Women’s History Month Remembers Elitha Donner Wilder

Elitha Donner

Women and children constituted the majority of individuals who survived when the California-bound Donner Party wagon train was stranded in the Sierra Nevada over the winter of 1846-47.  Fourteen year old Elitha Donner was rescued by the first relief party to reach the encampments in mid-February, 1847. She was gaunt with starvation, but still strong enough to walk out over formidable, snow covered peaks and chasms that had trapped the emigrants for four long, desperate months. Elitha and her younger sister Leanna walked through snow-drifts with only the clothing they had on, and thin blankets to serve as daytime shawls and nighttime cover. They were taken to Sutter’s Fort, 80 miles below their mountain prison, the only settlement capable of providing adequate care and shelter. By April Elitha knew her father and step-mother were dead. Considered too young to marry by conventional standards of the time, a traumatized Elitha nonetheless opted for the protection of a husband. Perry McCoon, who had hauled supplies upriver for the Donner rescuers, had proposed—and he seemed solid and dependable.  Perry was about 26, a former sailor who had worked for Captain Sutter for three or four years, and owned ranchland and a ferry service along the Cosumnes River. They were married on the evening of June 1, 1847, and later had a daughter who died in early childhood. The reality of being the wife of a frontiersman who expected her to keep house in his crude bachelor abode must have been a shock to young Elitha, who was raised amidst pressed linen tablecloths, fine china and books. As husband to an unworldly, devastated young girl, Perry’s credentials were less than sterling: probably no one told Elitha about her husband’s mistress, the lovely young Indian woman named Mary, for whom he continued to have tender feelings. After the gold discovery at Coloma, McCoon and two of his friends found a fortune in gold near today’s Placerville. Afterward, Perry’s contemporaries claimed that he grew too fond of drink. Perry McCoon died in January 1851, when a horse threw him. Elitha subsequently married Benjamin Wilkinsen Wilder in December, 1853. The Wilders had 6 children, and lived a quiet, moderately prosperous life together on their ranch near today’s Elk Grove. Elitha Donner Wilder died in 1923.  Her gravesite in Elk Grove Cemetery is a California State Historic Landmark.

 

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