William Henry Eddy, Donner Party

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William Henry Eddy

Also Known As: "Henry", "William", "Harvey"
Birthdate: (43)
Death: circa December 24, 1859 (35-51)
Immediate Family:

Son of Nathan Eddy
Husband of Eleanor Eddy, Donner Party; Flavilla Eddy and A M Eddy
Father of Margaret Eddy, Donner Party; James Eddy, Donner Party; Eleanor Priscilla Eddy; James Knox Polk Eddy and Alonzo Hensley Eddy

Managed by: Gene Daniell
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About William Henry Eddy, Donner Party

Sole survivor in his family.

Eddy’s background is mysterious. He told J. Quinn Thornton that he was a from Belleville, Illinois, but apparently he had lived there only a few years before setting out for California with his wife Eleanor and two small children. Since he is widely regarded as a hero of the Donner Party, descendants of various Eddy families have attempted to establish a relationship between him and their own lineage, but so far, no one has been able to find a definite link between William Eddy of the Donner Party and any other Eddy family.

The late Joseph A. King pointed out that some survivors did not think well of Eddy’s veracity and referred to him as "Lying Eddy" but King neglected the testimony of Eleanor Graves, who thought Eddy’s account straightforward and credible. Like all memoirs, Eddy’s version of events is self-serving; he exaggerated his role and in certain instances he represented himself as participating in events which he had probably only heard about. This does not mean that everything he told Thornton was false, however, only that it should be taken with a grain of salt. For an example of the problems with King's case against Eddy, see Eddy and the deer. Despite his occasional exaggerations, it appears that Eddy was a good hunter, that his resourcefulness got the Forlorn Hope out of the mountains, and that he was physically the most hardy of the snowshoers.

In November, with a borrowed gun, he killed an owl, a coyote, a bear, three ducks, and a squirrel, most of which he shared with the Murphys and others.

On December 16, William Eddy bade Eleanor an emotional farewell and set off with sixteen others -- the "Forlorn Hope" -- from the Donner Lake camp on snowshoes. Two turned back the first day, but Eddy, eight other men, a boy, and five young women continued. After a harrowing month-long journey in which members of the Donner Party first resorted to cannibalism, William Eddy staggered into Johnson's Ranch west of the Sierra, assisted by an Indian. He told the small American community that his six surviving companions were at an Indian village and that there were more starving emigrants back in the mountains. The settlers fetched in the remnants of the Forlorn Hope and began to organize a rescue party.
    After less than three weeks' recuperation, Eddy was able to accompany the First Relief as far as the foothills, but was not yet strong enough to  travel back to Donner Lake. He and Foster, both of whom had left family members behind, later led the Third Relief to the lake camp, arriving about March 13, 1847. The last surviving member of Eddy's family, little James, had died, and there were only a handful of people remaining alive at the camps. The Third Relief rescued four children, Simon Murphy and Frances, Georgia, and Eliza Donner. Years later Eliza and Georgia both remembered Eddy's kindness to them. Georgia wrote, "I have been told that Mr. Eddy was not a truthful man, but he certainly was a kind-hearted man, and to his tender care I owe my life."
     Eddy remained in the vicinity of Sutter's Fort until June 1847; at some point later that year he moved to Santa Clara County. His name appears often in the county's early historical sources. He married again and had three children, but this marriage ended in divorce. Eddy's third wife apparently taught a school in Petaluma, Sonoma County, where Eddy died on Christmas Eve 1859. His obituary read:
   DIED. In this city, 24th. ult., HENRY EDDY, late of Mass., a pioneer of 1846, and well known as the rescuer of the "Donner party," aged 43. [San Francisco, St. Louis and Mass. papers please copy.] -- Sonoma County Journal (Petaluma, California) January 6, 1860.

On December 3, 1877, Eddy's remains were reinterred in his daughter Eleanor P. Eddy Anderson's plot in San Jose's Oak Hill Cemetery. Years later, on May 30, 1949 -- Memorial Day -- the fraternal order E Clampus Vitus marked his grave with a granite stone from Donner Lake bearing a bronze medallion.


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