The travelers knew that the supplies they had could not last long. On the 12th of November a relief party essayed to go forward, but after struggling a short distance toward the summit, came back wearied and broken-hearted, unable to make way through the deep, soft snow. Then someone — said to have been F. W. Graves of Vermont — bethought himself of making snowshoes out of the oxbows and the hides of the slaughtered oxen. With these, they did better.
Volunteers were called for yet another party to cross the mountains into California. Fifteen persons volunteered. Not all of them were men — some were mothers, and one was a young woman. Their mental condition was little short of desperation. Only, in the midst of their intense hardships, it seemed to all, somewhere to the westward was California, and that there alone lay any hope. The party traveled four miles the first day, and their campfires were visible below the summit. The next day they traveled six miles and crossed the divide.
They were starving, cold, worn out, their feet frozen to bursting, their blood chilled. At times they were caught in some of the furious storms of the Sierras. They did not know their way. On the 27th of December, certain of the party resolved themselves to that last recourse which alone might mean life. Surrounded by horrors as they were, it seemed they could endure the thought of yet an additional horror…. There were the dead, the victims who already had perished!..
Seven of the fifteen got through to the Sacramento Valley, among these the young girl, Mary Graves, described as “a very beautiful girl, of tall and slender build, and, exceptionally graceful character.” The story brought out by these survivors of the first party to cross the Sierras from the starving camp set all California aflame. There were no less than three relief expeditions formed, which at varying dates crossed the mountains to the east. Some men crossed the snow belt five times in all. The rescuers were often in as much danger as the victims they sought to save.
And they could not save them. Back there in their tents and hovels around Donner Lake starvation was doing its work steadily. There is contemporary history also covering the details of this. Tamsen Donner, the heroine that she was, kept a diary which would have been valuable for us, but this was lost along with her paintings and her botanical collections. The best-preserved diary is that of Patrick Breen, done in simple and matter-of-fact fashion throughout most of the starving winter. Thus:
“Dec. 17. Pleasant; William Murphy returned from the mountain party last evening; Baylis Williams died night before last; Milton and Noah started for Donner’s eight days ago; not returned yet; think they are lost in the snow.
“Dec. 21. Milton got back last night from Donner’s camp. Sad news; Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Rhineheart, and Smith are dead; the rest of them in a low situation; snowed all night, with a strong southwest wind.
“Dec. 23. Clear to-day; Milton took some of his meat away; all well at their camp. Began this day to read the “Thirty Days’ Prayers”; Almighty God, grant the requests of unworthy sinners!
“Jan. 13. Snowing fast; snow higher than the shanty; it must be thirteen feet deep. Can not get wood this morning; it is a dreadful sight for us to look upon.
“Jan. 27. Commenced snowing yesterday; still continues today. Lewis Keseberg, Jr., died three days ago; food growing scarce; don’t have fire enough to cook our hides.
“Jan. 31. The sun does not shine out brilliant this morning; froze hard last night; wind northwest. Landrum Murphy died last night about ten o’clock; Mrs. Reed went to Graves’s this morning to look after goods.
“Feb. 4. Snowed hard until twelve o’clock last night; many uneasy for fear we shall all perish with hunger; we have but little meat left, and only three hides; Mrs. Reed has nothing but one hide, and that is on Graves’s house; Milton lives there, and likely will keep that. Eddy’s child died last night.
“Feb. 7. Ceased to snow at last; today it is quite pleasant. McCutchen’s child died on the second of this month.
[This child died and was buried in the Graves’s cabin. Mr. W. C. Graves helped dig the grave near one side of the cabin, and laid the little one to rest. One of the most heart-rending features of this Donner tragedy is the number of infants that perished. Mrs. Breen, Mrs. Pike, Mrs. Foster, Mrs. McCutchen, Mrs. Eddy, and Mrs. Graves each had nursing babes when the fatal camp was pitched at Donner Lake.]
“Feb. 8. Fine, clear morning. Spitzer died last night, and we will bury him in the snow; Mrs. Eddy died on the night of the seventh.
“Feb. 9. Mrs. Pike’s child all but dead; Milton is at Murphy’s, not able to get out of bed; Mrs. Eddy and child buried today; wind southeast.
“Feb. 10. Beautiful morning; thawing in the sun; Milton Elliott died last night at Murphy’s cabin, and Mrs. Reed went there this morning to see about his effects. John Denton trying to borrow meat for Graves; had none to give; they had nothing but hides; all are entirely out of meat, but a little we have; our hides are nearly all eat up, but with God’s help spring will soon smile upon us.”
There was one survivor of the camp at Donner Lake, a man named Lewis Keseberg, of German descent. That he was guilty of repeated cannibalism cannot be doubted. It was in his cabin that, after losing all her loved ones, the heroic Tamsen Donner met her end. Many thought he killed her for the one horrid purpose.
Such then is the story of one of the great emigrant parties who started west on a hazard of new fortunes in the early days of the Oregon Trail. Happily, there has been no parallel to the misadventures of this ill-fated caravan. It is difficult — without reading these, bald and awful details — to realize the vast difference between that day and this. Today, we may by the gentle stages of a pleasant railway journey arrive at Donner Lake. Little trace remains, nor does any kindly soul wish for more definite traces, of those awful scenes. Only a cross here and there with a legend, faint and becoming fainter every year, may be seen, marking the more prominent spots of the historic starving camp.
Up on the high mountainside, for the most part, hid in the forest, lie the snow sheds and tunnels of the railway, now encountering its stiffest climb up the steep slopes to the summit of the Sierras. The author visited this spot of melancholy history in company with the vice-president of the great railway line which here swings up so steadily and easily over the Sierras. Bit by bit we checked out as best we might the fateful spots mentioned in the story of the Donner Party. A splendid motor highway runs by the lakeside now. While we halted our own car there, a motor car drove up from the westward — following that practical automobile highway which now exists from the plains of California across the Sierras and east over precisely that trail where once the weary feet of the oxen dragged the wagons of the early emigrants. It was a small car of no expensive type. It was loaded down with camping equipment until the wheels scarcely could be seen. It carried five human occupants — an Iowa farmer and his family. They had been out to California for a season. Casually they had left Los Angeles, had traveled north up the valleys of California, east across the summit of the Sierras, and were here now bound for Iowa over the old emigrant trail!
We hailed this new traveler on the old trail. I do not know whether or not he had any idea of the early days of that great highway; I suspect that he could tell only of its present motoring possibilities. But his wheels were passing over the marks left more than half a century ago by the cracked felloes of the emigrant wagons going west in search of homes. If we seek history, let us ponder that chance pause of the eastbound family, traveling by motor for pleasure, here by the side of the graves of the travelers of another day, itself so briefly gone. What an epoch was spanned in the passing of that frontier!
Author and Notes: Excerpted from the book The Passing of the Frontier, A Chronicle of the Old West, by Emerson Hough, Yale University Press, 1918. Emerson Hough (1857–1923) was an author and journalist who wrote factional accounts and historical novels of life in the American West. His works helped establish the Western as a popular genre in literature and motion pictures. For years, Hough wrote the feature “Out-of-Doors” for the Saturday Evening Post and contributed to other major magazines. The text as it appears here; however, is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.