Adobe’s builder helped save Donner party survivors

September 29, 2012

Fresno Bee photo

Then: One of the oldest structures in the valley is the Adobe de los Robles, built circa 1856 by Kings County pioneer Daniel Rhoads, who was one of the first rescuers of the Donner Party.

Along a stretch of Highway 41 in Kings County, south of a junction called Hall’s Corner, sits a little adobe with ties to one of the most tragic events in California history, standing as a memorial to a heroic pioneer.

Built about 1856, northwest of Lemoore, El Adobe de los Robles Rancho, (House of the Oaks Ranch), is recognized as the second oldest building in the Central Valley. (An adobe barn, built in the early 1850s, survives on private property on the Avenal Ranch)

The builder of El Adobe de los Robles Rancho was Illinois native Daniel Rhoads, born in 1821. He was of English ancestry, and his grandfather, Daniel Rhoads, served during the Revolutionary War under Gen. George Washington.
Rhoads was among the thousands lured west by a glowing account by explorer Gen. John C. Fremont. In April 1846, Rhoads, wife Amanda and family joined a wagon train from St. Joseph, Mo., to California and Oregon for the 5-month journey. Along the way, Rhoads and the group were approached by George Donner, enroute to California in another wagon train. Donner invited them to join his group, the Donner-Reed party, and take a new route, the Hastings Cutoff, a supposed shortcut with easier terrain.

Rhoads made what might have been the best decision of his life, declining to take the unproven route. His party made safe passage to the Sacramento Valley on Oct. 5, 1846, just ahead of one of the harshest winters ever to hit the Sierra Nevada.

The fate of the Donner Party is well-known. Beset by delays, bad decisions and conflict, they reached the hardest part of the trip, over the steep Sierra range, just as heavy storms hit. Their trip ended in death and cannibalism.
By mid-January 1847, word had reached Sutter’s Fort that the party was stranded. Rhoads, then 27, joined a rescue party. Packing 75 pounds of meat on home-made snowshoes, they set out over snow drifts, sometimes 18 feet deep. At best, they made about seven miles a day.

Just after the sun set on Feb. 18, after crossing the frozen Truckee Lake, the rescuers “raised a loud halloo” that echoed across the desolate landscape, Rhoads wrote later. He then saw a “horrible, ghastly” sight: an emaciated woman emerged from a makeshift shelter buried under nearly 20 feet of snow.

Hauntingly, speaking in a hollow, “agitated” voice she asked, “Are you men from California or do you come from heaven?” Rhoads described seeing the bodies of those who had perished covered in quilts atop the snow. At this point, he said, the survivors had not yet partaken of human flesh.

The rescuers rationed food, the first the survivors had eaten in three weeks. The next morning they started their return trip with 21 survivors, mostly women and children. Two more rescue teams were organized over the next month to bring out more. Meanwhile, those awaiting help turned to cannibalism to survive.
In the end, only 48 of the 89 people in the Donner-Reed party lived.

Soon the nation and world would be changed forever with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on Jan. 24, 1848. Daniel Rhoads was working at a nearby ranch when it happened, and for two years he turned gold miner. He stopped after gathering $8,000 worth, saying that was all a man should ever want.

He and his family returned to Missouri in 1851, but the lure of the West drew him back. He bought a ranch at Gilroy, but after a prolonged drought, drove his cattle over the coast range in search of water and feed in 1857. He found it near the Tulare Lake in the Kings River region.

South of the Kings River, he acquired 2,000 acres of prime land with five artesian springs. He hired Tache Indians to form bricks from mud of a nearby slough and brought lumber from Stockton to hand-hew for beams, window and door frames. Two-foot thick walls provided insulation from the Valley heat and winter chill.

The home contained a living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom — each with a fireplace, along with a provision room, a buttery, and a wine cellar. Rhoads and his family took up residence in September 1860.

Additions came later: a blacksmith shop, barns, smoke house, storerooms and a cemetery, a grim necessity of life on the frontier. Some of the trees Rhoads planted are still there: cypress, blue gum, eucalyptus, black olive, oak, pepper, oleander, fig, quince and pear trees.

Tulare Lake, then the largest freshwater body of water west of the Mississippi River, was one of Rhoads’ passions. An early pioneer, Milton McWhorter, recalled Rhoads taking him on the lake to see an amazing sight through the clear water: a submerged Indian village lost to flooding in the 1860s.

“Uncle Dan” as he was known in Kings County, went into banking, becoming president of the Bank of Lemoore, and later a banker in San Francisco, where he died on December 4, 1895, as he said grace over dinner. He was buried at his beloved adobe, with more than 200 carriages in his funeral procession.

Fallen into disrepair, the adobe was bought by Carroll and Leona V. Buckner in 1927. Mrs. Buckner, an avid historian, spent decades restoring it. Still owned by the Buckner family, and on private property, the adobe was designated a California Historical Landmark in 1950.

John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Now: Standing proud, but showing its age, the El Adobe de los Robles is off Highway 41 about a mile north of Lemoore.