Donner Party Bulletin
The Beginning of the Story
Many books, articles, poems, and
stories have been written about the end of George Donner’s life – the
Donner Party disaster in the Sierra Nevada – but what do we know about
the beginning of the story, George Donner’s early life? Nothing much, I
discovered when I first set out.
George’s marriage bond, dated 12 December 1809, was, of course, the most interesting to me. It was unique in that attached to it was a permission to marry slip, which stated George Davidson and his wife Mary gave permission for their daughter Susannah Holloway to marry George Donner. Another mystery to solve. Who was Susannah and who were her parents? Was George Davidson her step-father, was she previously married to a Holloway or was her middle name Holloway?
I set out researching the two Holloway families of Jessamine County. There was absolutely nothing to suggest a connection between Susannah and the family of Captain James Holloway, but the other family, Jacob Holloway’s, looked like a sure bet. Jacob was named in many land records, involving individuals with familiar names: Hunter, Davidson, and Donner. On tax lists Jacob Holloway was also listed, but absolutely no family information could I find. Susannah Holloway’s parentage became a huge brick wall. It seemed no matter which direction I researched the brick wall only became higher and denser.
In June 2003 I visited the county courthouse at Nicholasville, Kentucky, and found the records of the estate of George Davidson in "Estates Filed Away Box 4." This file contained all the records of when the estate of George Davidson was settled, including payment for his coffin. Tucked within this file were two small slips of paper dated 1814 and 1815. These slips of paper indicated George Tanner and his wife Susannah had paid fees to the Clerk of the Court of Appeals. Now what did this mean? It meant the files I needed to search were most probably in the Kentucky State Archives at Frankfort, and since we were to return home the next day searching in Frankfort would have to wait for another trip. How I could wait at least another year to research in Frankfort was almost more than I could conceive.
In late June my dear friend, Connie Shotts, was traveling from North Carolina to Frankfort and offered to look for the file for me at the Archives.
|Donner Party Bulletin No. 13|
Suddenly on July 2 came an e-mail from Connie saying "I FOUND IT and the
file tells the whole story." And so it does tell the whole story and my
brick wall tumbled down.
The documents finally arrived from the Kentucky State Archives in Frankfort. The file is listed as Jessamine County, Circuit Court, Court of Justice, Box 29, File Bundle 86, Tanner vs. Davidson, and there are over 100 pages on legal-size paper and of course handwritten. The suit was filed 28 July 1810 and dismissed July 1815. This last date is shortly after the death of George Davidson. Since his wife, Mary, is not mentioned in his estate settlement I will assume for now that Mary preceded George in death.
It is not possible to repeat everything contained in these 100-plus pages, but there are many depositions. It is my hope this information will be of value to Donner family genealogists who may be interested enough to want to read the complete file. Reading the original documents, written by many different hands, makes all these people human; they become more than just names. Here are summaries of what I found out and of the most significant genealogical information from these depositions.
George Donner (the name is spelled Danner/ Tanner/Donner throughout the file) and his wife Susannah are complaining to the Judges of the Jessamine County Circuit Court in Chancery. They state Susannah is the only child of Nathan Holloway, deceased who departed this life without a will and was possessed of sundry horse, cattle, hogs, household furniture and land. They state these acres of land were given to Nathan Holloway and his wife Mary by her father, Jacob Hunter. However, they have been informed no deed was given to Nathan and Mary by her father Jacob Hunter. They declare Jacob said he would give Mary as much land as he had given his other daughters on their marriage and are asking for Susannah’s share of her fathers’ estate. They ask that George Davidson, Mary Davidson, John Hunter and Jacob Hunter be named defendants.
These first few sentences were a goldmine! They gave me Susannah’s parents and her maternal grandfather, and further told me that Mary had at least two sisters. Nathan died shortly after Susannah was born – "before she could crawl" – so since Susannah states she is 21 years at the time of the suit
and George is above 21, we know that Nathan died in 1789 or 1790 and
that Susannah was born in the same time frame. Jessamine County was
formed from Fayette County in 1799. The courthouse in Fayette burned so
most of the early records are lost forever, a point mentioned in the
suit. Mary Hunter administered her husband’s estate with John Hunter her
security. Since I know Jacob Hunter had a son by the name of John this
John Hunter is most likely Mary’s brother. John Hunter married Ann
Davidson so possibly Ann was a daughter of George Davidson. George and
Susannah state that Mary remained in possession and enjoyment of the
said estate until her intermarriage with George Davidson and George and
Mary will not give an accounting to them.
6 December 1810
9 March 1811
|Donner Party Bulletin No. 13|
Jonathan was a brother to Nathan, but this is still to be proven] who
claimed the said colt, for work, lived with the widow after her
husband’s death about nine months, but upon what terms he cannot say.
Jonathan worked on the farm but one year and then Mary broke up and went
to her fathers and lived with her father from the appraisement to the
day of sale, which was at least twelve months or more. Susannah while
she lived with George Davidson was as healthy as most girls and wrought
as other poor girls oft times do, both in the house and out of doors
too. [What this has to do with anything escapes me!]
Nathan Holloway had when he married a mare and colt and saddle and bridle and if he had other I never heard of it. Nathan and Mary were married about two years when he died. Susannah could not crawl when her father died; I suppose she was three or four months old. Nathan lived on land he had leased from Peter Hunter. I heard Susannah say she could neither read nor write.
8 April 1811
12 April 1811
Meeting House. She was there six months and made small progress. She
must have been thirteen or fourteen years. Mr. Davidson paid me the
price for one scholar for one year, but he sent both Susannah and George
[son of George Davidson].
[No Date Found]
Eventually, in 1815, the lawsuit
George and Susannah brought against her relations was dismissed. In the
meantime, George and Susannah had settled into married life. They had a total of six children:
We know next to nothing about Susannah’s fate. George Donner purchased land in Decatur
|Donner Party Bulletin No. 13|
in April of 1821, but whether or not Susannah was with him I do not
know. On June 10, 1829, however, he married Mary Blue Tennant in
Sangamon County, Illinois, so Susannah must have died sometime before
then. No burial site for her has been found in Jessamine County,
Kentucky or in Decatur County, Indiana. In spite of the pages of
documents from Kentucky, there are still many unanswered questions about
George Donner’s first marriage to Susannah Holloway.
(For another article by Jo Ann about George Donner, see Donner Party Bulletin no. 3.)
The Blaisdell Connection Revisited
I recently (May 28, 2004) went to the University of Utah Library’s
Special Collections to view the Lowell S. Blaisdell Papers (Accn 565, Fd
1). The collection is described as "Correspondence, articles, and
research notes pertaining to the Donner Party (1846-1847). The research
was conducted to find out if a female member of the Donner Party had the
maiden name of Blaisdell." Readers of Donner
Party Bulletin No. 4 will remember that
Elizabeth Cooper Graves of the
Donner Party was related by marriage to the Blasdel or Blaisdell family
of Dearborn Co., Indiana. (Her mother and sister married two brothers,
Enoch and Jonathan Blasdel.)
| the Donner
Party and H. H. Bancroft’s
Pioneer Register and Index. After much effort and painstaking analysis, Blaisdell
eventually concluded, correctly, that none of the female members of the
Donner Party had the maiden name Blaisdell. It apparently never occurred
to him that Dr. Blaisdell might not have remembered accurately what he
had been told several years previously, or that his informants may have been
mistaken. I believe that the women who talked to Dr. Blaisdell knew that
there was some connection between the Graves and Blasdel families but
were simply unclear about the details; Nancy Graves Williamson’s middle
name was Blaisdell and they may have concluded that it was her maiden
Lowell Blaisdell was aware of Elizabeth Graves’ connections to the Blasdels of Dearborn County, however, and he supplies information about yet another connection between the Graves and Blasdel families: in 1873 William C. Graves married Martha Blasdel Cyphers.
This is particularly interesting because it confirms with two details about W. C. Graves I had encountered elsewhere but had been unable to find more information about: that he had married a Martha Blasdel and that he had visited relatives in the east in the 1870s.
According to Lowell Blaisdell’s information, Martha was the daughter of Elijah Blasdel (brother of Enoch and Jonathan) and the widow of Joseph Cyphers. She married William Graves in Indiana on January 9, 1873, went to California with him, divorced him after an unspecified time, and returned to Indiana alone. The rumor was that Graves had left her for an Indian woman. Graves’ California relations have long known, of course, that he married, perhaps informally, a Pomo Indian woman with whom he had several children and whom he later deserted.
Another genealogist listed Martha and W. C. Graves as having four children, Adda, Jennie, Mollie, and Thomas Graves. I agree with Lowell Blaisdell that they are unlikely to have been the product of this marriage. Are they W. C. Graves’ children by his Pomo wife? The product of yet another union? Or are they perhaps the children of another William Graves entirely? Once again, a new source answers some old questions while posing brand new ones.
| Home Page | Chronology | Roster |
Statistics | Documents | Myths | Recent Books
| "Unfortunate Emigrants" | Bulletin | Site Updates | Guestbook | Links | FAQ | Utah Crossroads |
Student Page | Sources | Donner Party News
E-mail to Kristin Johnson
Revised: 31 Jan 2006
Original content copyright ©1997-2006 by Kristin Johnson. All rights reserved.