Sierra Nevada Quotes

All of the quotes in this room are listed below. Where available, we've provided you with additional information about the source of the quote and possible links to download or access the original source material. The quotes are listed in the order in which you might encounter them in the room.

“Superlatives are vain and language weak in an effort to describe the badness of this road; hilly, rocky, sideling, and precipitous. We let the wagons down the rocks some sixty feet in one place; other places we kept the cattle on but attached ropes to ease the wagons down.” – John Edwin Banks, 1849


No electronic access was located for this reference.

Excerpt from William Pritchard's September 19, 1850 diary entry

“Started over the mountains and oh, such a road…. I have certainly seen the elephant on these mountains.” – William Fowler Pritchard, September 19, 1850


No electronic access was located for this reference.

“Of all the roads I ever read of this is the worst a man could not believe that horses & wagons could ascend at all it is so steep that we have to take hold of rocks to climb up.” – Andrew Jackson Griffith, 1850


No electronic access was located for this reference.


“The summit is crossed! We are in California! Far away in the haze the dim outlines of the Sacramento Valley are discernable! We are on the down grade now and our famished animals may pull us through.” – Niles Searls, 1849


No electronic access was located for this reference.

“Oh surely we are seeing the elephant, from the tip of his trunk to the end of his tail.” – Lucy Rutledge Cooke, 1852


No electronic access was located for this reference.


Excerpt from George Stewart's book, pp. 191-192

“The snow was high above the roofs. Inclined planes led up from the cabins at the top of the snow, and up these slopes the dead bodies had been dragged with ropes since the starving people had not been able to lift them. Some bodies now lay upon the snow wrapped in quilts.” – Excerpt from the book “Ordeal by Hunger” by George R. Stewart


This excerpt from Stewart's book can be found on pages 191-192. The book may be available in the CTIC gift shop. You can view a preview of the book here.

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“at sundown reached the Cabins and found the people in great distress such as I never before witnessed.” – Reason P. Tucker, First Relief, February 1847


No electronic access was located for this reference.

Patrick Breen's November 20, 1846 diary entry
Image of original November 20 entry
Patrick Breen's November 30, 1846 diary entry
Image of original November 30 entry
Patrick Breen's February 26, 1847 diary entry
Image of original February 26 entry

“we went on to the pass the snow was so deep we were unable to find the road, when within 3 miles of the summit then turned back.” – Patrick Breen, November 20, 1846


“Snowing fast … looks as likely to continue as when it commenced no liveing thing without wings can get about” – Patrick Breen, November 30, 1846


“hungry times in camp…. Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that [she] thought she would Commence on Milt. [Elliott] & eat him.” – Patrick Breen, February 26, 1847


Patrick Breen was born in Ireland circa 1805. In 1828 he emigrated to Canada and sometime thereafter moved to Iowa territory, where he became the owner of a farm. In about 1831 he married Margaret (maiden name unknown). Breen was naturalized in 1844. Patrick and Margaret had seven children -- John, Edward, Patrick, Simon, Peter, James, and Isabella. In the spring of 1846, the Breen family joined a party of emigres bound for California. The party's ill-fated journey across the Sierra Nevada Mountains was partially documented in the diary Breen kept while stranded in a mountain camp at Donner (then called Truckee) Lake. After their rescue, the family arrived at Sutter's Fort, New Helvetia, in March of 1847. The Breens then lived for a short time on the Consumnes River and then in San Jose. In February of 1848 they settled in San Juan Bautista -- becoming its first non-Spanish-speaking residents -- where Breen would live as a rancher for the remainder of his life. Patrick Breen died in 1868.


The diary of Patrick Breen was recorded between November 20, 1846 and March 1, 1847. At the time of the diary's composition, Breen and his family were part of a group of pioneers--which came to be known as the Donner Party--completing an overland journey from the Great Plains to California. The diary documents the harsh environmental conditions and hardships endured by the party, and ends on the day of arrival of a rescue party.


You can view and download Patrick Breen's diary here. The images of Breen's diary are available at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

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“Here I met my own wife and two of my little children…. I cannot describe the death-like look of them. ‘Bread, bread, bread’ was the begging of every child and grown person.” – James Reed, Second Relief, February 1847


No electronic access was located for this reference.

Excerpt from the April 26, 1877 edition of the Russian River Flag

“Here is what caused our suffering , for Reed told us … if we went the new way, we could get to Salt Lake in a week or ten days.” – William C. Graves, 1846


William Graves' memoirs, titled Crossing the Plains in '46, were published in four consecutive issues of the weekly Russian River Flag newspaper from April 26, 1877 to May 17, 1877. The quote above appeared in the first installment. The newspaper can be viewed and downloaded from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.


The following quote also appears in this exhibit.

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Excerpt from the May 3, 1877 edition of the Russian River Flag

“On the 30th of October, 1846, we camped in a pretty little valley about five miles from Donner Lake; that night it snowed about eight inches deep.” – William C. Graves, Reminiscence of 1846

Excerpt from Nancy Kelsey's memoir

“I walked barefooted until my feet were blistered. We lived on roasted acorns for two weeks.” – Nancy Kelsey, Reminiscence of 1841


Gene Paleno of the Lake County Bloom (California) writes a weekly blog about history. He wrote a series of blogs in 2019 in which he published Nancy Kelsey's memoir (originally compiled by her daughter, then acquired and transcribed by Roy M. Sylar):

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7


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