A carriage-maker from Belleville, Illinois, William Eddy was born to Nathan Eddy and ? act. 1816 in Providence, Rhode Island
Eddy is referred to as “William H. Eddy” in the literature of the Donner Party. The middle initial has been taken to stand for “Henry,” for his obituary in a Petaluma newspaper refers to him as “Henry Eddy.” Some researchers, however, believe that the “H.” may stand for “Harvey.”
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 Pricilla and two small children. (married abt 1841). They had two children: James, Margaret.
Eddy is widely regarded as a hero of the Donner Party.
Thornton interviewed survivors and rescuers of the Donner Party in the fall of 1847. His main informant, and the only one he specifically names, was W. H. Eddy.
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, 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.
At Donner Lake Eddy and William Foster built the Murphy cabin against a large rock, now marked with a bronze plaque, which was inhabited by the Murphy extended family and the Eddys. Eddy was the only member of the Donner Party recorded as having any success hunting.
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.
After a harrowing 33 day journey, 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,
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, to Flavilla Ingersoll in Gilroy, Santa Clara Co., CA and they had three children: Eleanor Priscilla, James Knox Polk., Alonzo Hensley, but this marriage ended in divorce.
Eddy’s third wife, A.M. Pardee, 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.
[Gratitude to Kristin Johnson for the biography above, re-posted from her New Light on the Donner Party website]