Donner Party heroine saw tragedy before going west
[Editors note: This column is the first of two in a series on Tamsen Donner, one of the leaders of the Donner party.]Tamsen Donner lost her life in the harsh Sierra winter of 1846-47. She had been a dynamic school teacher and the wife of George Donner, the principle organizer of a California-bound wagon train from Springfield, Ill. Poor decisions and a lack of leadership, bad advice and an early winter trapped the Donner-led group before they could cross the Sierra and reach the safety of California. More than once during that brutal winter, Tamsen refused the chance to escape with rescue parties, but instead choose to stay behind with her husband, George, who was seriously ill and could not travel. Too many versions of the Donner Party tragedy have been published over the years for it to be repeated here, but March is womens history month, and by reading Tamsens personal letters, one may gain some insight into the life and legacy of this historic heroine. Tamsen Eustis was born into a respected, wealthy family in Newburyport, Mass., Nov. 1, 1801. She enjoyed a happy childhood and her love of books foreshadowed her lifelong commitment to education. Throughout her elementary school years she aspired to become a teacher. After certification, she took a job teaching in Maine. Later she was offered a position as an instructor in an academy in Elizabeth City, N.C. Tamsen was not making enough money to survive in Maine, so she decided to take the job. Though it meant a major upheaval in her life, Tamsen had no doubts about her decision. In a letter to her sister Elizabeth, dated 1824, Tamsen wrote There is one impression, however, which rises above this huge chaos and presses itself upon my notice [to leave]. It is that the hand of God is remarkably visible in directing my steps. So fully aware am I that he will guide me, that I feel not the least hesitation in proceeding. Tamsen said goodbye to her family and steamed south along the coast to North Carolina.
By 1829 Tamsen was 28 years old and still single, at a time when virtually all women were married by age 20. But Tamsen Eustis was no spinster; she was a committed professional. Teaching children was as important as marriage to this well-educated, articulate young woman. That year, in Camden County, N.C., she met and married Tully Dozier. Apparently, Tamsen had found the right man. In one letter she wrote, I do not intend to boast of my husband, but I find him one of the best of men affectionate, industrious and possessed of an upright heart, these are requisite to make life pass on smoothly. Within two years they were the proud parents of a fine baby boy. Tamsens teaching salary combined with Tullys farming income earned them a comfortable living. Life for Tamsen seemed pleasant enough, but frequent winter fevers and widespread epidemics constantly threatened her familys health. She mentioned that her little boy has been very sick, and for a few days we feared we should lose him but at this time he is in fine health and sitting upon the table as I write. He at one time scolds me for the inkstand and at another knocks my knuckles with a spoon. He bears no resemblance to our family, being a true copy of his father.Tamsen worried about her husband too: I have had excellent health since I saw you, but Mr. Dozier has twice been reduced very low since we were married. His precarious health and our strong dislike to slavery has caused us to determine upon removing to some western state. But not until next year.
The lure of the lush southern countryside had Tamsen and Tully fast within its grasp. But tragedy intruded, changing Tamsens bucolic life forever. A June 28, 1831 letter from Tamsen explained the situation all too clearly: My sister I send you these pieces of letters that you may know that I often wrote to you even if I did not send. I have lost that little boy that I loved so well. He died on the 28th of September. I have lost my husband who made so large a share of my happiness. He died the 24th of December. I prematurely had a daughter, which died on the 18th of November. I have broken up housekeeping and intend to commence school in February. O, my sister, weep with me if you have tears to spare.Tamsens letters home went unanswered. When she finally received a response from Elizabeth, it was disappointingly brief. In July 1833 she replied I received the scrap you sent me and read it over again to see if I could not make more of it; but twenty lines it was and with all my ingenuity I could not make myself believe that it was a well filled sheet. But sister, I will do as you like to be done by. See how close my lines are together, how small my hand, and how many words I put in one line; and say does it not please you? And will you not smile to see my name at the last end of the third page? Well, so should I like to have you write so pleased should I be, and so would I smile at seeing no blank space in your letter. You cannot realize the delight I feel at the very sight of Mrs. Tamsen Dozier with a Newburyport postmark. And may you never know, for to feel it must be purchased at too dear a rate.Tamsen found solace in her strong religious faith. Despite personal tragedy and loneliness, she was able to write: Tis morning and nature is lovely indeed. I rise very early and I cannot describe my feelings on viewing the dewy southern landscape. It seems as if my feelings struggle for vent and rushing to my pen are lost for want of words in which to clothe them. Why was I made with eye and heart to enjoy all these delights? To overcome all unamiable feelings to participate in the joys and sufferings of others, to trace every incident in life to a Supreme power and realize that it is also the expression of goodness.Tamsen Eustis Doziers life in North Carolina was just about over. Her brother in Springfield, Ill., had asked her to come and take care of his motherless children. (Mortality rates in the 19th century were staggering.) His plea for help plucked Tamsen from her school in the South and pulled her out West, where she would meet George Donner, a wealthy farmer and her next husband.More on Tamsens journey West in part two. The author thanks Ann Smith, Tamsen Donners great-granddaughter for the use of these unpublished letters.Mark McLaughlin’s column, Weather Window, appears monthly 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 email@example.com.