Frances moved to Byron in 1866 after she married William Wilder, and she remained in East County until she died in 1921. Her granddaughter, Doris Wilder Shera, recently donated the dolls to the museum, along with a few antique clocks from the 1920s.
According to local historian Kathy Leighton, more artifacts are likely to be donated in the future. “A lot of people don’t know about the Donner Party’s connection to Byron,” Leighton said. “It’s always been one of those ‘Did you know …?’ kind of things. We have some books on the Donner Party and a file with information about the Wilder family, but to receive these dolls – it’s such a treasure. We’re very thankful that Doris has decided to share this gift with us.”
Leighton doesn’t believe that the dolls, which are at least 100 years old, came with Frances during her journey westward, but they could have been among the first toys she received upon arriving in California in 1847.
Frances was the daughter of George Donner, the leader of the legendary Donner Party that became trapped in a snowstorm in the Sierra during its trek westward. Frances was 6 when she and her family left Illinois in April of 1846 seeking a better life in California, where her father hoped to make it rich farming the fertile soils he’d read about in the newspapers.
Six months into their journey, the party of 83 became trapped in the mountains and set up camp at Adler Creek near Lake Tahoe in hopes of riding out the storm. The winter of 1846-47 is still one of the most brutal on record in the Sierra, but a group of 15, later known as the Snowshoe Party, continued on toward California. Only seven made it to Fort Sutter. In January of 1847, a relief party was sent out to what is now known as Donner Pass. When the party reached the camp they discovered evidence that, as food supplies had dwindled to nothing, those remaining at the camp had resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.
Frances and her younger sisters, Georgia and Eliza, stayed behind with their parents until March. George Donner, who was in his 60s, was nearly dead and their mother, Tamsen, refused to leave his side, so she sent the girls back with the rescuers of the third relief party.
In the book “Desperate Passage” by Ethan Rarick, the author details the girls’ journey to California. A dog had eaten Frances’ shoes, so she wore her mother’s shoes, which were too large for the child’s feet. She often got stuck in the snow, much to the frustration of her handler, William Thompson, who eventually told the young girl to leave the shoes behind and walk in her stockings. He later felt guilty about the decision and gave Frances his mittens to put over her feet.
In Rarick’s book, Frances recalls the journey and how Thompson motivated her by promising her candy if she persevered and worked her way up the hills. In a collection of family letters compiled by Barbara Wilder Politano, Frances is remembered for always carrying crackers or peppermint candies with her in case she, or anyone around her, got hungry – a trait which is believed to be a result of her childhood ordeal.
The girls reached Fort Sutter in April, and soon after, the fourth and final relief party returned with news that their parents had died. Only 45 of the original 83 members of the Donner Party made it to California.
Frances was taken in by James Reed and his wife Margret, who moved their family to San Jose after they recuperated from the journey from Adler Creek.
Frances went on to attend St. Catherine’s Academy in Bencia. When she was 18, she married William Wilder, and after a few years of living in the Sacremento area, moved to Byron, where they raised their five children. Their property was located along what is Hoffman Lane today. She lived on the ranch for 55 years until she died in 1921 at the age of 81. Frances is buried next to her husband at Union Cemetery in Brentwood along the Donner Pass path.
Leighton said Frances’ dolls, along with the clocks, will go on display when the ECCHS Museum reopens in March. Shera also donated to the museum some articles and a few family books chronicling the history of the Donner Party and the Wilder family.