Survivors and casualties
An exact accounting of the Donner Party is made difficult by deciding exactly when the Donner Party formed. The Party did not exist when its members crossed the Missouri River in May, 1846. George Donner was elected Captain of the Party at the Little Sandy River on July 20, 1846, but several people joined the Party later, at Fort Bridger and in the Wasatch Mountains.
Four people left the Party to ride ahead for supplies: Charles Stanton, William McCutchen, James Reed and Walter Herron. One returned with supplies and was trapped--Charles Stanton--and he brought two more with him: Luis and Salvadore.
Five people died before reaching the Sierra Nevada mountains: Luke Halloran, John Snyder Hardkoop, Wolfinger and William Pike.
Of the 83 members of the Donner Party who were trapped in the mountains, only 45 survived to reach California.
The Donner family suffered more than most families. The broken axle on George Donner’s wagon caused the Donners to stop at Alder Creek, eight miles from the cabins at the Lake. Caught by the sudden storm the first week of November, and hampered by a shortage of large trees and strong men to cut them, The Donners did not construct cabins. Instead, they built crude
brush sheds covered by their wagon canvas.
Uncle George Donner was elected captain of the wagon train that would be known as the
- George Donner, 60(?), died at the Alder Creek camp on March 27, 1847
- His wife Tamsen, 45, stayed with her husband until he died, and then attempted to cross the mountains on her own. About the day after George died, Tamsen died at the Lake cabin of Lewis Keseberg
- Their daughter Frances, 6, was rescued by the Third Relief. In 1858 she married William Wilder and had five children.
- Daughter Georgia, 4, was rescued by the Third Relief. After her arrival in California, she was taken in by a Swiss couple at Sutter’s Fort, Christian and Mary Brunner. Georgia moved to Sonoma with the Brunners. In 1855 she moved in with her half-sister Elitha and her husband. In 1863 she married W.A. Babcock.
- Daughter Eliza, 3, was rescued by the Third Relief, and remained with her sister Georgia at the Brunners and at her half-sister Elitha’s. In 1861, she married Sherman Houghton, widower of her cousin Mary. Sherman and Eliza had six children. In the late 1870’s, prompted by C.F. McGlashan’s inquiries, Eliza began collecting accounts of the tragedy from her sisters. In 1911, she published her book The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate.
- George’s daughter from a previous marriage, Elitha Cumi, 14, was rescued by the First Relief. Shortly after her arrival at Johnson’s Ranch, she married Perry McCoon, whose schooner had carried the Second Relief across the swollen Feather River. McCoon died in 1853, and Elitha married Benjamin Wilder and settled near present Elk Grove, California (15 miles south of Sacramento).
- George’s daughter from a previous marriage, Leanna, 12, was rescued by the First Relief. She married John App on September 26, 1852, and had three children.
George’s brother Jacob’s family suffered more most of the families.
- Jacob Donner, 56(?), died at the Alder Creek camp in mid-December, 1846.
- His wife Elizabeth, 45, died at the Alder Creek camp in early April, 1847.
- Their son George, 9, was rescued by the First Relief. In 1862 he married Margaret J. Watson. They had eight children.
- Daughter Mary, 7, was rescued by the Third Relief, after being abandoned at Starved Camp by the Second Relief. Her frostbitten and burned foot healed, and she was taken in by John and Priscilla Cottrell in Santa Clara County. In 1859 she married Sherman O. Houghton. They had a daughter, but Mary died in 1860.
- Son Isaac, 5, was taken out by the Second Relief, but he died during the storm at Starved Camp about March 7, 1847.
- Son Samuel, 4, died at the Alder Creek camp about March 12, 1847.
- Son Lewis, 3, died at the Alder Creek camp about March 7, 1847.
- Elizabeth’s son from a previous marriage, Solomon Hook, 14, was rescued by the Second Relief. He worked at the Wolfskill Ranch, and is buried at Winters, California.
- Elizabeth’s son from a previous marriage, William Hook, 12, was taken out by the First Relief, but he died from overeating at the Bear Valley on February 28, 1847.
The single men who accompanied the Donners fared very poorly.
- Teamster Noah James, 20, was rescued by the First Relief.
- Teamster Samuel Shoemaker, 25, died at the Alder Creek camp in mid-December, 1846.
- The Donners’ friend John Denton, 28, died after being left behind by the First Relief on February 24, 1847. His body was found by the Third Relief.
James Reed, who was the leader of the Donner Party in fact if not in name, arrived in California ahead of the Party, and mounted two rescue attempts. His wife and children remained with the Party, many of whom blamed Reed for their predicament. Yet, the Reeds were one of only two families to survive without loss.
- James Frazier Reed, 46, was banished after killing the Graves’ teamster John Snyder on October 5, 1846, at Pauta Pass (now Goldconda Summit, Nevada). He arrived safely at Sutter’s Fort, and attempted a rescue in November, 1846. After raising funds for, and leading the Second Relief, Reed settled his family in San Jose, where he farmed and was active in San Jose civic affairs. (Reed, Margaret, Virginia and Martha streets in downtown San Jose are named for the Reed family.) The Reeds had two more children. James Reed was the only adult survivor of the Donner Party to publish an extensive account, beginning with J. Merryman’s newspaper article based on Reed’s notes in the December 9, 1847 Illinois Journal, and Reed’s own article
The Snow-Bound, Starved Emigrants of 1846published in the Pacific Rural Press in 1871. Reed died in 1874.
- His wife Margaret W. Reed, 32, was rescued by the First Relief. She died in 1861.
- Their daughter Martha (called Patty), 8, was rescued by her father’s Second Relief. She married Frank Lewis in 1856, and they had eight children.
- Son James Jr., 5, was rescued by the First Relief. In 1879 he married Sarah Adams in San Jose. They had no children, and James, Jr. died in 1901.
- Son Thomas, 3, was rescued by the Second Relief. He never married.
- Margaret’s daughter from a previous marriage, Virginia Backenstoe Reed, 13, was rescued by the First Relief. Shortly after her arrival at Johnson’s Ranch, she received a marriage proposal from Edward Pyle, Jr. She rejected the offer, and Pyle married Mary Graves. In May, 1847, Virginia wrote a first-hand account of the Donner Party in a letter that was published by the Illinois Journal in December, 1847. In 1850 Virginia married John Murphy and settled in San Jose. They had nine children In 1891 she wrote a more polished, but less accurate account of the Donner Party,
Across the Plains in the Donner Partyfor Century Magazine.
- Margaret’s mother Sarah Keyes, 75, died on May 29, 1846 at Alcove Springs, near present Marysville, Kansas.
The employees who accompanied the Reeds fared no better than the Donner employees.
- Servant, Eliza Williams, 25, was rescued by the First Relief. Six months after her rescue, she married.
- Eliza’s half-brother Baylis Williams, 24, died on December 15, 1846 at the Lake cabins.
- Teamster: Milford (Milt) Elliott, 28, died on February 9, 1847, at the Murphy cabin by the Lake.
- Teamster Walter Herron, 25,accompanied James Reed after Reed was banished by the Party on October 5, 1846. Herron was a day’s ride ahead with the Donners.
- Teamster James Smith, 25, died in mid-December at the Donner’s camp on Alder Creek.
- Friend Hiram Miller left the Reeds east of Fort Bernard, near present Douglas, Wyoming, on July 2, 1846 to accompany Edwin Bryant’s pack train. He joined Reed on the Second Relief, and carried out Thomas Reed. He then returned with Eddy and Foster on the Third Relief.
Unlike the Reeds, the Breen family crossed the plains without fanfare or fame. Patrick Breen’s diary reflects the simple, honest approach to life, and is the only contemporary written account of the winter entrapment. The newspapers that first published the diary did not even name the author, a contrast to the newspaper accounts of the Reeds. Like the Reeds, all of the Breen family survived the winter.
- Patrick Breen, 51, was rescued by John Stark of the Third Relief after being abandoned by the Second Relief at Starved Camp. Upon his arrival in California, he befriended fellow Irish emigrant Martin Murphy, Jr., who had a ranch on the Cosumnes River, south of present Elk Grove, California. In June, 1847, Breen, Murphy and several other settlers returned to the Lake to salvage the Breens wagons and goods. The Breens settled in San Juan Bautista, on a ranch on the San Andreas fault. In 1849, Patrick and Peggy had another son, William. Patrick Breen died in 1868.
- His wife Margaret (Peggy), 40, was rescued by John Stark of the Third Relief after being abandoned by the Second Relief at Starved Camp. She died in 1874.
- Son John, 14, was rescued by John Stark of the Third Relief after being abandoned by the Second Relief at Starved Camp. In 1849 he struck it rich in the Gold Rush, bringing home $12,000 in gold. In 1852 he married Leah Margaret Smith. They had ten children. He died in 1903.
- Edward, 13, was rescued by the First Relief. He married Catherine Sullivan and had three sons. Catherine died soon after. Edward married Mary Jane Burns and they had three children. Edward died in 1890.
- Patrick, Jr., 11, was rescued by John Stark of the Third Relief after being abandoned by the Second Relief at Starved Camp. In 1864 he married Amelia Anderson. They had five children who lived to adulthood. Patrick, Jr. died in 1899.
- Simon, 9, was rescued by the First Relief. He married Marie Constance Pdeancet and had two children. Simon died in 1899.
- Peter, 7, was rescued by John Stark of the Third Relief after being abandoned by the Second Relief at Starved Camp. He died in 1870 after a fall from a horse.
- James, 5, was rescued by John Stark of the Third Relief after being abandoned by the Second Relief at Starved Camp. He married Catherine McMahon and had a son who died young, and two daughters. He became a Superior Court judge in San Benito County, and later an Assemblyman. He died in 1899.
- Isabella, 1, was rescued by John Stark of the Third Relief after being abandoned by the Second Relief at Starved Camp. In 1869 she married Thomas McMahon, brother of Catherine McMahon who was married to Isabella’s brother James. Isabella died in 1935, the last survivor of the Donner Party.
The Breens’ friend and neighbor Patrick Dolan, 35, died on December 26, 1846, at the Snowshoe Party’s Camp of Death.
- William Eddy, 28, survived the Snowshoe Party, and returned leading the Third Relief. In 1848 he married Mrs. P. Alfred, but they divorced in 1854 after having two children. In 1856 Eddy married Miss. A.H. Pardee. William Eddy died in 1859.
- His wife Eleanor, 25, died at the Lake cabins on February 7, 1847.
- Daughter Margaret, 5, died at the Lake cabins about the same time as her mother.
- Son James, 3, died at the Lake cabins in early March, 1847.
The Murphy family suffered greatly, but those who survived did well in California.
- Lavinia Jackson Murphy, 50, died at the Murphy cabin at the Lake in late March, 1847.
- Son Landrum, 15, died at the Murphy cabin at the Lake on January 30, 1847.
- Daughter Mary, 13, was rescued by the First Relief. Just three months after her rescue, she married William Johnson, co-owner of Johnson’s Ranch. He treated her badly, but as a poor orphan she felt she had little choice. She soon divorced Johnson, and married Charles Covillaud. Covillaud founded a town on his land, and called it Marysville. Mary died in 1867.
- Son Lemuel, 12, died on December 27, 1846, at the Snowshoe Party’s Camp of Death.
- Son William, 11, was rescued by the First Relief. He returned to Missouri to attend law school, and then returned to Virginia City, Nevada, to practice law. In 1880 he was the City Attorney of Marysville, California. He and his wife had seven children. In 1896 he presented a talk at Truckee, California, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Donner Party.
- Son Simon, 10, was rescued by the Third Relief. He returned to Tennessee, where he married and had five children. He died in 1873.
- Eldest Murphy daughter Sarah, 23, survived the Snowshoe Party. She and her husband William had at least five children in California.
- Sarah’s husband William Foster, 28, survived the Snowshoe Party, and returned with the Third and Fourth Reliefs.
- Sarah’s son George Foster, 4, died at the Murphy cabin at the Lake in mid-March, 1847.
- Second eldest Murphy daughter Harriet, 21, survived the Snowshoe Party. In 1847 she married M.C. Nye and settled in Marysville.
- Harriet’s husband William Pike, 25, died at Truckee Meadows, present Reno, Nevada, in late October, 1846, accidentally shot by his brother-in-law William Foster.
- Harriet’s daughter Naomi Pike, 3, was rescued by the First Relief. She married John L. Schenck, and lived until 1934, the second-to-last survivor of the Donner Party.
- Harriet’s daughter Catherine Pike, 1, died at the Murphy cabin at the Lake on February 20, 1847.
Keseberg and Hardkoop
Lewis Keseberg was the most infamous and vilified member of the Donner Party.
- Lewis Keseberg, 32, was the last member of the Party to be rescued, by the Fourth Relief. Upon his arrival at Sutter’s Fort, he filed an action for defamation against Ned Coffeemeyer. Presumably the allegedly defamatory statements were the stories spread by the Fourth Relief that Keseberg had killed Mrs. Donner for her money. The court found for Keseberg, but awarded him only one dollar in damages. Keseberg captained Sutter’s launch Sacramento, later opened a boarding house in Sacramento. Much was made of this, such as George McKinstry’s 1851 letter to Captain Kern:
Old Keseberg, the Man-eater, has made a fortune, and is now keeping a Restaurant in K St., Sac, City, I would like to board there, I wouldn’t!Keseberg later opened a brewery.C.F. McGlashan reported that the Kesebergs had eight children in California, none of whom lived past thirty years of age. McGlashan wrote that Keseberg told him his two daughters were
idiots.However, one family member disputes that account, reporting that daughters Bertha and Amelia married and had children, and Bertha lived to the age of 90 in Sacramento. Lewis Keseberg died in 1895.
- His wife, Philippine, 23, was rescued by the First Relief. She died in 1877.
- Daughter, Ada, 3, was taken out by the First Relief, but died on about February 25, 1847, near present Kingvale.
- Son, Lewis, Jr., new born on the Trail, died at the Lake cabins on January 4, 1847.
- Teamster Charles Berger (or Karl Burger), 30, died at the Lake cabins on December 29, 1846.
- The old Belgian Hardkoop, about 60, who had joined the Donner Party at Bridger’s Fort, was put out of the wagon by Keseberg on October 8, 1846, near present Winemucca, Nevada, and failed to make it to camp.
Wolfinger, Spitzer and Reinhardt
Wolfinger, Spitzer and Reinhardt were involved in one of the most mysterious episodes of the Donner Party.
- Wolfinger, 26, never returned after abandoning his wagon at the Humboldt Sink about October 15, 1846. Reinhardt and Spitzer, who accompanied Wolfinger, reported that Wolfinger was killed by Indians, but many of the Donner Party suspected Reinhardt and Spitzer of killing Wolfinger.
- His wife Doriss, 19, was rescued by the First Relief.
- Augustus Spitzer, died at the Breen cabin at the Lake on February 8, 1847.
- Joseph Reinhardt, about 30, died at the Alder Creek camp in mid-December, 1846.
William McCutchen was a hero of the Donner Party.
- William McCutchen, 30, left the Party with Charles Stanton on about September 12, 1846. They rode ahead from Relief Springs, Nevada, to Sutter’s Fort for supplies. McCutchen joined James Reed on his unsuccessful relief of November, 1846, and on the Second Relief. He lived to old age in San Jose.
- His wife Amanda, 30, survived the Snowshoe Party.
- Daughter Harriet, 1, died at the Lake cabins on February 2, 1847.
The Graves family were the last people to join the Donner Party on the trail west.
- Franklin Graves, 57, died at the Snowshoe Party’s Camp of Death on December 25, 1846.
- His wife Elizabeth, 47, was taken out by the Second Relief, but abandoned at Starved Camp, where she died during the first week of March, 1847.
- Daughter Mary, 20, survived the Snowshoe Party. Just three months after her escape, she married Edward Pyle. Pyle was killed a few years later, and in 1851 Mary married J.T. Clarke. They settled in Tulare County, where they had seven children. She died in 1891.
- Son William, 18, was rescued by the First Relief. He became a blacksmith in Calistoga, California, and was a valuable informant for McGlashan, locating the cabin sites. William’s recollections were colored by his bitterness towards the other Party members, Reed in particular.
- Daughter Eleanor, 15, was rescued by the First Relief. In 1849 she married William McDonnell. They settled in Knights Valley, Sonoma County, and had nine children.
- Daughter Lovina, 13, was rescued by the First Relief. In 1856 she married John Cyrus. They settled in Calistoga, and had five children.
- Daughter Nancy, 9, was rescued by John Stark of the Third Relief after being abandoned by the Second Relief at Starved Camp. In 1855 she married Rev. R.W. Williamston and settled near Los Gatos, Santa Clara County, where they had at least four children.
- Son Jonathan, 7, was rescued by John Stark of the Third Relief after being abandoned by the Second Relief at Starved Camp.
- Son Franklin, Jr., 5, was taken out by the Second Relief, and abandoned at Starved Camp where he died about March 11, 1847.
- Daughter Elizabeth, 1, was rescued by John Stark of the Third Relief after being abandoned by the Second Relief at Starved Camp. Sadly, she died shortly after arriving at Sutter’s Fort.
- Eldest daughter, Sarah, 22, survived the Snowshoe Party.
- Sarah’s husband Jay Fosdick, 23, tried to escape with the Snowshoe Party. He died the first week of January, 1847, in the foothills above the Bear River.
- Teamster John Snyder, 25, was killed by James Reed in a fight at Pauta Pass, present Golconda Summit, Nevada, on October 5, 1846.
A single man with no relatives among the Donner Party, Stanton became the greatest hero of the tragedy by his selfless sacrifice. The two Indians who accompanied Stanton from Sutter’s Fort did not survive either.
- Charles Stanton, 35, left the Party with William McCutchen on about September 12, 1846. They rode ahead from Relief Springs, Nevada, to Sutter’s Fort for supplies. Stanton returned with seven mules loaded with provisions, and two Indians from Sutter’s Fort. He rejoined the Party the last week of October, 1846, along the Truckee River. He piloted the Snowshoe Party until he became too weak to keep up. About December 21, 1846, he failed to come up to the Snowshoe Party’s camp near Sixmile Valley.
- Luis died, or was killed by the Snowshoe Party, on about January 9, 1847, in the foothills above Bear River.
- Salvadore died, or was killed by the Snowshoe Party, on about January 9, 1847, in the foothills above Bear River.
Halloran, Antonio and Trudeau
These men joined the Donner Party along the trail.
- Luke Halloran, 25, died at the Lower Wells, present Grantsville, Utah, on August 25, 1846. He left about $1,500 in coin to George Donner, which was probably the $500 per child offered by Tamsen Donner to the members of the Second Relief to carry out her three daughters.
- Antonio, about 23, died at the Snowshoe Party’s Camp of Death on December 25, 1846.
- Jean Baptiste Trudeau, 18, was rescued by the Third Relief. He stayed with the Donner girls after their rescue. In 1847 he was quoted by a US Navy Lt. Wise recounting some very lurid tales of cannibalism. It is not known if the quotations are accurate, exaggerated or fabricated. Trudeau visited the Donner girls periodically over the next forty years, and continued to assure them and newspapers that cannibalism had not occurred at Alder Creek. He married and had three sons. He died in 1910 at Marshall in Tomales Bay, Marin County.
One of the most puzzling aspects of the Donner Party is why so many women survived, and so many men died. The statistics were first analyzed by J. Quinn Thornton in his 1849 book Oregon and California in 1848.
Males Females Total Number who .................................. 28 8 36 survived .................................. 20 24 44 Total 48 32 80 Number who perished ................................... 28 8 Had the rate of mortality in the sexes
been equal there would have died .................
21-3/5 14-2/5 Dif against males, and in favor of females.... 6-2/5 6-2/5
Prof. Donald Grayson of the University of Washington conducted a more scholarly mortality study, published in a 1994 paper and an earlier 1990 paper.
Donner Party Descendants
The survivors of the Donner Party settled throughout California, and some became quite well known with numerous descendants.
Helen Whitworth is a member of the McCutchen family. Her great-uncle was William McCutchen, a hero of the Donner Party, who rode ahead for supplies and returned with the Second Relief. You can read about the family at McCutchenNorthwest.com.
If you are searching for genealogical information about your family, the US Gen Web Project is an excellent place to start.