“Mary Ann Graves was a lovely girl, of tall and slender build, and exceptionally beautiful carriage. Her features, her regularity, were of classic Grecian mould. Her eyes were dark, bright, and expressive.” – Historian and author Charles McGlashan – 1880
Mary Graves Clarke, a dark haired woman with a pale face and deep age lines marking her high cheek bones and small mouth, sat behind a wooden desk staring out a window that was slightly tinged around the edges with frost. The view of the distant snow covered mountains that loomed over Huntington Lake in Tulare County held her attention for a long while.
The eleven students in the one room school house where Mary taught pored over the books in their laps, quietly waiting for their teacher to address them. The pupils ranged in age from 6 to 15 years. The majority of the class were girls, a few of which couldn’t help themselves from whispering while casting worried glances at their distracted teacher. Finally, one of the children asked, “Mrs. Clarke, are you all right?”
Mary slowly turned to the pupils and nodded. “I’m fine,” she assured them. “I was just remembering.” According to the journal kept by one of Mary’s students, her “expression was one of sadness.” In spite of her melancholy spirit she led the students through a series of lessons then dismissed them for recess. She followed them outside and for a moment was content simply to watch them play. A cool breeze drew her attention back to the mountains and drove her thoughts back to a time when she was a teenager, hopeful and happy.
If she had stayed in Indiana where she was born on November 1, 1826, she might have married the boy next door, taught students to read and write at a school house in her hometown, and lived out her days watching her children and grandchildren grow up on the family farm. Her life, however, took a different course when her family joined the Donner Party in 1846 and headed west.
Mary was nineteen when her father, Franklin, made the decision to move his family to California. The wagon train the Graves joined was organized by George and Jacob Donner and James Reed and their families. The initial group set out from Springfield, Illinois in April and was joined by additional members when it reached Independence, Missouri.
Franklin and Elizabeth Graves and their nine children joined the Donner Party in August at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, with their belongings piled in three large wagons.
Mary was excited about the journey. She had no doubt heard stories of the golden land of opportunity and couldn’t wait to see its riches for herself. She knew her family might experience difficulties getting there but that had not put a damper on her gleeful spirit. She didn’t care that the trail was treacherous, and she wasn’t afraid of the Indians that guarded the way. She placed all her faith in God and her father to get her and her family to their new home safely.
Historical records note that Mary was a beautiful young lady with dark eyes and long, wavy black hair. She carried her slender, five-foot, seven-inch frame with grace. Her complexion was creamy olive. She captured the attention of many of the twenty-two single men in the party, but she was engaged to John Synder, the driver of one of her father’s teams.
On October 5, 1846, John Synder and Milton Elliott, another driver exchanged heated words over whose team of oxen could pull a load raced each other to the top of the hill. John’s and Milton’s teams got tangled up as they raced each other to the top of the hill.
John was furious and started cussing at Milton and beating his livestock with a whip-stock. James Reed stepped in and tried to calm him down. John thought James was threatening him, and he jumped off his wagon and beat James over the head with the butt end of his heavy whip-stock while Mary looked on in horror.
When James Reed managed to stand up and wipe the blood from his eyes, his wife ran over to help him, and John hit her over the head too. James quickly pulled out a knife and stabbed John. Mary’s intended died fifteen minutes later. The stunned onlookers were outraged. They wanted to hang James. Mary was asked to sit in judgment of him, but she refused. James was banished from the group.
The gleam in Mary’s eyes had started to fade. The journey west was grueling. In addition to having battled the heat and rough terrain, the party had taken a “shortcut” to California that actually took them several hundred miles out of their way. Lack of water and a variety of petty arguments, like the one between John, Milton, and James, created strife among the party members. Their food was running low and many of their oxen and horses had been stolen by Indians.
Mary and the other finally reached the Sierra Nevada mountains on October 28th, 1856.
Generally, this final pass brought joy to weary emigrants. It brought terror and dismay to the Donner Party. They could see dark skies ahead. Soon the winter storm clouds dumped six inches of snow on the travelers. They were trapped; the snow prevented them from going any further.
The emigrants quickly built crude cabins near a lake to protect them from the cold. Mary’s family shared their tiny makeshift home with another large family in the party. Food was scarce. Time passed and the snow continued to fall.
By mid-December, Mary, her father, and Charles Stanton realized they would have to organize a team and go for help. Fifteen members of the group, including Mary, her father, her sister, her brother-in-law, and two Indian guides volunteered to be a part of the party and make their way over the summit to Sutter’s Fort.
Wearing snowshoes made from oxbows and cowhide and carrying enough provisions to last them six days, the “Forlorn Hope” party set off. They soon encountered snowdrifts that varied in depth from twelve to sixty feet. Mary Graves trudged through the thick blanket of white with all the strength she had. In a December 1846 diary entry, she wrote: “We had a very slavish day’s travel, climbing the divide. Nothing of interest occurred until reaching the summit.
The scenery was too grand for me to pass without notice, the changes being so great; walking now on loose snow, and stepping on hard, slick rock a number of hundred yards in length. Being a little in the rear of the party, I had a chance to observe the company ahead, trudging along with packs on their back. It reminded me of some Norwegian fur company among the icebergs. I do remember a remark one of the company made here, that we were about as near heaven as we could get.”
Generally, the fifteen traveled without saying a word, their eyes fixed on the ground. The fatigue and dazzling sunlight made some of them, such as Charles Stanton, snow-blind. Every day, Charles fell further and further behind the others. On the third day, Charles staggered into camp long after the others had finished their meager meal. He never complained but struggled daily to keep pace with the others. Mary’s heart broke for him.
On the fifth morning, the members of the Forlorn Hope set out, leaving Charles behind at the smoldering campfire, smoking a cigarette. Mary was worried; she ran back to Charles and asked him if he was coming. “Yes,” he replied. “I am coming soon.” All day long Mary kept looking back to see if Charles had caught up with the party. By the day’s end, she knew he wasn’t coming.
Indeed, Charles Stanton had died.
Mary’s father and two other men were the next to die. Before Franklin Graves passed away, he called his daughters to his side. “You have to do whatever you can to stay alive. Think of your mother and brothers and sisters in the cabin at the lake. If you don’t make it to Sutter’s Fort, and send help, everyone at the lake will die. I want you to do what you have to…. Use my flesh to stay alive.” The mere thought of doing such a thing made the girls cry, but they knew he was right. They would have to resort to cannibalism to survive.
The remaining eleven members of the Forlorn Hope party sat down in the snow to discuss plans. Mary described in her diary what the party talked about: “We held a consultation, whether to go ahead without provisions, or go back to the cabins, where we must undoubtedly starve. Some of those who had children and families wished to go back, but the two Indians said they would go on to Captain Sutter’s. I told them I would go too, for to go back and hear the cries of hunger from my little brothers and sisters was more than I could stand. I would go as far as I could, let the consequences be what they might.”
As the party continued on together, another furious storm bombarded the Sierras.
More men died and the women were weakening. It had been twelve days since the rescue team had left their loved ones and friends at the cabins. They had walked so many miles that their feet were bleeding. They were starving and cold. Mary’s diary described the horror she endured: “Our only chance for campfire for the night was to hunt a dead tree of some description, and set fire to it. The hemlock being the best and generally the largest timber, it was our custom to select the driest we could find without leaving our course.
When the fire would reach the top of the tree, the falling limbs would fall all around us and bury themselves in the snow, but we heeded them not. Sometimes the falling, blazing limbs would brush our clothes, but they never hit us; that would have been too lucky a hit. We would sit or lie on the snow, and rest our weary frames. We would sleep, only to dream of something nice to eat, and awake again to disappointment. Such was our sad fate.”
One morning Mary and a man named William Eddy struck out on their own to find food. They had gone two miles when they noticed a place where a deer had slept the night before. The two burst into tears at the hope of finding the animal. They dropped to their knees to pray. When they sighted the buck, William fired his rifle at it. The deer continued running.
Mary cried out, “Oh dear God, you have missed it.” The deer suddenly dropped down in the snow and the pair raced toward it. William cut a deep V in its throat, and the two fell on the animal and drank the warm blood.
Within a few days, there was nothing left of the deer and starvation again set in. Only five women and two men still remained. The feeble party traveled on day after day. Their strength was almost gone when someone noticed tracks in the snow. “It was human tracks,” Mary later said. “Can anyone imagine the joy those footprints gave us? We ran as fast as our strength would carry us.”
The group followed the tracks until they came in full view of a Washo Indian camp. The Indian women and children stared in amazement at the skeleton-like figures that came into their camp. They quickly fed the starving group and tended to their battered feet and other wounds. It had been thirty-two days since the party had left the lake.
Mary Graves no longer looked like she did when the journey began. Her high cheekbones were grotesquely prominent and her cheeks were buried deep below them. Her eyes were dim and sunken. Her once-perfect skin now had the appearance of baked leather. With good food and much care, her looks would be restored, but her spirit would never be the same.
She had endured a hard trek over the pass to get help for her family and the other starving emigrants, but all she could think about was making sure those back at the lake were saved.
Relief parties from Sutter’s Fort rescued Mary’s family and the rest of the surviving members of the Donner Party in April. Mary’s mother and five-year old brother had died. Mary and her sister, Sarah, were now in charge of their younger siblings.
The forty-six remaining members of the party were escorted to Sutter’s Fort. The horrific tales of survival they relayed to the inquisitive people who gathered around them brought tears to their eyes. Mary’s once cheerful disposition had now been replaced with a despondent nature. She thrived on the stories told about her mother in her last days. Mary’s mother was praised by the survivors for her charity. She was a generous woman who gave all she had to give. Mary was inspired by her mother’s actions, and it spurred her on despite her depression.
On May 16, 1847, Mary married Edward Pyle, a member of the relief expedition that went to the aid of the Donner Party. The couple left Sutter’s Fort with her brother and sisters and settled in the San Jose area. It was here that she entered the teaching profession.
Her career was interrupted when Edward disappeared shortly after they arrived. Mary’s search for her husband ended after a year when his murdered body was discovered.
Antonio Valencia was tried and convicted for the crime. Valencia had dragged Edward one hundred yards at the end of his rope and then cut his throat. His body was shot full of arrows to give the impression that death was the result of an Indian attack.
Valencia was sentenced to be hanged and Mary was determined that justice would be served. On the off chance a vigilante group would try to kill him, either by poisoning or shooting him before the execution date, Mary went to the prison everyday and prepared the murderer’s meals.
In 1852, Mary married a sheep rancher named J.T. Clarke and they moved to a town near the White River in Tulare County. She became the region’s first school teacher, educating generations of children including the six she and J.T. had.
Mary always stayed close to her home. Other members of the Donner Party eventually retuned to the “place of horror” as Mary called it, but she never did. Her students and family often caught her staring regretfully out over the Sierra mountain range. All she wanted to do was forget the tragedy.
It was something her children and grandchildren remembered was impossible for her to do.
Mary Ann Graves Plye Clarke died of pneumonia in Traver, Tulare County on March 9, 1891. Her 26 year old son had been struggling with the same ailment for several days. He passed away four days prior to his mother. Mary was 65 years old when she died.