William H. Eddy, survivor and chief rescuer of the ill-fated Donner Party (1846-1847), traveled far in life as well as in death—a feat few experienced or even contemplated in antebellum America. Married to Eleanor with a toddler, Jimmy, and an infant daughter, Margaret, Eddy decided to uproot his young family from Belleville, Illinois, a suburb of St. Louis, where he was a carriage maker, and move 2,000 miles west to Alta California. With their one wagon, the Eddy family traveled north to Springfield, Illinois, to rendezvous with the George and Jacob Donner wagons, as well as the James Frazier Reed family wagon. They comprised the eighty or so western-bound emigrants from the Midwest who became trapped by the early Sierra Nevada snow Halloween night 1846 after they lost time by traversing an untried shortcut in Utah; they are now forever remembered as being members of the worst wagon disaster in American history whose starving survivors had to cannibalize the dead. Eddy’s wife and his two children died from starvation while he led two rescue attempts in the middle of winter hundreds of miles away. At the age of forty-five, thirteen years later, he died in Petaluma in Sonoma County on Christmas Eve, where he was first buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, which stopped accepting new burials in 1879 due to flooding.
In 1877, William Eddy’s only surviving daughter, Nellie Eddy Anderson, reinterred his remains at Oak Hill Memorial Park, San Jose, in her husband’s family plot in Section C, Block 9. Founded in 1847, the same year Eddy’s wife and children died, Oak Hill used to be known as the Pueblo Cemetery. Renamed Oak Hill Cemetery in 1858, the cemetery sits on 300 acres in South San Jose off of Curtner Avenue and Monterey Road. You might think that early pioneer graves and newer graves are separated from each other, but that’s not the case. In the nineteenth century, the dead were buried without any sort of pattern and therefore recent burials with ornate flower vases and inscriptions are located beside the older and faded headstones.
On Memorial Day 1949, Nellie Eddy Anderson’s great-niece, his granddaughter Virginia Eddy, led a ceremony with well-known artist William Gordon Huff in attendance. He sculpted a likeness of William Eddy in a bronze plaque including Eddy’s name and dates (1817-1859). Below the plaque reads the inscription, “He led the Forlorn Hope of the Donner Party. Dedicated Memorial Day 1949 by the order of the ancient & honorable order of E Clampus Vitus.” This plaque was placed upon a one-and-and-half foot-wide by one-foot-high granite rock from Donner Summit that resembles the shape of the Murphy cabin boulder, the location at Donner Lake where Eddy built the cabin that housed his family, as well the Murphy families, and where his wife and children died. Eddy had the foresight to use the boulder as the north end chimney wall so only three other walls had to be erected. Today, the Murphy cabin boulder at Donner Memorial State Park memorializes those who died and those who survived the Donner Party.
But there is much more to William Eddy’s story that most realize. We continue to be fascinated by the Donner Party today because they were ordinary people: merchants, farmers, wagon drivers, teachers, cooks, parents, grandparents, and forty-three children. What would we do in their shoes? No mountain men among them, although Eddy came the closest.
When trouble called, William Eddy rushed to the rescue. Broken axle? Need some game to supply meat for the wagon train? Need a strong man to prevent a lynching? Get Mr. Eddy. On this last item, co-leader James Frazier Reed had just killed John Snyder, a teamster for the Graves, in self defense and Eddy led the charge for Reed to be banished from the party, not sacrificed. James Reed was the most capable leader the group possessed, and his leaving further divided the Donner Party. After the emigrants’ path to California slammed in the front and in the back due to a sudden storm that dumped five feet of snow on Halloween night, Eddy found a boulder
and proceeded to cut logs for the soon-to-be named Murphy cabin. With a borrowed rifle, which you can see today at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, California, he hunted an owl, a coyote, and a grizzly bear, clubbing the bear with the rifle while his second shot sunk fatally into the bear’s flesh. Along with the brave bachelor Charles Stanton, Eddy led several failed attempts over the summit, but it wasn’t until December 16, 1846, that Stanton led a group of nine men and five women snowshoers who carried only six days’ worth of food, one blanket each, one axe, the aforementioned rifle, and no compass. They later became known as the Forlorn Hope. Stanton died of starvation and exhaustion three days into the journey, allowing Eddy to take charge in the middle of a vicious six-day Christmas snowstorm. Four men died. While chopping wood, Eddy’s axe blade detached from its handle and wasn’t found until 2021. To stay alive, Eddy suggested one member stand tall like a tent pole under a blanket, so that all the others would gather body heat, and then the tent pole volunteer would rotate off watch. This is also where cannibalism first appeared in the Donner Party. Thanks to his wife Eleanor sneaking a half pound of the grizzly bear meat into his ruck sack, Eddy had enough strength to keep going for another day before he too had to consume the flesh of his dead companions. He and Mary Ann Graves kept the miserable group together and towards the end of their journey, Graves helped Eddy fell a deer which provided last ditch nourishment to the faltering group before they found held from an Indian village. Thirty-three days after they left their families at Truckee Lake, William Eddy collapsed into the Ritchie cabin at Johnson’s Ranch on January 17, 1847, sounding the alarm for rescue, which occurred a month later when seven men, who also had battled the elements, arrived at Truckee Lake praying to find survivors. They did, but sadly Eleanor Eddy and her daughter were not among them. Yet could their son Jimmy still be alive? After successfully leading the Third Relief in March 1847 and arriving at the Murphy cabin, Eddy discovered his son had been cannibalized. But amid the shock and sorrow, Eddy reached deep into his humanity to gather the remaining four children around him and pair them with his three other rescuers. He carried five-year-old Georgia Donner on his back, while her sisters, Frances, age six, and Eliza, age three, also escaped the mountains along with Mrs. Murphy’s eight-year-old son, Simon. They left only two hours after first arriving at the camp, leaving the girls’ mother, Tamsen Donner, who wished to remain with her dying husband, George. The rescuers and survivors never saw Mrs. Donner alive again.
William Eddy died Christmas Eve, 1859, in Petaluma, California, over 2,700 miles from where he was most likely born in swampy and humid Lynches River, South Carolina. Eddy changed the spelling of his name from “Eaddy” to “Eddy,” making it difficult today to track his true family tree. It is very likely he was the oldest son of Edward Drake Eddy, a wealthy landowner who owned dozens of slaves, and Mary Bartell, a half German woman whose father was a Hessian solider in the Revolutionary War, but we’ll never know for sure and that’s part of William Eddy’s charm and mystery. A known liar, but described as kind-hearted man who would give the clothes off his back to help you, Eddy claimed he was the son of Nathan Eddy, of the Mayflower Eddys, and actually born in 1816 in Rhode Island—or it might have been Massachusetts, depending on who he told and what they remembered. His daughter Nellie listed Rhode Island as her father’s birthplace on the 1900 census. Why did he lie? Perhaps he was running from the law. Or maybe he wanted to be his own man and not be burdened with living out his life in the South Carolina swamps.
A year after Eddy lost his family in the Donner Party, he married a rich widow and fellow overland pioneer, Flavilla Alford Ingersoll, in Gilroy, becoming a Freemason through James Reed’s influence and a millionaire thanks to mining, real estate, ranching, and farming. Then three children later, the couple divorced: she moved to Plainfield, Illinois, and Eddy moved back East to St. Louis where he married his third wife, Ann Purdy. In 1857, he suffered from health and financial woes: he stopped paying his Freemason dues and shortly thereafter, the couple moved to the newly incorporated town of Petaluma, where he later died from heart failure December 24, 1859, thirteen years to the day when the Forlorn Hope party resorted to cannibalism. I have a feeling that William Eddy preferred Thanksgiving over Christmas.
Armed with a detailed map of Oak Hill, I thought locating William Eddy’s grave would be simple. Instead, it took me over an hour to find it with the help of a kind crew of landscapers and James Smith, the head groundskeeper, to find William Eddy’s and Nellie Eddy Anderson’s plot shaded under a three-hundred-year-old oak tree. He is the only Donner Party survivor in Section C. Finding his grave covered in mud as a result of the sprinklers and leaf blowers, I cleaned the bronze sculpture and inscription with tissues, while picking up a windblown bag of Doritos and a tiny Mylar balloon. The tall traditional Anderson grave is in sharp contrast to Eddy’s squat rock, but they are in eternal conversation with each other: Eddy’s faces east to the sun to meet his next life and his daughter’s grave faces to the west and to the future. Leaving yellow and red flowers atop his gravestone I was so grateful to the caring and consideration shown by Eddy’s daughter and granddaughter allowing me to reflect and remember all that William Eddy had accomplished and all those he had saved in his lifetime. I wonder if rescuing others saved him? I asked Mr. Smith how a permanent vase could be installed so visitors could leave flowers behind for him that wouldn’t blow away. He said I need to coordinate this effort with one of William Eddy’s descendants. Then an hour after I left the cemetery I received a text from Michael Flagg, Eddy’s three-great grandson welcoming me to California. I told him whom I had just met. Flagg is currently working with Oak Hill to install this permanent vase to honor the final resting place of the hero of the Donner Party and of the Forlorn Hope. So the next time you visit Oak Hill Memorial Park, look up to the sky and find an old oak tree in the section near Monterey Road. Walk up to its left side and leave a floral tribute to an American hero who continues to inspire us with his kindness, courage, and big heart.
Alice Osborn is an author, musician, and historian based in Raleigh, North Carolina. She recently released a full-length album of original songs: Skirts in the Snow: Beyond the Tragedy of the Donner Party and is currently working on a novel about the Donner Party survivors featuring William Eddy, Georgia Donner, and Nellie Eddy Anderson. Read more about her and listen to her music at www.aliceosborn.com.