, accusing Keseberg of killing it. After a while he came, took it from her, and hung it up in sight, inside the cabin, on the wall.

Over the Pass, at Starved Camp, as described by Elizabeth Farnham in her 1856 book California In-doors and Out, based on interviews with Mrs. Breen:

Thus she went on. The tea-leaves were chewed, the sugar all dispensed. One child of the mother, who lay upon the snow, perished--not the youngest. An older sister had that in charge, and it still lived, though not a particle of anything but snow-water had passed its clammy lips for near a week. The days were bright, and compared with the nights, comfortable. Occasionally, when the sun shone, their voices were heard, though generally they sat or laid in a kind of stupor, from which she often found it alarmingly difficult to rouse them; but when the gray evening twilight drew its deepening curtain over the cold, glittering heavens and the icy waste, and when the famishing bodies had been covered from the frost that pinched them with but little less keeness than the unrelenting hunger, the solitude seemed to rend her very brain. ... But she said her prayers many times over in the darkness as well as the light, .... [The child who died was Franklin Ward Graves, Jr., 5. The infant Elizabeth Graves was cared for by her nine year old sister, Nancy.]

On the west side of the mountains, the Second Relief reached Bear Valley, as recounted in the Illinois Journal article of December 9, 1847, based on Reed’s notes:

and two days after they reached the camp of Mr. Woodworth, in Bear River Valley. As soon as Mr. Reed and party reached Mr. Woodworth’s camp, they urged him to proceed immediately to the relief of those who had been left on the east side of the mountains, and the party that had remained at the head of Juba valley; the former having very little provision, the latter none whatsoever. But Mr. Woodworth and party, when gazing upon the pale and emaciated forms of the emigrants, and saw pictured upon their countenances the evidence of most intense suffering, and looked forward to the dangers that must be surmounted before they could reach and relieve the poor emigrants, they quailed before the prospect, and refused to proceed without a pilot. A pilot was, however, needless,--because the tracks made by the snow shoes of the party which had just arrived, were amply sufficient to guide them to Juba valley, from which Juba river was a sure guide to Truckey’s lake, near the cabins. Of all this Mr. Woodworth was informed, but he utterly refused to proceed without a pilot.

Reed’s comment about the trail to Yuba valley suggests that, contrary to Stewart’s suggestion, the relief parties did not cross from the head of Bear River to the Yuba River at the upper end of Bear Valley, but instead followed the easiest route east, being a gradual climb of the ridge east of Emigrant Gap (the route of present Route 20) and then north of Yuba Pass to the Yuba River (near the route of present I-80 and Eagle Lakes Road), west of Cisco Butte.

Eddy’s account of Woodworth’s return, as told by Thornton:

Mr. Woodworth then went to Mr. Reed’s camp, and after conversing with him, returned. Mr. Reed had informed him that some miles from that place he had left fourteen of the sufferers. Mr. Woodworth asked the men with him, if they would go to the relief of these emigrants, and received a reply in the negative. Messrs. Foster and Eddy proposed to make themselves responsible for almost any sum to persons who would go with them. To this it was replied that they, having lost all their property and money, were irresponsible. J.F. Reed and Hiram Miller said that they would be responsible for any amount, for which Messrs. Eddy and Foster would engage. But these it was said were in the condition of the first. Mr. John Starks offered to go out without any reward beyond that derived from the consciousness of doing a good act. But the snow made it prudent to have only light men for the service. It was necessary for each man to carry fifty pounds of provisions; and this, added to Mr. Starks’ own weight, of two hundred and twenty-four pounds, made it imprudent for him to go. Being unable to induce any of them to consent to go, Messrs. Eddy and Foster were about to set out alone. Mr. Reed, however, remonstrated against this, and at length induced them to consent to return to Bear River valley, where he said he would use his utmost efforts to prevail upon Mr. Woodworth and his party to enter upon the enterprise.

Thornton’s statement that Reed reported leaving fourteen of the sufferers suggests that this is not a quote from Reed, since he knew that Isaac Donner had died, and possibly Mrs. Graves too, leaving only twelve survivors: the seven Breens, Mary Donner, and the four Graves children. It is also possible that Eddy or Thornton provided the number fourteen based on their later knowledge of the number who did not come out with Reed.

The Third Relief, of Eddy and Foster, was re-formed at Bear Valley, as told by Eddy to Thornton:

Upon returning to Bear River valley, Mr. Woodworth finally said that he would engage, under the authority he had received from Capt. Hull to pay three dollars per day to every man who would bring out a child not his own. Mr. Eddy hired Hiram Miller, formerly of Springfield, Illinois, engaging to pay him fifty dollars. Mr. Foster hired a Mr. Thompson for the same sum. Howard Oakley, John Starks, and Mr. Stone looked to Capt. Hull for their wages.

Reed’s account in his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press: We proceeded slowly, and the second night, we reached the encampment at Bear valley, in company with Mr. Woodworth, he returning to Sutter’s Fort. From here a majority of the party rode to Sutter’s, I stopping at Mr. Sinclair’s.

Virginia Reed, in her 1891 Century Magazine article, wrote: Patty was not alone in her travels. Hidden away in her bosom was a tiny doll, which she had carried day and night though all of our trials. Sitting before a nice, bright fire at Woodworth’s Camp, she took dolly out to have a talk, and told her of all her happiness.

Photograph of Patty’s doll

Patty Reed’s Doll
Photograph courtesy Jeffanna Pratt

Patty’s doll is on display at the Sutter’s Fort State Historical Park Museum in Sacramento, California. In the summer of 1996, it was on loan to the Smithsonian Institution for its 150th Anniversary Exhibition 1846: Portrait of a Nation.

Thursday, March 11, 1847

Elizabeth Farnham, in her 1856 book California In-doors and Out, described Starved Camp, based on interviews with Mrs. Breen:

Their fire had melted the snow to a considerable depth, and the were lying upon the bank above it. Thus they had less of its heat than they needed, and found some difficulty in getting the fuel she gathered, placed so that it could burn. ... The fire had sunk so far away, that they had felt but little of its warmth the last two nights, and casting her eyes down into the snow-pit, where it sent forth only a dull glow, she thought she saw the welcome face of beloved mother earth. It was such a reviving sight, after their long freezing separation from it! She immediately roused her eldest son, and with at great deal of difficulty, and repeated words of cheering and encouragement, brought him to understand, that she wished him to descend by one of the tree-tops which had fallen in, so as to make a sort of ladder, and see if they could reach the naked earth and if it were possible for them all to go down. She trembled with fear of the vacant silence in which he at first gazed at her, but at long length, after she had told him a great many times, he said, yes, mother, and went. He reached the bottom safely, and presently spoke to her. There was naked dry earth under his feet; it was warm, and he wished her to come down. She laid her baby beside some of the sleepers and descended. Immediately she determined upon taking them all down. ... By persuasion, by entreaty, by encouragement, and with her own aid, she got them all into this snug shelter. At this removal another child was found dead. ... He had a young sister who had set out in comparatively good condition, but was not emaciated and stupefied. The warmth of the fire revived and enlivened her, and when she missed her brother and learned that he was dead, she begged Mr. B. to go up cut a piece off him, for her to eat. O child, exclaimed the horror-stricken woman, sure you would not eat your own brother. O yes I will. Do, Mr. Breen, I am so hungry, and we ate father and uncle at the cabin! The man dared not resist her entreaty; for he thought, If she should die when her life might be saved by it, the responsibility would be on me! He ascended to the terrible task. His wife, frozen with horror, hid her face in her hands and could not look up. She was conscious of his return, and of something going one about the fire; but she could not bring herself to uncover her eyes till all had subsided again into silence. Her husband remarked, that perhaps they were wrong in rejecting a means of sustaining life, of which others had availed themselves; but she put away the suggestion so fearfully, that it was never renewed nor acted upon by any of her family.

Drawing of Starved Camp

Drawing of Starved Camp
from Winter of Entrapment by Joseph King

The young child was Isaac Donner who had died during the storm before Reed left. The sister was Mary Donner, who probably suggested that they eat the dead, as she and the others at Alder Creek had already resorted to cannibalism to save themselves. Although she likely survived on her uncle Jacob’s body, she had not ate her father who was alive when she left Alder Creek. This misquote must have been caused by the Breen’s mistaken belief that George Donner was dead. As for the assertion that the Breens did not partake of the means of sustenance even Prof. King found it not credible.

Down the mountains, the Third Relief approached, as told by Eddy to Thornton: The company thus organized, through the instrumentality of Messrs. Eddy and Foster set out for Mountain Camp, on the following morning. They encamped that night about half way up Yuva river, in fifteen feet of snow.

Friday, March 12, 1847

At the Donner tents, according to McGlashan based on a statement by Nicholas Clark:

All this time Mrs. Tamsen Donner was tortured with fear and dread, lest her children had perished in the dreadful storm on the summits. At last Clark yielded to her importunities, and decided to visit the cabins at Donner Lake, and see if there was any news from beyond the Sierra. Clark found the children at Keseberg’s cabin, and witnessed such scenes of horror and suffering that he determined at once to attempt to reach California. Returning to Alder Creek, he told Mrs. Donner of the situation of her children, and says he informed her that he believed their lives were in danger of a death more violent than starvation. He informed her of his resolution to leave the mountains, and taking a portion of the little meat that was left, he at once started upon his journey. John Baptiste accompanied him. ... Mrs. Tamsen Donner did not dare to leave her husband alone during the night, but told Clark and Baptiste that she should endeavor to make the journey to the cabins on the following day.

As the Third Relief approached Starved Camp, they found the body of John Denton, who had been left with provisions by the First Relief on February 24th. As reported by Eddy to Thornton:

Mr. Eddy found him with the provisions still in his pocket. ... Mr. Eddy ... found him in a sitting posture, with his body slightly leaning against a snowbank, and with his head bowed upon his breast. He had evidently fallen into a profound slumber, during the continuance of which the circulation had gradually diminished, until he ceased at once to live and suffer, and the transition of his spirit from time into eternity was unperceived. Mr. Eddy found at his side a small piece of India rubber, a pocket pencil, and a little journal, containing a brief notice of some of the most prominent incidents of the journey, and among others of his Christmas dinner. On a slip of paper was a piece of poetry, which he had written, making some corrections by rubbing out with his India rubber, and rewriting. It was handed over to Mr. Woodworth, who published it in the California Star. It was written in pencil, and there can be no doubt of his having composed it a little before the coming on of that heavy slumber, form which he will never awake, ....

Morgan doubted that Denton composed the poetry as he lay dying in the snow. As noted by a sharp-eyed reader of this site, this poetry was actually the lyrics to the song The Happy Valley, lyrics by Thomas Haynes Bayly, music by Charles Edward Horn, published on page 196 of Songs, Ballads and Poems edited Bayly’s widow and published in 1844.

The California Star published the lyrics on April 10, 1847:

The following lines are from the journal of Mr. John Denton, one of the unfortunate emigrants who perished during the past winter in the California Mountains. He was found dead on the mountain, having made an effort, with a few others, to cross. His journal was taken from his pocket and brought in. It is said to contain many interesting items in relation to the route from Missouri to the California Mountains, and a graphic description of the sufferings of the unfortunate party, of which he was a member. The journal will probably in a few weeks be placed in our hands.

   Oh! after many Roving Years.

Oh! after many roving years,
How sweet it is to come
To the dwelling-place of early youth,
Our first and dearest home.
To turn away our wearied eyes,
From proud ambition’s towers,
And wander in those summer fields,--
The scene of boyhood’s hours.

But I am changed since last I gazed
On yonder tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch-elm
That shades the village green;
And watched my boat upon the brook--
As it were a regal galley,
And sighed not for a joy on earth
Beyond the happy valley.

I wish I could recall once more
That bright and blissful joy,
An summon to my weary heart
The feelings of a boy.
But I look on scenes of past delight
Without my wonted pleasures,
As a miser on the bed of death
Looks coldly on his treasures.

Unfortunately, Denton’s journal was never published. According to Morgan, If it is true that Denton kept a journal, what happened to it is unknown.

At Starved Camp, as recounted by Eliza Farnham in her 1856 book California In-Doors and Out based on her conversations with Mrs. Breen, who

turned her face listlessly the way she so often gazed, but this time some thing caused it to flush .... What was it? Nothing that she saw, ... It was the sound of voices. ... She grew calmer a she became more assured, and the first distinct words she heard uttered were, ’there is Mrs. Breen, alive yet, anyhow!’ There were three men advancing toward her. She knew that now there would be no more starving. ... A little food was soon dispensed, and shortly after a little more, and soon a third meal. ...

The Third Relief arrived at Starved Camp, according to Thornton, based on Eddy:

The next day, at 4 o’clock, they arrived at the camp of those whom Mr. Reed had been compelled to leave. The fire at the Starved Camp had melted the snow down to the ground, and the hole thus made was about twelve or fifteen feet in diameter, and twenty-four feet deep. As the snow continued to melt, they made steps by which they ascended and descended. ... After supplying these emigrants with food, Messrs. Oakley, Starks, and Stone were left to lead them on to Bear River valley, and to carry out Mrs. Graves’ babe and two other children.

According to McGlashan:

When these members of the third relief reached the deep, well-like cavity in which were the seven Breens, the three Graves children, and Mary Donner, a serious question arose. None of the eleven, except Mrs. Breen and John Breen, were able to walk. A storm appeared to be gathering upon the mountains, and the supply of provisions was very limited. ... When it was found that nine out of the eleven people must be carried over the snow, it is hardly to be wondered at that a proposition was made to leave a portion of the sufferers. It was proposed to take the three Graves children and Mary Donner.... This scene is described in the manuscript of Hon.James F. Breen:
Those who were in favor of returning to the settlements, and leaving the Breens for a future relief party (which, under the circumstances, was equivalent to the death penalty), were to answer aye. The question was put to each man by name, and as the names were called, the dreadful aye responded. John Stark’s name was the last one called, because he had, during the discussion of the question, strongly opposed the proposition for abandonment, and it was naturally supposed that when he found himself in so hopeless a minority he would surrender. When his name was called, he made no answer until some one said to him: Stark, won’t you vote? Stark, during all this proceeding of calling the roll, had stood apart from his companions with bowed head and folded arms. When he was thus directly appealed to, he answered quickly and decidedly: No, gentlemen, I will not abandon these people. I am here on a mission of mercy, and I will not half do the work. You can all go if you want to, but I shall stay by these people while they and I live. ... No one can attach blame to those who voted to leave part of the emigrants. It was a desperate case. Their idea was to save as many as possible, and they honestly believed that by attempting to save all, all would be lost. But this consideration--and the further one that Stark was an entire stranger to every one in the camps, not bound to them by any tie of blood or kindred, nor having any hope of reward, except the grand consciousness of doing a noble act--makes his conduct shine more lustrously in the eyes of every person who admires nature’s true and only nobility.

McGlashan quotes from a manuscript by John Breen:

Stark was finally left alone. To his great bodily strength, and unexcelled courage, myself and others owe our lives. There was probably no other man in California at that time, who had the intelligence, determination, and what was absolutely necessary in that emergency, the immense physical powers of John Stark. He was as strong as two ordinary men. On his broad shoulders, he carried the provisions, most of the blankets, and most of the time some of the weaker children. In regard to this, he would laughingly say that he could carry them all, if there was room on his back, because they were so light from starvation.

McGlashan further quotes from a manuscript by James Breen: I distinctly remember that myself and Jonathon Graves were both carried by Stark, on his back, the greater part of the journey.

On the other side of the mountains, The Second Relief ended, as recounted from Reed’s notes in the Illinois Journal article of December 9, 1847: At the end of two days, a large majority of Mr. Reed’s party volunteered to go with him. They went, ...

Saturday, March 13, 1847

The Third Relief reached the lake cabins, according to Eddy as told to Thornton:

Messrs. Eddy, Foster, Thompson, and Miller, started at about 4 o’clock, on the following morning, for the Mountain Camp, where they arrived at about 10 o’clock, A.M. A more shocking picture of distress and misfortune, can not be imagined, than the scene they witnessed upon their arrival. Many of those who had been detained by the snows had starved to death. Their bodies had been devoured by the wretched survivors; and their bones were lying in and around the camps. ... Something was absolutely necessary to be done to sustain their miserable existence; yet all of them, except Kiesburg, had refrained from this most monstrous food as long as any thing else could be had. ... This man also devoured Mr. Eddy’s child, ... and was among the first to communicate the fact to him. ... Such was the horrible and emaciated appearance of this man that Mr. Eddy, as he informed me, could not shed his blood there; but he resolved to kill him upon his landing at San Francisco, if he ever came to the place. The party of Messrs. Eddy and Foster, upon their arrival at the Mountain Camp, found five living children, to wit: three of George Donner’s, one of Jacob Donner’s, and one of Mrs. Murphy’s. They also found a man whose name is Clarke. ... Clarke had gone out with Mr. Reed, I believe, under the pretense of assisting the emigrants. He was found with a pack of goods upon his back, weighing about forty pounds, and also two guns, about to set off with his booty. This man actually carried away this property, which weighed more than did a child he left behind to perish. ... In addition to these, there were in camp, Mrs. Murphy, Mr. and Mrs. George Donner, and Kiesburg--the latter, it was believed, having far more strength to travel, for the reason, as was suspected, that he wished to remain behind for the purpose of obtaining the property and money of the dead. Mrs. George Donner was in good health, was somewhat corpulent, and certainly 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 and peril could change, to remain, and perform for him the last sad offices 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 to him, if he would save the lives of her children. He informed her that he would not carry out one hundred dollars for all that she had, but that he would save the children, or perish in the effort. The party had no provisions to leave for the sustenance of these unhappy and unfortunate beings. After remaining about two hours, Mr. Eddy informed Mrs. Donner that he was constrained by the force of circumstances to depart. ... The parting scene between the parents and children is represented as being one that will never be forgotten, ... and that the last words uttered by Mrs. Donner, in tears and sobs, to Mr. Eddy, were, O, save! save my children! Mr. Eddy carried Georgiana Donner, who was about six years old; Hiram Miller carried Eliza Donner, about four years old; Mr. Thompson carried Frances Ann Donner, about eight years old; William Foster carried Simon Murphy, eight years old; and Clarke carried his booty, and left a child of the Donners to perish. The first night after leaving the Mountain Camp, the party encamped at the foot of the pass, on the eastern declivity of the mountain.

The Donner child left behind was presumably 4 year old Samuel. Since Tamsen Donner came alone to the lake cabins on March 14, after the death of her sister-in-law Elizabeth, it seems likely that Elizabeth’s son Samuel had died about the same time, just a few days after Clark left the Donners’ camp.

In 1911, Eliza Donner obtained this account from her sister Frances, who had been six at the time of the events:

The place assigned us in the cabin was near the opening and during the first storm the snow drifted down and covered our beds and had to be shoveled off before we could get up next morning. We were shy but managed to keep close together. O, it was dreadful! ... and mother knew no better until after Aunt Betsy’s death and Mr. Clark stopped on the way out and found us there and returned and told Mother and she came to us. I don’t remember if she stayed all night. She sat back with Mrs. Murphy who was weak and in bed and afraid of her life. Our mother did not dare notice us much, she was suffering so. She expected us to be in the settlement and there we were poor helpless children and nothing in her power to help us with. Mother was speaking to Mrs. Murphy, Keseberg, Simon M. and we three were present when the cabin seemed filled with men. They grabbed us out of bed and flew with us to the top on the snow and dressed us ready to start. I don’t think it was more than ten before we were off. Mother tried to hire some one to go back with her she offered to pay them well but they would not. I can not see her all alone traveling back. Mr. Miler took you Mr. Eddy Georgia and Mr. Thompson me. I walked every step of the way. I was barefoot but mother gave me a pair of her shoes to wear. You can think what a fit it was for a child not quite seven; and to under take such a trip across the Mts. in condition we were in at that time. We made the edge of the hill on the border of the lake and stopped, there is where we got our first something to eat. I think we went a little further before we camped.

Over the pass at Starved Camp, just west of the Pass, the survivors set out down the mountain, according to Eliza Farnham in her book California In-Doors and Out, based on her conversations with Mrs. Breen:

by morning they were all, except the poor infants, so much refreshed and strengthened, that it seemed possible to set out; indeed, it was an imperative necessity to move, as the supplies that had been brought were very slender, and were already materially reduced. They had snow-shoes, and sank deep--almost to the belly at every step. ... The poor mother bore her baby, and the little orphan was taken by turns. One source of exquisite suffering, was the dreadful condition of their feet. They had been so often frosted, that, in several cases, every trace of the integuments had disappeared, and the unsheathed, lacerated flesh left its bloody mark at every step on the snow. This was torture to the poor mother’s heart. But she had to urge her little ones onward, painful though it was to them and herself. Their road often lay along the slopes of hills, where a single false step would have precipitated them fifty or a hundred feet, but feeble as they were, they went on without accident, sometimes two, sometimes five miles, a day, ....

Sunday, March 14, 1847

The Third Relief left the lake and crossed the pass, according to Eddy as told to Thornton:

On the next day they crossed the pass, where Mr. Eddy found an aperture in the snow which had been kept open by a spring, where, by letting down a cord, he ascertained the depth of the snow to be sixty-five feet. That night they encamped half way down Yuva river.

The stated snow depth of 65’ is an example of how events and observations may be exaggerated in the written accounts. The distance of half way down Yuva river seems too far for such a group to travel after climbing 1,100 feet over the pass. More likely, they barely reached the Yuba Bottoms, eight miles from the eastern side of the pass.

Monday, March 15, 1847

The Third Relief continued down Yuba Bottoms, according to Eddy as told to Thornton:

The next morning, they resumed their journey, and came up with Mr. Starks, with Patrick Brinn and family, and others, who were the eleven persons that remained alive of the fourteen whom Mr. Reed had been constrained to leave. They at the same time met Messrs. Glover, Coffemymeir, Mootrey, and Woodworth, who had halted to prepare dinner. After the meal was taken, these gentlemen set out for the Mule Spring. Toward the close of the afternoon, Mr. Woodworth’s party encamped at the last crossing of Yuva river. At night Messrs. Eddy, Foster, Thompson, and Miller came up, bringing with them the children with whom they had left the Mountain Camp. John Baptiste and Clarke were also with them. Here they encamped in the snow.

The last crossing of the Yuba on the wagon road was located just north of Cisco Butte, between the present Cisco and Eagle Lakes exits from Interstate 80. This would be a day’s travel of about six miles. The reference to the last crossing suggests that the relief parties did not follow the Yuba River all the way to Bear Valley (a distance of about 11 miles), as suggested by Stewart, but probably left the river near the same place as the wagon road but stayed north of the ridge towards Yuba Pass instead of crossing Sixmile Valley to Emigrant Gap.

Photograph of Yuba River

Yuba River near Cisco Butte, photographed 2022

Tuesday, March 16, 1847

The Third Relief continued to Mule Springs, according to Eddy as told to Thornton:

On the following morning, Mr. Woodworth gave to the party a little food. He was informed that there were persons yet remaining at the Mountain Camp, for whose rescue an effort ought to be made. He replied, that he could not remain any longer, and after giving his blankets to Mr. Mootrey to carry, he said he would go forward and prepare horses for proceeding immediately on into the settlements. Messrs. Woodworth, Glover, Mootrey, and Coffeymeir then proceeded forward to the Mule Spring, where they encamped. Messrs. Foster, Eddy, Miller, and Thompson resumed their journey, and at 10 o’clock, A.M., arrived at the Mule Spring. Here they came up with Messrs. Oakley and Stone, who, having left Mr. Starks, had passed Messrs. Foster, Eddy, Miller, and Thompson.

Mule Spring is sixteen miles from the last wagon crossing of the Yuba River at Cisco Butte, or about ten miles from the Yuba River just above Bear Valley.

Photograph of Mule Spring

Mule Spring, photographed 2022

Thursday, March 18, 1847

The Third Relief was at Mule Springs, according to Eddy as told to Thornton:

On the evening of the second day after their arrival at this camp, Mr. Starks came up, with Patrick Brinn, his wife, and children. Mr. Starks carried Jonathon Graves, a boy twelve years of age. Mr. Stone had carried the deceased Mrs. Graves’ babe. Mr. Oakley carried Mary Donner, a girl thirteen years old, one of whose feet had been severely burnt at the Starved Camp, previous to Mr. Reed leaving at that place the fourteen, as previously mentioned.

Eliza Farnham wrote in her 1856 book California In-doors and Out, based on interviews with Mrs. Breen:

till they reached Mule Springs, whither government supplies had been sent, and were then awaiting them, together with animals, and whatever was necessary for the further safe transport of the disabled. There Mrs. B. learned of the safe arrival of her sons who had preceded her, and of the fate that had befallen other, and there she found new cause of thanksgiving for the unspeakable love that had sustained them through all the sufferings and perils ....

In a letter to C.F. McGlashan, dated February 28, 1879, William Graves relayed John Stark’s account of Mrs. Breen’s arrival at Woodworth’s camp: Woodworth said to her you may thank me Mrs. Breen for your safe delivery, Thank you I thank no boddy but God and Stark and the Vergin Mary she said. Putting Stark second best and I think he deserved it.

Friday, March 19, 1847

The Third Relief ended, according to Eddy as told to Thornton: The morning following the day upon which Mr. Starks came up, the whole number of persons thus brought together set out for the settlements;

Sunday, March 21, 1847

In 1879, McGlashan obtained a statement from Lewis Keseberg, who stated:

A heavy storm came on in a few days after the last relief party left. Mrs. George Donner had remained with her sick husband in their camp, six or seven miles away. Mrs. Murphy lived about a week after we were left alone. ... Mrs. Murphy was too weak to revive.

Tuesday, March 23, 1847

On April 3, 1847, The California Star, San Francisco, published a letter dated April 1st, 1847, by Lt. S.E. Woodworth, U.S. Navy, which stated:

When I left the mountains there was still remaining at the cabins, Mr Kiesbury and Geo. Donner the only two men; Mrs Geo Donner, one child, and Mrs Murphy;--Mrs Murphy, Mr Donner and the child could not survive many more days when left, but Mrs Donner and Kiesbury could subsist upon the remaining bodies yet some ten days. The snow at the Cabins was going off rapidly; but in Bear Valley and on the Juba River it was yet 20 feet deep on the level.

When I arrived at Johnson’s, on the 23d, I found a letter from Mr. McKinstry, stating that the bearer, J. Sel, as also D. Tucker, John Rhodes and E. Caffemeyer, were willing to return to the Cabins, and endeavor to save the remaining few. I immediately organized another party consisting of John Rhodes, John Stark, E. Caffemeyer, John Sel and Dan’l Tucker, Mr. Foster and the son of Mrs. Greaves volunteering to return with them, and despatched them immediately, furnishing them horses, provisions, &c., and I hope ere this that they have succeeded in saving at least two of those remaining there; the other three, Geo. Donner, Mrs. Murphy and the child I do not think can be saved, even should they be alive, as it will be impossible to remove them, they being so feeble, and otherwise ill.

The child was four year old Samuel Donner, son of Jacob and Eizabeth Donner.

Thursday, March 25, 1847

In 1879, Reasin P. Tucker wrote to C.F. McGlashan:

J. Rhods & Jack and myself and others ... got as fair as the foot of Bear valy then pack on back this nite comce snowing stated went 6 miles the snow fells fast and tile we were compeled to turn back.

Photograph of Bear Valley

Bear Valley, photographed 2022

Saturday, March 27, 1847

In 1879, Lewis Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

At midnight, one cold, bitter night, Mrs. George Donner came to my door. It was about two weeks after Reed had gone, and my loneliness was beginning to be unendurable. I was most happy to hear the sound of a human voice. Her coming was like that of an angel from heaven. But she had not come to bear me company. Her husband had died in her arms. She had remained by his side until death came, and then laid him out and hurried away. He died at nightfall, and she had traveled over the snow alone to my cabin. She was going, alone, across the mountains. She was going to start without food or guide. She kept saying, My children! I must see my children! She feared she would not survive, and told me she had some money in her tent. It was too heavy for her to carry. She said, Mr. Keseberg, I confide this to your care. She made me promise sacredly that I would get the money and take it to her children in case she perished and I survived. She declared she would start over the mountains in the morning. She said, I am bound to go to my children. She seemed very cold, and her clothes were like ice. I think she had got in the creek in coming. She said she was very hungry, but refused the only food I could offer. She had never eaten the loathsome flesh. She finally lay down, and I spread a feather-bed and some blankets over her.

Keseberg’s reference to Reed is probably an error. More likely, he is referring to the last Relief Party to reach him, the Third Relief of Eddy and Foster. Keseberg’s assertion that Mrs. Donner had never eaten human flesh is probably an attempt to preserve her reputation, even thirty years after her death. From Mary Donner’s statement at Starved Camp, and the reports of the relief and salvage parties, it is clear that the Donners had resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Photograph of Alder Creek

Emigrant road along Alder Creek between Donner camp and lake cabins, photographed 2022

Sunday, March 28, 1847

Lewis Keseberg’s 1879 statement to McGlashan continued: In the morning she was dead. I think the hunger, the mental suffering, and the icy chill of the preceding night, caused her death.