Issue
No. 3

Donner Party Bulletin

January/February
1998

Issue No. 3

Who Was Captain George Donner?

By Jo Ann Brant Schmidt

Many articles and books have been written about the Donner Party and their ill-fated trip from Springfield, Illinois, to California in 1846, but no one has given us very much personal information about the leader of that party, George Donner. Just who was this man? First of all he was a son, brother, three times a husband, father, and grandfather by the time he left his comfortable home in Illinois bound for California.

It is said that his father, also named George, was a Revolutionary soldier serving as a private from North Carolina; to my knowledge this is not a proven fact, but it may be true. George, Sr., and his wife Mary were living the Salisbury District of Rowan County, N.C. at the time of the 1790 census. They lived near Salem, N.C. among the Moravians, but from the records of the Moravians it does not appear they were members of that faith.

The senior George Donners were the parents of Lydia, Elizabeth, George, Tobias, John, Jacob, and Susannah, with Captain George their third child and eldest son, having been born between 1784 and 1786 in Rowan County. There may have been another daughter, named Mary, but this is not proven. George and Mary Donner, with their children, left North Carolina and settled in Jessamine County, Kentucky sometime after 1800 but before 1806. It was there on 12 December 1809 that George Jr. married Miss Susannah Holloway. Not much is know of Susannah, except that she was the stepdaughter of George Davidson and her mother’s name was Marie. George and Susannah were the parents of Elizabeth, Mary (called Polly), William, Sarah, Lydia, and Susannah. The Donner families moved to Fugate Township in the northeastern part of Decatur County, Indiana, where 80 acres of land was purchased on 18 April 1821 and another 80 acres on 25 April 1821. Whether Susannah Holloway Donner died in Kentucky or Indiana I do not know, but she had died by the time George left for Indiana for Illinois.

Jan./Feb. 1998

In 1828 George and his six children arrived in Sangamon County, Illinois, along with his parents, brother Jacob, sister Susannah Donner Organ, her husband Micajah, and their five children. His brother Tobias came too, but eventually moved on to DeWitt County, finally settling in Menard County, Illinois. I do not know if his brother John was ever in Sangamon County; however, he was in Illinois, settling finally in Portland, Oregon and dying there in August 1879. In 1839 the widowed Lydia Donner Walters, George’s sister, relocated to Sangamon County, bringing along her nine children, as well as her sister’s son, Greenberry Walters, while only Elizabeth appears to have remained in Indiana.

In Sangamon County on 10 January 1829 George married Mary Blue Tenant. Mary had been previously married to Charles R. Tenant, with no living issue from the marriage. His brother Jacob married Mary Blue’s sister, Elizabeth, in November 1835. As we know, Elizabeth was married in June 1829 to James Hook, by whom she had two sons, Solomon and William. In fact, Elizabeth had married Mr. Hook on the same day her sister married George Donner.

Three years after their marriage, on 16 October 1832, Elitha Cumi was born to George and Mary Blue Donner in Sangamon County and on 5 December 1834 another daughter, Leanna Charity, was born. I believe Mary died in 1837.

In 1838 George, his two daughters by Mary, son William and family, brother Jacob and family moved to Texas where they stayed only a year before returning to Sangamon County and the farm they had left. William’s son, George T., was born on 27 May 1839 while they were in Texas.

The children of George and Susannah Holloway Donner produced forty-two grandchildren, twenty-one girls and twenty-one boys, many born in Sanga mon County before George left for California. Only William’s five children carried the name Donner; the other grandchildren’s surnames were Harmon, Weaver, Torrence, Vancil, and Blue.

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George Donner married Tamsen Eustis Dozier on 24 May 1839. Tamsen had come to Sangamon County, after the death of her husband and children, to live with her brother William and care for his motherless children. When she met George she was teaching school at Sugar Creek. There is a wonderful story of Tamsen and George first meeting in a meadow while Tamsen was teaching the girls from her class botany. We cannot know if this is truly how they met or not, but it is such a wonderful vision of them meeting in a meadow on a bright fall day that I, for one, choose to believe it. Tamsen surely brought sunlight and happiness into George’s life. Three daughters, Frances Eustis, Georgia Ann, and Eliza Poor were born to Tamsen and George.

Captain George was an honest man who paid his debts as can been seen in this notice which appeared on the front page of the Sangamo Journal on 26 September 1844, written to the patrons of the paper asking again for payment from their subscribers. The last paragraph reads, "Uncle George Donner and Mr. T. J. Knox are the only individuals who have as yet responded to the above notice."

When George Donner Senior died the following notice appeared on July 4, 1844 in the Sangamo Journal:

Died. — In Germany Prairie, June  27th, George Donner, aged 92 years and four months. Truly it can be said, an honest man has left us. During his long life he has sustained the character of an upright man, in the strict sense of the word. This is more than with justice can be said of many who are buried with great parade, encased in costly tombs, and spoken of in loud applause; — While we were preparing his humble bed beneath the tall trees of the forest, and a few of us stood around in quiet sadness, there were none to call to remembrance an act of meanness, none who might not wish their last end to be like his.

Germany Prairie was four miles northeast from Springfield and near the mouth of Sugar Creek. I believe Captain George’s character to have been equal to that of his father, and how sad it is that this same obituary could not have been spoken over his grave.

I, for one, am extremely proud that Captain George Donner was my fourth greatgrandfather. My hope is that this article will help you know more about his life and family.    
(For another article by Jo Ann about George Donner, see Donner Party Bulletin no. 13.)

Jan./Feb. 1998

Johnson’s Ranch Tours Ended

By unanimous vote of all family members, the owners of the ranch upon which is located the Johnson Ranch adobe of Donner Party fame have decided to cancel all further tours of their land, effective immediately.

For over ten years the Wilson family generously allowed historians to tour their holdings, but, due to continued incidents of unauthorized trespass, the owners must now exert greater control of their properties.

The Wilsons are well aware of the historic events which once took place upon their ranch. Historians are indeed fortunate to have such caring caretakers.

My son and I would like to emphasize how very greatly we appreciate the many past kindnesses shown to us by the Wilsons. We can never repay what they have allowed us to accomplish at the site.

—Jack Steed

Note: Jack and his son Richard discovered the site of Johnson’s Ranch; see Jack’s fascinating book, The Donner Party Rescue Site: Johnson’s Ranch on Bear River (Sacramento: Graphic Publishers, 1993).

Book Review

Frank Mullen Jr., The Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train 1846-1847 (Nevada Humanities Council, 1997)

Reviewed by Garry H. Garff

Informative, engagingly written, and lavishly illustrated, The Donner Party Chronicles is an impressive though imperfect book that no Donner Party enthusiast will want to be without.

And it is a big book, measuring about 9 inches by 11 inches and totaling 379 pages, so that while it is highly readable it is not very portable.

Of course, Chronicles did not actually start out as a book. It began as a series of articles by Frank Mullen, Jr., that ran from May 1996 to May 1997 in the Reno Gazette-Journal. The book brings those articles

Issue No. 3

together to present a chronological narrative that follows the Donner Party’s 1846-47 journey from Independence, Missouri, to Sutter’s Fort in California.

The fact that Chronicles began life as a series of newspaper articles explains not only the format of the book but also the author’s approach to the subject matter. As Mullen states in the preliminary pages, "I am a newspaperman, and I approached the Donner saga as a journalist rather than a historian" (p. 4). Those who read this book with the expectation of getting a definitive history will be disappointed.

That is not to say that Mullen has not done his homework. Besides personally taking a journey on the Donner trail, he has consulted numerous primary and secondary sources (many of which, as any Donner Party researcher knows, can be difficult to sift through). Mullen does an admirable job of consolidating all of that scattered and sometimes contradictory information and presenting a coherent story. Yet because his brief articles were originally written specifically for a newspaper, the coverage of people and events is necessarily sketchy— we’re given snapshots rather than in-depth portraits. In other words, had Chronicles been written from the outset as a book, most likely it would have provided more detailed analyses of Donner Party members and their experiences. That book, the definitive history of the Donner Party, has yet to be written.

Newspaperman, book writer, history buff — it really doesn’t matter what Frank Mullen calls himself, because the bottom line is that he’s a wonderful storyteller. Despite the choppiness that the book’s format sometimes creates, Mullen achieves a narrative flow that pulls the reader into the drama of events. Moreover, he is adept at introducing suspense and tension at all the right moments. "A clock is ticking against them and they know it," he comments at one point, with appropriate dread (p. 144). Mullen also makes effective use of dramatic irony and understatement. Thus, in writing of the Donners’ struggle through the Wasatch Mountains, he innocently suggests, "Maybe this road . . . will be the worst of the trip" (p. 122). Indeed, Mullen’s literary flair can get downright poetic: "Tonight [14 June 1846], gathering clouds flash with lightning, but the sky will not weep" (p. 70). Those words are a particularly nice touch, given the

Jan./Feb. 1998

fact that on this same Mullen describes the tragic death of an eight-year-old boy (not a member of the Donner Party).

Mullen’s powerful prose is strengthened more than a little by Marilyn Newton’s excellent photographs, which provide the sense of place so important to understanding the Donner Party story. Instead of just reading about these famous sites, we see the fateful "parting of the ways" in present-day Wyoming, the formidable Wasatch Mountains, the harsh and seemingly endless salt flats, the dreary Humboldt Sink. Such photographs lend credence to the words of Bill Pugsley, the Donner Party reenactor who is occasionally quoted in the book: "The trail is every bit the killer today that it was a hundred years ago" (p. 177). There are some hauntingly beautiful photos of Donner Lake, but since this is where the Donners got stuck, we get stuck with shots of this body of water from every conceivable angle — except an underwater view!

The sparkling writing and high-quality photographs, however, will undoubtedly not blind Donner Party buffs to the flaws they are bound to recognize in Chronicles. Any book of this magnitude and complexity will inevitably have its share of problems—typos, misidentified photos, inconsistencies, etc. — but it is regrettable that more care was not taken to give this book a final polish. A little more attention to details would have gone a long way to make this a better book.

For instance, the ages given for various Donner Party members throughout the book are simply a mess. This may seem like a minor point, but our perception of these people is significantly colored by such details. It makes a difference, for example, that Levinah Murphy was not age 50, as the Chronicles roster states (p. 378), but rather 37 (p. 310). On page 41, the ages of the Reed children are given in two places, at the top and at the bottom, but they are inconsistent. At the top we’re told that Virginia was 13, Patty 8, James Jr. 5, and Thomas 3; then at the bottom it says Virginia was 12, Patty 9, James Jr. 6, and Thomas 4 (on p. 51 Thomas is suddenly 6!). The Breen family suffers the same treatment (compare pp. 102, 109, and 379). Granted that ages given for Donner Party members can vary widely from source to source, it is nevertheless disconcerting to find so many discrepancies between the covers of a single book. The

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creators of the Chronicles should have picked reasonable ages for the Donner Party members and then stuck to them throughout.

It is not surprising to find occasional minor errors in a published book. What is frustrating is to find a host of them, as one finds in Chronicles. Some of these make the reader wince more than others. For example, what is to be made of the statement on p. 288 that on 20 February 1847 "Catherine Pike’s infant daughter, who shared her first name, never awoke from her slumber"? The infant Catherine Pike did die on this date, but her mother’s name was Harriet. Another example of an exasperating faux pas is the misidentified photograph on p. 69. The photo is actually of Richard and Nancy Graves Williamson, but Chronicles states that the subjects are Patrick and Margaret Breen (the error is repeated in the case of Nancy/Margaret on p. 327). In other examples, we get "Hogshead Summit" instead of "Hogsback Summit"; what should be the Sangamo Journal is labeled the Sangamon Journal; the text on p. 160 states that the Hastings Cutoff added 125 miles to the Donners’ trail, while a caption for a color photograph on p. 25 states that the cutoff "added more than 300 miles to their trip"; and so on.

Nitpicky as they may seem, in the aggregate these problems make for a less than reliable book. Researchers and historians should be cautious in making use of Chronicles—but then again, the same caution could be issued relative to nearly every source on the Donner Party.

None of this is to say that Chronicles is a failure—far from it. It is simply to say that some readers may view this as a book whose potential was not fully realized; it’s a fine book, but it could have been a much finer one. Chronicles is a significant contribution to the literature of the Donner Party, and perhaps more important than any other consideration, it successfully engages our imagination, transporting us across time and space to experience the sorrows and the triumphs of those unforgettable emigrants of 1846.

Donner buff Garry Garff is an editor at Bookcraft in Salt Lake City. He has worked with author Gerald N. Lund on the series of historical novels "The Work and the Glory," the latest two volumes of which feature portions of the Donner Party story.

Jan./Feb. 1998

Was Member of Donner Party.

William Graves, who passed away at the hospital several days ago was one of the prominent men of this state. He was a member of the famous Donner Party, which met such a terrible fate in the winter of 1846 at Donner Lake. In that party were also three sisters of the deceased, two of whom, Mrs. McDonald of Knight’s Valley and Mrs. Cyrus of Napa, still survive. A niece of the deceased is Mrs. Alex G. Hood, of Knight’s Valley. Mr. and Mrs. Hood will accompany the remains to Calistoga Sunday, where the interment will take place. Manville Doyle of this city is a life long friend of the deceased. These gentlemen met at Clear Lake in September, 1853, and have been close friends since that time. Mr. Doyle was greatly pained to hear of the death of Mr. Graves, and declares him to have been one of God’s own men, kind of heart, courageous and firm. He was a splendid shot and the deceased and Mr. Doyle enjoyed many bear and coyote hunts together. For many years when his health permitted it Mr. Graves spent the time in the mines and amassed considerable wealth in his time, which he in turn spent in developing other property.

Deceased was a native of Mississippi, aged seventy-one years. He was six feet three inches in hight [sic] and strong and rugged. When the Donner party became stalled in the mountains his great strength manifested itself in going out to seek assistance and returning to rescue his comrades.

— Santa Rosa Republican, March 9, 1907.


From the Editor

Many thanks to Garry Garff and Jo Ann Schmidt for their contributions to this issue. I apologize for having had to tinker with their submissions to get them to fit into the limited space.

Donner Party Bulletin is edited by
Kristin Johnson
Salt Lake City, UT
E-mail:
Kristin Johnson

 

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