The Donner Party by Daniel Lewis
Part IV: Eating of the Dead


The Year of 1846
The Story: Part I
Part II: The Journey
Part III: Snowbound
Part IV: Eating of the Dead
Epilogue: Journey's End
General Roster
Names for Research
Route of the Donner Party
Forensics of the Donner Party
Forensics II
The Donner Party and Native Americans
Religion of the Donner Party
Links and Sources
Contact Me


William Eddy was a carraige-maker who lived in Illinois in the 1840's. Strangely enough, he did not join the Reeds and Donners until very late in the trip, even though they came from a very close area. Eddy was a skilled hunter, and was relatively intelligent. He was liked by many, especially since he shared his catch from hunting with the other families on the Trail. After Stanton died, Eddy and the Indians guided the Forlorn Hope out of the mountains, and is well remembered for trying to keep order amongst the chaos in the party. Though he lost his entire family, he started a new life in California, north of San Francisco, marrying twice more and having several children. William Eddy only lived into his late forties.

The four dead bodies at the Forlorn Hope's Camp, now called the "Camp of Death" were cut up, and the meat was dried. This wasn't murder, after all. They were only resorting to the most desperate to survive. Furthermore, they had family still at the lake, and they could very well be the only chance the Donner Party would have to be saved.

The Forlorn Hope was careful about who they ate. Antonio and Patrick Doolan were eaten by all, but the Fosdicks and Mary Graves wouldn't eat the meat from their father, Franklin Graves, just as Mrs. Pike and the Fosters wouldn't eat their brother, Lemuel Murphy.

The people who had died had been slowly starved, so they didn't provide much meat, but it was food, and that was all that mattered.

The little meat they ate gave them enough strength to move on. At the end of December, the storm that had trapped the Forlorn Hope lifted, and the survivors left their "Camp of Strife." They carried a little leftover meat in their packs, and tried to push ahead as far as they could. It was still many miles away from the nearest Indians, let alone white people.

The five men and five women trudged in their snowshoes across the Sierra Nevada.

Back at the Lake Camp, the situation became bleak. The Reeds and their household felt segregated. Everyone was surely angry that James Reed had not returned with food.

The Reeds suffered greatly. Their two servants Baylis Williams and James Smith had died, as well as four of the Reed family's beloved dogs. The only remaining dog was Cash, terrier James Reed bought for his children. The little dog was killed for food on New Year's Day.

Milton Elliot became a true foster father for the Reed children. Virginia Reed called him a "knight," and he did a lot of work around the camp.

The Murphys and Eddys in their cabin were praying for their family in the Forlorn Hope. The Fosters had one child, and Mrs. Pike had two. "Grandma" Murphy, though aged only 36, and Eleanor Eddy worked hard to keep their family alive. Milton Elliot did chores for them as well, though the Reed cabin was far away from the Murphy's.

During early January, the Forlorn Hope had made good progress, but they were far away from civilization, and food was running low again. Jay Fosdick grew terribly ill, and could no longer keep up with the others. Understandably, he was left behind, and his wife Sarah Graves-Fosdick stayed with him. After about a day-or-two, the Forlorn Hope concluded that the Fosdicks were dead, and William Foster and one other person turned back, to find the corpses to use for food.

Surprisingly, Sarah Fosdick was still alive, but barely. Jay had died not long ago, and Sarah had hopelessly abandoned her hope of escaping the mountains and had remained with the body of her husband. Before Sarah's eyes her husband was cut up, and after the packs were filled with dried meat, Foster and Mrs. Fosdick went back to the others, who had made a camp, waiting for Foster's return.

But one lanky starved man did not provide much meat for nine people. Fortunately for the others, the Indians Luis and Salvadore would not eat the meat, giving the white men and women extra food.

By this time William Foster had become deranged, and it is understandable why, knowing what he endured. He became terrified he would die from starvation, and Foster planned on murdering the Indians for food. Eddy told Luis and Salvadore, who promptly ran away. The party followed the tracks of Luis and Salvadore. It was easy. The feet of the Indians had become so raw from exposure all their toes had fallen off, marking their trail with blood. Foster figured if the Indians didn't lead them to safety, they could at least find their corpses to use as food.

By January 9th or 10th, the Indians had suffered terrible exposure to the cold, and had survived on practically nothing to eat, with no fire. They couldn't last like that. They gave out near a small creek, and it was here the Forlorn Hope came upon them. Despite argument from some and the Indians look of terror, Foster shot the two Indians with his rifle. Though they would not have lived long, the act was horrifying.

The Reeds had become so hungry they ate the leather hides that provided a roof for their cabin. The Breens graciously allowed the Reeds to move into their cabin. Though the Breens had a lukewarm relationship with the Reeds, they liked Virginia. In fact Mrs. Breen liked Virginia so much that she, feeling sorry for Virginia since she couldn't digest the everyday soup of boiled hides, secretly gave Virginia tiny pieces of her family's meat supply to help keep her strong.

On January 11th, the Forlorn Hope reached an Indian village, and the natives gave the two surviving men and the five women clothes, shelter, and to them most importantly, food. The Indians knew that such starved people could easily die from overeating, so the Indians took care to feed the skeletal looking people in small amounts, giving them thin soups of acorns and venison, and despite the protests from the white people, would not feed them any more.

William Foster and the five women were in terrible condition, and it was unclear if they would live. William Eddy was very sick as well. But if they all died before reaching Johnson's Ranch, no help might arrive for his family and the others at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek. He urged the Indians to guide him to Johnson's Ranch, and a number of scouts and women took Eddy, while the six others stayed behind and rested.

On he reached Johnson's, Eddy organized a rescue party, which left on January 31st. Reasin P. Tucker, his son George, Daniel and John Rhodes, (brothers) Aquila Glover and John Sinclair, the Alcalde of Sacramento, (a legal official) were among the rescuers that went with William Eddy. This party became known as the First Relief.

Meanwhile, death returned to the lake. For almost a month death had not occurred. In late January, Landrum Murphy, aged 15, and Lewis Keseberg, Jr., only 1, died. With Landrum gone, there were no men over the age of thirteen with the Murphys, Eddys, and the children of the Pikes and Fosters.

On February 2, the infant Harriet McCutchen was the first female of the Donner Party to die. On February 4th, Margaret Eddy, another infant, followed after her. William Eddy's heartbroken wife Eleanor became very weak after the loss of Margaret. She had become an invilid, and Milt Elliot and Lavinah Murphy cared for her as best as they could. Sadly, she died on the 7th, even though her husband party was only a few days away from her. The day after, the other murderer of Mr. Wolfinger, Augustus Spitzer, died in the Breen cabin. Milt Elliot became sick as well, and died at the Murphy cabin on February 9th.

Meanwhile, William Eddy was sick, though he pushed through the mountains for the sake of his family. The First Relief party he had organized sent him back to Sutter's Fort with the draft animals, however, on February 11th. Eddy made them promise that they would find and take care of his wife and children, if they were still alive.

It was ten days after Mrs. Eddy died that the First Relief arrived at Truckee Lake. The snow was so tall that it covered the cabins, and at first the rescuers were afraid all had died and were covered in the snow. All of a sudden, Lavinah Murphy popped up out of the snow, looking so gaunt from famine that she looked dead, and Mrs. Murphy was even afraid she was. "Do you men come from California?" she asked. "Or do you come from God?"

The first relief took out 21 members of the party at the lake and Alder Creek, and left enough provisions for days with those that couldn't leave.

The Reeds were urged to leave, although Patty and Tommy Reed were too ill. The others, and their only surviving servant, Eliza Williams left with the first relief, along with the children of various families. The only other adults who left with Margaret Reed and Eliza Williams were Mrs. Keseberg, Mrs. Wolfinger and John Denton, an English bachelor traveling with the Donners.

Like Charles Stanton had with the Forlorn Hope, John Denton gave out, becoming exhausted and snow-blind, not long into the journey to Sacramento. He was left behind with some provisions, and all anyone could do was pray he would be rescued by someone, though everyone knew he wouldn't live long. It wasn't until the middle of march that the Third Relief found him, and he had long been dead.

Towards the end of the journey, Mrs. Keseberg's four-year old daughter Ada died during a cold night. On another night, William Hook, who was Jacob Donner's stepson, secretly stole from the camp's supply of food, and ate until he died from overeating.

The Reeds were worn and depressed. Margret, Virginia, and "Jimmy" or James Reed, Jr., had not seen James Frazier Reed Sr. in short of five months, and Patty and Tommy back at the lake might die. Jimmy Reed was only five, and had to jump from footprint to footprint in the snow. He quickly tired of this pitiful grueling trek, but his mother told him once they were in California Jimmy could ride a horse, and would never have to walk again. On day, a familiar voice was heard speaking to the members of the First Relief ahead of them. Virginia heard, "is Mrs. Reed there? If she is, tell her Mr. Reed is here."

Virginia ran as fast towards her father as she could, while Jimmy could only pitifully jump into her footprints. Margret Reed kneeled in the snow and began to cry. James Reed tightly embraced Virginia, and Jimmy, as well as his beloved wife. After months of the Mexican-American War, James Reed was able to organize a party to send out to help the Donner Party. He spent little time with his family, however, when he learned Patty and Thomas Reed were still at the lake.

By the 26th of February, some at the lake and Alder Creek had resorted to cannibalism, most notably Mrs. Murphy, and the Donner families. People were rapidly dying, and the relief parties weren't enough to save the Donner Party. They had to save themselves.

When James Reed reached the lake, he took out those remaining in the Breen and Graves families, as well as children from other families, including Tommy and Patti Reed.

As James Reed and the Second Relief left the Lake Camp, a terrible storm broke out, and the group was trapped at a large clearing at the head of the Yuba River. They dug a pit and made themselves a camp inside.

On the first night at the place that would become known as "Starved Camp," Mrs. Breen had a hard time sleeping, and she was not the only one. It was the dark hours of early morning, and Mrs. Graves was acting very strange. Her children were cold and the younger ones were crying, particularly her baby Elizabeth, Jr., who was hungry and needed breast-feeding, starvation having dried Mrs. Graves' milk. Before everyone's eyes, Mrs. Graves gave her crying baby to one of the men of the rescue party, sitting next to her, and fell back, as if she had suddenly gone to sleep. It took everyone several moments to realize Mrs. Graves had died, while the whole time her infant child cried for her mother. While the unfortunate Graves children didn't know at the time, their father and brother Jay Fosdick had also died, and their family was completely penniless. When the Graves reached California, if they reached California, they would be destitute orphans.

Epilogue: Journey's End


James Reed and his daughter Patty reunited at Truckee Lake.