Camp of Death
The Donner Party Mountain Camp 1846-47
J. Quinn Thornton

96 pages 1848

This book is an artifact.  It is a primary source and the first reporting, besides newspaper accounts, of the Donner Party tragedy.  J. Quinn Thornton interviewed some of the survivors so he had first hand accounts of the winter at Donner Lake. That also was problematical because some of the interviewees were self-interested.  Thornton also clearly used some of what had been written in the newspapers at the time and those were very sensational and not factual.  The world would have to wait for Charles F. McGlashan’s History of the Donner Party, some decades later, for a more balanced view.  Nevertheless, if you’ve read any Donner Party histories you will recognize Quinn’s descriptions of episodes.  Later writers must have used his book as starting points.

Thornton, who would later become Oregon’s first “supreme judge,” traveled west in 1846 and until the Donner Party took the Hastings Cut-off, traveled sometimes near them as part of larger groups of wagons.

The short volume covers the tribulations of the Donner Party after they took the Hastings Cut-off.  Quinn interviewed Wm. Eddy and so focused on his travails.  One ox died.  The next day, cattle under guard, were stolen when the guards left off guarding to have lunch.  Eddy had no more oxen.  He cached his goods and then he and his family had to walk, he carrying one child and some sugar, and his wife the other child.   That’s not really covered in other treatments and with that focus one gets closer to the tragedy.  Imagine being in the position of one of the Eddys walking through the desert to California with virtually nothing.  No one would help them carry anything or even give them help.  The Donner Party was really a party of separate parties.  The descriptions of the Eddys are more evocative that in other portrayals and so makes the story more human.

The book continues, really, as a diary of events day by day.  There was an escape attempt from Donner Lake on November 12.  It was unsuccessful.  There was another on  the 22nd.  Here the folly of some of the participants is exposed.  They got to the top of the pass with a couple of John Sutter’s mules.  They could go no further with the mules.  Charles Stanton, who’d promised to bring the mules back, refused to go on without the mules. They went back to the lake.  Presumably they could have made it to Sacramento, gotten help, and returned.  Stanton died later.

Then there’s bad judgment. Wm. Eddy wanted to kill the mules for food but others refused, afraid they’d have to pay Sutter for the mules.  The mules were covered by snow and lost. 

Here is one weakness. Quinn clearly interviewed Wm. Eddy and some of the story is told through his eyes.  One can sympathize with him, losing his cattle, having to cache his goods, and having to carry his children.  One can cheer when he kills some ducks and then a grizzly.  We can see how the party acted too.  Mr. Eddy had no gun and so had to borrow one to hunt.  He had to give half of what he shot to the gun’s owner.  Eddy had nothing, arriving at Donner Lake with only his wife, two children, and a little sugar.  He never mentions getting food from anyone else and had to give up half of what he hunted.  But Mr. Eddy is perhaps not the best source because, according to Quinn’s account, Eddy was the hero of each event and had the best advice.  He was the one who saved the Forlorn Hope by covering everyone with blankets during the three-day storm.  He was the one person who would not eat human flesh.  He is the one who kept Wm. Foster from killing anyone else for food.

The 19th Century prose is evocative too.  “The wind blew in fearful and terrific blasts from the east.  The cold was intense: the wretched sojourners were nearly naked, and almost without food: the snow had now become so deep as to make it increasingly difficult to get wood for fuel.  They were were completely housed up, and were cut off from all the world, and sympathies of life.  The few cattle that had lived up to this time, and the horses, and Capt. Sutter’s mules, were all supposed to be lost in the snow, and none now cherished the least hope of ever finding them… They found it very difficult to obtain enough wood to cook their now nearly putrid beef, or even to keep them warm…”  pg 23  That was December first.

“On the morning of December 30th they resumed their journey, their feet being so swollen that they had burst open, and, although they were wrapped in rags and pieces of blankets, yet it was with great pain and difficulty that they made any progress…” December 31st  “…Every foot of that day’s struggle was marked with the blood from their feet.”  Pg 30

Description of the first rescuers’ arrival at Donner Lake are vivid,  “… the sufferers were seen coming up out of the snow-holes, from the cabins, which were completely covered, … They tottered  toward their deliverers, … some wept… some laughed… Many of them had a peculiarly wild expression of the eye; all looked haggard, ghastly, and horrible. T he flesh was wasted from their bodies, and the skin seemed to have dried upon their bones.  Their voices were weak and sepulchral;… Fourteen… had already died from starvation, and many more were so reduced, that it as almost certain they would never rise from the miserable beds upon which they had lain down…. The annals of human suffering nowhere present a more appalling spectacle than that which blasted the eyes and sickened the hearts of those brave men [the rescuers]…”  The prose is wonderful and you have to read it for yourself.  Pg 49

On December 16 the Forlorn Hope left for California.  Some days later the description is vivid, “About 11 o’clock that memorable night, the storm increased to a perfect tornado, and in an instant blew away every spark of fire.  Antoine perished a little before this from fatigue, frost, and hunger. The company, except Mr. Eddy and one or two others, were now engaged in alternatingly imploring God for mercy and relief.  That night’s bitter cries, anguish, and despair, never can be forgotten.” Pg 27

Quinn embellishes adding his descriptive prose to the interviews and reading he did.  This leads sometimes to clear errors.  For example,  he says the Forlorn Hope was without shoes but then they “crisped” up their shoes in the fire before eating them.

Quinn also clearly uses the sensational newspapers accounts of the time in his reporting.  For example, as rescuers arrived at the actual Donner Camp at Alder Creek, they saw a boy carrying the leg and thigh of Jacob Donner.  He’d been sent to get it by George Donner.  The Donners had consumed four bodies, “and the children were sitting upon a log, with their faces stained with blood, devouring the half-roasted liver and heart of the father… Around the fire  were hair, bones, skulls, and the fragments of half-consumed limbs…” The description goes on but in deference to our readers’ gentility, we’ll forgo including more here.

Then there is the description of Starved Camp on Donner Summit which is, of course, what readers here would be looking for.  “During the night a most terrible snow-storm came down upon them… The storm continued, without the slightest intermission, for two days and three nights… the air became… more intensely  cold…” the driving snow “fell so thick as to make it impossible to see beyond a few feet. The cold was so intense as to make it impracticable to chop more than a few minutes without returning to the fire to warm. The party had all lain down and were seeking to shelter themselves beneath their blankets. The driving snow soon covered them up… The men, women, and children, were all so cold as to be in great danger of freezing. …The children were all crying. One of the women was weeping- another praying.. A portion of Mr. Reeds’ men were also praying.”  Two men were “alternately struggling to save expiring coals, and swearing at the others, urging them to leave off praying and go to work for the purpose of saving the fire… Morning came at length, and the storm passed away.  The whole party had been two days without any sort of food.”  Pg 77

Thornton saved his greatest exaggerations for Kiesburg, the last man rescued, accusing him of “devouring a child before morning” rather than eat beef.  Then he devoured another child before noon the next day.  Quinn says Keisburg said, A man is a fool who prefers poor California beef to human flesh.”  There is lots more.

Camp of Death is an interesting and short read but should not substitute for a more balanced and complete telling of the Donner Party tragedy.