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The Donner Party

One of the stories of the American West that has gripped the imagination to this day is the story of a wagon train which set out from Illinois in April 1846 on the overland route to California. The group, which consisted of 87 people, was led by Jaco and George Donner. Half the party died in the venture. Many of those who did survive had to eat the flesh of their dead companions.

The only family to live together through the whole ordeal and come out alive was an Irish family. Patrick and Margaret Breen and their children survived one of the worst winters in American history and eventually settle in California. The Breen story began back in Ireland in Barnahaska Townland, Co. Carlow, Ireland, where Patrick was born. The Breen house has long since gone. However, his Father Ned and his Grandfather Patrick are buried in the local graveyard under a substantial grave stone. The Breens, though catholic must have been a family of some substance to be able to afford such a grave.

In 1831 at the age of 31 years, Patrick went to Canada where he married Margaret Bolger, whom he had known back in Ireland. The family moved to the United States and after farming for some years sold everything, They joined a party of wagons heading off on the 2,500 hundred mile trek to California in the summer of 1846. The first half of the journey was uneventful until the guide, Lansford Hastings suggested a shortcut, which has since been referred to as the "Hasting Cutoff".

James Reid, a wealthy carriage maker from Northern Ireland argued against the use of the alleged "shortcut". The new route was to take the party through the Wasatch mountains and across the Salt Lake Desert. The group , known afterwards as the "Donner Party", which included the Breens, decided to go with the "shortcut" suggestion. It was a disastrous decision. The journey through the mountains which was suppose to take a week, took a month. Every step of the way had to be cut through heavily wooded canyons. The crossing of the desert proved to be a nightmare. Wagons sank in the sand, property was abandoned, livestock went crazy with thirst and many of the party died. James Read was blamed by many for the trouble and delays, resulting in an altercation with a teamster, whom he killed in a fight. His punishment was expulsion from the party. Reid left his family and went ahead on horseback heading for Sutters Fort in California, the ultimate goal of all wagon trains heading west. There he was to await the arrival of his wife and children, hoping to see them soon. This was not to be. Reid's family did not arrive in California (Sutter's Fort) until the spring of 1847. During this period, California was part of Mexico. Unfortunately for James Reid and the Donner Party, war had broken out between the United States and Mexico, earlier in 1846. Most of the smaller population became involved in the conflict, thus denying the availability of able body men to form any type of rescue effort for the Donner Party until the following spring of 1847.

Finding the route through eastern Utah far more difficult than promised and plagued by jealous bickering, the inexperienced party lost weeks of precious time and began the difficult crossing of the Sierra Nevada late in October. Truckee Lake, on the Nevada side of the Sierras should have been a place to rest and regroup before tackling the pass some thousand feet higher. The sudden onset of winter snows made any thought of rest impossible. The Breens led the way up the Truckee River trail from present day Reno, but by that time the party was stretched out over several miles. The Donners brought up the rear. If the crossing was to be made, it was every family for themselves. On the evening of October 31st, 1846, the Breens arrived at Truckee Lake. Early next morning they hurried along the northern shore of the lake towards the gap in the mountain. However, because of poor weather conditions, heavy snows, they returned to the lake to wait for a break in the weather. That break never came. When one considers that the party which left Independence the previous April had already traveled in excess of well over 2,000 miles, and that only 100 miles, mostly downhill remained to there final destination, and had they arrived only a few days earlier, they could have eliminated a tremendous amount of hardship which lay ahead. The Breens took up abode in an old log cabin built by another Irish family, the Murphys, who had passed on the same route two years earlier. The Murphys were one of the first Irish families to migrate west. The Breens settled into what they thought would be temporary quarters. Unfortunately this was not to be. They were about to face one of the worst winters in American history.

The winter of 1846 in California was one of the worst in living memory. The only two families in the Donner Party to survive in tact were two Irish families, the Breens and the Reids. The Breens were careful managers. They immediately killed there cattle, dried the meat and froze the meat in the snow. The strength of the Breens was recorded by Patrick Breen, the son, who provided the only documentation of the ordeal. He made reference to the family gathering around the fire in the cabin and his father reciting the prayers and begging for Gods mercy to see them all through the ordeal. Patrick himself, a lover of music, managed to hang on to his fiddle and provided music to help relieve the boredom.

Patrick's diary tells us that on December 16, 1846, a party left the camp on home made snow shoes and called themselves the "Forlorn Hope". The party consisted of ten men and five women. Eight of the men perished. The remaining members of the party resorted to cannibalism and ate seven of the dead men in order to survive. Their journey to safety took a month. When the horror stories of the "snow shoe party" reached Sutter's Fort, the US Army immediately organized a rescue attempt. On February 6th, 1847, a party of 14 men left Sutter's Fort for the mountains. On the evening of February 19th, 1847, seven men from the relief part reached the stranded families. Only those strong enough to travel on the return trip left the camp. Early in March of 1847, James Read made another rescue effort and upon reaching the camp managed to carry out his remaining two children. However, for the Breens, the ordeal was far from over. Subject to a fierce snow storm and weakness from lack of food, Patrick and Margaret decided to stay together and wait for a third rescue party. They had to wait an additional week without food. When three of the party died, (none of the Breens) it's alleged that Patrick Breen decided not to deny his family there last hope of survival, which was to eat the flesh of their dead companions.

The Breens and company were eventually rescued and brought to Sutter's Fort and Martin Murphy Jr and his wife invited the Breens to stay on their ranch near Sacramento. Having spent the summer recuperating at the Murphy ranch, Patrick Breen took his family south in 1847, looking for a permanent place to settle. Arriving at the old Spanish Mission of San Juan Batista, the first person Patrick met was Father Jose Antar, who urged him to settle in the area. The priest offered him some free use of land and accommodations for his family, until such time as he found a permanent home of his own. Father Antar also introduced Patrick to General Jose Maria Castro, who had been head of the Mexican Military District. Castro kindly gave the Breens the use of his two story house and took no rent. The Breens had lost everything in the Donner Party disaster.

In 1849 gold was discovered in California and the Breen's fortune changed. Young John Breen, sixteen years of age went off to find his fortune and was successful. After one year John returned to the family and had $12,000.00 in his possession. With that money, which in 1849 was considered a small fortune, the Breens were able to purchase the house from Castro and began their climb to prosperity.

The farm purchased by Patrick in 1849 was 400 acres. Five years (1854) later that had increased to 1,000 acres and the livestock was listed as 16 horses, 30 mares, 460 head of cattle, 359 sheep, and 75 hogs. A great accomplishment for a family, who, seven years prior had nothing.

The original farmland which lies on the edge of the infamous San Andrea fault, still belongs to the descendants of the Breen family. It is managed by Patrick Thomas Breen, a Great Great Grandson of the first Patrick and Margaret Breen. The history of the American west include many stories of Irish families like the Breens and the Reids. They faced unbelievable hardships, however their strong faith and strong character helped them endure and survive.



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