Donner Party's ill-fated travel west has local tie

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By Wanda Lassiter

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Museums are one of the greatest sources to learn about the history of your region and those that lived in the area. The Museum of the Albemarle tells these stories through exhibits and programming. Most readers are aware of attempts in the 1840s to travel westward and have heard of the Donner Party, but may not know the connection to northeastern North Carolina.

Massachusetts native Tamsen Eustis arrived in Elizabeth City around 1826 after accepting a position at the Elizabeth City Academy. Early letters written by Tamsen state that “the hand of God is remarkably visible in directing my steps ” to move to North Carolina. She soon married Tully Dozier of Camden County and started a family. After the death of her husband and children, Tamsen returned to Massachusetts and later moved to Illinois to assist her brother and his family. It was in Illinois that Tamsen met and married Rowan County, N.C. native George Donner.

In 1846, 44-year-old Tamsen and 62-year-old George Donner, their children, George’s brother Jacob and his family, along with other emigrant families, set out for California by wagon. While attempting to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the group became snowbound and were forced to take shelter. Out of 89 members of the party, only 49 survived the winter. Tamsen and her husband did not survive.

Archaeological excavations at the site of their camps yielded artifacts, including pieces of a writing slate, blue shell-edge ceramics, wagon hardware, bone fragments, and horseshoe nails. Published diaries of survivors and rescuers tell the story of the journey to California, the hardships that were endured, and the last memories of those who perished.

To learn more about Tamsen Donner and other stories of those who traveled west, please visit the Donner Memorial State Park and Visitor Center and the Emigrant Trail Museum near Truckee, California. The 22-foot pedestal monument at the state park marks the height of the snowfall that trapped the travelers.

According to a plaque placed in honor of Tamsen and Elizabeth Donner, “They provided care and comfort to their families and companions throughout the snowbound winters desperately trying to prevent the death of their loved ones. Both lost their lives. However, most of their children survived to carry their mothers’ dreams of new life and new beginnings to the valleys of California. They gave unselfishly, their fortunes and their lives, that their children should survive. Their struggle to survive, enduring hardships we can barely imagine, remains a legacy of the pioneer spirit.”

MOA hopes to partner with the Emigrant Museum in the future to tell more of the Donner story.

For now, MOA currently has on display a suit worn by Carl E. Causey at his wedding to Georgia Wilder on September 25, 1912. Georgia was the daughter of William R. Wilder and Frances E. Donner, daughter of Tamsen and George Donner. MOA also has several documents and photographs from Elizabeth City Academy including a Latin rule book, circa 1900 images of boys and girls exercising, and an 1879 monthly report. The Academy was chartered in 1807 and two lots between Fearing and Church Street were purchased in 1825 for its location.

Wanda Lassiter is curator for Museum of the Albemarle