George Donner

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George Donner (1784–March 1847) was the leader of the Donner Party, a group of California-bound American settlers who became snowcovered in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846–1847. Nearly half of the party starved to death, and some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism.


He was born around 1784 near Salem, North Carolina. He was the third child and eldest son of George Donner (c1752-1844) and Mary Huff (c1755-1842). George had three sisters and three brothers, one of whom, Jacob (c1789-1846), accompanied him to California.

He married Tamsen Donner who was his third wife.

Donner Party[edit]

George Donner lived just outside Springfield, Illinois. On April 14, 1846, he, his brother Jacob, and James F. Reed, along with their families and hired hands, set out for California in covered wagons as part of the Boggs Company. Three months later, at the Little Sandy River in Wyoming, George was chosen to lead the group, now known as the Donner Party. The Donner Party took the Hastings Cutoff through the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and they crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert, rejoining the California Trail west of Elko, Nevada. They arrived at the Sierra Nevada late in the season and were trapped by snow on the eastern side of Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) west of Truckee, California.


A rescue party was organized and when they arrived Jacob Donner was dead and George Donner's arm had become gangrenous. The rescuers took George's daughters Elitha and Leanna, leaving George behind. The second and third rescue parties found George too weak to travel. When the fourth and last relief party arrived on April 17, 1847, they found George Donner dead in his bed. Other accounts of George Donner's death indicate that he was also found dead on the same date, but that his body had been mutilated. [1]


The children of George Donner's first marriage stayed behind in Illinois, but the children of his second and third marriages accompanied him to California. All five of them survived. The children of his second marriage were Elitha and Leanna; of his third marriage were born Frances, Georgia, and Eliza.

  • Elitha Cumi Donner (1831-1923) married Perry McCoon a few months after her rescue at age 15. After his death she married Benjamin Wilder, with whom she had seven children. She lived most of her life on a ranch near Elk Grove, California, where she died in 1923.
  • Leanna Charity Donner (c1840-1930) lived with Elitha until her own marriage to John App in 1852. They had three children. Leanna lived out her life in Jamestown, California. She died there in 1930.
  • Frances Eustis Donner (c1840-1921) made her home with the James F. Reed family in San Jose, California, for several years, then went to live with her older half-sister, Elitha. She married Elitha's brother-in-law, William Wilder. They had seven children. The Wilders lived in Byron, California. Frances died at her home there in 1921.
  • Georgia Anna Donner and Eliza Poor Donner were taken in by Christian and Maria Brunner (or Bruner) at Sutter's Fort, then moved with them to Sonoma, California in late 1847. Eliza described their years with the Brunners in her book The Expedition of the Donner Party (Chicago: McClurg, 1911). They went to live with Elitha and Benjamin Wilder in 1854.
  • Georgia Anna Donner (1841-1911) married Washington Babcock in 1863. They lived at Mountain View, California then moved to St. John, Washington. Georgia died in 1911.
  • Eliza Donner (c1840-1922) married Sherman O. Houghton in 1861. They had seven children and lived in San Jose, California, except for four years where they lived in Washington, D.C., while Sherman served in Congress. They moved to Long Beach, California around 1885. Eliza died in 1922.

External links[edit]

  • New Light on the Donner Party by Kristin Johnson, a recognized authority on the ill-fated wagon train; features accurate biographical information, a chronology, primary documents, and much more.
  • The Donner Party Dan Rosen's website features a comprehensive chronology of the disaster and much additional material.