No. 1

Donner Party Bulletin


The Beginning of the Story
Jo Ann Brant Schmidt

       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.
       When I started researching Donner family genealogy, all I knew was that my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Donner Torrence, was a child of George Donner and Susannah Holloway. George, of course, is well-known as the captain of the Donner Party, and his third wife, Tamzene, is also famous. But what about George’s life before 1846, the year of the Donner disaster, and what about his first marriage? Who was Susannah Holloway? All I had was her name.
       I first began my search for the Donners in Rowan County, North Carolina, because many articles stated his family was there before the Revolutionary War. I found many records documenting the activities of George Donner, Sr., and his son, Captain George Donner of the Donner Party. There were land records, church records, wills, and best of all, North Carolina "Pay Vouchers for Patriotic Service" given by George Donner, Sr., proving his participation in the Revolutionary War. I am proud to say George Donner Sr.’s records were accepted by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution on January 3, 2000.
       Another problem has been the identity of George Sr.’s wife, the mother of George and Jacob of the Donner Party. Rowan County also yielded abundant circumstantial evidence, if not primary proof, that she was Mary Huff, a daughter of Valentine Huff.
       My search next led me to Jessamine County, Kentucky, records from the early 1800s. Here there were more land records and this time there were marriage bonds, not only for Captain George, but also for his sisters, Lydia, Elizabeth and Susannah.

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.

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       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
       Jacob Hunter states he is the father of Mary Davidson, late Mary Holloway and she and Nathan lived on the land mentioned in the Bill not by a gift of said land or sale or any other conveyance because before their intermarriage he had given said land to his son, Peter Hunter. This defendant believes Nathan became possessed of said land by virtue of a lease from said Peter for five years. [Before this file arrived it was unknown that Peter was a son of Jacob].

9 March 1811
       Henry Saltsman/Salsman deposes that he worked in the fields for George Davidson. He says he first became acquainted with Susannah six or seven years since and says she worked with me two or three days in a week hoeing corn while she was living at George Davidson’s. While I was working there, there were Susannah, Richard, George, Betsy and Mr. and Mrs. Davidson in the home. William was drowned before I worked there. [I did not know of Mr. Davidson’s son William previously.] Susannah was probably between eight and ten at the time I worked there and Richard was ten to twelve years. Mr. Davidson had one small girl who was a slave and no others. I saw Susannah working in the field when she was nearly a woman pulling flax and working among fodder.

April 1811
       Jacob Hunter says one horse was proven away from the estate of Nathan Holloway by Jonathan Holloway

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[I believe 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
       William Hunter, a longtime neighbor of George Davidson, deposes saying Susannah Holloway lived with George Davidson between fifteen and twenty years. She attended school, but made small progress in learning as he heard her teacher say she was very dull. He further states nine or ten months before Susannah married George Tanner, Mr. Davidson came to him and requested Susannah live with him for she was in a state of Pregnancy and as Mrs. Davidson was in the same situation it would be very inconvenient for her stay at his house. Susannah stayed with William Hunter about eight months. Susannah had said to William that Mr. Davidson furnished her with materials to make fifty yards of cloth which she had sold. Some time after Susannah was delivered of her child she left Williams house and married Mr. Tanner who William Hunter always understood was the father of the child.

12 April 1811
       John Perry deposes and says George Davidson in the year 1803 sent a girl by the name of Susannah Holloway to my school which was kept at Hickman

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]
       Joint and separate answer of George and Mary Davidson to the bill of complaint against them, positively deny that said land was ever given to Nathan Holloway or his wife by Jacob Hunter father of said Mary.
       Jacob Hunter did not give one foot of land to either of his daughters. He gave the said land to his son, Peter Hunter, who leased the same to Nathan.
       They deny they have lived on the land alluded to ever since their intermarriage, but that on the contrary for four or five years after the death of Nathan they resided elsewhere until George Davidson became possessed of said land by purchase from Peter Hunter. [Land Records of Fayette County: August 10, 1798. Jacob Hunter Sr. and Peter Hunter sold to George Davidson, all of Fayette County, Kentucky, for 120 pounds, 125 acres on the waters of the Kentucky River. Recorded October 1, 1798].

       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:
       Mary ("Polly") (abt 1809-?), md. 1. George Weaver, married 2. Adam Harmon.
       William (1812-1867), married Elizabeth Hunter.
       Sarah (1813-1849), married John Torrence.
       Lydia (abt 1814-1849), married John Vancil.
       Elizabeth (1818-1894), married Absolom S. Harmon.
       Susannah (1818-?), married Barnabas (Barneybeth) Marshall Blue.
       The marriages of all the children took place in Sangamon County, Illinois.

       We know next to nothing about Susannah’s fate. George Donner purchased land in Decatur

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County, Indiana 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
Kristin Johnson

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.)
       On August 9, 1953, Lowell S. Blaisdell of Mesa, Arizona, visited Dr. James Arnold Blaisdell in Claremont, California. In the course of their conversation, Dr. Blaisdell mentioned that some years previously he had met two Donner Party descendants in Calistoga who told him that "one of the wives in the Donner Party had the Maiden Name of ‘BLAISDELL.’" Lowell Blaisdell, a genealogy enthusiast, was intrigued by this statement and the University of Utah’s collection documents his attempts to verify who the Donner Party Blaisdell could have been.
       The collection consists of a few letters, two typed summaries of about seven pages each, and many pages of handwritten notes on the Donner Party, its members, and its rescuers. In the first summary, dated August 25, 1953, Blaisdell analyzes information about Donner Party members gleaned from George R. Stewart’s Ordeal by Hunger.
       A supplemental summary dated September 8, 1953, includes information from C. F. McGlashan’s History of

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 name.
       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.

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


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