“It’s not Christmas until I’ve talked about the Donner Party.”
– Me, Christmas Day 2019.
It turns out that trivia of how the ill-fated Donner Party saw in the Christmas of 1846 may not be entirely appropriate conversation for Christmas Dinner, especially when there are children present. Luckily for you, my musings have to go somewhere so they’re going here, with graphs! And tables! You lucky gits.
If you don’t know anything about the Donner Party then are you in for a treat. The Donner party was a group of emigrants journeying to California along the old wagon trails of the mid-nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the trail they followed didn’t so much lead them to California with time to spare but into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada just in time to be snowed in for the entire winter. If you’re thinking, aw man I bet they all came together as a community and their inspirational stories of selflessness and sharing saw them all survive against the odds, then you in for a shock. Instead, the story of the Donner Party is the tale of a group tested to the very limits of endurance and the results are not pretty. A large number of the party did not survive and those who died were often used as much-needed nourishment for a group on the brink of starvation. It’s not so much a tale of heroes and villains but of normal humans facing the most extreme conditions and making difficult choices that we surely couldn’t even begin to imagine.
Still, there are individuals within the party who shine as the absolute badasses they were and some who come off badly even among their comrades who had already started eating the dead.
And on that happy note…let’s begin.
The Donner Party
The Donner Party were not a single family bearing the name Donner. They weren’t even an organised group of people who made the decision to travel together. Instead, like most wagon-trains, they acquired other travellers en route, some with their own wagons, some who would rent or trade for space in existing wagons. The founding or original members of the party were made up of the families of three men. George Donner, his brother Jacob and James Reed. The three with their families and several servants and teamsters between them left Springfield, Illinois for California in April to avoid the rainy season but most importantly ensure that they wouldn’t find themselves trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains over the winter.
After leaving Missouri they joined up with another, larger wagon-train. They travelled in this fashion until July when the train stopped at the Little Sandy River and a number of emigrants decided that they weren’t going to follow the California Trail and instead were going to use a new route, recently discovered by one Lansford Hastings. It would later be known as the Hastings cut-off and the Donners were among the first emigrants to use it. They would also be the last.
On July 20th 1846 several wagons broke off from the main train to follow the Hastings cut-off. A day later, the group held an election to determine which of them would ‘captain’ the expedition. In practice this meant very little beyond who had the final say in contested decisions, settled disputes among party members and give their name to the company. The election (because this is America so how could it have been anything else) was between George Donner and James Reed. I’ll leave you to guess which one won the vote. (Hint: It was George Donner).
Off they went and their first stop was Fort Bridger, the only stop along Hasting’s route. Unsurprisingly the men at Fort Bridger were all smiles and praise for Hastings which reassured the Donner party no end, even though Hastings himself who was supposed to meet them there had already gone on ahead with some other emigrants. They were not discouraged and on the last day of July the party left the fort to start their crossing.
And so we come to the first of our tables!
|George Donner||The George Donners||60||The elected leader of the Donner Party from whom the group took its name.|
|Elitha Donner||13||George’s daughter from his first marriage|
|Leanna Donner||11||George’s daughter from his first marriage|
|Luke Halloran||25||Halloran was a consumptive Irish-man travelling West for his health, however he had become too ill to travel on horseback and bartered for passage in one of George Donner’s wagons.|
|John Denton||28||Teamster (originally from Sheffield)|
|Jean Baptiste||23||Teamster (originally from New Mexico) hired at Fort Bridger|
|Jacob Donner||The Jacob Donners||56||George Donner’s brother|
|Solomon Hook||14||Elizabeth’s son from her first marriage|
|William Hook||12||Elizabeth’s son from her first marriage|
|George Donner Jr||9|
|Virginia Reed||13||Margaret’s daughter from her first marriage but she remarried Reed while Virginia was an infant and she took her stepfather’s name.|
|James Reed Jr.||5|
|Sarah Keyes||70||Margaret’s mother who died in the early stages of the journey.|
|Baylis Williams||25||Hired hand|
|Eliza Williams||32||Hired girl and Baylis’ sister|
|Patrick Breen Jr.||9|
|Patrick Dolan||35||An unmarried friend and neighbour of the Breens, travelling with them in his own wagon.|
|Louis Keseberg||0||Louis was born en route possibly in June/July 1846|
|– Hardkoop||60||Teamster (originally from Belgium)|
|William McCutchen||Unknown||30||Joined at Fort Bridger having fallen behind their original train. Their wagon had possibly been involved in an accident and they had to barter for room among the other families.|
|Samuel Shoemaker||Donners||25||Teamster for either the George or Jacob Donners|
|Charles Stanton||Donners||35||Bachelor travelling with either the George or Jacob Donners|
|Antonio “The Spaniard”||Donners||23||Hired hand en route probably by either the George or Jacob Donners (originally from Mexico)|
|Charles Burger||Donners||30||Teamster for either the George or Jacob Donners|
|Noah James||Donners||16||Teamster for either the George or Jacob Donners|
|Joseph Reindhart||Unknown||30||A German acquaintance of Wolfinger, possibly travelling with his partner Augustus Spitzer.|
|Augustus Spitzer||Unknown||30||Either Reindhart’s partner or a teamster for the Donners|
|Lavina Murphy||Murphys||50||Recently widowed and travelling with her children and their families.|
|John Landrum Murphy||16|
|Sarah Murphy Foster||19|
|Harriet Murphy Pike||18|
|Total Number: 74|
(*Ages are approximate)
As you can see, the Donner party was not a small contingent. They were spread across around twenty-five wagons which demonstrated the wealth of the families involved. Roughly, the George and Jacob Donners, the Reeds, and Breens had three each. Keseberg and the Murphys had two while the remaining families had a wagon each. Patrick Dolan also had his own wagon and Spitzer and Reindhart apparently shared a wagon. Of the families that had more than one cabin, they tended to bunk in one and use the others to transport food and goods.
There had been one death already, before the party had even been formed, but that had been the elderly mother in law of James Reed who had been expected to expire en route anyway. (Because of her natural death I won’t be including her in the later lists of Donner party casualties).
The Hastings Cut-Off
Allegedly, the Hastings Cut-Off would save emigrants around three hundred and fifty miles, was free of hostile Native American tribes with plentiful grass and water available. There was one dry drive of forty miles across the Great Salt Lake but the water and grass were so plentiful that it could easily be stored for the crossing. The reality of the situation was quite different. The Cut-Off added a hundred and fifty miles to the Donner’s journey, the two-day dry drive of forty miles across the Great Salt Lake was actually a six-day drive of eighty miles and water was not as plentiful as it had been claimed. Letters containing all of this information as well as warnings that Hastings had not made the journey with wagons and the road was unsuitable for them were left at Fort Bridger by a journalist who had gone on ahead of them, but knew of their following. Naturally, Bridger “forgot” to pass the letters on.
The Donner Party realised fairly early on in the journey that they had made a mistake in following Hasting’s advice. For a start, even if the trail was able to cut time off their journey, Hastings had only just discovered it and though he was just a week ahead of the Donner’s, his party had not made a sufficient path to be followed. The result was that the Donner party, with their many wagons, and some of them larger than average, spent much of the time having to cut their own route. As if it were not bad enough, Hastings himself left a letter for them saying that his route was in a bad state and they were better to set up camp and send ahead a messenger to bring Hastings back to show them the best way forward. The party were very much aware that this was only compounding their problems, but at this point, they had come too far to turn back. Although they could have made it back to Fort Bridger and probably pushed along the original California trail, they would have lost so much time that they’d inevitably be trapped by the snow on the Sierra Nevada. Staying on course at least gave them a chance at beating the winter, though they were miffed to say the least at Hastings.
Luckily, their chosen messengers went ahead, brought back Hastings and all was well. Or not. The messengers had reached Hastings but had not been able to bring him back and instead of showing them the new route, he indicated a vague direction in which the wagon-train could cross. The Donner party had no choice but to follow it, but the result was less than twenty men cutting a road for as many wagons. It was slow progress but more importantly, it was exhausting for the men and the animals. With water sparse and no decent grazing, the cattle and oxen couldn’t replenish their strength which contributed greatly to the problems the Donners would face later.
While they were cutting out the road, however, they were joined by another three wagons belonging to the Graves family who had hoped to catch up with the Donners and join them in their crossing. They succeeded and their arrival added a few able-bodied men who had yet to overexert themselves making way for the wagons.
The additions were:
|Sarah Graves Fosdick||19|
|Mary Ann Graves||19|
|Total Number: 87|
It took them almost two weeks but they managed it, although by now they were frightfully aware of the time they had lost and the prospect of snow ahead. They were also facing, what they believed to be a forty mile dry drive without an adequate camping spot where the families and their animals could recover. While they gathered what supplies they could, Luke Halloran became the first casualty of the Donner party as he finally succumbed to his consumption.
|Luke Halloran||25||George Donners||Buried beside a member of Hasting’s party who had also died before crossing the Great Salt Lake.|
|Total Alive: 86||Total Dead: 1**|
**Because of her age, infirmity and the point in the journey when she died, Sarah Keyes is rarely counted among the dead as a casualty of the Donner Party.
The Great Salt Lake
Before crossing the Great Salt Lake they found a letter from Hastings nailed to a board waiting for them. It was largely unreadable but Tamsen Donner persevered and found that Hastings had left them assurances that they had reached the start of the dry drive and to stock up with two days worth of water and food. Because the stretch was definitely only two days long. Definitely.
So that’s exactly what they did.
Two days later the water ran out.
Also there happened to be a mountain in the middle of the lake, so they had to cross that too.
Unsurprisingly the consequences were disastrous and divisions between the groups began to form. With the animals failing and the emigrants themselves becoming delirious those who were able pushed ahead. The smaller wagons pushed on while the larger parties inevitably fell behind, not that the surface of the lake allowed them to travel in single file anyway.
After three days the animals were exhausted to the point of madness, and many broke free from their bonds, bolting off to find water. James Reed took off on his horse to scout for water only to find it a further thirty miles away. Wagons were collapsing in the dry heat of the desert and had to be abandoned or cached to be recovered later. Many of the emigrants were now hallucinating from thirst and Tamsen Donner had given her children flat bullets to suck on to stop their mouths from drying out.
The Donner party made it through the desert and though nobody had died, they had paid a heavy price. The Reeds had lost all but two animals to pull their three large wagons and the entire convoy had to stop for a further week in order to recover its strength and search for the animals that had done a runner. They were not successful, so before they could head on stock had to be taken and families had to reassess. Wagons were cached, goods were abandoned and James Reed had to barter and buy ox and cattle from other families, but they wouldn’t help transport his food and goods unless they could make use of them, seeing as delays had heavily affected those families with fewer wagons and thus less stored food.
Still, as long as they were still ahead of the snow they’d surely be fine!
Then it started snowing.
Still! They were out of the desert and had access to water and pasture so at least their animals would be alright.
Then some of the local tribes started stealing or killing their cattle.
It wasn’t all bad news though! A glimmer of hope remained! Nobody had died, there were a smattering of friendly tribes who offered them food and two of the party (Charles Stanton and William McCutchen) were sent to ride ahead to Sutter’s fort to bring back food. Soon, they rejoined the California trail, in significantly worse shape than if they’d just stuck to it in the first place, but they’d made it.
Surely things would start to look up now?
Plot twist: Things did not start to look up.
Even though they were back on solid ground, literally, and the road ahead was undoubtedly going to be easier seeing as they were the last emigrants to cross it things had not immediately improved and tempers were starting to fray. In hindsight, it’s actually quite impressive that in a convoy of over sixty people who had suffered as they had in the past weeks, nobody had yet come to blows. The stress of the situation was only increasing as the remaining animals, who had already largely given out from exhaustion were given no chance to rest as the need to push on became desperate. They were already the last of the wagon-trains to cross the trail and the smattering of snow they’d witnessed was surely only a taster of what awaited them across the mountains. The continued theft of their goods and cattle by the locals was hardly helping matters.
During a particularly difficult crossing, an argument broke out between Reed’s teamster, Milt Elliot and the Graves’, John Snyder. As the situation escalated, James Reed stepped forward but instead of calming Snyder only angered him further. Reed drew his knife in self-defence as Snyder lashed out with the butt of his whip. Mrs Reed attempted to stop the fight only to receive a blow herself for her trouble. He turned his attention back to Reed, but in resuming the assault, Reed lashed out and caught Snyder fatally in the neck with his knife.
Usually it would fall to the captain of the wagon train to mediate and preside over the trial in whatever form it took, however, the Donners had already pressed ahead and tempers were running high enough to demand immediate action. Snyder had been as popular as Reed was unpopular and the Graves called for revenge. Keseberg, who had fallen out with Reed earlier in the journey now called for the man to be hanged. It was only through the support of the armed Elliot and Eddy that Reed was allowed to live. He was banished however, something he only accepted after the party promised to look after his family. The following morning, after Snyder was buried, Reed took off with his horse and made for California with only Walter Herron for company.
This incident is noteworthy because it irrevocably broke down whatever bonds held the group together. Although families had acted with a measure of self-interest when it came to crossing the desert, but now there really was nothing binding them together. They were just a group of people heading in the same direction but with little real loyalty to each other. Something which was illustrated the just one day after Reed had departed.
In Keseberg’s employ was ‘Old man Hardkoop’ who in his sixties had struggled to cross the desert and had spent the last few days in Keseberg’s wagon, unable to walk. While camping, Eddy noticed that Hardkoop was missing but Keseberg denied any knowledge of where he might be. Actually, Keseberg had turned him out of the wagon, to lessen the weight on his struggling oxen. The party had to stop again to consolidate their situation during which time Hardkoop caught up with them, but only briefly. Other wagons were abandoned, goods were cached, by now the Reeds had lost all of their wagons and those that James Reed had left behind were now taken in by Eddy.
Eddy offered to take Hardkoop in once he’d gotten the oxen over the next crossing, but when it came to it, Hardkoop was nowhere to be found. The last anyone had seen of him had been some way back where he had collapsed, his feet to bloody and swollen to carry him any further. Keseberg refused to go back for him and offer a space in his wagon, so those who kept watch kept a fire going in case he managed to catch up. In the morning, Breen and Graves refused to give their horses in order that a rescue might be attempted. They also overruled the men willing to go back on foot for him, citing the need to push on. The Donners were still quite a way ahead and occupied with their own troubles, mostly skirmishes with local tribes. Regardless, Hardkoop never caught up with the train and wasn’t seen again.
There was little reprieve for the emigrants. The weather was getting colder and the two they had sent ahead for supplies still hadn’t returned. On the thirteenth, having lost most of his cattle to Native attacks, Wolfinger decided to cache his goods. Reinhardt and Spitzer remained behind to assist him but when they returned to the camp, Wolfinger was conspicuously absent. Reinhardt and Spitzer claimed that locals had attacked and killed him, but as his own death approached two months later, Reinhardt confessed to murdering him, though no one ever found out why.
The only spot of good luck for the Donner Party during the month of October was the return of Charles Stanton, over a month and a half after he’d been sent onward to secure supplies. He had left with William McCutchen who had fallen ill en route and remained behind, but Stanton had returned with several supply mules and two Native Americans to assist in driving them. The two were being held personally responsible for the horses and became the last additions to the Donner Party.
|Total Number: 88|
He came back with the news that the route to Sutter’s fort was clear and was expected to be so for a month. He had also passed Reed and Herron on his way back. Although the two were at the point of starvation, they made it to the fort, having survived on five beans they found on the roadside. Reed was alive at least which would have been a massive comfort to his family who could well have imagined him dead along the route they were about to follow. The relief was short-lived, just five days later tragedy struck again.
William Foster and William Pike were travelling with their mother-in-law Lavina Murphy, but they had known each other before they had married into the same family. Some years earlier the Murphy family had taken a riverboat across the Mississippi which became, somewhat ironically, caught in ice. Upon this boat were Foster, the mate and Pike an engineer who struck up romances with Sarah and Harriet Murphy and before the ship got underway again, the two couples were married in the same ceremony.
Four years later the two were sitting beside a fire while Pike cleaned his pistol. He handed it to Foster, but it accidentally discharged moments later and Pike took a fatal bullet in his back and was dead within the hour. It was the 30th of October, but there was still one day left of the month and it didn’t hold back. The George Donners fell behind when one of the axles on their wagon broke, sending the wagon crashing down the cliff it was traversing. The youngest Donner girls, Georgia and Eliza were inside, crushed underneath the furniture and goods that had collapsed on top of them. They were both rescued, though Eliza Donner almost became the last casualty of the month, practically suffocating under the weight. While repairing the wagons the Donners fell well behind with the Jacob Donners who stayed to assist. The rest of the party pressed on and found a log cabin near a river, that had been erected some years earlier by an emigrant party that had gotten trapped by snow. They also found snow resting on the mountains and they surely would have realised that this was as far as they could go.
Several miles back, George Donner injured his hand just as he put the finishing touches to the axle though at the time he said it wasn’t all that important. He obviously forgot to touch wood as he spoke because as we see time and time again with the Donner party, when they thought things couldn’t get any worse, they would get much much worse.
|John Snyder||25||Graves||Killed by James Reed|
|– Hardkoop||60||Keseberg||Fell behind|
|– Wolfinger||?||Wolfingers||Killed by Reinhardt|
|William Pike||32||Murphys||Accidentally killed by William Foster|
|Total Alive: 84 Total Dead: 5|
The families that had pulled ahead from the George and Jacob Donners attempted to cross the mountain range, but found the snow too deep and they were forced to turn back and make camp. Seeing as they had already passed a log shelter, they returned there and began constructing their own cabins, well aware of the cold front that was approaching them. The party did not camp in a single place though some of the families were quite close together.
The Breen family took residence in the existing cabin, while Keseberg built a lean-to against one of the walls for his family and was joined by Spitzer and Burger. A couple of hundred yards upstream, William Eddy and William Foster built a double cabin for their families while the Reeds and Graves built their own double cabin half a mile away from the main body of the party. The Donners were seven miles further back and though they attempted to build cabins for themselves, they were thwarted by George Donner’s injured hand and the weather which quickly overtook them. In the end, they made do with hastily thrown up tents for the two Donner groups and a third smaller one for the teamsters. Mrs Wolfinger and Reinhardt lived with the George Donners while Mrs McCutchen and baby Harriet were probably sheltering with the Graves.
Several attempts were made to cross the snow, but they repeatedly failed and those who were forced back were further drained. The families had a mixed level of food, with the Breens the best off for cattle but the group wasn’t prepared for life in the mountains though and most of the remaining animals were lost under the snow. In the Donner camp, Jean Baptiste tried to discover their whereabouts with a sharp pole he drove into the snow, hoping it would come back bloody, but he was repeatedly unsuccessful. Still, despite the dire situation, nobody died during the month of November and there were no real issues (beyond the obvious) for the first half of December either.
Food was, of course, a worry, and even the families that had access to meat were on starvation rations. Stanton who had brought much-needed supplies was forced to beg for food from the other cabins for himself, Luis and Salvador but got nowhere. Sutter’s mules had since been lost beneath the snow. Spitzer, who had been living in Keseberg’s lean-to, could no longer stand the harsh conditions and collapsed into the Breen cabin from where he was unable to rise. Most of the emigrants were now starving and the men could barely rouse themselves to complete the necessary tasks of chopping down trees for firewood. There was little to hunt and even though the nearby river teemed with fish, the emigrants had little experience or knowledge in ice fishing and so could not catch them.
Across the mountains, in Sutter’s fort, Reed and McCutchen attempted to cross the mountains themselves, taking supplies for their families, but the weather forced them to abandon the attempt. They cached their food to be retrieved during their next push, but were disheartened to meet an immigrant couple who had been forced to cook their dog. Although this gave them even more cause to worry, given how little they knew the party had in stores, Sutter calculated that if they killed the cattle and froze the beef, then they would have enough food to last until Spring. Of course, he had no idea that most of the cattle had been lost to the weather and buried beneath eight feet of snow.
The Forlorn Hope
Early in December, the stronger members of the party decided that they were going to make a final attempt at crossing the mountains. By this point they were as likely to die of starvation as they were to die of exposure across the pass so what really was to be lost? In what was probably the only stroke of luck the Donner party experienced during their entire ordeal, Stanton and Graves knew how to make snowshoes and they had the materials to hand. While the group weighed up whether they should stay or go, Noah James and Milt Elliot made for the Donner camp to find out how they were and if anyone wanted to join the expedition. They made it to the camp but failed to return in time to join the party as it left and so were left behind.
The group would later became known as ‘the forlorn hope’ but for the moment it was simply referred to as the snow-shoers and comprised of the following:
|Sarah Graves Fosdick||Graves||19|
|Mary Ann Graves||Graves||19|
|Sarah Murphy Foster||Murphy||19|
Several fathers decided that it was in their family’s best interest to make the attempt, as did some of the young mothers who left their children with older relations. Amanda McCutchen left baby Harriet with the Graves family and Lavina Murphy took charge of her grandchildren. Patrick Dolan could probably have ridden out the storm seeing as he had plentiful supplies, but as a single man, it was more than likely that one of the families would have later tried to take his food for their children. He joined the snowshoers and left his cattle to Mrs Reed who had little food of her own. However, as though to hammer home how desperate the situation was, on the morning the group set out, Baylis Williams became the first of the Donner party to die at the camp.
The snowshoers had a blanket each and six days worth of rations (an ounce of beef for each day). As with everything relating to the Donner Party; the attempt did not go well.
Charles Burger and young William Murphy had attempted to make the journey without even the rudimentary snowshoes that the others had and so turned back almost as soon as they had begun. The others pressed on and combatted the elements but on the fifth day, they started to lag. A snow-blind Stanton was starting to fall behind, they had no idea if they were heading in the right direction and of course, their exertions without proper nourishment were taking a heavy toll on their bodies. The sixth day heralded the last of the rations, except for Eddy who had discovered half a pound of meat in his bag that his wife had given up for him, though he kept that to himself in every way. The party started discussing the possibility of eating the dead as by now it was clear they would not all survive. Stanton had already fallen behind, his body would be found in the spring where he was last seen, assuring them that he would catch up soon. Likely, he already knew he was done. But, although various options were thrown out, they decided against killing each other for food.
On Christmas Day, a four-day storm blew up stranding the snowshoers without hope of food. They camped in what would become known as the ‘Camp of Death’. Guess why? If you said – because that’s where a lot of them died you’d be partially right! There were indeed a number of deaths at the camp, but it was given a name to distinguish itself from the later ‘Starved Camp’.
Some became delirious from hypothermia before they died, others simply wasted away. However the manner of their death, their bodies were stripped, organs were dried and for a time there was food again, though they apparently took care to ensure that nobody ate a member of their family. When the storm died down, the survivors pushed on once more but their new rations did not last them long. They finally broached the subject of actually killing Luis and Salvador for food, but Eddy warned them ahead of time and the two escaped the camp.
Eddy, who himself was failing fast, managed to successfully kill a deer which boosted their rations, as did the continued body count that racked up naturally. The journey they had planned six days rations for had taken three weeks and they still hadn’t found Sutter’s fort. Unsurprisingly, most of the group were delirious, exhausted and struggled to continue. They came across Luis and Salvador a little way on, both of them near death from exposure, starvation or a combination of the two. Nobody was particularly surprised when William Foster shot the two of them so there would be food again, though everybody kept a distance from him after that.
Finally, they left the snow but the weather was still against them. Eventually, however, the survivors stumbled upon a local tribe who initially ran away from them seeing as they looked so inhuman. They were given food, such as it was, in the form of acorns and grass and Eddy, with the assistance of two locals made it to a nearby ranch. Once again, the residents took a moment to realise that Eddy was, in fact, a human male and they only did so when he asked them for bread. But, it was enough. It had taken thirty-three days but the snowshoers had finally reached someone who could help and the relief effort could begin.
|The Forlorn Hope|
|Luis||16-19||Shot by William Foster – Cannibalised|
|Salvador||16-19||Shot by William Foster – Cannibalised|
|Antonio||Donners||23||Died – Camp of Death – Cannibalised|
|Charles Burger||Donners||30||Turned back|
|Patrick Dolan||Breens||35||Died – Camp of Death – Cannibalised|
|Sarah Graves Fosdick||Graves||19||Survived|
|Jay Fosdick||Graves||23||Died – Cannibalised|
|Franklin Graves||Graves||57||Died – Camp of Death – Cannibalised|
|Mary Ann Graves||Graves||19||Survived|
|Lemuel Murphy||Murphy||12||Died – Camp of Death – Cannibalised|
|William Murphy||Murphy||10||Turned Back|
|Sarah Murphy Foster||Murphy||19||Survived|
|Charles Stanton||Donners||35||Died – Exposure|
|Survivors: 7 Died: 8 Turned Back: 2|
Christmas at Camp
The thirty-three days it took the snowshoers to cross the pass were not particularly eventful for the people left behind. After Baylis Williams died there was little activity beyond a failed attempt by Charles Burger to reach the Donner party. On the twentieth, ten days after he had left, Milt Elliot returned with the news that there had been four deaths at the Donner camp. They were still suffering in tents, they had less food than the camp further up and to make matters worse George Donner’s injured hand had become infected which had rendered him bedbound.
Christmas was a quiet affair. In his diary, Patrick Breen wrote that his family had prayed together but it was in the Reed cabin that Christmas was met with an actual celebration. The Reed family had suffered more than most with a lack of food and had been reduced to eating the ox hides they were using for insulation earlier than the others. But on Christmas Day, Margaret Reed revealed that she had been squirrelling away supplies for that very occasion. Granted, under normal circumstances it would barely be considered a meal for one person, but given that they’d been boiling their rugs into a glue-like substance for some weeks now, it was a veritable feast. There was a two-inch square of bacon, some tripe, a cup of beans and half a cup of rice to make a stew with a handful of dried apples for dessert. The children were delighted, but within a few days their situation was desperate again and they were forced to turn their attention to the family dog, Cash, who had somehow survived thus far. When there was nothing left of the dog to eat, Margaret Reed decided that she, Milt, the hired help Eliza and the eldest Reed girl, Virginia, would attempt to make the crossing to bring back food for the younger children. After four days they returned, weakened and exhausted having failed to cross the pass, just a short while before a storm rolled in. If they had not made it back to camp, the four would surely have died of exposure.
For those left at the camp the New Year looked like this:
|Baylis Williams||25||Reeds||The first to die at the camp|
|Charles Burger||30||Donners||Cause of Death: Starvation|
|Jacob Donner||56||The Jacob Donners||Cause of Death: Starvation/Malnutrition|
|Samuel Shoemaker||25||Donners||Cause of Death: Exposure|
|James Smith||25||Reeds||Cause of Death: Exposure|
|Joseph Reinhardt||30||Unknown||Reinhardt seems to have died of a fever or sickness, during which time he confessed to having previously killed Wolfinger. George Donner heard his confession but was unsure whether it was true or simply the result of his delirium.|
The New Year
Given that there was little hope of crossing the pass to find food, no prospect of hunting and that ox-hides were now the staple of the party’s diet, it really is no surprise to find that January saw the group weakening broken up only by the occasional argument over food. Eliza Williams attempted to take refuge with the Breens having found herself unable to eat the hides, but they would not take her. Keseberg took down the remaining hides on his roof so they could be cooked up, but it was the Reeds, again, who found themselves in an even more dire situation. Deciding to call in an earlier loan, the Graves family took the last two hides from the Reed family, leaving them with nothing. During the month of January there had been only two further deaths; the infant Louis Keseberg and then Landrum Murphy, but many in the camp were feverish and sick and come February, death became a frequent occurrence.
By now, only the Breens had any meat and most of the hides were gone. Further downstream the Donners had been long reduced to eating the occasional field mouse that wandered into their tent, assuming they could catch them. They still had one hide left for the twelve of them and for as long as they did, Eliza Donner recounted later, George Donner insisted they wouldn’t consider eating the dead. The Reeds were still begging for hides and getting nowhere, reduced to charring long used bones and eating those.
Unbeknownst to the party at the lake, help was actually on its way. The war with Mexico that had occupied the men of California had ended allowing relief efforts to begin. They faced their own struggles and a book could be written of their exploits alone, but despite the hardships of their own, on February 19th, seven men of the relief party made it to the camp.
You would think that would be the end of it. The relief party made it, they had brought with them supplies, they had established that the mountains could indeed be crossed, if only barely. Surely, surely, things would now be looking up for the Donner Party?
For a start, much of the relief party’s supplies had been cached along the way so that they would have food for the return journey. Then there was the issue that the Donner party had been starved for so long they could only be allowed food in small amounts. The relief party handed out what rations they felt were safe, sent a team ahead to the Donner camp and set a guard to protect what remained.
The camp, was unsurprisingly, in a bad way. The emigrants were emaciated, to say the least, and barely recognisable as human beings. They had not had the strength to bury bodies for some time and so the dead lay littered around the camp, sometimes with little more than a blanket wrapped around them. The mental health of the emigrants was precarious, with the relief finding them mostly overwrought and some on the point of losing their sanity. It was decided that they would not be told who had survived of the snowshoers and what had happened to those who had died.
The relief party had hoped to lead as many of the camp as possible out of the mountains, but few were strong enough to even attempt the journey. Jean Baptiste with the Donners and William Graves both wanted to make the journey but were required to remain behind so that there would be someone to provide wood for those remaining behind. William Graves was eventually allowed to go after he, impressively, managed to garner the strength to cut enough firewood to last his family, but Jean Baptiste was forced to stay, seeing as he was the only man left at the Donner camp who could still leave his bed.
Twenty-three left with the first relief party. Some because they felt strong enough to make the attempt, some, like the Reeds, who had no choice in the matter seeing as they had long been without food. Although relief had come, they had not brought with them enough food to last, soon the camp would be reduced to eating the remaining hides again. At least on the route back there was the promise of more rations and the possibility of escape.
Eight-year-old Patty Reed and her three-year-old brother, Thomas, began the climb with their family, but it soon became clear they wouldn’t be able to make it and one of the relief took them back to the camp. The Breens had largely decided to remain behind seeing as they still had meat available to them and seemed to subsist off the hides with greater ease than the others (possibly because they had other food available to them), so the relief took the Reed children to their cabin. The Breens initially refused to take them in, but were persuaded after the relief party assured them more relief was coming with food. That said, Patty Reed later recounted that Patrick Breen refused to share the meat with the newcomers but his wife took pity on them and slipped them the occasional sliver.
At this point, such things were common. There were seventeen emigrants left behind at the cabins left to beg and borrow from each other but with little to no success. Lavina Murphy was largely snowblind but still caring for her grandchildren as well as little James Eddy, the only survivor of the three William Eddy had left behind. Keseberg moved out of his lean-to into the Murphy cabin, too ill and weak to attempt the crossing with his wife and daughter.
At three years old, Ada Keseberg was one of the youngest children to be taken out with the first relief. The only one younger than her was two year old Naomi Pike, whose mother, Harriet, had broken through with the snowshoers. There was no possibility of her walking, but one of the relief party, John Rhodes, wrapped her in a blanket and slung her across himself. The other children, however small they were, had to walk. Ada did not manage very far before she gave out and her mother offered money to anyone who would carry her.
The children were not the only ones to struggle. John Denton started falling behind before he eventually collapsed. He insisted he be left behind, asking only that if they found themselves able to, to send some provisions back when they reached the cache. Unfortunately, the cache had already been raided and nothing was left for the party. A handful of the relief party went ahead in an attempt to bring back food from the next cache, but it was too late for Ada Keseberg who died in the night.
The relief came back with enough food to remedy the immediate issue, but the following day they had the good fortune of meeting a relief team heading towards the cabins led by James Reed and William McCutchen. There was an emotional reunion for the Reeds and Reed, having expected to meet the relief along the way, had had the men with him bake bread and some cakes for the children. Restored, the party made it to Bear Valley where the relief efforts had set up a base with plentiful provisions. Unfortunately, William Hook ate too much and had to be given tobacco juice in an attempt to relieve him. It worked, but only briefly, overnight he got into the supplies and died the following day. They were taken out on horses to Sutter’s Fort while Reed and his small band made for the cabins.
|James Reed Jr.||Reeds||5|
|Ada Keseberg||Keseberg||3||Died en route|
|John Denton||The George Donners||28||Died en route|
|Leanna Donner||The George Donners||11|
|Elitha Donner||The George Donners||13|
|George Donner Jr||The Jacob Donners||9|
|William Hook||The Jacob Donners||12||Died en route|
Reed and McCutchen reached the cabins on the first of March. Patrick Breen had met a passing Native American who gave him some roots to eat but beyond that small influx of food, things were much as they were when the first relief had broken through. There was, however, one major difference, this time the human remains had been disturbed and showed evidence of being eaten.
The enduring legacy of the Donner Party is one of cannibalism, but it was not until after the first relief party had left that those at the camp resorted to eating those who had already died. This might have been because they now had the promise of further relief and supplies reaching them so now they had a new impetus to survive. Previously, there had been no guarantee that help would ever come, but now that it had been delivered it seems the survivors were prepared to consider the most drastic of measures to survive.
Before the first relief party had left the Donners, they had said they would resort to eating the dead when they ran out of food, despite George Donner’s initial objections that they would never come to such a thing. The Breens were still surviving off the small amount of meat they’d retained and in his diary, Patrick Breen noted that the Graves were about to ‘commence on Milt and eat him’, he added that such a prospect was ‘distressing’. When Reed and his party came to the cabins they found that Milt had indeed been stripped and eaten, while over in the Donner camp they came across Jean Baptiste walking back to the George Donners’ tent carrying a human leg revealed to be that of Jacob Donner, of whom little remained.
With the expectation of a third relief party on its way with more supplies than had yet been distributed, most of the emigrants decided to leave with the second relief. George Donner’s arm had only gotten worse and by now the infection had spread to his shoulder. It was unlikely that he would survive to see the third relief party and he was unable to rise from his sickbed to attempt the pass. His sister-in-law Elizabeth was also too ill having refused to eat any meat from her husband and sickened because of it. Tamsen Donner was strong enough to make the journey, but would not leave George and so she kept her youngest daughters with her. With the promise of imminent relief, Jean Baptiste was willing to stay behind as did two of the relief party to care for those who remained. Keseberg, who had injured his foot in the earliest days of the camp, was still unable to leave. Lavina Murphy stayed to care for the remaining children, even though she herself was snow-blind and extremely weak. With her was her son Simon, infant grandson, George and Eddy’s only surviving family – his three-year-old son James. The five of them stayed in the Murphy cabin to wait for the third relief.
The third relief, however, in true ‘everything works out great for the Donner party’ style, never arrived. This posed a problem for the second relief party which had headed out expecting to meet them en route to resupply them. Three men were sent ahead to either rendezvous with the third relief or push on to the next food supply and return with supplies. But, the relatively fair weather that had allowed the relief parties to cross the pass thus-far decided to change things up with a hurricane which now broke over the party, who were forced to make camp and ride out the storm. All of the men (except Patrick Breen who felt his time would be better spent praying) worked tirelessly to draw a fire and were eventually successful. By this time most of the band were so cold that they burned themselves, not realising they were too close to the fire until their skin began to blister. They stayed there for three days in what would be called ‘Starved Camp’.
When the storm cleared, only one of their number had died; little Isaac Donner but many of the children were delirious. Reed and McCutchen attempted to lead the party out, but the Breens and the Graves refused to move, choosing to wait for the third relief party. The Breens still had some of their meat which no doubt contributed to the decision, though they might have reconsidered had they known that no help was coming.
Back at the camp, the two men who had stayed behind to care for those remaining, having weathered the storm decided to make a break for it. Tamsen Donner offered them five hundred dollars to take her three daughters, Frances, Georgia and Eliza out with them, which they accepted. They took the girls as far as the Murphy cabin where they left them and carried on with the money and the additional goods Tamsen had allowed for the girls. Eventually, the two would catch up with the second relief and though nothing was said of the matter, their reception was decidedly icy given that they had deserted their posts.
Reed and McCutchen managed to take their group out, having finally met up with the third relief party which had never left their camp at Bear Valley. After some deliberation, pleading, begging and ultimately promises of payment had a small group led by Eddy and Foster of the snowshoers, who were determined to rescue those who remained. They did not expect to find as many survivors as they did at Starved Camp, but to their surprise, eleven remained though in doing so they had eaten the children who had died as well as Mrs Graves. One of the relief party, John Starks insisted he would see all of the survivors back to Sutter’s Fort, even though it would require gargantuan effort on his part. That allowed Eddy, Foster and a couple of others to continue on to the cabins.
|Patrick Breen Jr.||Breens||9|
|Elizabeth Graves||Graves||45||Died – Starved Camp – Cannibalised|
|Franklin Graves Jr.||Graves||5||Died – Starved Camp – Cannibalised|
|Elizabeth Graves Jr.||Graves||1|
|Isaac Donner||The Jacob Donners||5||Died – Starved Camp – Cannibalised|
|Mary Donner||The Jacob Donners||7|
|Solomon Hook||The Jacob Donners||15|
The second relief party had had to take a few moments to themselves on occasion to deal with the sights they had seen, but it’s likely nothing could have prepared Eddy and Foster for what they would come across. Mutilated bodies lay around the Murphy cabin and the condition inside was not much better.
Among the dead were Eddy and Foster’s sons. At some point, Keseberg had attempted to take Eliza Donner from her sisters but they had prevented it. Instead, he had retired with George Foster and in the morning he was dead. Lavina Murphy who had taken in so many of the children had been distraught, but eventually, Keseberg had taken the body and prepared it. James Eddy had at least starved to death and Keseberg had not only eaten him too but openly admitted it to the two fathers who had just come across, ostensibly to save him. Ultimately, Eddy decided against killing him there and then, seeing as it wouldn’t be a fair fight but he vowed that if the two were to meet at California, he would not stay his hand.
Tamsen Donner had since discovered that her daughters had been abandoned at the Murphy cabin and after hearing what had happened to George Foster had left her husband with Jean Baptiste to retrieve her children. She was still there when Eddy and Foster came upon them and even though she was still strong enough to make the crossing, after agonising with the decision she ultimately decided to send her daughters ahead and return to nurse her husband and her one remaining nephew in their last hours.
Foster and Eddy cut wood for Lavina Murphy, leaving Keseberg to fend for himself and prepared to take the surviving children out. They’d barely made it to the foot of the pass when they came across Jean Baptiste and a man of the second relief, both of whom had left George and Samuel Donner having apparently taken what they could find of the Donner’s property. They made it back to Sutter’s Fort with relatively little incident and for the most part, the Donner Party had been recovered.
|Frances Donner||The George Donners||6|
|Georgia Donner||The George Donners||4|
|Eliza Donner||The George Donners||3|
|Jean Baptiste||The George Donners||16|
Once the third relief party made it to Sutter’s Fort there was little drive to send a further expedition for those who remained at the camp. George Donner, Samuel Donner and Lavina Murphy were almost certainly dead which left Tamsen Donner and Lewis Keseberg. Tamsen had survived until now under far harsher conditions than she would endure now, seeing as the weather was milder and the prospect for hunting opened up. Nobody much cared to rescue Keseberg. It was in April, a month after the third relief party returned that the next team would set out, however they were more a salvage team than a rescue effort. The various families had cached much of their goods which would need to be recovered and it was with this in mind that a party set out. There was some agreement that the recovered goods would be divided between the survivors, their rescuers and those who had been instrumental in the relief efforts.
William Foster who had left with the snowshoers and returned with Eddy was the only member of the Donner Party to return with the group, probably to see how his mother-in-law had fared. The sight that awaited them put the previous horrors to shame. Keseberg was the only one alive, though it took the party some time to locate him. The snow had melted revealing the missing cattle, preserved by the cold and several horses, yet Keseberg had ignored these sources of food in favour of the remaining bodies. They discovered that George Donner had died just a few days earlier and though he had been carefully wrapped in blankets, these had been disturbed and his body stripped in places for meat. There was no sign of Tamsen Donner or a cent of the Donner’s fortune which was known to be substantial. Keseberg claimed that Lavina Murphy had died a week after the third relief had left but his story regarding Tamsen Donner roused suspicion. Apparently, after the death of her husband she had stumbled into the other camp, mad with grief and determined to cross the mountains then and there to find her daughters. Keseberg convinced her to stay and wrapped her warmly but she died overnight from exposure and Keseberg had been forced to eat her remains, which he added, were the best tasting of all the others he had eaten. It’s doubtful Keseberg had been in his right mind for some time.
Of the money, he claimed to have no knowledge, but the party soon found a few hundred dollars and several of the Donners’ personal effects in his possession. This was after one of the party persuaded him to reveal the truth, after throwing a rope around his neck and coming close to hanging him. Ultimately, Keseberg revealed what little he did know and they started back for the pass. On the 29th April 1847, Keseberg, the last member of the Donner party, arrived at Sutter’s Fort.
The Dead and Diagrams
At this point, we can look at the original table of the members of the Donner Party and see how they fared.
|George Donner||The George Donners||60||Died April 1847 of an Infection – Donner Camp – Cannibalised|
|Tamsen Donner||44||Died April 1847 – Unknown Cause – Breen Cabin – Cannibalised|
|Elitha Donner||13||Survived – First Relief|
|Leanna Donner||11||Survived – First Relief|
|Frances Donner||6||Survived – Third Relief|
|Georgia Donner||4||Survived – Third Relief|
|Eliza Donner||3||Survived – Third Relief|
|Luke Halloran||25||Died Aug 1836 – Consumption – Hastings Cut-Off|
|John Denton||28||Died Feb 1847 – Exhaustion/Starvation – First Relief|
|Jean Baptiste||23||Survived – Third Relief|
|Jacob Donner||The Jacob Donners||56||Died Dec 1846 – Starvation – Donner Camp – Cannibalised Feb 1847|
|Elizabeth Donner||38||Died March 1847 – Starvation – Donner Camp – Cannibalised|
|Solomon Hook||14||Survived – Second Relief|
|William Hook||12||Died Feb 1847 – Overeating – Second Relief|
|George Donner Jr||9||Survived – Second Relief|
|Mary Donner||7||Survived – Second Relief|
|Isaac Donner||5||Died March 1847 – Starved Camp – Cannibalised|
|Samuel Donner||4||Died March 1847 – Starvation – Donner Camp – Cannibalised|
|Lewis Donner||3||Died March 1847 – Starvation – Donner Camp|
|Margaret Reed||32||Survived – First Relief|
|Virginia Reed||13||Survived – First Relief|
|‘Patty’ Reed||8||Survived – Second Relief|
|James Reed Jr.||5||Survived – Second Relief|
|Thomas Reed||3||Survived – Second Relief|
|Sarah Keyes||70||Died May 1846 – Old Age – Kansas|
|Milt. Elliot||28||Died Feb 1847 – Starvation – Murphy Cabin – Cannibalised|
|James Smith||25||Died Dec 1846 – Exposure – Donner Camp – Likely cannibalised Feb 1847|
|Baylis Williams||25||Died Dec 1846 – Illness – Reed Cabin|
|Eliza Williams||32||Survived – First Relief|
|Patrick Breen||Breens||51||Survived – Third Relief|
|Margaret Breen||40||Survived – Third Relief|
|John Breen||14||Survived – Third Relief|
|Edward Breen||13||Survived – Second Relief|
|Patrick Breen Jr.||9||Survived – Third Relief|
|Simon Breen||8||Survived – Second Relief|
|James Breen||5||Survived – Third Relief|
|Peter Breen||3||Survived – Third Relief|
|Isabella Breen||1||Survived – Third Relief|
|Patrick Dolan||35||Died Dec 1846 – Hypothermia – Camp of Death – Cannibalised|
|Lewis Keseberg||Kesebergs||32||Survived – Fourth Relief|
|Philippine Keseberg||23||Survived – Second Relief|
|Ada Keseberg||3||Died Feb 1847 – Starvation – First Relief|
|Louis Keseberg||0||Died Jan 1847 – Starvation – Murphy Cabin|
|– Hardkoop||60||Died Oct 1846 – Prob. Exhaustion – Hastings Cut-Off|
|William Eddy||Eddys||28||Survived – Forlorn Hope|
|Eleanor Eddy||25||Died Feb 1847 – Starvation – Murphy Cabin|
|James Eddy||3||Died March 1847 – Starvation – Breen Cabin – Cannibalised|
|Margaret Eddy||1||Died Feb 1847 – Starvation – Murphy Cabin|
|Amanda McCutchen||23||Survived – Forlorn Hope|
|Harriet McCutchen||1||Died Feb 1847 – Starvation – Graves Cabin|
|– Wolfinger||Wolfingers||?||Killed Oct. 1846 – Humboldt Sink|
|Mrs Wolfinger||20||Survived – First Relief|
|Samuel Shoemaker||Donners||25||Died Oct 1846 – Exposure – Donner Camp|
|Charles Stanton||Donners||35||Died Dec 1846 – Exhaustion/Exposure – First Relief|
|Antonio “The Spaniard”||Donners||23||Died Dec 1846 – Hypothermia – Camp of Death – Cannibalised|
|Charles Burger||Donners||30||Died Dec 1846 – Starvation – Keseberg Cabin|
|Noah James||Donners||16||Survived – First Relief|
|Joseph Reindhart||Unknown||30||Died Dec 1846 – Illness – Donner Camp – Probably cannibalised later|
|Augustus Spitzer||Unknown||30||Died Feb 1847 – Starvation – Breen Cabin|
|Lavina Murphy||Murphys||50||Died March 1847 – Starvation – Breen Cabin – Cannibalised|
|John Landrum Murphy||16||Died Jan 1847 – Starvation – Murphy Cabin – Cannibalised later|
|Mary Murphy||14||Survived – First Relief|
|Lemuel Murphy||12||Died Dec 1846 – Starvation – Camp of Death – Cannibalised|
|William Murphy||10||Survived – First Relief|
|Simon Murphy||8||Survived – Third Relief|
|Sarah Murphy Foster||19||Survived – Forlorn Hope|
|William Foster||30||Survived – Forlorn Hope|
|George Foster||4||Died March 1847 – Starvation – Breen Camp – Cannibalised|
|Harriet Murphy Pike||18||Survived – Forlorn Hope|
|William Pike||32||Died Oct 1846 – Accident – Truckee Canyon|
|Naomi Pike||2||Survived – First Relief|
|Catherine Pike||1||Died Feb 1847 – Starvation – Murphy Cabin|
|Franklin Graves||Graves||57||Died Dec 1846 – Hypothermia – Camp of Death – Cannibalised|
|Elizabeth Graves||45||Died March 1847 – Starvation – Starved Camp – Cannibalised|
|Sarah Graves Fosdick||19||Survived – Forlorn Hope|
|Jay Fosdick||23||Died Jan 1847 – Starvation – Forlorn Hope – Cannibalised|
|Mary Ann Graves||19||Survived – Forlorn Hope|
|William Graves||17||Survived – First Relief|
|Eleanor Graves||14||Survived – Second Relief|
|Lovina Graves||12||Survived – Second Relief|
|Nancy Graves||8||Survived – Second Relief|
|Jonathan Graves||7||Survived – Second Relief|
|Franklin Graves Jr.||5||Died Dec 1846 – Hypothermia – Camp of Death – Cannibalised|
|Elizabeth Graves Jr.||1||Survived – Second Relief|
|John Snyder||25||Died Oct 1846 – Stabbed – California Trail|
|Luis||Joined Later||16-19||Died Jan 1847 – Shot – Forlorn Hope – Cannibalised|
|Salvador||Joined Later||16-19||Died Jan 1847 – Shot – Forlorn Hope – Cannibalised|
When considering the statistics of the Donner Party, I’ve decided to only consider the members who were alive when they made camp in the mountains.
On the whole, of the eighty-four people who made camp in the Sierras, thirty-six died and forty-eight survived. Of the thirty-six dead, twenty-two bodies were cannibalised, although this is an estimate. We don’t know specifically which of those who died at the end of 1846 were recovered to be used the following year, but most of the would-be graves at the Donner camp showed signs of disturbance.
Females had a much higher survival rate than the males; almost half the males died compared to nine females and children between the ages of five and fifteen were more likely to survive. Almost two-thirds of the children under the age of five died. As far as factors go; most of the party died from the long-term effects of starvation or exposure. Children under the age of five were less likely to survive in such conditions while the men had to engage in the daily labour of gathering firewood and clearing the shelters. Women require fewer calories, store fat better though they were also more likely to cut back on their own rations for the sake of their children. The adults in the Donner camp were more likely to die than their counterparts upstream, possibly because the Donners were unable to construct cabins to shelter in.
However, the greatest factor when determining survival seems to have been family groups.
If we compare the two graphs we can see that as a general rule the larger family groups lost fewer members than the smaller ones. The Breens and Reeds had no fatalities even though the Reeds had the least amount of supplies. The Graves and Murphy families who made up the largest family groups survived by more than half and the four Graves’ who did die, did so in the storms that assailed them during the crossing rather than at the lakeside camp.
Compare this to William Eddy who left his wife and two children at the lake, all of whom died and the most telling of all – the fact that the largest group of fatalities were among those who had no family. The teamsters, hired hands and single men travelling as part of the party but not as part a family took the heaviest losses with only four survivors out of their original seventeen.
Family groups may have been more willing to share what they had amongst each other, though we have seen through the Breen’s example that this did not extend to sharing with other families. They would have had an easier time gathering together to preserve and share body heat and in general may have been able to keep each other’s spirits up, as much as they could.
Ironically, the Donner family that gave the expedition its name would be the worst affected of the family groups. The George Donner children survived but were orphaned when both of their parents died at the lake, while the Jacob Donner family had the largest losses of any family, with only three survivors; their children aged between five and fourteen.
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