The story of the Donner Party is a tragic and infamous episode in the history of the 19th century pioneer migrations that crossed continental America. In May 1846 eighty-seven pioneers set out westward from Missouri headed for new lives in California. Persuaded to take an allegedly quicker route through Utah and Nevada, by someone who had never travelled that route by wagon train, they attempted the so-called ‘Hastings Cutoff.’ The extra weight of the wagons slowed the party’s progress and instead of reaching their destination by September they found themselves grinding to a halt in the Sierra Nevada mountains in November, with winter already upon them. As the temperature dropped and snow began to fall, the group took shelter around a small lake, but their supplies were running low. In December a party of fifteen men and women struck out on snowshoes in an attempt to reach California on foot; more than half of them died of exposure and starvation, the survivors resorting to cannibalism. The first rescue party found the remnants of the lake-side group huddled in its encampment in February 1847. Of the original party only forty seven survived to reach California, all in an advanced state of emaciation and most, it is judged, had by that time resorted to eating human flesh. The reports of cannibalism spread to the public at large and elevated this episode into a compelling horror story. The fascination with the story of the Donner Party, with all its macabre connotations, has endured to the present day.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
As time wore wearily on, another and more severe trial awaited Mrs. Reed. Her daughter Virginia was dying. The innutritious rawhide was not sufficient to sustain life in the poor, famished body of the delicate child. Indeed, toward the last, her system became so debilitated that she found it impossible to eat the loathsome, glue-like preparation which formed their only food. Silently she had endured her sufferings, until she was at the very portals of death. This beautiful girl was a great favourite of Mrs. Breen’s. Oftentimes during the days of horror and despair, this good Irish mother had managed, unobserved, to slip an extra piece of meat or morsel of food to Virginia. Mrs. Breen was the first to discover that the mark of death was visible upon the girl’s brow. In order to break the news to Mrs. Reed, without giving those in the cabin a shock which might prove fatal, Mrs. Breen asked the mother up out of the cabin on the crisp, white snow.<br>
It was the evening of the nineteenth of February, 1847. The sun was setting, and his rays, in long, lance-like lines, sifted through the darkening forests. Far to the eastward, the summits of the Washoe mountains lay bathed in golden sunlight, while the deep gorges at their feet were purpling into night. The gentle breeze which crept over the bosom of the ice-bound lake, softly wafted from the tree-tops a muffled dirge for the dying girl. Ere another day dawned over the expanse of snow, her spirit would pass to a haven of peace where the demons of famine could never enter.<br>
In the desolate cabin, all was silence. Living under the snow, passing an underground life, as it were, seldom visiting each other, or leaving the cabins, these poor prisoners learned to listen rather than look for relief. During the first days they watched hour after hour the upper end of the lake where the “fifteen” had disappeared. With aching eyes and weary hearts, they always turned back to their subterranean abodes disappointed. Hope finally deserted the strongest hearts. The brave mothers had constantly encouraged the despondent by speaking of the promised relief, yet this was prompted more by the necessities of the situation than from any belief that help would arrive. It was human nature, however, to glance toward the towering summits whenever they ascended to the surface of the snow, and to listen at all times for an unfamiliar sound or footstep. So delicate became their sense of hearing, that every noise of the wind, every visitor’s tread, every sound that ordinarily occurred above their heads, was known and instantly detected.<br>
On this evening, as the two women were sobbing despairingly upon the snow, the silence of the twilight was broken by a shout from near Donner Lake! In an instant every person forgot weakness and infirmity, and clambered up the stairway! It was a strange voice, and in the distance the discovered strange forms approaching. The Reed and the Breen children thought, at first, that it was a band of Indians, but Patrick Breen, the good old father, soon declared that the strangers were white men. Captain Tucker and his men had found the wide expanse of snow covering forest and lake, and had shouted to attract attention, if any of the emigrants yet survived. Oh! what joy! There were tears in other eyes than those of the little children. The strong men of the relief party sat down on the snow and wept with the rest. It is related of one or two mothers, and can readily be believed, that their first act was to fall upon their knees, and with faces turned to God, to pour out their gratitude to Him for having brought assistance to their dying children. Virginia Reed did not die.<br>
Captain Reasin P. Tucker, who had been acquainted with the Graves family on the plains before the Donner Party took the Hastings Cut-off, was anxious to meet them. They lived in the lower cabin, half a mile further down Donner Creek. When he came close enough to observe the smoke issuing from the hole in the snow which marked their abode, he shouted, as he had done at the upper cabins. The effect was as electrical as in the former instance. All came up to the surface, and the same unrestrained gladness was manifested by the famished prisoners. Famished they were. Mrs. Graves is especially praised by the survivors for her unstinted charity. Instead of selfishly hoarding her stores and feeding only her own children, she was generous to a fault, and no person ever asked at her door for food who did not receive as good as she and her little ones had to eat.<br>
Dear Mrs. Graves! How earnestly she asked about her husband and daughters! Did all reach the valley? Captain Tucker felt his heart rise in his throat. How could he tell this weak, starved woman of the terrible fate which had befallen her husband and her son-in-law! He could not! He answered with assumed cheerfulness in the affirmative. So, too, they deceived Mrs. Murphy regarding her dear boy Lemuel. It was best. Had the dreadful truth been told, not one of all this company would ever have had courage to attempt the dangerous journey.