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Weakley County's connection to the ill fated Donner Party of 1846-47

The MURPHY family of Weakley County - part of Donner Party

by MaryCarol

See part of the Murphy Family Cabin, Donner Lake
Charles & Mary Murphy Covillaud and more

It is with reverence to their plight and admiration to their survival that I pay tribute to The Murphy Family of Weakley County, TN who were part of the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846/47. They were caught in the record high snows of 22 ft at today's Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California for 5 months. 6 of the 13 Murphy family members perished, 7 of the 13 Murphy family members survived. 

When I was a young girl we spent summers camping and hiking the Eastern side of the High Sierra Mountains. This was before hiking, camping, and condos were big so it was unspoiled land. Cold clear streams meandered through lush green meadows from the snow melting down the almost barren mountains. The lakes were full of trout, and if you climbed to a lake high enough, you could catch the prized Golden Trout.  Daytime was warm in July, night was cold and windy. According to George, the goldminer, who had a  cabin tucked away up above 8,000 ft, snow often started falling in August. He said that sometimes he had to ski out to get back down the mountains where he spent the winters. I cannot imagine trying to cross the High Sierras on foot in November.

Growing up in San Diego, CA, I remember finding a book in the Special Collections section of the Library written in the late 1800's about the Donner Party. I was particularly moved by the account of a family stranded in the snow, boiling hide and bones for soup and sharing a potato for Christmas.

When Cousin Wylodean told me Weakley County had a connection to a family of the Donner Party, I was compelled to check it out.  The following information was gathered from Weakley County Census, Marriage Records and Cemetery Listings, Archives of Weakley Mailing List, Cousin Wylodean Bruff Rogers who shared misc. tidbits,  Kristin Johnson who has made the Donner Party a special research project - visit her fabulous detailed Donner Party web site under Donner Party Links  - Georgia Walsh who shared background on the Jackson, Murphy, and Alexander families, Sue Bowers for input on the Lee family, cousin Terry Coats for jogging my memory and visiting the TN Archives for copy of the 4th letter sent back to Weakley County in 1849, written by Mary Murphy Covillaud, John Geobel who shared data on Green William Murphy and put me in touch with Charlotte Covillaud of France who let me use the photos of Charles & Mary Murphy Covillaud. Thank You all.

What was the Donner Party of 1846-47?

A Wagon Train of 87 men women and children were trapped in the harsh winter snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846-47.  41 perished.  46 survived.  2/3 of the men perished, 2/3 of the women and children survived. The Donner Party is known for some of the people surviving by getting nourishment from those that had perished. There were heroes and heroines within the party despite their tragic circumstances.

In November of 1846, only 3 miles from the summit of what is now Donner's Pass, the emigrants lost the trail in 5 feet of snow.  They turned back but when they retuned the next day the pass was blocked by 10 foot drifts. They kept trying to get over the pass but each time had to turn back. 

Snows were the heaviest in the High Sierra's that year than any before or since, reaching a record depth of 22 feet. The shacks and lean-tos of the emigrants were buried in snow for over 5 months.

Desperate to get help, 15 of the strongest people were selected  (10 males and 5 females), calling themselves the "Forlorn Hope" Group. The group left on Dec 16, 1846, swearing to get across the mountains or die trying.  Somehow, 7 (2 men - 5 women)  of them survived the 33 days of travel which brought them to Johnson's Ranch 35 miles east of Sutter's Fort on Jan 17, 1847. 5 members of the Murphy family were part of the Forlorn Hope group. William had to return to camp within a couple of days because he had no snowshoes but 3 of the remaining 4 members of the Murphy family survived.

The 1st rescue party from Sutter's Fort reached the snow bound emigrants in February, bringing out 27 of Donner's Party including 17 children.  3 Other rescue parties followed. The last man was brought out on April 21, 1847 with rescuers reporting snow 6 to 8 feet deep.

The trail these emigrants were taking as they headed from Nevada into California is todays Hwy 80, a little north of Lake Tahoe. 

They traveled from todays Reno, NV, along the Truckee River, by todays Donner Lake, over Donner Pass, and into the Scaramento Valley of Capt. John Sutter's Fort.  This was in fall 1846 to spring of 1847- 2 years before Gold was discovered on John Sutter's land in 1849.

1846 Weakley County, Tennessee
13 Murphy family members leave for California in 2 wagons
Matriarch and widow, Levinah W. JACKSON MURPHY , age 36
Her 7 children, 3 grandchildren and 2 sons-in-law

A little background on the Murphy Family

Who was this woman who traveled across the country without a husband??

She was born Levinah W. JACKSON, daughter of a prosperous Union County. South Carolina family on 15 Dec 1809. Said to have acted as her Father's secretary, married in Union County, S.C in 1824 to Jeremiah Burns  MURPHY  b. 3 March 1805  in SC, son of Mark Murphy and Holly Duke. 

Kristin Johnson says, "Documents dating from her lifetime give her name as "Levina" or "Levinah" (pronounced luh-VINE-uh). Her son William spelled the name "Levinah"; Wilford Woodruff’s 1836 daybook gives the name as "Levinah W. MURPHY," as does a transcription of a family Bible". 

In the early 1830's Jeremiah and Levinah moved with 5 of their children to the Dresden area of Weakley County, TN along with their JACKSON, ALEXANDER, MURPHY and LEE kinfolk. Their last 2 children, William Green. and Simon Peter Murphy, were born in Weakley County, TN. 

Although raised as Baptists in South Carolina, Jeremiah and Levinah join the Mormon faith about 1836 while living in Weakley County. Jeremiah's brother, Emmanuel Masters Murphy also joined the Mormon Church about the same time and went on to become a prominent leader of the Morman Church as they moved to Utah. It was their cousin, Randloph Alexander, who first allowed a Mormon missionary to preach on his land next to the Thompson Creek Baptist Church after he was not allowed to preach in the church. Randolph Alexander was a believer from that day on and must have influenced Jeremiah and Emmanuel.

3 years later, on Oct 5, 1839, Jeremiah Murphy died in Weakley County, TN. He was only 34 years old. Brother-in-law, Green T. LEE,  was appointed guardian of Jeremiah's minor children in 1839 - remember in those days, even if the Mother was alive, a guardian was appointed for minor children - [1845-1846 page 100-104 Guardian Book A ] He also stood surety for a bond when Levinah purchased two town lots in Dresden. Jeremiah left his widow, Levinah, with 7 children to raise. She never remarried.

Families of Weakley County 
Formerly of Union County, South Carolina and Virginia.

3 JACKSON sisters
Levinah W. JACKSON  - Jeremiah B. MURPHY
Harriett Charlotte JACKSON  - Green T. LEE
Delilah M. JACKSON  - Simpson ALEXANDER

 1 JACKSON aunt
Sarah JACKSON  - Angus ALEXANDER - Aunt & Uncle

The families of MURPHY, JACKSON, ALEXANDER, and LEE were intermingled by marriage. Not only did the men have the same first names over and over again, but the women did as well, making it very confusing to sort them all out. Levinah W. JACKSON and husband, Jeremiah Burns MURPHY were 1st cousins, once removed. Their common ancestors were Simon MURPHY II & Sarah DUKE, grandparents of Jeremiah and great grandparents of Levinah. 

None of these families are listed on the Weakley County 1830 Census but must have arrived  shortly after as according to Georgia Walsh's research, "On the third Saturday in August, 1831, Angus ALEXANDER helped to found the Thompson Creek Baptist Church in his home.  The congregation continued to meet there until their building was erected in the small community of Ore Spring, Weakley Co., Tennessee." It was common in those days for extended families to migrate together so we are assuming they traveled by wagon train from Union Co., South Carolina.

Angus Alexander was married 1st to Unity Murphy, kinfolk of Jeremiah Burns Murphy. She died young and Angus married Sarah Jackson, Levinah's Aunt and sister of Levinah's Father, Frederick Jackson.  Sarah and Frederick were children of Ralph Jackson Jr. and Delilah Murphy.

In 1849, Mary Murphy Covillaud wrote back to her Aunts, Uncles, and cousins in Weakley County, Tennessee ....."those that we lost was Mr. Pike, my Mother, Landrum, Lemuel, George, and little Catharine  They are at  peace and a great deal better of [off] than we are but I shall always wish that it had been gods will for me to die with my Mother yet I could give them up more freely if they were laying in Uncle Anguses garden by the side of my own dear Father I think we will all be back there before many years for I want to see all of you again " Today it is called the Tomlinson Cemetery.

Simpson Alexander was married to Delilah M. Jackson, sister of Levinah

Green T. Lee was married to Harriett Charlotte Jackson, sister of Levinah
One of their sons, William Pinkney "Pinkney" Lee 1840-1924 served with his cousin, Simon Murphy (son of Levinah), during the Civil War in Co L 6th Cav USA.

So the Murphy family had plenty of kinfolk in the Thompson Creek area of Weakley County. 

Joining the Mormons in Nauvoo, Illinoois

After Jerimiah's death, Levinah moved to Nauvoo Illinois in 1841, which was the home of the Morman church at that time. It was this connection that would eventually lead Levinah and her children into joining the ill fated wagon train to California in 1846. However, by fall of 1842 she is returning to Weakley County.

Kristin Johnson writes: " Late that fall of 1842 the family left Nauvoo, Illinois. They boarded a steamship for St. Louis at Warsaw, Illinois, but didn't get very far as the ship became icebound on the opposite shore of the river. On December 29th the two eldest daughters, Sarah and Harriet, were married on board the ship to William M. FOSTER and William M. PIKE by a justice of the peace. [both men were part of the ships crew].

After the ship was freed it continued on to St. Louis, where the PIKES and FOSTERS took up residence. Levinah and her 5 younger children continued on to Weakley County, Tennessee - back with her kinfolk. After about 1 year, the PIKES joined Levinah in Weakley County."

3 years later...

In 1845 Levinah is planning her trip to California. It was also about this time frame that the Mormon Church was planning on relocating in California. Some took a ship out of New York to San Fransicso and others were going overland to California. However, since Levinah had already moved back to Weakley County for a few years before the big trip out west, it is not clear if she was still within the Mormon fold.

March of 1846 - Westward Ho!

Levinah W. Jackson Murphy, 36, widow of Jeremiah Burns Murphy traveled with her seven children and two Sons-in-law, leaving Weakley County in 1846. Five of the children were young: John Landrum, 16, Meriam Marjory "Mary" 14, Lemuel B. 12, William Green 10 and Simon Peter 8. Her two eldest girls were married with children of their own: Daughter, Sarah Ann Charlotte 19, and her husband William McFadden FOSTER, 30, had a  son Jeremiah George Foster, 1 . Daughter, Harriet Frances 18, and her husband Willam Montgomery PIKE abt. 32, had two little girls,  Naomi Levina Pike 2, and Catherine Pike abt.1. 

According to William G. Murphy, in a 1896 speech he gave in Marysville, CA, marking the 50th year since the 1846 snowbound winter, the Murphys had two wagons. 

He said, "In 1845 we heard wonderful stories of a wonderful country in the far West, between the Pacific ocean and the Rocky mountains, a country of sulubrious climate, perrenial spring time indeed, of deep and inexhaustible soil, why, they said that wheat grew wild higher than a man's head, and the Mexican Government that exercised some kind of control over it, would grant land to settlers; So my mother, as a widow, with seven children, two sons-in-law and three grand children, suggested that we emigrate to the far off fairy land.  She ordered a suitable wagon to be manufactured, a son-in-law did the same, and early in 1846, we started out with two ox teams from West Tennessee, crossed the State of Kentucky, the Ohio river below Paducah, up through Illinois, to Ballville, opposite St. Louis, crossed the Mississippi there, taking a family of three of ours who lived there [The Fosters], completing our number to thirteen.  Across the State of Missouri to Independence, then the great entry port of the overland trade of Northern Mexico and Santa Fe; here we learned that the great overland caravan for Oregon and California had departed.  We concluded to overtake them, which we  did at the Big Blue [River], in Kansas, where they were water bound.  Here we first met the Donners." This would be end of May of 1846, three months after leaving Weakley County.

After awhile on the trail as part of the big wagon train, part of the group split off, including the Murphy Family. They join the Donner Party led by George Donner, his brother Jacob and James Frazier Reed, all of Springfield, Illinois. This group was looking for a Short Cut....called the Hastings Cut Off....but it turned out to be the Long Cut , as it cost them over 1 month in added travel time.

It was late October when they reach todays Reno, NV. 

*details of William Pike's accidental shooting- comimg soon

Before starting up the East side of Sierras, they take a time out to give their animals food and rest time.  It is now into November as they start up the mountains and get caught in the first of many snow storms. Some of the animals run off in the blinding snow, many are never found.

*hardships of murphy family detailed the Murphy cabin - coming soon
Check out the photos of Murphy Cabin site under PHOTO section.

Within the Murphy family, 6 of the 13 perish - 7 survive including sons William and Simon who are returned in 1849 to live with their Weakley kinfolk. 

 6 of 13 perish

1. Levinah MURPHY...she took care of the little ones and was remembered affectionately by other wagon train members, according to Georgia Donner. She had insisted her daughters go with the Forlorn Hope group. Levinah became blind for awhile during the winter, was too feeble for the 3rd relief party to take out. As the 3rd relief was getting ready to go it is reported, "As we were ready to start, Mrs. Murphy walked to her bed, laid down, turned her face toward the wall. One of the men gave her a handful of dried meat.--She seemed to realize that we were leaving her, that her work was finished.." She was not alive when the 4th relief returned in April.

2. William M. PIKE - accidentally shot on the trail near Reno, NV Oct 1846. He and brother-in-law, William Foster had volunteered to go to Sutter’s Fort for supplies in late October when a gun Foster was cleaning accidentally went off...yes, it WAS an accident.

3. Lemuel B. MURPHY passed away at Camp of Death during Forlorn Hope Group attempt to get over the mountains Dec 1846.

4. John Landrum MURPHY passed away in the Murphy Cabin. Jan 1847.

5. Catharine PIKE, baby of Harriet Murphy Pike passed away in the Murphy Cabin Feb 1847.

6. Jeremiah George FOSTER, son of Sarah Murphy Foster passed away in the Murphy Cabin March 1847

The 7 of 13 Survivors

1. Sarah Ann Charlotte MURPHY FOSTER- She survived the ordeal of the Forlorn Hope group.

2. William McFadden FOSTER- He survived the ordeal of the Forlorn Hope group, returned with the 3rd Relief to get his son, George, who had already perished. William Foster returned once more with the 4th relief, to bring out his Mother-in-law, Levinah Murphy, but she had perished.

3. Harriet Frances MURPHY PIKE - She survived the Forlorn Hope group.

4. Naomi Levina PIKE - left with her grandmother, Levinah Murphy, while her Mother traveled with the Forlorn Hope group. Naomi was rescued by the First Relief.

5. Meriam Marjory "Mary" MURPHY - Rescued by the First Relief in Feb 1847

6. William Green MURPHY - Rescued by the First Relief in Feb 1847

7. Simon Peter MURPHY - Rescued by the Third Relief in March 1847.  He was the last of Murphy family to come out of the mountains.

By April of 1847 the 7 survivors of Murphy family are all living in California

May of  1847,  3 letters written by Harriet Murphy Pike , Sarah Murphy Foster, and Mary Murphy addressed to their uncle, Green T. Lee, were sent back to Weakley County kinfolk telling of their ordeal.

CLICK HERE to Read the 3 letters

Harriet marries Mr. Nye
Mary 1st marries Johnson, then Charles Covillaud

The 3 brother-in-laws become prosperous in ranching and gold mining.

Mary Murphy Covillaud sends another letter in 1849.....She tells about their colorful life in California, and the beginning of the gold rush.

By the way.....Marysville, California was named after Mary Murphy Covillaud

Green text means more to come...this is still a work in progress.

CLICK HERE to read Mary's 1849 Letter

Returning to Weakley County in 1849

Late in 1849 Harriet and Sarah with their families returned by ship to Weakley County, Tennessee via San Francisco and the Isthmus of Panama to New Orleans and on to Dresden. The purpose of this trip was to return William & Simon MURPHY back to Weakley County to live with relatives. 

William Green MURPHY -   was sent off to school in Missouri, becomes an Attorney. Returns to Weakley, married  Demaris Kathleen Cochran. They move out to California, he is prominent California Attorney, dies in 1904.

Simon  Peter MURPHY remained on the Murphy family farm, married Malinda Catharine Foster, serveed in the Civil War with his cousin, Pickney Lee. Simon dies in 1873 at age 35, leaving wife and 4 children. By 1880 Weakley Census his wife has remarried to Henry C. Williams and the children are living in scattered households. 

Looking for more info on Simon's children. A granddaughter was still living in Obion County in 1952 as she was interviewed for newspaper article when a train got snowbound in the Sierras that year.....if you know anything about them or are related, please email me.  If you know about or are related to Green T. LEE family, would love to track down who has the Murphy family photos, etc today. 


See part of the Murphy Family Cabin, Donner Lake
Charles & Mary Murphy Covillaud and more

Looking for More in depth accounts of the Donner Party?
Check out these websites

Visit the best website on the DONNER PARTY by Kristin Johnson....She is a librarian who has done a remarkable job of tracking down the truths of the Donner Party and her website covers ALL of the families of the Donner Party. She wrote a book in 1996, Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party.

Survivors stories gathered by C. F. McGlashan. His book, History of Donner Party - A Tradgedy of the Sierra.Published 1879.
See TEXT OF BOOK online.

Diary of PATRICK BREEN online. He had suffered a leg injury, making him unable to help with the vigorous camp chores but he started a diary in November of 1846 which has been helpful in painting a picture for us of the ordeal these people endured.

more to come.....MaryCarol

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