#TravelTuesday: A Brush with History — The Final Resting Place of Frances E. Wilder
Walking along the pathways of the historic Union Cemetery in Brentwood, California one warm, summer afternoon, The Contemplative Traveler©™ was immediately struck by the number of old, but well-preserved gravestones — many of which document the resting places of pioneers who trekked across the United States in search of fame and fortune during America’s Gold Rush era, including Joseph Carey (1833-1910), the owner of the second business established in Brentwood (Carey and Davis Blacksmith, which opened in 1874), Henry Wilkening (1835-1883), a German immigrant who founded the town of Byron, California in 1878 and who then became that town’s first official resident, and George W. Knightsen (1843-1931), a native of Maine who founded the town of Knightsen during the late 1800s.
Even more noteworthy, however, is a grave which often is overlooked by most who visit this small cemetery. Marked with a simple, heart-shaped headstone, it is located in the cemetery’s interior along “Donner Pass” — a significant clue to the life story of the individual buried here — a woman whose name will forever be linked to one of America’s greatest tragedies — Frances E. Wilder, who was a member of the ill-fated Donner Party of the mid-1840s.
The Donners’ Story
Born on July 8, 1840 in Sangamon County, Illinois, Frances Eustis Donner was a daughter of Salem, North Carolina native George Albert Donner, Jr. (1784-1847), who would later captain a wagon train which became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains while en route to California during the winter of 1846-1847, and Tamsen Eustis (Dozier) Donner (1801-1847), a native of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Frances’s siblings included William Donner (1812-1867), who had opted to stay in Clear Lake, Illinois rather than traveling with his parents, and Sarah Donner (1815-1849), who also remained behind in Illinois after marrying and beginning a family there with John Torrence in 1837, as well as the siblings that also made the trip with Frances and their father: Elitha Cumi Donner (1832-1923), Leanna Charity Donner (1834-1930), Georgia Anna Donner (1841-1911), and Eliza Poor Donner (1843-1922).
Frances, who was nearly seven years old at the time of the Donner Party tragedy, was ultimately rescued as part of the third relief attempt to reach the stranded survivors, as were her younger sisters, Georgia Anne and Eliza. Their older, half-sisters, Elitha and Leanna Charity Donner, had been rescued previously as part of the relief party which departed from Alder Creek in February of 1847 under the leadership of a Captain Tucker. According to a later account by Leanna who had, by the time of this quote, wed and begun her own family with John Matthias App (1821-1918):
“Never shall I forget the day when my sister Elitha and myself left our tent. Elitha was strong and in good health, while I was so poor and emaciated that I could scarcely walk. All we took with us were the clothes on our backs and one thin blanket, fastened with a string around our necks, answering the purpose of a shawl in the day-time, and which was all we had to cover us at night. We started early in the morning, and many a good cry I had before we reached the cabins, a distance of about eight miles. Many a time I sat down in the snow to die, and would have perished there if my sister had not urged me on, saying, ‘The cabins are just over the hill.’ Passing over the hill, and not seeing the cabins, I would give up, again sit down and have another cry, but my sister continued to help and encourage me until I saw the smoke rising from the cabins; then I took courage, and moved along as fast as I could. When we reached the Graves cabin it was all I could do to step down the snow-steps into the cabin. Such pain and misery as I endured that day is beyond description.”
According to C. F. McGlashan, who chronicled the Donner Party’s experiences in his 1879 book, History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra:
“Mrs. Tamsen Donner was able to have crossed the mountains with her children with either Tucker’s or Reed’s party [earlier attempts by party members to leave the area in search of a safer place to lodge]. On account of her husband’s illness, however, she had firmly refused all entreaties, and had resolutely determined to remain by his bedside. She was extremely anxious, however, that her children should reach California; and Hiram Miller relates that she offered five hundred dollars to any one in the second relief party, who would take them in safety across the mountains. When Cady and Stone decided to go, Mrs. Donner induced them to attempt the rescue of these children, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza. They took the children as far the cabins at the lake, and left them. Probably they became aware of the impossibility of escaping the storm, and knew that it would be sure death, for both themselves and the children, should they take them any farther. In view of the terrible calamity which befell Reed’s party on account of this storm, and the fact that Cady and Stone had a terrible struggle for life, every one must justify these men in leaving the children at the cabins.”
Departing for California several weeks after their older half-sisters, the young girls endured a brutal trek. Per McGlashen, “The parting between the devoted mother and her little ones [was] briefly described by Georgia Donner, now Mrs. Babcock”:
“’The men came. I listened to their talking as they made their agreement. Then they took us, three little girls, up the stone steps, and stood us on the bank. Mother came, put on our hoods and cloaks, saying, as if she was talking more to herself than to us: ‘I may never see you again, but God will take care of you.’ After traveling a few miles, they left us on the snow, went ahead a short distance, talked one to another, then came back, took us as far as Keseberg’s cabin, and left us.’”
Frances, Georgia Anne and Eliza Donner finally arrived with other members of the third relief effort in Sutter’s Fort in April of 1847. Their tattered clothing quickly replaced by Captain John A. Sutter, they were then fed by others who hoped to ease their suffering; however, the three little girls remained in the dark for some time regarding their parents’ fate. Eventually told about the deaths of their parents, they soon found surrogate parents in Christian and Mary Brunner, a Swiss couple residing near Sutter’s Fort, bringing them “bread, butter, eggs, and cheese,” according to McGlashan. Realizing that Georgia was the weaker of the children, the Brunners brought her to their home for a week, during which time they rendered care which greatly increased her strength, enabling the little one to safely return to Sutter’s Fort. They then did the same for Eliza Donner; when Georgia Anne fell ill, however, they began making plans to return Eliza in order to bring Georgia back to their home. Fortunately, that plan was revised when Eliza pleaded for the compassionate couple to keep the girls together. They then continued to house the two orphaned sisters until Hiram Miller was appointed as their guardian. But more heartache was ahead, according to McGlashen:
“The little sisters were then again separated. Frances had found a home in Mrs. Reed’s family. Georgia was to go with grandpa [Christian Brunner], who was about to remove to Sonoma. Eliza went to her eldest sister [Elitha], who was now married and living on the Cosumnes River. Here she remained until winter. Then, hearing that Mr. Brunner’s family and Georgia desired her return, she became so homesick that her sister consented to her going to them. Fortunately, they heard of two families who were to move to Sonoma in a very short time, and Eliza was placed in their charge. This journey was marked with many incidents which seemed marvelous to her child-mind. The one which impressed itself most forcibly occurred upon their arrival at the bank of the Sonoma River. She was told that Jacob would meet her here and take her to grandma’s [Mary Brunner], and was delighted that her journey was so nearly over. Imagine her disappointment at finding the recent rains had raised the river until a torrent flowed between her and her anxious friends. For days Jacob sought the slowly-decreasing flood and called across the rushing stream to cheer the eager child. Finally, an Indian, who understood Jacob’s wish, offered to carry her safely over for a silver dollar. Never did silver look brighter than that which Jacob held between his fingers, above his head, that sunny morning, to satisfy the Indian that his price would be paid when he and his charge reached the other bank.
After seven years in the care of the Brunners, Georgia Anne and Eliza Donner finally were absorbed into the Sacramento, California household of their elder half-sister, Elitha, and her second husband, Benjamin W. Wilder, who were able to offer the girls access to better educational opportunities. Frances Donner, who was also a beneficiary of their support, was able to attend St. Catherine’s Academy in Benicia, California.
On November 24, 1858, Frances Donner then began her own family, marrying William Rhoades Wilder (1823-1888). Georgia Anne Donner subsequently followed suit, marrying Washington Alexander Babcock (1832-1894) on November 4, 1863. The last of the four Donner children to wed after surviving the tragedy, Eliza Donner was married on October 10, 1861 to Sherman O. Houghton (1828-1914), a former mayor of San Jose, California who went on to become a member of the U.S. Congress (42nd and 43rd sessions).
Ultimately settling in Point of Timber in Contra Costa County, California, Frances and her husband, William Wilder welcomed the arrival of five children: Harriet Eustis (1859-1881), James William (1863-1944), Frances Lillian (1867-1943), Asaph (1870-1948), Susan Tamsen (1878-1921), and Georgia Elitha Olive (1882-1950). Like her mother and grandmother before her, Harriet, who had been born in Byron, was also a victim of tragic circumstance. After falling and breaking her leg while climbing a tree in 1881, she died from complications related to her injury on March 12 of that year, and now rests at the Union Cemetery in Brentwood, California. She was just twenty-one-years-old at the time of her passing. Her brother, James, went on to become a farmer in Byron and to marry Della Forest Berry (1875-1964), with whom he had the following children: Delmer W. Wilder (1910-1993), Donner James Wilder (1911-1997), Della (Wilder) Clark, and Doris (Wilder) Shera. Frances Lillian Wilder, the next youngest child of Frances and William Wilder, was known to family and friends as “Frankie,” went on to marry George Erastus Church (1870-1949), and welcomed the birth of daughter Frances Eliza Church (1907-1980). Susan Tamsen Wilder, the penultimate of Frances (Donner) Wilder’s children, also ultimately wed and began her own family, marrying August Alexson (1878-1959); their children were: Alma F. (Alexson) Woodruff (1903-1990), Clinton Lowell Alexson (1905-1931), and Loy E. Alexson (1906-1982). Sadly, tragedy also touched this branch of Donner descendants when Clinton L. Alexson, the son of Susan Wilder and grandson of Frances (Donner) Wilder, was killed in a fiery, head-on crash with a parked roadster near Tracy, California on August 14, 1931. He, too, was buried near Donner Pass at the Union Cemetery in Brentwood. Georgia Elitha Olive Wilder, the youngest child of Frances (Donner) Wilder, went on to marry Carl Edgar Causey (1877-1942), and ultimately relocated with him to Guilford County, North Carolina.
Eulogized by local newspapers upon her passing on November 21, 1921, Frances E. (Donner) Wilder was described by editors of the Oakland Tribune as follows:
“Mrs. Frances E. Wilder, one of the few remaining survivors of the ill-fated Donner party, of whom so many perished miserably in the deep snows of Sierras, and which forms one of the saddest chapters in the history of the West, died at her home here [Byron, California] Monday morning at the age of 82 years. The funeral took place Wednesday and was attended by the whole countryside. The floral offerings were beautiful. Elder Santee of the Seventh Day Adventist church of Lodi preached the funeral sermon at Odd Fellows’ Hall.
Deceased came to Byron, October 10, 1866, and has lived here continuously, rearing a large family. Two daughters and two sons survive her — Mrs. George Church, Mrs. Carl Causey, William and Asa Wilder. The Wilders acquired more than 50 years ago a quarter-section of land adjoining the town of Byron, which deceased kept for her children, deeding it to them before her death. Three remaining sisters of Mrs. William Wilder, all daughters of Captain George Donner, are living in California, as follows: Mrs. Eliza P. Houghton of Los Angeles, aged 78 years; Mrs. Leanna App of Jamestown, Tuolumne county, aged 86, and Mrs. Elitha C. Wilder of Bruceville, Sacramento county, aged 89. Mrs. Mattie Lewis makes the fourth living survivor of the party.”
What Happened to Frances (Donner) Wilder’s Other Siblings?
Settling further south in the community of Mountain View in Santa Clara County, Georgia Anne (Donner) Babcock and her husband, Washington Alexander Babcock (1832-1894), had three children: Henry A. (1864-1924), Frank B. (1866-1929), and Edith M. (1868-1919). Georgia (Donner) Babcock and her family subsequently relocated to Saint John in Whitman County, Washington. More open than many of the other survivors of the Donner Party about the cannibalism which had occurred during long, harsh winter that plagued the stranded travelers, Georgia Anne corresponded regularly with McGlashen, who incorporated multiple quotes from her in his book. According to McGlashan:
“The Donner families, at Prosser Creek, were, if possible, in even a sadder condition. In order to give a glimpse of the suffering endured in these two tents, the following is quoted from a letter written by Mrs. W. A. Babcock (Georgia A. Donner, now residing at Mountain View, Santa Clara County): ‘The families shared with one another as long as they had anything to share. Each one’s portion was very small. The hides were boiled, and the bones were burned brown and eaten. We tried to eat a decayed buffalo robe, but it was too tough, and there was no nourishment in it. Some of the few mice that came into camp were caught and eaten. Some days we could not keep a fire, and many times, during both days and nights, snow was shoveled from off our tent, and from around it, that we might not be buried alive. Mother remarked one day that it had been two weeks that our beds and the clothing upon our bodies had been wet. Two of my sisters and myself spent some days at Keseberg’s cabin. The first morning we were there they shoveled the snow from our bed before we could get up. Very few can believe it possible for human beings to live and suffer the exposure and hardships endured there.'”
Eliza Poor (Donner) Houghton, the youngest of the siblings of Frances (Donner) Wilder and Georgia Anne (Donner) Babcock, appears to have fared better, adjusting quickly to life in Washington, D.C., where her husband Sherman Houghton was serving in the U.S. Congress. Their children were: Eliza P., Sherman O., Clara H., Charles D., Francis J., Stanley W., and Herbert S., who was just 20 months old when he died on March 18, 1878. An active member of the American Red Cross, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Native Daughters of the Golden West, Eliza (Donner) Houghton later returned to California with her husband, making a life near Los Angeles with him. In 1911, the same year in which her older sister, Georgia Anne, passed away, she published her own account of her family’s tragedy, The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate. Eliza P. (Donner) Houghton died in Los Angeles on February 19, 1922, and was interred at that city’s Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.
Her older half-sister, Elitha Cumi (Donner) Wilder, who had gone on to marry Benjamin Wilkinson Wilder in Sacramento County, California in 1853 and raise six children of her own — Susan Wilmarth (Wilder) Stevens, Edward Wilder (1853-1918), Olive Ann Wilder (1860-1950), James Allen Wilder (1862-1919), George Donner Wilder (1866-1902), and Elitha Ellen (Wilder) Walther (1869-1935) — died the following year in Sacramento. Following her passing on the Fourth of July in 1923, she was laid to rest at the Elk Grove Consumnes Cemetery in Elk Grove, California.
Leanna Charity (Donner) App, the other of the two older Donner children to be rescued during the earliest Donner Party relief attempt (and the one who described herself as “so poor and emaciated that I could scarcely walk”), defied the odds and became the last of the Donner siblings to die. After a long, full life in Tuolumne County, California with her husband and four children — Rebecca E. (App) Burrell (1854-1935), Leonard Frank App (1856-1962), John Quincy App (1864-1957), and Lucy Evan (App) Heiskell (1868-1957) — she passed away at the age of ninety-five, and was interred at that county’s Jamestown Cemetery.
1. Leighton, Kathy, Sharon Marsh, Maureen Murray, and Barbara Russell-Cambra. Byron-Brentwood-Knightsen Union Cemetery District, Brentwood, California. Brentwood, California: The East Contra Costa Historical Society and the Byron-Brentwood-Knightsen Union Cemetery District, 2003.
2. McGlashan, C. F. History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra. Truckee, California: Self-published, June 30, 1879.
3. “Farmer Burned to Death in Smashup” (death report of Clinton L. Alexson, grandson of Frances (Donner) Wilder and great-grandson of George and Tamsen Eustis Donner). San Francisco, California: The San Francisco Examiner, August 14, 1931, p. 10.
4. Burns, Ric. “American Experience: The Donner Party” (multi-part documentary series with teachers’ guide). Boston, Massachusetts: WGBH-TV, 1992.
5. Houghton, Eliza P. (Donner). The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate. Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1920.
6. “Woman Survivor of Donner Party Dies at Byron” (obituary of Frances E. Wilder). Oakland, California: Oakland Tribune, November 27, 1921, p. 22.