Donner Party. Authentic Story of Their Trip Across the Plains.

[This is a transcription of a newspaper article from The Salt Lake Herald, Sunday, May 24, 1885. For a larger image of the newspaper page, please visit the Library of Congress, Chronicling America project. Also, we did not correct the spelling errors in the original -- it is transcribed as printed.]


Authentic Story of Their Trip Across the Plains.


The Victims of False Information—Starved In the Snow—Heroic Actions of Rescuers.

To the Editor of the Examiner—Sir: An article appeared in the columns of the Examiner, headed "Cannibalism, or Some Horrible Tales of Man's Struggle with Starvation—The Sufferings of the Donner Party," etc., published the 21st inst. The account given by the writer in relation to the Donner party is so much at variance with the facts and circumstances connected with those unfortunates who suffered in that snowbound camp in the Sierras Nevada, that, in justice to those who survive, I feel it my duty to make some corrections in the aforesaid article in order that the public may know how that ill-fated party came to be caught and hemmed in by the snow in the fall and winter of 1846. The major portion of the immigration of that year was from the State of Missouri, among whom was the writer of this article and wife and father's family (ex-Governor Boggs and family). Our party assembled near the boundary line of Missouri in the month of May, 1846, to the number of seventy-five or eighty families, comprising a train of about 110 or 120 wagons, and loose stock. After crossing the Kansas or Kaw river the company effected an organization and proceeded on the journey. At the first camp made after crossing the Kansas river some families from near Quincy, Ill., came up with our train and asked permission to travel with us. Among these were the family of James F. Reed, George and Jacob Donner, both old men with large families; Also Mr. Breen and family, the Murphys, Foster, Pike, McCutchen and others. All were well provisioned and had plenty of loose cattle and horses, especially the Donners, whose old-fashioned wagons were ladened down with provisions and many other articles that were totally unnecessary for such a journey. They were considered well off in the way of stock and provisions and were said to have several thousand dollars in cash. James F. Reed had


outfit of any man with a family in the train, with a comfortable family wagon constructed like an omnibus, with all the conveniences of a small family room. Mr. Reed had an interesting family and he was an intelligent and educated gentleman, full of energy and an enthusiast for the trip across the plains. The company had many distinguished persons along, among whom was Bryant, afterward Alcade of San Francisco; Colonel Alphonso Boone and family; ex-Governor Boggs and family; Captain Jacobs, son-in-lay of Colonel Benton; Colonel A. J. Grayson and family; the two Messrs. Putnam of Kentucky and Colonel William H. Rupell of Missouri, who was elected captain of the entire train at the start, but resigned at Ash Hollow, on the Platte River, when the writer of this was elected to fill that position. We got along finely, and on reaching the Sweetwater River encamped near Independence Rock. Our party was met by a Mr. L. W. Hastings and a Mexican attendant. Mr. Hastings had been in California and came out to meet the incoming emigrants. He represented to Mr. Reed, Governor Boggs and others of the party, that he had discovered a new and better route by which the emigrants could reach California than the one we proposed following, viz, the old Walker Trail, by way of the Truckee Pass. He so wrought upon Mr. Reed that he won him over to try the new discovered route. Governor Boggs, Colonel Boone and about one-half of the train dissented and refused to adopt the advice of Mr. Hastings in trying the new route. After some considerable discussion the company concluded to divide, and one-half the party, including the Reed and Donner families, undertook


The portion of the company with Governor Boggs moved out of camp next morning, after bidding an affectionate farewell to Mr. Reed and his friends. All parted in good feeling and friendship. The companies came in sight but once after parting, the Reed and Donner party going by way of Fort Bridger and Salt Lake valley. The other party, taking what was then called the Greenwood Cut-off, started across from Big Sandy to Green River. The Reed and Donner party all had a bountiful supply of provisions when we parted at the Sweetwater river. The writer had killed a number of buffaloes a few days before in sight of the wagon train, and requested a halt that they might butcher and dry the meat for future use; but the Donners especially said that they had all the provisions they needed As this was the last buffalo seen on the route, there was no other source of supply but what they brought with them, which seemed at that time to be more than sufficient to last them into California. But they were left by Hastings to find their way through the mountains and canyons the best way they could. They failed to get through certain canyons in the mountains and had to turn back and retrace their weary journey over much of the same route they had gone, and finally reached the Humboldt valley, much worn and their cattle giving out. A misfortune happened about this time to the company, to which I have always attributed as the principal cause of the failure of the so-called Donner to get through. James F. Reed had the misfortune to kill a young man in


which caused him to leave the party and come ahead to California, thereby depriving the party of his valuable services as conductor of the party. The long and circuitous route taken by the Reed and Donner party, as they were led off by Hastings, threw them behind some six weeks or more, and when they reached the Humboldt valley they were met by a man whom Reed had sent ahead to Captain Sutter for relief, with several mules packed with flour and a couple of Indians to assist and bring back the mules. These supplies were delivered with certain ones in the company, but the season was far advanced when the party reached, near Donner lake, a small cabin, which had been constructed the winter previous by an old hunter that had remained there one season. This cabin is where Mr. Breen and the Reed family went into camp. Old George and Jacob Donner's families were with others some three miles back on the trail at another camp. When the parties reached these separate camps the snow had begun falling and continued for some days, and the wornout people concluded to lay by a few days and wait until the storm passed, as they supposed it would do in two or three days. But, alas, those few days were the last that any one could pass over the snow-covered mountains so late in the season. Breen with some foresight chained up a few yoke of cattle. All the others were suffered to wander away and were


The snow continued without any sign of abatement. Reed was over beyond the mountains in California, separated from his wife and children, two of his faithful men being with them. Reed made frantic efforts to reach them, but failed. The writer met him on one or two occasions while he was making desperate efforts to raise men and supplies, but was doomed to meet disappointment, as the snow was so deep at Steep Hollow and other points as to utterly defy any effort on the part of the valiant Reed and his companions to reach the snow-bound camp. I have given more of the detail of this in order to show that no time was lost on the part of Mr. Reed or his friends on this side of the Sierras and to show that the party did not spend the summer at Salt Lake valley, as that was an uninhabited waste at that time; but they had had one continuous, long and unbroken journey until caught in the snow-bound camp near what is called Donner lake. Breen killed his oxen and saved his family and Reed's family until they were compelled to leave his camp with others in order that those who remained might have enough to live on. It is quite true that Mrs. Reed and others of the party had to subsist on the dry hides partly for a while, but it was at the rear camp, where the two Donner families were, that the most suffering was. Some of the parties from the forward camp arrived at the Lassen ranch in the Sacramento valley in a


The two Indians that Sutter sent out never came back; neither did the young man Stanton, that took provisions to Reed's family. He perished, as a number of others did, in trying to get back. The horrible details of the Donner camp have never been correetly told, and it is proper that they never should be.


However should be told. The faithful young man whom Reed left with his family when he was forced to leave and come away remained true to his charge, and actually starved before he would eat his small allowance, giving it to Reed's children in preference to preserving his own life. There was heroism for you in that wretched camp. I had this from Mrs. Reed's own mouth, and that of her children. Some two or three of the party were left to be brought out be a third relief party. Some supplies were left for them, sufficient to last them until they could be relieved, but on the return of the third party, Reed who led the party, told me that he only found one survivor—a German named Keesburg, whose wife escaped at the time. Mrs. McCutchen, Foster, Eddy and some of the Murphy family made their way over the mountains by way of Lassen Ranch, where they were first discovered almost helpless from starvation, snow-blind and frozen. There are several of


Of the Donner party residing in Napa valley. W.E. Murphy, of Marysville, is one. Judge Breen, of San Benito county, is another. There are others scattered about throughout the State. It is to be hoped that the word cannibalism will be dropped by newspaper publishers. Cannibalism is one thing and death and starvation another. Cannibals, as I understand the term, are those tribes who make war and slay their enemies that they may feast on them, when they have abundance of provisions of other kind for food. But when death stares the hungered maniac in the face, who knows whether reason has not entirely flown? Only imagine yourself in one such place and consider what you would do. I regret the length of this article, but I know that so much has been represented as regards the suffering of the unfortunate emigrant party that once composed a part of my command, that I always feel like correcting false impressions. The misfortune was through no fault of these people. They were deceived and led out of their way and consequently belated. There was no summering at Salt Lake or elsewhere, but toil, constant toil, and at last they were overwhelmed by the elements of winter snows. Those valiant men who risked their lives to rescue these unfortunates deserve to be immortalized.

Very respectfully,


Napa City, August 22d.

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