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Mrs. Donner's Letters
Life on the Plains
An Interesting Sketch
The Outfit Required
The Platte River
Five Hundred and Eighteen Wagons for California
Burning "Buffalo Chips"
The Fourth of July at Fort Laramie
Sioux Attempt to Purchase Mary Graves
George Donner Elected Captain
Letter of Stanton
One Company Split up into Five
The Fatal Hastings Cut-off
Lowering Wagons over the Precipice
The First View of Great Salt Lake.
Presenting, as they do, an interesting glimpse of the first portion of the journey, the following letters are here introduced. They were written by Mrs. Tamsen Donner, and were published in the Springfield (Illinois) Journal. Thanks for copies of these letters are due to Mrs. Eliza P. Houghton of San Jose, Mrs. Donner's youngest daughter. Allusions are made in these letters to botanical researches. Mrs. Donner, C. T. Stanton, and perhaps one or two others who were prominent actors in the later history, were particularly fond of botany. Mrs. Donner made valuable collections of rare flowers and plants. Her journal, and a full description of the contents of her botanical portfolios, were to have been published upon her arrival in California.
Though bearing the same date, the letters here presented were written at different times. The following appeared in the Springfield Journal, July 23, 1846:
Near the Junction of the North
and South Platte, June 16, 1846.
My Old Friend: We are now on the Platte, two hundred miles from Fort Laramie. Our journey so far has been pleasant, the roads have been good, and food plentiful. The water for part of the way has been indifferent, but at no time have our cattle suffered for it. Wood is now very scarce, but "buffalo chips" are excellent; they kindle quickly and retain heat surprisingly. We had this morning buffalo steaks broiled upon them that had the same flavor they would have had upon hickory coals.
We feel no fear of Indians, our cattle graze quietly around our encampment unmolested.
Two or three men will go hunting twenty miles from camp; and last night two of our men lay out in the wilderness rather than ride their horses after a hard chase.
Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started. Our wagons have not needed much repair, and I can not yet tell in what respects they could be improved. Certain it is, they can not be too strong. Our preparations for the journey might have been in some respects bettered.
Bread has been the principal article of food in our camp. We laid in 150 pounds of flour and 75 pounds of meat for each individual, and I fear bread will be scarce. Meat is abundant. Rice and beans are good articles on the road; cornmeal, too, is acceptable. Linsey dresses are the most suitable for children. Indeed, if I had one, it would be acceptable. There is so cool a breeze at all times on the plains that the sun does not feel so hot as one would suppose.
We are now four hundred and fifty miles from Independence. Our route at first was rough, and through a timbered country, which appeared to be fertile. After striking the prairie, we found a first-rate road, and the only difficulty we have had, has been in crossing the creeks. In that, however, there has been no danger.
I never could have believed we could have traveled so far with so little difficulty. The prairie between the Blue and the Platte rivers is beautiful beyond description. Never have I seen so varied a country, so suitable for cultivation. Everything was new and pleasing; the Indians frequently come to see us, and the chiefs of a tribe breakfasted at our tent this morning. All are so friendly that I can not help feeling sympathy and friendship for them. But on one sheet what can I say?
Since we have been on the Platte, we have had the river on one side and the ever varying mounds on the other, and have traveled through the bottom lands from one to two miles wide, with little or no timber. The soil is sandy, and last year, on account of the dry season, the emigrants found grass here scarce. Our cattle are in good order, and when proper care has been taken, none have been lost. Our milch cows have been of great service, indeed. They have been of more advantage than our meat. We have plenty of butter and milk.
We are commanded by Captain Russell, an amiable man. George Donner is himself yet. He crows in the morning and shouts out, "Chain up, boys - chain up," with as much authority as though he was "something in particular." John Denton is still with us. We find him useful in the camp. Hiram Miller and Noah James are in good health and doing well. We have of the best people in our company, and some, too, that are not so good.
Buffaloes show themselves frequently.
We have found the wild tulip, the primrose, the lupine, the eardrop, the larkspur, and creeping hollyhock, and a beautiful flower resembling the bloom of the beech tree, but in bunches as large as a small sugar-loaf, and of every variety of shade, to red and green.
I botanize, and read some, but cook "heaps" more. There are four hundred and twenty wagons, as far as we have heard, on the road between here and Oregon and California.
Give our love to all inquiring friends. God bless them. Yours, truly,
Mrs. George Donner.
The following letter was published in the journal of July 30, 1846:
South Fork of the Nebraska,
Ten Miles from the Crossing,
Tuesday, June 16, 1846.
Dear Friend: To-day, at nooning, there passed, going to the States, seven men from Oregon, who went out last year. One of them was well acquainted with Messrs. Ide and Cadden Keyes, the latter of whom, he says, went to California. They met the advance Oregon caravan about 150 miles west of Fort Laramie, and counted in all, for Oregon and California (excepting ours), 478 wagons. There are in our company over 40 wagons, making 518 in all, and there are said to be yet 20 behind. To-morrow we cross the river, and, by reckoning, will be over 200 miles from Fort Laramie, where we intend to stop and repair our wagon wheels. They are nearly all loose, and I am afraid we will have to stop sooner, if there can be found wood suitable to heat the tires. There is no wood here, and our women and children are out now gathering "buffalo chips" to burn, in order to do the cooking. These chips burn well.
Mrs. George Donner.
At Fort Laramie a portion of the Donner Party celebrated the Fourth of July, 1846. Arriving there on the evening of the third, they pitched camp somewhat earlier than usual, and prepared a grand dinner for the Fourth. At the Fort were a large party of Sioux who were on the war-path against the Snakes or Pawnees. The Sioux were, perhaps, the most warlike Indian nation on the great prairies, and when dressed in their war paint and mounted on their fleet ponies, presented a truly imposing appearance. The utmost friendliness prevailed, and there was a mutual interchange of gifts and genial courtesies. When the Donner Party pursued their march, and had journeyed half a day from the Fort, they were overtaken and convoyed quite a distance by about three hundred young warriors. The escort rode in pairs alongside the train in true military fashion. Finally halting, they opened ranks; and as the wagons passed, each warrior held in his mouth a green twig or leaf, which was said to be emblematic of peacefulness and good feeling.
The train was never seriously molested by the Sioux. On one occasion, about fifty warriors on horseback surrounded a portion of the train, in which was the Graves family. While generally friendly, a few of the baser sort persisted in attempting to steal, or take by force, trivial articles which struck their fancy. The main body of Indians were encamped about half a mile away, and when the annoyances became too exasperating, W. C. Graves mounted a horse, rode to the encampment, and notified the Chief of the action of his followers. Seizing an old-fashioned single-barreled shotgun, the Chief sprang upon his horse and fairly flew over the plain toward the emigrant wagons. When within about a hundred yards of the train he attracted attention by giving an Indian whoop, which was so full of rage and imprecation that the startled warriors forthwith desisted from their petty persecutions and scattered in every direction like frightened quail. One of the would-be marauders was a little tardy in mounting his pony, and as soon as the Chief got within range, the shotgun was leveled and discharged full at the unruly subject. Three of the buckshot entered the pony's side and one grazed the warrior's leg. As if satisfied that his orders to treat the emigrants in a friendly manner would not be again disregarded, the Chief wheeled his horse about, and in the most grave and stately manner rode back to his encampment.
On another occasion, Mary Graves, who was a very beautiful young lady, was riding on horseback accompanied by her brother. They were a little in the rear of the train, and a band of Sioux Indians, becoming enamored with the maiden, offered to purchase her. They made very handsome offers, but the brother not being disposed to accept, one of the Indians seized the bridle of the girl's horse and attempted to carry her away captive. Perhaps the attempt was made in half jest. At all events the bridle was promptly dropped when the brother leveled his rifle at the savage.
On the twentieth of July, 1846, George Donner was elected Captain of the train at the Little Sandy River. From that time forward it was known as the Donner Party.
One incident, not at all unusual to a trip across the plains, is pointedly described in a letter written by C. T. Stanton to his brother, Sidney Stanton, now of Cazenovia, New York. The incident alluded to is the unfriendliness and want of harmony so liable to exist between different companies, and between members of the same company. From one of Mr. Stanton's letters the following extract is made:
"At noon we passed Boggs' company on the Sweetwater; a mile further up the river, Dunlavy's; a mile further, West's; and about two miles beyond that, was Dunbar's. We encamped about half way between the two latter. Thus, within five miles were encamped five companies. At Indian Creek, twenty miles from Independence, these five companies all constituted one, but owing to dissensions and quarreling they became broken into fragments. Now, by accident, we all again once more meet and grasp the cordial hand; old enmities are forgot, and nothing but good feeling prevails. * * * * * The next morning we got rather a late start, owing to a difference of opinion arising in our company as to whether we should lie by or go ahead. Those wishing to lie by were principally young men who wished to have a day's hunting among the buffaloes, and there were also a few families out of meat who wished to lay in a supply before they left the buffalo country. A further reason was urged that the cattle were nearly fagged out by hard travel, and that they would not stand the journey unless we stopped and gave them rest. On the other side it was contended that if we stopped here the other companies would all get ahead, the grass would all he eaten off by their thousand head of cattle, and that consequently, when we came along, our cattle would starve. The go-ahead party finally ruled and we rolled out."
As will presently be seen, the dissension existing in the company, and the petty differences of opinion and interest, were the fundamental causes of the calamities which befell the Donner Party.
When the company was near Fort Bridger, Edward Breen's leg was broken by a fall from a horse. His mother refused to permit amputation, or rather left the question to Edward's decision, and of course, boy-like, he refused to have the operation performed. Contrary to expectation, the bone knitted, and in a month he walked without a crutch.
At Fort Bridger, which was at this time a mere camp or trading post, the party heard much commendation bestowed upon a new route via Salt Lake. This route passed along the southern shore of the Lake, and rejoined the old Fort Hall emigrant road on the Humboldt. It was said to shorten the distance three hundred miles. The new route was known as the Hastings Cut-off, and was named after the famous Lansford W. Hastings, who was even then piloting a small company over the cut-off. The large trains delayed for three or four days at Fort Bridger, debating as to the best course to pursue. It is claimed that but for the earnest advice and solicitation of Bridger and Vasquez, who had charge of the fort, the entire party would have continued by the accustomed route. These men had a direct interest in the Hastings Cut-off, as they furnished the emigrants with supplies, and had employed Hastings to pilot the first company over the road to Salt Lake.
After mature deliberation, the party divided, the greater portion going by Fort Hall and reaching California in safety. With the large train, which journeyed the old road, this narrative is no longer interested. Eighty-seven persons, however, took the Hastings Cut-off. Their names are included in the ninety mentioned in the preceding chapter, it being remembered that Mrs. Sarah Keyes had died, and that Lewis and Salvador were not yet members of the party. For several days the party traveled without much difficulty. They reached Weber River near the head of the well-known Weber Canyon. At the first crossing of this river, on the third of August, they found a letter from Hastings stuck in the split of a stick, informing them that the road down the Weber Canyon was in a terrible condition, and that it was doubtful if the sixty-six wagons which L. W. Hastings was then piloting through the canyon would ever succeed in reaching the plain. In the letter, Hastings advised all emigrants to avoid the canyon road, and pursue over the mountains a course which he faintly outlined. In order to obtain further information, and, if possible, to induce Hastings to return and act as guide, Messrs. Reed, Stanton, and Pike were sent forward to overtake the advance company. This was accomplished after a fatiguing trip, which so exhausted the horses of Stanton and Pike that these gentlemen were unable to return to the Donner Party. Hastings was overtaken at a point near the southern end of Great Salt Lake, and came back with Reed to the foot of the bluffs overlooking the present city of Salt Lake. Here he declared that he must return to the company he was piloting, and despite the urgent entreaties of Reed, decided that it was his duty to start back the next morning. He finally consented, however, to ascend to the summit of the Wahsatch Mountains, from which he endeavored, as best he could, to point out the direction in which the wagons must travel from the head of Weber Canyon. Reed proceeded alone on the route indicated, taking notes of the country and occasionally blazing trees to assist him in retracing the course.
Wm. G. Murphy (now of Marysville, Cal.) says that the wagons remained in the meadows at the head of Weber Canyon until Reed's return. They then learned that the train which preceded them had been compelled to travel very slowly down the Weber River, filling in many irregular places with brush and dirt; that at last they had reached a place where vast perpendicular pillars of rock approached so closely on either side that the river had barely space to flow between, and just here the water plunged over a precipice. To lower the wagons down this precipice had been a dreadful task.
The Donner Party unanimously decided to travel across the mountains in a more direct line toward Salt Lake. They soon found rolling highlands and small summit valleys on the divide between Weber River and Salt Lake. Following down one of the small streams, they found a varying, irregular canyon, down which they passed, filling its small stream with brush and rocks, crossing and recrossing it, making roads, breaking and mending wagons, until three weeks' time had expired. The entire country was heavily covered with timber and underbrush. When the party arrived at the outlet of this stream into Salt Lake Valley, they found it utterly impassable. It was exceedingly narrow, and was filled with huge rocks from the cliffs on either side. Almost all the oxen in the train were necessary in drawing each wagon out of the canyon and up the steep overhanging mountain. While in this canyon, Stanton and Pike came up to the company. These gentlemen encountered great hardships after their horses gave out, and were almost starved to death when they reached the train.
Instead of reaching Salt Lake in a week, as had been promised, the party were over thirty days in making the trip. No words can describe what they endured on this Hastings Cut-off. The terrible delay was rendering imminent the dangers which awaited them on the Sierra Nevada. At last, upon ascending the steep rugged mountain before mentioned, the vision of Great Salt Lake, and the extensive plains surrounding it, burst upon their enraptured gaze. All were wild with joy and gratitude for their deliverance from the terrible struggle through which they had just passed, and all hoped for a prosperous, peaceful journey over pleasant roads throughout the remainder of the trip to California. Alas! there were trials in the way compared with which their recent struggles were insignificant. But for the fatal delay caused by the Hastings Cut-off, all would have been well, but now the summer was passed, their teams and themselves were well-nigh exhausted, and their slender stock of provisions nearly consumed.