I’m a child of the nineties and so most of my early movie education consisted of credit sequences that told us what happened next to the characters. Maybe that’s why after reading about some period in history my immediate thought is…okay and then what did they do? I recently wrote about the Donner Party, a group of around eighty pioneers that became trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains by snow while crossing into California. The Party was subject to untold hardships and starvation, forced to char and eat rugs and hides when they had inevitably exhausted their food supplies.
After some months of this and several attempts to break out of their camps (to varying degrees of success), relief parties began to reach them and their rescue was at hand. By this time, many of the emigrants had succumbed to starvation and had resorted to eating the dead to survive. The Donner Party was taken out in three relief parties, a fourth party sent to survey the state of the camp and recover what goods they could, brought out the final survivor, Lewis Keseberg, on the 29th April 1847, six months after the party had become trapped.
But what happened next for the survivors?
They had been a part of one of the more tragic elements of pioneer History and many had openly resorted to cannibalism which would surely have put them on the outskirts of society. Or at least, it might have, if it weren’t for the fact that they were among the early settlers in California and for the most part there was simply no point in casting good workers out of society.
The Donner Party became well known but the survivors did not live with any particular notoriety, save for those who seemed to go out of their way to make themselves notorious, though that seemed to be more to do with their personalities than what they had endured in the mountains. Women were scarce in California at the time and so most of the surviving girls were married within a few months of their rescue, integrating entirely into society. Most of the surviving men and their families established themselves in various parts of California with the episode little more than a footnote in their obituary.
Many of them stayed in touch, not so much because of their experiences but because they happened to live near each other, although some friendships that were formed in the mountains lasted lifetimes. Few of the survivors suffered long term ill effects from the ordeal, though many of them had a complicated relationship with food. The most common was an aversion to any gelatine products which reminded them too much of the ‘glue-like substance’ they were forced to char their hides into in order to survive.
Historians and writers had correspondence with various survivors wanting to cast light on what had happened and in the years immediately following the rescue many publications had opinions on what had transpired. Sensational accounts of cannibalism were published in some, others praised the heroism of the survivors and the noble sacrifices of the dead, while a number of articles attempted to place blame, writing damning profiles of the Party and painting them as lazy and complacent to get trapped in the mountains in the first place. Regarding this, I believe George R. Stewart in his book ‘Ordeal by Hunger’ probably has the best response;
“I do not maintain that the men, or even the women, of the Donner Party were faultless, that they always made the right decisions, or that they were immune from the ordinary human shortcomings, including that of common stupidity. I do not believe, however, that they had more than their share of such weaknesses. And I object strongly to the smug conviction that because they starved to death we of a later day knowing only very different conditions can conclude that it was all their own fault.”
* Don’t You Forget About Me * plays…
The George Donners
George Donner was the captain of the Donner party, from where they took their name. Unable to construct cabins for themselves the Donner’s survived in brush-tents hastily constructed with the canvas from their wagons. George and his wife Tamsen did not survive, but their five daughters were rescued.
The Donner girls were put under the guardianship of Hiram Miller, the Donner’s original teamster, who had made up part of the third relief party and carried Eliza Donner through the snow. However, they didn’t actually see all that much of him. The elder girls Elitha and Leanna found employment working for other families, but the younger girls were taken in by a kindly Swiss family. Some of their property and money had been recovered by the relief teams and further expeditions, but they were only granted half of it, with the other half compensating those who had recovered it.
All five of them went on to marry, Elitha within a year of coming out of the mountains. There is an elementary school named for her in Elk Grove, the place where she lived with her husband until her death. The youngest girl, Eliza Donner, went on to write her own account of the Donner Party ‘The Expedition of The Donner Party And It’s Tragic Fate’ though she did not mention any cannibalism. In response to a different account of events, her sister, Georgia Donner wrote to the author to inform him that the Donner children had resorted to eating human flesh as it was the only thing prepared for them. She was one of the few survivors who readily admitted the measures to which they had gone to to survive.
The Jacob Donners
George Donner’s brother, Jacob, was travelling with his family of nine, but only three of the children survived; Mary and George Donner Jr plus Jacob’s stepson, Solomon Hook.
As a child of Elizabeth Donner’s first marriage, Solomon Hook wasn’t entitled to any of the property recovered from Jacob Donner’s tent, but as he was fifteen at the time he most probably found work to support himself. He worked mostly as a farmer, married, had children and died of cancer in 1878.
The younger children Mary and George were taken in by fellow survivor James Reed and his family. Mary Donner married Sherman Houghton in 1859, but she died in childbirth a year later and her widowed husband went on to marry her cousin, Eliza Donner.
George Donner Jr. married and had eight children. They settled in Sonoma, living on a large farm. During his lifetime, George could not sit to eat at large family gatherings and struggled when presented with an abundance of food.
Even though it could be argued that the Reed family suffered the most during the Donner Party’s ordeal, the entire family survived. James Reed himself had been banished from the party before they were forced to camp in the mountains and was instrumental in organising the relief efforts that brought the families out.
The Reeds took in the surviving younger children of Jacob Donner and adopted Mary Donner before they settled in the San Jose area. They struck a level of gold during the gold rush and contributed greatly to their community. Reed became the Chief of Police and there are several streets named after them in San Jose.
Margaret Reed was generally a frail woman who had been married in her sickbed, her general constitution was one of the reasons the family emigrated to California in the first place. Despite this, she survived her time in the mountains and was rewarded when she came out; the climate did indeed agree with her and she lived for another twenty years.
During her time trapped in the mountains, Virginia Reed had promised that if she survived she would convert to Roman Catholicism, a promise which she fulfilled after she had recovered from the ordeal. Later, she would write a detailed account of the Donner Party’s expedition which was published in Century Magazine.
Hiram Miller who briefly had guardianship of the Donner girls settled near the Reed family and became their life-long friend. After a bout of smallpox, he moved in with them and they cared for him until his death and for his grave for their lifetimes.
The Breens were the only other family to have come through the mountains without any fatalities. They had a cabin for their family and the most food available to any of the emigrants. Granted, they were still on starvation rations, but they had some meat with which they could stretch out their minimal diet of hides.
After spending some time in Sutter’s Fort, they moved to San Juan Bautista where eldest son, John, would bring the family a considerable fortune from gold mining. The family invested in property and became quite successful. Patrick Breen was among the early settlers of San Benito County and his sons became prominent and wealthy ranchers there.
John Breen assisted writers and historians who studied the Donner Party and in 1935, his sister, Isabella, was the last of the survivors the Donner Party to die at the age of ninety.
Lewis Keseberg emerged from the Donner Party as one of its most notorious members. Keseberg was the last to be taken from the lakeside and his rescue marked the end of the Donner Party disaster. His wife had already gone ahead with the second relief party, but their two young children, Ada (3) and Louis who had been born en route died in the mountains.
The men who had brought Keseberg out had a low impression of him and told stories of how he had murdered Tamsen Donner to eat even though there was other food available. At one point, one of the rescuers wrapped a noose around his neck in an attempt to make him confess as to where he had hidden the Donner’s fortune. (It worked too). After they arrived at the Fort, Keseberg pressed charges against the men for their persistent ‘slander’, he sued for Defamation of Character and the court found in his favour seeing as there was no concrete evidence to suggest he had murdered Mrs Donner. Still, the court awarded him a single dollar by way of payment and made him pay the costs suffered by both sides in bringing the suit to court, which highlights what little regard he was held in.
The Kesebergs went on to have several daughters and remained in the area of Sutter’s Fort. Initially, Keseberg found work as the captain of John Sutter’s schooner but the position was short-lived, apparently because the passengers feared he would eat them if the schooner ever ran out of food. He then acquired The Lady Adams Hotel, but this venture too was short-lived and it was destroyed by fire the following year. His third attempt at work found him operating a brewery, but the premises were destroyed by a flood. At this juncture, I’ll add that before the Donner Party were anywhere near the Truckee Lake, Keseberg had apparently stolen a ceremonial robe from a Native American burial ground which he blamed for the cause of his bad luck.
He survived his wife by twenty years, though was generally unpopular where he settled. In his later life, he convinced the surviving Donner girls that he hadn’t murdered their mother. Keseberg died a pauper in 1895 and was buried in an unmarked grave. His descendants settled in the Napa area, but they changed their names when they did so.
If a hero was to emerge from the Donner Party, it would be William Eddy. He led the snowshoe party through the mountains, secured the relief parties and joined them in their first and third efforts, though he was unable to save his wife and children. Despite this, he was considered to be something of a braggart and so many of his stories regarding his actions in bringing the emigrants out of the mountains were dismissed as fanciful. I should point out though that one of his stories was how he had hunted a grizzly bear at the Lake, though it was largely accepted that this was an exaggeration and he had, in fact, hunted a much smaller bear. Some years later, the remains of a grizzly bear were discovered at the lake camp which means there is objectively more evidence for Eddy’s successful grizzly hunt than there is for cannibalism among the emigrants.
Eddy moved to Santa Clara County where he remarried and had three children, but this second marriage ended in divorce.
William and Amanda McCutchen were early survivors of the expedition. McCutchen missed the camp by the lake entirely, having already gone ahead only for supplies only to fall ill at Sutter’s Fort and unable to return. When he was recovered, however, he joined the relief party and his wife had already come out with the snowshoers. Their infant daughter, Harriet, did not survive.
William and Amanda went on to have more children, but Amanda died in childbirth in 1857. McCutchen remarried and remained near his friends Reed and Eddy in San Jose. He was elected Sheriff over Sherman Houghton who would later marry Mary and then Eliza Donner. Houghton would later be elected mayor and fine McCutchen for racing a horse through the streets of San Jose on the Sabbath.
In 1871 an article appeared in a publication based upon an interview with a Mrs Curtis who had herself been snowed in closer to Sutter’s Fort with her husband. McCutchen and Reed had briefly stopped with them and shared a meal made up of the Curtis’ dog. Even though they had barely spoken, Mrs Curtis had offered some choice words regarding the two men. So affronted were they that McCutchen and Reed teamed up again and went in search of Mrs Curtis just so they could tell her what they thought of her.
McCutchen died in 1895 after a stroke.
Doris or Dorithea Wolfinger (her name is given as both) joined the Donner Party with her husband who was killed en route by his friends, Reinhardt and Spitzer. Mrs Wolfinger saw out the ordeal with the Donner family in their tents. She remarried within a few months of her rescue and was noted for helping her husband build the first brick house in Sacramento. Bricks she made are still on display at a local museum.
The Murphy wagons were made up of the Murphy family, the Pikes and the Fosters (both of whom married into the Murphys). The matriarch, Lavinia, died as did two of her sons, leaving one unmarried daughter and two sons to come out of the mountains. The eldest daughter, Sarah Foster and her husband, William, survived though their four-year-old died at the camp. William Pike who had married Lavinia’s second daughter, Harriet, had died in an accident on the journey already, but Harriet and one of her two daughters survived.
William and Sarah Foster went on to have six more children and lived mostly in the California area save for a brief sojourn to Minnesota. Like most men in the area, William was involved in the gold rush but didn’t have great success. After his death, Sarah moved to be nearer their children elsewhere in California and found work as a midwife.
Harriet remarried three months after coming out of the mountains. Her marriage to Michael Nye was apparently a very happy one and Naomi, Harriet’s surviving daughter, was known by her stepfather’s name. Naomi herself was married twice, first to a doctor and later to the president of a bank. After her second husband died Naomi was left extremely wealthy but was ruined in the stock market crash of the 1930s.
Mary Murphy, who was fourteen at the time of the event, found herself briefly married to William Johnson of the Johnson Ranch that the snowshoe party had rested at when they first made it out of the mountains. Although she was still in her early teens, the marriage was short-lived on account of Johnson’s cruelty and they divorced the same year. The following year Mary married Charles Covillaud and they had several children. Charles made his fortune in gold mining and together with his two brothers in law, William Foster and Michael Nye bought a ranch. Charles eventually bought them out and increased the size of the ranch which he then sold for a profit.
The two surviving Murphy boys went on to marry and have decent careers. William Murphy went to university where he graduated with a law career which began a prosperous career as an attorney. Simon became a farmer but also fought in the Civil War for the Union Forces as a private.
The parents of the Graves family, Franklin and his wife Elizabeth perished in the mountains along with their son in law, Jay Fosdick and their five-year-old son, Franklin Graves Jr. Their eight remaining children survived though their youngest, one-year-old Elizabeth Jr. died within a year of being rescued as did her brother, Jonathan. The Graves siblings would eventually all settle in Napa County, living within walking distance of each other.
The eldest Graves daughter Sarah, Jay Fosdick’s widow, married William Dill Ritchie who had assisted in the Donner relief efforts. Together they had two children, but after six years of marriage, Ritchie was lynched after he was discovered to be in possession of stolen horses. Sarah’s third marriage was a happy one and with her new husband, she had four more children. The ranch where she lived with her second husband still exists and has remained in the family.
Sarah’s sister, Mary, who had gotten through the mountains with the Forlorn Hope party married, like many of the other women who survived, within a few months of the rescue. Her first husband was murdered within a year of marriage (incidentally, the man responsible was the first man to be hanged for murder in California under United States Law) and after the man was found guilty, Mary herself cooked his meals so she could ensure he would not die before he went to the gallows. Her second marriage was for her lifetime and together they had six children. Lovinia Graves also married and had six children.
Eleanor Graves married William McDonnell in 1849. Her husband had come through the Hastings cut-off as a teamster for another party, shortly before the Donner’s became trapped there.
Their sister, Nancy Graves, the youngest survivor of the Graves’ girls struggled in her youth with the notion that she had eaten part of her mother at Starved Camp and was prone to breaking down over it. In her teens, she became an enthusiastic Methodist and later married a Methodist Minister. Because her husband preached on a circuit, Nancy and their many children spent most of their time travelling across America before they ultimately settled in Sonoma County.
The eldest Graves’ boy, William, the only male of the family to survive the ordeal and its immediate aftermath, went on to lead an interesting life. He did not stay long in California, returning to the East only to return again some years later, leading ‘49ers across the route the Donner Party had taken some years before, though he did not go with them past the cabins. His first marriage, which may not have been official or legal was to a Pomoan woman with whom he had several children before he abandoned them. A second marriage also ended in divorce.
William spent his life living near or with his sisters and their children, except for his brief spells of married life. While he primarily worked as a blacksmith he also became one of the more vocal survivors of the Donner Party. He openly gave interviews about the experience, wrote a memoir of his own and assisted historians in their research, going so far as to draw his own maps of the camps and the cabins. He was involved in identifying artefacts that were later found at the site of the camp and identified a hoard of coins his mother had buried almost fifty years after she had done so.
This final group were made up mostly of single men who were employed in various positions by the different families. They were hired largely to drive the cattle and as a result, were not held in any high esteem by the families that hired them. This is not to say they were not liked, most of them were very popular, but when the party became stranded in the mountains popularity was of little help. They had no goods or cattle of their own, the families were more likely to share food with each other than their hired hands and for this reason, this group saw the most fatalities among their number. Of the seventeen that could be seen to make up this group, only four survived.
A teamster for the Reed family, Herron had the dubious pleasure of being spared the ordeal in the mountains. When James Reed was banished from the party for his part in the death of John Snyder, Herron went with him, though the two almost starved to death before they made it to Sutter’s Fort in California. Once there, both Reed and Herron signed up to fight in the Mexican War, but where Reed did so in order to secure support for the family and friends he had left behind, Herron did not play any part in the relief of the Donner Party.
He likely would have had no contact with any member of the party again, but given how the state at the time was made up mostly of pioneers, he inevitably encountered them. He served on the provisional government of Sonoma with William McCutchen and narrowly lost the election for Surveyor General in 1851 to the Democratic Candidate, William Eddy.
In 1853 he decided to settle in Mexico where he was never heard from again. He was declared dead in 1860.
The Reed family hired Eliza to cook and perform other domestic duties during their journey and she was with them in the Reed cabin near the Truckee Lake. At thirty-two she was referred to as an old-maid but, like the other women to come out of the mountains found a husband with relative ease. Her first proposal which came within four months of the rescue fell through, but she had another soon after and married a German, Thomas Follmer with whom she had children. She lived near the Reed family for the rest of her life.
Sixteen-year-old Noah James was taken from the camp with the first of the relief parties. The official record loses him once he arrives in California, however, there was an entry in an unverifiable diary that Noah James was the alias of a known horse thief who was hanged for his crimes in 1851.
Jean Baptiste Trudeau
Jean Baptiste had wanted to be taken out with the first relief but was convinced to remain as he was the only man capable of working at the Donner’s Camp. He took the Donner girls out with him when he had to cut wood, rolling them in a blanket to keep them warm as he worked and was taken out with the third relief party. He stayed with the Donner girls until their situation was settled before he moved to the North Bay area.
His stories regarding the time in the mountains were conflicted and his account changed numerous times in his lifetime. Initially, he was credited with telling lurid and sensational stories about the party resorting to cannibalism, but some years later he denied the stories and claimed no cannibalism had taken place. In later life, he reconnected with Eliza Donner and reiterated his claims that no cannibalism had taken place even though he himself had been caught moving Jacob Donner’s leg from his grave into their tent.
Jean Baptiste was one of the last of the surviving men to die, having painted himself as the hero of the Donner party who had initially guided them through the mountains.
Truckee Lake and Alder Creek
The bulk of the Donner Party saw the winter through various cabins they constructed (and one existing cabin) beside Truckee Lake. The Donner family, however, had fallen behind and were forced to reside in tents, thrown together from wagon canvas, seven miles behind the main party beside Alder Creek.
After the rescue efforts were completed, there were several expeditions to recover the possessions and cached goods of the Donner Party, after all, some of the families were known to have been extremely wealthy travelling with hundreds of dollars that had yet to be accounted for. Most of the recovered wealth was divided between the survivors and the men that had brought it out.
In June 1847, two months after the final survivor had been rescued, a party heading East came across the body of Charles Stanton, one of the members of the Forlorn Hope party who had died of exposure en route. Shortly afterwards they came upon the cabins which were now free of snow, unlike the pass (now known as Donner Pass) and they gathered what remains and bodies they could into one of the cabins before setting it alight. This was not a particularly extensive or thorough attempt to put the remains to rest and for many years after bones, fragments and possessions were found around the area.
Eventually, Truckee Lake was renamed Donner Lake and the surrounding area is now the Donner Memorial State Park. In 1918 surviving members of the Donner Party, Frances and Eliza Donner and Patty Reed attended a ceremony where a plaque and monument were unveiled in honour of the party. The plinth upon which the monument stands shows the depth of the snow, marked by the tree stumps the party cut for wood.
If you’d like to join me for more fun and games in picking apart history, and other behind the scene tangents, you can support me via my Patreon.