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Riley Septimus Moutrey Recalls the Donner Relief
"They were an awful looking sight—a white and starved looking lot, I can tell you. There were pretty glad to see us. ... Men, wimmen and children crying and prayin’.
Aong the overland emigrants who jumped off at St. Joseph in the spring of 1846 was the Fielding Lard family from Washington County, Missouri. Their journey west was marked by one notable event: on June 14, Mary Lucy, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the family, married Riley Septimus Moutrey, age 22, who had been hired to drive one of the Lard wagons. The Lards and Moutreys crossed the Sierra Nevada safely, arriving at Sutter’s Fort in October. February saw Riley, or Sept, as he was often called, toiling once more over the mountains as a member of the first party sent out to rescue the stranded Donner Party. After his return, the Moutreys settled in Santa Clara County, where they spent the rest of their lives. Moutrey made a living as a farmer but in later years found himself in reduced circumstances. More than once he petitioned the government for compensation for his labors in the Donner relief, but all his efforts came to naught. Moutrey died in 1910 at the age of 86; Mary died thirteen years later, aged 92. One of results of his campaign is the following memoir told to a newspaper reporter in 1888. The account is marred the author’s uneven attempts at rendering dialect, and there are several inaccuracies. The only one of significance is Moutrey’s assertion that he had seen evidence of cannibalism at the camps; this is contradicted not only by all 1847 accounts and later memoirs by survivors, but also by the 1873 statement of Moutrey’s companion on the First Relief, Daniel Rhoads. Though a minor contribution, Moutrey’s memoir provides an interesting sidelight on the story of the Donner Party. —Kristin Johnson
A Horror Revived
The Ghastly Tale of the Suffering of the Donner Party—Their Provisions Gone, They Had to Live on the Flesh of the Dead
The old St. Charles, a relic of the war days, located on Pennsylvania avenue, under the very
shadow of the Capitol at Washington, at present shelters a man reputed to be the sole survivor of the gallant band of pioneers who, in the severe winter of 1846-47, fought their way over the snow-covered Sierras to reach the remnant of the ill-starred Donner band of emigrants. His name is Riley Moutrey. He is a stalwart, large-framed man, through [sic] his broad shoulders are somewhat bend with age. His massive head is covered with a growth of very white hair, while the lower portion of his face is hidden by a heavy white beard which falls upon his breast. A pair of honest blue eyes light up a rugged countenance, always pleasant and at times positively beaming. The old man is modest, and hung back diffidently when approached by the correspondent and asked for a brief sketch of that awful episode in California history. Moutrey finally thawed however, and in his own simple, homely style, told the story. "Me and the old lady," he said, "crossed into Californy jest ahead of the Donner party. We knew they were behind us, and on getting to Sutter’s Fort told the folks there it might be best to send out provisions and a guide to see ’em safely across the divide. "General Sutter sent out Mr. Stanton and two Indians with packmules and pervisions. This was in October of ’46.
we thought it were best to let ’em go an’ look after th’ stronger ones. The rest was rotten It was just awful. ’bout eight miles. they came tumbling out of the cabins. "After we was there a bit they told us how the had suffered for months. The strong ones we chose. Then we struck Lieutenant Woodsworth. "Ther was seven of us started—Aquila Glover. an’ our pervisions bein’ scant. "They were an awful looking sight—a white and starved looking lot. and started up into the snow with about six[ty?] pounds of provisions each. clean sheet of snow. Ned Copymier and myself."In February we got word at the fort of the fix in which the Donner people was on the other side of the mountains. "We had ter guard the pervisions close. All made an average of ten mile a day. Daniel Tonker [Reason P. Most of the flesh was all stripped off an’ eaten. goin’ over. We had gone over in soft snow and our tracks had froze hard. so we left ’em. "On the 16th of February we struck snow and stopped to make snow-shoes. and found Donner’s Camp. The snow was about twelve to fourteen feet deep an’ covered everything. It was sure death to stay there. Tucker]. They took on awful. We went up Bear River valley to the Johnson place. They were too weak ter eat. We come nigh on fifty yard to ’em before we saw ’em. "We had good luck all the way over the divide. Joe Sill [Sels]. wimmen and children crying and prayin’. I went down to Monterey to see Commodore Sloat. Glover saw the cabins and tents o’ their party. The snow was ’bout fifteen feet deep and soft. in Bear River valley. Daniel Rhoades. or they would have just swooped down and stolen ’em all. The food all gone an’ death takin’ ’em on all sides. past the snow. We slept there that night and gave out as much food as we could. giving us a clear trail back. anyhow. We got our crowd down safe to Sutter’s Fort and waited for news of the others. mostly wimmen and children. where they told us the camp was. just below the snow line. Where the water was ther’ war a broad. Men. with his men. Ten war already dead and we could see some of ther others was going. When they got to . but we had to go. we met Jim Reed. John Rhoades. "Reed and his men struck a snow-storm and didn’t get over for several days. He told us to got ahead and the Government would see that we lost nothing. "We left our mules and loads of provisions on the mountains there. then ther’ next day we went down Truckee canyon. as we couldn’t get the weak ones across. The rest walked. "No one come up to greet us but when we got nearer an’ yelled. that were almost gone. "Then they showed us up into their cabins. with fifteen men and provision. "About sundown me and Mr. Ther camp stood ’bout sixty yards from the east end of the lake that’s now called Donner. "When we got over the summit. and we saw the bodies of them who had gone. They were bound to die. we took turns in carryin’ on our backs. I can tell you. "Four of ther’ children. There were pretty glad to see us. "We took twenty-one of ’em. On the 18th of February we crossed the summit and made down the other side toward Truckee lake. It was pitiful to hear ’em cryin’ for us. It were seventy miles over the divide inter Truckee canyon.
Senators Hearst and Stewart will endeavor to press the measure through. 1888. On the 9th of January they found the Indians. "Yes. The Indians confessed they were lost. tracing it by the blood of one of the Indians. "The Indians were afraid they would then be killed and left. but some how or other. A half day’s trip would have brought them all safely over the divide. I guess he got snow blind. but everything round them was strange. August 31. luck was against them. The others cut up his flesh." "Was there any way the party could have been saved?" asked the correspondent. He only asks a small sum to tide him over the few remaining years of his life. Fosditch would not touch a bit."ther’ war. That’s the short story about the whole thing. Moutery has for two years been trying to get through a relief bill. though. He fell back and was never heard of again.the camp three more had died and their bodies was eat up. but Mrs. and ther’ was plenty of fuel to keep them warm. —Santa Cruz Sentinel. "Stanton and the two Indians who knew the trails well. His wife stayed with him till the last. "On the 21st an awful snowstorm came on and continued for several days the party went on. If they had killed ther stock first before the heavy snows came they wouldn’t have starved. and once they got below the snow-line they would have been all right. A party got over the divide. There were out of the snow. but thus far has been unsuccessful. but one was dead and the other died an hour after. They started back three times with small parties and never got over the Summit. but some how or another Stanton wasn’t able to keep up. Then they began to starve and freeze. Fosditch died on the morning of the 5th of January. and if they had left their wagons and gone straight up the mountains they could have got over easy. ." responded Moutrey. one by one. "On the 16th of December they made a last attempt. Most of the others were brought over. "Mr. go over to them in October of 1846. The party followed their trail in the snow." concluded the old pioneer. his toes having frozen and dropped off. and the others began to eat their flesh. and by Christmas Day four of them had gone.
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