Donner Party Bulletin
|Issue No. 4
Compared to some of the other mothers in the Donner Party Tamzene Donner, Margret Reed, and Levinah Murphy little is known about the ancestry of Elizabeth Cooper Graves. Her parents were William Cooper and Eleanor Mages (or Majes) of Dearborn County, Indiana. She had at least one sibling, a older sister named Nancy.
According to a family tradition reported in two branches of the Graves family, William Cooper went off to fight the Indians and never returned. After some years his wife Eleanor married Jonathan Blaisdell. It was a platonic relationship, however, for Eleanor did not know for certain if she was really a widow.
Attempts to verify this story have turned up some additional information. William Cooper, the missing husband, has remained elusive; nothing besides his name and date of birth, 12 Oct 1773, are known. "William" and "Cooper" are such common names that it is very difficult to identify or rule out a given William Cooper as the one sought. Preliminary searches of various records turned up dozens of possibilities. The most promising so far is listed in Virgil D. Whites Index to Volunteer Soldiers 1784-1811 (Waynesboro, TN: National Historical Publishing Co., 1987, p. 141). This William Cooper, one of four indexed, served as a trumpeter for the Indiana Territorial Militia in 1811, but more research is necessary determine whether this man was the father of Elizabeth Cooper Graves.
Blaisdell family and Dearborn County records have been more helpful. The Blaisdell (or Blasdel, Blaisdel, Bleasdel, etc.) family is an old and prolific one. The original colonist, Ralph, landed in Maine in 1635. One of his many descendants, Jacob Blasdel, was a Revolutionary War veteran who moved from New Hampshire to the Ohio River Valley and thence to Indiana about 1805, where he and his
family became prominent early settlers of Dearborn County. There the Blasdel, Cooper, and Graves families met and intermarried. There were at least two marriages between the Blasdels and Coopers, and Franklin Ward Graves parents, Zenas and Hannah, were reportedly buried in a Blasdel private cemetery (known variously as Cambridge or Pella) in Miller Township, Dearborn County, along with Jacob Blasdel, his wife Ruth, and many of their relations.
It emerges, however, that the family tradition is slightly mistaken: Eleanor Mages Cooper married Enoch Blasdel, Jacobs son, on 18 February 1827; he was a widower seven years her junior. It was her daughter Nancy (sister of Elizabeth Cooper Graves of the Donner Party) who married Jonathan Blasdel, Enochs much younger brother, on 15 September 1815, making for some delightfully complicated relationships: mother and daughter became sisters-in-law; the mother became her grandchildrens aunt by marriage; Enoch became Nancys brother-in-law when she married his brother in 1815, and her stepfather when he married her mother twelve years later; and so on.
The story that Eleanor Cooper did not consummate her marriage with Enoch Blasdel cannot be proven. The couple had no children, but since Eleanor was 55 when she remarried, this is hardly surprising.
Some Blaisdells are aware of their relationship to the Donner Party. In Blaisdell Papers 2:9, p. 18, appears the following paragraph:
Reference was recently make to a novel by Vardis Fisher [The Mothers] in which Mrs. Elizabeth Graves appears as a heroic participant in the terrible tragedy of the Donner Party. Elizabeth Graves was the stepdaughter of Enoch Blasdel, oldest son of Jacob...
The connection between the Blaisdell and Graves families is also reflected in the families naming practices. Nancy Cooper Blasdels sister Elizabeth married Franklin Ward Graves. Their first child was a daughter, Melissa Graves, who died young. Nancy and Jonathan named one of their daughters Melissa Graves Blasdel. In return, Elizabeth and Franklin named one of their daughters Nancy Blaisdell Graves. They also had a son Jonathan B. Graves; although no one knows for certain what his middle initial stood for, it seems likely that it too was Blaisdell and that he was named for his uncle by marriage.
There is, however, a contradictory tradition among her descendants that Nancy Blaisdell Graves took her middle name from a San Jose family who adopted her after the Donner disaster. However, a search of early San Jose records has found no one named Blaisdell or Blasdel living there at the relevant time, nor is this adoptive Blaisdell family mentioned in written accounts by descendants of the Graves family. These accounts refer several times, however, to the young Graves girls staying with the family of Isaac Branham in San Jose. The Branhams, also pioneers of 1846, remained friendly with the Graveses for years; Lovina Graves Cyrus visited Mrs. Branham in San Jose as late as 1883. It seems probable that in later years Nancys descendants knew that her middle name was "Blaisdell" but were not aware of the Graves familys connection with the Blaisdells of Indiana. Remembering that she had been taken in by a San Jose family whose name began with "B," it was assumed that it must have been the Blaisdells who had taken her in.
There is one further possible connection between the Blaisdell and Graves families. In a genealogical statement made to the Daughters of the American Revolution, Ann McDonnell reported that her uncle William Cooper Graves of the Donner Party had married a Martha Blaisdel. However, Blasdel/Blaisdell family sources do not confirm this statement, and no record of such a marriage has yet been found in Illinois, Indiana, or California.
[Note: See Donner Party Bulletin No. 13, "The Blaisdell Connection Revisited" for information about this marriage.]
For further research
The Graves and Blaisdell families both have active family associations. Interested readers can visit The Graves Family Association website at
The street address is: 261 South Street, Wrentham, MA 02093-1504
The Blaisdell Family Association also has a website. No street address is given, but its URL is:
On March 13, 1998, Philippa Williamson Meier passed away at her home in Santa Rosa, California. She was the last surviving Williamson grandchild of Nancy Blaisdell Graves Williamson of the Donner Party.
In 1869 there was a
proposal to form a new county from portions of Sierra,
Nevada, and Placer counties. The hypothetical
"Donner County" would have included the Truckee
area. Though hotly debated, the issue was finally
abandoned after several years.
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