Daniel Rhoads Account of the Donner Party Rescue


I was born in Edgar County (Illinois) December 7th, 1821. I arrived in California, by the overland route, after a journey of five months from the Missouri River on the 5th of October 1846 and went to work for John Sinclair in the Grimes Ranch,(now Haggin & Tevis') near Sacramento. In the month of January l847, while I was at Sinclairs news came to the fort that a party of emigrants were in the mountains "snowed in" and destitute of food.

Previous to this time, Captain Sutter, having heard that there still remained of the emigration of 1846 a party who had not yet come through and knowing from the lateness of the season the danger they were in sent a party composed of three Indians with pack mules loaded with provisions in charge of a white man to meet these emigrants wherever they might be found.

This pack train met with the emigrants, 80 in number, (since known as the Donner party) either at Donner Lake or a day's journey east of it and were with them the night they encamped at the lake. That night the first snow of the season fell to the depth of four feet and the storm continued until the ground was covered ten feet deep. By this the work oxen and horses on which the emigrants might have subsisted until relief came, were scattered and with the exception of a very few, utterly lost.

The few miserable oxen saved and the provisions sent by Captain Sutter lasted the party but a short time. Then twenty-four of the emigrants, including Mrs. McCutcheon, Mrs. Graves and two other women, and the white man and Indians sent by Sutter, started without any food, in the desperate hope either of reaching the settlements (a hundred miles distant) or of encountering some relief party. Of course, many soon commenced dying from exhaustion and starvation and the survivors were compelled to subsist upon the bodies of those who perished. In about three weeks from the time the party left Donner lake some "wild" Indians living in the foothills brought to Johnson's Ranch on Bear River, 40 miles from Sutter's Fort, one of the emigrants named Eddy, half carried and led him a distance of about 30 miles. Eddy told the people at Johnson's that the four women and William Foster, all that remained alive of the party that left the lake were at an Indian Rancheria about 25 miles East of Johnson's. I may here observe that the Indians of Sutter's relief party were never afterwards heard from. The surviving emigrants stated that one had died and been eaten, but it was generally thought that the Indian had been killed for food and the other Indians became frightened and had left the party. On the arrival of Eddy at Johnson's a letter was dispatched, by Indian runners, to the Fort giving an account of the condition of the emigrants at Donner Lake and this was the first intelligence received by Captain Sutter and to which I have first above referred.

Allow me here to make a digression to mention our postal facilities in those days. When it became necessary to transmit a message from one of the widely scattered ranches or settlements to another, no matter how great the distance, a letter was placed in the hands of an Indian who carried it with the utmost dispatch until he was tired when he stopped at some rancheria, and delivered his package to some other Indian who in turn carried it, and so on until the letter reached its destination. Sometimes these mail carriers received a small reward and sometimes not; but I never heard of a letter failing to reach the person to whom it was sent.

The day after the arrival of Eddy at Johnson's a party started from the latter place to bring in Foster and the four women, which they accomplished in two or three days.

On the receipt of the news at the Fort letters were at once sent (in the manner above named) to Yerba Buena and the settlements around the Bay of San Francisco.

Captain Sutter made a call for volunteers to proceed to the assistance of the emigrants. A party of fourteen of which I was one was made up and at once started for Johnson's Ranch. Here we prepared for our expedition. We killed some beef cattle and dried the meat over fires. We pounded some wheat in Indian stone mortars and ground some in coffee mills (no gristmills nor flour nor meal of any kind in those days). We cut the hides of animals we killed into strips for the future construction of snowshoes.

Although we worked night and day without intermission, except for short intervals for sleep, these preparations occupied us three days. The provisions were then packed on mules and we started on our journey without a guide, and trusting to the judgement of our leaders, John P. Rhoads (my brother) and Resin P. Tucker to find our way. Until we struck the snow we took the emigrant trail.

This trail was called the old Truckee route and runs in places a short distance from the line of the railroad being in plain sight to the left going over.

Our road was in very bad condition and at frequent intervals we had to unpack the mules and drag them out of the mire. In about five days travelling on an average five or six miles a day we reached the snow which we found three feet deep. Through this we worried along some five miles when it became too deep for the mules to go any further, it being eight feet deep and falling all the time; a regular storm having set in. Our encountering the snow so deep and so much sooner than we had been led to anticipate utterly disheartened some of the party and six men turned back.

We made a camp and left the mules in charge of one of Sutter's men, a German who went by the sobriquet of Greasy Jim. Jim was to take care of the animals and to pasture them on hillsides with a Southern exposure and such other bare spots as he could find until our return.

Our party now consisted of seven. John P. Rhoads, Reasin P. Tucker (now in Napa Valley), Sept. Moutry (now in Santa Clara), Aquila Glover (dead), a sailor named George Foster, a sailor named Mike, and myself. Each man made a pair of snowshoes. These were constructed by cutting pine boughs, stripping off the bark, heating them over the fire and bending them in the shape of an ox-bow about two feet long and 1 wide, with a lattice work of rawhide for soles. We attached them to our feet by means of the rawhide strips with which we were provided. On these we had to travel continuously except at brief intervals on hillsides and bare spots when we took them off.

Each man also took a single blanket, a tin cup, and a hatchet and as near as the captains could estimate, 7 pounds of dried meat. Thus equipped we started. Foster had told us that we should find the emigrants at or near Truckee Lake (since called Donner Lake) and in the direction of this we journeyed. Of course, there was no trail, we had no guide and most of our journey was through a dense pine forest but the lofty peak which overlooks the lake was in sight at intervals and this and the judgement of our two leaders were our sole means of direction.

Since I made that trip I have frequently read about the "sighing", the "soughing" and the "moaning" of the wind through the pine trees and I suppose if any of our party had fallen by the way, the wind and pines together would have sung the requiem and the snow have made the stereotyped "winding-sheet"; but none of our party had ever read any poetry and we were too desperately in earnest both to preserve our own lives and to succor any of the emigrants who might survive to give a thought to sentiment. When we first started from the fort Capt. Sutter assured us that we should be followed by other parties as soon as the necessary preparations could be made. For the guidance of those who might follow us and as a signal to any of the emigrants who might be straggling about in the mountains, as well as for our own direction on our return trip, we set fire to every dead pine tree on or near our trail. At the end of every three days journey (10 or 20 miles) we made up a small bundle of dried meat and hung it to the bough of a tree to lighten the burden we carried and for subsistence on our return.

The first day we made 7 or 8 miles. At sunset we "made camp" by felling pine saplings 6 inches in diameter and cutting them off about 12 feet long and placing them in the snow making a platform 6 or 8 feet wide. On this platform we kindled our fire, roasted some meat for supper and then throwing our blankets over our shoulders sat, close together around the fire and dozed through the night the best way we could. If we had made the fire on top of the snow without the intervention of any protecting substance, we should have found our fire, in the morning 8 or 10 feet below the surface on which we encamped. In this manner we passed every night of our journey both to and from the lake on the part of the road covered by snow.

We went on making from four to six miles per day leaving a very sinuous trail by reason of the impossibility of pursuing a straight course through the dense forest and of our having to wind around the sides of hills and mountains instead of going over them. The snow increased as we proceeded until it amounted to a depth of eighteen feet as was afterward discovered by the stumps of the pine trees we burned.

We traveled in Indian file. At each step taken by the man in front he would sink in the snow to his knees and of course had to lift his foot correspondingly high for his next step. Each succeeding man would follow in the tracks of the leader. The latter soon became tired, fell to the rear, and the second man took the head of the file. When he became fatigued by breaking the trail he would fall back and so on each one in his turn.

At sunset of the 16th day we crossed the Truckee Lake on the ice and came to the spot where we had been told we should find the emigrants. We looked all around but no living thing except ourselves was in sight and we thought that all must have perished. We raised a loud halloo and then we saw a woman emerge from a hole in the snow. As we approached her several others made their appearance in like manner, coming out of the snow. They were gaunt with famine and I never can forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice very much agitated and said "are you men from California or do you come from heaven?"

They had been without food except a few work oxen since the first fall of snow, about 3 weeks. They had gathered up the bones of the slaughtered cattle and boiled them to extract the grease and had roasted some of the hides which formed the roofs of their cabins. We gave them food very sparingly and retired for the night, having some one on guard until morning to keep close watch on our provisions to prevent the starving emigrants from eating them, which they would have done until they died of repletion.

When these emigrants had first been stopped by snow they had built small cabins using the skins of the slaughtered oxen for roofs. Storms nearly continuous had caused the snow to fall to the depth of 18 feet so that the tops of their cabins were far beneath the surface. When we arrived they were eating portions of the hides forming their roofs which hides being under the snow were in a putrid condition. The bodies of those who had perished were lying on top of the snow covered with quilts. When a person died an inclined plane was dug to the floor of the cabin and the body slid up to the surface, the inmates being too weak to lift the corpse out. So far the survivors had not been compelled to partake of human flesh. I remember seeing but 3 living men. Louis Keeseburg was lying on his back unable to rise. He, Patrick Breen and one other were the only ones left. Very few women or children had died up to this time.

The morning after our arrival John P. Rhoads and Tucker started for another camp distant 8 miles East, where were the Donner family, to distribute what provisions could be shared and to bring along such of the party as had sufficient strength to walk. They returned bringing four girls and two boys of the Donner family and some others.

The next morning we started on our return trip accompanied by 21 emigrants mostly women and children. John Rhoads carried a child in his arms which died the second night. On the third day an emigrant named John Denton, exhausted by starvation and totally snow-blind gave out. He tried to keep up a hopeful and cheerful appearance, but we knew he could not live much longer. We made a platform of saplings, built a fire on it, cut some boughs for him to sit upon and left him. This was imperatively necessary. The party who followed in our trail from California found his dead body a few days after we had left him, partially eaten by wolves.

As we were now guided by the stumps of the pine trees we had burned on our way out as we never had to stop to determine the road and as the ground we traveled over was mostly descending we made much more rapid progress than on our journey East being only five days from the lake to the camp where we had left our mules. Had we not made the journey thus quickly I do not know how we ever could have gotten through as will be seen. The first night after leaving the lake we consumed the last of our dried meat expecting that our next days journey would bring us to one of our "caches" of provisions which we had left hanging to the boughs of trees. When we reached this point (2nd night) we found that some varmint (predatory animals) had climbed up and eaten our cache so that we had to make a supper of some strips of raw hide which we still carried and which we cut from our snow-shoes, roasted. We passed the night on our usual platform--there had to be several to accommodate the entire party. This rawhide was our sole subsistence for 3 days until just before we reached our "mule camp" when we met a party going east under the guidance of a half-breed named Brit Greenwood who acted as pilot. Greenwood told us that when his father, Caleb Greenwood, an old Rocky Mountain hunter and trapper, heard that our party of seven had started over the mountains without a guide, he offered to wager the money he was to receive for piloting a party, that not one of us would ever come back alive; and the bet was not taken.

When we reached the camp where we had left our mules we remained until next day. During the night, the food in camp not being guarded sufficiently the eldest boy of the Donner family managed to eat so much dried meat that he died the next day. We here found a party of sailors from the U.S. Squadron commanded by Lieutenant Selim E. Woodworth U.S.A. and piloted by old man Greenwood before referred to. This was a novel business for the sailors and I heard that they suffered terribly when they reached the deep snow.

Glover and myself were the weakest of the party suffering greatly from exhaustion caused by deprivation of food and want of sleep. We mounted mules and returned to the Fort. It was a long time before I recovered from the effects of the expedition. My brother, John Rhoads, made a second and a third trip with relief parties none of which, however met with the difficulties experienced by our party.

The sufferings of the Donner have formed the subject of many writings, some of which I have read and have every reason to believe from personal intercourse with many of the sufferers as well as with those who at various times went to their relief, that some of the statements made concerning the party are not true. In the above account I have mentioned nothing beyond my own experience.

On the discovery of gold I mined at Mormon Island and with the other gold seekers at that point paid Sam Brannen one third of the gross amount taken out. I continued mining until the autumn of 1849. I went East in 1850 but was not contented and returned to California where I have since resided, experiencing the vicissitudes of fortune incident to a life in that country.

My present residence is near Kingston, Fresno County. My wife's maiden name was Amanda Ezra. I married her in Ray County, Missouri. We have had seven children, all born in California. Those living are Sarah, born March 1850; Mary, June 1853; John, October 1857; Elvira, 1861.