This article first appeared in the Santa Clara Historical and Genealogical Society Newsletter, April 2023
On Being a History Detective:
My Research Experience on Donner Party Survivor/Rescuer, William H. Eddy
Call it fate or destiny, five years ago I became an ardent and nationally known Donner Party scholar thanks to survivor/rescuer William Henry Eddy (1814-1859). Learning about his short, tragic, yet remarkable life has led me from my home in Raleigh, North Carolina, to his birthplace of Lynches River, South Carolina, to Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, California, where he and his family suffered that terrible winter of 1846-1847, to his gravesite in Oak Hill Memorial Park in San Jose, which I wrote about in detail in the November 2022 SCCHGS newsletter.
Although Eddy is not my ancestor, I feel like he could be given how much we have in common in terms of geography and the written word. He was born in South Carolina; so were my ancestors. He also lived in Missouri; so did my ancestors, and, of course, the California connection. My father was born and graduated from high school in the Golden State.
I felt particularly drawn to this gentleman after first reading about his feats and many sacrifices in Michael Wallis’s The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny (2017). I knew immediately that he would be the main character in my upcoming novel, which takes place on the eve of the Civil War, thirteen years after the Donner Party tragedy. Eddy used writing as a means to shape his story into a hero’s journey, which obfuscated his reluctant cannibalism, for which is what the Donner Party is unfortunately best known.
First, a review of his life based on my research and educated guesses:
William H. Eddy was born into the prominent and slaveholding Eaddy family of Lynches River, South Carolina, where he learned his survival and hunting skills through his German mother’s brothers. After his mother died and his father married a much younger woman, he changed his name to “Eddy” and found work as a wheelwright in Belleville, Illinois, a German enclave and non-slave state. Here he started a family with his first wife, Eleanor Priscilla Roach, and they and their two small children joined the Donner and Reed families to form the larger Russell Party as it made its way out of the Midwest in the spring of 1846 to its final destination: Alta California, which wasn’t yet a state. Tragically, his entire family perished in the Donner Party. Could Eddy have had anti-slavery leanings? Was this part of the reason he initially left South Carolina? In California, after he started his life post-Donner Party, many of Eddy’s professional associates were Republicans, and it’s a possibility Eddy’s second and ex-wife Flavilla Ingersoll Alford worked with the Underground Railroad in Plainfield, Illinois—her cousin was famed abolitionist Robert Ingersoll. Eddy had an education—he wrote and spoke extremely well from what the journalists and authors he befriended recorded. By telling his story first and controlling the narrative, Eddy managed to be known as the “hero of the Donner Party,” and not just an unfortunate survivor who consumed human flesh. (Sidenote: His mother’s German family must have stressed the importance of reading newspapers. After all, Germans invented the printing press.)
Eddy was the party’s only skilled hunter, and while he and his family were trapped at Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) in early November 1846 by heavy snow, he killed an owl, a coyote, three ducks, a squirrel, and a 900-pound grizzly bear with a borrowed rifle. That rifle is on display at Donner Memorial State Park.
Eddy’s most remarkable achievement was co-leading the Snowshoe Party, later known as the Forlorn Hope, in mid-December along with Charles Stanton and two Miwok men, Luis and Salvador from Sutter’s Fort, who arrived with Stanton when he returned to the Donner group after gathering much-needed supplies before everyone became snowed in November 1. The seventeen members set out with fourteen homemade snowshoes among them with the goal of seeking help for their families from other Americans in the Sacramento Valley. Two men turned back early on, and the remaining fifteen, ten men and five women, endured a harsh setback when their leader, Charles Stanton, became snow-blind, and could not walk on his own power into their camp. His remains were found later that spring.
Without a compass and the trail hidden by snow, the whole party quickly got lost. Their trek should have only taken them six days to reach Johnson’s Ranch, a hundred miles away, but instead it took thirty-three days. The only hikers to survive were Eddy and William Foster (he of the borrowed rifle) and the five women.
All the Forlorn Hopers resorted to cannibalism to survive; first they consumed their fallen companions who died along the way, and later Luis and Salvador were murdered for their flesh. Eddy tried to hold out as long as possible from cannibalism when the party first had to consume human flesh on Christmas Day 1846, because his wife Eleanor had sneaked bear meat into his rucksack. Some accounts say Eddy warned the Miwok men to leave the party after he learned Foster was intent on killing the men for food. However, when Foster did shoot the men, everyone consumed their bodies, even William Eddy.
After reaching safety, not three weeks later, Eddy volunteered for the First Relief party to save the Donner Party, but he only made it to the Sierra foothills since he was still very weak from his Forlorn Hope ordeal. Meanwhile, his starving family at the lake was dying. Eleanor and their infant Margaret passed first. Three-year-old James died in March a few days before Eddy and Foster reached the camps as they led the Third Relief. They rescued four children: all three young Donner daughters, ages six, five, and three, and Simon Murphy, William Foster’s eight-year-old brother-in-law.
Researching William Eddy’s life has brought me into contact with many of his descendants from his second family. In 1849, he married Flavilla Ingersoll Alford, and all of his descendants are from this union.
Through my experience, I hope to inspire you to find out more about your own families and to be as creative as possible in obtaining the information you need. In the following, I describe four methods I used to uncover Eddy’s story: a blog on my website; Ancestry sites, organizations and newspapers; “Find a Grave” and libraries; and other serendipitous connections.
I already had a well-read blog on my website when I published this post, “Who Is William Eddy? My Donner Party Hero?” four years ago (https://tinyurl.com/nhhdje2b). Since that time, the comment section has become an Eddy family reunion. In it folks from California and elsewhere try to figure out their Eddy lineage. Most are descendants from Eddy’s third son, Alonzo, who had four children. Their comments turned into email correspondence with each other. Also, through my blog, in September 2022, I was able to meet Michael Flagg, Eddy’s great-great-great grandson. I met Michael at Donner Summit just a few days after I visited William Eddy’s gravesite in Oak Hill.
Ancestry Sites, Organizations, and Newspapers
My first research venture involved the free access California Digital Newspaper Collection (www.cdnc.ucr.edu) which revealed that William Eddy was the trustee of his late father-in-law, Chester Ingersoll, and was involved in a lot auction in Sacramento. This item informed me that Eddy was able to rebuild his personal finances after the Donner Party through real estate, and how his investments made him one of the wealthier citizens of San Jose. This fact also made his financial ruin later in 1857 that much more interesting.
The Eddy descendants I met through my blog did not give me additional information about their ancestor, but I was able to give them information, such as that Eddy might not have been Alonzo’s biological father because he was out of the state for most of 1852, the year Alonzo was conceived. In 1853 shortly after Alonzo’s birth in San Jose, Eddy’s ex-wife, Flavilla, married Winwright Willis, and they moved to Wheatland, Illinois. I found this information by perusing multiple websites such as, Oregon Pioneers (https://tinyurl.com/445s3mc8) and, We Relate, (https://tinyurl.com/52y26unb). We Relate also includes valuable census records which showed where his children lived (San Jose) while he resided in St. Louis, Missouri. I also learned through multiple Google searches that Eddy was one of nineteen men who put up $19,000 to petition San Jose as the capital of California in 1849, and he was one of the fifteen founding members of the San Jose No. 10 Lodge of Freemasons on July 11, 1850. I also discovered that he was suspended for NPD (non-payment of dues) in 1857.
And of course SCCHGS helped me uncover invaluable information about Eddy’s daughter, Eleanor “Nellie” Eddy Anderson Hall (1849-1916), such as newspaper articles about her first husband, Brock, a Civil War Union veteran who led a prison break out of Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Another noted that “Nearer My God To Thee” and “Shall We Gather at the River” were sung at her funeral in San Jose in 1917.
Find a Grave and Libraries
Thanks to one of my blog commenters, William Eddy’s Find a Grave page (https://tinyurl.com/y8x2khc3) is now more accurate than before. lt lists the exact location (Section C, Block 9, Lot 4) of his grave and his third wife, Ann Purdy, now has a proper name and is linked to her own Find a Grave page. Through an intrepid researcher at the Sonoma County Library, I discovered Purdy, whose name had been misspelled as “Pardy.” The same thing happened to his daughter’s first husband, Sanfieo Brockway Anderson (1844-1903). The Oak Hill Memorial records had it as “Sanifer.” Eddy’s daughter and son-in-law rest opposite Eddy in Section C, Block 9, Lot 4, Space 2 under an enormous oak tree.
Lastly, the best way to be a history detective is to team up with another genealogist/detective who is also doing similar research. Through SCCHGS, I met fellow member Tammy Grier who located articles for me about William Eddy’s burial relocation in The Pony Express magazine, a land grant contract from 1849 between James Reed and William Eddy, and a photograph of Eddy’s San Jose home. I can’t thank her enough for her generosity and follow-through.
I hope your hunt to find the real story of your ancestors is easier than my own search for William Eddy before and after the Donner Party. It’s ironic that although the Donner Party saga was well-covered by diaries and accounts from 1846 to 1847, many of the survivors and rescuers fell into obscurity, and that’s how they preferred it. We’re fortunate to live in the internet age, but I found the best pieces of research were scanned hard copies of newspapers, contracts, and photos. Through these items of history, I am able to puzzle my way into William Eddy’s truly fascinating life, and fill in the gaps with good guesses and my imagination, so that he matches the real historical figure who continues to inspire me and others with his examples of courage and resilience.