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The Breen Family
[Donner Party Roster] [Rescuers and Others]

The family of Patrick and Margaret Breen is the focus of the late Joseph A. Kings Winter of Entrapment. King, himself a Roman Catholic of Irish descent, vehemently deplored the characterizations of the Irish Catholic Breens in the literature of the Donner Party. King argued that George R. Stewart, in his influential Ordeal by Hunger, displayed ethnic bias towards the Breens and other members of the Donner Party, and that other writers following Stewart have continued and elaborated on his interpretations. Kings point is well taken; however, his own characterizations of the Breens are also biased.

That said, however, the fact remains that Winter of Entrapment, particularly the first (1992) edition, is an excellent source of genealogical information about the Breen family. King owes a substantial debt to the research of John Shea Enright.

The Breens have not been forgotten in their native land; in 1995 Telefis Eireann aired "The Breen Family Story," a half-hour documentary.

Breen descendant Alice Raven maintains a genealogy page.
For further genealogical and family history research, try the San Benito Co., Calif. GenWeb site.
San Benito County Historical Society also has a wealth of genealogical and local history material.
The Breens are mentioned several times in Isaac Mylar
s Early days at the Mission San Juan Bautista.

Patrick Breen

Farmer from Keokuk, Iowa; a native of Co. Carlow, Ireland.
Age: [51]

Parents: Edward "Ned" Breen and Mary Wilson.

b. 1795 Barnashasken, Co., Carlow, Ireland
m. abt 1830/31 in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, to
Margaret Bulger
     Ch: John, James, Edward, Patrick Jr., Simon Preston, James Frederick, Peter, Margaret Isabella, William
d. 21 Dec 1868 San Juan Bautista, San Benito Co., CA

Born in Ireland, Patrick Breen emigrated to Canada in 1828. There he married Margaret Bulger, whom he had almost certainly known in Ireland. The Breens had two sons in Canada, then moved to Springfield, Illinois, about 1834, where they resided briefly before moving on Keokuk, Iowa. In 1835 they had a son, James, who died the next year. Six more children were born in Iowa. Patrick worked for a time on a riverboat, but was essentially a farmer and acquired a half-section of land about three miles northwest of Keokuk.

Religion was very likely a factor in the Breens' decision to move to California. A growing nativist trend in the United States made foreign-born Roman Catholics increasingly unpopular. There were few Catholics in Keokuk, and it was a difficult district--the towns priest wrote to his superiors requesting to be reassigned. On the other hand, California, with its chain of missions, had a strong Roman Catholic presence, as well as a reportedly delightful climate and cheap land. In any event, the family sold their property, outfitted themselves for the journey, and set out in three wagons to rendezvous with other overland emigrants in the spring of 1846. They were accompanied by their friend and neighbor, Patrick Dolan. Like most of the other eventual members of the Donner Party, they started out in the company captained by William H. Russell.

Patrick Breen is famous for the diary he kept from November 20, 1846, to March 1, 1847, the only record we have of daily events at the mountain camps. After arriving at the lake, the Breens moved into a cabin constructed two winters previously by members of the Townsend-Stephens-Murphy Party. Later they took in Augustus Spitzer and the Reed family, who were without shelter. In February, the First Relief rescued two of the boys, Edward and Simon. In March, the Second Relief took the rest of the family out, but a blizzard came up and caught the small party in the open. When the weather cleared, there was no food left and only a handful of the refugees were able to travel. Patrick and Margaret Breen, their five children, and members of the Graves and Jacob Donner families were left behind at what came to be called Starved Camp. After five long days the Breens and other survivors were brought out by John Stark of the Third Relief.

After their rescue the Breen family stayed with the family of Martin Murphy near Sutter's Fort until September 1847, when they relocated to San Juan Bautista. General Jose M. Castro allowed the Breens to live in his house on the plaza, the Castro Adobe, rent free; in 1849 they purchased it and operated it, at least temporarily, as an inn. Patrick Breen acquired a great deal of property and he and his sons became prominent early settlers of what was then Monterey County and became San Benito County in 1874.

Margaret Bulger

Wife of Patrick Breen
Age: [40]

Parents: Simon Bulger and Margaret ----.

b. 1806 Rathgeran, Co. Carlow, Ireland
m. abt 1830/31 in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, to
Patrick Breen
     Ch: John, James, Edward, Patrick Jr., Simon Preston, James Frederick, Peter, Margaret Isabella, William
d. 13 Apr 1874 San Juan Bautista, San Benito Co., CA

The characterization of Margaret Breen in Donner Party writings has been unfortunate. It appears that because of her husbands ill-health, she assumed a more prominent role in the family than some have thought seemly. Nevertheless, the fact that all of her family survived intact, including her nursing infant Isabella, is a tribute to her care. At Starved Camp she was the only capable adult and looked after not only her own family but orphans of the Graves and Donner families as well.

Mrs. Breens only known statement about the Donner Party was reported by Eliza W. Farnham in California, In-Doors and Out (1856; reprinted in "Unfortunate Emigrants"). Like all survivors accounts, Mrs. Breens is self-serving,  but considering the bad press she had received this is hardly surprising. Margaret Breen died in 1874, five years before C. F. McGlashan began collecting material for his History of the Donner Party, but her sons vigorously defended her memory and ensured that she was fittingly portrayed in his book.

John Breen

Son of Patrick Breen and Margaret Bulger
Age: 14

b. 21 Feb 1832, Ontario, Canada
m. 1852 in San Juan Bautista, San Benito Co., CA to Leah Margaret Smith
     Ch.: Margaret Jane Lillie, Patrick Edward, John Joseph, Thomas Frank, Adelaide A., Mary Catherine, Isabelle, Alice Gertrude, Charlotte A., Ellen A.
d. 22 Jul 1903 San Juan Bautista, San Benito Co., CA

John went to the diggings in 1849 and returned with $12,000 worth of gold, a fortune in those days. His father used it to purchase the Castro Adobe and other property. John’s diligence as a youth of 16 thus laid the foundation of his family’s later prosperity. For more information about Johnís life, click here.

In 1856 Eliza W. Farnham published an account of the Donner Party, using John Breen as one of her informants. In 1877 he wrote a memoir for historian H. H. Bancroft and two years later he corresponded with C. F. McGlashan.

Edward Breen

Son of Patrick Breen and Margaret Bulger
Age: [13]

b. Sept 1833 in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada
m1. to Catherine Sullivan
     Ch: Eugene T., Edward James Jr., John Roger
m2. 1880 to Mary Jane Burns
     Ch: William, James Edwin, Harry Joseph
d. 30 Aug 1890 San Juan Bautista, San Benito Co., CA

Not long after leaving Fort Bridger, Edward was out riding with one of the Reed girls when his horse fell. Edward was knocked out and his leg was broken. His parents sent back to the fort for assistance, but when the "surgeon" arrived, he recommended amputation. Edward refused, the leg was set, and by the time the emigrants reached the Humboldt, Edward was riding again.

Edward, like Simon, was rescued by the First Relief. He became a prominent rancher and farmer in San Benito County, owning huge amounts of land in that county and elsewhere. He stood over 6' 1", was well-proportioned, and a noted horseman. Edward’s son Harry J. Breen was an avid family historian who collected and preserved numerous documents.

Patrick Breen, Jr.

Son of Patrick Breen and Margaret Bulger
Age: [9]

b. 12 Mar 1837 in Keokuk, Lee Co., IA
m. 1864 to Amelia Anderson
     Ch: Mary Molly, William Breen, Patrick William, Peter, Eugene, Amelia
d. 25 Jul 1899 Hollister, San Benito Co., CA

Patrick Breen, Jr., became a rancher in the San Juan and Salinas valleys, where he owned considerable property. He raised cattle and sheep, and also grew wheat and fruit.

Patrick’s great-great granddaughter, Alice Raven, maintains a genealogy page.

Simon Preston Breen

Son of Patrick Breen and Margaret Bulger
Age: [8]

b. 1838 near Keokuk, Lee Co., IA
m. Marie Constance Pendacet
     Ch: Geneva, Mary Catherine, and a baby who died young.
d. 13 Jun 1899 San Juan Bautista, San Benito Co., CA

The First Relief took Simon and Edward from the lake camp in February 1847. Like his brothers, Simon ranched in San Benito County, but did not strive after material success at they did. He was a colorful figure, a man who enjoyed life. He had bright-red, curly hair, loved music, had a temper, and was a first rate rider.

James Frederick Breen

Son of Patrick Breen and Margaret Bulger
Age: [5]

b. 21 Jan 1841 near Keokuk, Lee Co., IA
m. 1870 to Catherine McMahon
     Ch: Peter William, Margaret, Grace
d. 23 Apr 1899 San Francisco, CA

James graduated from Santa Clara College and became an attorney. He established his practice in San Juan Bautista about 1863 and was a prominent local citizen. He served as district attorney, assemblyman, and county judge for Monterey County; when San Benito County split off from Monterey County in 1874 he was appointed judge of the new county and, in 1879, became its superior judge.

In December 1878 business took James to Reno. Passing through Truckee, he dropped by  the office of the the Truckee Republican, and asked to subscribe to the local newspaper. When editor Charles Fayette McGlashan wondered why someone from so far away would be interested, Breen, "tall and commanding in appearance," with "a fine intelligent countenance," answered that he had been a member of the Donner Party. McGlashans interest was piqued. He threw himself into research and two months later the Republican published the first installment of a series of articles which evolved into the classic History of the Donner Party.

Peter Breen

Son of Patrick Breen and Margaret Bulger
Age: [3]

b. 3 July 1843 near Keokuk, Lee Co., IA
d. 3 July 1870 near San Juan Bautista, San Benito Co., CA

Peter Breen attended Santa Clara College. He was engaged to be married when he was killed in a riding accident.

Margaret Isabella Breen

Daughter of Patrick Breen and Margaret Bulger
Age: [1]

b. 1845 near Keokuk, Lee Co., IA
m. 1869 to Thomas McMahon
Ch.: Helena
d. 25 Mar 1935 in Hollister, San Benito Co., CA

Of the six infants in the Donner Party, Isabella Breen was the only one to survive to adulthood. She had no personal memories of the tragedy. When her parents and older brothers would talk about it as she was growing up, she paid little attention. In her later years she regretted not learning more of her family history.

Isabella Breen was the last survivor of the Donner Party. Her death in 1935 was widely reported in the press, including Newsweek magazine. It marked the end of an era.

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Revised: 31 Jan 2006

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