January, 1847

The Snowshoe Party crossed the deep canyon (probably near present Colfax, California) and followed Indian Trails to an Indian village on the Bear River. An Indian guided them to Johnson’s Ranch (east of present Wheatland, California).

Map of Snowshoe Party route from North Fork canyon to Johnson’s Ranch

The dated entries below are from the diary of Patrick Breen. Shortly after he moved his family into the cabin built two years earlier by the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy Party, Patrick Breen began a diary, recording in his terse fashion the events of that winter of entrapment. Upon his rescue, Breen gave his diary to George McKinstry, Sheriff and Inspector at Sutter’s Fort. McKinstry had himself traveled the Hastings Cut-off and arrived at Sutter’s Fort on October 19. McKinstry sent the diary to the California Star, which published in an abridged form on May 22, 1847. The diary has been more correctly transcribed, and published, by George Stewart in Ordeal by Hunger, Dale Morgan in Overland in 1846 and Joseph King in Winter of Entrapment. It is available online in original manuscript at the University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

There are three detailed accounts of the snowshoe party:

  1. John Sinclair, Alcalde of Northern California wrote a statement in February, 1847, based on several conversations with the survivors and from a few notes handed me by W. H. Eddy.... Sinclair’s statement was first published in Edwin Bryant’s What I Saw in California (1848).
  2. James Reed included a synopsis of the journal of Wm. H. Eddy in notes he provided to J.H. Merryman for the article Of a Company of Emigrants in the Mountains of California printed in the Illinois Journal on December 9, 1847.
  3. J. Quinn Thornton used Eddy’s notes, supplemented by interviews and Breen’s diary, to write Oregon and California in 1848 (1849).

The accounts differ somewhat, with Thornton differing the most from the other two. I include the Reed and Sinclair versions for each day, supplemented by details from Thornton and other sources.


Friday, January 1, 1847

Jan. 1st 1847 we pray the God of mercy to deliver us, from our present Calamity if it be his Holy will Amen Commencd. Snowing last night does not Snow fast wind S:E sun peeps out at times provisions getting scant--dug up a hide from under the Snow yesterday for Milt. did not take it yet

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
January 1, 1847.--Passed a rugged canon. January first was one of the most fatiguing day’s journeys which they had. They were compelled to climb a mountain, which they represent as nearly perpendicular; to accomplish which, they were obliged to take advantage of every cleft of rock, and pull themselves up by shrubs growing in the crevices.

Reed’s label of a rugged canyon is probably more accurate than Sinclair’s mountain. Just west of Iowa Hill, the North Fork of the American River turns from the west to the south, and has carved a canyon running north to south. In all likelihood, the party, lost and without guides, had been heading to the west along the path of least resistance. From Iowa Hill, they were forced to turn from the river and ridges they had followed, cross the river and ascend the western wall of the canyon. The likely crossing point is at elevation 1,100 feet. The climb straight up the west canyon wall, just south of present Iowa Hill Road, is about 1,300 feet in a mile. This is about the same elevation gain as from Truckee’s (Donner) Lake to the Pass, but in half the distance. This climb would have brought them to near present Colfax, California.

Photograph of the crossing of the North Fork

Crossing of The North Fork of the American River, photographed 1997

Photograph of the western wall of the canyon

Steep Western Wall of the North Fork Canyon, photographed 1997

Thornton, besides giving a different date, wrote:

December 31st was spent in crossing the canon, and although they toiled hard during the entire day, they affected no more than the crossing. Every foot of that day’s struggle was marked with the blood from their feet. They encamped that night on the banks of the canon. Here, Mr. Eddy saw that poor Jay Fosdick would not survive much longer, and reminded him that his end was nigh, if he did not summon up all his energies.

Thornton described a second canyon crossing a week later, but it is likely that he was describing this same crossing.

They went down to the north branch of the American fork of the Sacramento, and after crossing it, encamped for the night. They resumed their journey the next morning, and being unable to proceed down the river, they commenced climbing a very high and difficult mountain. The sides were very steep, and they pulled themselves up the rocks, by laying hold of shrubs growing in crevices. There were many places in which, had these given way, they would have been precipitated hundreds of feet below.

Their feet were greatly bruised, and so swollen that they had literally burst open, and were bleeding so much, that the fragments of blankets with which they were bound up, were saturated with blood. But a merciful God assisted them in a wonderful manner; and after struggling all day, they reached the top, where they encamped.

Saturday, January 2, 1847

Sat. 2nd fair & thawey snow got soft wind S-E looks thawey froze pretty hard last night

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
2d.--Continued down the valley. On the second they found they could go without snow-shoes, which, however, gave them but little relief; their feet being so badly frozen by this time, that every step was marked with blood, and the toes of one of the Indians had dropped off at the first joint. They were also again out of provisions.

From the top of the ridge, the party probably proceeded along the north side of the valley of the Bear River, following the river’s southerly course, intending to follow the river as it turned to the west and reached Johnson’s Ranch.

Sunday, January 3, 1847

Sund. 3rd Continues fair in day time freezing at night wind about E Mrs. Reid talks of crossing the Mountains with her Children provisions Scarce

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
3d.--Mr. Fosdick became very weak; had to wait for him. On the third they travelled seven miles, and at night fared on the strings of their snow-shoes.

Reed implies that the party did not travel far this day. Since neither Reed or Sinclair transcribed any miles for the 2nd, it is possible that Sinclair’s seven miles refers to the total for both days. This seems likely in light of the party’s slow progress from this point on.

From the three sources, it is difficult to reconstruct the route of the snow shoe party after the crossing of the North Fork of the American River. From Stanton they probably knew that Johnson’ Ranch was on the north bank of the Bear River, and the wagon road descended through the hills to the northwest of Bear Valley. After crossing the steep North Fork canyon, the Snowshoe Party probably headed west to southwest towards the next valley, which they hoped was Bear River. Seven miles down the Bear River would have brought the party to near Magnolia Creek west of Bear River, about 5 miles southwest of Colfax.

Monday, January 4, 1847

Mond. 4th fine morning looks like spring thawing now about 12 Oclock wind S.E. Mrs. Reid Milt. virginia & Eliza started about 1/2 hour ago with prospect of Crossing the Mountain may God of Mercy help them left ther Children here Toms. with us Pat. with Keysburg & Jas. with Graveses folks, it was difficult for Mrs Reid to get away from the Children

In her letter of May 16th, 1847, thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin Mary Keyes about the snowshoe party, and continued:

not long after thay started we got out of provisions & had to Martha at one caben James at another Thomas at another & Ma & Eliza & Milt Eliot & I dried up what littel meat we had and started to see if we could get across & had to leve the childrin o Mary you may think that hard to leve them with strangers & did not now wether we would see them again or not we could not hardle get a way from them but we told them to bring them Bread & then thay was willing to stay we went & was out 5 days in the mountains

William C. Graves, who was eighteen at the time of the Donner Party, wrote a memoir for the Russian River Flag in April and May, 1877, entitled Crossing the Plains in ’46 He wrote:

On the fourth of January, Mrs. Reed, Mr. Elliott, Eliza Williams, myself and three or four others started to cross the mountains. We went about four miles the first day, and made a fire in a dead pine tree; but did not sleep much that night for it was too cold.
Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
4th.--Nothing to eat. Some time during the night of the fourth, the Indians left them; no doubt fearful to remain, lest they might be sacrificed for food. Poor fellows, they stood the pangs of hunger two days longer than their white fellow-travelers before they tasted of human flesh.

According to Thornton:

On this night they ate the last flesh of their deceased companions. One of the company then proposed that they should kill the two Indian boys, Lewis and Salvadore, who, it will be remembered, met them with Mr. Stanton, with provisions for their relief; Mr. Eddy remonstrated, but finding that the deed was resolved upon, he determined to prevent it by whatever means God and nature might enable him to use. Desiring, however, to avoid extremities, if possible, he secretly informed Lewis of the fate that awaited him and his companion, and concluded by advising him to fly. The expression of the face of Lewis, never can be forgotten; he did not utter one word in reply, but stood in mute astonishment. In about two minutes his features settled into Indian sullenness, and he turned away to fly from the scene of danger.

Tuesday, January 5, 1847

Tuesd. 5th Beautiful day thawing Some in the sun wind S-E snow not settleing much we are in hopes of the rainy time ending

In her letter of May 16th, 1847, thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin Mary Keyes: Elieza giv out & had to go back

William C. Graves, wrote Crossing the Plains in ’46 in the Russian River Flag in April and May, 1877: In the morning, Miss Williams returned to the cabins

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
5th.--Mr. Fosdick gave out entirely; commenced eating the strings of our snow shoes. On the morning of the fifth, the party took the trail of the Indians, following it by the blood which marked their steps. After having travelled about a mile, they discovered fresh footprints of deer in the snow, when Mr. Eddy, who had a rifle, started with Miss Graves, in advance, hoping to fall in with them, which they fortunately did, and succeeded in killing one, after travelling about eight miles, at the foot of a mountain. That night, Mr. Foster and wife, Mrs. Pike, and Mrs. McCutcheon, encamped on the top of the mountain, not being able to get to where Eddy was with the deer. Mr. Fosdick having given out, remained with his wife about a mile back from them.

According to Thornton, on the 4th,

Mary Graves and Mr. Eddy accordingly set forward. They had not proceeded above two miles, when they came to where a deer had lain the previous night. ... They had not proceeded far before they saw a large buck, about eighty yards distant. Mr. Eddy raised his rifle, and for some time tried to bring it to bear upon the deer; but such was his extreme weakness that he could not. He breathed a little, changing his manner of holding the gun, and made another effort. Again his weakness prevented him from being able to hold upon it. He heard a low and suppressed sobbing behind him, and turning round saw Mary Graves weeping and in great agitation, her head bowed, and her hands upon her face. Alarmed lest she should cause the deer to run, Mr. Eddy begged her to be quiet, which she did after exclaiming, O, I am afraid you will not kill it! He brought the gun up to his face the third time, and elevating the muzzle above the deer, let it descend, until he saw the animal through the sights, when the rifle cracked. The deer bounded up about three feet, and then stood still. ... They were at that moment standing upon a precipice of about thirty feet, a snow-bank being at the bottom. In a short time the deer ran. Mr. Eddy immediately sprang down the precipice, and in a moment Mary followed him. The deer ran about two hundred yards, and fell.

It is possible the deer ran down into the canyon of the Bear River, almost 400 feet below the high point on the ridge.

Wednesday, January 6, 1847

Weds. 6th fine day clear not a cloud froze very hard last night wind S-E Eliza came back from the mountain yesterday evening not able to proceed, to day went to Graves, the other kept ahead

In her letter of May 16th, 1847, thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin Mary Keyes: we had to lay by a day & make snow shows

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
6th.--Traveled two miles; halted on account of the illness of Mr. Fosdick; Indians left us. On the next day they got what remained of the deer to the top of the mountain, and two of them went back to look for Fosdick; but he was at that time where the weary are at rest, having died about eleven o’clock P.M.; and his wife had lain by his side that lonesome night, and prayed that death might release her from suffering, but in vain. The flesh was taken from the bones of poor Fosdick, and brought into camp; but there was one there who tasted not of it.

In her letter of May 22, 1847, Mary Graves wrote to Levi Fosdick, the father of her brother-in-law Jay Fosdick: and travelled on until the 5th of January, subsisting on human flesh. Jay died, the idol of his loving wife. Sarah, and myself were now the only members of our family left.

As told by Thornton, the events were much more lurid:

One of the emigrants, believing that Mr. and Mrs. Fosdick had died during the previous night, sent a person back to the place, with instructions to get Mr. Fosdick’s heart for breakfast; .... The person ... met Mrs. Fosdick on the way to Mr. Eddy’s camp. ... Mrs. Fosdick had been with her husband during the previous night, which was bitterly cold; and after his death, she rolled his body in the only blanket they possessed, and laid herself down upon the ground, desiring to die, and hoping that she would freeze to death. ... But the return of the morning’s light brought with it an instinctive love of life, and she now proposed to go back to the body of her husband, .... Two individuals accompanied her, and notwithstanding the remonstrances, entreaties, and tears of the affected widow, cut out the heart and liver, and severed the arms and legs of her departed husband.

Thursday, January 7, 1847

Thur.sd 7th Continues fine freezing hard at night very cold this morning wind S.S-E I dont think we will have much more snow snow not thawing much & not much diminished in depth

In her letter of May 16th, 1847, thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin Mary Keyes:

& we went on a while and could not find the road & we had to turn back i could go on verry well while i thout we were getting along but as soone as we had to turn back i coud hadley git along but we got to the cabins that night I froze one of my feet verry bad & that same night thaere was the worst storme we had that winter & if we had not come back that night we would never got back

William C. Graves, wrote Crossing the Plains in ’46 in the Russian River Flag in April and May, 1877: ... but the rest of us pushed ahead to the top of the mountains; there we could see nothing but snow and the tops of pine trees sticking out of it, which discouraged us and we returned.

Photograph of snow-covered forest

View West from Top of the Pass, photographed 1997

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
7th--Started on trail of Indian boys; saw deer sign;--killed one. On the seventh and eighth they made only about two and a half miles, going down one mountain and over another.

From the sparse descriptions, it is difficult to determine the Snowshoe Party’s route. Sinclair’s one mountain and over another could refer to the crossing of the hills west of Bear River near present Lake of the Pines. If so, the Snowshoe party was now close to the wagon road. According to T.H. Jefferson’s map, the wagon road came down off the ridge on the northwest side of Bear Valley (present Lowell Hill Road), crossed Oak Creek and Green Creek (present Steephollow Creek and Greenhorn Creek), then headed southwest for about 15 miles to a creek (present Wolf Creek near Highway 49 about two miles northwest of present Lake of the Pines), and then headed just south of west for about 18 miles, past a creek (probably Little Wolf Creek, generally along present Perimeter Road) to Johnson’s Ranch.

Friday, January 8, 1847

Friday 8th fine morning wind E froze hard last night very cold this morning Mrs. Reid & company came back this morning could not find their way on the other side of the Mountain they have nothing but hides to live on Martha is to stay here Milt. & Eliza going to Donos Mrs. Reid & the 2 boys goint to their own shanty & Virginia prospects Dull may God relieve us all from this difficulty if it his Holy will Amen

In her letter of May 16th, 1847, thirteen year old Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin Mary Keyes:

we had nothing to eat but ox hides o Mary I would cry and wish I had what you all wasted Eliza had to go to Mr Graves cabin & we staid at Mr Breen thay had meat all the time we had to kill littel cash the dog & eat him we ate his head and feet & hide & evry thing about him

In her 1891 Century Magazine article Across the Plains in the Donner Party, Virginia Reed wrote: We now had nothing to eat but raw hides and they were on the roof of the cabin to keep out the snow; when prepared for cooking and boiled they were simply a pot of glue.

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
8th--Dried deer meat by fire; went to bottom of mountain. On the seventh and eighth they made only about two and a half miles, going down one mountain and over another.

According to Thornton:

Soon after, Eddy and Foster were apart from the company. Despondency had again seized upon the mind of the latter. ... Suffering and danger had rendered him selfish to the last degree; and seeming firmly to believe that the sacrifice of the lives of some of their companions was necessary to the preservation of the others, he proposed to kill Mrs. McCutcheon, alleging that she was but a nuisance, and could not keep up. Mr. Eddy remonstrated, ... Foster then proposed that they should kill Mary Graves and Mrs. Fosdick, ... Mr. Eddy told him that he would inform them of his purpose. This he did in the presence of the company. Foster said he did not care, he could handle Mr. Eddy. ... Seizing a large club, ... Mr. Eddy threw it to him, and bade him defend himself. At the same time he advanced upon him with a knife .... he was seized by Mary Graves, Mrs. Pike, Mrs. McCutcheon and Mrs. Fosdick, and thrown down. ... He then told Foster, who stood apparently powerless, that he would kill him if he ever again manifested the slightest inclination to take the life of any of the party; ...

Saturday, January 9, 1847

Satd 9th Continues fine freezing hard at night this a beatiful morning wind about S-S’E M.rs Reid here virginias toes frozen alittle snow settleing none to be perceivd

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
[No entry] On the ninth, after travelling four miles, they fell in with the two Indians, who had then got out of the snow. Salvadore was dead. Lewis had crawled to a small stream of water, and lain down to drink. They raised him up, and offered him some food; he tried to eat, but could not; and only lived about an hour. Being nearly out of provisions, and knowing not how far they might be from the settlements, they took their flesh likewise.

In her letter of May 22, 1847, Mary Graves wrote: Two Indians were killed, whose flesh lasted until we got out of the snow and came where Indians lived.

According to Thornton,

The morning of Jan. 8th they resumed their journey from the ’Camp of Strife,’ order being re-established. They had not proceeded above two miles, when they came upon the Indians, lying upon the ground, in a totally helpless condition. They had been without food for eight or nine days, and had been four days without fire. They could not, probably, have lived for more than two or three hours; nevertheless, Eddy remonstrated against their being killed. Foster affirmed that he was compelled to do it. Eddy refused to see the deed consummated, and went on about two hundred yards, and halted. Lewis was told that he must die; and was shot through the head. Salvadore was dispatched in the same manner immediately after. Mr. Eddy did not see who fired the gun. The flesh was then cut from their bones and dried.

Sunday, January 10, 1847

Sund. 10 began to snow last night Still continues wind W N W

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
[No entry] On the tenth and eleventh they made about seventeen miles, when falling in with an Indian trail, they concluded they would follow it, which they accordingly did;

The mileage is probably overestimated, given both the condition of the party, and the fact that the distance along the Road from the Wolf Creek crossing to Johnson’s is about seventeen miles. A map of the Sacremento Valley drawn in 1845 shows the emigrant trail heading generally southwest towards Johnson’s Rancho, to the north of the Bear River. The map depicts Indians on the north side of Bear Creek, approximately where the river turns from the south-west to the west at the junction with Wooley Creek (now under Lake Combie). This site is approximately 15 to 17 miles due east of Johnson’s. It is possible that the snow shoe party backtracked to follow the trail towards this Indian village. This would lengthen their travel distance to Johnson’s, but since they did not know where Johnson’s was located, they probably chose a clear trail instead of more cross country travel to the west.

Monday, January 11, 1847

Mond. 11th Still Continues to snow fast, looks gloomy Mrs Reid at Keys burgs vir.g with us wood Scarce difficult to get any more wind W.

In her 1891 Century Magazine article Across the Plains in the Donner Party, Virginia Reed wrote:

When the hides were taken off our cabin and we were left without shelter Mr. Breen gave us a home with his family, and Mrs. Breen prolonged my life by slipping me little bits of meat now and then when she discovered that I could not eat the hide.
Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
11th--Saw the dead bodies of the two Indian boys. On the tenth and eleventh they made about seventeen miles, when falling in with an Indian trail, they concluded they would follow it, which they accordingly did;

Tuesday, January 12, 1847

Tuesd 12th Snows fast yet new snow about 3 feet deep wind S:W no sign of Clearing off

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
[No entry] and on the twelfth, fell in with some of the Indians, who treated them kindly, gave them some acorns, ...

Drawing of the Snowshoe Party meeting the Indians

The Snow Shoe Party Meeting the Indians

According to Thornton:

On the following morning they staggered forward, and toward the close of the day, ... they arrived at an Indian village, which in this country is called a rancheria. The Indians seemed to be overwhelmed with the sight of their miseries. ... As soon as the first brief burst of feeling had subsided, all united in administering to their wants. One hurried here, and another hurried there, all sobbing and weeping, to obtain their stores of acorns.

Wednesday, January 13, 1847

Wens. 13th snowing fast wind N.W Snow higher than the Shanty must be 13 feet deep dont know how to get wood this morning it is dredful to look at

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
13th--Proceeded down the valley; occasional snow drifts. ... and put them on to another trail the next day, which they took, and after travelling four miles in a heavy rain-storm, they came to more Indians, with whom they stopped the remainder of that day...

Thursday, January 14, 1847

new moon Thursd. 14th Cleard. off yesterday evening snowd. alittle during first part of night Calm but alittle air from the North verey pleasant to day Sun Shining brilliantly renovates our spirits prais be to God, Amen

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
14th--arrived at an Indian village; procured some acorns. ... they came to more Indians, with whom they stopped the remainder of that day and the next.

A map of the Sacremento Valley drawn in 1845 depicts Indians on the north side of Bear Creek, approximately where the river turns from the south-west to the west at the junction with Wooley Creek (now under Lake Combie). This site is approximately 15 to 17 miles due east of Johnson’s,

Friday, January 15, 1847

Frid. 15th fine clear day wind W M.rs Murphy blind Lanth not able to get wood has but one 6 axe betwixt him & Keysburg, he movd. to Murphys yesterday looks like another storm, expecting some account from Suiters Soon

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
[No entry] The two next days they made about seventeen miles.

Seventeen miles down the Bear River would have brought the Snow Shoe Party to near Johnson’s Ranch.

Saturday, January 16, 1847

Satd. 16th wind blew hard all night from the W, abated alittle did not freeze much the is clear & pleasant wind alittle S of W no telling what the weather will do

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
[No entry] The two next days they made about seventeen miles.

Seventeen miles down the Bear River would have brought the Snow Shoe Party to near Johnson’s Ranch.

On this day in Yerba Buena (now San Francisco), The California Star published the following article:

EMIGRANTS IN THE MOUNTAINS.
It is probably not generally known to the people, that there is now in the California mountains in a most distressing situation a party of emigrants from the United States, who were prevented from crossing the mountains by an early heavy fall of snow. The party consists of about sixty persons, men, women and children. They were, almost entirely out of provisions, when they reached the foot of the mountain, and but for the timely succor afforded them by Capt. J.A. Sutter, one of the most humane and liberal men in California, they must have all perished in a few days. Captain Sutter as soon as he ascertained their situation, sent five mules loaded with provisions to them. A second party was dispatched with provisions for them, but they found the mountain impassable, in consequence of the snow. We hope that our citizens will do something for the relief of these unfortunate people.

The first provisions were those Sutter gave to Stanton. The second party was Reed and McCutchen’s attempt.

Sunday, January 17, 1847

Sund. 17th fine morning Sun Shineing clear wind S.S.E Eliza came here this morning, sent her back again to Graves Lanthrom crazy last night so bill says, Keysburg sent bill to get hides off his shanty & carry them home this morning, provisions scarce hides are the only article we depend on, we have alittle meat yet, may God send us help

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
And on the 17th, Mr. Eddy arrived at Johnson’s, leaving the rest of the party at an Indian village. The seventeenth, after walking two or three miles, with an Indian for a pilot, Mr. Foster and the women gave out, their feet being swollen to such a degree that they could go no further. Mr. Eddy, who it appears stood the fatigue of the journey better than any of them, here left them; and assisted by two Indians, that evening reached the settlement on Bear Creek. The inhabitants, on being informed of the situation of the party behind, immediately started with provisions on foot, and reached them that night about twelve o’clock.

Thornton’s account from Eddy, is likely exaggerated. Instead of a single Indian pilot and a single Indian village,

the chief, ... accompanied them during the day with many of his tribe, an Indian being on either side of each of the sufferers, supporting them, and assisting them forward. They thus continued from day to day until the morning of the 17th, the chief from one village accompanied by some of his men, supporting them to the next, ....

Thornton describes Eddy’s arrival at the first settlement:

they arrived at the house of Col. M.D. Richey, about half an hour before sunset, having traveled eighteen miles. The last six miles of the way were marked by the blood from Mr. Eddy’s feet. The first white woman he saw, was the daughter of the truly excellent Mr. Richey. Mr. Eddy asked her for bread. She looked at him, and without replying, burst into tears, and took hold of him to assist him into the house. He was immediately placed in bed, .... In a very short time he had food brought to him by Mrs. Richey, who sobbed as she fed the miserable and frightful being before her. In a brief period, Harriet, the daughter, had carried the news from house to house in the little neighborhood; ... until all the necessary preparations were being made for taking out relief to those Mr. Eddy had left in the morning. William Johnson, John Howell, John Rhodes, Mr. Kiser, Mr Segur, Daniel Tucker, and Joseph Varro, assembled at Mr. Richey’s immediately. The females collected all the bread they had, with tea, sugar, and coffee; amounting in the whole to as much as four men could conveniently carry. Howell, Rhodes, Segur, and Tucker, immediately started on foot, with the Indians for guides, and arrived at the company, eighteen miles distant, about midnight. One man was employed all night in cooking food, and although Mr. Eddy had cautioned these gentlemen not to give the sufferers as much as they desired, yet the provisions were all consumed that night. They wept and begged for food continually, until it was exhausted.

Richey and the others had settled on Johnson’s Ranch. Johnson and Keyser bought the ranch at auction in 1845, and built an adobe on the north side of the Bear River in 1846. Sicard and Varro built a cabin on the south side of the river. Richey, Rhodes and Tucker had emigrated in 1846, and settled near Johnson.

The site of Johnson’s adobe is about 1-1/2 miles east of present Wheatland, California. The remains of Johnson’s adobe were unearthed in 1986 by amateur historians, father and son Jack and Richard Steed. After the adobe was abandoned in the 1850’s and newer ranch houses were built on the south side of the Bear River, the location of "Johnson’s Ranch" was located incorrectly on maps for over one hundred years. The Steeds discovered the discrepancy, and correctly located the ranch and the emigrant road. At the site, they excavated numerous artifacts, including ox shoes, powder horns, and parts of rifles and harnesses. Historical markers describing the Ranch are located in the town square of Wheatland, and on Wheatland Road east of town.

Photograph of Bear River

Bear River east of Johnson’s Ranch, photographed 1987

Monday, January 18, 1847

Mond. 18th fine day clear & pleasant wind W, thawing in the sun, Mrs Murphy here to day very hard to get wood

Eddy’s Journal of the Snowshoe Party
Reed Sinclair
[No Entry] On the morning of the eighteenth, others started with horses, and brought them to the settlement, where they were treated with every mark of kindness by the inhabitants.

Thornton wrote:

On the morning of Jan. 18th, Mr. Richey, William Johnson, Joseph Varro, and Mr. Kiser, proceeded on horseback, with more provisions for the emigrants, and to bring them in. About 10 o’clock at night they returned, surprised at the distance Mr. Eddy had traveled, which they said they could not have believed, had they not passed over it. Mr. Richey remarked when he returned, that he had followed Mr. Eddy’s track six miles by the blood from his feet.

In 1847, Daniel Rhoads wrote a letter to his father-in-law Jesse Esrey:

... the 5 women and 2 of the men got in. They gave the alarm that the people caught under the snow would all die without assistance. There were only 14 men in the Sacramento Valley and it was two weeks before any person would consent to go.

Tuesday, January 19, 1847

Tuesd. 19th Clear & pleasant thawing alittle in the Sun wind S.W Peggy & Edward sick last night by eating some meat that Dolan threw his Tobaco on pretty well today (praise God for his blessings,) Lanthrom very low in danger if relief dont soon come hides are all the go, not much of any other in camp

At Johnson’s Ranch, preparations began to relieve the suffering emigrants, as recounted by George Tucker, who was 16 at the time. In 1879 he wrote to C.F. McGlashan:

as Soon as we got these Seven in and got them made as Comfortable as Circumstances would admit and learned the Condition of the rest of the Company they had left behind we then Commenced to devise Some plan to releave them but at Johnson’s Ranch there was onely 3 or 4 familes of poor Emigrants beside Johnsons and nothing Could be done without help from other Settlements Sutters fort was the nearest point and it had been raining nearly all winter and the Country was all Covered with water Bear River was banks full so it could not be forded and if it could the Sacramento plains was one vast quag mire from there to Sutters fort 40 miles. John Rhodes one of our neighbors an Emigrant that had crost the plains that Season Said if there was no other way he would go on foot we had no means of crossing the river So we made a boat by lashing 2 pine loggs to gather with Strips of rawhide

Wednesday, January 20, 1847

wed.20th fine morning wind N froze hard last night Expecting some person across the Mountain this week

On the other side of the mountains, as George Tucker continued in his 1879 letter C.F. McGlashan:

the next morning we set John Rhodes a crost the river on our raft he took his Shoes in his hand Roled his pants up above his knees and Started for Sutters fort through water from one foot to 4 foot deep a good part of the way. he reached Sutter’s Sometime that nite, and informed Captain Sutter and the Settlers of what had hapened and what was wanted--,

Thursday, January 21, 1847

Thur.sd 21 fine morning wind W did not freze quite so hard last night as it has done, John Battice & Denton came this morning with Eliza she wont eat hides Mrs. Reid sent her back to live or die on them, Milt. Got his tow froze the donoghs are all well

Meanwhile, in California preparations for relief began, as related by George Tucker, who was 16 at the time. In 1879 he wrote to C.F. McGlashan:

Captain Sutter and Alcalda St Clair who lived on what is now Called Norrises Ranch 2 1/2 miles from Sutter’s fort on the American River--and one of the wealthiest men in the Country, furnished Some provisions Such as flour Sugar Coffe &c and five or Six men that was living in the Settlement Volenterrd to go with the Suplies

After his arrival in California, James Reed began claiming land for his family. Found in the Miller-Reed Diary was the following document, reprinted in Donner Miscellany:

Territory of California
December the 1st A.D. 1846
To John Burton, Esq.,
Alcalde or Justice of the Pueblo de San Jose
    The undersigned do respectfully lay before you the following petition for a tract of land which they wish to use for farming and grazing bounded as follows to wit ...
    James F. Reed     M.W. Reed
    V.E.B. Reed         M.J. Reed
    J.F. Reed Jun.     T.K. Reed

Territory of California
Magistrates office
Pueblo de San Jose
January 21st, 1847
        S.S.
    This day personally appeared before me William Daniels, and John Stark who being duly sworn, deposeth and saith that on the eighteenth day of January 1847, they went to the Mission of San Jose, with one James F. Reed, who is one of the persons who has filed the claim to which this is annexed in the names of James F., M.W., V.E.B., M.J., J.F.Jun., and T.K. Reed, and there did on the 20th day of the month and Year above mentioned, and did help said James F. Reed to plant Pear and apple trees together with a number of grape cuttings, for the purpose of raising an orchard, and vineyard, and did also help said Reed to put Barley into the ground on said claim,
    William Daniels
    John S. Stark

Friday, January 22, 1847

Frid. 22nd began to snow alitle after sunrise-likely to snow a good dale wind W came up very suddenly, now 10 Oclock

Saturday, January 23, 1847

Satd. 23rd Blew hard & Snowd, all night the most severe storm we experienced this winter wind W Sun now 12 Oclock peeps out

Sunday, January 24, 1847

Sund, 24th Some cloudy this morning ceased snowing yesterday about 2 Oclock, Wind about S.E all in good health thanks be to God for his Mercies endureth for ever, heard nothing from Murphys camp since the storm Expet to hear they suffered some

Monday, January 25, 1847

Mod 25th began to snow yesterday evening & Still continues wind W

Tuesday, January 26, 1847

Tuesd 26 Cleared up yesterday today fine & pleasant, wind S. in hopes we are done with snow storms, those that went to Suitors not yet returned provisions geting very scant people geting weak liveing on short allowance of hides

Wednesday, Janaury 27, 1847

Wed 27th began to Snow yesterday & still continues to sleet thawing alittle wind W M.rs Keysber here this morning Lewis Suitor she says died three days ago Keysburg sick & Lanthrom lying in bed the whole of his time dont have fire enough to Cook their hides, Bill & Si.m Murphy sick

Lewis Suitor appears to be a slip of the pen reference to Sutter’s Indian Lewis, but was meant to be the infant Lewis Keseburg, Jr., who had been born on the Trail. Lanthrom is Landrum Murphy, 15. Bill is William Murphy, 11. Sim is Simon Murphy, 12.

Thursday, January 28, 1847

full Moon Thur.sd 28th cleared off last night & froze some today fine & warm wind S-E looks some like spring weather birds chirping quite lively full Moon to day--

Friday, January 29, 1847

Frid 29th fine morning began to thaw in the sun early. wind S-W froze hard last night. there will be acrust soon God send Amen

Saturday, January 30, 1847

Sa.td 30th fine pleasant morning wind W begining to thaw in the sun John & Edwd went to Graves This morning the Graves Siezed on Mrs Reids goods untill they would be paid also took the hides that she & family had to live on, she got two pieces of hides from there & the ballance they have taken you may Know from these proceedings what our fare is in camp there is nothing to be got by hunting yet perhaps there soon will. God send it Amen

Thirteen year old Virginia Reed described life in the Breen cabin in her letter of May 16, 1847 to her cousin Mary Keyes:

o my Dear Cousin you dont now what trubel is yeat a many time we had on the last thing a cooking and did not now wher the next would come from but there was alw wais some way provided there was 15 in the cabon we was in and half of us had to lay a bed all the time thare was 10 starved to deat there was hadley abel to walk we lived on little cash a week and after Mr Breen would his meat we would take the bones and boil them 3 or 4 days at a time ma went down to the other caben and got half a hide carried it in snow up to her wast it snowed and would cover the cabin all over so we could not get out for 2 or 3 days we would have to cut pieces of the loges in sied to make fire with I could hardly eat the hides

Sunday, January 31, 1847

Sund. 31st The sun dont shine out brilliant this morning froze pretty hard last night wind N.W. Lanthron Murphy died last night about 1 Oclock, Mrs Reid & John went to Graves this Morning to look after her goods

On February 9, 1896, William Murphy gave a lecture at Truckee, as reported in the Marysville Appeal:

Then my eldest brother was very weak, and almost at death’s door, and my mother went to the Brinds, and begged a small piece of meat; just a few mouthfuls. This is in the history recorded by Mr. Brind. I remember the little piece of meat; my mother gave half of it to my dying brother, and he ate it, fell off to sleep, with hollow death-gurgling snore, and when the sound ceased, I went to him, and he was dead - starved to death in my presence. My mother said that if she had known he was going to die, she would have given him the balance of the meat while she was starving too; and she had her two little boys, her daughter, three little children all of us starving, waiting for relief. [Murphy probably said "Breen" but the reporter wrote it as Brind.]

The history to which William Murphy referred was Eliza Farnham’s 1856 book California In-Doors and Out:

’O! dear Mrs. Breen,’ said one of her neighbors, coming quickly in one morning, ’my dear boy is dying. Will you not give me some food for him?’ ’Indeed then I will, dear,’ was the ready answer, ’Take some of the beef.’ The poor mother had often had some before. She first tasted a few morsels raw, to give her heart; but this time her speed was vain. The poor emaciated boy, though he tasted what she brought, was too far gone to revive; and in a short time she sent a messenger up to ask her good neighbor to come down with one of her sons, and assist in burying him in the snow! What a burial was that! Performed by two starving women, and a lad scarcely more alive than the one he was assisting to bury!

On the other side of the mountains, the settlers around Sutter’s Fort prepared to relieve the suffering emigrants. George Tucker, who was 16 at the time, remembered the preparations in 1879, when he wrote to C.F. McGlashan:

in the corse of Six or Eight days Six men Came up with the Suplies mean while we had butchered five or six fat beaves, furnished by Johnson and was drying and Jirking the meat we Scowered the country far and near to get horses and mules to ride and pack--& Sadles and pack Sadles

Reasin.P Tucker added these notes to the Diary of the First Relief:

Mr. Sinclair arrived at Mr. Johnson’s on Sunday the thirty first of January having left his residence the day previous on foot. immediately after his arrival he requested Mr. Johnson to have all the horses that were scattered about in that neighbourhood brought in to order to select a sufficient number for packing the provisions and taking the men as far as practable on their journey he succeeded with considerable trouble in getting and with the aid of a few Bullock Hides rigging them out so that the whole party had saddles to ride with the exception of one (two of the Ladies there having kindly loaned their side saddles for the trip), as many cattle as was necessary for the expedition Mr Johnson cheerfully furnished every man of the Party exerted himself to the utmost in cutting and drying the beef for the journey

The relief effort later came under the authority of the United States Navy. The papers of Edward M. Kern at Sutter’s Fort contain a document:

PayRoll of Men employed in expedition to California Mountains under Command of Edw. M. Kern, U.S.A.,

Names Commencement of Service
+Adolph Bruheim Jan 31
*R.S. Moutey Jan 31
*Aquila Glover Jan 31
*Joseph Sel Jan 31
*Edward Cophymeyer Jan 31
*Danl Rhodes Jan 31

+Employed in butchering and assisting in carrying provisions from Johnsons to Bear V.

*Employed in carrying provisions to the Camp of the Suffering Emigrants,...