The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon, California, and the Unknown

The Miller Diaries
Author(s): Donna K. Gibson
Source: Journal of Anthropological Research,
Vol. 123, No. 4 (Winter, 2069), pp. 223-242
Published by: University of New Mexico

The following are excerpts from the diary of Elias J. Miller, a previously unknown member of the ill-fated Donner Party. Donated to the National Historical Society earlier this year, the diary’s contents have already shed new light on our understanding of the curious decisions that brought the pioneers to such a morbid end. Analysis of these pages shows that the escalation to murder and even cannibalism happened much sooner than previously thought and that Elias played a key role in that escalation. While Elias’s “strange bird” is yet to be identified, research done by the Owen Corporation seems to show promise of a positive ID soon.

July 16, 1846, Fort Laramie

A black hole like a wound opened up in the sky last night, but I’m the only one who saw. In the dark, as I stood by myself, staring up at the stars and mourning Clara’s death, still so fresh in my mind, it seemed as if God himself had torn a hole in the universe to pluck her soul like a flower… But, look at me, writing all fancifully.

It’s not like me to gush, but with Clara gone, it’s as if the world has taken on a different hue. Everything looks like something else that reminds me of yet another thing until I’m so deep down in my memories that I feel like I’m suffocating. I need to get out of this waystop of a town, away from the memory of her sad body crumpled on the ground, and that hole in her beautiful head. There’s nothing I can do to bring her back, nothing I could have done to save her. Just gotta continue what we started, get somewhere fresh and new, scrubbed clean of her blood. I need to get to California.

California was always Clara’s dream. She’d had her head filled with stories of Lewis and Clark, of conquistadors and explorers and vast expanses of virgin country where everything she touched could be hers. Were it up to me, I’d be sitting right at home in Springfield. Weren’t up to me though, and now I’ve come too far.

It seems almost wrong to take Mr. Donner up on his offer of $300 to help him get there. He’s already got six teamsters so I’m not sure why he’d need one more. But I suppose he’s got the the supplies and space to bear it, and he seems to be the careful sort. Got extra of everything: pork, flour, cattle, wagons. Why not an extra man to handle what needs done? And besides, I’ll need the money when I get there. And it’s too dangerous to travel alone.

July 22, 1846, The Oregon Trail, Wyoming

The funny thing about easy travel is that no matter how good you’ve got it, something is always still bothering you. In my case, someone: that little Reed girl, Patty. She’s only eight, but almighty is she ever frustrating, always on her pony, peppering us with questions, and trying to keep the pace with me and the other men instead of back with her mother and the rest of the children. And her little dog Uno is worse. Now, I like animals, but that creature is always getting underfoot and scaring the horses. Wish the girl would just go back and stay with her mother and keep out of my way.

Besides Patty’s bothersome presence, the road is smooth and well traveled, and there’s a lot of time for just sitting with your thoughts. Wish it weren’t so. But I usually keep my mind occupied trying to see what Clara might notice in the dry landscape. To me the land seems just the same here as it did back home, but she wouldn’t settle for that. No. She’d try to figure out the differences, notice the little details that make the open trail seem so much bigger and grander, so that’s what I tried as well. What I noticed is a strange little bird that’s following us.

Unusual creature, only about knee high, and certainly nothing I’d ever seen before. It was sort of like a vulture, but with no wings, just these short little arms. And it seemed feline as well, with its big head swaying and bobbing side to side in the air like a cat’s tail. Not sure where it came from or why it wasn’t afraid of the wagons and the oxen and all the people and children kicking up dust, but it looked so skinny and it had such a confused look about it that I felt sorry for it. Patty of course couldn’t let the poor thing be and started tossing it hunks of stale bread, which it didn’t seem to care for. I had a bit of jerky in my front pocket and ripped a piece of it off. Bird seemed to like that much better.

Followed us for about a half a mile before it wandered off. Patty has been hanging on to me, begging for more jerky to make it come back—don’t know why she won’t just go to her own wagon and get some from her family’s stores. It’s not like they don’t have enough to go around.

August 11, 1846, Wasatch Mountains

Crossing the Wasatch Mountains means chopping a road through the thick forest. The work is hard and monotonous and is making everyone pinched and edgy. We left the well-worn path a couple weeks ago and have been following these instructions left behind on little pieces of paper by Hastings. He was supposed to be our guide, but the only evidence I’ve seen of his existance is those little notes. We come across them nailed to trees or held down by rocks like blazes and I am always shocked that we can find them in all this vast country. But every time I feel as if we’ve lost our way, another one shines bright against the darkness of the wood, and every time the notes promise that Hastings is only a few days travel ahead. Trying to catch him is like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands, or a cloud out of the sky, or a memory from the half-forgotten reaches of your mind.

I’m already half-forgetting you, Clara… I’m sorry. Your eyes were blue, but I don’t remember whether they were blue like the water or blue like the sky and maybe they were green anyway. Instead, what I remember most is the smell of your blood. Coppery sweet, like water from a mountain stream.

Patty’s taken to calling the bird Constance because she’s “constantly” begging for scraps. I would have laughed at the pun except the damn bird almost bit me the other day, so I wasn’t much in the mood for laughing. I think you might have liked her, Clara—you would have liked Patty, I mean, not the bird—but maybe you’d like the bird too. I don’t know anymore.

August 23, 1846, Wasatch Mountains

Hard day. Luke Halloran died of consumption. I can’t say I knew the man well, but consumption is a terrible way to go and doubly so on the trail where even if you close the flaps on your wagon, you can’t hope for much respite. Right up at the end I could hear him asking for water, crying to himself and to God, and coughing so hard his rib cage rattled. And we still haven’t cleared all the blood out of his wagon. It shoots out of all your orifices at the end, not just your mouth.

If it were me, I’d put a bullet to my head rather than deal with all that gore. I’d polish off my pistol, put on my nicest suit, and fire. Done. A little mess, sure, but no one will have to deal with it much. Won’t even have to bury me; I’d just let the buzzards pick me clean.

Patty’s taking the death pretty hard on top of it all. She didn’t say nothing, but instead did that children’s thing where she got all quiet and just wanted to cuddle her dog Uno and sit up near me on the caravan, looking out over the emptiness ahead. Death is part of life and all that, but I wish she didn’t have to see how disgusting it can be. A girl shouldn’t have to hear an old man shitting and crying and coughing and raging in the back of a damn caravan in the middle of the nowhere forest searching for damn blazes, following behind a damn huckster who… I’m sorry. It’s just seeing that body put me on edge. Thinking of… well, everything.

The rest of the camp is quiet and angry after the burial.

Constance has disappeared too.

September 7, 1846, Great Salt Lake Desert

Hellfire damn. God fuck damn! Curse Hastings and his cutoff and his lying instructions and this cursed desert. Three days in the salt-flats, his note said. Three days my bleeding foot. Three days in and we’ve yet to even catch sight of the other side. After three days without water the Reed’s oxen ran off and now we’ve had to abandon one of the wagons. Three days. If we ever catch up with Hastings, he can eat my shit. Three days. And on top of all that, they say there’s not enough food to reach California in time. Damn it!

California though. I have to remember it. I have to keep that dream, Clara’s dream, alive in the back of my mind otherwise I’m afraid I’ll lose the last thing I have left of her. The last thing she loved before she died. That thing she loved even more than me.

Sometimes I think I see her in the distance, a beautiful mirage, but I know that’s just foolishness. Nothing can bring back the dead.

The only bright spot in all of this is that Constance is back and looking pleased with herself. She’s managed to shake Patty out of her sadness. Me as well. Last night she came up real close to us and let us run our fingers over her smooth feathers. Didn’t bite this time neither.

October 5, 1846, Humboldt River

Rationing has made everyone snappish. Hunger apparently got to John Snyder because he picked a fight with another teamster and next thing I knew John and Reed were at each other with knives and then John gets stabbed in the chest. Blood everywhere and children just dumbfounded with shock. Hells, I’m dumbfounded as well.

We voted to banish Reed from the party after that, but I’m not sure stacking misery on top of misery is the answer. Might have been kinder to just kill the man. Either way, Patty’s left without a damn father. Either way it means his death.

At least the stupid bird is happy. She’s taken to nuzzling up to Patty, licking the tears off her cheeks like a dog.

October 7, 1864, Humboldt River, near the Sierra Nevada Mountains

You can see on his face—wrinkled and ugly with hunger and hate—that Mr. Kesseberg has an evil in him. I thought I was evil once, and maybe you did too, Clara, but at least I never threw an old man out of my wagon to walk until his feet split open and could walk no longer. Not me, Clara. I’m nothing like Mr. Kesseberg.

When Mr. Hardkoop’s feet finally split open, dripping blood and puss onto the trail for Constance and the dogs to lap up, he sat down by the nearest river and told us to go on without him, that he would catch up. But I can’t see how. At almost 70 and with bloody, open wounds, it’s hard to imagine he’ll get up and walk the next several miles alone in the wilderness to meet us.

“At least he’s got Constance to keep him company, right Elias?” Patty asked me, that little round face of hers pleading for hope.

She was sitting next to me on her pony and I couldn’t dare tell her how I’d seen Constance’s teeth flash in the sunlight on seeing the blood, how she’d hovered near the old man all day, licking her chops and nipping at his ankles. I couldn’t tell her any of that.

“Constance is a good girl,” I said. “She’ll keep him safe from harm.”

There was little food again this evening and because I felt strong I gave my share to Patty and her brother James—their little, broken family is so starved for kindness, I didn’t mind starving a little myself. But I needn’t have worried about going hungry.

Late, as the fire was dying and all the rest had turned to sleep, I saw a little figure trotting up over the ridge. It was Constance of course, all wiggly and pleased with herself, returning to the warmth of the fire. She held a chunk of meat in her jaws and whipped it around proudly before laying it at my feet like a gift. It looked fresh and nondescript, so I thanked her for it and didn’t think to question where it came from.

Cooked up, it tasted like pork.

October 31, 1846, Truckee Lake

These days I see dark omens everywhere. Around me are failing cattle dragging empty wagons, and passengers who aren’t much more lively than the cattle themselves, their faces thin with hunger and overwork. It’s near sundown and when I look out over the horizon, and the skies are clear except an eerie halo circling round the moon. Donner takes it to mean a storm is coming, but I know better: “Halo around the moon, change coming through.”

Even the animals can feel it. Constance is acting sullen and quiet in the cold, huddling up next to me as I sit here watching the others set up camp to wait out the storm and fix another broken axle. I think she does it half out of affection and half because she has trouble generating her own heat. Sometimes she shivers so much in the night, I pull her over by the tail to share my fire—it’s a wonder she didn’t abandon us for warmer climates the second the weather got sour. I’m glad she stays. My little friend.

November 20, 1846, Truckee Lake

We’ve been at this camp twenty days now. Axle’s fixed but there’s nowhere to go in all the snow. It feels like everything here is an endless series of beginnings and premature endings. The beginning of winter. The end of our food stores. The beginning of yet another attempt up the mountain. The end of it. The beginning of another snow storm. The end of another animal’s life. A monotonous series of little attempts at nothing that amounts to anything except our own wretched continued existence. Chop wood. Skin oxen. Chop wood. Make fire. Eat one last tiny morsel of unsalted meat with no bread. Chop wood.

Patty still comes around to visit me at the cabin I helped build with the Murpheys and Eddys. Like everyone else, she’s thinner, and when I can, I give her my small share of dried horse meat to suck on and keep the hunger pangs away. I hate to see her like that, wasting away like a corpse, and I do what I can. The bird’s a little thinner too, but somehow keeps herself strong. I like to think she’s nicking supplies from the Kessebergs, but perhaps she’s found other, more animal ways of keeping herself alive. That dog Uno died the other night, and nobody has mentioned the little bite-marks around its neck or the fact that half its body is missing.

November 29, 1846, Truckee Lake

Sometimes when the wind is howling, I think I hear you. At first it was beautiful, a low moan whistling through the trees reminding me of our long nights together on the trail from Illinois when we were big-eyed and full of hope for the future, before we got waylaid at Fort Laramie. Before it happened.

Now though it sounds more like howling. The sound of you howling when you died, in pain and in shock. I cover my ears with my hands and lay on the floor shivering and focus on the feeling of emptiness in my stomach to make my thoughts go away. Sometimes when I get like this, Constance will screech, drowning out the sound of the wind for me, helping me in her own little way.

William Foster threw his shoe at her to get her to stop, but I don’t want her to stop. I want you to stop. Stop yelling at me, Clara. Please. I’m so sorry.

December 3, 1846, Truckee Lake

William Foster and William Pike tried to get together to kill Constance the other night. Not sure if it was hunger or her constant screeching that got to them, but they failed. She’s a strong, vicious creature, better fed than either of them, though only God knows where she gets it, and she lashed out at them with her teeth and claws, drawing blood. Pike even lost a pinky to her gullet. I hope they die of infection. I hope she follows them into the trees when they go out for firewood and pulls their warm, wet entrails out through their bellies, leaving a bright trail on the snow. She’ll eat them if she gets the chance. I know because she’s thinner lately, hungry, and when she stares at them, she licks her snout. I hope she does. And I hope when she eats that soft, sweet meat, she saves some for me.

Patty’s mother doesn’t like me coming around no more. She doesn’t like the way the wind follows me. Doesn’t like the way the others whisper about me. Maybe Constance can eat her too.

December 8, 1846, Truckee Lake

I was chopping wood for the fire when I saw you. Through the trees, your dress was white as it had been the day you died, whiter than the snow, whiter than bone. And that gaping hole in your head where the bullet went in looked like a knot in an old tree.

I saw you from the corner of my eye, but when I turned it was Constance, screeching into the howling wind, scaring you away, saving me, saving me from your fury.

Constance is a good girl, a good bird, a good pet. My strange little bird keeps me safe.

December 10, 1846, Truckee Lake

Clara is louder now since our encounter. Braver. I hear her everywhere, even when the sky is clear. I see her too: in the sheets of white snow, in the flickering fire, and between the bone-thin trees, their branches stretching out like fingers. I don’t know what to do anymore because no one believes me and I can’t tell them the truth. I can’t tell them why she’s standing out there in the wind and snow waiting for me. I can’t tell them why she howls, why the hole in her head mocks me, why she stands vigil by the door, waiting for me to step outside, waiting for me to slip, waiting to drag me down to whatever afterlife she’s living in.

Once, she even blew the flap of the roof off the lean-to and reached a hazy arm in to scratch at me. Constance snapped at her and screeched and scared her away. Constance is the only one who believes me anymore: I’m a good man. My girl keeps me safe and I must keep her safe too.

Because no one will spare rations for my poor, sweet, little bird, I have taken to cutting my palm with my knife and feeding her the blood. She is so hungry. She deserves it though, my sweet girl.

December 12, 1846, Truckee Lake

I’m not like Mr. Kesseberg, not like him at all, Clara. I wouldn’t let a poor girl die of starvation alone with her stupid mother. The last of my cow-hide vest can be boiled down into a paste and eaten with a bit of tree bark. If you would just let me pass, I could take it to Patty. I could save her. Let me pass, Clara. Let me show you. I’m a good man now, I promise.

I’m a good man!

December 15, 1864, Truckee Lake

We have to leave. It’s the only way to make her see, to make her stop. We have to get out and find safety and food and rescue. I have to leave this cursed wind and its voices. I can’t keep watching Patty’s face get thinner. I can’t listen to one more word of Clara’s crying, her accusations, her anger, her howling. I can’t say “I’m sorry” one more time.

But I can make it right. This will make it right. A group of them made snow shoes out of wagon parts and is getting ready to cross over the pass tomorrow. I’m going with them. They’ve decided to call us the “Forlorn Hope” expedition and that seems about right because this is the only chance I have we have anymore.

When I come down the river to say goodbye to Patty, she’s just a skull head peaking out over a ragged blanket, too weak to even look at me.

“I’m getting help,” I say. “You hear me, Patty?”

She doesn’t answer right away and so I try to tell her a second time. Louder. I’ll save her. Don’t listen to Clara, I say. I have to yell it so she can hear me over the screaming wind. I shake her so she knows I’m serious, so she’ll pay attention. Her mother pulls weakly at my arms to tear me away, tells me to leave, but Patty has to know. Has to know I’m going to fix this.

I shake her till her little skull eyes pop open wide in fear. Fear of me. Does Patty know, too?

December 22, 1846, Truckee Pass

We left with six day’s worth of rations. It has been seven days.

Clara has followed me, spreading her lies the way she spread her legs for that trader back in Fort Laramie.

December 24, 1846, Truckee Pass, The Camp of Death

We’re all so hungry, the party’s begun to talk of murder. I say nothing. Keep your mouth shut, Clara. I say nothing.

They discuss killing Constance because she’s only an animal, but she screams and bites and when one of them pulls a gun, she is too fast for them to hit and runs into the woods. So, instead we draw lots.

Patrick Dolan lost the draw, but no one is brave enough to kill him. Cowards. It’s just blood. It’s just a body. It’s just meat and food and something warm and rich to fill your stomach. And if we can hang on one more day we’ll be able to get help, save my girls, stop Clara’s fucking screaming. But no. No, they’re all too fearful of God and hell and their fate. Don’t they see this is already hell? The ghosts are here.

I fear you will kill me tonight, Clara. I need to find Constance. Need to keep moving.

[[The following section, while written the same day, is less legible]]

Now they want us to sit in a circle around a fire and huddle together against the blinding snow. They want us to wait. But waiting will mean it’s too late. Waiting is only inviting her in. The wind howls. Constance, I see her out there, watching us through the trees. Watching me, wondering why I’m not out there helping her. My poor girl must be so hungry without me. My poor girl.

[[This following section is the author’s final entry. It is undated.]]

I can’t wait here any longer. Patty is dying. Clara is coming. Don’t they see her there waiting for us? If the cold and hunger don’t get us, then she will. Constance is our only hope. I must leave, I must go to her. Poor, hungry, faithful little bird. I must go to her. I will. I am going. I am going and you will never haunt me again, Clara. My girl will keep me safe.


Brit E. B. Hvide

Brit E. B. Hvide is a writer and Hugo Award nominated editor. She studied creative writing and physics at Northwestern University. Originally from Singapore, she now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, their son, and their dog. Follow her on Twitter @bhvide or visit her website

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