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The Graves Family
[Donner Party Roster] [Rescuers and Others]

The Graves family from Illinois has not been as well represented in the history of the Donner Party as have the Donners and the Reeds. Both parents, a son-in-law, and a son died in the disaster; two more children died after being rescued. The six surviving Graves children were left almost entirely destitute and had to struggle to make lives for themselves in pioneer California.

     See also Mr. Graves and Family (a source for The Graves Tragedy) and When Did the Graves Family Join the Donner Party?
     For genealogical/family history research, visit the Marshall Co., Ill. and Napa Co., Calif. GenWeb sites. Nancy Piper’s Marshall County, Ill. History site contains much interesting information, including a brief memoir by L. P. Bates.
The Graves Family Association is dedicated to researching "the surname of Graves, Greaves, Grave, Grieve, Greve, and all other variations of that name for all time periods, worldwide."

Franklin Ward Graves

Farmer from Marshall County, Illinois
Age: [57]

     Parents: Zenas Graves (b. 28 Jan 1752, Westfield, MA; d. abt 1820, Dearborn Co., IN) and Hannah (Franklin?), b. abt 1755; d. abt 1820, Dearborn Co., IN)

b. abt 1789 near Wells, Rutland Co., VT
m. abt 1820 Dearborn Co., IN to
Elizabeth Cooper
     Children: Melissa, Sarah, Mary Ann, William Cooper, Eleanor, Lovina, Nancy Blaisdell,
Jonathan B., Franklin Ward, Jr., Elizabeth
d. 25 Dec 1846 Camp of Death, Nevada Co., CA

     There are problems with George R. Stewarts statement that Franklin Ward Graves was called "Uncle Billy." See "Uncle Billy Graves."
     According to Spencer Ellsworth, Franklin Ward Graves

was a genuine backwoodsman and pioneer, who found his most congenial associations on the frontier. He despised the trammels of civilization, and loved the unshackled freedom of the red man. In summer he went shoeless, hatless and coatless, his long coarse hair his only protection. He was a man of large frame, good natured, hospitable and ever ready to do a kindness.

     Graves, "more hunter than farmer," had moved several times before he arrived in Marshall County, Illinois, about 1830. His large farm in the bottoms of the Illinois River was in the "military tract," an area the federal government had set aside for veterans of the War of 1812, though his participation in that war has not yet been established.
     It is not certain why Graves decided to emigrate to California, but an itchy foot and Illinois’ unhealthy climate were said to be factors. In 1867, L. P. Bates remembered that "Mr. Graves and family lived here 15 years, and then started for California, because, as he believed, that was the best wheat country." With the family went a teamster, John Snyder. They traveled with the Smith Company, which left St. Joseph about May 25, 1846. In August the Graveses overtook the Donner Party in what is now Utah. As the traveled along the Humboldt River, the Graves family lost animals and other property to the Indians, and Snyder died in a knife fight with James F. Reed.
     When the party realized they would have to spend the winter in the mountains, Graves built his cabin about half a mile from the Breens and Murphys. It was a double structure, with his family living in one end, the Reeds in the other, and a "well-chinked" partition between.
     Born near Vermonts Green Mountains, Franklin Ward Graves was the only member of the Donner Party who was familiar with snowshoes. He and Charles Stanton contrived several pairs from oxbows and rawhide, which enabled the members of the Forlorn Hope to leave the camps and seek help from the California settlements. With the group were Graves, his daughters Mary Ann and Sarah, and Sarahs husband Jay Fosdick. After ten days, the snowshoers were out of provisions; then a blizzard struck, creating untold misery for the starving travelers. Graves, knowing he was dying, urged his daughters to use his body for food.

Elizabeth Cooper

Wife of Franklin Ward Graves
Age: 45

Parents: William Cooper (b. 12 Oct 1773; d. abt 1812?) and Eleanor Mages (b. 04 Jun 1772, MD; d. 9 Mar 1858, Dearborn Co., IN)

b. 10 Oct 1800
m. abt 1820 Dearborn Co., IN to
Franklin Ward Graves
     Children: Melissa,
Sarah, Mary Ann, William Cooper, Eleanor, Lovina, Nancy Blaisdell,
Jonathan B., Franklin Ward, Jr., Elizabeth
d. Mar 1847 Starved Camp, Nevada Co., CA

     Spencer Ellsworth describes Elizabeth Graves as

tall and thin, her good natured sunburnt face wreathed in smiles. She wore a blue calico frock, an old sun-bonnet and a faded shawl, on dress occasions, and like her liege lord, went barefoot. It was her custom to cross the river daily in fair weather, laden with honey, wild fruits or soft soap, and dispose of them to the settlers of Columbia (Lacon). There was not a woman in the place but knew her and loved to see her kind face make its appearance. She would cross the river in the coldest days and stormiest weather in her little canoe to convey some remedy to the sick or do a kindness.

     The departure of the Forlorn Hope left Mrs. Graves with seven children to tend. When the First Relief arrived in February, they spared her the news of what had happened to her family members on the Forlorn Hope. The three eldest children remaining, William, Eleanor, and Lovina, were taken out by the First Relief. Mrs. Graves, Nancy, Jonathan, Franklin, and Elizabeth left with the Second Relief on March 3. Mrs. Graves tried to salvage her family's wealth, a bag of coins, but it proved too heavy to carry and she cached it near the lake.
     The five Graveses, seven Breens, and three of Jacob Donner’s children had gotten as far as the end of Summit Valley when a storm broke. Margaret Breen described the first night to Eliza Farnham:

Toward morning, [Mrs. Breen] heard one of the young girls opposite call to her mother [Mrs. Graves] to cover her. The call was repeated several times impatiently, when she spoke to the child, reminding her of the exhaustion and fatigue her mother suffered in nursing and carrying the baby; and bidding her cover herself and let her mother rest. Presently she heard the mother speak, in a quite unnatural tone, and she called to one of the men near her to go and speak to her. He arose after a few minutes, and found the poor sufferer almost past speaking. He took her infant; and after shaking the snow from her blanket, covered her as well as might be, and left her. Shortly after, Mrs. B. observed her to turn herself slightly, and throw one arm feebly up, as if to go asleep. She waited a little while, and seeing her remain quite still, she walked around to her. She was already cold in death. Her poor, starving child wailed and moaned piteously in the arms of its young sister; but the mother’s heart could no more warm or nourish it.

Sarah Graves

Daughter of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper; wife of Jay Fosdick
Age: 21

b. 25 Jan 1825 Dearborn Co., IN
m1. Mar 1846 Lacon, Marshall Co., IL to
Jay Fosdick
m2. 1848 to William Dill Ritchie (b. 22 Feb 1828, Warren Co., IN; d. 30 May 1854, Sonoma Co., CA)
     Children: George Gus "Leet," Alonzo "Lon" Perry; another son who died young
m3. 1856 CA to Samuel Spires (29 Nov 1818, Calhoun, KY; d. 1895)
     Children: Lloyd, William, Eleanor, Alice Barton
d. 28 Mar 1871 Corralitos, Santa Cruz Co., CA

     Sarah had not intended to accompany her family to California but at almost the last minute realized she couldn't bear to be separated from them. She and her fiancé Jay Fosdick tied the knot just before the Graveses' departure and left with them. The Fosdicks spent their honeymoon crossing the plains; according to family tradition, Sarah would stay up with Jay when it was his turn to stand guard at night.
     Jay did not survive the journey to California. His widow settled in the upper Napa Valley, where she taught the area
s first school under a brush shelter.
     In 1848 Sarah married William Dill Ritchie, who like his father, Col. Matthew D. Ritchie, had assisted with the Donner relief. Six years later Ritchie was caught in possession of stolen mules and lynched near Sonoma, despite his protestations of innocence. Once again Sarah was left a widow, this time with two little boys to care for.
     Her third marriage, to Samuel Spires, was happy, but relatively brief. Sarah died suddenly of heart disease at the age of 46, leaving six children.

Jay Fosdick

Husband of Sarah Graves, son-in-law of Franklin Ward Graves
Age: [23]

b. abt 1823 in New York State
m. Mar 1846 to Sarah Graves
d. early Jan 1847, Sierra Nevada

Parents: Levi Fosdick (b. 18 Mar 1801 in Hartford, Washington Co., NY; d. 1 Sep 1878 in Tiskilwa, Bureau Co., IL) m. Roxena Webster (b. 8 Mar 1802 in West Granville, Washington Co., NY; d. 17 Feb 1883 in Tiskilwa, Bureau Co., IL).

     For more about Jay Fosdick's genealogy, see Atwood Family History, Marshall County, Illinois.
     Not much is known about Sarah Graves’ young husband. He was a native of New York State and moved with his family to Marshall County, Illinois, about 1836. He had been courting Sarah and decided to emigrate with her to California; they were married shortly before setting out. The only personal detail known about him is that he played the violin.
     Jay and Sarah left the Lake Camp with the Forlorn Hope on December 15, 1846. By January 3, 1847, five of the fifteen snowshoers had died and Jay Fosdick was failing. The next day he lagged behind the others, except for Sarah, who stayed with him. J. Quinn Thornton reported

Jay Fosdick, who, it will be remembered, was expected to die, was about a mile back. He had lain down, unable to proceed any further; and his wife was with him. Upon hearing Mr. Eddy’s rifle crack, at the time of his killing the deer, he exclaimed, in a feeble voice—"There! Eddy has killed a deer. Now, if I can only get to him, I shall live."

      As Sarah described it, "On the night of the 6th of January, my husband gave out and could not reach the camp;– I staid with him without fire; I had a blanket and wrapped him in it sat down beside him, and he died about midnight, as near as I could tell." She lay beside him, hoping to freeze to death, but her wish was not granted.

Mary Ann Graves

Daughter of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper
Age: 19

b. 01 Nov 1826 Dearborn Co., IN
m1. 16 May 1847 Sutter
s Fort, Sacramento Co., CA to Edward Gantt Pyle, Jr.
m2. 05 Jul 1851 San Jose, Santa Clara Co., to James Thomas Clarke
     Children: Robert Franklin, Martha Lavina, James Thomas, Jr., Mary Isabelle, William Lewis, Alexander
     Russell, Daniel Murphy
d. 9 March 1891 Tulare Co., CA

     Mary has been called the belle of the Donner Party:

She was a very beautiful girl, of tall and slender build, and exceptionally graceful carriage. Her features, in their regularity, were of classic Grecian mold. Her eyes were dark, bright, and expressive. A fine mouth and perfect set of teeth, added to a luxuriant growth of dark, rebelliously wavy hair, completed an almost perfect picture of lovely girlhood.

     She was said to have been engaged to John Snyder, though she denied it, and has also been linked romantically with Charles Stanton, for little apparent reason.
Shortly after her rescue she married Edward Gantt Pyle, Jr., another veteran of Hastings Cutoff, who had assisted with the relief efforts. The Pyles made their home in San Jose. Edward Pyle disappeared in May 1848; he had been murdered, though his fate was not discovered for nearly a year. (Click here for a contemporary newspaper account.) Mary reportedly walked the banks of Almaden Creek looking for him, and later Virginia Reed comforted her while the men were bringing home his body.
     Mary’s second marriage, to J. T. Clarke, was happy, though ranching life was beset with financial difficulties. The Clarkes lived in San Benito County for a few years, then moved to Tulare County, where Mary died in 1891.
     Throughout the Donner ordeal Mary Graves showed great courage and resolution. Her nieces and nephews remembered her as strong-minded and outspoken. While Edward Pyle’s murderer was awaiting execution, Mary is said to have cooked his food, to ensure that he lived to be hanged.

William Cooper Graves

Son of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper
Age: 17

b. 20 Jan 1829 Vicksburg, Warren Co., MS
m1. abt 1853? Lake Co., CA to a Pomo Indian woman; several children
m2. 9 January 1873 to Martha Blasdel Cyphers (b.
06 Feb 1834, d. 1913); divorced
d. 03 Mar 1907 Santa Rosa, Sonoma Co., CA

     Most of C. F. McGlashans informants had been small children during the Donner disaster, but W.C. Graves was one the few who had been adults, or nearly adults, at the time. Graves was old enough to stand guard at night and go hunting; he once told a newspaper reporter that he had spent his eighteenth birthday digging a dead horse out of the snow. A big youth--he stood 6'3" as an adult--he also cut firewood for the family.

[The First Relief] arrived about 8 o’clock Saturday night, February 18, 1847, and told us that father and his party all got through alive, but they froze their feet, and were so badly fatigued they could not come back with them. They said they would start back Monday or Tuesday and take all that were able to travel. Mother had four small children who were not able to travel, and she said I would have to stay with them, and get wood to keep them from freezing. I told her I would cut enough wood to last till we could go over and get provisions and come back and relieve them; to which she agreed, and I chopped about two cords.

     In late March Graves and others attempted to go back to the cabins, but were thwarted by the soft snow.
     On June 20, 1847, General Stephen Watts Kearny and party reached the site of the disaster at Donner Lake. Along with the 60 or so military personnel was a handful of civilians, including the diarist Edwin Bryant and W. C. Graves. Graves went home to Marshall County but did not, as has been claimed, "lecture in the East" on the Donner Party. He returned to California two years later, guiding a party of ’49ers from Pittsburgh. When the emigrants reached the cabins, Graves was not with them. One diarist speculated that Graves did not wish his companions to see his distress and so went on alone, but another reported that he had simply gone hunting.
     In 1850 Graves was living near his sister Eleanor in Napa County, but in 1853 he was in neighboring Lake County. About this time he married, perhaps unofficially, a Pomo Indian woman with whom he had several children; later he abandoned the family. In 1873 he married Martha Blasdel Cyphers, a member of the Blasdel family to which his mother was related by marriage, but they divorced. (See The Blaisdell Connection and The Blaisdell Connection Revisited.)
     Graves made a living as a blacksmith and also had mining interests. In 1875 he gave a brief account of the Donner Party to the editor of the Russian River Flag; in 1877 his lengthy memoir appeared in the same paper; and in 1879 he began corresponding with C. F. McGlashan. He sent the historian a copy of his memoir, drew him a map of the camps, and visited Truckee, pointing out various sites and identifying artifacts. Graves, then 50 years old, made a favorable impression on McGlashan, who described him as "six foot three inches in height, and weighs two hundred five pounds. He is muscular, well-proportioned, and finely preserved" and "strictly temperate in his habits." While he abstained from liquor, Graves did smoke.
     In 1891 two prospectors found a number coins by the shore of Donner Lake, which Graves identified as the hoard his mother had secreted 45 years earlier. Half the coins went to the discoverers and half to the Graveses. Descendants of the family still treasure their "Donner money."
     In his later years Graves lived with various sisters and nieces in turn, though he did little to make himself welcome, and their children had many stories about their eccentric and irascible great uncle. He once split his thumb open, called for needle and thread, and stitched it up himself.
     Graves died at the Sonoma County Hospital in Santa Rosa, California, and was buried in Calistoga.

See article, A Survivor of the Downer Horror. An obituary is reprinted in Donner Party Bulletin No. 3.

Eleanor Graves

Daughter of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper
Age: 14

b. 28 Jul 1832 Marshall Co., IL
m. 06 Sep 1849 Benicia, Solano Co., CA to William McDonnell (b. 29 Apr 1825 in Missouri, d. 12 Apr 1893, Knights Valley, Sonoma Co., CA)
     Children: Ann, Charles, Mary Nicholson, Lillus, Robert, Franklin, Henry, Eleanor, William Preston,
     Louisa "Lou"
d. 01 Mar 1894 Knights Valley, Sonoma Co., CA

See articles, Eleanor Graves McDonnell and Eleanor Graves McDonnell Letter.

Connie Ganz has published a book about William McDonnell's stepfather which contains many references to Eleanor's family. The Man Behind the Plow: Robert N. Tate, Early Partner of John Deere is available at

Lovina Graves

Daughter of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper
Age: 12

b. 3 Jul 1834 Marshall Co., IL
m. 5 Jun 1855 San Jose, Santa Clara Co., CA to John Cyrus (b. 20 Mar 1831 in Hancock Co., IL; d. 5 Dec 1891 in Calistoga, Napa Co., CA)
     Children: Martha Rebecca, Henry E., James William, Mary Anna, Sarah Grace, Rachel Elizabeth
d. 27 Jul 1906 Oakland, Alameda Co., CA

     After her rescue Lovina lived sometimes in the Napa Valley and sometimes in Santa Clara County, living with her older married sisters. She attended school in San Jose, but spent her adult life in Calistoga.
     Her husband, John Cyrus, was also a veteran of Hastings Cutoff. According to a story passed down in his family, the Cyruses crossed the summit just ahead of the Donner Party. The eldest son, Pleasant, was said to have ridden back two days to tell the Donners to hurry, though this story is impossible to verify.
     Lovina was reluctant to discuss the Donner Party, but about 1900 she told the story to her granddaughter, Edna Maybelle Sherwood. The memoir was published in the Calistoga paper several years later. (Reprinted in "Unfortunate Emigrants.") Lovina’s daughter Rachel Elizabeth Cyrus Wright also wrote a memoir, "The Early Upper Napa Valley," available at the Sharpsteen Museum, which contains many anecdotes about pioneer California and the Graves family.
     Lovina died while visiting a daughter in Oakland. She was brought back to Calistoga to be buried beside her husband in the Calistoga Pioneer Cemetery.

Nancy Blaisdell Graves

Daughter of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper
Age: 8

b. 26 Apr 1838
m. 13 Feb 1855 to Richard Samuel Wesley Williamson (b. 22 Mar 1822 West Cowes, Isle of Wight, Great Britain; d. 2 Jan 1900 Freestone, Sonoma Co., CA)
     Children: George Wesley, Elizabeth, Emilie Lavina, Kate Laura, Frederick Franklin, Eva Angeline,
     Lydia Pearl, Phillip, Eunice
d. 18 May 1907 at Freestone, Sonoma Co., CA

     In a brief but firm note Nancy Graves tendered her refusal to correspond with historian C. F. McGlashan. The subject of the Donner Party was very painful for her; as a schoolgirl in San Jose she had been tormented by the knowledge that she had unwittingly partaken of her own mother’s body at Starved Camp.
     In her teens Nancy became an enthusiastic convert to Methodism and in 1855 married a minister. Rev. Williamson was sent up and down Northern California, spending only a year or two at one post before moving on to the next. Their nine children were born in different towns. Eventually the family settled near Sebastopol in Sonoma County. It had been a difficult life, beset with financial worries, but late in life, reflecting on their years together, the Williamsons agreed that God had been good to them..

Jonathan B. Graves

Son of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper
Age: [7]

     The middle initial B. may stand for "Blaisdell." There were three marriages between Elizabeth Cooper Graves' family members and the Blaisdell (or Blasdel) family of Dearborn County, Indiana. See The Blaisdell Connection.
     Jonathan Graves was one of those left behind at Starved Camp by the Second Relief and rescued by John S. Stark. James F. Breen recalled, "I distinctly remember that myself and Jonathan Graves were both carried by Stark, on his back, the greater part of the journey."
     Although Jonathan survived the rigors of Starved Camp, it was not for very long. It has been known for many years that his little sister Elizabeth died after her rescue, but not that Jonathan died as well. On May 22, 1847, Mary Ann Graves wrote, "The number of our family now living is only eight"; obviously Jonathan and Elizabeth were still alive at that date. In 1875 William C. Graves told the editor of the Russian River Flag that "two of the Graves children, a son and a daughter, died the next Summer from the effects of the privations and exposures of the previous Winter." Lovina Graves Cyrus told her granddaughter that Jonathan and Elizabeth died of mountain fever after their rescue while the surviving Graveses were living along the American River. McGlashan was informed that Jonathan had died, but, strangely, did not mention it in his History.

Franklin Ward Graves, Jr.

Son of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper
Age: [5]

      At Starved Camp, one account goes, Franklin was offered human flesh to eat, but since his mother refused, he did, too. Both of them died there and were cannibalized themselves.

Elizabeth Graves

Daughter of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper
Age: [1]

     Elizabeth is sometimes referred to as "Elizabeth Graves, Jr." to distinguish her from her mother, Elizabeth Cooper Graves.
     There is some question about how old Elizabeth was in 1846. Thornton describes her "about thirteen months old" in February 1847. Her sister Mary described Elizabeth as old enough to be weaned under other circumstances, but because of their situation her mother was still nursing the baby.
     In one of the most pitiful scenes reported of the Donner Party, Elizabeth was found sitting beside her mother’s mutilated remains at Starved Camp, crying for her ma.
     J. Quinn Thornton was told of the baby’s death when he gathered the material for his book in the fall of 1847:

It was brought safely into the settlements, where its very misfortunes made friends for it. But it drooped and withered away like a flower severed from the parent stem. It now blooms in the paradise of God, in a better and happier clime, where the storms and disasters of life will affect it no more.

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