THE VALLEY OF HEART's DELIGHT
santaclarareseach.net


THE MURPHY (DONNER) PARTY (con’t)
(see part one)

[as partially told by James F. Reed]

 Pen Pictures

            Those who came to this county in 1845, as far as can be learned, were Frank Lightston, J. Washburn, William O’Connor, William C. Wilson, John Daubenbiss, and James Stokes.  In the following year, 1846, the survivors of the Donner party arrived, several of whom became residents of this county.  The fearful sufferings of these people make a story of horrors almost unparalleled in history.  So terrible was their experience that it has been almost impossible to induce the survivors to recount it, the remembrance seeming to haunt their entire lives like a hideous specter.  Mr. James F. Reed, the original leader of the party, and afterwards, until his death, a prominent and esteemed citizen of San Jose, in his last years gave his story to the public, and from it we quote: --

            “I left Springfield with my family about the middle of April, 1846.  We arrived at Independence, Missouri, where I loaded two of my wagons with provisions, a third one being reserved for my family.  Col. W. H. Russell’s family had started from here before our arrival.  We followed and overtook them in the Indian Territory.  I made application of myself and others into the company, which was granted.  We traveled on with the company as far as the Little Sandy, and here a separation took place, the majority of the members going to Oregon, and a few wagons, mine with them, going the Fort Bridger, or Salt Lake route for California.  The day after our separation from the Russell Company, we elected George Donner as captain, and from this time the company was known as the ‘Donner party.’  Arriving at Fort Bridger I added one yoke of cattle to my teams, staying here four days.  Several friends of mine who had passed here with pack-animals for California, had left letters with Mr. Vasquez, Mr. Bridger’s partner, directing me to take the route by way of Fort Hall, and by no means to take the Hasting’s cut-off.  Vasquez, being interested in having the new route traveled, kept these letters.  This was told me after my arrival in California.  Mr. McCutchen, wife and child, joined us here.

            “Leaving Fort Bridger we unfortunately took the new route, traveling on without incident of note, until we arrived at the head of Weber Canon.  A short distance before reaching this place we found a letter sticking in the top of a sage-brush.  It was from Hastings.  He stated that if we would send a messenger after him, he would return and pilot us through a route much shorter and better than the canon.  A meeting of the company was held, when it was resolved to send Messrs. McCutchen, Stanton, and myself to Mr. Hastings; also, at the same time, we were to examine the canon and report at short notice.  We overtook Mr. Hastings at a place called Black Rock, south end of Salt Lake.  Leaving McCutchen and Stanton here, their horses having failed, I obtained a fresh horse from the company Hastings was piloting and started on my return to our company with Mr. Hastings.  When we arrived at about the place where Salt Lake City is built, Mr. Hastings, finding the distance greater than anticipated by him, stated that he would be compelled to return the next morning to his company.  We camped this evening in a canon, and next morning ascended to the summit of a mountain where we could overlook a portion of the country that lay between us and the head of the canon where the Donner company were encamped.  After he gave me the direction, Mr. Hastings and I separated.  He returned to the companies he had left the morning previous, I proceeding on eastward.  After descending to what may be called the tableland, I took an Indian trail and blazed the route where it was necessary the road should be made, if the company so directed when they hear the report. 

            “When McCutchen, Stanton, and myself got through Weber Canon, on our way to overtake Mr. Hastings, our conclusions were that many of the wagons would be destroyed in attempting to get through the canon.  Mr. Stanton and Mr. McCutchen were to return to our company as fast as their horses could stand it, they having nearly given out.  I reached the company in the evening and reported to them the conclusions in regard to Weber Canon, at the same time stating that the route I had blazed that day was fair, but would take considerable labor in clearing and digging.  They agreed with unanimous voice to take that route if I would direct them in the road-making, they working faithfully until it was completed.  Next morning we started, under these conditions, and made camp that evening without difficulty, on Bossman Creek. The afternoon of the second day we left the creek, turning to the right in a canon, leading to a divide.  Here Mr. Graves and family overtook us.  This evening the first accident that had occurred was caused by the upsetting of one of my wagons.  The next morning the heavy work of cutting the timber commenced.  We remained at this camp several days.  During this time the road was cleared for several miles.  After leaving this camp the work on the road slackened, and the farther we advanced, the slower the work progressed.  I here state that the number of days we were detained in road-making was not the cause, by any means, of the company remaining in the mountains during the following winter.

            “We progressed on our way and crossed the outlet of the Utah, now called Jordan, a little below the location of Salt Lake City.  From this camp in a day’s travel we made connection with the trail of the companies that Hastings was piloting through his cut-off.  We then followed his road around the lake with any incident worthy of notice until reaching a swampy section of country west of Black Rock, the name we gave it.  Here we lost a few days on the score of humanity, one of our company, a Mr. Holloron, being in a dying condition from consumption.  We could not make regular drives, owing to his situation.  He was under the care of George Donner, and made himself known to me as a Master Mason.  In a few days he died.  After the burial of his remains we proceeded on our journey, making our regular drives, nothing occurring of note until we arrived at the springs, where we were to provide water and as much grass as we could for the purpose of crossing the Hastings’ Desert, which was represented as being forty or fifty miles in length; but we found it at least seventy miles.

            “We started to cross the desert, traveling day and night, only stopping to water and feed our teams as long as water and grass lasted.  We must have made at least two-thirds of the way across when a greater portion of the cattle showed signs of giving out. Here the company requested me to ride on and find the water and report.  Before leaving, I requested my principal teamster, that when my cattle became so exhausted that they could not proceed further with the wagons, to turn them out and drive them on the road after me until they reached the water; but the teamster, misunderstanding, unyoked them when they first showed signs of giving out, starting with them for the water.  I found the water about twenty miles from where I left the company, and started on my return.  About eleven o’clock at night, I met my teamsters with all my cattle and horses.  I cautioned them particularly to keep the cattle on the road, for as soon as they would scent the water, they would break for it.  I proceeded on and reached my family and wagons.  Some time after leaving the men, one of the horses gave out, and while they were striving to get it along, the cattle scented water and started for it; and when they started with the horses, the cattle were out of sight; they could not find them or their trail, as they told me afterwards.  They, supposing the cattle would find water, went on to camp.  The next morning the animals could not be found, and never were, the Indians getting them, except one ox and cow.  Losing nine yoke of cattle here was the first of my sad misfortunes.  I stayed with my family and wagons the next day, expecting every hour the return of some of my young men with water, and the information of the arrival of the cattle at the water.  Owing to the mistake of the teamsters in turning the cattle out too soon, the other wagons had driven miles past mine and dropped their wagons along the road as their cattle gave out, and some few of them reached water with their wagons.

            “Receiving no information, and the water being nearly exhausted, in the evening I started on foot with my family to reach the water.  In the course of the night the children became exhausted.  I stopped, spread a blanket, and laid them down, covering them with shawls.  In a short time a cold hurricane commenced blowing; the children soon complained of the cold.  Having four dogs with us, I had them lie down with the children outside the covering.  They were then kept warm.  Mrs. Reed and myself, sitting to the windward, helped to shelter them from the storm.  Very soon one of the dogs started up and commenced barking, the others following and making an attack on something approaching us.  Very soon I got sight of an animal making directly for us.  The dogs seizing it, changed its course, and when passing, I discovered it to be one of my young steers.  Incautiously stating that it was mad, in a moment my wife and children started to their feet, scattering like quail, and it was some minutes before I could quiet camp; there was no more complaint of being tired or sleepy during the remainder of the night.  We arrived about daylight at the wagons of Jacob Donner, the next in advance of me, whose cattle having given out, had been driven to water.  Here I first learned of the loss of my cattle, it being the second day after they had started for the water.  Leaving my family with Mr. Donner, I reached the encampment.  Many of the people were out hunting cattle; some of them had their teams together and were going back into the desert for their wagons. Among them was Jacob Donner, who kindly brought my family along with his own to the encampment.

            “We remained here for days hunting cattle, some of the party finding all, others a portion, but all having enough to haul their wagons except myself.  On the next day, or the day following, while I was out hunting my cattle, two Indians came to the camp, and by signs gave the company to understand that there were so many head of cattle out, corroborating the number still missing.  Many of the people became tender-footed at the Indians coming into camp, and thinking they were spies, wanted to get clear of them as soon as possible.  My wife requested that the Indians should be detained until my return, but unfortunately, before I returned, they had left.  Next morning, in company with young Mr. Graves – he kindly volunteering – I started in the direction the Indians had taken.  After hunting this day and the following, remaining out during the night, we returned unsuccessful, not finding a trace of the cattle.  I now gave up all hope of finding them, and turned my attention to making arrangements for proceeding on my journey.

            “In the desert were my eight wagons; all the team remaining was an ox and a cow.  There was no alternative but to leave everything but provisions, bedding, and clothing.  These were placed in the wagon that had been used by my family.  I made a cache of everything else, the members of the company kindly furnishing a team to haul the wagon to camp.  I divided my provisions with those who were nearly out, and, indeed, some of them were in need.  I had now to make arrangement for a sufficient team to haul that one wagon.  One of the company kindly loaned me a yoke of cattle, which, with the ox and cow I had, made two yoke.  We remained at this camp, from first to last, if my memory serves me right, seven days.  Leaving this camp we traveled for several days.  It became necessary, from some cause, for the party who loaned me the yoke of cattle, to take them back.  I was again left with my ox and cow, but through the aid of another kind neighbor, I was supplied with another yoke of cattle.

            “Nothing transpired for some days worthy of note.  Some time after this it became known that some families had not enough provisions remaining to supply them through.  As a member of the company, I advised them to make an estimate of provisions on hand and what amount each family would need to take them through.  After receiving the estimate of each family, on paper, I then suggested that if two gentlemen of the company would volunteer to go in advance to Captain Sutter’s (near Sacramento), in California, I would write a letter to him for the whole amount of provisions that were wanted, and also stating that I would become personally responsible for the amount.  I suggested that, from the generous nature of Captain Sutter, he would send them.  Mr. McCutchen came forward and said that if they would take care of his family he would go.  This the company agreed to.  Mr. Stanton, a single man, volunteered if they would furnish him with a horse.  Mr. McCutchen, having a horse and a mule, generously gave the mule.  Taking their blankets and provisions, they started for California.

            “After their leaving us we traveled on for weeks, none of us knowing the distance we were from California.  All became anxious for the return of McCutchen and Stanton.  It was here suggested that I go in advance to California, see what had become of McCutchen and Stanton, and hurry up supplies.  They agreed to 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.  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.”

            Leaving Mr. Reed and his companion to make their journey across the mountains in search of relief, we return to the main body of hungry and tired immigrants, toiling along the trackless wilderness, and for their experience we give the story as told by Mr. Tuthill in his valuable history.

            “Mr. Reed’s and Mr. Donner’s companies opened a new route through the desert, lost a month’s time by their operations, and reached the foot of the Truckee Pass, in the Sierra Nevadas, on the thirty-first of October, instead of on the first, as intended.  The snow began to fall on the mountains two or three weeks earlier than usual that year, and was already so piled up in the pass that they could not proceed.  They attempted it repeatedly, but were as often forced to return.  One party built their cabins near the Truckee Lake, killed their cattle, and went into winter quarters.  The other, Donner’s party, still believed that they could thread the pass, and so failed to build their cabins before more snow came and buried their cattle alive.  Of course they were soon destitute of food, for they could not tell where their cattle were buried, and there was no hope of game on a desert so piled with snow that nothing without wings could move.  The number of those who were thus storm-stayed at the very threshold of the land whose winters are one long spring, was eighty, of whom thirty were women, and several children.  The Mr. Donner who had charge of one company was an Illinoisan, sixty years of age, a man of high respectability and abundant means.  His wife was a woman of education and refinement, and much younger than he.  During November it snowed thirteen days; during December and January, eight days in each.  Much of the time the tops of the cabins were below the snow level. 

            “It was six weeks after the halt was made, that a party of fifteen, including five women, and two Indians, who acted as guides, set out on snow-shoes to cross the mountains, and give notice to the people of the California settlements of the condition of their friends.  At first the snow was so light and feathery that even in snow-shoes they sank nearly a foot at every step.  On the second day they crossed the “divide,” finding the snow at the summit twelve feet deep.  Pushing forward with the courage of despair, they made from four to eight miles a day.  Within a week they got entirely out of provisions; and three of them, succumbing to cold, weariness, and starvation, had died.  Then a heavy snow-storm came on, which compelled them to lie still, buried between their blankets under the snow, for thirty-six hours. By the evening of the tenth day three more had died, and the living had been four days without food.  The horrid alternative was accepted – they took the flesh from the bones of their dead, remained in camp two days to dry it, then pushed on.  On New Year’s, the sixteenth day since leaving Truckee Lake, they were toiling up a steep mountain.  Their feet were frozen.  Every step was marked with blood.  On the second of January, their food again gave out.  On the third they had nothing to eat but the strings of their snow-shoes.  On the fourth, the Indians eloped, justly suspicious that they might be sacrificed for food.  On the fifth they shot a deer, and that day one of their number died.  Soon after three others died, and every death now eked out the existence of the survivors.  On the seventh all gave out and concluded their wanderings, useless, save one.  He, guided by two stray, friendly Indians, dragged himself on till he reached a settlement on Bear River [Johnson’s Ranch, near Wheatland, Yuba Co.].  By midnight the settlers had found, and were treating with all Christian kindness, what remained of the little company that, after a month of the most terrible sufferings, had that morning halted to die.

            “The story that there were emigrants perishing on the other side of the snowy barrier ran swiftly down the Sacramento Valley to New Helvetia, and Captain Sutter, at his own expense, fitted out an expedition of men and of mules laden with provisions, to cross the mountains and relieve them.  It ran on to San Francisco, and the people, rallying in public meeting, raised $1,500, and with it fitted out another expedition. The naval commandant of the port fitted out still others.  The first of the relief parties reached Truckee Lake on the nineteenth of February. Ten of the people in the nearest camp were dead.  For four weeks those who were still alive had fed only on bullock’s hides.  At Donner’s camp they had but one hide remaining.  The visitors left a small supply of provisions with the twenty-nine whom they could not take with them, and started back with the remainder.  Four of the children they carried on their backs.  Another of the relief parties reached Truckee Lake on the first of March.  They immediately started back with seventeen of the sufferers; but a heavy snow-storm overtaking them, they left all, except three of the children, on the road.  Another party went after those who were left on the way, found three of them dead, and the rest sustaining life by feeding on the flesh of the dead.

            “The last relief party reached Donner’s camp late in April, when the snows had melted so much that the earth appeared in spots.  The main cabin was empty, but some miles distant they found the last survivor of all lying on the cabin floor smoking his pipe.  He was ferocious in aspect, savage and repulsive in manner.  His camp kettle was over the fire, and in it his meal of human flesh preparing.  The stripped bones of his fellow-sufferers lay round him.  He refused to return with the party, and only consented when he saw there was no escape.  Mrs. Donner was the last to die.  Her husband’s body, carefully laid out and wrapped in a sheet, was found at his tent.  Circumstances led to the suspicion that the survivor had killed Mrs. Donner for her flesh and her money, and when he was threatened with hanging, and the rope tightened around his neck, he produced over $500 in gold, which, probably, he had appropriated from her store.”

            Messrs. Reed and Herren who, as has been stated in Mr. Reed’s narrative, went ahead after the departure of McCutchen and Stanton, after enduring fearful hardships, reached Sutter’s Fort at Sacramento, or New Helvetia, as it was then called.  On their way down in Bear River Valley, they met Stanton with two Indians and provisions going to the relief of the emigrants.  Mr. McCutchen had been prostrated by sickness and was unable to accompany him.

            Mr. Reed’s request to Captain Sutter for mules and supplies was unhesitatingly complied with, and a relief party fitted out.  In the meantime, however, the snow had fallen so heavily that in spite of the most desperate efforts it was impossible for them to enter the pass.  The party returned for more help, but, unfortunately, the Mexican War was on and every able-bodied man was away.  At Captain Sutter’s suggestion, Mr. Reed started for San Francisco to see if he could not procure help there.  He was compelled to make the journey by land, and arrived at San Jose at the same time that city was in a state of siege.  Here he was compelled to remain until after the battle of Santa Clara.  Arriving at San Francisco, the public meeting that Mr. Tuthill speaks of above, was held, and the relief parties fitted out.  Mr. Reed and Mr. McCutchen accompanied the first of these, which went by the river.  Before leaving San Francisco, however, he learned of the arrival at Bear Valley of the seven survivors of the party that left the Donner camp after his departure.  At Johnson’s ranch he got news of a relief party ahead of him, sent out by Sutter and Sinclair.  He pushed on with his party, and on the route met this company returning with some of the immigrants, among whom were his own wife and two of his children.  They only stopped a few minutes for greetings, and pushed on to the relief of the other sufferers, whom they reached about the middle of the next day.

            The first camp was that of Mr. Breen.  Mr. Reed says:  “If we left any provisions here, it was a small amount, he and his family not being in want.  We then proceeded to the camp of Mrs. Murphy, where Keesburg and some children were.  Here we left provisions and one of our company to cook for and attend them.  From here we visited the camp of Mrs. Graves, some distance further east.  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. 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 George 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 with us, as I would leave a man to take care of both George Donner and Mrs. Jacob Donner.  Mrs. George Donner positively refused, saying that as her children were all out she would not leave her husband in the condition he was in. * * * * When I found that Mrs. George Donner would not leave her husband, we took the three remaining children of Jacob Donner, 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  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 Mrs. 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 next day.  About the middle of the day we started, taking with us all who were able to travel.”

            The relief party that came after Mr. Reed did not reach the sufferers as soon as was expected, and the disasters that occurred in the meantime have already been related.  The full details of all the sufferings of this unfortunate party would fill a larger book than this, with horrors unimaginable.  Each of the relief parties, and especially that conducted by Mr. Reed, endured sufferings equal to those experienced by the unfortunates in the winter camp, and we think we are within bounds of truth in the statement that history has no parallel to the heroism displayed by these people in their efforts to rescue their suffering friends. 

            In this year, 1846, came also Isaac Branham, Jacob D. Hoppe, Charles White, Joseph Aram, Zachariah Jones, Arthur Caldwell, William Daniels, Samuel Young, A. A. Hecox, William Haun, William Fisher, Edward Pyle with their families, Wesley Hoover and wife, John W. Whisman and wife, William and Thomas Campbell, Peter Quivey, Thomas Kell and their families, Thomas West and four sons, Thomas, Francis T., George R. and William T., John Snyder, Septimus R. Moultrie, William J. Parr, Joseph A. Lard, Mrs. W. H. Lowe, Mrs. E. Markham, L. C. Young, R. J. Young, M. D. Young, Samuel C. Young, S. Q. Broughton, R. F. Peckham, Z. Rochon, Joseph Stillwell, George Cross, Ramon S. Cesena,
M. Holloway, Edward Johnson, and James Enright.  Many of these people and their descendants have made their mark on the history of the county, as will be more fully seen by reference to their respective biographical sketches.

Pen Pictures From The Garden of the World or Santa Clara County, California, Illustrated. - Edited by H. S. Foote.- Chicago:  The Lewis Publishing Company, 1888. p. 58-63

Transcribed by Kathy Sedler

SANTA CLARA COUNTY BIOGRAPHIES

SANTA CLARA COUNTY HISTORY AND GENEALOGY