William McFadden Foster (1815-1874) was one of the earliest European-American settlers in Marysville and the brother-in-law of Mary Murphy Covillaud, for whom Marysville was named. Foster's Bar on the Yuba River is named for him.
He was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania, to David Foster and Rebecca McFadden Foster. His father died when William Foster was 24. By 1842, at age 27, William Foster was serving as a mate on a ship. The ship became icebound, giving Foster and one of his crewmates, William M. Pike, ample time to get acquainted with two young female passengers: sisters 16-year-old Sarah Murphy and 14-year-old Harriet Murphy, who were traveling with their widowed mother and their siblings. At the end of the trip, William Foster married Sarah, and William Pike married Harriet, in a double wedding in Alexandria, Missouri, on Dec 29, 1842. Since William Foster and Sarah had both lost their fathers within the past three years, perhaps it's not surprising that they felt a bond. They must also have had some disagreements, at least at first: Sarah had been raised a Mormon, but William had become a Roman Catholic convert.
Foster left the ship after their marriage and became a carpenter in St. Louis, Missouri. He and Sarah were living there when their first child, Jeremiah George Foster (called "George"), was born. A year later, they traveled to California as part of the Donner Party in the winter of 1846-1847, along with Sarah's widowed mother and her six younger siblings. On October 25, 1846, two Indian guides named Luis and Salvador, sent from Sutter's Fort by John Sutter, arrived to guide the Donner Party over the Sierra Nevadas. Three days later, the Donner Party was at Prosser Creek, three miles below Truckee, when it began snowing. Everyone recognized that the snow threatened to strand them all winter without adequate food. Two days after that, on October 30, William Foster and his brother-in-law, William Pike, were attempting to pass a notoriously unreliable, old-fashioned pepper-box pistol from one to the other when the pistol accidentally fired at Pike. Pike was dead within 20 minutes, leaving his two young daughters fatherless. He was buried in Truckee Canyon; the falling snow covered his body almost as fast as the shovels could.
Soon thereafter, the party became trapped at what is now known as Donner Lake and began to run out of food. In November, William Foster and another man, William Eddy, built a cabin against a 12-foot-high boulder, in which the Murphys, Fosters, Pikes, and Eddys all lived together. There was a separate cabin for the Breen family about 200 yards away, and another cabin for the Graves and Reed families about half a mile from the other two. The Donner family camped about six miles behind the others, in two tents and a brush shelter. But the entire party's dire need for food continued to worsen.
On December 16, 1846, William and Sarah set out out on snowshoes with fifteen of the other survivors to look for help, leaving their son George (who was two years old by that time) behind with Sarah's mother and some of her younger siblings. They brought a bare minimum of rations, knowing that they had a better chance of finding more food than the weaker Donner Party members they left behind had. Two members of the snowshoe party—which years later would be dubbed the Forlorn Hope party—turned back after one night, unable to keep up with the other fifteen. Around December 21, the rations ran out. One man, Charles Stanton, was too weak to leave camp in the morning; he sat in the snow, smoking his pipe, and told the rest of the snowshoers to go on without him. They did. Around December 25, at a place that became known as the Camp of Death, the remaining fourteen discussed killing one of their number for food and drew lots. A man named Patrick Dolan drew the short straw, but no one could bear to kill him. Two men died of starvation that night—Franklin Graves and a Mexican teamster named Antonio. The following day, Patrick Dolan died. Another day or so after that, Sarah's 13-year-old brother Lemuel died. The day after that, the survivors resorted to eating their dead companions for the first time, "averting their faces from one another and weeping." The only remaining food taboo they observed was that they made sure no one had to eat their own family members' bodies.
The snowshoe party's human meat lasted about four days, When it ran out, William Foster—who is said to have become deranged by starvation—suggested murdering the two Indian guides, Luis and Salvador. William Eddy vehemently disagreed, and told Luis and Salvador about William Foster's suggestion. Luis and Salvador were initially incredulous, then ran off into the woods and hid.
On January 7, 1847, William Eddy killed a deer. Another member of the party, Jay Fosdick, died that night. Two days later, the seven other surviving snowshoers found Luis and Salvador lying in the snow, starved to the brink of death because they had not gotten to eat the deer or Jay Fosdick's body as the others had. William Foster shot both of them, murdering them, and all the seven remaining survivors ate their bodies. The other survivors do not seem to have blamed Foster much for the murders—perhaps because of Foster's derangement, perhaps because the two Indian guides were already on the brink of death anyway, and perhaps also because of racism against the Indian guides.
On January 12, the seven surviving snowshoers found footprints in the snow and excitedly followed them to an Indian village. The Indians gave them acorn bread. The snowshoe party struggled on, reaching a second Indian village on January 17. William and Sarah Foster and the four other surviving women were too weak to continue any farther. The next day, they remained at this Indian village while the strongest survivor, William Eddy, gave one of the Indians a pouch of tobacco in exchange for the Indian half-carrying him several miles to nearest European-American settlement, Johnson's Ranch (owned by William Johnson), in what is now Wheatland. Shocked to see how emaciated Eddy was, the settlers at Johnson's Ranch followed Eddy's bloody footprints back to the Indian village and brought the other six survivors of the snowshoe party back to Johnson's Ranch to recover.
On February 5, the First Relief rescue team was finally ready to depart Johnson's Ranch and begin the trek to Donner Lake to rescue as many as they could of the remaining Donner Party members. William Eddy had by that point sufficiently recovered to accompany them as far as the foothills, but no farther. In early March, William Eddy and William Foster were both sufficiently recovered that they led the Third Relief rescue team together, arriving back at Donner Lake by March 13. William Foster found that his only child, George, had died of starvation in March and been eaten. William Eddy found that his wife and both of his children had died. Only nine people were left alive at the lake by this point, the other survivors having been rescued by the two previous relief teams. The Third Relief rescued four children: Sarah Murphy Foster's younger brother Simon Murphy, who celebrated his ninth birthday March 14, and Frances, Georgia, and Eliza Donner, aged six, five, and four, respectively. The Third Relief left behind George Donner, who was on the brink of death and couldn't travel; George's wife Tamzene Donner, who refused to leave her dying husband; Sarah's mother Levinah Murphy, who was also on the brink of death; four-year-old Samuel Donner, who was on the brink of death; and 32-year-old Louis Keseburg, who was then too sick to travel but was later the sole survivor rescued by the final Fourth Relief team.
After returning from the Third Relief rescue effort, William Foster spent a short time working as a carpenter in San Francisco before returning to Marysville, where Sarah and both her sisters were living. Harriet found a new husband, Michael C. Nye, who joined William Foster in mining for gold east of Marysville.
William and Sarah went on to have six more children: Alice E., Georgiana C., William Budd, Minnesota "Minnie," Harriet "Hattie," and Frances S. In the mid-1850s, the Foster family moved to Minnesota and attempted to found a community there that they called San Francisco. The attempt failed, and they returned to California about five years later. William Foster died of cancer in 1874 in San Francisco and was buried there.