Q: I’ve always been interested in history, so I know a little about the so-called Donner Party, which resorted to cannibalism when, en route to California, it became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains. But I’ve only recently heard a story that it was a Belleville man who supposedly played a key role in preventing the entire group from perishing. Is this true or an embellishment of the facts to glorify a native son?
P.H., of Belleville
A: Trust me, this is one story that probably could never be overembellished.
During an excruciating winter of 1846-47, William Eddy battled monstrous hardships in a fight to save his wife, two young children and the rest of a rapidly dwindling group of American pioneers. Indian attacks. Ten-foot snow drifts. Bitter cold. Deadly infighting. Unspeakable hunger. Eddy survived them all to lead rescuers back to the makeshift camp where survivors remained on the brink of starvation.
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But despite his superhuman efforts, Eddy discovered his nightmare was not over. Not only did Eddy learn that his wife and daughter had died, but also that one of the survivors confessed that he had eaten Eddy’s son — after perhaps killing him first. Far from embellishment, this was a story that never appeared in Belleville newspapers of the day, so I’m guessing what you are about to read is the first time many will have heard of William Henry Eddy.
As it turns out, nobody seems quite sure where he hailed from. According to a detailed article on the Spartacus Educational Publishers website, he was born in Belleville the same year Illinois became a state: 1818. But when Dr. Vanik Eaddy (an alternate family spelling) was trying to find whether Eddy was part of his family, he concluded that Eddy was born June 28, 1814, near the Lynches River in South Carolina. Findagrave.com claims he was born in 1817 in Providence, R.I.
Regardless of which you believe, they seem to agree that as a young man he became a carriagemaker in Belleville before making the decision that would forever haunt him: In 1846 — two years before the California gold rush started — Eddy packed up his 25-year-old wife Eleanor, 5-year-old son James and 1-year-old daughter Margaret and joined the trek to California as part of what became known as the Donner (or Donner-Reed) wagon train.
In May 1846, the group that grew to about 90 left Independence, Mo., for Sutter’s Fort, Calif. At first, they followed the famed Oregon Trail. On July 28, they reached Fort Bridger, Wyo., where they made what became a tragic mistake. Instead of continuing on the established trail toward Fort Hall in Idaho, they allowed Lansford Hastings to talk them into taking what became known as the Hastings Cutoff. It went around the Great Salt Lake in Utah and then due west to the Humboldt River in Nevada, where it rejoined the main trail from Fort Hall.
Hastings claimed it would save the travelers 300 miles and that obstacles would be minimal. Because the party was behind schedule and needed to cross the Sierra Nevada before the first snows, they took the detour, a decision they regretted almost immediately. As soon as they reached Utah’s Wasatch Mountains in mid-August, they had to hack their way through aspen and cottonwood trees and tangled undergrowth. Then they found themselves dislodging huge boulders and building causeways across swamps as they neared the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
By late August, they were worrying about their food supplies as they realized their chances of making it through the Sierra Nevada before winter were hopelessly slim. Making matters worse, Paiute Indians were killing and stealing most of their oxen, forcing many to abandon their wagons. In late October, they came within three miles of a decisive mountain summit when 5-foot snowdrifts forced them to turn back and seek shelter in a cabin they had spotted in the foothills by Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake). It was here that most fought for survival through the coming winter.
But Eddy knew that unless a few risked their lives to find help, nobody would survive, and it was up to him to help lead the effort. Although he had no mountain-man experience, he had emerged as a leader throughout the trip as shown by this account by Eaddy of an encounter with a grizzly:
“Eddy poured the powder and rammed home the next bullet as the bear came around the tree. The bear could not turn quickly because of the injury inflicted by the first shot. Eddy dodged around the tree, came upon the bear from behind, and shot him in the shoulder. Having no more bullets, the bear was dispatched by clubbing it over the head with the rifle until dead. The bear was estimated to weigh over 800 pounds.”
Brave as he was, Eddy was no match for the heavy snows, and for two months, one rescue attempt after another was turned back by the weather. By Christmas Eve, the situation had become desperate.
“On 24th December they were out of food and too weak to go on,” the Spartacus account says. “The group came to the decision that the only way they could survive was to resort to cannibalism.”
With renewed strength, a small group led by Eddy reached a Paiute village on Jan. 12. The Indians fed them a meal of corn, which gave them enough energy to find a second village, where they were treated to a meal of pine nuts.
“Eddy then paid a warrior a pouch of tobacco to act as a guide to Sutter’s Fort,” the Spartacus account reports. “This he agreed to do and after a further six-mile walk, Eddy reached his destination.”
Eddy’s arrival immediately prompted relief parties to be sent from Sutter’s Fort, the first of which arrived at Donner Lake Feb. 18.
“The first person they came across asked: ‘Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?’” the Spartacus account says. “They discovered that a large number had died of starvation.”
A second rescue party arrived shortly thereafter to help those still able to walk back to Sutter’s Fort. But it took a third rescue effort led by Eddy and William Foster to bring back the rest of the survivors. It is often regarded as the worst disaster in wagon train history: Of the party’s 91 members, 42 emigrants and two Indian guides had perished while 47 survived.
Eddy, who received two brief mentions about his further travels in Belleville newspapers of 1852 and 1853, married twice more, dying at age 43 in December 1859, according to a Petaluma, Calif., newspaper. You can find a picture of Eddy along with his gravestone at www.findagrave.com.
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Answer to Friday’s trivia: For his heroics in helping rescue Marines from a Japanese assault on Guadalcanal on Sept. 27, 1942, Signalman First Class Douglas Munro became the only member of the Coast Guard to ever win the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military honor. As he lay dying of a head wound, he reportedly asked, “Did they get off?”