William Eddy

When we stayed at Donner Lake, we rented a cabin, just off Eddy Avenue.

I had to groan.

The next day at the state park, I got to geek out a little with a really kind volunteer named Greg about the gun they have on display.

This is supposedly the actual gun—owned by William Foster—used to kill a bear, a deer, and 2 Indian guides.
(Pause the story here. I stared at that gun for ages. Just totally in awe that there it was.)

Anyway, I was asking Greg how they acquired it and in his answer he said, “You know, this was the gun Foster used to kill Luis and Salvador.” (I noticed they’d left that off the museum info card. Too gruesome for school groups maybe?)

And I said, “Well. According to Eddy.”

Then we had a friendly chat about primary sources, etc. in which I geeked out so hard my kids fled the building.

But here’s the thing. People ask a lot Who are the heroes and villains in the Donner Party story. And that’s such a complicated question.

Let’s take William Eddy as an example. He’s often painted hero-like. In many accounts of the Donner Party, it’s Eddy who chastises Keseburg for turning out Hardcoop, Eddy who wants to go back to look for him, Eddy who builds his fire high for Hardcoop to see. Eddy who has control of Foster’s gun for the duration of the trip because even Foster knows Eddy is the better shot. Eddy who kills a bear and also ducks in the woods for food. Eddy who later kills a deer when the snowshoers are trekking out. Eddy who told Luis and Salvador to run because the rest of the group were talking about killing them for food. Foster who fired the shots that killed them both.

But if you dig deep into the primary sources that the earliest of Donner Party authors used, you will see that the Donner Party survivor who gave the most interviews and had the most to say about this whole ordeal was…William Eddy.

And you’ll also see that other Donner Party members called him “Lyin’ Eddy.” For more on this, read what Kristin Johnson sums up here.

I like to think of William Eddy as the guy in the group at the bar who’s talking the loudest, embellishing the stories a bit, making for a good narration, even if it’s not exactly accurate.
Even if I’m wrong about his persona (and I very well may be—I really have no idea), the fact is most people err on the side of humility when recounting a story—downplay the role of hero I might have played myself and emphasize the actions of others.

Eddy didn’t do that.

That fact plus the way others spoke about him has always left me with the impression that other people might have had a bigger role in some of these “heroic” acts. It’s why in To Stay Alive you’ll see I’ve let Mary Ann’s dad and brother-in-law build up the fire for Hardcoop, and Mary Ann herself warns Luis and Salvador. And Eddy pulls the trigger that killed them. He was the better shot, you know. Or so he said.

I don’t see William Eddy as a hero or a villain. I see him as a complicated character—like all the people who were part of the group. Like all of us too.