While her husband, William “Will” Eddy (1816-1859) chases a 900-pound grizzly bear, puffs his pipe, fells trees for lake lodging, tells very tall and ribald tales, shoots errant game, or makes midnight plans with Charles Stanton to walk across the Sierras in the dead of winter, Eleanor Priscilla Roach Eddy (1821-1847) worries how long she and their young children, Jimmy (age 3) and Margaret (1) are going to survive this December. Unlike the Breens who have a high-count oxen stockpile and a cozy (but smelly) cabin all to themselves, the Eddys were only able to carry limited clothes and goods when they lost their oxen to Indians near present-day Reno. Without oxen, you can’t drive a wagon. The 2,500-mile trip from Missouri to the Sierras has created a world weary and worn-out Eleanor. Only 25 years old, she puts on a brave face when her husband Will is around, but when he’s gone she thinks about how peaceful death might be.
She knows she is not a fighter like her sort-of friend, Margaret Reed, an upper class lady who used to look down on Eleanor because of her country speech and humble upbringing. Even without her protective husband, James Reed, leader of the entire party, Margaret refuses to give up on herself or her three young children and one teen. She begs for food and ox hides from the righteous Peggy Breen (those Breens!) and caches away the small bounty of nuts, berries, and beans she saved from when Charles Stanton brought back provisions to the hungry group from Sutter’s Fort in mid-October. They sure hadn’t known what hunger was like then.
Eleanor wonders why she ever agreed to this trip in the first place—it wasn’t her dream; it was Will’s. She liked Belleville, Illinois, just fine and its plain, hard-working folk. Will didn’t. He had ambitions to own land and prove to his estranged father he could be just as successful. William Eddy was born William Eaddy to Edward Drake Eaddy and Mary Bartell. Their family lived in Lynches River, South Carolina, near present-day Darlington on a large plantation. Will was the oldest and had 12 brothers and sisters. Their family owned 35 slaves. After his mother died in 1837 and his father re-married, I guess that Will left South Carolina, never to return. Maybe he didn’t like his stepmother, Zilpha; maybe something inappropriate happened. Maybe Will hated slavery or maybe he wanted to strike out on his own—but something hard happened to make him change his name to Eddy and lie to everyone that his dad was the Mayflower descendant Nathan Eddy of Providence, Rhode Island. In any case, Will took his gunmaking/hunting/craftsmanship skills, passed down to him through maternal uncles and quickly established himself in Belleville, which isn’t far from St. Louis. He and Eleanor met in the area. According to some records, Will and Eleanor did not marry in Belleville, in 1841.
On December 16, 1846, Will and Charles Stanton lead the 15-person Snowshoe Party, aka the Forlorn Hope, aka the suicide mission, aka we’re-leaving-without-a-compass-and-don’t-care from Truckee Lake. Eleanor kisses Will in public, a very rare occurrence, knowing she won’t see him again unless rescuers returned with food and supplies within a month. This doesn’t happen. She knows winter has only begun. A few days before Will leaves, she spied on Margaret Reed hiding her secret cache a few paces away from the cabin. She won’t steal it, but it gives her an idea.
She can “cache” a half pound of grizzly bear meat in Will’s backpack so he can have more strength to lead his group, and then rescue everyone. Eleanor won’t tell him it’s there—he’s always been the one to take care of her—now it’s her turn! He will need her and she can save him. She can show him her love—she hasn’t been the most loving wife since Baby Margaret was born last year. However, if she gives Will the bear meat from the same grizzly bear he killed a month ago she is sure to die. And so will her children. She’s certain of that. They’re down to boiled ox hide and maybe a mouse, but they’re wasting away.
While Will is making snowshoes with Mr. Graves, Eleanor visits the Breen cabin. She rather not be here. “Mr. Breen, sir,” Eleanor calls out against Patrick Breen’s hide door.
“Go away, Mrs. Eddy. I already told you we’re not giving you anything.”
“I’m not here for food. Just a scrap of paper and a pencil, please.”
“Is that it? I didn’t know you could write.”
“Sir, please don’t insult me at this time. Not even a full sheet. Just a scrap. It’s a note I need to write. Please.”
“Fine, woman. Here you go. A full sheet of paper and a working pencil too. You must bring my pencil back within the hour. It’s my only one.” Eleanor knew Mr. Breen couldn’t go a day with writing in his diary.
“I’m most grateful, sir.” Mr. Breen could be pleasant if you stood up to him. There was a great deal of awkwardness between the Eddys and Breens after Will pointed a gun at Mr. Breen demanding he give the children a sip of his water back in the desert passing. That seemed like a century ago.
While Will is visiting the woods for his daily 9 a.m. bowel movement on the day of his leaving, Eleanor carefully wraps the bear meat in Mr. Breen’s paper with a note on the outside. We’ll never know exactly what Eleanor wrote to William Eddy, but we do know she signed it, “Your own dear Eleanor.” She tells him to only eat the meat if he is desperate and if it would save his life. Will found it on December 23. By December 24, four men had died, including Mr. Graves. That night, the survivors ate these men. Merry Christmas. I’m sure William Eddy disliked the Christmas season after this 33-day ordeal through the mountains.
We know the rest of the story: by the end of January 1847, William Eddy leads the now seven-person Snowshoe Party out of the peaks with the help of Indian guides and tries to rescue his family in the first rescue effort, but only makes it as far as the foothills due to his very weakened condition. When the First Relief party returns, William Eddy finds out that Margaret died on February 4, 1847, and her mother died three days later. They were buried together in the snow after they were cannibalized. We don’t know Eleanor’s birthday but we know her death date thanks to the methodical recordkeeping of Patrick Breen: February 7, 1847.
Breen recorded in his diary:
“February 5, 1847, ‘Eddys child died last night’; on the 6th, ‘Mrs. Eddy very weak’; on the 8th, ‘Mrs. Eddy died on the night of the 7th’; and on February 9, ‘John went down to day to bury Mrs. Eddy and child.”
It is a shame that we don’t know more about Eleanor and can only guess about her dreams and desires. I’m so grateful she left a note for her husband with the forsaken bear meat that should have been eaten by her and her children. However, Eddy could have died without that meat and the party needed his leadership because Charles Stanton, the other leader, had already succumbed to snow blindness and hyperthermia a few days before.
In the just-released novel, Answer Creek by Ashley E. Sweeney, the main character, Ada Weeks, is friends with Eleanor Eddy. It was wonderful to see and hear Eleanor. I imagine she was a sweet woman with secrets, who was trying to step outside Will’s lengthy shadow, worried that this trip-of-a-lifetime was causing fault lines in their marriage—nothing would ever be the same if they survived. Would it be easier if she didn’t?
Source: The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis. (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017).