THE DONNER PARTY
Most of the westward-bound pioneers who survived the Donner Party tragedy were women. Through Alice Osborn’s stories and songs, experience and find inspiration from their grit, endurance, and heroism.
So Why The Interest in the Donner Party, Alice?
The easy answer is that the story found me, but if you want the long answer: Back in 2011, I visited the Museum at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and was drawn to a very small museum label and drawing about the Donner Party–later that night I Wikipedia’d all the info I could find on the ill-fated party and was horrified and also attracted to this history. Then in 2018 as my husband and I were traveling to Crested Butte, Colorado, I sat next to a woman who asked me what was there to do in Reno. Of course, I said, “Visit Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee–that’s only thirty-six miles away!” Thanks to my 2011 research I was able to help my new friend find a perfect Sunday afternoon AND she texted me photos of the park–that’s when I knew greater forces were at hand to guide me learn more about the Donner Party. After that trip I was inspired to write a song, “Searching for Paradise,” about Tamsen Donner, which is also on this new album in an updated form–and that was it–I have found my lifelong obsession. And of course there’s more: the Donner Party is about writing your own narrative, climate, society, leadership, nature, class/ethnicity, survival, family, trauma, mountains, moms, dads, human nature…and the birth of California as part of the United States of America.
As I read all the narrative nonfiction, plays, fiction, and listened to Donner Party songs and other media, my fascination kept turning to William H. Eddy, who is considered the hero of the Donner Party—most notably because he is the only man to have lost his entire family. My bond with Eddy has become so strong that I visited his gravesite in September 2022 at Oak Hill Memorial Park in San Jose and I have met so many fine and mighty people through him—he doesn’t matter that he died 163 years ago. In fact, I made a decision to fly out to Donner Memorial State Park in February 2022—in the middle of winter!—just to meet the woman who was reprising his character in the Forlorn Hope/Donner Party Relief Expeditions. He’s also fascinating to me because he covered up his past: he told everyone he was born in Rhode Island and a direct descendants of the Mayflower Eddys, but my research shows he was born two years earlier than what he said in Lynches River, South Carolina, where he was the first-born son of a slaveholder. Of course, he’s the main character of my novel in progress. Read more about William Eddy below.
What would YOU do to save the ones you love?
The Donner Party tragedy tested the limits of human endurance. Many of us know about the one of the worst western migration stories in our history: the Donner Party. They were farmers, merchants, and families who ventured West to California to start a new life, but half of the party did not survive. Those who did had to do the unspeakable to see the spring again in the harsh winter of 1846-1847 in the Sierra Nevada mountains. But who were they and why does their story still fascinate us today? Author, singer-songwriter, and historian Alice Osborn shares songs and stories about the Donner Party from the women’s perspective, bringing this history to life showing their grit, civility, and heroism; not only did these survivors form the first families of California, theirs is a cautionary tale about man vs. nature, Indigenous peoples, and society. Theirs is also an inspiration of how we can better treat our neighbors and be kind even when it’s difficult to do so.
William H. Eddy (1816-1859) was a carriage maker from Belleville, Illinois, a suburb of St. Louis, who became known as one of the heroes of the Donner Party because he led the Forlorn Hope group of 15 over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a journey of 80 miles, in mid-December 1846. Unfortunately, only he and six others survived. Having left his wife, Eleanor, and his two small children behind at Truckee Lake, Margaret and Jimmy, the 29-year-old Eddy was desperate to get back to his family after barely surviving his journey west. He was still too weak to complete the First Relief rescue back east and was also not able to make the Second Relief, led by James Reed, his friend and the Donner Party’s co-leader. Finally, he and fellow Forlorn Hopian, William Foster, co-led the six-man Third Relief. Two of the men, John Stark and Howard Oakley, stayed to help the Breens at Starved Camp, so that meant Eddy, Foster, Hiram Miller, and John Thompson comprised the Third Relief that reached Truckee Lake mid-morning on March 13, 1847. They left two hours later.
Perhaps even more a hero than William Eddy, John Stark singlehandedly saved the 10-member Breen family and is notable for saying this:
“No, gentlemen, I will not abandon these people. I am here on a mission of mercy, and I will not half do the work. You can all go if you want to, but I shall stay by these people while they and I live.” (John Stark)
By this time, Eddy had learned the sad news from the other rescue parties that Eleanor and his daughter had perished, but there was still hope that Jimmy was alive.
Unfortunately, the Third Relief arrived too late to save Jimmy or George, William Foster’s son; Lewis Keseberg had already consumed them both. Yet, Eddy could still save the lives of four children: the three Donner daughters: Frances (age 6); Georgia (age 4); Eliza (age 3) and Simon Murphy, age 8. Tamsen Donner, the girls’ mother, implored Eddy to save her children and said she would pay him handsomely for the task. He refused her silver saying that he’d lead the kids out over the trail or die trying. Each man carried a child out and Eddy carried young Georgia on his back for 46.7 miles. Georgia later stated, “I have been told that Mr. Eddy was not a truthful man, but he certainly was a kind-hearted man, and to his tender care I owe my life.”
When I started my Donner Party education/obsession two years ago I couldn’t help but notice that William Eddy was mentioned everywhere. At the beginning of the journey across the Plains he was helping journalist/author Edwin Bryant with his broken axle; then he shot geese, owls, coyotes, to feed the group; then he begged Patrick Breen to go back and find Hardcoop because he had a horse and Breen refused; and then he killed a 900-pound grizzly bear after dodging the bear around a tree and smashing his rifle stock into the bear’s face after he shot the second bullet. While on the Forlorn Hope march (which was later named “Forlorn Hope” by Charles McGlashan thirty-four years after the event—in fact, McGlashan was born four months after the last survivor was rescued) —Eddy Macgyvered solutions from making fire with nothing more than flint and cotton, to keeping everyone alive by “tenting” everyone’s heads around the fire, to being the chief motivator to keep everyone up and moving so they wouldn’t die, to killing a deer at the last desperate hour with Mary Anne Graves’s help. Why was Eddy so ubiquitous? For one thing, he was someone who thrived being in the middle of the action. He needed to be needed—don’t we all know someone like that? He also made sure that he told his story to his reporter friends like Edwin Bryant and Jessy Quinn Thornton. His story might not have been the most accurate story, but his was the loudest and he was determined to shape the narrative before someone else did. Smart guy.
Right away, I was fascinated with Eddy and felt so sorry for him that he lost his wife, son, and daughter. I imagined what it must have been like to keep going and live for his family who perished before reaching their destination, their singular dream. How does one work through unspeakable horrors that includes cannibalism, and return to fight another day? The truth is that you never get over the trauma—you only manage it and it was this aspect that attracted me and attached me to William Eddy’s story. I feel like he’s my alter ego now—a very good thing since he’s my protagonist in my upcoming novel, The Reluctant Cannibal. Thanks to William Eddy, I’m a voting member of the Santa Clara County Historical and Genealogical Society, and have made a few friends from across the U.S. who are either family of his or who are connected to his story.
I recently discovered an episode of Death Valley Days all about William Eddy after he reaches San Francisco and his desire for revenge against Lansford Hastings, the man who wrote the guidebook with the untried shortcut, the Hastings Cutoff, that sealed the Donners’ fate. The episode is called “The Hastings Cut-off” (1964) and it stars Joe Maross (TV character actor who starred in two Twilight Zone episodes among other shows) and Ellen Burstyn (she’s still acting at 87-years-young!). It’s really good and it was the ultimate thrill for me to see William Eddy portrayed so accurately on the screen.
Through the help of his Donner Party friends, especially James Reed, and his in-laws, the Ingersolls, Eddy became a prosperous rancher, miner, and farmer in San Jose. He married Flavilla Ingersoll in May 1848 and they had three children: Eleanor (Nellie), born 1849; James, born 1851, and Alonzo (1853), who may or may not be his biological son since he was traveling back east at the time of Alonzo’s conception while Flavilla had already met her future husband, Englishman Winwright Willis, whom she married in 1854. Eddy married his third wife, Ann Purdy, April 13, 1854 in St. Louis. Flavilla left California with her new family in 1853, not to return to reunite with Alonzo and Nellie until 1900—it was such a big deal that it was reported in the papers. Yes, I’m sure her kids with William Eddy didn’t feel she was “Mother of the Year.” She died at almost 100 years old in 1920.