October 1846

The Donner Party traveled down Mary’s River (now the Humboldt River near present Dunphy, Nevada) to Truckee’s Pass over the Sierra Nevada Mountains (now Donner Pass), but were unable to cross it in the deep snow.

Map of Trail from the Humboldt River to Donner Pass

The dated entries below are from the diary of Hiram Miller and James F. Reed. The Diary is controversial to some historians. The existence of the diary was not known until the estate of Martha (Patty) Reed donated it to Sutter’s Fort Historical Museum in 1945. Apparently neither Virginia nor Patty revealed the diary to McGlashan. Virginia apparently did not use it as a source for her Century Magazine article in 1891. Some of the entries appear to have been written after the events, which led both Stewart and King to question it. King went so far as to suggest that some entries may have been written after Reed arrived in California, which seems unlikely.

Thursday, October 1, 1846

Oct Thur 1 left Camp and made 15 Miles down the River encampe on a Rich bottom this night M Graves lost a fine mare by the Indians

William C. Graves, in his memoirs in the Russian River Flag, April 26 1877, continued: ... and in two days after they stole a horse ....

Friday, October 2, 1846

Frid 2 Still down the River Made to day 12 miles [The camp was on the north bank of the Humboldt near present Rock Creek. Battle Mountain is on the south bank]

Drawing of Humboldt River

Plains of the Humboldt, by Thomas Moran

Saturday, October 3, 1846

Sat 3 left Camp early mad a this day 10 miles [The camp was on the south bank of the Humboldt, near present Valmy, Nevada.]

Sunday, October 4, 1846

Son 4 Still

This is the last dated entry in the Miller-Reed Diary. Without Reed’s description and mileage estimates, the rest of the Party’s journey to the Sierra can only be estimated by the accounts of the survivors, and by the campsites as described by other travelers in 1846. Based on those, the camp of the 4th was probably where the trail left the south bank of the Humboldt River near present Redhouse, Nevada.

The dates and campsites in Thornton’s book from here to the arrival at the Lake seem incorrect. Given the number of cattle lost, and the number of people who were walking, the Donner Party must have traveled slower than the other parties who traveled with Hastings. Therefore, I have used the distance and campsites as recorded by diarist James Mathers and mapmaker T.H. Jefferson instead of taking Thornton literally.

Monday, October 5, 1846

The Trail crossed the bluffs on the south bank of the Humboldt, ascending to a high point shown on T.H. Jefferson’s map as Pauta Pass, known now as Iron Point, northeast of present Golconda, Nevada. James Reed drew a map that begins at this point, with the notation: hard pass You must double teams. The trail then then crossed a loop of the Humboldt River to a campsite.

James Reed’s Map

On May 22, 1847, twenty year old Mary Graves wrote to Levi Fosdick, the father of Jay Fosdick: On Mary’s river a quarrel took place between John Snyder and an overbearing Irishman, in which the latter stabbed the former.

William Eddy gave this account of the day’s events, as written by Thornton:

Mr. Eddy went out hunting .... At noon he came up with the company, which had stopped to take some refreshments, at the foot of a very high and long sand-hill, covered with rocks at the top. At length they commenced ascending the hill. All the wagons had been taken up but Mr. Reed’s, Mr. Pike’s, and one of Mr. Graves’, the latter driven by John Snyder. Milton Elliot, who was Mr. Reed’s driver, took Mr. Eddy’s team, which was on Mr. Reed’s wagon, and joined it to Mr. Pike’s team. The cattle of this team, being unruly, became entangled with that of Mr. Graves’, driven by Snyder; and a quarrel ensued between him and Elliot.

Snyder at length commenced quarreling with Mr. Reed, and made some threats of whipping him, which threats he seemed about to attempt executing. Mr. Reed then drew a knife, without, however, attempting to use it, and told Snyder that he did not wish to have any difficulty with him. Snyder told that he would whip him, anyhow; and turning the butt of his whip, gave Mr. Reed a severe blow upon the head, which cut it very much. As Reed was in the act of dodging the blow, he stabbed Snyder a little below the collar-bone, cutting off the first rib, and driving the knife through the left lung. Snyder after this struck Mrs. Reed a blow upon the head, and Mr. Reed two blows upon the head, the last one bringing him down upon his knees. Snyder expired in about fifteen minutes. Mr. Reed, although the blood was running down over his face and shoulders from his own wounds, manifested great anguish of spirit, and threw the knife away from him and into the river.

Although Mr. Reed was thus compelled to do as he did, the occurrence produced much feeling against him; and in the evening Kiesburg proposed to hang him. To this, however, he was probably prompted by a feeling of resentment, produced by Mr. Reed having been mainly instrumental in his expulsion from one of the companies, while on the South Platte, for grossly improper conduct. Mr. Eddy had two six-shooters, two double-barreled pistols, and a rifle; Milton Elliot had one rifle, and a double-barreled shot gun; and Mr. Reed had one six-shooter, and a brace of double-barreled pistols, and rifle. Thus Mr. Reed’s comrades were situated, and they determined that he should not die. Mr. Eddy, however, proposed that Mr. Reed should leave the camp. This was finally agreed to, and he accordingly left the next morning; not, however, before he had assisted in committing to the grave the body of the unhappy young man.

Thornton’s account was widely reported and taken for truth. However, in 1856 Eliza Farnham published a simpler version of events in her book California, In-doors and Out, most likely based on the recollection of John Breen, who was 14 at the time of the killing. He recounted the feelings after snow fell on the hills near Pilot Peak, and the mothers’ dread.

The men were irritable and impatient. A dispute arose one day after dinner, between two of them, respecting the driving of a wagon up a very difficult hill. Hot words were followed, almost instantly, by blows-one with a knife, or dagger, which proved fatal in about twenty minutes. The man was buried the next morning. Feeling respecting the affair ran high, and the survivor very soon left the company, alone, his family being constrained to remain in it, by the previous loss of their cattle, on the desert.

Feelings especially ran high among the Graves family, who employed John Snyder, and whose daughter Mary, 18, was possibly courted by Snyder. Although Eliza Farnham spoke to Mary Graves, it is not clear if they discussed the Snyder killing. However, William Graves wrote of it with still strong feelings in his 1877 article in the Russian River Flag:

We had a rule in traveling which we always observed, and that was, if one wagon drove in the lead one day it should fall in the rear the next, so as to allow every one his turn in the lead. This day of a Terrible Tragedy my father was in the lead, Jay Fosdick second, John Snider third, and Reed fourth; arriving at the foot of a short steep hill, my father’s team was not able to pull the wagon up, so Fosdick took his team, doubled to father’s and went up, then took both teams back and started up with Fosdick’s. Snider said that his team could pull up alone; just then Reed had got another team to double to his wagon, and started to pass Snider’s oxen.

Reed at this time was on the opposite side of the oxen from Snider, and said to Snider, you have no business here in the way; Snider said it is my place. Reed started toward him, and jumping over the wagon tongue, said, you are a damned liar, and I’ll cut your heart out! Snider pulled his clothes open on his breast and said, cut away. Reed ran to him and stuck a large six-inch butcher’s knife into his heart and cut off two ribs. Snider then turned the butt-end of his whip stock and struck at him three times, but missed him the third and hit Mrs. Reed, who had in the meantime got hold of her husband. Snider then stared up the hill and went about ten steps, when he began to stagger; just then I got to him and kept him form falling; by laying him down easy, where he died in five minutes.

We then went a little ways to a place where we could camp, and held a council to find out what to do with Reed and took affidavits form the witnesses with the view of giving him a fair trial when we got to civilization. ... Some of the company were opposed to allowing Reed to travel in the company; so they agreed to banish him ....

On November 19, 1877, John Breen wrote a letter to the historian H.H. Bancroft, in which he disputed an account published in the San Francisco Chronicle the previous December:

On the Humboldt river, J. F. Reed and a man named Snyder quarreled and Snyder was killed; some thought Reed was to blame others that Snyder was in the wrong at all events Reed left the company on horseback and alone leaving his family with the company, I have always thought that this was a misfortune for the whole party as Reed was an intelligent and energetic Man, and if he had remained the party might of got through - He said that he would go before and endeavor to send help back as provisions were now getting scarce. ...

Now the truth is that the team was Stalled on a sand bank on the Humboldt river; it was Reed’s team; Snyder was driving Greavs team next to Reeds behind Reed was on the off side of his team assisting his man to get the team to pull. Snyder came up on the nigh side also to assist. Soon there was an altercation between Reed and Snyder When Snyder called Reed some name and attempted to strike him across the tongue between the oxen and the wagon, Reed jumped across the tongue and stabbed him, Snyder died in a couple of hours. Mrs. Reed had nothing to do with the affair and if she had Snyder would not strike her, for he would not strike a woman at all; He was too much of a man for that. Snyders loss was mourned by the whole company; Still Reed was not blamed by many--

Reed wrote of his leaving the company in his account as published in the Illinois Journal on December 9, 1847. After describing the passage through the Great Salt Desert and Stanton’s and McCutchen’s mission to procure supplies in California, Reed wrote:

The company then proceeded, and after traveling three hundred miles, giving ample time as they supposed, for the return of Messrs. Stanton and McCutchem, and fearing that some accident had befallen them, they determined to send another messenger. Mr. Reed was at once chosen as the most proper person for this service, and providing himself with seven days provision, he commenced his lonesome march.

Thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote a similar account in her letter of May 16, 1847, to her cousin Mary Keyes: we got out of provisions and pa had to go on to callifornia for provisions....

Almost a half century later, Virginia gave an account that included the killing. In her article for Century Magazine in 1891, she wrote:

At this point in our journey, we were compelled to double our teams in order to ascend a steep, sandy hill. Milton Elliott, who was driving our wagon, and John Snyder, who was driving one of Mr. Graves’s, became involved in a quarrel over the management of their oxen. Snyder was beating his cattle over the head, with the butt end of his whip, when my father, returning on horseback from a hunting trip, arrived and, appreciating the great importance of saving the remainder of the oxen, remonstrated with Snyder, telling him that they were our main dependence, and at the same time offering the assistance of our team. Snyder having taken offense at something Elliott had said declared that his team could pull up alone, and kept on using abusive language.

Father tried to quiet the enraged man. Hard words followed. Then my father said: We can settle this, John, when we get up the hill. No, replied Snyder, with an oath, we will settle it now, and springing upon the tongue of a wagon, he struck my father a violent blow over the head with his heavy whip-stock. One blow followed another. Father was stunned for a moment and blinded by the blood streaming from the gashes in his head. Another blow was descending when my mother ran in between the men. Father saw the uplifted whip, but had only time to cry: John, John, when down came the stroke upon mother. Quick as a thought my father’s hunting knife was out and Snyder fell, fatally wounded. ...

My father was sent out into an unknown country without provisions or arms--even his horse was at first denied him. When we learned of this decision, I followed him through the darkness, taking Elliott with me, and carried him his rifle, pistols, ammunition and some food.

James Reed was never able to write of the killing of John Snyder. In his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press, he wrote:

It was here suggested that I go in advance to California, see what had become of McCutchen and Stanton, and hurry up the supplies. They would take care of my family. That being agreed upon I started, taking with me about three days provisions, expecting to kill game on the way.

Photograph of steep sandy hill

Photograph of steep sandy hill

Steep Hill where Reed killed Snyder, Iron Point, NV, photographed 1999

Donner Party historian and author Kristin Johnson reported on her Donner Blog that two Historic Human Remains Detection (HHRD) dogs alerted to human remains in the old road at the bottom of the steep sandy hill. She and two members of the Institute for Canine Forensics described the results of the dog investigation in Locating the Grave of John Snyder: Field Research on a Donner Party Death, Overland Journal 30:3 (Fall 2012), p. 92-108.

Tuesday, October 6, 1846

The Trail crossed to the north bank of the Humboldt for a short distance, and returned to the south bank as the River made its great bend east of Winnemucca, Nevada. The camp was located at the bend near the furthest north point of the river.

In his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press, James Reed describes his travels:

The Messrs. Donner were two days drive in advance of the main party when I overtook them. With George Donner there was a young man named Walter Herren, who joined me; with all the economy I could use, our provisions gave out in a few days; I supplied our wants by shooting wild geese and other game when we could find any. The next day after I was joined by Herren, I proposed to him--I having a horse and he none, that we would ride half the day about; it was thankfully accepted; no game to be seen; hunger began to be felt, and for days we traveled without hope or help.

Photograph of Humboldt River trail

Humboldt River trail near Golconda Summit, NV, photographed 1999

Wednesday, October 7, 1846

Thornton described the day’s events:

Leaving camp on the morning of the 7th, they proceeded on until about eleven o’clock, when they found a letter from Mr. Reed, informing them of a battle between one of the advanced companies and the Indians. On the forenoon of this day, a number of arrows were shot at Mr. Eddy and Mr. Pike, while out hunting for game, which the reduced amount of their provisions had by this time made it necessary to seek.

The party probably proceeded to a campsite on the west side of the valley west of present Winnemucca, Nevada.

On his map, Reed noted the location of the battle: here is the Battle between the Shosonies and the Emigrants for oregon took place in which one white man killed and 3 wounded The Indians killed and wounded several cattle & horses.

T.H. Jefferson, who reached this point on September 15, notes the location on his Map of the Emigrant Road as Battle with the Pauta Indians, and shows a trail leading south with the note: Retreating Trail of the Pauta Indians. The trail lies in the valley between the East Humboldt and Sonoma Ranges.

Nicholas Carriger, who reached this point on September 2, 1846, described it as Scotts and Dearborns battle Ground with the diggers. Since Reed arrived over one month after Carriger, it is likely that his information came from a note left by the party that was attacked.

Thornton, based on Eddy’s account, describes the events of that evening:

Upon arriving at their evening encampment, they found that Hardcoop, a Belgian, who had given out, and had been carried in Keisburg’s wagon for several days, was missing. Kiesburg professed not to know what had become of him, but suspecting that there was some wrong committed, a man was sent back upon a horse, for the old man. He was found about five miles in the rear. Hardcoop stated that Kiesburg had put him out of the wagon to perish.

Thursday, October 8, 1846

Thornton wrote of the day’s events: On the morning of Oct. 8, they cached a part of Mr. Eddy’s tools and clothing, and Mr. Reed’s wagon, and procured a lighter wagon of Mr. Graves.

Thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote a similar account in her letter of May 16, 1847, to her cousin Mary Keyes: we could not get along that way, in 2 or 3 days after pa left we had to cash our wagon and take Mr. graves wagon and cash some more of our things The fact that the Reeds were taken in by Snyder’s employers suggests that Reed’s banishment may indeed have been conditioned on the Graves’ agreement to protect Reed’s family.

Thornton continues:

At about nine o’clock they started. In about half an hour Hardcoop came to Mr. Eddy, and informed him that Kiesburg had again put him out of the wagon--that he was an old man, being more than sixty years of age, ... and he concluded by requesting Mr. Eddy to carry him in his wagon, .... Mr. Eddy replied that they were then in the sand, and if he could in some way get forward until they got out, he would do what he could. ...

The emigrants traveled on until night. As soon as they got into camp, inquiry was made for Hardcoop. Some boys who had been driving cattle stated that they had seen him sitting under a large bush of sage, ... exhausted and completely worn out. ... The night was very cold; but when morning dawned, the unhappy Hardcoop did not come up. Mrs. Reed, Milton Elliot, and Mr. Eddy then went to Kiesburg, and besought him to return for the old man. This, Kiesburg, in a very heartless and inhuman manner, refused to do. No other persons, excepting Patrick Brinn, and Mr. Graves having horses, upon which he could be carried, they then applied to Patrick Brinn, who replied that it was impossible, and that he must perish.

In an interview with C.F. McGlashan in 1879, Keseburg denied the charge. McGlashan wrote in his History of the Donner Party:

Keseberg may be responsible for the death of Hardcoop, but urges in his defense that all were walking, even to the women and the children. He says Hardcoop was not missed until evening, and that it was supposed the old man would catch up with the train during the night. The terrible dangers surrounding the company, the extreme lateness of the season, the weaknesses of the oxen, and the constant fear of lurking, hostile Indians, prevented him or anyone else from going back.

The Party probably camped that night near present Cosgrave, Nevada.

Friday, October 9, 1846

The camp of the 9th was probably on the north side of the Humboldt River, near Mill City, Nevada.

Saturday, October 10, 1846

Thornton wrote of the day’s travels:

They arrived at the place where Applegate’s cut-off leaves the Ogden’s river road, about 11 o’clock, A.M., of this day; ... Proceeding from their 11 o’clock halt, they arrived at a bed of deep, loose sand about 4 o’clock, P.M., and did not succeed in crossing it until 4 o’clock in the morning of Oct. 10, ...

Applegate’s Cut-off to Oregon leaves the California Trail at present Rye Patch Reservoir, northwest of Humboldt, Nevada. Reed shows the trail on his map, with the notation Blue Clay.

The camp of the 10th was probably near present Rye Patch Reservoir, Nevada.

Sunday, October 11, 1846

Thornton wrote of the arrival at the camp at 4 am, after crossing the deep sand:

they halted upon the place where Mr. Salle, who had been killed by the Indians, had been buried. His body had been dug up by the savages, and his bones, which had been picked by wolves, were bleaching in the sun. Here they cached another wagon, and at this place all of Graves’ horses were stolen. At 10 o’clock they drove on, and encamped at night on Ogden’s river, with scarcely any grass for their cattle, the water being very bad.

Salle’s grave was near the present Rye Patch dam, north of Oreana, Nevada, and is shown on T.H. Jefferson’s map.

In her 1846 letter, Virginia Reed wrote: well we went on that way a while and then we had to get Mr Eddies wagon

Monday, October 12, 1846

From Thornton’s Oregon and California in 1846:

On the morning ... George Donner, Jacob Donner, and Wolfinger lost eighteen head of cattle. Graves, also, had a cow stolen by Indians. They encamped on the night ... on a small spot of very poor grass. The water here, also, was deficient in quantity and bad in quality. Brinn had a fine mare die in the mud. He asked Mr. Eddy to help him get her out. Mr. Eddy referred him to poor Hardcoop, and refused. Several cattle had arrows shot at them during the night, but none of them died in consequence.

The camp was near present Woolsey, Nevada.

Tuesday, October 13, 1846

The camp was probably near present Lovelock, Nevada.

James Reed, who had left the party eight days earlier after killing John Snyder, had crossed the desert from the Humboldt Sink to the Truckee River near present Wadsworth, Nevada. The notation on his map reads: dry sandy for the last 10 miles and very dis hartning. Neither grass or water-- Son at 80 13 octo 1846

Wednesday, October 14, 1846

The Party probably camped in the marshes above the Humboldt Sink, near present Toulon, Nevada.

In 1879, Lewis Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan, which described an event that probably happened somewhere along the Humboldt.

One day, while we were traveling on Goose Creek, we saw so many wild geese that I took my shotgun and went hunting. Ordinarily I am not superstitious, but on this morning I felt an overwhelming sense of impending calamity. I mentioned my premonition to Mrs. Murphy before starting on the hunt. Becoming excited with the sport, and eagerly watching the game, I stepped down a steep bank. Some willows had been burned off, and the short, sharp stubs were sticking up just where I stepped. I had on buckskin moccassins, and one of these stubs ran into the ball of my foot, between the bones and the toes. From this time, ... I was unable to walk, or even to put my foot on the ground. The foot became greatly swollen and inflamed, and was exceedingly painful.
When Keseberg said Goose Creek he was probably confusing the well-known creek that was the route from the Snake River to the Humboldt River at Thousand Wells. The Donner Party had taken Hastings’ Cut-off to avoid the journey along the Snake River from Fort Hall to Goose Creek, and had reached the Humboldt, then known as Mary’s River, near present Elko, Nevada, on September 26.

Photograph of Humboldt Sink

Sink of the Humboldt (Mary’s) River, photographed 1999

Thursday, October 15, 1846

From Thornton: On the morning ..., the emigrants resumed their journey. One of Mr. Eddy’s oxen gave out during the day, and they left him. At 12 o’clock at night they encamped at the sinks of Ogden’s river. [The present Humboldt Sink is located southwest of Lovelock, Nevada.]

From Thornton:

At daylight on the morning ... they drove their cattle to grass, and put them under a guard. The guard came in to breakfast, and in their absence the Indians killed twenty-one head, including the whole of Mr. Eddy’s team, except one ox; and the whole of Wolfinger’s, except one. Wolfinger wished to cache his goods at the sinks, but the company refused to wait. Rianhard and Spitzer, who were traveling with him, remained behind to assist him. ...

William Graves, in his 1877 article in the Russian River Flag, provides a different account, greater in detail but incorrect as to the participants:

There was a German in our company by the name of Woulfinger, who had a wife, two yoke of oxen and a wagon which was all that we knew of, but it was rumored that he had considerable money. One day he was driving in the rear; his wife, being on foot, kept up in company with the other women. ... another German by the name of Keisburgh staid behind with him; they traveled so slow they got out of sight, but we thought nothing of it till night and they did not come; and we became a little alarmed about their safety; so two of the men and myself mounted horses and started back after them, but we had gone but a little ways till we met Keisburgh, and he said Woulfinger would be along soon, so we turned back. But as he did not come the next morning, two of the company and myself again went back and in about five miles found the wagon in the road; the oxen had been unhitched from it, but left (two yoke) chained together and were grazing along the Humboldt river bank, not far from the wagon but we could not find Woulfinger. There were no Indian tracks about nothing what we supposed to be Keisbrugh’s and Woulfinger’s; we hitched the oxen to the wagon and drove them on till we overtook the company and delivered them up to Mrs. Woulfinger; she hired another German by the name of Charles Berger to drive it, after that, and there was nothing more said about it, ...

Thornton’s account continues:

Here Mr. Eddy cached every thing he had, except the clothing which he and his family had on. On this morning they partook of their last remaining mouthful of food. The Indians were upon the adjacent hills, looking down upon them, and absolutely laughing at their calamity. The lock of Mr. Eddy’s rifle had been broken some days before, and the gun left. He could not obtain another one, and had he been able to do so, it would have been worse than insanity for him to have encountered the Indians alone. Dejected and sullen, he took up about three pounds of loaf sugar, put some bullets in his pocket, and stringing his powderhorn upon his shoulders, took up his boy in his arms while his afflicted Eleanor carried their still more helpless infant, and in this most miserable and forlorn plight, they set out once more on foot to make their way through the pitiless wilderness. Trackless, snowclad mountains intercepted their progress, .... Their painful and perilous way led over broken rocks, ....They struggled on, however, with their precious charge, without food or water, until 4 o’clock on the morning of the 14th, when they arrived at a spring that jetted up a column of boiling hot water, about twenty feet high.

The Trail left the Sink of the Humboldt and crossed the Forty Mile Desert, over the foothills north of Desert Peak (5,365’) and south of Juniper Peak (7,209’) to Boiling Springs, now called Brady’s Hot Springs, a distance of about 20 miles.

The cache of Eddy’s wagon forced the Reeds to walk also, as recalled by 13-year old Virginia Reed in her letter of May 16, 1847 to her cousin Mary Keyes:

we went on that way a while and then we had to cash all our close except a change or 2 and put them in Mr Brins Wagon and Thomos & James rode the other 2 horses and the rest of us had to walk we went on that way a Whild and we come to a nother long drive of 40 miles we went with Mr Donner

Old photograph of 40 mile desert

Old photograph of the Trail in the 40-mile Desert

Photograph of 40 mile desert

Trail at the Start of the 40-mile Desert, photographed 1999

Photograph of Boiling Springs

Boiling Springs and Trail Marker, Hot Springs, NV, photographed 1999

Unknown to the members of the Donner Party, on about this day Stanton and McCutchen arrived at Sutter’s Fort. As reported in a letter, from George McKinstry, published in The California Star, Yerba Buena, of February 6, 1847

two men (Mrs. Stanton and McCutcher) ... came in to Capt. J. A. Sutter’s Fort, and asked for assistance. Capt. Sutter in his usual prompt and generous manner, furnished them with 7 of his best mules and two of his favorite Indian baqueros, and all of the flour and beef that they wanted. Mr. C.S. Stanton, a young gentleman from Syracuse, New York, although he had no interest in the company, took charge of the baqueros and provisions, and returned to the company.

The Indian vaqueros were named Luis and Salvadore.

Friday, October 16, 1846

From Thornton:

About 9 o’clock the party left the Geyser Spring and traveled all that day until sunset, over a road in no respect different from that of [the day before]. At this time Mr. Eddy’s children were in great danger of perishing for the want of water. He applied to Patrick Brinn, who he knew had ten gallons, for a half pint to give to them. Brinn denied having any; but this Mr. Eddy knew to be untrue, for he had himself filled Brinn’s cask at the sink of Ogden’s river; Brinn finally admitted that he had water, but said he did not know how far water was yet distant from them, and he feared that his own family would require it. Mr. Eddy told him, with an energy he never before felt, that he would have it or have Brinn’s life. He immediately turned away from Brinn, and went in quest of the water, and gave some to his children. At sunset they arrived at an exceedingly difficult sand-ridge of ten miles in width.

From Boiling Springs the Trail headed southwest, just north of the present route of Interstate 80.

Saturday, October 17, 1846

Thornton continues the description of the crossing of the sand ridge: They crossed it about 4 o’clock on the morning ..., the company losing three yoke of cattle that died from fatigue. The Trail crossed over the Sand Hills, northwest of present Fernley, Nevada, to the camp at the Truckee River near Wadsworth, Nevada.

Photograph of Sand Hills

Sand Hills at the end of 40 Mile Desert, photographed 1996

Photograph of trail through Sand Hills

Trail through Sand Hills to Truckee River, Fernley, NV, photographed 1999

Photograph of Truckee River

Truckee River, at End of the 40 Mile Desert (Wadsworth, NV), photographed 1996

From Thornton:

Neither Mr. Eddy nor his wife had tasted food for two days and nights, nor had the children any thing except the sugar with which he left the sinks Ogden’s river. He applied to Mrs. Graves and Mrs. Brinn for a small piece of meat for his wife and children, who were very faint. They both refused. The emigrants remained in camp to rest the cattle. The Indians killed some of them during the day. Mr. Eddy procured a gun in the morning, and started to kill some geese which he heard. In about two hours he returned with nine very fat ones. Mrs. Brinn and Mrs. Graves congratulated him, and expressed the opinion that they were very fine, and wondered what he would do with them. He invited them to help themselves,and they took two. He gave Kiesburg one.

King doubts the truthfulness of Eddy’s account. As stated a half century after the events by Martha Patty Reed Lewis in a letter to Eliza Donner Houghton,

Of what value is the information given by men without principle...Mr. W.H. Eddy could not give you valuable or reliable information. On the plains I heard at various times--members of the Company say Did Eddy tell you that? It is unfortunate that he not tell the truth.

Meanwhile, at Sutter’s Fort, Stanton was preparing to return to the Party. On April 29, 1847, George McKinstry wrote a letter to The California Star, which recounted Stanton’s actions. The letter was published on May 22:

Before leaving the fort to return to the assistance of the company, he left a vest in charge of Capt. Sutter; ... we have found in one of the pockets a small package directed to Capt. S., with memoranda as follows: Capt. Sutter will send the within, in the event of my death, to Sidney Stanton, Syracuse, N.Y. Enclosed was a diamond breast-pin, with a note from his sister directed to him at Chicago, from which I extract as follows: Sidney has requested me to do up your breast-pin and send to you, so you perceive I have done it up in a piece of newspaper. * * * * May God bless you my dear brother! A------- S-------.

Sunday, October 18, 1846

From Thornton: early in the morning, they resumed their journey, and commenced driving up Truckee river. The Trail followed the south bank of the Truckee River up the Truckee River canyon.

John Breen, in his letter to Prof. Bancroft of November 19, 1877, recalled the condition of the Party:

After leaving the sink of the Humboldt, the company as if by mutual consent dissolved, or gradually separated, some wanted to stop and rest their cattle others in fear of the snow were in favor of pushing ahead as fast as possible, as provisions were getting short which fact greatly increased the danger of delay - My father and some others after getting on the Truckey river concluded to travel as fast as they could, as there began to be heavey clouds on they high range of mountains to the West, and this from what we had learned from Captain Fremont was a certain sign of snow on the mountains.

Drawing of Truckee River canyon

The Truckee River Canyon

13-year old Virginia Reed, in her letter of May 16, 1847 to her cousin Mary Keyes, described her family’s condition: we had to Walk all the time we was a traveling up the truckee river

Thornton continued the story, as told to him by Eddy, of Reinhardt and Spitzer. They had remained behind at the Sink to cache Wolfinger’s goods:

Three days afterward the two former came up to the company at Truckee river, and said that the Indians came down from the hills upon them, and after killing Wolfinger, drove them from the wagons, which they burned, after taking the goods out. Wolfinger had a considerable amount of money.

Monday, October 19, 1846

The Party continued up the Truckee River canyon, following the course of present Interstate 80 between Wadsworth and Reno.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Charles Stanton was returning from Sutter’s Fort with seven mules loaded with flour and jerked beef. He wrote a letter to Capt. Sutter, apparently from Johnson’s Ranch,

Monday Morning, 20th Oct,
Dear Sir,
Yesterday the large mule became lame with his heavy pack. I got Mr. Rhodes, one of the emigrants to examine him who said that his lameness was caused by a Sweency. I have tried hard to get another horse but could not succeed. If I find the mule will not stand the journey, I will send it back by some of the companies and cache his load.

Tuesday, October 20, 1846

The Party continued up the Truckee River canyon, following the course of present Interstate 80 between Wadsworth and Reno.

Wednesday, October 21, 1846

The Party continued up the Truckee River toward Truckee Meadows, site of present Reno. Some historians and trail buffs believe the Trail in 1846 followed the river to the mouth of the canyon east of present Sparks, Nevada, then turned south along Steamboat Creek to the Truckee Meadows. Others believe the Trail turned southwest up Long Valley Creek, where the Truckee River turned to the northwest, and then followed a dry gully southwest to a pass, and then descended a steep hill to the Truckee Meadows. Jefferson’s map shows the Trail crossing before a Grass Valley to avoid a northern bend of the Truckee River.

Photograph of Truckee River

Truckee River east of Truckee Meadows (Sparks, NV), photographed 1996

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountains, east of present Emigrant Gap, James Reed and Walter Herron were nearing starvation. As recounted in the Illinois Journal of December 9, 1847, based on notes written by Reed:

along the banks of Mary’s and Tucker’s rivers they found a little game; after leaving the latter they saw none at all. For seven days they journeyed through that wilderness, during which time they ate but two meals, and they were made of wild onions.

Reed described their ordeal in his Pacific Rural Press article in 1871:

Herren wanted to kill the horse; I persuaded him from it by stating that we might find relief soon, but before we would perish, I would kill the horse. Soon after this he became delirious; this afternoon, while walking, I found a bean, and gave it to him, and then never was a road examined more closely for several miles than was this. We found in all five beans. Herren’s share was three of them.

Thursday, October 22, 1846

The Party encamped at Truckee Meadows, site of present Reno, Nevada.

On the other side of the mountains, Reed and Herron struggled on, as recounted by Reed in 1871:

Next morning, after traveling a few miles, we saw some wagons. We soon reached and ransacked the wagons, hoping to find something to eat, but found nothing. Taking the tar bucket that was hanging under one of the wagons, I scraped the tar off and found a streak of rancid tallow at the bottom. ... I handed the tar paddle to him having some of the tallow about the size of a walnut on it. This he swallowed without giving it a smell. I then took a piece myself but it was very repulsive. ... After leaving the wagons probably fifty yards, I became deathly sick and blind. ... After resting a few minutes, I recovered .... The wagons were a short distance of the steep descent going down into Bear river Valley. After descending the first steep pitch, I discovered wagons in the valley, ....

Photograph of Emigrant Gap

The Descent into Bear Valley from Emigrant Gap, photographed 1996
The rock at the top of the Gap is fill from the Transcontinental Railroad.
When Reed descended in 1846, the Gap was about 80 feet lower.

Reed found more than wagons. As recounted in the Illinois Journal of December 9, 1847, based on notes written by Reed:

Fortunately, at the end of that time they reached Bear River valley, where they found a small party of emigrants, who had halted to recruit their cattle, and were awaiting the arrival of supplies from Mr. Johnson’s, the first house in the California settlements, and distant from Bear river sixty miles, and to their infinite delight they also met Mr. Stanton, on his return to the company. He did not recognize Mr. Reed, who suffered much from his toilsome journey. ... Captain Sutter had provided Mr. Stanton with flour, dried meat, seven horses and two of his choicest Indians. Mr. Reed, not deeming the supplies sufficient for the support of the company to Bear river, determined to push on to Fort Sacramento, obtain additional aid, and meet the company at Bear River Valley, while Mr. Stanton should proceed with his supplies to their aid. [Sutter had actually provided Stanton with mules, not horses.]

Photograph of Bear Valley

Bear Valley, photographed 1987

Friday, October 23, 1846

The Party remained encamped at Truckee Meadows, recruiting their few remaining cattle for the drive over the mountains.

Meanwhile, at Bear Valley, as reported in the December 9, 1847 Illinois Journal article: On the 23d October, Mr. Reed started for Fort Sacramento, leaving Herron with the party of emigrants, he being unable to travel.

Saturday, October 24, 1846

The Party remained encamped at Truckee Meadows.

Death again stalked the Donner Party. The accounts differ as to the date, and even the place. As recounted by Thornton: October 20th--On this day Wm. Pike was killed by the accidental discharge of a six-shooter in the hands of Wm. Foster. He died in one hour; he was shot through in the back.

Fifteen year old Mary Murphy, sister-in-law of Pike and Foster, wrote a letter on May 25, 1847 to her relatives:

Mr. Foster was going to go ahead and come back with provisions, but in loading the six-shooter it went off and shot Mr. Pike in the back. He died in about one half hour, and in that time he suffered more than the tongue can tell. We was then about 2 hundred miles from the nearest settlements. It was the last day of October. That night it commenced snowing.

As quoted by Eliza Farnham in her 1856 book, California, In-Doors and Out,John Breen stated:

At the last encampment on Truckee river, another life was lost, by the accidental discharge of a pistol. Two men, brothers-in-law, had been handling their arms by the camp fire in the morning. Wood to replenish it was called for, when one said to the other, hold my pistol while I go for some. In the transfer, by some means it went off, and the contents lodged in the body of the unfortunate man who lived only two hours. Death did not startle them now. They were too much engrossed by their own necessities to heed his presence, further than naked decency required. They had buried their first dead in a coffin and shroud, with masonic ceremonies, their second with only a shroud and a board beneath and above him. The last man was buried literally dust to dust, nothing to separate his clay from that of the great parent who opened her bosom to receive him.

As reported by William Graves in his 1877 article in the Russian River Flag:

One morning we were encamped near where Reno now is; two men, Wm. Foster and Wm. Pike, had agreed to got a head to Sutter’s, get provisions and meet us as far back as possible. Foster was loading a pistol, which was accidentally discharged, shooting Pike in the back and killing him in about twenty minutes; so that was the end to their journey.

Sunday, October 25, 1846

The Party remained encamped at Truckee Meadows.

Monday, October 26, 1846

Most of the Party remained encamped at Truckee Meadows, while some of the Party may have set out up the Truckee River.

Tuesday, October 27, 1846

Some of the Party may have set out up the Truckee River, while others remained encamped at Truckee Meadows.

It appears likely that Stanton re-joined the Party on this day. As quoted by Eliza Farnham in her 1856 book, California, In-Doors and Out, John Breen stated:

On Truckee river, says Mr. Breen, the weather was already very cold, and the heavy clouds hanging over the mountains to the west were strong indications of an approaching winter. This of course alarmed several people, while others paid no attention to it. My father’s family, among the former, used every effort to cross the mountains if possible before the snow should become too deep. We traveled up the river a few days, when we met the excellent Stanton, returning with five or six mules, and provisions, for the mere promise of compensation, an act for which he deserves the love of every soul of that suffering company. ... The clouds on the mountains looked very threatening, but he naturally looked at the bright side of things, and assured us there was no danger, ....

Thornton, based on Eddy, gives the date of Stanton’s arrival as October 19, when the Party had just reached the Truckee River:

Nothing of importance occurred until Oct. 19th, about 10 o’clock, A.M., when they met Mr. C.F. Stanton and two Indian vaqueros (cow-herds) of Capt. Sutter, one named Lewis, and the other Salvadore. Mr. Stanton had flour and a little dried meat, which he had procured for them. ... They drove on during the day, and Mr. Stanton and the vaqueros continued on to some of the families one day in the rear.

In her letter of May 16, 1847, thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin Mary Keyes:

we was a traveling up the truckee river we met a man and a Indians that we had sent on for provisions to Suter Fort thay had met pa, not fur from Suters Fort he looked very bad he had not ate but 3 times in 7 days and the days without any thing his horse was not abel to carrie him thay give him a horse and he went on so we cashed some more of our things all but what we could pack on one mule and we started Martha and James road behind the two Indians....

Thornton’s date of October 19, and the location at Wadsworth, is almost certainly incorrect, given Stanton’s letter to Sutter of either the 19th or 20th from Johnson’s Ranch, and Reed’s 1847 account that he met Stanton on the 22nd at Bear Valley. Interestingly, in her 1891 article in Century Magazine, Virginia Reed follows Thornton, and ignore her father’s account, and states that

On the 19th of October, while traveling along the Truckee, our hearts were gladdened by the return of Stanton, with seven mules loaded with provisions. Mr. McCutchen was ill and could not travel, but Captain Sutter had sent two of his Indian vaqueros, Luis and Salvador with Stanton. Hungry as we were, Stanton brought us something better than food--news that my father was alive. Stanton had met him nor far from Sutter’s Fort; he had been three days without food, and his horse was not able to carry him. Stanton had given him a horse and some provisions and he had gone on. We now packed what little we had left on one mule and started with Stanton. My mother rode on a mule, carrying Tommy in her lap; Patty and Jim rode behind the two Indians, and I behind Mr. Stanton, and in this way we journeyed on through the rain, ....

Wednesday, October 28, 1846

The leading group, including the Breens, traveled up the Truckee River Canyon and turned off from the canyon to bypass ten miles of difficult driving up the Truckee River bed. This cut-off and was first used by Caleb Greenwood the year before when he traveled eastward. He led the 1845 emigration this way on his return to California in the fall of 1845. This new road left the River at present Verdi, Nevada, and crossed a low range north into Dog Valley.

According to Eddy, as reported by Thornton:

On the evening ..., they crossed the Truckee river, the forty-ninth and last time, in eighty miles. They encamped on the top of a hill. Here nineteen oxen were shot by an Indian, who put one arrow in each ox. The cattle did not die. Mr. Eddy caught him in the act, and fired upon him as he fled. The ball struck him between the shoulders, and came out at the breast. At the crack of the rifle he sprung up about three feet, and with a terrible yell fell down a bank into a bunch of willows.

On the other side of the mountains, as reported by Edwin Bryant in his journal:

I remained at [Sutter’s] fort .... On the 28th, Mr. Reed, whom I have before mentioned as belonging to the rear emigrating party, arrived here. He left his party on Mary’s river, and in company with one man crossed the desert and the mountains. He was several days without provisions, and when he arrived at Johnson’s, was so much emaciated and exhausted by fatigue and famine, that he could scarcely walk. His object was to procure provisions immediately, and to transport them with pack-mules over the mountains for the relief of the suffering emigrants behind. He had lost all of his cattle, and had been compelled to cache two of his wagons and most of his property. Captain Sutter generously furnished the requisite quantity of mules and horses, with Indian vaqueros, and jerked meat, and flour. This is the second expedition for the relief of the emigrants he has fitted out since our arrival in the country.
The first expedition was Charles Stanton, who on this day had probably already rejoined the Party, and was nearing the turnoff at Verdi, Nevada.

James Reed wrote in his 1871 article in the Pacific Rural Press:

Arrive at Capt. Sutter’s. When I arrived, making known my situation to him, asking if he would furnish me horses and saddle to bring the women and children out of the mountains (I expected to meet them at the head of Bear Valley by the time I could return there), he at once complied with the request, also saying that he would do everything possible for me and the company. On the evening of my arrival at the Captain’s, I found Messrs. Bryant, Lippencott, Grayson, and Jacobs, some of the early voyagers in the Russel Company, they having left that company at Fort Laramie, most of them coming on horseback.

Thursday, October 29, 1846

The leading group crossed the summit from Dog Valley to the Little Truckee River. The Trail followed the route of present Dog Valley Road from Verdi, Nevada over two summits to the Little Truckee River, now partially flooded by Stampede Reservoir.

Photograph of old road in Dog Valley

Second Summit on Dog Valley Road, looking south towards Little Truckee River, photographed 1996

Near this time, George Donner injured his hand while repairing an axle. When writing her book in 1911, Eliza Donner, who was only four years old during the winter of 1846-47, relied on accounts told to her by her older sisters. In her notebook, Eliza recorded this account by her half-sister Elitha, who was fourteen at the time of the incident:

In speaking of father’s hand, it was cut across the back but not as badly as John says, although it was useless to him. He got it cut while repairing the wagon. We were 12 to 16 miles from the place where we camped for the winter coming down a long sliding hill, father was driving, you and Georgia were in the wagon, your mother and Frances were walking ahead when near the bottom the axle of the fore wheel broke and the wagon tipped down tumbling everything over you two children. Father and Uncle Jake rushed to get you out Georgia was soon drawn through the opening at the back, but you were out of sight, and father feared that you were smothered for you did not answer call. Uncle kept right on pulling things out until he came to you. You would not have stood it much longer so they said. While father and uncle were having a new axeltree, here came two men from our old company ahead of us told of the snow. It was a sad bit of news, and our folks concluded to look for a place to camp. They fixed up and started on until we came to a place that suited for a camp. ... Yes father was Captain of the co. at one time but as the teams failed on the long journey we camped apart from the rest for the purpose of selecting better feed for our stock. Sometimes we would be ahead sometimes behind. When the two men came back to us we were 3 or 4 days behind but we had been stopped (by the accident) the distance was about 20 miles, they said.

Friday, October 30, 1846

Some of the Party reached the Prosser Creek / Alder Creek area, north of present Truckee, California, and the lead group may have gone almost to the Lake. The Trail followed the present Little Truckee River and skirted Boca Hill on the west along the route of Dog Valley Road to present Highway 89. Portions of the original Trail have been flooded by Prosser Reservoir.

William C. Graves, in his 1877 article in the Russian River Flag, wrote: On the 30th of October, 1846, we camped in a pretty little valley about five miles from Donner Lake; that night it snowed about eight inches deep.

In 1911, Eliza Houghton Donner recorded this recollection from her half-sister Elitha Donner Wilder, who was 14 during the winter of 1846-47, about George Donner’s injured hand:

Father was all around he always went out to help get the wood, he would carry it in his left hand. The snow covered the Mts. but Alder Creek Valley was free. Your mother spoke of making carts but I do not remember about being made. She wanted to start at once but father and uncle told her it was impossible.

The weather was observed by Reed from Sutter’s Fort, as he wrote in his 1871 Pacific Rural Press article: The second night after my arrival at Captain Sutter’s, we had a light rain; next morning we could see snow on the mountains. The Captain stated that it was low down and heavy for the first fall of the season.

Saturday, October 31, 1846

As recorded by Patrick Breen, in his first diary entry, written November 20, 1846: came to this place on the 31st of last month that it snowed we went on to the pass the snow so deep we were unable to find the road, when within 3 miles of the summit then turned back to this shanty on the Lake

This place was the eastern end of Truckee’s Lake, now called Donner Lake, at 5950’. The shanty was the cabin built by the Stevens Party in 1844, in which 18-year old Moses Schallenberger spent the winter, guarding the wagons abandoned at the Lake.

As quoted by Eliza Farnham in her 1856 book, California, In-Doors and Out, John Breen said

In the morning it was very cold, with about an inch of snow on the ground. This made us hurry our cattle still more, if possible, than before. We traveled on, and, at last, the clouds cleared, leaving the towering peaks in full view, covered as far as the eye could reach with snow. This sight made us almost despair of ever entering the long-sought valley of the Sacramento; but we pushed on as fast as our failing cattle could haul our almost empty wagons.

At last we reached the foot of the main ridge, near Truckee Lake. It was sundown. The weather was clear in the early part of the night; but a large circle around the moon indicated, as we rightly supposed, an approaching storm. Daylight came only to confirm our worst fears. The snow was falling fast on that terrible summit over which we yet had to make our way. Notwithstanding, we set out early to make an effort to cross. We traveled one or two miles--the snow increasing in depth all the way. At last, it was up to the axle of the wagons. We now concluded to leave them, pack some blankets on the oxen, and push forward; but by the time we got the oxen packed, it was impossible to advance; first, because of the depth of the snow, and next, because we could not find the road; so we hitched to the wagons and returned to the valley again, where we found it raining in torrents.

We took possession of a cabin and built a fire in it, but the pine boughs were a poor shelter from the rain, so we turned our cattle at large, and laid down under our wagon covers to pass the night. It cleared off in the night, and this gave us hopes; we were so little acquainted with the country as to believe that the rain in the valley was rain on the mountain also, and that it would beat down the snow that we might possibly go over. In this we were fatally mistaken.

In an article entitled Crossing the Plains in ’46 published in the Russian River Flag in April and May, 1877, William Graves wrote:

On the 31st, all but the two Donner families, Mrs. Wolfinger, and three or four of the men who had formerly been Reed’s hands, started on to try to cross the Summit. We got about four miles past the lower end of the lake, but could not go any further because the snow was about four feet deep, and we could not find the road. We were within one mile of the top, when some were obliged to give it up go back to the lower end of the Lake, where the snow was not so deep;

Drawing of Donner Lake

Truckee’s Lake (now Donner Lake)

Photograph of Donner Monument

Monument at Donner Memorial State Park, erected on the Breen Cabin site, photographed 1996

You can visit this monument, and the excellent Donner Museum, at the Donner Memorial State Park, just west of the Truckee Interchange of Interstate 80.

There is some debate about the exact route from Alder Creek to the Lake. Peter Weddell, who marked the emigrant trail in the 1920’s and 1930’s, located the Trail heading west up Alder Creek through the present Tahoe-Donner Subdivision and then south to the present site of Truckee High School, then west to Donner Lake.

Photograph of Alder Creek

Emigrant road along Alder Creek, photographed 2022

In 1879 William Graves sketched the location of the cabins for C.F. McGlashan, and showed the road from Alder Creek leading past the Donner tents to a branch of the Truckee River (Donner Creek) and then west to the Graves cabin, and further to the Breen and Murphy cabins at the east end of the Lake. This may depict the road through Tahoe-Donner without the dogleg from west to south. Or the map may depict a route known to have been traveled in 1845 south from Alder Creek to the Truckee River, then west (through present Truckee) to Donner Creek, and then northwest to the Lake. Emigrant Jacob Snyder described this route and the large rocks that are still visible along the railroad tracks.

William Graves map

Map of roads (#7), drawn by William Graves for C.F. McGlashan, 1879

Photograph of large rock

Photograph of large rock

Boulders in Truckee, photographed 2003

There is also some debate about which pass the Party attempted to cross. The route of the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy Party of 1844 is now called Donner Pass. The route from the cabins went along the north shore of the lake to the obvious 7,080’ pass west of the lake. However, this route requires hauling the wagons up a series of granite steps.

Photograph of granite step

Granite step below Donner Pass, photographed 2003

On September 16, 1846 the Aram Party discovered a higher, but more gradual pass, by following a canyon south of the lake (now Coldstream Valley and Emigrant Canyon). The last 400 feet ascended a 30 degree slope to a 7,860’ pass. The wagons were pulled over the pass by chains, running down from a log roller at the top of the pass, now called Roller Pass. It appears that all of the emigrant parties used this pass after it was discovered. Stanton, who crossed the mountains twice after September, should have been aware of the new wagon road, even if he didn’t use it on horseback or with Sutter’s mules.

William C. Graves showed both roads (#7) on the map he drew for McGlashan, but his account of the Donner Party is not specific about which pass they attempted.

Photograph of Coldstream Valley

Coldstream Valley (photographed 2022)