A move to Illinois sealed Tamsen Donners fate
[Editors note: This column is the second of two in a series on Tamsen Donner, one of the leaders of the Donner party. See part one in the archives at sierrasun.com.]The diminutive schoolteacher was an incredible bundle of energy, scarce five feet tall and less than one hundred pounds. One of her friends described Tamozine (Tamsen) Donner as the perfect type of eastern lady, kind, sociable and exemplary, ever ready to assist neighbors and even strangers in distress. Born and raised by a wealthy seafaring family on the coast of Massachusetts, Tamsen had steamed south to North Carolina for a promising school-teaching position. There she fell in love with Tully Dozier and the pastoral beauty of the soft Southern landscape. She continued to teach after their marriage, but Tamsens dedication to the health and welfare of her husband and young son never wavered. Unfortunately, her happiness in the Southland was destined to be short-lived. Despite all she could do, her young family died during an influenza epidemic in the last few months of 1831. Without her loving husband and adored children, the magic was gone. Tamsen continued as a schoolteacher and remained active in the community, but was unable to shake her melancholy. By the summer of 1832, however, Tamsens indomitable spirit had rejuvenated her positive outlook on life. She was content teaching schoolchildren in North Carolina, but a life in the sultry South was not to be her destiny. While on a visit home to Massachusetts, an urgent plea arrived from her recently widowed brother in Illinois to come and help him raise his children. His call for help plucked Tamsen from the piedmont of North Carolina and pulled her West, where she again found work as a schoolteacher.In Illinois, while teaching botany to her pupils, Tamsen met George Donner, a wealthy landowner, twice widowed. George was described as a big man, fully six feet tall, with black hair shot with silver. He was of cheerful disposition and easy temperament. Neighbors came to him for advice and sympathy. On May 24, 1839, Tamsen and George were married. George had had many children by his first two wives, and over the next six years Tamsen gave birth to three girls, Frances, Georgia and Eliza.Tamsen loved her new life in Sangamon County, Ill. George owned two large and profitable farms. The Donners lived on the smaller one, which comprised of 80 acres of prime farm and grazing land, as well as extensive orchards planted with apple, peach and pear trees. They lived in a large five-room, two-story house. Their life was very comfortable. In a letter home, Tamsen wrote her sister: I find my husband a kind friend, who does all in his power to promote my happiness and I have as fair a prospect for a pleasant old age as anyone.But Tamsens contentment did not diminish Georges desire for economic opportunity. Despite Georges advanced age of 62 years and his professions of satisfaction with the warm comfort of their beautiful home and farm, the spring of 1846 found the Donners on the overland trail to California. Tamsen wrote from the boisterous frontier town of Independence, Mo., a favorite jumping-off point for West-bound emigrants: My dear sister, I commenced writing to you some months ago but the letter was laid aside to be finished the next day and was never touched. My three daughters are round me, one at my side trying to sew, Georgianna fixing herself up in an old India rubber cap and Eliza knocking on my paper and asking me ever so many questions. (Georges older children from his first marriage had refused to leave the luxurious lifestyles they were accustomed to; only two young girls from Georges second marriage, 13-year-old Elitha and 11-year-old Leanna were brought along). I can give you no idea of this place at this time. It is supposed there will be 7,000 wagons starting from this place this season. We go to California, to the bay of Francisco. It is a four months trip. We have three wagons furnished with food and clothing etc. drawn by three yoke of oxen each. I am willing to go and have no doubt it will be an advantage to our children and to us. Tamsen intended to open a school in California for her children and others.Tamsen Donners last letter was written near the Platte River and sent back to the Sangamo Journal, Springfields local newspaper: We are now on the Platte, 200 miles from Fort Laramie. Our journey so far, has been pleasant. Wood is now very scarce, but Buffalo chips are excellent they kindle quick and retain heat surprisingly. We had this evening Buffalo steaks broiled upon them that had the same flavor they would have had on hickory coals. Their journey had gone well up to that point, but that would soon change. Their heavily-laden wagons slowed the oxens pace, which forced them to risk an untried shortcut that ultimately tested their strength and broke the groups cohesive spirit. The struggling emigrants reached Truckees lake (Donner Lake) around Halloween 1846, but there were already several feet of snow on the summit. George Donner had injured his hand six miles north of Donner Lake and refused to go on, saying that he was too tired. Despite his determination, Georges age was sneaking up on him. Sierra snowstorms came hard and fast that winter, trapping them without sufficient supplies. Ultimately, several relief parties came to their rescue, but the first one did not arrive until Feb. 19, 1847, about three and a half months after they reached Donner Lake. Tamsen turned down the option to be rescued because she refused to leave her husband George who was dying from infection and starvation and could not travel. The Donner Partys epic story of death, cannibalism, and survival has been well-documented. But through the shadows of this dreadful tragedy gleams what must not be overlooked: the ultimate success of this personal family venture. Although George and Tamsen died in the deep Sierra snow, they were able to get all of their girls into California. Those five girls, Elitha, Leanna, Frances, Georgia and Eliza, gave birth to 17 children among them. The cost was terrible, but the survivors endowed an enduring legacy. In 1972, the eloquent New England poet Ruth Whitman articulated the Donners achievement with these imagined words of Tamsens: If my boundary stops here,I have daughters to draw new maps on the worldthey will draw the lines of my face, they will draw with my gestures my voicethey will speak my words thinking they have invented them.They will invent them, they will invent me,I will be planted again and again,I will wake in the eyes of their childrens childrenthey will speak my words. The author thanks Ann Smith, Tamsen Donners great-granddaughter for the use of these unpublished letters. Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears regularly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2 are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.