EXCERPTS FROM DONNER - REED TRAGEDY by Ted Davidson

THE SNOWSHOERS' CHRISTMAS EVE


As the wind whipped falling snow around them, the snowshoers had stopped on the deep, level snow, among the scattered trees in Onion Valley. All of them-- exhausted, starving and discouraged-- were huddled together as they argued their grim situation.

"At least we know the way! We should go back to the cabins!" Billy sharply insisted to Eddy. Foster, Jay Fosdick and Dolan adamantly declared their agreement with Billy.

"No! That's insane! That's suicide!" Eddy cried.

"Eddy's right!" Sarah Foster interjected. "It's taken us nine days atop the snow to get here. And we had food for six of those days."

"We're half-starved now!" Sarah Fosdick exclaimed. "We couldn't go back that far without food, and being so weak!"

"We must go forward, no matter what, get through or perish!" Eddy shouted.

"No! We're lost!" Billy yelled.

"Eddy's right Pa!" Mary Graves countered. "The rest of you men can go back if you want, but we're going forward!" The other women loudly voiced their agreement with Mary.

"We'll all die of starvation!" Jay Fosdick predicted. His comment stunned everyone into silence. All seemed to reflect on the ominous prediction.

"That may be true," Eddy finally said, "unless we find some food."

"Here? What food?" Billy asked, unable to fathom what Eddy meant.

No one spoke, but most seemed to be seriously considering Billy's question. Some appeared to be ashamed of their thoughts.

"I think...uh..." Dolan finally said, quite hesitant to verbalize his thoughts. "We should cast lots...to see...to see who should die to furnish food for the others."

Everyone was shocked to actually hear what many of them had already thought.

"I second Dolan's suggestion," Eddy finally declared.

"No! No! We can't do that!" Foster shouted. Several voiced their agreement with Foster.

"All must agree before such a deed is done," Billy asserted.

"Are we to slaughter and butcher a man, or even a woman, like an ox?" Sarah Foster asked, unable to believe what was being proposed. All seemed appalled by the thought.

"Then let two of us, just men, each with a pistol, fight until one or both are killed," Eddy finally suggested.

"Oh..." Foster mumbled, looking at Eddy and slowly shaking his head. "Uh...No."

"But this way a man would have a chance for his life. And if he lost, would avoid being slaughtered like an animal," Eddy contended.

"That's a manly way," Dolan declared as most seriously reflected on Eddy's suggestion.

"No! You can't do that!" Sarah Fosdick yelled. She turned to Jay and tenderly pleaded, "Oh Jay, I couldn't bear to have you..." Sarah was overwrought with emotion, unable to continue. Eddy looked around at their faces to see if anyone had some other suggestion.

"Should we struggle on until someone dies?" Eddy finally asked. No one answered, but their silence seemed to indicate agreement.



DECEMBER 25, 1846

A half hour later the fire flickered precariously on it's stilt-like platform, its meager warmth fighting against the storm as the snowshoers huddled even closer than before. Eddy was blankly staring at the fire; Mary Graves was numbly staring at Eddy. He glanced up and their dull eyes met. 

"A nice merry Christmas this will be," Eddy bitterly remarked. Mary, a touch of bitterness creeping into her eyes, nodded slightly in agreement.

Salvador, asleep, half-frozen and farther from the fire than most of the others, roused himself, numbly looked at the fire, and got up. Half-asleep, he awkwardly began to move closer to the fire.

Suddenly he stumbled, fell toward the fire and knocked it off its precarious base! As the fire hissed, the flames disappeared and darkness enveloped everything; shouts, wails, moans and whimpers rose in a chorus against the raging storm.


...For several moments, Reed stood as if petrified, horrified by the sight of Snyder's blood which was on his hand. Suddenly Reed winced and blinked as his own blood flowed into his eye. Instinctively Reed wiped his eye and part of his forehead with his fingers. With much of the blood wiped away, but some smeared by his fingers, Reed continued blinking as he again looked at his hand, which now had his own blood mingled with that of Snyder. Overwhelmed, he suddenly wiped his bloody hand on his shirt as he wheeled around and rapidly moved toward Snyder.

Pat Breen made room for Reed, who, with blood streaming down his face, quickly knelt over Snyder, whose head still was in William Graves' lap. The sight of Snyder's ashen face, from which the life was ebbing away, overwhelmed Reed.

Snyder looked at Reed, who was dumbstruck as tears welled in his eyes, adding another dimension to his bloodied, anguished face. Snyder, with an agonized, dying look in his eyes, looked at Reed and moved his lips as he tried to say something, but no sound came out. Reed bent closer to hear; his own blood dripped and mingled with that of Snyder.

"I...I am to blame," Snyder falteringly whispered to Reed...


...at the bottom of Emigration Canyon, most of the men appeared to be beyond the point of exhaustion from the second day of incessant effort to tunnel through the trees and undergrowth, fighting their way down the canyon. A few were openly hostile as they hatefully glanced at Reed, who ignored the others. Reed repeatedly winced at the pain from his blood-soaked, cloth-wrapped hands, as he stubbornly persisted, leading the seemingly endless attack on the trees, brush and rocks...


...In the flickering light from a campfire at Pilot Peak Springs, Reed, George Donner and Eddy were bundled up against the desert cold, hovering near the fire as they anxiously talked.

"No George! It's only thirty-six oxen that are missing or dead." Eddy corrected.

"Still, that's nearly a quarter of the oxen!" George exclaimed.

"We need a miracle," Reed declared as he poked the fire with a stick, making sparks fly upward. "Or else we'll have to leave some wagons."

"If only we could go back," George said.

"Impossible!" Eddy exclaimed. "Can't stay her either! Now we're not even sure how far it is to California!"

"Hastings' thirty-five or forty miles across the salt desert! Actually it's at least eighty! Maybe even eighty-five," Reed bitterly protested, shaking his head back and forth...


...Still later in the night, Reed, in a coma-like sleep, lay where he had collapsed while crawling on the snow. He was several yards beyond the others who were near the fire, which had nearly lost the battle against the raging storm. Snow lightly covered all the sleeping refugees and rescuers, including Reed.

The green log fire platform, which had served far longer than it should, suddenly shifted and most of the fire hissed into the melted snow which had pooled under the platform. The only light was from a few embers which remained above the water.

No one stirred. The storm appeared to have won...

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