In April of 1846, two families—33 men, women and children in total—loaded their belongings onto nine wagons, left their homes in Springfield, Illinois, and headed for California 2500 miles away in search of a better life. By the time winter arrived, the ‘Donner Party’ had more than doubled in size, and due to some bad decisions and relentless snowstorms they found themselves stranded in the Sierra Nevada with dwindling supplies. The unimaginable choices they were soon faced with are captured in this diary entry, written in February of 1857 by Patrick Breen, an Irish immigrant travelling with his wife and their seven children, all of whom eventually made it to California. But not everyone was so lucky: despite the best efforts of numerous rescue parties that began to arrive that month, only 48 of the Donner Party’s 87 members survived.
The Diary Entry
Frid 26th froze hard last night to day clear & warm Wind S: E: blowing briskly Marthas jaw swelled with the toothache: hungry times in camp, plenty hides but the folks will not eat them we eat them with a tolerable good apetite. Thanks be to Almighty God. Amen Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would Commence on Milt. & eat him. I dont that she has done so yet, it is distressing. The Donnos told the California folks that they commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know the spot or near it, I suppose they have done so ere this time
Patrick Breen’s diary covers 20th November 1846 to 1st March 1847 and is held at The Berkeley Library, University of California. It can be viewed online. And there are many books about the Donner Party, including Daniel James Brown’s well-received The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, published in 2009. As for the journey itself, there is a very helpful timeline over at Wikipedia that includes many of Breen’s diary entries and lists those who died.
Patrick Breen Diary, BANC MSS C-E 176, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Reproduced with permission.