Winter wagon journey ended in snow, starvation and cannibalism

Pioneer and diarist Patrick Breen from Carlow.
Pioneer and diarist Patrick Breen from Carlow.
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Carlow man Patrick Breen penned a succinct entry on today’s page in his diary in 1846. It was a Sunday: “Froze hard last night this a fine clear morning, wind E.S.E. no account from those on the mountains.”

Patrick was with the Donner party, the most tragic and notorious journey in US emigrant history.

Patrick Breen's diary entry

Patrick Breen's diary entry

It has been recounted in numerous works of literature, film, drama and art and like many historic events, Patrick wasn’t the only traveller who hailed from the Emerald Isle.

The harrowing journey is recounted on today’s page by regular Roamer-contributor Mitchell Smyth who visited Donner Park, named after the leaders of the group of pioneer families who headed for California by wagon train in 1846.

The narrative survived because 51-year-old Patrick Breen from Ballymurphy, County Carlow, kept an almost daily diary of what has come to be known as the Ordeal by Hunger.

Another hero of the ordeal - in which the pioneers, snowbound and starving in the High Sierra for three months, ate the flesh of their dead companions - was 46-year-old James Frazier Reed from Armagh. Dubliner Patrick Dolan was the first to be eaten. He died on a treacherous trek for help, having given his rations to the Breens.

Replica of Donner party's ox-drawn Conestoga wagon in Donner Memorial State Park's museum

Replica of Donner party's ox-drawn Conestoga wagon in Donner Memorial State Park's museum

An early snowstorm on 31 October 1846 halted their wagon train near Truckee Lake, 2,000 metres up the eastern slope of the Sierras, west of Reno, Nevada. They were 12 miles from the summit of the pass in a region now called Donner Memorial State Park, named after the emigrants’ leaders - George and Jacob Donner.

Three weeks after the blizzard stopped them Patrick Breen wrote in his diary: “Came to this place on the 31st of last month. Snow so deep we were unable to find the road. We have now killed most of our cattle, having to remain here until spring and live on lean beef without bread or salt.” He was over-optimistic about living off their oxen.

Before Christmas, hunger would lead them to kill and eat their pets. Reed’s wife, Margaret, killed the family dog called Cash. Their 13-year-old daughter Virginia wrote in her diary: “We lived on little Cash (for) a week.”

Patrick Dolan set out alone over the pass for help. He died of exposure and starvation on Christmas Day 1846. Three days later his companions, half-crazed with hunger, cut strips of his flesh and ate them. That broke the taboo and as others died their bodies kept others alive.

Donner party pioneers' names commemorated on a rock in Donner Park.

Donner party pioneers' names commemorated on a rock in Donner Park.

By early January cannibalism had become so commonplace that Breen recorded in his diary, almost as an aside in a note about the weather: “Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that she commenced on Milt and ate him. Saturday a beautiful morning.”

(The Murphys may also have been Irish). When a rescue party from Sutter’s Fort (now Sacramento) reached the pioneers on 18 February 1847 they found survivors boiling parts of their companions in cooking pots.

An emaciated woman asked the rescuers: “Are you from California or from Heaven?”

Of 81 travellers who arrived at Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) on 31 October, 47 were still alive when the rescuers arrived 110 days later.

James Frazier Reed led the rescuers. He’d been exiled from the party on 5 October after a dispute and gone ahead over the pass before the snow fell. Ironically, if the others had gone with him they’d have avoided their horrendous ordeal.

Their big mistake was reaching the Truckee River’s lush grassland on 20 October and instead of pressing on they stopped for five days to let the oxen grazed. That five days would have got them over the pass before the snow.

And the winter of 1846-47 was especially ghastly. On the former site of the Breen family’s makeshift cabin there’s now a monument showing an emigrant family striding westward.

The father is shading his eyes from the sun; the mother is holding a baby in her arms. Another child walks behind. The sculpture is mounted on a 22-foot base - the exact height of the snow that imprisoned the emigrants for three and a half months.

Both the Breen family of seven and the Reed family of four survived, to prosper in California - Patrick Breen in real estate and John Reed in the great gold rush, which he joined in 1849. Breen died in 1868, aged 73.

The following year his widow donated 40 dollars (then worth £8, a considerable sum in the 1860s) toward the erection of a belfry and bell for the church in Ballymurphy, County Carlow, her hometown. Reed died in 1874.

The Donner tragedy took place as the Irish families’ compatriots on the other side of the Atlantic were suffering their own ordeal by hunger: the great potato famine of 1845-50. Both the Breens and Reeds left Ireland before it struck.

The Donner ordeal was the first major tragedy in America’s great push westward to fulfil its ‘Manifest Destiny’, the doctrine that Americans had the God-given right to rule the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border. The tragedy had little or no effect on emigration to California.

In fact, by 1849, after the discovery of gold at Coloma, east of Sacramento, the trek over Truckee Pass (now Donner Pass) turned into a flood.

But the ‘Forty-niners’ knew they had to get over the pass before the first snowfall.