[ Table of Contents ]Crossroads, Fall 1996 - Vol. 7, No. 4
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'.
Among 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
The Lards and Moutreys crossed the Sierra Nevada safely,( along with the
large Thomas Rhoades family ), 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.
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
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.
"In February we got word at the fort of the fix in which the Donner people
was on the other side of the mountains. I went down to Monterey to see
Commodore Sloat. He told us to got ahead and the Government would see that
we lost nothing.
"Ther was seven of us started-Aquila Glover, Daniel Rhoades, John Rhoades,
Daniel Tonker [Reason P. Tucker], Joe Sill [Sels], Ned Copymier and myself.
We went up Bear River valley to the Johnson place, just below the snow line.
"On the 16th of February we struck snow and stopped to make snow-shoes.
"We left our mules and loads of provisions on the mountains there, and
started up into the snow with about six[ty?] pounds of provisions each. It
were seventy miles over the divide inter Truckee canyon, where they told us
the camp was. The snow was 'bout fifteen feet deep and soft. All
made an average of ten mile a day. On the 18th of February we crossed the
summit and made down the other side toward Truckee lake.
"About sundown me and Mr. Glover saw the cabins and tents o' their party. We
come nigh on fifty yard to 'em before we saw 'em. Ther camp stood 'bout
sixty yards from the east end of the lake that's now called Donner. The snow
was about twelve to fourteen feet deep an' covered
everything. Where the water was ther' war a broad, clean sheet of snow.
"No one come up to greet us but when we got nearer an' yelled, they came
tumbling out of the cabins.
"They were an awful looking sight-a white and starved looking lot, I can
tell you. There were pretty glad to see us. They took on awful, anyhow. Men,
wimmen and children crying and prayin'.
"After we was there a bit they told us how the had suffered for months. The
food all gone an' death takin' 'em on all sides.
"Then they showed us up into their cabins, and we saw the bodies of them who
had gone. Most of the flesh was all stripped off an' eaten. The rest was
rotten It was just awful. Ten war already dead and we could see some of ther
others was going. They were too weak ter eat, an' our pervisions bein'
scant, we thought it were best to let 'em go an' look after th' stronger
"We had ter guard the pervisions close, or they would have just swooped down
and stolen 'em all. We slept there that night and gave out as much food as
we could, then ther' next day we went down Truckee canyon, 'bout eight
miles, and found Donner's Camp.
"We took twenty-one of 'em; mostly wimmen and children. The strong ones we
chose, as we couldn't get the weak ones across. They were bound to die, so
we left 'em. It was pitiful to hear 'em cryin' for us, but we had to go. It
was sure death to stay there.
"We had good luck all the way over the divide. We had gone over in soft snow
and our tracks had froze hard, giving us a clear trail back.
"Four of ther' children, that were almost gone, we took turns in carryin' on
our backs. The rest walked.
"When we got over the summit, past the snow, in Bear River valley, we met
Jim Reed, with fifteen men and provision, goin' over. Then we struck
Lieutenant Woodsworth, with his men. We got our crowd down safe to Sutter's
Fort and waited for news of the others.
"Reed and his men struck a snow-storm and didn't get over for several days.
When they got to the camp three more had died and their bodies was eat up.
Most of the others were brought over."
"Was there any way the party could have been saved?" asked the
"Yes," responded Moutrey,"ther' war. If they had killed ther stock first
before the heavy snows came they wouldn't have starved, and ther' was plenty
of fuel to keep them warm, and if they had left their wagons and gone
straight up the mountains they could have got over easy. A half
day's trip would have brought them all safely over the divide, and once they
got below the snow-line they would have been all right, but some how or
other, though, luck was against them.
"Stanton and the two Indians who knew the trails well, go over to them in
October of 1846. They started back three times with small parties and never
got over the Summit.
"On the 16th of December they made a last attempt. A party got over the
divide, but some how or another Stanton wasn't able to keep up. I guess he
got snow blind. He fell back and was never heard of again.
"On the 21st an awful snowstorm came on and continued for several days the
party went on, but everything round them was strange. The Indians confessed
they were lost. Then they began to starve and freeze, one by one, and by
Christmas Day four of them had gone, and the others began to eat their
"The Indians were afraid they would then be killed and left. The party
followed their trail in the snow, tracing it by the blood of one of the
Indians, his toes having frozen and dropped off.
"Mr. Fosditch died on the morning of the 5th of January. His wife stayed
with him till the last. The others cut up his flesh, but Mrs. Fosditch would
not touch a bit. On the 9th of January they found the Indians. There were
out of the snow, but one was dead and the other died an hour
after. That's the short story about the whole thing," concluded the old
Moutery has for two years been trying to get through a relief bill, but thus
far has been unsuccessful. He only asks a small sum to tide him over the few
remaining years of his life.
Senators Hearst and Stewart will endeavor to press the measure through.
-Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 31, 1888.