No. 9

Donner Party Bulletin


Catching Up

It’s been over a year since the last Donner Party Bulletin appeared, and no doubt people are wondering what the heck is going on.

The Bulletin, as I originally saw it, would be a regular publication, but such are the vagaries of research there hasn’t been enough material to warrant a new issue every couple of months. Although I got out of the habit of writing it, I’ve still continued to research, and after my vacation from the Bulletin, I’m ready to start anew.

The Website

The New Light on the Donner Party website has been very rewarding for me – though not in the financial sense, of course. It now consists of 13 main pages and 23 subpages. Since the "hit counter" was installed on the homepage in early 1998, it’s recorded almost 49,000 visits to that page, or an average of nearly 2000 per month. Not bad! The greatest number of hits occur during the school year, when students are researching papers and working on projects. Summers are pretty slow.

There are two ways I get feedback from the website: signatures in the Guest Book and e-mail. The Guest Book is intended to allow people simply to post comments; if they have a question they can e-mail me directly. Unfortunately, people sometimes ask a question in the Guest Book without leaving an address where they can be reached with the answer. There has been only one rather hostile message, fortunately, but there have been several cranks, mostly tiresome comments about cannibalism. My policy is to leave all messages in the Guest Book, regardless of what I think of them personally, unless they’re obscene or commercial.

The e-mail from the website consists mostly of genealogical queries and requests for information from students working on papers and projects. I’ve heard from many descendants or relations of Donner Party members, including several less well known ones. Some of the information sent me by these correspondents has been incorporated into the

website, or will appear in future issues of the Donner Party Bulletin.

Trip to Springfield

In September 1998 I finally fulfilled my dream of going to Springfield, Illinois, to research the Donner Party. My traveling companion was George Donner’s fourth great granddaughter Jo Ann Schmidt, who wanted to add more to her already considerable knowledge of Donner family genealogy. We wangled lodging from Jo Ann’s fourth cousin once removed, Don Springer, who with his charming wife Karen put us up (or put up with us) for a whole week. They were invaluable allies and gracious hosts.

The day after we arrived, Don drove us around showing us sites in "Donner country" – Clear Lake Township – all within about five miles of Springfield. The first stop was at the Oak Hill Cemetery, where many Donner relations are buried, including George Donner’s son William, Don’s ancestor. The next stop, a short drive away, was the home of Don’s brother Phil, who lives on part of what used to be William Donner’s farm. The two of them pointed out the former property lines and described the history of the parcel. Then Don drove us down a nearby lane lined with mailboxes bearing familiar names. The majority were Carvers, descendants of William Donner’s daughter Rachel Tamsen.

Don also showed us two contenders for the site of George Donner’s farm. There had been some question as to which was the actual site, but Don and Jo Ann determined that the traditional location described by Homer Croy in Wheels West was correct. [This opinion was later revised --see News page]

Another important stop was at Bissell, formerly known as German Prairie – McGlashan readers may recall that George and Tamzene Donner had attended the German Prairie Christian Church. Bissell itself is virtually nonexistent; as far as I could see it consisted almost entirely of a railroad crossing. Near it stands the former church, which later served as a school and is now a private residence. Across the road from the old building is an overgrown, neglected little cemetery. Tall grass, weeds, and bushes obscure the


Donner Party Bulletin No. 9
headstones, some so timeworn that their inscriptions are almost imperceptible and others sunk into the ground. I stubbed a toe on one of them; bending down and parting the grass, I read the name of George H. Miller. It didn’t register at the time but later I realized that I had inadvertently and literally stumbled over Hiram Miller’s father. Hiram’s mother Polly Owens Miller is buried there as well.

We were looking, unsuccessfully, for the graves of George and Mary Donner, the parents of George and Jacob, who died at advanced ages in Sangamon County in the early 1840s. Don and Jo Ann are convinced that they must lie in the Bissell Cemetery, since they spent their last years living with the younger George and because George Sr.’s obituary states that he was buried in German Prairie. We did find some familiar names, however, more Donner relations.

Later that afternoon Jo Ann and I went to visit Nancy Spinner, a descendant of Margret Reed’s brother James W. Keyes with whom I’d been corresponding and who had helped plan our stay. Nancy was a delight, full of local lore and good humor. Another memorable tour occurred later in the week, when Nancy and her husband Louis took me to see Keyes family sites. Many of them have fallen victim to urban expansion and are no longer what they were, but it was still interesting to see where they had been.

It was Nancy who warned us that Springfield’s interest in the Donner Party is almost entirely eclipsed by enthusiasm for the city’s favorite son, a lanky lawyer who went on to greater things. Nevertheless, Springfield’s public library – the Lincoln Library – is the home the Sangamon Valley Collection, which maintains a large clip file of Donner Party articles and houses a wide variety of local history and genealogical sources. Fortunately the collection’s librarians had been forewarned of our onslaught and were very obliging about finding files, making photocopies, and answering many questions. A few blocks away is the Illinois State Historical Library, housed in the basement of what once had been the state capitol. The staff there were also extremely helpful in locating sources and answering questions.

Jo Ann and I spent our days researching, alternating between the Historical Library and the Lincoln Library. Most

of the trip is rather a blur. I had a signing one evening and the next addressed the Sangamon County Historical Society. At both events I got to meet a lot of interesting people: local historians; several Donner relations; descendants of siblings of Milt Elliott and Noah James; and a relative of Sarah Keyes who had driven all the way from Ohio.

Some Springfield Trivia

William H. Herndon is best known in Springfield as Abraham Lincoln’s last law partner and his biographer. Donner buffs will be interested to learn that Herndon was not only the cousin of teamster Noah James but also a near, perhaps even next-door, neighbor of James F. Reed. The two men’s names are listed consecutively in the 1840 census.

The Reed’s house in Springfield actually belonged to Virginia. She inherited it on the death of her natural father, Lloyd C. Backenstoe, and retained possession of it into the 1880s.

In her letter of May 16, 1847, Virginia told her cousin Mary Keyes to tell "Dr. Maniel" about California medical practices. Francis A. McNiel was a physician whose office was in the same building as James Keyes’ tailor shop.

Gershom Keyes, Margret Reed’s brother, farmed outside Springfield. His property is now the site of a seafood restaurant.

William Donner and many of his relations are buried in Springfield’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Oak Ridge Cemetery, some miles away, is where Abraham Lincoln is buried. And just to confuse things a little more, the cemetery in San Jose, California, where the Reeds, William Eddy, and other emigrants of 1846 lie, is another Oak Hill Cemetery.

Donner Party Bulletin is edited by

Kristin Johnson
Salt Lake City, UT


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