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The George Donner Family
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George Donner, the captain of the wagon train, is still somewhat of an enigma. He seems to have been genial man with an adventurous streak, but the five daughters who survived the journey apparently had few memories of him; it is his third wife, Tamzene, who has captured the public fancy. Nevertheless, his name identifies the party. Donner Hill, Donner-Reed Pass, Donner Spring in Utah, Donner Springs in Nevada, Donner Lake, Donner Pass, Donner Peak in California, as well as other places, bear his name.

George Donner

A farmer from Springfield, Illinois, and captain of the Donner Party; brother of Jacob Donner
Age: [60/62]

Parents: George Donner (b. abt 1752 Donegal Twp, Lancaster Co., PA, d. 27 Jun 1844, Sangamon Co., IL) and Mary (Huff?) (b. ?, d. abt 15 Mar 1842, Sangamon Co., IL)

b. 07 Mar 1784? Salem, Rowan Co., NC
m1. 12 Dec 1809 Jessamine Co., KY to Susannah Holloway
     Ch: Mary "Polly," William, Elizabeth, Sarah, Susannah M., Lydia
m2. 10 Jun 1829 Sangamon Co., IL, to Mary Blue Tennant
     Ch.: Elitha Cumi, Leanna Charity
m3. 24 May 1839 Sangamon Co., IL to Tamzene Eustis
     Ch: Frances Eustis, Georgia Ann, Eliza Poor
d. Mar 1847 Alder Creek camp, Nevada Co., CA

       A prosperous farmer from Springfield, Illinois, George Donner was elected captain of the newly formed Donner Party at the Little Sandy River in western Wyoming on or about July 20, 1846.
       In Eliza Donner Houghton’s The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate, George Donner’s age is given as 62. Independent genealogies of other branches of the Donner family, however, estimate his year of birth as 1786, or age 60 at the time of the Donner Party.
       Jo Ann Schmidt, a descendant of George's first marriage to Susannah Holloway, has been actively researching Donner family genealogy. The Daughters of the American Revolution have accepted her documentation that George Sr., the father of George and Jacob of the Donner Party, was a Revolutionary War veteran. The identity of George and Jacob's mother has long been a mystery, but Jo Ann's research indicates that she was almost certainly Mary Huff, a daughter of Valentine Huff. For more about George Donner’s genealogy, see Jo Ann's "Who was Captain George Donner?" in Donner Party Bulletin No. 3. and "The Beginning of the Story" in Donner Party Bulletin No. 13.
       No images of George Donner are known. Photographs are sometimes published under his name, but these are almost always of his nephew, Jacob Donner’s son George.

George Donner, at the time of leaving Springfield, Ill., was a large, fine-looking man, fully six feet in height, with merry black eyes, and the blackest of hair, lined with an occasional silver thread. He possessed a cheerful disposition, an easy temperament, industrious habits, sound judgment, and much general information. By his associates and neighbors he was called "Uncle George." To him they went for instructions relating to the management of their farms, and usually they returned feeling they had been properly advised. Twice had death bequeathed him a group of motherless children, and Tamsen was his third wife. (C. F. McGlashan)

       As the other emigrants neared the pass over the Sierra, the two Donner families were behind. George and Jacob were repairing a wagon when a chisel slipped and gashed George’s hand, wounding him seriously. The storm descended and the Donners and their dependents, about twenty-two people in all, were caught in the Alder Creek Valley, about seven miles north and east of the lake where the rest of the emigrants camped. The Alder Creek camp consisted of three crude shelters made from tents reinforced with branches, quilts, buffalo robes, and whatever else was on hand. The huts were cold, wet, and drafty. "Uncle George’s" hand became infected and he spent the winter bedridden, unable to help his family, until he died in March 1847.
       The area where the Donner families camped is now the Donner Camp Picnic Area and has recently (2003 and 2004) been the site of archaeological excavations.

For information about the Donners in Illinois, visit the Sangamon County, Ill., GenWeb site.

Tamzene Eustis

Wife of George Donner
Age: 44

Parents: William Eustis (b. 19 Aug 1757, d. 11 Feb 1843, Newburyport, MA), m. 24 Nov 1785 to Tamsen Wheelwright (b. 09 Nov 1762, d. 07 Aug 1808, Newburyport, MA)

b. 01 Nov 1801 Newburyport, MA
m1. 31 Dec 1829 Elizabeth City, NC to Tully B. Dozier, d. 24 Dec 1831
     Ch: Son, b. 1830, d. 24 Sep 1831; dau., born prematurely and d. 18 Nov 1831
m2. 24 May 1839 Sangamon Co., IL to
George Donner
     Ch: Frances Eustis, Georgia Ann, Eliza Poor
d. Mar 1847 Donner Lake camp, Nevada Co., CA

     Mrs. George Donner’s first name is spelled "Tamsen" in the literature of the Donner Party, but she herself spelled it "Tamzene." This is apparently a version of "Thomasine," a feminine form of "Thomas."
The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate, Eliza Donner Houghton gives her mother’s middle name as Wheelwright, but this is an error. Many details about Tamzene's life appear in C. F. McGlashan's History of the Donner Party, 137-143.
     Tamzene Eustis received first rate education -- she wrote, sketched, spoke excellent French, and was skilled at botany -- and taught the "female department" at the Elizabeth City Academy in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Her marriage to Tully Dozier ended tragically in 1831 (see article Tamsen's Other Children). After the loss of her first family, Tamzene lived quietly for several years, then went to Sangamon County, Illinois, to help her brother William with his children after their mother died. Tamzene also taught school in Illinois and reportedly met her second husband, George Donner, while out "botanizing" with her pupils.
     Tamzene was a small woman, standing barely five feet tall and weighing under 100 pounds.

...her eyes were grayish blue, her hair brown, her face was not pretty, but was full of character and intelligence, her movements were energetic, but her manner was composed, dignified, and ladylike. Her dress was of the best of material, but noted for its Quaker simplicity. Her conversation was fascinating, and her voice would hold its listeners in perfect silence for hours while she read. (C. F. McGlashan)

Although she mentioned in a letter that she was going to have her portrait painted, no likeness of her is known to have survived. Her daughter Eliza was said to have resembled her.
     During the overland journey Tamzene wrote letters, two of which at least reached their destinations and are available to researchers (see Overland in 1846, p. 526-527 and 561-563). Unfortunately her diary did not survive the disaster in the mountains.
     Under the terrible conditions at the Alder Creek camp, Tamzene did what she could to comfort her family and keep them alive. The Third Relief found her still in good health when they arrived. They left on March 13 with her three little girls, but she herself chose to stay behind with George, who was near death from his infected hand. George and Tamzene, their nephew Samuel Donner, Levinah Murphy, and Louis Keseberg were the only living emigrants at the camps after the Third Relief left. When the Fourth Relief arrived a month later Tamzene Donner was nowhere to be found. They accused Louis Keseberg, the only emigrant still alive, of murdering her. Keseberg never denied having cannibalized her body, but insisted that she had died of natural causes:

At midnight, one cold, bitter night, Mrs. George Donner came to my door... Her husband had died in her arms. She had remained by his side until death came, and then had laid him out and hurried away. He died at nightfall, and she had traveled over the snow alone to my cabin. She was going, alone, across the mountains. She was going to start without food or guide. She kept saying, ‘My children ! I must see my children!’ ... She declared she would start over the mountains in the morning. She said, ‘I am bound to go to my children.’ She seemed very cold, and her clothes were like ice. I think she had got in the creek in coming. She said she was very hungry, but refused the only food I could offer. She had never eaten the loathsome flesh. She finally lay down, and I spread a feather-bed and some blankets over her. In the morning she was dead.

     From this description it seems that Tamzene Donner died of hypothermia. See the Myths page for more about the question of what happened to her body.
Because of her refusal to leave her dying husband at the cost of her own life, Tamzene Donner is widely regarded as heroine and has attained almost a cult status in some quarters. Several novels have focused on her, and she has been the subject of a cycle of poems and a related ballet.

Elitha Cumi Donner

Daughter of George Donner and Mary Blue
Age: 13

b. 16 Oct 1832 Bloomington, McLean Co., IL
m1. 01 Jun 1847 Sutter’s Fort, Sacramento, CA to Perry McCoon (b. abt 1821, d. Jan 1851)
     Ch: Elizabeth, b. abt 1849, d. abt 1850
m2. 08 Dec 1853 Benjamin R. Wilder (b. 27 Mar 1821, RI; d. 1898, Sacramento, CA)
     Ch: Susan, Mary L. Olive D., James Allen, Ulysses, George Donner, Elitha Ellen
d. 07 Jul 1923

     Just a few months after her ordeal in the mountains, fourteen-year-old Elitha Donner married Perry McCoon, who had assisted the Donner relief by ferrying men and supplies across the swollen Sacramento River. The marriage was brief and apparently not very happy. McCoon prospered at first, managing a ranch as well as a ferry, but wasted the proceeds from the sale of his holdings by drinking and gambling. By 1850 he was impoverished -- Heinrich Lienhard remarked on his decline and seedy appearance. Elithas feelings at finding herself tied to such a man are not known, but they can be imagined. In January 1851 McCoon was reportedly showing off his riding skills when his foot became entangled with his riata and he was dragged to death.
s second marriage to Benjamin Wilder, a brother of her half-sister Frances husband, was much happier, though life was still difficult in pioneer California. Leanna lived with Elitha and Benjamin until she married in 1852, then Frances took her place.
     When news of the impending publication of McGlashan
s history got out, Benjamin attempted to get an injunction to stop its publication but lost his case. Elitha did not correspond with McGlashan, but in later years she provided information for her half-sister Elizas book, The Expedition of the Donner Party.
     Elitha died in 1923 and is buried in Elk Grove, California. Her grave is California State Historic
Landmark 719, and Elitha Donner Elementary School in Elk Grove, is named after her. "She is Elk Grove’s golden link to the early settlement of California and a symbol of hope for children everywhere." Elitha figures prominently in a young peoples book, Tamsen: A Story of the Donner Party, by Edna Mae Anderson (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1973) and in Naida Wests novel River of Red Gold.

Leanna Charity Donner

Daughter of George Donner and Mary Blue
Age: 11

b. 05 Dec 1834 Sangamon Co., IL
m. 26 Sep 1852 to John App (b. 1821
Selinsgrove, Snyder Co., PA; d. 12 Aug 1898 Jamestown, Tuolumne Co., CA)
     Ch: Rebecca E., Leonard, John Quincy, Lucy Eva
d. 29 May 1930 Jamestown, Tuolumne Co., CA

     Leanna and Elitha were selected to leave with the First Relief. Leanna had a terrible time just reaching the lake camp.

"Never shall I forget the day when my sister Elitha and myself left our tent. Elitha was strong and in good health, while I was so poor and emaciated that I could scarcely walk. All we took with us were the clothes on our backs and one thin blanket, fastened with a string around our necks, answering the purpose of a shawl in the day-time, and which was all we had to cover us at night. We started early in the morning, and many a good cry I had before we reached the cabins, a distance of about eight miles. Many a time I sat down in the snow to die, and would have perished there if my sister had not urged me on, saying, ‘The cabins are just over the hill.’ Passing over the hill, and not seeing the cabins, I would give up, again sit down and have another cry, but my sister continued to help and encourage me until I saw the smoke rising from the cabins; then I took courage, and moved along as fast as I could. When we reached the Graves cabin it was all I could do to step down the snow-steps into the cabin. Such pain and misery as I endured that day is beyond description." (C. F. McGlashan)

       Before their departure, Tamzene reportedly told Leanna and Elitha never to tell what they had experienced in the mountains. Leanna took this advice to heart and rarely spoke about the disaster. She did, however, communicate with C. F. McGlashan while he was gathering materials for his History of the Donner Party, her daughter Rebecca penning the actual letters for her.
     After her rescue Leanna lived for the most part with Elitha and Benjamin Wilder until her own marriage to
John App in 1852. The Apps settled in Jamestown, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Leanna lived in the house they built there for 78 years; it was still standing in 1993. In her old age she enjoyed sitting on the porch in her rocking chair. Western writer Ferol Egan, who grew up in Jamestown, relates how Leanna told him and a schoolmate about the Donner Party in his article, "The Donner Party Pooper," Westways 70:10 (October 1978).

Frances Eustis Donner

Daughter of George Donner and Tamzene Eustis
Age: 6.

b. 08 Jul 1840 Sangamon Co., IL
m. 24 Nov 1858 to William R. Wilder, b. 24 Oct 1823, d. 20 Jun 1886
     Ch: Harriet, James William, Frances Lillian, Asaph, Susan Tamsen, Georgia Elitha Olive
d. 21 Nov 1921 Byron, Contra Costa Co., CA

     After the disaster Frances, sometimes called Frankie, was taken in and raised by James F. Reed’s family in San Jose until 1852, when Leanna married John App. Then Frances went to take Leanna's place at the home of Elitha and Benjamin Wilder.
     Frances married Benjamin's brother, William Wilder. She and her husband settled first on a farm in Sacramento County. About 1866 they moved to Point of Timber in Contra Costa County, where they homesteaded a quarter section. They spent the rest of their lives there.
     The specter of starvation never quite left Frances; her grandchildren remembered that she always had some candy or a few crackers in her pocket.
     Frances is buried in Union Cemetery, Brentwood, California.

Georgia Ann Donner

Daughter of George Donner and Tamzene Eustis
Age: 4

b. 04 Dec 1841 Sangamon Co., IL
m. 04 Nov 1863 Logtown, El Dorado Co., CA to Washington Alexander Babcock
     Ch: Henry Alex, Frank Benjamin, Edith M.
d. 13 Dec 1911 St. John, WA

     George and Tamzene Donner's two youngest children, Georgia and Eliza, were very close. Although Hiram O. Miller had been appointed their legal guardian, they were taken in by an elderly Swiss couple, Christian and Mary Bruner, living for a few months near Sutter’s Fort, then moving to Sonoma in the fall of 1847. The girls called the Bruners "Grandpa" and "Grandma," learned to speak German, and helped with the dairy work and other chores. They were with the Brunners until 1854, then went to live with their half-sister Elitha, whose husband, Benjamin W. Wilder, became their guardian in place of Miller. Georgia attended St. Catherine’s Academy at Benicia and the public schools of Sacramento.
     Georgia wrote often and frankly to historian C. F. McGlashan; she did not shy from revealing details about cannibalism at the camps.

A survivor who lived through into a calm and secure maturity was Georgia Donner, a four-year-old in 1846-1847, who became Mrs. W. A. Babcock. Among McGlashan’s correspondents she seems most at peace with the world, ready to admit her own cannibalism as a child of four, careful in her judgment of others, seeming to realize—as no one else in the party seemed able to do—that hard circumstance, and not perversity of character, was to blame. (George R. Stewart)

Eliza Poor Donner

Daughter of George Donner and Tamzene Eustis
Age: 3

b. 08 Mar 1843 Sangamon Co., IL
m. 10 Oct 1861 Sacramento, CA to Sherman Otis Houghton
     Ch: Eliza Poor, Sherman Otis, Clara Helen Sally, Charles Donner, Francis Irving, Stanley Washington, Herbert Sutter
d. 19 Feb 1922 Los Angeles, CA

     George and Tamzene Donner's youngest child was named after her mother’s sister Eliza, who had married Jonathan Poor. Eliza was said to have resembled her mother.
     Eliza and Georgia, the two youngest children of George and Tamzene Donner, were very close. Although
Hiram O. Miller had been appointed their legal guardian, they were taken in by an elderly Swiss couple, Christian and Mary Bruner, living for a few months near Sutter’s Fort, then moving to Sonoma in the fall of 1847. The girls called the Bruners "Grandpa" and "Grandma," learned to speak German, and helped with the dairy work and other chores. They were with the Brunners until 1854, then went to live with their half-sister Elitha, whose husband, Benjamin W. Wilder, became their guardian in place of Miller. Eliza attended St. Catherine’s Academy at Benicia and the public schools of Sacramento.
     Eliza married Sherman Otis Houghton, the widower of her cousin Mary. Sherman, a lawyer, was a prominent citizen of San Jose and served a term in Congress from 1871 to 1875. He, Eliza, and their family lived until in San Jose until 1886, when they moved to Southern California. Eliza belonged to several organizations, including the Red Cross, the Native Daughters of the Golden West, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and was also active in her church.
     In 1879 Eliza began a lengthy correspondence with historian C. F. McGlashan. They became close friends. She collaborated with him on his History of the Donner Party (1879), and even wrote some of the text. Her own book, The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate, was published in 1911, sixty-five years after the events it describes. Although she wrote authoritatively, as though she remembered the events she described, most of her account of the Donner Party can be traced to previously published sources, her older sisters’ recollections, and the statement of Jean-Baptiste Trudeau, who visited her in 1884. For more information about her book, see the introduction to the 1997 University of Nebraska reprint. See also the article The Donner Tragedy.
Eliza died on February 19, 1922, exactly 75 years after the arrival of the First Relief. She and her husband are buried in Rosedale Cemetery, Los Angeles.



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