Selim Edward Woodworth

Age: 32

First, Second and Third Relief
Naval officer appointed to direct the relief effort.

b. 27 Nov 1815
m.14 February 1856 to Lizanne Flos
d. 29 Jan 1871

       A son of Samuel Woodworth, author of the immensely popular poem and song “The Old Oaken Bucket,” Selim E. Woodworth held the naval rank of “Passed Midshipman” — basically a lieutenant who had not yet received a commission. The Secretary of the Navy sent him overland bearing dispatches to the Pacific Squadron in Oregon. The “energetic young officer” left Independence, Missouri, on May 14, 1846, “intending to get to his journey’s end in just one hundred days, if it be in the power of horse flesh to accomplish the distance in that time.”  He achieved his goal, arriving in Oregon on August 19, just 98 days after setting out.
     On his way Woodworth met author Francis Parkman and emigrant John R. McBride, both of whom left not entirely flattering descriptions of him. McBride wrote, “Because he was in command of the party he seemed to think it his duty to exercise his authority on all subjects, even if he were ignorant of them.” Francis Parkman “rode to Westport with that singular character, Lieutenant Woodworth, who is a great busybody, and ambitious of taking command among the emigrants.” These and other remarks are found in Overland in 1846, p. 98-99 and 102-03.
       After reaching Oregon and delivering his messages, Woodworth continued to San Francisco, where, on February 6, 1847, he attended a meeting to “rais[e] contributions for the relief of a party of eighty unfortunate emigrants, who had lost their way in the mountains and were dying there from hunger and exhaustion.” Woodworth volunteered his services and was put in charge of the expedition. He organized men and supplies and, as befitted a naval officer, took them by boat across the bay and up the Sacramento River, fighting wind and water all the way. He missed his rendezvous with James F. Reed, dallied at Johnson’s Ranch, and failed in his promise to take provisions and meet the Second Relief. Although a severe blizzard may have given him an excuse for the latter lapse, the Donner Party survivors and rescuers who suffered through the storm without food or shelter remembered him as a braggart who let them down.
       William C. Graves was particularly embittered. Of the five members of his family abandoned at Starved Camp, his mother Elizabeth and little brother Franklin died and were cannibalized there; Nancy survived, but she was emotionally scarred after learning that she had been given her own mother’s flesh to eat; and Jonathan and baby Elizabeth died within a few months of their rescue, a fact which Graves blamed on the privations of the previous winter. Some of this tragedy might have been avoided if Woodworth had met the Second Relief with supplies as promised. Graves’ opinion of Woodworth was also soured by the fact that when he arrived at Woodworth’s camp, the Navy man was drunk. Margret Reed wryly remarked to her daughter Virginia that it looked like the survivors would have to take care of their rescuer, instead of the other way around. Graves also believed that Woodworth had sold supplies intended for the Donner Party and pocketed the money; this must have been particularly galling, since the secret of where Mrs. Graves had hidden her family’s wealth died with her at Starved Camp, rendering her surviving children not only traumatized orphans but paupers as well.
       John Stark told Graves an amusing story. When after great hardships Stark brought Mrs. Breen to Woodworth’s camp, she mentioned how they had suffered. “Woodworth said to her you may thank me Mrs. Breen for your safe delivery. Thank you I thank no boddy but God and Stark and the Vergin Mary she said. Putting Stark second best and I think he deserved it.”
       On his return from the mountains, Woodworth reported for duty and was ordered to join the Warren at Monterey. Later he assumed command of the Anita and spent the remainder of the Mexican War transporting men, munitions, and supplies to various ports between San Diego and the Columbia River. Woodworth may not have been at his best on the plains and in the mountains, but at sea, at least, he seems to have been appreciated — one of his men, William R. Grimshaw, remembered him as being “as noble hearted a man and as thorough a seaman as ever trod a deck” and even named one of his sons Selim Woodworth Grimshaw.
       In 1849 Woodworth was elected to the state senate from Monterey and resigned his naval commission. He moved to San Francisco, where he carried on a commission business. Between 1851 and 1856 he lived on Red Rock Island in San Francisco Bay in a cabin he had built there. Woodworth served the Union Navy during the Civil War, attaining the rank of commodore. He again resigned in 1867 and returned to San Francisco, where he died in 1871.


New Light on the Donner Party, Kristin Johnson

Ordeal By Hunger, George Stewart