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 snow covered in the Sierra Nevada of Alta California, Mexico in the winter of 1846–1847. Nearly half of the party starved to death, and some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism.


George Donner was born circa 1784 near Salem, North Carolina. He was the third child and eldest son of George Donner (circa 1752-1844) and Mary Huff (circa 1755-1842). George had three sisters and three brothers, one of whom, Jacob (circa 1789-1846), accompanied him to California as did George's third wife, Tamsen Donner. [1] [2]

Donner Party[edit]

Before emigrating westward, 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-Reed Party or Donner Party. The Donner Party took the Hastings Cutoff through the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and 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. [3]


A rescue party was organized. However, when they arrived Jacob Donner was dead, and George Donner's arm had become gangrenous from an injury to his hand sustained en route to the campsite, while repairing a broken wagon axle. The rescuers took George's daughters Elitha and Leanna, leaving George and his wife 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 dead in his bed. Some other accounts of George's death indicate that his body had been mutilated.[4]


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

  • Elitha Cumi Donner (1831-1923) married Perry McCoon a few months after being rescued, at age 15. After McCoon's 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.[citation needed]
  • Leanna Charity Donner (1834-1930) lived with Elitha until her own marriage to John App in 1852. She and App had three children. Leanna lived out her life in Jamestown, California and died there in 1930. She lived to the age of 96 or 95.[citation needed]
  • Frances Eustis Donner (1840-1921) 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. She and William had seven children and lived in Byron, California. Frances died at her home there in 1921.[citation needed]
  • 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 (1911).[5] In 1854, the sisters went to live with Elitha and Benjamin Wilder.[citation needed]
  • Georgia Anna Donner (1841-1911) married Washington Babcock in 1863. They lived in Mountain View, California then moved to St. John, Washington. Georgia died in 1911.[citation needed]
  • Eliza Poor Donner (1843-1922) 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.


  1. ^ "United States Census, 1790," database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 20 August 2018), George Donner, Rowan, North Carolina, United States; citing p. 304, NARA microfilm publication M637, (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 7; FHL microfilm 568,147.
  2. ^ "United States Census, 1810," database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 20 August 2018), George Donnor, Nicholasville, Jessamine, Kentucky, United States; citing p. 36, NARA microfilm publication M252 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 7; FHL microfilm 181,352.
  3. ^ "United States Census, 1840," database with images, FamilySearch( : 15 August 2017), George Donner, Sangamon, Illinois, United States; citing p. 31, NARA microfilm publication M704, (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 69; FHL microfilm 7,644.
  4. ^ Davidson, Ted (2002-01-01). Donner-Reed Tragedy. AuthorHouse. ISBN 9780595214716.
  5. ^ Donner, Eliza Poor (1911). The Expedition of the Donner Party. Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Co.