In great tragedies we often look for heroes—they sacrificed and saved others who couldn’t save themselves. In the Donner Party story there are a few heroes among those families looking out only for themselves. One of my favorites is carriage-maker (or coffin-maker, according to some sources) William Henry Eddy (1818-1859), whom I first met while reading Michael Wallis’s The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny (2017). Eddy’s origins are mysterious: his people could be from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, or even South Carolina. Today Eddy families strive in vain to claim William H. Eddy as their own, but turn up empty. His wife, Eleanor Priscilla Eddy, also came from nowhere. Perhaps Eddy was a cousin of the Eddy brothers, William (1832-1932) and William (1842-1922), who were famous mediums from Vermont and descended from Salem, Massachusetts, folks. Maybe that’s why he was mysterious about his origins! Eddy, Eleanor and their two small children, Margaret and James, joined the larger Russell Party in early June 1846, and immediately Eddy proved his worth by repairing Edwin Bryant’s wagon axle. Bryant was a newspaper man and he heavily documented the Donner Party’s journey before the winter entrapment because he traveled with them, but he escaped being part of the Donner Party crew. He did take the Hastings Cut-off on mules, not wagons, had a hard go of it, but reached California in September before the snows hit. I’ll return to Bryant in a second.

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 he killed an owl, a coyote, three ducks, and a squirrel, most of which he shared with the Murphys (his cabin mates) and others. Eddy was also known as “Lyin’ Eddy” for his out-sized ego and his luck at getting his deeds noticed. By befriending Bryant, a writer, Eddy was able to get his story told first—which happened time after time again thanks to having a great relationship with his buddy Edwin Bryant. Also in November, and also with William Foster’s borrowed rifle, Eddy killed a 900-pound grizzly bear. First he shot it, then the wounded bear charged him, then Eddy dodged the omnivore around a tree, then he shot it again, then he used a tree branch to make really sure the bear was dead. Whew! That bear kept the lake folks going for a few weeks AND that bear meat saved Eddy’s life when Eleanor packed some of it in Eddy’s backpack when he led the Forlorn Hope party in December. But was the bear story true? Yes, according to archaeologists who found a bear tooth that could have belonged to a bear that size. Yet, why wasn’t this bear hibernating? What was it doing so high up in the mountains? Maybe it was a stupid bear. Regardless, it’s a major part of Eddy’s story. Some say that Eddy learned how to hunt in the Upstate of South Carolina and that his mom’s family was from Germany—which makes sense that he befriended the Donners and some of the other German immigrants.

Later, Eddy co-led the Forlorn Hope in late December along with Charles Stanton and the Miwok Indians, Luis and Salvador. This party consisted of 14 very brave nine men and five women who wore homemade snowshoes to venture out of the camps and seek help. After a few days, leader Charles Stanton became snow blind, and he was left for dead. Eddy and the others had a communication barrier with the Miwoks (only Stanton knew their language) and so the whole party got lost. Their trek should have only taken them six to seven days to reach Johnson’s Ranch, but instead it took 33. The only men who survived were Eddy and William Foster (he of the borrowed rifle) and the five women. Yes, the Forlorn Hopers had to resort to cannibalism, but Eddy tried to hold out as long as possible (of course he retold this to Bryant). Eddy also tried to save the Miwoks from Foster’s rifle, but Foster got to them first and later butchered them while Eddy and Mary Graves shot down a deer. The story goes that Eddy pulled Mary away from the group to eat her, but of course Eddy refutes that. Eddy was still the strongest of the Forlorn Hopers and makes it to Johnson’s Ranch while his starving compadres are at a Miwok village with their butchered Miwok former companions still in their backpacks. Not three weeks later Eddy volunteers for the First Relief party to save the Donner Party, but he only makes it to the Sierra foothills since he’s still very weak. Meanwhile, his starving family at the lake is dying. Eleanor and Margaret go first and then James dies in March a few days before Eddy and Foster reach the camps in the Third Relief. Sadly, Eddy’s entire family is cannibalized, allegedly by Louis Keseberg and Levinah Murphy—she earlier did “commence” on Milt Elliott. Keseberg later commenced on Tamsen Donner.

One of my research questions is why did Eleanor Eddy die while Margret Reed, James Reed’s wife, who was also a lake “widow” survive? Eleanor had two kids to take care of, while Margret had three. The women were about five years apart, with Eleanor the junior. All of Margret’s kids lived, while Eleanor’s died. Both widows had limited resources and no one wanted to share with both of them. Eleanor must have believed in Eddy’s abilities to come back to her, and he did, although it was too late. Margret’s James did also return with the Second Relief party, but a few weeks earlier. I’m thinking that Eleanor had a different mind-set than Margret and gave up sooner—or maybe she wasn’t as resourceful as Margret, although Eleanor did secretly place the grizzly bear meat in Eddy’s backpack. I’ll keep hunting…

Now, the big hero part of the story. Foster and Eddy lead the Third Relief and on March 13, 1847 burst into the Murphy cabin to find the three Donner daughters, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza, as well as Simon Murphy and the two adults: Keseberg and Mrs. Murphy. No Foster or Eddy children are left. Eddy says something like, “I’ll kill you, Keseberg, you $%*#*#! if I ever meet you again in California!” but it never happened. Tamsen Donner is also at the Murphy cabin, horrified that her three girls have been abandoned by Cady and Stone. She asks Eddy to “Please save my children” and offers him silver. Eddy refuses the money and says he would take the children out or die with them on the trail. He is true to his word and all of the kids live. Years later Georgia Donner said this about Eddy: “To your tender care I owe my life.” From these words, I was inspired to write my song, “William Eddy.”

The next year Eddy marries a wealthy widow, Favilla Ingersoll Alfred, with two children and he buys up her late father’s property in Sacramento in September 1850. They have three more children and he divorces her in 1854 (I wonder why?). Then he marries a schoolteacher, AM Pardee of St Louis, and lives out his remaining years in Petaluma. We don’t know what he does for a living, but I imagine him as a property manager or hardware store owner or maybe he’s a pimp. He dies Christmas Eve, 1859, probably from a heart attack. I’m conducting more research on him post-Donner Party and he’s the main character in my forthcoming novel. Very interesting and fascinating fellow.

Here is his obituary:

DIED. In this city, 24th. ult., HENRY EDDY, late of Mass., a pioneer of 1846, and well known as the rescuer of the “Donner party,” aged 43. [San Francisco, St. Louis and Mass. papers please copy.] — Sonoma County Journal (Petaluma, California) January 6, 1860.