|Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 7|
A Wife's Devotion
The Smoky Gorge
Caught in a Storm
Casting Lots to See Who should Die
A Hidden River
The Delirium of Starvation
Franklin Ward Graves
His Dying Advice
A Frontiersman's Plan
The Camp of Death
A Dread Resort
A Sister's Agony
The Indians Refuse to Eat
Lewis and Salvador Flee for Their Lives
Killing a Deer
Tracks Marked by Blood
Nine Days without Food.
Let no one censure Stanton's companions for abandoning their brave comrade. In less than twenty-four hours all were without food, unless, indeed, it was Mr. Eddy, who, in his narration published by Judge Thornton, states that on the day of Stanton's death he found half a pound of bear's meat which had been secreted in a little bag by his wife. Attached to this meat was a paper, upon which his wife had written in pencil a note signed, "Your own dear Eleanor." Mr. Eddy had not discovered this meat until the sorest hour of need, and the hope expressed in Mrs. Eddy's note, that it would be the means of saving his life, was literally fulfilled. There is something extremely touching in the thought that this devoted wife, who, as will presently be seen, was starving to death in the cabins, saved her husband's life by clandestinely concealing about his person a portion of the food which should have sustained herself and her infant children.
In the account given by Mary Graves, is mentioned the following incident in the fourth day's travel: "Observing by the way a deep gorge at the right, having the appearance of being full of smoke, I wanted very much to go to it, but the Indians said no, that was not the way. I prevailed on the men to fire the gun, but there was no answer. Every time we neared the gorge I would halloo at the top of my voice, but we received no answer."
On this day the horror of the situation was increased by the commencement of a snow-storm. As the flakes fell thick and fast, the party sat down in the snow utterly discouraged and heartsick.
Mary Graves says: "What to do we did not know. We held a consultation, whether to go ahead without provisions, or go back to the cabins, where we must undoubtedly starve. Some of those who had children and families wished to go back, but the two Indians said they would go on to Captain Sutter's. I told them I would go too, for to go back and hear the cries of hunger from my little brothers and sisters was more than I could stand. I would go as far as I could, let the consequences be what they might."
There, in the deep, pitiless storm, surrounded on all sides by desolate wastes of snow, the idea was first advanced that life might be sustained if some one were to perish. Since leaving the cabins, they had at no time allowed themselves more than one ounce of meat per meal, and for two entire days they had not tasted food. The terrible pangs of hunger must be speedily allayed or death was inevitable. Some one proposed that lots be cast to see who should die. The terrible proposition met with opposition from Foster and others, but slips of paper were actually prepared by some of the men, and he who drew the longest - the fatal slip - was Patrick Dolan. Who should take Dolan's life? Who was to be the executioner of the man who had so generously given up the food which might have sustained his life, and joined the forlorn hope that others might live? With one accord they rose to their feet and staggered forward. As if to banish from their minds the horrid thought of taking Dolan's life, they attempted to pursue their journey.
With the greatest exertion and suffering they managed to crawl, and stagger, and flounder along until they attained a distance of two or three miles. Here they camped, and passed a most wretched, desolate night. The morning dawned; it was dreary, rainy, and discouraging. The little party set out as usual, but were too weak and lifeless to travel. The soft snow clung to their feet in heavy lumps like snow-balls. Instead of making a fire in a new place, Mary Graves says they crawled back to the camp-fire of the night previous. Here they remained until night came on - a night full of horrors. The wind howled through the shrieking forests like troops of demons. The rain had continued all day, but finally changed to snow and sleet, which cut their pinched faces, and made them shiver with cold. All the forces of nature seemed to combine for their destruction. At one time during the night, in attempting to kindle a fire, the ax or hatchet which they had carried was lost in the loose snow.
A huge fire was kindled at last, with the greatest difficulty, and in order to obtain more warmth, all assisted in piling fuel upon the flames. Along in the night, Mr. Foster thinks it was near midnight, the heat of the flames and the dropping coals and embers thawed the snow underneath the fire until a deep, well-like cavity was formed about the fire. Suddenly, as if to intensify the dreadful horrors of the situation, the bottom of this well gave way, and the fire disappeared! The camp and the fire had been built over a stream of water, and the fire had melted through the overlying snow until it had fallen into the stream! Those who peered over the brink of the dark opening about which they were gathered, could hear, far down in the gloom, during the lull of the storm, the sound of running waters.
If there is anything lacking in this picture of despair, it is furnished in the groans and cries of the shivering, dying outcasts, and the demoniacal shrieks and ravings of Patrick Dolan, who was in the delirium which precedes death. It was not necessary that life should be taken by the members of the company. Death was busily at work, and before the wild winter night was ended, his ghastly victims were deaf to wind or storm.
When the fire disappeared, it became apparent that the entire forlorn hope would perish before morning if exposed to the cold and storm. W. H. Eddy says the wind increased until it was a perfect tornado. About midnight, Antoine overcome by starvation, fatigue, and the bitter cold, ceased to breathe. Mr. F. W. Graves was dying. There was a point beyond which an iron nerve and a powerful constitution were unable to sustain a man. This point had been reached, and Mr. Graves was fast passing away. He was conscious, and calling his weeping, grief-stricken daughters to his side, exhorted them to use every means in their power to prolong their lives. He reminded them of their mother, of their little brothers and sisters in the cabin at the lake. He reminded Mrs. Pike of her poor babies. Unless these daughters succeeded in reaching Sutter's Fort, and were able to send back relief, all at the lake must certainly die. Instances had been cited in history, where, under less provocation, human flesh had been eaten, yet Mr. Graves well knew that his daughters had said they would never touch the loathsome food.
Was there not something noble and grand in the dying advice of this father? Was he not heroic when he counseled that all false delicacy be laid aside and that his body be sacrificed to support those that were to relieve his wife and children?
Earnestly pleading that these afflicted children rise superior to their prejudices and natural instincts - Franklin Ward Graves died. A sublimer death seldom is witnessed. In the solemn darkness, in the tempestuous storm, on the deep, frozen snow-drifts, overcome by pain and exposure, with the pangs of famine gnawing away his life, this unselfish father, with his latest breath urged that his flesh be used to prolong the lives of his companions. Truly, a soul that could prompt such utterances had no need, after death, for its mortal tenement - it had a better dwelling-place on high.
With two of their little number in the icy embraces of death, some plan to obtain warmth for the living was immediately necessary. W. H. Eddy proposed a frontiersman's method. It was for all to huddle closely together in a circle, lie down on a blanket with their heads outward, and be covered with a second blanket. Mr. Eddy arranged his companions, spread the blanket over them, and creeping under the coverlid, completed the circle. The wind swept the drifting snow in dense clouds over their heads. The chilling air, already white with falling snowflakes, became dense with the drifting masses. In a little while the devoted band were completely hidden from wind, or storm, or piercing cold, by a deep covering of snow. The warmth of their bodies, confined between the blankets, under the depth of snow, soon rendered them comfortably warm. Their only precaution now was to keep from being buried alive. Occasionally some member of the party would shake the rapidly accumulating snow from off their coverlid.
They no longer were in danger of freezing. But while the elements were vainly waging fierce war above their heads, hunger was rapidly sapping the fountains of life, and claiming them for its victims. When, for a moment, sleep would steal away their reason, in famished dreams they would seize with their teeth the hand or arm of a companion. The delirium of death had attacked one or two, and the pitiful wails and cries of these death-stricken maniacs were heart-rending. The dead, the dying, the situation, were enough to drive one crazy.
The next day was ushered in by one of the most furious storms ever witnessed on the Sierra. All the day long, drifts and the fast-falling snow circled above them under the force of the fierce gale. The air was a frozen fog of swift-darting ice-lances. The fine particles of snow and sleet, hurled by maddened storm-fiends, would cut and sting so that one's eyes could not be opened in the storm, and the rushing gale would hurl one prostrate on the snow. Once or twice the demented Dolan escaped from his companions and disappeared in the blinding storm. Each time he returned or was caught and dragged 'neath the covering, but the fatal exposure chilled the little life remaining in his pulses. During the afternoon he ceased to shriek, or struggle, or moan. Patrick Dolan, the warm-hearted Irishman, was starved to death.
Mr. Eddy states, in Thornton's work, that they entered this Camp of Death, Friday, December 25, Christmas. According to his version they started from the cabins on the sixteenth day of December, with scanty rations for six days. On the twenty-second they consumed the last morsel of their provisions. Not until Sunday noon, December 27, did the storm break away. They had been over four days without food, and two days and a half without fire. They were almost dead.
Is there a mind so narrow, so uncharitable, that it can censure these poor dying people for the acts of this terrible day? With their loved ones perishing at Donner Lake, with the horror of a lingering death staring them in the face, can the most unfeeling heart condemn them?
Emerging from the dreary prison-house, they attempted to kindle a fire. Their matches were wet and useless. Their flint-lock gun would give forth a spark, but without some dry material that would readily ignite, it was of no avail.
On this morning of the twenty-seventh Eddy says that he blew up a powder-horn in an effort to strike fire under the blankets. His face and hands were much burned. Mrs. McCutchen and Mrs. Foster were also burned, but not seriously. For some time all efforts to obtain a fire proved fruitless. Their garments were drenched by the storm. Mrs. Pike had a mantle that was lined with cotton. The lining of this was cut open, and the driest portion of the cotton was exposed to the sun's rays, in the hope that it could be made to catch the spark from the flint. At last they were successful. A fire was kindled in a dead tree, and the flames soon leaped up to the loftiest branches. The famished, shivering wretches gathered round the burning tree. So weak and lifeless were they that when the great pine limbs burned off and fell crashing about them, neither man nor woman moved or attempted to escape the threatening danger. All felt that sudden death would be welcome. They were stunned and horrified by the dreadful alternative which it was evident they must accept.
The men finally mustered up courage to approach the dead. With averted eyes and trembling hand, pieces of flesh were severed from the inanimate forms and laid upon the coals. It was the very refinement of torture to taste such food, yet those who tasted lived. One could not eat. Lemuel Murphy was past relief. A boy about thirteen years old, Lemuel was dearly loved by his sisters, and, full of courage, had endeavored to accompany them on the fearful journey. He was feeble when he started from the cabins, and the overwhelming sufferings of the fatal trip had destroyed his remaining strength. Starvation is agony during the first three days, apathy and inanition during the fourth and perhaps the fifth, and delirium from that time until the struggle ceases. When the delirium commences, hope ends. Lemuel was delirious Sunday morning, and when food was placed to his lips he either could not eat or was too near death to revive. All day Mrs. Foster held her brother's head in her lap, and by every means in her power sought to soothe his death agonies. The sunlight faded from the surrounding summits. Darkness slowly emerged from the canyons and enfolded forest and hill-slope in her silent embrace. The glittering stars appeared in the heavens, and the bright, full moon rose over the eastern mountain crests. The silence, the profound solitude, the ever-present wastes of snow, the weird moonlight, and above all the hollow moans of the dying boy in her lap, rendered this night the most impressive in the life of Mrs. Foster. She says she never beholds a bright moonlight without recurring with a shudder to this night on the Sierra. At two o'clock in the morning Lemuel Murphy ceased to breathe. The warm tears and kisses of the afflicted sisters were showered upon lips that would never more quiver with pain.
Until the twenty-ninth of December they remained at the "Camp of Death." Would you know more of the shuddering details? Does the truth require the narration of the sickening minutiae of the terrible transactions of these days? Human beings were never called upon to undergo more trying ordeals. Dividing into groups, the members of each family were spared the pain of touching their own kindred. Days and perhaps weeks of starvation were awaiting them in the future, and they dare not neglect to provide as best they might. Each of the four bodies was divested of its flesh, and the flesh was dried. Although no person partook of kindred flesh, sights were often witnessed that were blood-curdling. Mrs. Foster, as we have seen, fairly worshiped her brother Lemuel. Has human pen power to express the shock of horror this sister received when she saw her brother's heart thrust through with a stick, and broiling upon the coals? No man can record or read such an occurrence without a cry of agony! What, then, did she endure who saw this cruel sight?
These are facts. They are given just as they came from the lips of Mrs. Foster, a noble woman, who would have died of horror and a broken heart but for her starving babe, her mother, and her little brothers and sisters who were at Donner Lake. Mary Graves corroborates Mrs. Foster, and W. H. Eddy gave a similar version to Judge Thornton.
The Indian guides, Lewis and Salvador, would not eat this revolting food. They built a fire away from the company, and with true Indian stoicism endured the agonies of starvation without so much as beholding the occurrences at the other camp-fire.
Starved bodies possess little flesh, and starving people could carry but light burdens through such snow-drifts. On these accounts, the provision which the Almighty seemed to have provided to save their lives, lasted only until the thirty-first On New Year's morning they ate their moccasins and the strings of their snow-shoes. On the night before, Lewis and Salvador caught the sound of ominous words, or perceived glances that were filled with dreadful import, and during the darkness they fled.
For several days past the party had been lost. The Indians could not recognize the country when it was hidden from thirty to fifty feet in snow. Blindly struggling forward, they gradually separated into three parties. On the fourth, W. H. Eddy and Mary Graves were in advance with the gun. A starved deer crossed their path and providentially was slain. Drinking its warm blood and feasting upon its flesh, this couple waited for the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Foster, Mrs. McCutchen, and Mrs. Pike, who were some distance behind. Night came and passed and they did not arrive. Indeed, Foster was dying for lack of nourishment. Behind this party were Mr. and Mrs. Jay Fosdick. During the night, Mr. Fosdick perished, and the faithful wife, after remaining with him until morning, struggled forward and met Mrs. Foster and a companion. Mrs. Fosdick related the death of her husband, and upon being informed of Foster's condition, consented that her husband's body be converted into food. It was done. This was the first time that women's hands had used the knife, but by the act a life was saved. Mrs. Fosdick, although dying, would not touch the food, and but for the venison would not have lived to see the setting of the sun. But what was one small deer among so many famished people? Hide, head, feet, entrails, all were eaten. On the sixth, the last morsel was consumed. They were now without hope. Their journey was apparently interminable. Wearied, foot-sore, freezing at night and tortured by hunger during the day, life could not last many hours. Some one must die; else none could live and reach the long-talked-of relief. Would it be Eddy, whose wife and two children were behind? Would it be Mrs. Pike, who left two babes? Mrs. McCutchen, who left one? Mr. or Mrs. Foster, whose baby boy was at the cabin? Or would it be Mary Graves or Mrs. Fosdick, who had left mother and family? On the night of the seventh, they lay down upon the snow without having tasted a mouthful of food during the day. Continued famine and exhaustion had so weakened their frames that they could not survive another day. Yet, on the morning of the seventh, they arose and staggered onward. Soon they halted and gathered about some freshly made tracks. Tracks marked by blood! Tracks that they knew had been made by Lewis and Salvador, whose bare feet were sore and bleeding from cuts and bruises inflicted by the cruel, jagged rocks, the frozen snow, and flinty ice. These Indians had eaten nothing for nine days, and had been without fire or blankets for four days. They could not be far ahead.