A Winter Tragedy: The Donner Party in 1846/47 (Part 1)
With the recent passing of another Thanksgiving celebration and arrival of the first significant snowstorm of the season, this writer’s musing have gone to the Donner Party tragedy during the winter of 1846/47. This was the group of emigrants who left Sangamon County, IL in 1846 to move to California, a land which still belonged to Mexico until the next year. Through a series of unfortunate decisions and difficult weather conditions, they got trapped in the Sierra Mountains of California over the winter without enough food or protection from the weather. The group was 81 people strong at their peak, but only 45 survived being stranded in the moutains. As members died in the deep of the winter, toward the end of the ordeal the others, starving and desperate to survive, had to resort to cannibalizing the bodies of those who had passed away. After they were rescued and the news of their plight got out, the Donners and others associated with them were badly maligned throughout the nation. It even brought immigration to California to a virtual standstill for a few years until the Gold Rush of 1849 got it going again.
Two websites which got me started exploring this are the Donner Party Diaries and Legends of America. Kristin Johnson has done much scholarly research on the Donner Party and her blog is probably the most accurate with current research. Charles Fayette McGlashan published a book in 1879 (yes, 1879) entitled History of the Donner Party: a Tragedy of the Sierra. This book is available through Google’s eBooks. In 1911, Eliza P. Donner Houghton, the daughter of George and Tamzene Donner and just four years old when she survived the winter trauma, wrote her remembrances of the experience in the book, The Expedition of the The Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate. Kristin Johnson also was a contributor to a new book, An Archeology of Desperation, which can be ordered on Amazon.com (edited by Kelly Dixon, et.al.). Why my interest? We are distantly related to the family.
In this first post about the Donner Party, allow me to make the family connection. Some of the heritage of Floy (Bates) Aderman, wife of Carl Aderman, was described briefly in an earlier post, addressing her connection to the Blue Family. Research by the individuals in the National Blue Family Association take that part of the family tree back to the 1600s. Our Blue ancestors left Brazil (with Dutch heritage) and came to “New Netherlands,” the colony which became known as New York later in that century after James, the Duke of York (and brother of England’s King Charles II), asserted his claim to the territory.
John Blew (1691? – 1770) and his wife, thought to possibly be Cattron Van Meter, had five children: John Blue was the oldest, then Michael, Uriah, Abraham, and Mary. Floy Bates Aderman’s lineage comes through Uriah (1726 – 1806). Uriah was the father of John S. Blue (1750 – 1833), a veteran of the Revolutionary War. John S. Blue married Margaret Wallingsford and among their ten children were Robert and John Blue, Floy’s great-great grandfathers as mentioned in that earlier post. Uriah’s older brother, Michael Blue (ca. 1720 – 1819) was the great grandfather to sisters Mary and Elizabeth Blue.
Mary Blue was married briefly to Charles Tenant in Sangamon County, IL. They married in 1828 but she married George Donner in 1829 so that first marriage ended quickly. George and Mary had two children, Elitha Cumi Donner (1832 – 1923) and Leanna Charity Donner (1834 – 1930). Mary died before the Donners made the trip west and George married a third time to Tamzene Eustis. Both of Mary (Blue) Donner’s daughters went with their father on the journey to California and survived the terrible winter in the mountains, although they were left orphans. Elitha married one of the rescuers, Perry McCoon (1821 – 1851). He died a few years later in a horseback riding accident.
Elizabeth Blue had married James Hook in 1829 and they had two sons, Solomon and William. That marriage ended in divorce when James abandoned the family. She then married Jacob Donner, George Donner’s younger brother, in 1835 in Sangamon County, IL. Betsy and Jacob had five children. Both Betsy and Jacob died that winter in the Donner Pass tragedy, as did three of their five children and Betsy’s son, William Hook. William, 12 years old, was rescued on the “First Relief” (the first of three rescue efforts) but apparently died within days of “overeating at the Bear Valley on February 28, 1847.”
Solomon, her oldest child, was about 12 years old that winter. He suffered greatly on the trip but did survive. In Eliza Donner Houghton’s book, The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate, she wrote in Chapter XI:
“For the time, [John Baptiste–a fellow traveler] lived at Aunt Betsy’s tent, because Solomon Hook was snow-blind and demented, and at times restless and difficult to control. The poor boy, some weeks earlier, had set out alone to reach the settlement, and after an absence of forty-eight hours was found close to camp, blind, and with his mind unbalanced. He, like other wanderers on that desolate waste, had become bewildered, and, unconsciously, circled back near to the starting point.”
Having made the family connection and hopefully, gaining your interest, other posts will follow about their experiences moving from Sangamon County to California.