No. 7

Donner Party Bulletin

September/October 1998

"New" Donner Party Relics

Two weeks ago I was surprised and delighted to learn the location of a group of Donner Party artifacts collected by historian C.F. McGlashan. Of course, some people have known where they were for years, but it’s news to me and I’m pleased to relay the information.

Donner buff Peter van der Pas of Grass Valley, California, has been a major figure in the Nevada County Historical Society for many years. He has very kindly sent me several articles about the Donner Party, and I’ve been sending him issues of this Bulletin. In a recent letter Peter included a list of 37 Donner Party items on display at the Nevada County Historical Society Museum in Nevada City, California, typed up by his wife Priscilla, who currently serves as the society’s president.

The bulk of the collection consists of artifacts McGlashan dug up at the Breen and Graves-Reed cabin sites in 1879. Tough marsh grass at the Murphy cabin site prevented excavation there, but the other two cabins yielded a number of items. McGlashan enlisted some of the survivors to assist him in his amateur archaeological efforts. On April 21, 1879, W. C. Graves was present when the Graves-Reed site was investigated. He recognized many of the objects as they emerged from the soil. In one case the diggers found a small metal box which Graves said his mother had kept oil of hemlock in. The side of the box crumbled when tapped, and "upon examination a distinct odor of oil of hemlock was found remaining in the box." A dig at the Breen cabin site turned up another poignant reminder of the past, the sole of a baby’s shoe.

In his History of the Donner Party McGlashan wrote that he had recovered over five hundred articles from the Breen and Graves-Reed cabin sites. Most were badly worn by time but still recognizable: parts of eating utensils; china and glass fragments from dishes, bottles, and glasses; sundry bits of metal such as nails, bolts, screws, chains, fish hooks, sewing implements, and wagon fittings; and a pistol, gunflints, and bullets. McGlashan kept most of the artifacts but gave a few to survivors.

James F. Breen, for instance, received two items found at the Breen cabin site, a gunflint and a piece of china which matched a cream pitcher still owned by his brother. Patty Reed Lewis requested and was sent a bit of whetstone marked JFR (James Frazier Reed).

During McGlashan’s lifetime the relics were displayed in the Rocking Stone Tower, an annex of his home in Truckee. In 1935, four years after the historian’s death, the house burned to the ground but the tower and its contents were spared. At that point, McGlashan’s granddaughter and biographer writes, the Donner artifacts were sent to Sutter’s Fort.

There I thought the matter rested, until I heard from Peter and Priscilla van der Pas. They don’t know when or how the relics came into the possession of the Nevada County Historical Society, but apparently the Donner artifacts have been at the museum ever since it opened in 1947. The McGlashan items consist of 9 found at the Graves-Reed cabin, 22 from the Breen cabin, and 3 with no location listed. Of particular interest among the artifacts are the aforementioned oil of hemlock box and baby’s shoe sole.

There’s also a burned human toe bone which was found at the Breen cabin. While this isn’t enough evidence to speculate upon, I can’t help remembering that Dr. Donald L. Hardesty has found documentary evidence that the Donner Party dead were buried and burned in the Breen cabin, not the Murphy cabin, as had long been assumed. Since Dr. Hardesty has excavated at the Murphy cabin and Alder Creek camp, these items from the other two sites are all the more interesting.

The museum also has three later acquisitions: a hair ribbon donated by Virginia Reed Murphy, a piece of wood dug up at the Donner campsite in Alder Creek Valley, and six of the Murphy cabin vials. (See below.)

The Nevada County Historical Society Museum is located at 214 Main Street, Nevada City, California. It’s open 11-4 daily during the summer, but is closed Monday through Wednesday during the winter. The phone number for the Society is (530) 265-5468.

Issue No. 7

The Murphy Cabin Vials

For many years C. F. McGlashan cherished the idea of creating a memorial to the Donner Party. Largely due to his efforts, the California legislature passed a Donner monument bill in 1892, but it was vetoed by the governor as too expensive. McGlashan had to find another means to raise the money to realize his dream.

In July 1893 McGlashan again rode out to the cabin sites near Donner Lake. He found that there was nothing left of the Breen cabin, but a single log of the Murphy cabin remained. Then McGlashan was struck with an idea for raising money for the monument. On August 12 he assembled witnesses, removed the log, and brought it to Truckee. Part of it was cut into fragments which were used to fill small glass vials; these in turn were "sealed, labeled, and certified to under oath." There were many subsequent "bottling bees" in which a total of over two hundred people participated; one of them was Virginia Reed Murphy.

The vials were about 1 inches high, with square sides and round necks, sealed with red wax. To each bottle were tied tags with a serial number, a statement of authenticity, and McGlashan’s pledge that the proceeds of the sale would go towards a monument to the Donner Party. There were 5,000 vials to be sold at $1.00 each. Enough remained of the log to fill another 20,000 bottles, but unfortunately there was no need: money was tight in the 1890s and after the initial rush, sales languished. McGlashan kept most of the unsold bottles in his museum tower, but it was a rare visitor who bought one. His dream did not die, however; eventually the money was raised, and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West dedicated the monument in 1918 amid great fanfare.

For many years Murphy cabin vials could only be found on display in a few museums (unless you knew someone who actually owned one), but then a fortunate discovery made them available again. McGlashan had given the leftover vials to the N. S. G. W. Donner Monument Committee, chaired by Dr. C. W. Chapman of Nevada City, in 1910. About eighty years later Dr. Chapman’s descendants discovered some 1,500 Murphy cabin vials in an attic and donated them to the Sierra State Parks Foundation, which funds Donner Memorial State Park (among others). The vials were sold at the Emigrant Trail Museum at $25.00 each, with the proceeds returning to the park’s interpretive fund. The last of the bottles was sold in 1997. After more than a

September/October 1998

century, the Murphy cabin vials had fulfilled their purpose of raising money to commemorate the Donner Party.

Although sold out at the museum, the vials have come up for sale elsewhere. In June a correspondent e-mailed me that an "authentic Donner Party relic" was being auctioned at the eBay site on the Internet ( Naturally, I had to check this out and was astonished to discover that a Murphy cabin vial had sold for $250.00, ten times the price the museum had asked. So unless another hoard of vials is discovered, it appears that Donner Party buffs who want to buy an authentic relic at a more-or-less reasonable cost are pretty much out of luck.

The creation of the vials is described in M. Nona McGlashan’s Give Me a Mountain Meadow: The Life of Charles Fayette McGlashan (Fresno, CA: Pioneer Publishing, 1977) 157-162.

Strange Donner Relic
The Tooth of a Child Found in a Decayed Log

Last Thursday, says the Truckee Republican, while engaged in filling bottles for the Donner monument, Mrs. Ida Morrison discovered a strange relic of the Donner Party. The foundation log of the Murphy cabin from which the 5,000 bottles are being filled is much decayed, having lain partially imbedded in damp soil for forty-six years. Imbedded in the soft wood Mrs. Morrison found a child’s tooth.

It is a front tooth and belongs to what are commonly known as the first or baby teeth. The enamel is perfectly preserved but the root has disappeared,* and particles of the soft wood fill the under surface. At least one baby is known to have died in the Murphy cabin, and this tooth doubtless came from its poor little starved mouth. (Sacramento Union, February 23, 1894.)

*Baby teeth that fall out naturally have no roots.Ed.

Donner Party Bulletin is edited by
Kristin Johnson
Salt Lake City, UT
Kristin Johnson


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