Eleanor Graves, Donner Party

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Eleanor McDonnell (Graves)

Birthdate: (62)
Birthplace: Marshall Co., IL
Death: 1894 (62)
Knights Valley, Sonoma Co., CA
Place of Burial: Calistoga, Napa, California
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Frank Graves, Donner Party and Elizabeth Cooper Graves, Donner Party
Wife of William McDonnell
Sister of Sarah Graves Fosdick, Donner Party; Melissa Graves; Mary Ann Clarke, Donner Party survivor; W. C. Graves, Donner Party; Nancy Graves, Donner Party and 4 others

Managed by: Private User
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About Eleanor Graves, Donner Party

Survived, age 14

Eleanor (Ellen) Graves was born July 28, 1832, in Marshall County, Illinois, the fourth surviving child of Franklin Ward and Elizabeth Cooper Graves. Little is known of her childhood before the spring of 1846, when twelve members of the Graves family along with a hired driver left for California. The Graveses traveled much of the way with the little known Smith Company but shortly after Eleanor's fourteenth birthday they caught up with the Donner Party.

The family started out with several saddle horses and the older girls frequently rode. One day in October an altercation broke out between the Graveses' teamster, John Snyder, and James Reed's driver, Milt Elliott. Reed intervened, the fight escalated, and Snyder staggered back with a mortal knife wound. Eleanor and her brother William, sitting on horseback thirty feet away, saw it all.

When the Graveses arrived at Donner Lake and realized that they would probably have to winter in the mountains, the men of the family built a cabin about half a mile from the eastern end of the lake. It was a double cabin, with the Graves family living in the western side and the Reeds in the eastern. On December 15, Eleanor's father, her older sisters Sarah and Mary, and Sarah's husband Jay Fosdick left with the Forlorn Hope snowshoers. The two men died en route; the women survived.

Eleanor's turn to escape did not arrive until over two months later, when she, William, and their sister Lovina left with the First Relief on February 22. Eleanor's mother and four younger siblings remained at the cabin until March 3, when they were taken out by the Second Relief; Mrs. Graves and one of her sons died at Starved Camp, but the remaining three children reached the California settlements.

On September 6, 1849, Eleanor married twenty-four year old William McDonnell, who also traveled Hastings Cutoff in 1846 as a teamster for the Kellogg brothers. Accompanied by Lovina, Eleanor and William rode to Benecia where there was a Protestant minister to marry them. The wedding party crossed the bay and continued south, stopping to see the Branhams on their way to visit Mary. Lovina stayed on for a lengthy visit, but the newlyweds soon returned north and made their home in a little cabin near present-day Calistoga. The McDonnells were living there when their first child, Ann, was born October 30, 1850.

Eleanor's reticence to talk about her experiences with the Donner Party seems to have lasted most of her life. In 1850 she wrote a brief description of her life, at the end of which she begged to be excused from writing more. William C. Graves sometimes consulted his sister during his correspondence with historian C. F. McGlashan; she may have written the historian herself, for a partial letter from either Eleanor or Lovina survives. McGlashan burned much of his Donner Party correspondence shortly before he died, however, and any other letters from Eleanor must have been among those he destroyed.

Eleanor lived out the rest of her life on the ranch she and William had built. She suffered greatly from rheumatism in her later years and sometimes would be taken up to The Geysers on a stretcher, where the hot water relieved her pain. William McDonnell passed away on April 12, 1893, and on less than a year later Eleanor followed him, dying at the age of 61. She was laid to rest beside her husband in the Calistoga cemetery.


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Eleanor Graves, Donner Party's Timeline

Marshall Co., IL
Age 62
Knights Valley, Sonoma Co., CA
Calistoga, Napa, California