Sarah Graves was the eldest of nine children. Her parents, Franklin and Elizabeth, were farmers, well-known in their community as especially hale and hearty people. Spurred by the nexus of depressed prices and failing crops, in 1846 Franklin Graves chose to move his family to California in search of better opportunities.
Jay Fosdick was also the child of farmers, with a talent for fiddling. He and Sarah fell madly in love. They married on April 2, 1846 in Lacon, Illinois. The next day, against the wishes of Jay’s parents, the two newlyweds headed West with Sarah’s family.
Sarah and Jay would eventually count themselves among the members of a group of 87 California-bound pioneers—the Donner Party. This group intended to take a new route West known as Hastings Cutoff. The decision would cement them as one of the most infamous cautionary tales in American history.
The Cutoff was a shortcut designed by lawyer and land speculator Lansford Hastings. Having recently purchased claims on an intended new settlement in California, Hastings stood to profit if people chose to move there. To attract more California emigrants, he promoted his new route as faster and easier to travel. Neither of these claims were true.
The desolate and rugged terrain proved nearly impossible to navigate by covered wagon. The lack of water in the Great Salt Desert resulted in huge losses of oxen and cattle. In November, the Donner Party became trapped by early snowfall at Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It remains one of the worst winters on record.
On December 16, a rescue party of 17 people, including Sarah and Jay, left on improvised snowshoes to find help. This group later came to be known as the Forlorn Hope.
The parties quickly ran out of food. Many members succumbed to hypothermia, and died. To avoid starvation, the remaining survivors cannibalised the dead in order to survive.
Members of the Washoe tribe attempted to help those left at Truckee Lake, with donations of food. However, the violent hostility of the trapped emigrants, a result of their fear and racism, turned this help away. Members of the Maidu tribe would eventually save the members of the Forlorn Hope by offering them food and shelter. Without the aid of Indigenous peoples, it is unlikely any members of the Donner Party would have survived.
Jay Fosdick died on January 5, with Sarah by his side. She had lost her father only days before. Both Jay and Franklin were eaten by other party members as Sarah sat nearby. Her mother, Elizabeth, would also not survive.
The first relief party did not arrive at Truckee Lake until the middle of February 1847, almost four months after the wagon train became trapped. Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived the ordeal.
Sarah lived the rest of her days in the Napa Valley as a schoolteacher. She twice remarried. Sarah Graves died suddenly of heart disease on March 28, 1871 in Corralitos, California at the age of 46. She was survived by six children.
Our telling of the Donner Party story was inspired by and based on the following resources:
The Last Podcast on the Left (*NSFW*)
The Indifferent Stars Above, by Daniel James Brown