|Home -> A. Carlisle & Co. -> History of the Donner Party -> Chapter 12|
A Wife's Devotion
Tamsen Donner's Early Life
The Early Settlers of Sangamon County
An Incident in School
Teaching and Knitting
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.
Leanna C. Donner, now Mrs. John App, of Jamestown, Tuolumne County, Cal., gives a vivid description of the trip from George Donner's tent to the cabins at Donner Lake Miss Rebecca E. App, acting as her mother's amanuensis, writes:
"Mother says: Never shall I forget the day when my sister Elitha and myself left our tent. Elitha was strong and in good health, while I was so poor and emaciated that I could scarcely walk. All we took with us were the clothes on our backs and one thin blanket, fastened with a string around our necks, answering the purpose of a shawl in the day-time, and which was all we had to cover us at night. We started early in the morning, and many a good cry I had before we reached the cabins, a distance of about eight miles. Many a time I sat down in the snow to die, and would have perished there if my sister had not urged me on, saying, 'The cabins are just over the hill.' Passing over the hill, and not seeing the cabins, I would give up, again sit down and have another cry, but my sister continued to help and encourage me until I saw the smoke rising from the cabins; then I took courage, and moved along as fast as I could. When we reached the Graves cabin it was all I could do to step down the snow-steps into the cabin. Such pain and misery as I endured that day is beyond description."
In Patrick Breen's diary are found the following entries, which allude to Captain Tucker's relief party:
"Feb. 19. Froze hard last night. Seven men arrived from California yesterday with provisions, but left the greater part on the way. To-day it is clear and warm for this region; some of the men have gone to Donner's camp; they will start back on Monday."
"Feb. 22. The Californians started this morning, twenty-three in number, some in a very weak state. Mrs. Keseberg started with them, and left Keseberg here, unable to go. Buried Pike's child this morning in the snow; died two days ago."
Poor little Catherine Pike lingered until this time! It will be remembered that this little nursing babe had nothing to eat except a little coarse flour mixed in snow water. Its mother crossed the mountains with the "Forlorn Hope," and from the sixteenth of December to the twentieth of February it lived upon the miserable gruel made from unbolted flour. How it makes the heart ache to think of this little sufferer, wasting away, moaning with hunger, and sobbing for something to eat. The teaspoonful of snow water would contain only a few particles of the flour, yet how eagerly the dying child would reach for the pitiful food. The tiny hands grew thinner, the sad, pleading eyes sank deeper in their fleshless sockets, the face became hollow, and the wee voice became fainter, yet, day after day, little Catherine Pike continued to breathe, up to the very arrival of the relief party.
Patrick Breen says twenty-three started across the mountains. Their names were: Mrs. Margaret W. Reed and her children - Virginia E. Reed, Patty Reed, Thomas Reed, and James F. Reed, Jr.; Elitha C. Donner, Leanna C. Donner, Wm. Hook, and George Donner, Jr.; Wm. G. Murphy, Mary M. Murphy, and Naomi L. Pike; Wm. C. Graves, Eleanor Graves, and Lovina Graves; Mrs. Phillipine Keseberg, and Ada Keseberg; Edward J. and Simon P. Breen, Eliza Williams, John Denton, Noah James, and Mrs. Wolfinger.
In starting from the camps at Donner Lake, Mrs. Keseberg's child and Naomi L. Pike were carried by the relief party. In a beautiful letter received from Naomi L. Pike (now Mrs. Schenck, of the Dalles, Oregon), she says: "I owe my life to the kind heart of John Rhodes, whose sympathies were aroused for my mother. He felt that she was deserving of some relic of all she had left behind when she started with the first party in search of relief, and he carried me to her in a blanket." We have before spoken of this noble man's bravery in bearing the news of the condition of the "Forlorn Hope" and of the Donner Party to Sutter's Fort. Here we find him again exhibiting the nobility of his nature by saving this little girl from starvation by carrying her on his back over forty miles of wintry snow.
Before the party had proceeded two miles, a most sad occurrence took place. It became evident that Patty and Thomas Reed were unable to stand the fatigue of the journey. Already they exhibited signs of great weakness and weariness, and it was not safe to allow them to proceed. Mr. Aquila Glover informed Mrs. Reed that it was necessary that these two children go back. Who can portray the emotions of this fond mother? What power of language can indicate the struggle which took place in the minds of this stricken family? Mr. Glover promised to return as soon as he arrived at Bear Valley, and himself bring Patty and Thomas over the mountains. This promise, however, was but a slight consolation for the agonized mother or weeping children, until finally a hopeful thought occurred to Mrs. Reed. She turned suddenly to Mr. Glover, and asked, "Are you a Mason?' He replied, "I am." "Do you promise me," she said, "upon the word of a Mason, that when you arrive at Bear Valley, you will come back and get my children?" Mr. Glover made the promise, and the children were by him taken back to the cabins. The mother had remembered, in this gloomiest moment of life, that the father of her little ones was a Mason, and that he deeply reverenced the order. If her children must be left behind in the terrible snows, she would trust the promise of this Mason to return and save them. It was a beautiful trust in a secret order by a Mason's wife in deep distress.
Rebecca E. App, writing for her mother, gives a vivid description of this journey across the summits, from which is taken the following brief extract:
"It was a bright Sunday morning when we left the cabins. Some were in good health, while others were so poor and emaciated that they could scarcely walk. I was one of the weakest in the party, and not one in the train thought I would get to the top of the first hill. We were a sad spectacle to look upon as we left the cabins. We marched along in single file, the leader wearing snow-shoes, and the others following after, all stepping in the leader's tracks. I think my sister and myself were about the rear of the train, as the strongest were put in front. My sister Elitha and I were alone with strangers, as it were, having neither father, mother, nor brothers, to give us a helping hand or a word of courage to cheer us onward. We were placed on short allowance of food from the start, and each day this allowance was cut shorter and shorter, until we received each for our evening and morning meal two small pieces of jerked beef, about the size of the index finger of the hand. Finally, the last ration was issued in the evening. This was intended for that evening and the next morning, but I was so famished I could not resist the temptation to eat all I had - the two meals at one time. Next morning, of course, I had nothing for breakfast. Now occurred an incident which I shall never forget. While I sat looking at the others eating their morsels of meat, which were more precious than gold or diamonds, my sister saw my distress, and divided her piece with me. How long we went without food after that, I do not know. I think we were near the first station."