Donner Party Tracker: Near the End - March 12, 1847
One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week, most of the surviving members of the Donner Party were safe at either Johnson's Ranch or Sutter's Fort.
A third rescue effort was underway. It was led by William Eddy and William Foster, the only males who had survived in the 15-member, snowshoe-escape party the previous December. Eddy and Foster paid $50 each to get two more men to help them in the rescue attempt. John Stark was the only man who freely stepped forward to join the third relief party. He said: "I will go without any reward beyond that derived from the consciousness of doing a good act."
Eleven Found in Snow Pit
Fortunately for the rescuers and starving emigrants still trapped in the mountains, fair weather conditions lasted from March 8 to March 20. On March 12, a total of seven men in the third rescue party reached Starved Camp in Summit Valley just west of Donner Pass. There they found eleven survivors huddled around a fire at the bottom of a deep snow pit.
Mrs. Graves and her five-year-old son, Franklin, had died the first night after James Reed and the second rescue party had left the camp for Johnson's Ranch. The two dead bodies, as well as that of Isaac Donner, had been partially eaten by the remaining survivors, who had no food.
William Eddy later described the scene: "The fire at the Starved Camp had melted the snow down to the ground (bare dirt), and the hole thus made was about fifteen feet in diameter, and twenty-four feet deep. As the snow had continued to melt, they (the survivors) made steps by which they ascended and descended. The picture of distress was shocking indeed."
Despite the extreme hardship and horrible conditions in which they had existed at Starved Camp, Peggy and Patrick Breen had kept seven youngsters alive for five days, including two infants and other children who were not their own.
William Eddy and William Foster spent little time at Starved Camp; they were focused on getting back over Donner Pass and saving their own children who were still trapped at the lake encampments by Donner Lake.
Getting Eleven to Sutter's Fort
Three members of the third rescue team, Charles Stone, Howard Oakley, and John Stark, took on the task to take the starving emigrants from Starved Camp down into the Sacramento Valley and safety. Stone and Oakley proposed that they take only the injured Mary Donner and the three Graves children. The two men argued that the Breen family could wait for Foster and Eddy to return from Donner Lake.
John Stark, however, was determined to leave no one behind. He declared, "I will not abandon these people." Young James Breen never forgot John Stark or that he single-handedly saved the entire Breen family and the two Graves children. The Breen younster later recalled: "To his great bodily strength, and unexcelled courage, myself and others owe our lives. There was probably no other man in California at that time, who had the intelligence, determination, and what was absolutely necessary to have in that emergency."
At Donner Lake
On March 14, Eddy and Foster and the two men they paid to accompany them reached the dark, windowless cabins at Donner Lake. For Eddy and Foster, their hopes to save their sons were crushed when they learned that both sons had died and that their bodies had been eaten. The only people left alive at the Donner Lake camp site were Levinah Murphy, her son Simon, Louis Keseberg, and three Donner girls. At the Alder Creek camp site, only Tamsen Donner had a chance to live as her husband, George, and Betsy Donner's son, Samuel, were both close to death. William Eddy told Tamsen Donner to leave with them, but she would not abandon her husband.
Five Left Behind
The four men of the third relief each carried a child, namely the three Donner girls and Simon Murphy. Five survivors were left behind high in the mountains: Louis Keseberg and Levinah Murphy at the lake, and three Donners at Alder Creek--George, Tamsen, and their little nephew Sammy. Before the end of March, both George and Samuel would die and Tamsen would be on her own, alone at Alder Creek.
Editor's Note: This installment is #38 in an exclusive series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin is a Tahoe Historian who provided the stories for Tahoetopia.