No. 1

Donner Party Bulletin


Augustus Spitzer

Little is known about many of the single men who set out with the Donner Party on its fateful journey and it has been a real challenge to research them. In the second (1994) edition of Winter of Entrapment, the late Joseph A. King published an extract from a letter sent him by a reader of his first edition:

When I visited Donner Memorial Park not long ago I was astonished to see the name of Augustus Spitzer on a plaque. My great grandfather had a brother of that name and my uncle often talked about him. He was the family black sheep, the one who didnít like to work and couldnít find a job and who had grand plans for adventure. The family thought it best to pay his way to America. In his last letter to the family, he mentioned that he was about join a wagon train for California. That was the last he was heard from.

Kingís informant also told him that her Spitzer ancestors were Jewish and from Austria. Although the identification of this Augustus Spitzer with the Donner Party member isnít definite, the story is very plausible, and I was pleased to learn of a possible identity for one of the Donner Partyís more obscure members.  (See Augustus Spitzer on the Teamsters page.)

There was, however, a complication: at the 1946 celebration of the Donner Party centennial, a Miss Pearl Adair Pearson had represented Augustus Spitzerís family. How did she fit into the picture? My attempts to find out led nowhere.

Moses Augustus Spitzer

Some time ago, however, a new candidate brought to my attention when I received e-mail from Nick Brisbois. He wrote me of his familyís tradition that Donner Partyís

Augustus Spitzer was a distant relation of his, Moses Augustus "Gus" Spitzer, a German-American gunsmith from Virginia. The information Mr. Brisbois sent and the additional sources it led to have allowed me to piece together the following:

About the middle of the 18th century, John Andreas Spitzer and his family emigrated from Baden, Germany, to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. John married there about 1765. His son Henry married Catherine Vance (or Wentz) in 1793 and shortly thereafter moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, settling near New Market in Rockingham County. In the early 1800s the area was home to many German emigrants; German was spoken on the street, schools were taught in German, and the first newspaper in New Market was published in the German language.

Henry and Catherine Spitzer had several children, including Moses Augustus (born 23 May 1805) and Charles (born 22 Aug 1807). In 1833 Charles married Elizabeth F. Amiss; they were to have four children, including Lewis Amiss Spitzer (of whom more below). The same year Moses left Virginia for Ohio. After a few years he returned to Virginia, then went West again in "1837 or 38." His relatives next heard of him in St. Louis. On December 2, 1838, Thomas Amiss wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Charles Spitzer, adding in a marginal note, "Moses Spitzer left this place in February and I do not know where he went. His family went with him."

The reference to his family is particularly intriguing, as it implies not only that Moses Spitzer was married but also that he had at least one child, otherwise Amiss would no doubt have written only "his wife went with him." Whatever the case, this information went unremembered in Mosesí family, for another source states that he "was never known to have been married." The LDS FamilySearch database lists a Moses Spitzer who married Euphama H. Butler on January

Donner Party Bulletin No. 11
3, 1837, in Warren Co., Missouri. Could this have been "our" Moses Spitzer? The date fits the approximate time frame, and the location is not far off, for Warren County is only about 50 miles west of St. Louis.

After this 1838 note, Moses Augustus Spitzer simply disappeared from his familyís knowledge. It was not until many years later that they discovered (or thought they discovered) what had become of him. In 1857 Lewis Amiss Spitzer, Mosesí nephew, left home and headed west. Ten years later, after various adventures, he eventually settled for good in Santa Clara County, California, the home of several Donner Party survivors. It was apparently here that Lewis Spitzer determined to his satisfaction that the Augustus Spitzer of the Donner Party was his long-lost uncle, Moses Augustus Spitzer of Virginia.

We donít know the details of how Spitzer arrived at this conclusion and it is consequently impossible evaluate its accuracy. Patty Reed Lewis may have contributed information, for she knew of the identification and recorded it as a fact. Her endorsement is not particularly compelling, however, as she told many unreliable stories in her later years. The only major objection to the identification is that Donner Party Spitzer is always said to have been German, but this discrepancy can be explained by the fact that Moses Spitzer evidently grew up speaking the language and may well have been taken for a foreigner.

At any rate, Lewis Amiss Spitzer passed the information on to his relatives back in Rocking-ham County, who also repeated it, for Moses Augustus Spitzer has been identified as a Donner Party member in some local histories. The mysterious Pearl Adair Pearson who attended the Donner centennial in 1946, it turns out, was a granddaughter of Lewis Amiss Spitzer and a great-grandniece of Moses Augustus Spitzer.

That answers one question, but leaves another: who was the Augustus Spitzer of the Donner Party really? Was he the German-American Moses Augustus Spitzer from Virginia, the Jewish Augustus Spitzer from Austria, or a third, as yet unidentified individual? As of this writing itís still impossible to say. Hopefully more information will come to light and solve the mystery.

Strange Coincidence

The hand of death, by strange coincidence, fell yesterday at about the same time upon two of the few remaining figures of one of Californiaís most stirring historical episodes.

While the news was being received of the death of Mrs. Martha Reed Lewis, survivor of the Donner party, at her home at East Twin Lakes, Santa Cruz Co., a fellow member of that ill-fated party was breathing her last in her home at Elk Grove.

The second survivor to die within twenty-four hours was Mrs. Elitha C. Wilder, daughter of Robert [sic] Donner.

She was a friend of Mrs. Lewis, but because of her weakened condition could not be informed that the ranks of those who remembered the terrible journey in 1846 had shrunk again.

Mrs. Lewis was 87 years old and Mrs. Wilder was 91.

Mrs. Wilder is not only famous because she is the daughter of the leader of the Donner party, but because of her part in the early history of California.

She came to Elk Grove shortly after the living members of the party were rescued from the snow bound shores of Donner Lake, and has lived there for the past 50 years.

Mrs. Leanna App, a sister of Mrs. Wilder, makes her home in Jamestown. She is one of the few known survivors of the party who is still living.

 ĖSacramento Bee, July 4, 1923.

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


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