History of the Donner Party

Captain Reasin P. Tucker, who had been acquainted with the Graves family
on the plains before the Donner Party took the Hastings Cut-off, was
anxious to meet them. They lived in the lower cabin, half a mile further
down Donner Creek. When he came close enough to observe the smoke
issuing from the hole in the snow which marked their abode, he shouted,
as he had done at the upper cabins. The effect was as electrical as in
the former instance. All came up to the surface, and the same
unrestrained gladness was manifested by the famished prisoners. Famished
they were. Mrs. Graves is especially praised by the survivors for her
unstinted charity. Instead of selfishly hoarding her stores and feeding
only her own children, she was generous to a fault, and no person ever
asked at her door for food who did not receive as good as she and her
little ones had to eat.

Dear Mrs. Graves! How earnestly she asked about her husband and
daughters! Did all reach the valley? Captain Tucker felt his heart rise
in his throat. How could he tell this weak, starved woman of the
terrible fate which had be fallen her husband and her son-in-law! He
could not! He answered with assumed cheerfulness in the affirmative. So,
too, they deceived Mrs. Murphy regarding her dear boy Lemuel. It was
best. Had the dreadful truth been told, not one of all this company
would ever have had courage to attempt the dangerous journey.

Little sleep was there in the Donner cabins that night. The relief party
were to start back in a couple of days, and such as were strong enough
were to accompany them. Mrs. Graves had four little children, and told
her son William C. Graves that he must remain with her to cut wood to
keep the little ones from freezing. But William was anxious to go and
help send back provisions to his mother. So earnestly did he work during
the next two days, that he had two cords of wood piled up near the
cabin. This was to last until he could return. His task was less
difficult because this cabin was built in a dense grove of tamarack.

Food had been given in small quantities to the sufferers. Many of the
snow-bound prisoners were so near death’s door that a hearty meal would
have proven fatal. The remnant of provisions brought by the relief party
was carefully guarded lest some of the famished wretches should obtain
more than was allotted them. This was rendered easier from the fact that
the members of the relief party were unable to endure the scenes of
misery and destitution in the cabins, and so camped outside upon the
snow. So hungry were the poor people that some of them ate the strings
of the snowshoes which part of the relief company had brought along.

On the twentieth of February, John Rhodes, R. S. Mootry, and R. P.
Tucker visited the Donner tents on Alder Creek, seven miles from the
cabins. Only one ox-hide remained to these destitute beings. Here, as
well as at the cabins, the all-important question was, who should go
with the relief party and who remain. In each family there were little
children who could not go unless carried. Few of the Donner Party had
more than enough strength to travel unencumbered across the deep snows.
Should a storm occur on, the mountains, it was doubtful if even the
members of the relief party could escape death. It was hopefully urged
that other relief parties would soon arrive from California, and that
these would bring over those who remained. In determining who should go
and who stay, examples of heroism and devotion were furnished which were
never surpassed in the history of man. Could their vision have
penetrated the veil which interposed between them and the sad
occurrences about to ensue, they would have known that almost every
family, whose members separated, was bidding good-by to some member
forever.

Chapter XII.

A Wife’s Devotion
Tamsen Donner’s Early Life
The Early Settlers of Sangamon County
An Incident in School
Teaching and Knitting
School Discipline
Captain George Donner’s Appearance
Parting Scenes at Alder Creek
Starting over the Mountains
A Baby’s Death
A Mason’s Vow
Crossing the Snow Barrier
More Precious than Gold or Diamonds
Elitha Donner’s Kindness.

Mrs. Tamsen Donner was well and comparatively strong, and could easily
have crossed the mountains in safety with this party. Her husband,
however, was suffering from a serious swelling on one of his hands. Some
time before reaching the mountains he had accidentally hurt this hand
while handling a wagon. After encamping at Alder Creek he was anxious to
assist in the arrangements and preparations for winter, and while thus
working the old wound reopened. Taking cold in the hand, it became
greatly swollen and inflamed, and he was rendered entirely helpless.
Mrs. Donner was urged to go with the relief party, but resolutely
determined to heed the promptings of wifely devotion and remain by her
husband.

No one will ever read the history of the Donner Party without greatly
loving and reverencing the character of this faithful wife. The saddest,
most tear-stained page of the tragedy, relates to her life and death in
the mountains. A better acquaintance with the Donner family, and
especially with Mrs. Tamsen Donner, can not fail to be desirable in view
of succeeding chapters. Thanks to Mr. Allen Francis, the present United
States Consul at Victoria, British Columbia, very complete, authentic,
and interesting information upon this subject has been furnished. Mr.
Francis was publisher of the Springfield (Illinois) Journal in 1846, and
a warm personal friend of the family.

The Donners were among the first settlers of Sangamon County, Ill. They
were North Carolinians, immigrants to Kentucky in 1818, subsequently to
the State of Indiana, and from thence to what was known as the Sangamon
Country, in the year 1828.

George Donner, at the time of leaving Springfield, Ill., was a large,
fine-looking man, fully six feet in height, with merry black eyes, arid
the blackest of hair, lined with an occasional silver thread. He
possessed a cheerful disposition, an easy temperament, industrious
habits, sound judgment, and much general information. By his associates
and neighbors he was called “Uncle George.” To him they went for
instructions relating to the management of their farms, and usually they
returned feeling they had been properly advised. Twice had death
bequeathed him a group of motherless children, and Tamsen was his third
wife.

Her parents, William and Tamsen Eustis, were respected and well to do
residents of Newburyport, Mass., where she was born in November, 1801.
Her love of books made her a student at an early age; almost as soon as
the baby-dimples left her cheeks, she sought the school-room, which
afforded her great enjoyment. Her mother’s death occurred before she
attained her seventh year, and for a time her childish hopes and desires
were overshadowed with sadness by this, her first real sorrow. But the
sympathy of friends soothed her grief, and her thirst for knowledge led
her back to the schoolroom, where she pursued her studies with greater
eagerness than before.

Her father married again, and little Tamsen’s life was rendered happier
by this event; for in her step-mother she found a friend who tenderly
directed her thoughts and encouraged her work. At fifteen years of age
she finished the course of study, and her proficiency in mathematics,
geometry, philosophy, etc., called forth the highest praise of her
teachers and learned friends. She, like many daughters of New England,
felt that talents are intrusted to be used, and that each life is
created for some definite purpose. She therefore resolved to devote
herself to the instruction of the young, and after teaching at
Newburyport for a short time, she accepted a call to fill a vacancy in
the academy at Elizabeth City, N. C., where she continued an earnest and
appreciated teacher for a number of years. She became a fluent French
scholar while at that institution, and her leisure hours were devoted to
the fine arts. Her paintings and drawings were much admired for their
correctness in outline, subdued coloring, and delicacy in shading.

In Elizabeth City she met Mr. Dozier, a young man of education and good
family, and they were married. He was not a man of means, but her
forethought enabled them to live comfortably. For a few brief years she
enjoyed all the happiness which wedded bliss and maternal love could
confer, then death came, and in a few short weeks her husband and two
babes were snatched from her arms. In her desolation and bereavement she
thought of her old home, and longed for the sympathy of her childhood’s
friends. She returned to Newburyport, where she spent three years in
retirement and rest. In 1836, she received a letter from her brother in
Illinois, urging her to come to his afflicted household, and teach his
motherless children. She remained with them one winter, but her field of
action had been too wide to permit her to settle quietly on a farm.
Besides, she had heard much of the manner in which country schools were
conducted, and became desirous of testing her ability in controlling and
teaching such a school. She obtained one in Auburn, and soon became the
friend of her pupils. All agreed that Mrs. Dozier was a faithful teacher
until the following little incident occurred. The worthy Board of School
Trustees heard that Mrs. Dozier was in the habit of knitting during
school hours. “Surely, she could not knit and instruct her pupils
properly; therefore, she must either give up her knitting or her
school.” When Mrs. Dozier heard their resolution, she smiled, and said:
“Before those gentlemen deny my ability to impart knowledge and work
with my fingers at the same time, I would like them to visit my school,
and judge me by the result of their observation.”

A knock at the school-room door, a week later, startled the children,
and a committee of trustees entered. Mrs. Dozier received them in the
most ladylike manner, and after they were seated, she called each class
at its appointed time. The recitations were heard, and lessons
explained, yet no one seemed disturbed by the faint, but regular, click
of knitting needles. For hours those gentlemen sat in silence, deeply
interested in all that transpired. When the time for closing school
arrived, the teacher invited the trustees to address her pupils, after
which she dismissed school, thanked her visitor for their kind
attention, and went home without learning their opinion.

The next morning she was informed that the Board of Trustees had met the
previous evening, and after hearing the report of the visiting
committee, had unanimously agreed that Mrs. Dozier might continue her
school and her knitting also. This little triumph was much enjoyed by
her friends.

The following year she was urged to take the school on Sugar Creek,
where the children were older and further advanced than those at Auburn.
Her connection with this school marked a new era for many of its
attendants. Mr. J. Miller used to relate an incident which occurred a
few days after she took charge of those unruly boys who had been in the
habit of managing the teacher and school to suit themselves. “I will
never forget,” said Mr. Miller, “how Mrs. Dozier took her place at the
table that morning, tapped for order, and in a kind, but firm, tone
said: ‘Young gentlemen and young ladies, as a teacher only, I can not
criticise the propriety of your writing notes to each other when out of
school; but as your teacher, with full authority in school, I desire and
request you neither to write nor send notes to any one during school
hours. I was surprised at your conduct yesterday, and should my wish be
disregarded in the future, will be obliged to chastise the offender.’
She called the first class, and school began in earnest. I looked at her
quiet face and diminutive form, and thought how easy it would be for me
to pick up two or three such little bodies as she, and set them outside
of the door! I wrote a note and threw it to the pupil in front of me,
just to try Mrs. Dozier. When the recitation was finished, she stepped
to the side of her table, and looked at me with such a grieved
expression on her face, then said: ‘Mr. Miller, I regret that my eldest
scholar should be the first to violate my rule. Please step forward.’ I
quailed beneath her eye. I marched up to where she stood. The stillness
of that room was oppressive. I held out my hand at the demand of that
little woman, and took the punishment I deserved, and returned to my
seat deeply humiliated, but fully determined to behave myself in the
future, and make the other boys do likewise. Well, she had no more
trouble while she was our teacher. Her pluck had won our admiration, and
her quiet dignity held our respect, and we soon ceased wondering at the
ease with which she overturned our plans and made us eager to adopt
hers; for no teacher ever taught on Sugar Creek who won the affections
or ruled pupils more easily or happily than she. We were expected to
come right up to the mark; but if we got into trouble, she was always
ready to help us out, and could do it in the quietest way imaginable.”

She taught several young men the art of surveying, and had a wonderful
faculty of interesting her pupils in the study of botany. She sought by
creek and over plain for specimens with which to illustrate their
lessons. It was while engaged in this place that Mrs. Dozier met George
Donner, who at that time resided about two and a half miles from
Springfield field. Their acquaintance resulted in marriage. Her pupils
always called her their “little teacher,” for she was but five feet in
height, and her usual weight ninety-six pounds. She had grayish-blue
eyes, brown hair, and a face full of character and intelligence. She was
gifted with fine conversational powers, and was an excellent reader. Her
voice would hold in perfect silence, for hours, the circle of neighbors
and friends who would assemble during the long winter evenings to hear
her read. Even those who did not fail to criticise her ignorance of farm
and dairy work, were often charmed by her voice and absence of display;
for while her dress was always of rich material, it was remarkable for
its Quaker simplicity.

Mr. Francis says: “Mrs. George Donner was a perfect type of an eastern
lady, kind, sociable, and exemplary, ever ready to assist neighbors, and
even the stranger in distress. Whenever she could spare time, she
wielded a ready pen on various topics. She frequently contributed gems
in prose and poetry to the columns of the journal, that awakened an
interest among its readers to know their author. Herself and husband
were faithful members of the German Prairie Christian Church, situated a
little north of their residence. Here they lived happily, and highly
respected by all who knew them, until the spring of 1846, when they
started for California.”

Having said this much of the Donners, and especially of the noble woman
who refused to leave her suffering husband, let us glance at the parting
scenes at Alder Creek. It had been determined that the two eldest
daughters of George Donner should accompany Captain Tucker’s party.
George Donner, Jr., and William Hook, two of Jacob Donner’s Sons, Mrs.
Wolfinger, and Noah James were also to join the company. This made six
from the Donner tents. Mrs. Elizabeth Donner was quite able to have
crossed the mountains, but preferred to remain with her two little
children, Lewis and Samuel, until another and larger relief party should
arrive. These two boys were not large enough to walk, Mrs. Donner was
not strong enough to carry them, and the members of Captain Tucker’s
party had already agreed to take as many little ones as they could
carry.

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