No. 8

Donner Party Bulletin


Donner Party books on the way

I’m pleased to report that two Donner Party titles are coming out this spring.

The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party, by Marian Calabro. New York: Clarion, 1990. 7 ˝ x 10. 192 p. Illustrated with archival photos, prints, and maps. ISBN: 0-395-86610-3. $20.00.

This telling of the story, focusing on Virginia Reed, is geared for readers age 10 and up. It contains many new, or at least little-known, photographs of Donner Party members. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and corresponding with Marian, and know that she’s done some excellent research. She’s dedicated to both good storytelling and good history, and I very much look forward to seeing her book when it comes out in April.

The Excavation of the Donner-Reed Wagons: Historic Archaeology Along the Hastings Cutoff, by Bruce R. Hawkins and David B. Madsen. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press. 6 x 9. 178 p. 78 illustrations. Paper, $14.95. ISBN 0-87480-605-4.

The University of Utah Press has finally decided to reprint Hawkins and Madsen’s work in paperback. Donner buffs have lamented this book’s unavailability ever since it sold out in hardcover about eight years ago. The title is rather misleading – there’s no evidence as to which, if any, of the wagons excavated had actually belonged to members of the Donner Party – but the book is nevertheless of great interest to Donner buffs. The book will be available in May.

John Breen

Nothing seems to interest readers more than information about the members of the Donner Party. I haven’t published much on the Breen family, so here’s a biographical sketch of the eldest son, John, who with his father and brothers became noted pioneers of San Benito County, California.

The old historic town of San Juan, with its quaint streets and innumerable reminders of a long departed Spanish civilization, has profited by the industry and devoted careers of many latter day sons, few of whom have lived within the shadows of its reminiscent moods longer than has John Breen. As the last of a family of seven children who came here with their parents in 1848,* he is entitled to the consideration merited by his long and well directed life, and by his invaluable services in connection with the agricultural and political undertakings of his locality.

Across the lake from Detroit, Mich., on the Canadian side, Mr. Breen was born in 1832, a son of Patrick Breen, who left Keokuk, Iowa, in 1846, bound for the golden possibilities of the Rocky Mountains. Accompanied by his family and other aspirants for the supposed large fortunes awaiting the stout of heart and strong of endurance, he set out with ox-teams,

*This passage is a bit confusing. John was the eldest, but his brothers all predeceased him, leaving him the last son of the family alive when this sketch was published in 1903. His sister, Isabella Breen McMahon, was the last survivor of her family and of the Donner Party. She died in 1935.


Donner Party Bulletin No. 8
and was snow-bound at famous Donner Lake, perils afforded by the deplorable and seemingly with the ill-fated party of that name. For six months he endured all of the hardships and hopeless situation, but eventually started forth upon the latter end of the journey, and reached in safety the Sacramento valley, in March of 1847. For a time he lived in San José and in February of 1848 came to San Juan, where he purchased a large tract of land adjoining the mission. Here he followed farming and stock- raising for the remainder of his days, and died at the age of seventy, in 1868. At one time he

also owned the Topa [Topo] rancho of twenty-four thousand acres, which he left to his family of six sons and one daughter. He was well known and highly esteemed in the locality in which he lived, and was a member of the first board of supervisors of Monterey county. Few men in the early days reaped such lavish personal returns for their great and untiring labors, but he was fortunately blessed with children who appreciated his efforts in their behalf, and who like himself exercised thrift and care in the management of their legacies.

As a boy of fourteen Mr. Breen came to San Juan with his parents, and he grew to manhood under the spire of the old mission. Eventually he spent a couple of winters in Hangtown, now Placerville, and gained his share of the hidden treasure of the earth. From then on he turned his attention to his present ranch at San Juan, near which he owns two hundred acres, besides two thousand acres of the old paternal ranch in the Topa country. He is engaged in raising cattle, horses and hogs and in general farming, and has been successful, as are most practical and hard working agriculturalists and stock-raisers. In formulating his success in life he attributes much to the helpful assistance of his wife, who was formerly Leah Smith, and whom he married in 1852. Mrs. Breen is a native of Illinois, and came to California in historic ’49. She became the mother of eight children, one of whom is deceased.

A portion of the influence exerted by Mr. Breen in the county

has been form a political standpoint, for his interest in the Republican party has inspired meritorious service in its promotion. He was a supervisor at large of the Monterey county, before the separation of San Benito county, a fact which gave him the chairmanship of the board, a position maintained until the county division in 1874. He was one of the commission appointed by Governor Booth to organize the new county and put it on a working basis, and soon after the creation of San Benito he was elected supervisor of the second district, and was on the board when the court house was built. He has since served three terms as supervisor of four years each, and for one term was chairman of the board. For forty years he has been a member of the board of school trustees, and materially assisted in establishing the present school systems of Monterey and San Benito counties. So extended a political service speaks volumes for the confidence enjoyed by Mr. Breen, and for his practical common sense and publicspiritedness. To all who know him he is a typical representative of the hale and hearty and large hearted pioneer, whose work is as good as the gold for which men in the early days risked their lives, and ofttimes bartered their futures and that of their families. Of him it may be said that with few exceptions the friendships made way back in the shadows of the mission have lived and thrived in uninterrupted sincerity and good will, for he possesses the qualities calculated to hold friends through weal and woe.

J. M. Guinn. History of the State of California and Biographical Record of Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties. Chicago: Chapman Pub. Co., 1903, p. 596-597.

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


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