Son of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper
b. 20 Jan 1829 Vicksburg, Warren Co., MS
m1. abt 1853? Lake Co., CA to a Pomo Indian woman; several children
m2. 9 January 1873 to Martha Blasdel Cyphers (b. 06 Feb 1834, d. 1913); divorced
d. 03 Mar 1907 Santa Rosa, Sonoma Co., CA
Most of C. F. McGlashan’s informants had been small children during the Donner disaster, but W.C. Graves was one the few who had been adults, or nearly adults, at the time. Graves was old enough to stand guard at night and go hunting; he once told a newspaper reporter that he had spent his eighteenth birthday digging a dead horse out of the snow. A big youth–he stood 6’3″ as an adult–he also cut firewood for the family.
[The First Relief] arrived about 8 o’clock Saturday night, February 18, 1847, and told us that father and his party all got through alive, but they froze their feet, and were so badly fatigued they could not come back with them. They said they would start back Monday or Tuesday and take all that were able to travel. Mother had four small children who were not able to travel, and she said I would have to stay with them, and get wood to keep them from freezing. I told her I would cut enough wood to last till we could go over and get provisions and come back and relieve them; to which she agreed, and I chopped about two cords.
In late March Graves and others attempted to go back to the cabins, but were thwarted by the soft snow.
On June 20, 1847, General Stephen Watts Kearny and party reached the site of the disaster at Donner Lake. Along with the 60 or so military personnel was a handful of civilians, including the diarist Edwin Bryant and W. C. Graves. Graves went home to Marshall County but did not, as has been claimed, “lecture in the East” on the Donner Party. He returned to California two years later, guiding a party of ’49ers from Pittsburgh. When the emigrants reached the cabins, Graves was not with them. One diarist speculated that Graves did not wish his companions to see his distress and so went on alone, but another reported that he had simply gone hunting.
In 1850 Graves was living near his sister Eleanor in Napa County, but in 1853 he was in neighboring Lake County. About this time he married, perhaps unofficially, a Pomo Indian woman with whom he had several children; later he abandoned the family. In 1873 he married Martha Blasdel Cyphers, a member of the Blasdel family to which his mother was related by marriage, but they divorced. (See The Blaisdell Connection and The Blaisdell Connection Revisited.)
Graves made a living as a blacksmith and also had mining interests. In 1875 he gave a brief account of the Donner Party to the editor of the Russian River Flag; in 1877 his lengthy memoir appeared in the same paper; and in 1879 he began corresponding with C. F. McGlashan. He sent the historian a copy of his memoir, drew him a map of the camps, and visited Truckee, pointing out various sites and identifying artifacts. Graves, then 50 years old, made a favorable impression on McGlashan, who described him as “six foot three inches in height, and weighs two hundred five pounds. He is muscular, well-proportioned, and finely preserved” and “strictly temperate in his habits.” While he abstained from liquor, Graves did smoke.
In 1891 two prospectors found a number coins by the shore of Donner Lake, which Graves identified as the hoard his mother had secreted 45 years earlier. Half the coins went to the discoverers and half to the Graveses. Descendants of the family still treasure their “Donner money.”
In his later years Graves lived with various sisters and nieces in turn, though he did little to make himself welcome, and their children had many stories about their eccentric and irascible great uncle. He once split his thumb open, called for needle and thread, and stitched it up himself.
Graves died at the Sonoma County Hospital in Santa Rosa, California, and was buried in Calistoga.
See article, A Survivor of the Downer Horror. An obituary is reprinted in Donner Party Bulletin No. 3.
New Light on the Donner Party, Kristin Johnson
Ordeal By Hunger, George Stewart