Tamsen Donner: Strong-willed matriarch of the Donner Party

Francis Donner Wilder resembled her mother, Tamsen Donner. | Mark McLaughlin

Author’s Note: To acknowledge the historical significance of the Donner Party and its window into an important era in the West, over the next 10 months I will occasionally write a column chronicling the progress and challenges of this cursed wagon train as it made its way to California. The columns will be available in future editions of Tahoe Weekly and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

It has been 175 years since the first major overland migration to California by intrepid pioneers searching for a better life. Among the estimated 1,500 migrants on the trail in 1846 was a group that came to be known as the Donner Party.

The core of this wagon train consisted of several families from Illinois with many children, as well as single men hired as teamsters to maintain wagons and livestock. Other members joined the wagon train later along the trail for safety and strength in numbers as they struggled west toward what they hoped would be a successful venture in California.

Much has been written about incidents of cannibalism by members of the Donner Party during the company’s winter entrapment at Donner Lake and Alder Creek. Thirty-six of the 81 pioneers marooned in the mountains died in the deep Sierra snow.

The party ultimately swelled to 89 people. There were German, Irish and English immigrants, Protestants, Catholics and Mormons. Some were virtually penniless while others had plenty of money to buy property and build a nice home. Most were middle-class Americans, but nearly half were children less than 18 years of age. Mistakes, poor decisions and acrimony amongst the group led to delays, depletion of supplies and time-consuming detours. A multitude of setbacks led to a late arrival at Truckee (Donner) Pass, where early season snowstorms blocked the route over the mountains.

Much has been written about incidents of cannibalism by members of the Donner Party during the company’s winter entrapment at Donner Lake and Alder Creek. Thirty-six of the 81 pioneers marooned in the mountains died in the deep Sierra snow. Their desperate yet inspiring battle against the elements has become an educational primer about taking shortcuts and dawdling on the trail.

Three of the organizing families involved in this story hail from Springfield, Ill. The patriarchs of these clans were George and Jacob Donner, along with James Reed. The Donner and Reed households knew each other but were not close friends. Among the cast of characters was a strong-willed leading lady, George’s wife Tamsen.

In 1996, I met Ann Smith, Tamsen’s great-granddaughter and heir to her family’s collection of memorabilia. Ann shared with me copies of letters written by Tamsen to her sister Elizabeth, before she moved to Illinois and met George Donner. A half-dozen of these letters had never been seen by historians or scholars until I wrote about them in Tahoe Weekly and later donated copies to The Huntington Library in San Marino. The personal missives offer insight into how circumstances beyond her control led Tamsen to her future husband and ultimate death in the Tahoe Sierra.

Tamzene “Tamsen” Eustis was born into a respected, wealthy family in Newburyport, Mass., on Nov. 1, 1801. She enjoyed a happy childhood, and her love of books was evidence of a curious mind and foreshadowed a lifelong passion for education. After graduating with her teacher’s certification, she took a job at a school 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 economically in Maine, so she took the job.

By 1829, she 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. Teaching children was as important as marriage to this young female professional. She wrote and spoke excellent French and was a trained botanist. That year, however, she met and married Tully Dozier in Camden County, N.C. Tamsen had finally found the right man. In a letter to her sister 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 healthy baby boy. Tamsen’s teaching salary combined with Tully’s farming income earned them a comfortable living.

Life in the southern countryside was enjoyable for Tamsen and her family, but tragedy intruded and changed everything. A June 28, 1831, letter 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.”

Tamsen Dozier’s time in North Carolina was just about over. Her recently widowed brother sent an urgent plea for her to come to Illinois 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 Springfield, 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; most people just called him Uncle George.

On May 24, 1839, Tamsen and George were married. George had other 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 with fertile soil and grazing land, as well as extensive orchards planted with fruit trees. They lived in a large five-room, two-story house. 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 Tamsen’s contentment did not diminish George’s desire for adventure and economic opportunity. Despite George’s advanced age of about 60 years and his apparent satisfaction with the comfort of their beautiful home and farm, April 1846 found the Donner family on the overland trail to California and into history.