THE BREEN FAMILY
The Breen Family. To every son or daughter of California to be the descendant of a pioneer of ‘49 is a great honor, indeed, but to number oneself among the descendants of those of ‘46 is even greater, for those pioneers faced adversity with a courage and nerve unknown to those of later date. Of all the parties of pioneers banded together for the perilous journey, that of the group known as "The Donner Party" is most noted, and one of the most revered and noteworthy members of that party was the Breen family. All histories have lengthy and tear-evoking stores of the Donner party, of the heart-rending tragedy, the awful fate of so many of its members, so filled with destitution, despair, death and horrors scarcely mentionable, but none can really bring it home to one as the daughters and sons of members of that ill-fated party can.
Mrs. Thomas F. Murray, a daughter of John Breen, whose nobility of character is so often delineated in accounts of the Donner party, now living at 867 Fell Street, has stored away in her memory many incidents and tales of that journey, just as others who are descendants of members of that party undoubtedly have.
The Donner Party is named in all histories as the "pioneer martyrs of California," venturing as they did before gold was discovered and the highway was not really marked out. The road was difficult, often unbroken, warlike Indians constantly hovering around them, the Sioux being the most dreaded. Yet they were on friendly terms with the Donner party, gifts exchanged, only a few of the Indians trying to steal or take by force any article and when the chief was appealed to he forced the return of all the articles stolen. The party was named the "Donner Party" when, on July, 1846, George Donner was elected captain of the train at Little Sandy River. When the Donner party reached Independence, Missouri, then on the frontier, 100 persons comprised it, but so many small parties of immigrants joined it that it contained nearly 300 wagons and was two miles in length. Many only made a portion of the trip with the Donner party.
The Breens joined the party at Independence. Near Fort Bridger Edward Breen broke his leg by a fall from a horse. It was left to him whether to amputate or trust to nature, and he chose the latter course. In a month the bone had knitted and he walked with out a crutch. All went through the horror of the trip through the Hastings Cut-Off. Soon after that, they began to cache their valuables, but Hon. James F. Breen, speaking of this, said he had been told that in no case had the Indians been deceived, they even digging up the bodies of the many dead in searching for caches. As every one conversant with the history of California knows, discord and dissension finally arose soon after they were placed on short allowances of food. There is a clear record of the generosity of Mr. Breen. When they were forced to winter at Donner Lake the Breen family occupied the cabin built by Moses Schallenberger, Joseph Foster and Allen Montgomery in November, 1844, but it is now known as the Breen cabin.
Here they suffered the long hours away, John Breen with several others striving to reach the Sierra summit in vain. Mr. Breen was a devout Caholic, and prayers were regularly read by the light of pitch pine torches. Services were read for the many who died. A terrible sight greeted the relief parties sent by the members of the Donner party who had managed to reach aid by untold sufferring. Some of the party had only lived by the eating of the flesh of their comrades who had succumbed to death. Of these the Breens were not members.
Patrick Breen kept a diary, as did many others, but most of them were lost or afterwards destroyed. The diary of Mr. Breen is in the custody of the University of California. But none condemn the sufferers who thus kept alive. Of the Breens who started on the 3d of March from Donner Lake to cross the Sierras with the Reed relief party was Patrick Breen, Mrs. Margaret Breen, John Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., James F. Breen, Peter Breen and Isabella Breen. It was but a continuation of the hardships undergone, though now they had food for awhile. Mrs. Breen, husband and children laid with their feet to a fire and their heads under a snow breastwork. And many died on the trip. Finally, when the relief party decided to go out for help, Mrs. Breen had the care of not only her family but the whole party, all of them children. Her younger children, Patrick, James, Peter and a nursing baby, Isabelle, were helpless. This camp was afterward named Starved Camp.
Mrs. Margaret Breen was the one woman who never gave up, and while California remains on the map she will never be forgotten. She it was who decreed that none of the Breens would live by means of the food afforded by the bodies of their dead companions, no matter what the others did. On the ninth day, when all were apparently dying, relief came, soon after they had repeated the Litany. None could walk but Mrs. Breen and John Breen. The relief party decided to take only the Breens who could walk, but John Stark, a hero and a man, refused, and all were taken. John Stark carried many by turns on his back, always cheering and encouraging them all. James F. Breen had his feet badly frozen, and afterward burned at camp. Of ninety persons, forty-two died. Of the Donner party forty-eight survived. Twenty-six survivors are now living.
Patrick Breen moved with his family from Sutter’s Fort to a permanent home at the Mission of San Juan Bautista, in San Benito County, California. He lived to see his children happily settled in life, dying on December 21, 1868, with all his family present. Nearly all of the surviving members of the Breen family are living in or near San Juan. John Breen married in 1852, his wife and children all living. The children are: Lillie M., Edward P., John J., Thomas F., Adelaide A., Kate, Isabelle, Gertrude, Charlotte and Ellen. Edward Breen married in 1858, his wife dying in 1862, leaving the children, Eugene T., Edward J. and John Roger. Patrick Breen, Jr., married in 1865. His wife is living and their children are Mary, William, Peter and Eugene. Simon P. Breen married in 1867, and has two children, Geneva and Mary. James F. Breen, the present judge of San Benito County, married in 1870, his wife is living, their surviving children being Margaret and Grace. Peter Breen died unmarried July 3, 1870, by accidental death. Isabella Breen married Thomas McMahon in 1869 and they reside at Hollister, San Benito County. William M. Breen was born in San Juan, and so was not of the Donner Party. He married in 1874, and when he died left a widow and one child, Mary.
Margaret Breen expressed one wish, the she might not be alive when any of her children died, but two died before her death on April 13, 1874. Loved and honored, she had been the subject of many written tributes, one being a poem by Miss Marcella A. Fitzgerald, the noted poetess of Notre Dame Convent, at San Jose, which was published at the time of her death in the San Francisco Monitor.
Not long ago searchers, headed by C. F. McGlashan of Truckee, California, found many articles at the camp where the Breens suffered and so nearly died. Pieces of old porcelain, chinaware, an old-fashioned gun flint, etc., bits of dainty and expensive glassware. A whetstone was also found, with the letters J. F. R., and later identified as having belonged to James F. Reed.
Mrs. Thomas F. Murray (Isabelle Breen), whose father was John, Jr., of the Breen family of the Donner Party, married Thomas F. Murray, May 11, 1892. She has four children, all living: Daniel J., of athletic tendencies, his forte being ball playing; Tod, who is with the Standard Oil Company; Isabelle and Madeline, who are with their mother at the family home on Fell Street.
Transcribed by Elaine Sturdevant
Source: "The San Francisco Bay Region" Vol. 3 page 375-377 by Bailey Millard. Published by The American Historical Society, Inc. 1924.
© 2004 Elaine Sturdevant.