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Diary of Patrick Breen

Publications of the Academy of Pacific Coast History

Vol. 1 No. 6

Diary of Patrick Breen
One of the Donner Party

Edited By

Frederick J. Teggart
Curator of the Academy of Pacific Coast History

University of California
Berkeley, California
July, 1910

Copyright, 1910

By The Academy of Pacific Coast History

Berkeley: The University Press


The diary here printed came into the possession of the University of California in 1905 with the Bancroft Collection. It had been given to Mr. Hubert Howe Bancroft, in 1871, by Dr. George McKinstry of San Diego, who made the following statement in regard to it:

The annexed Diary was kept by Patrick Breen, who with his family viz., Patrick Breen, Margret Breen, John Breen, Edward Breen, Patrick Breen, jr., Simon Breen, James Breen, Peter Breen, Isabella Breen, - were a part of what is called the "Donner Party" that was detained by snows on the Sierra Nevada the winter of 1846-47, an account of their sufferings was published by me in the "California Star," May 22nd, 1847.

I am told Mr. Breen and family are at San Juan, Monterey County, Cala., Mr. Breen gave me his Diary, on his arrival at Capt. J. A. Sutter's Fort, New Helvetia, Cala., for the purpose of makeing out my reports to Capt. Hall, U.S.N. Sloop of War "Warren," Commander No[r]thern Disct. California 1847.

Geo. McKinstry,

July, 1871. San Diego, Cala.

George McKinstry, Jr., was sheriff of the Northern, or Sacramento district of California in 1847 and was actively interested in sending relief to the Donner party.

The author of the diary, Patrick Breen, was born in Ireland and came to the United States in 1828. With his wife and seven children he started on the overland trip from Keokuk, Iowa, on April 5, 1846. The entire family lived to reach the California settlements.

The diary was written upon eight small sheets of letter paper roughly trimmed and folded to make a book of thirty-two pages, 3 3/4 x 6 inches, of which twenty-nine pages were used and three remain blank. It was bound up with a title-page supplied by Mr. Bancroft.

In publishing the diary the editors of the California Star stated that "owing to its length" they had "omitted several paragraphs of minor importance"; in addition to these omissions there are many variations from the original text in the printed form. The diary as published in the California Star has been frequently reprinted, notably in Edwin Bryant's What I saw in California, New York, 1848, and C. F. McGlashan's History of the Donner Party, Truckee, 1879. It is, consequently, for the first time that the complete diary, exactly as written, is now published.

F. J. T.

Diary of Patrick Breen.

Nov. 1846

Friday Nov. 20th 1846. Came to this place on the 31st of 1846 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, Stanton came one day after we arriveed here we again took our teams & waggons & made another unsuccessful attempt to cross in company with Stanton we returned to the shanty it continueing to snow all the time we were here we now have killed most part of our cattle having to stay here untill next spring & live on poor beef without bread or salt [2] it snowed during the space of eight days with little intermission, after our arrival here, the remainder of time up to this day was clear & pleasant frezeing at night the snow nearly gone from the valleys.

Sat. 21st Fine morning wind N:W 22 of our company are about starting across the mountain this moring including Stanton & his indians, some clouds flying thawed to day wnd E.

Sunday 22nd Froze hard last night this a fine clear morning wind E.S.E no account from those on the mountains.

Monday 23rd Same weather wind W the expedition across the mountains returned after an unsucesful attempt. [3]

Tuesday 24th Fine in the morning towards eveng cloudy & windy wind W looks like snow freezeing hard.

Wendsday 25th Wind about W N W Cloudy looks like the eve of a snow storm our mountainers intend trying to cross the mountain tomorrow if fair froze hard last night.

Thurssday the 26th Began to snow yesterday in the evening now rains or sleet the mountaniers dont start to day the wind about W. wet & muddy.

Friday 27 Continues to snow, the ground not covered, Wind W dull prospect for crossing the mountains.

Saturday 28th Snowing fast now about 10 o clock snow 8 or 10 inches deep soft wet snow, weather not cold wind W.

Sunday 29th Still snowing now about 3 feet deep, wind W killed my last oxen to day will skin them tomorrow gave another yoke to Fosters hard to get wood. [4]

Monday 30th Snowing fast wind W about 4 or 5 feet deep, no drifts looks as likely to continue as when it commenced no liveing thing without wings can get about.

Dec. 1846

December 1st Tuesday Still snowing wind W snow about 5 1/2 feet or 6 deep difficult to get wood no going from the house completely housed up looks as likely for snow as when it commenced, our cattle all killed but three or four them, the horses & Stantons mules gone & cattle suppose lost in the snow no hopes of finding them alive.

Wedns. 2nd. Continues to snow wind W sun shineing hazily thro the clouds dont snow quite as fast as it has done snow must be over six feet deep bad fire this morning. [5]

Thursd. 3rd Snowed a little last night bright and cloudy at intervals all night, to day cloudy snows none wind S.W. warm but not enough so to thaw snow lying deep allround expecing it to thaw a little to day the forgoing written in the morning it immediately turned in to snow & continued to snow all day & likely to do so all night.

Friday 4th Cloudy that is flying clouds neither snow or rain this day it is a relief to have one fine day, wind E by N no sign of thaw freezeing pretty hard snow deep.

Saturday 5th Fine clear day beautiful sunshine thawing a little looks delightful after the long snow storm.

Sund. 6th The morning fine & clear now some cloudy wind S-E not much in the sunshine, Stanton & Grave, manufactureing snow shoes for another mountain scrabble no account of mules. [6]

Mond. 7th Beautiful clear day wind E by S looks as if we might some fair weather no thaw.

Tues 8th Fine weather Clear & pleasant froze hard last night wind S.E deep snow the people not stiring round much hard work to wood sufficient to keep us warm cook our beef.

Wedns. 9th Commenced snowing about 11 o clock wind N:W snows fast took in Spitzer yesterday so weak that he cannot rise without help caused by starveation all in good health some having scant supply of beef Stanton trying to make a raise of some for his Indians & self not likely to get much. [7]

Thursd. 10th Snowed fast all night with heavy squalls of wind Continues still to snow the sun peeping through the clouds once in about three hours very difficult to get wood to day now about 2 o clock looks likely to continue snowing dont know the debth of the snow may be 7 feet.

Friday 11th Snowing a little wind W sun vissible at times not freezeing.

Satd. 12th Continues to snow wind W weather mild freezeind little.

Sunday 13th Snows faster than any previous day wind N:W Stanton & Graves with several others makeing preperations to cross the mountains on snow shoes, snow 8 feet deep on the level dull.

Monday 14 Fine morning sunshine cleared off last night about 12 o clock wind E:S:E dont thaw much but fair for a continueance of fair weather. [8]

Tuesday 15th Still continues fine wind W:S:W.

Wed'd 16th Fair & pleasant froeze hard last night so the company started on snow shoes to cross the mountains wind S.E looks pleasant.

Thursd. 17th Pleasant sunshine to day wind about S.E Bill Murp returned from the mountain party last evening Bealis died night before last Milt. & Noah went to Donnos 8 days since not returned yet, thinks they got lost in the snow. J Denton here to day.

Frid'd. 18 Beautiful day sky clear it would be delightful were it not for the snow lying so deep thaws but little on the south side of shanty saw no strangers to day from any of the shantys. [9]

Satd. 19 Snowd. last night commenced about 11 o clock. Squalls of wind with snow at intervals this morning thawing wind. N by W a little singular for a thaw may continue, it continues to snow sun
shining cleared off towards evening.

Sund. 20 Night clear froze a little now clear & pleasant wind N W thawing a little Mrs Reid here, no account of Milt. yet Dutch Charley started for Donoghs turned back not able to proceed tough times, but not discouraged our hopes are in God. Amen.

Mond. 21 Milt. got back last night from Donos camp sad news. Jake Donno Sam Shoemaker Rinehart, & Smith are dead the rest of them in a low situation Snowed all night with a strong S-W wind to day cloudy wind continues but not snowing, thawing sun shineing dimly in hopes it will clear off. [10]

Tuesd. 22nd Snowd. all last night Continued to snow all day with some few intermissions had a severe fit of the gravel yesterday I am well to day, Praise be to the God of Heaven.

Wend. 23rd Snowd. a little last night clear to day & thawing a little. Milt took some of his meat to day all well at their camp began this day to read the Thirty days prayer, may Almighty God grant the request of an unworthy sinner that I am. Amen.

Thursd. 24th Rained all night & still continues to rain poor prospect for any kind of comfort spiritual or temporal, wind S: may God help us to spend the Christmass as we ought considering circumstances. [11]

Friday 25th Began to snow yesterday about 12 o clock snowd. all night & snows yet rapidly wind about E by N Great difficulty in geting wood John & Edwd. has to get I am not able offerd. our prayers to God this Cherimass morning the prospect is apalling but hope in God Amen.

Satd. 26th Cleared off in the night to day clear & pleasant Snowd. about 20 inches or two feet deep yesterday, the old
snow was nearly run soft before it began to snow now it is all soft the top dry & the under wet wind S. E.

Sund. 27th Continues clear froze hard last night Snow very deep say 9 feet thawing a little in the sun scarce of wood to day chopt. a tree dow it sinks in the snow & is hard to be got. [12]

Monday 28th Snowd. last night cleared off this morning snowd. a little now clear & pleasant.

Tuesday 29th Fine clear day froze hard last night. Charley sick.Keysburg has Wolfings Rifle gun.

Wedsd. 30th Fine clear morning froze hard last night Charley died last night about 10 o clock had with him in money $1.50 two good loking silver watches one razor 3 boxes caps Keysburg tok them into his possession Spitzer took his coat & waistcoat Keysburg all his other little effects gold pin one shirt and tools for shaveing. [13]

Thursday 31st Last of the year, may we with Gods help spend the comeing year better than the past which we purpose to do if Almighty God will deliver us from our present dredful situation which is our prayer if the will of God sees it fiting for us Amen. morning fair now cloudy wind E by S for three days past freezeing hard every night looks like another snow storm Snow Storms are dredful to us snow very deep crust on the [under?]. [14]

Jan. 1847

Jany. 1st 1847 We pray the God of mercy to deliver us from our present calamity if it be his Holy will Amen. Commencd. snowing last night does not snow fast wind S:E sun peeps out at times provisions geting scant dug up a hide from under the snow yesterday for Milt. did not take it yet.

Sat. 2nd Fair & thawey snow got soft wind S-E looks thawey froze pretty hard last night.

Sund. 3rd Continues fair in day time freezeing at night wind about E Mrs. Reid talks of crossing the mountains with her children provisions scarce. [15]

Mond. 4th Fine morning looks like spring thawing now about 12 oclock wind S:E Mrs. Reid Milt. Virginia & Eliza started about 1/2 hour ago with prospect of crossing the mountain may God of Mercy help them left ther children here Tom's with us Pat with Keysburg & Jas with Gravese's folks, it was difficult for Mrs Reid to get away from the children.

Tuesd. 5th Beautiful day thawing some in the sun wind S-E snow not settleing much we are in hopes of the rainy time ending.

Weds. 6th Fine day clear not a cloud froze very hard last night wind S:E Eliza came back from the mountain yesterday evening not able to proceed, to day went to Graves, the others kept ahead.

Thursd. 7th Continues fine freezeing hard at night very cold this morning wind S.S.E dont think we will have much more snow snow not thawing much not much dimeinished in debph. [16]

Friday 8th Fine morning wind E froze hard last night very cold this morning Mrs. Reid & company came back this moring could not find their way on the other side of the mountain they have nothing but hides to live on Martha is to stay here Milt. & Eliza going to Donos Mrs. Reid & the 2 boys going to their own shanty & Virginia prospects dull may God relieve us all from this difficulty if it is his Holy will Amen.

Satd 9th Continues fine freezeing hard at night this a beatiful morning wind about S.S.E Mrs. Reid here Virginias toes frozen a little snow settleing none to be perceivd.

Sund. 10 Began to snow last night still continues wind W N W. [17]

Mond. 11th Still continues to snow fast, looks gloomy Mrs Reid at Keysburgs Virg. with us wood scarce difficult to get any more wind W.

Tuesd 12th Snows fast yet new snow about 3 feet deep wind S:W no sign of clearing off.

Wens. 13th Snowing fast wind N.W snow higher than the shanty must be 13 feet deep dont know how to get wood this morning it is dredful to look at.

Thursd. 14th New moon Cleard. off yesterday evening snowd. a little during first part of night Calm but a little air from the North very pleasant to day sun shineing brilliantly renovates our spirits prais be to God, Amen.

Frid. 15th Fine clear day wind N W Mrs. Murphy blind Lanth. not able to get wood has but one axe betwixt him & Keysburg, he moved to Murphys yesterday looks like another storm expecting some account from Siuters soon. [18]

Satd. 16th Wind blew hard all night from the W. abated a little did not freeze much this is clear & pleasant wind a little S of W no telling what the weather will do.

Sund. 17th Fine morning sun shineing clear wind S.S.E Eliza came here this morning, sent her back again to Graves Lanthrom crazy last night so Bill says, Keyburg sent Bill to get hides off his shanty & carry thim home this morning, provisions scarce hides are the only article we depend on, we have a little meat yet, may God send us help.

Mond. 18th Fine day clear & pleasant wind W, thawing in the sun Mrs. Murphy here to day very hard to get wood.

Tuesd. 19th Clear & pleasant thawing a little in the Sun wind S.W Peggy & Edward sick last night by eating some meat that Dolan threw his tobacco on, pretty well to day (praise God for his blessings,) Lanthrom very low in danger if relief dont soon come hides are all the go, not much of any other in camp. [19]

Wed. 20th Fine morning wind N froze hard last night. Expecting some person across the mountain this week.

Thursd. 21 Fine morning wind W did not freze quite so hard last night as it has done, John Battice & Denton came this morning with Eliza she wont eat hides Mrs Reid sent her back to live or die on them. Milt. got his toes froze the Donoghs are all well.

Frid. 22nd Began to snow a little after sunrise likely to snow a good dale wind W came up very suddenly, now 10 oclock.

Satd. 23rd Blew hard & snowd. all night the most severe storm we experienced this winter wind W sun now 12 oclock peeps out.

Sund. 24th Some cloudy this morning ceased snowing Yesterday about 2 oclock. Wind about S. E all in good health thanks be to God for his mercies endureth for ever, heard nothing from Murphys camp since the storm expet to hear they sufferd some. [20]

Mod 25th Began to snow yesterday evening & Still continues wind W.

Tuesd 26 Cleared up yesterday to day fine & pleasant, wind S. in hopes we are done with snow storms, those that went to Suitors not yet returned provisions geting very scant people geting weak liveing on short allowance of hides.

Weds 27th Began to snow yesterday & still continues to sleet thawing a little wind W Mrs. Keyber here this morning Lewis Suitor she says died three days ago Keysburg sick & Lanthrom. lying in bed the whole of his time dont have fire enough to cook their hides. Bill & Sim. Murphy sick.

Thursd. 28th Full moon cleared off last night & froze some to day fine & warm wind S.E looks some like spring weather birds chirping qute lively full moon today.

Frid 29th Fine morning began to thaw in the sun early. wind S.W froze hard last night there will be a crust soon God send Amen. [21]

Satd. 30th Fine pleasant morning wind W begining to thaw in the sun John & Edwd. went to Graves this morning the Graves seized on Mrs Reids goods untill they would be paid also took the hides that she & family had to live on, she got two peices of hides from there & the ballance they have taken you may know from these proceedings what our fare is in camp there is nothing to be got by hunting yet perhaps there soon will. God send it Amen.

Sund. 31st. The sun dont shine out brilliant this morning froze prtty hard last night wind N.W. Lantron Murphy died last night about 1 o clock, Mrs. Reid & John went to Graves this morning to look after her goods.

Feb. 1847

Mond. February the 1st Froze very hard last night cold to day & cloudy wind N W. sun shines dimly the snow has not settled much John is unwell to day with the help of God & he will be well by night Amen. [22]

Tuesday 2nd Began to snow this morning & continued to snow untill night now clear wind during the storm S. W.

Wend. 3rd Cloudy looks like more snow not cold, froze a little last night wind S.S W. it was clear all last night sun shines out at times.

Thurd. 4th Snowd. hard all night & still continues with a strong S: W. wind untill now abated looks as if it would snow all day snowd. about 2 feet deep now.

Frid. 5th Snowd. hard all untill 12 o'clock at night wind still continud to blow hard from the S. W: to day pretty clear a few clouds only Peggy very uneasy for fear we shall all perrish with hunger we have but a little meat left & only part of 3 hides has to support Mrs. Reid she has nothing left but one hide & it is on Graves shanty Milt is livig there & likely will keep that hide Eddys child died last night. [23]

Satd. 6th It snowd. faster last night & to day than it has done this winter & still continues without an intermission wind S. W Murphys folks or Keysburgs say they cant eat hides I wish we had enough of them Mrs Eddy very weak.

Sund. 7th Ceasd. to snow last after one of the most severe storms we experienced this winter the snow fell about 4 feet deep. I had to shovel the snow off our shanty this morning it thawd so fast & thawd. during the whole storm. to day it is quite pleasant wind S. W. Milt here to day says Mrs Reid has to get a hide from Mrs. Murphy & McCutchins child died 2nd of this month.

Mond. 8th Fine clear morning wind S. W. froze hard last. Spitzer died last night about 3 o clock to we will bury him in the snow Mrs Eddy died on the night of the 7th. [24]

Tuesd. 9th. Mrs. Murphy here this morning Pikes child all but dead Milt at Murphys not able to get out of bed Keyburg never gets up says he is not able. John went down to day to bury Mrs Eddy & child heard nothing from Graves for 2 or 3 days Mrs Murphy just now going to Graves fine moring wind S. E. froze hard last night begins to thaw in the sun.

Wednsd. 10th Beautiful morning wind W: froze hard last night, to day thawing in the sun Milt Elliot died las night at Murphys shanty about 9 o'clock P: M: Mrs Reid went there this morning to see after his effects. J Denton trying to borrow meat for Graves had none to give they have nothing but hides all are entirely out of meat but a little we have our hides are nearly all eat up but with Gods help spring will soon smile upon us.

Thursd 11th Fine morning wind W. froze hard last night some clouds lying in the E: looks like thaw John Denton here last night very delicate. John & Mrs Reid went to Graves this morning. [25]

Frid. 12th A warm thawey morning wind S. E. we hope with the assistance of Almighty God to be able to live to see the bare surface of the earth once more. O God of Mercy grant it if it be thy holy will Amen.

Sat. 13th Fine morning clouded up yesterday evening snowd a little & continued cloudy all night, cleared off about day light wind about S: W Mrs Reid has headacke the rest in health.

Sund 14th Fine morning but cold before the sun got up, now thawing in the sun wind S E Ellen Graves here this morning John Denton not well froze hard last night John & Edwd. E burried Milt. this morning in the snow.

Mond. 15. Moring cloudy untill 9 o clock then cleared off wam & sunshine wind W. Mrs Graves refusd. to give Mrs Reid any hides put Suitors pack hides on her shanty would not let her have them says if I say it will thaw it then will not, she is a case. [26]

Tuesd. 16th Commencd. to rain yesterday evening turned to snow during the night & continud untill after daylight this morning it is now sun shine & light showers of hail at times wind N.W by W. we all feel very weakly to day snow not geting much less in quantity.

Wedsd. 17th Froze hard last night with heavy clouds runing from the N. W. & light showers of hail at times to day same kind of weather wind N. W. very cold & cloudy no sign of much thaw.

Thrsd 18th Froze hard last night to day clear & warm in the sun cold in the shanty or in the shade wind S. E all in good health Thanks be to Almighty God Amen.

Frid. 19th Froze hard last night 7 men arrived from Colifornia yesterday evening with som provisions but left the greater part on the way to day clear & warm for this region some of the men are gone to day to Donnos Camp will start back on Monday. [27]

Saturd. 20th Pleasant weather.

Sund 21st Thawey warm day.

Mond 22nd The Californians started this morning 24 in number some in a very weak state fine morning wind S. W. for the 3 last days Mrs Keyburg started & left Keysburg here unable to go I burried Pikes child this moring in the snow it died 2 days ago, Paddy Reid & Thos. came back Messrs[?] Graves & Mutry[?].

Tuesd. 23 Froze hard last night to day fine & thawey has the appearance of spring all but the deep snow wind S:S.E. shot Towser to day & dressed his flesh Mrs Graves came here this morning to borrow meat dog or ox they think I have meat to spare but I know to the contrary they have plenty hides I live principally on the same.

Wend. 24th Froze hard last night to day cloudy looks like a storm wind blows hard from the W. Commenced thawing there has not any more returned from those who started to cross the mts. [28]

Thursd. 25th Froze hard last night fine & sunshiny to day wind W. Mrs Murphy says the wolves are about to dig up the dead bodies at her shanty, the nights are too cold to watch them, we hear them howl.

Frid 26th Froze hard last night today clear & warm Wind S: E: blowing briskly Marthas jaw swelled with the toothache; hungry times in camp, plenty hides but the folks will not eat them we eat them with a tolerable good apetite. Thanks be to Almighty God. Amen Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would commence on Milt. &
eat him. I dont that she has done so yet, it is distressing The Donnos told the California folks that they commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know the spot or near it, I suppose they have done so ere this time. [29]

Satd. 27th Beautiful morning sun shineing brilliantly, wind about S. W. the snow has fell in debth about 5 feet but no thaw but the sun in day time it freezeing hard every night, heard some geese fly over last night saw none.

Sund. 28th Froze hard last night to day fair & sunshine wind S.E. 1 solitary Indian passed by yesterday come from the lake had a heavy pack on his back gave me 5 or 6 roots resembleing onions in shape taste some like a sweet potatoe. all full of little tough fibres.

Mar. 1847

Mond. March the 1st So fine & pleasant froze hard last night there has 10 men arrived this morning from Bear Valley with provisions we are to start in two or three days & cash our goods here there is amongst them some old they say the snow will be here untill June.

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