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John Denton of the Donner Party
by Doris McDuffee Denton

(For more information about the Donner Party and John Denton, please read the actual diaries of survivors on these sites:   Kristin Johnson's great new site,
and her information about this John Denton can be found here
also:
The Donner Party and Dan Rosen's site)

Kristin Johnson has written a book about the Donner Party, "Unfortunate Emigrants, Narratives of the Donner Party".  If you only visit one Donner Party web site, be sure to make it Kristin's!

Two excellent books about the Donner Party are ORDEAL BY HUNGER by George R Stewart and HISTORY OF THE DONNER PARTY (A Tragedy of the Sierra) by C. F. McGlashan. They should be in your local libraries and are well worth reading. It seems that John Denton was an Englishman (which I take to mean that he was born in England) and was traveling with the Donners as a driver. He was a gunsmith and one account says he was well educated. He died on the First Relief Party along the Yuba River.

I remember when I first starting researching Dentons in Illinois I came upon a large group of them who were from England. I didn't take notes (I was inexperienced then) and this was probably an 1850 census so after the Donner party. He was of the party of George and Jacob Donner from Springfield, Sangamon County, and that may be where these English people were from.

The following is from OVERLAND IN 1846 edited by Dale Morgan (2 volumes):  "Re: John Denton, v 1, page 304, from letter by James F. Reed to his brother-in-law in Illinois. ... John Denton left with the first company; he gave out on the way, I found him dead, covered him with a counterpane, and buried him in the show, in the wildest of the wild portion of the earth."

v 1, pg 325:  "On the 3rd day and emigrant named John Denton, exhausted by starvation and totally snow-blind, gave out. He tried to keep up a hopeful and cheerful appearance, but we knew he could not live much longer. We made a platform of saplings, built a fire on it, cut some boughs for him to sit upon and left him. This was imperatively necessary. The party who followed in our trail from California found his dead body a few days after we had left him, partially eaten by wolves."

v 2, page 718 from the CALIFORNIA STAR, S.F., 10 April 1847:  "The following lines are from the Journal of Mr. John Denton, one of the unfortunate immigrants who perished during the past winter in the California mountains. He was found dead on the mountain having made an effort, with a few others, to cross. His journal was taken from his pocket and brought in. It is said to contain many interesting items in relation to the route from Missouri to the California mountains and a graphic description of the sufferings of the unfortunate party of which he was a member. The journal will probably in a few weeks be placed in our hand." (This poem followed, the text of which is also in the McGlashan book):

Oh! after many roving years,
How sweet it is to come
To the dwelling-place of early youth
Our first and dearest home.
To turn away our wearied eyes,
From proud ambition’s towers,
And wander in those summer fields,
The scene of boyhood’s hours.
But I am changed since last I gazed
on yonder tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch-elm
That shades the village green;
And watched my boat upon the brook
As it were a regal galley,
And sighed not for a joy on earth
Beyond the happy valley.
 
I wish I could recall once more
That bright and blissful joy,
And summon to my weary heart
The feelings of a boy.
But I look on scenes of past delight
Without my wonted pleasures,
As a miser on the bed of death
Looks coldly on his treasures.

Footnote, page 796 - "If it is true that Denton kept a journal what happened to it is unknown. Little more is known of him than Thornton's remark, at the time he (Denton) carved a headstone for Sarah Keyes' grave, at the crossing of the Big Blue, that Denton was an Englishman from Sheffield. A man of the same name was with Wyeth between 1834-36, but the literature of 1846 has no hint that the English John Denton had ever been in the West. He had lived for some time in the Springfield area before taking the trail in 1846. It will be seen that the "Star" does not specifically say that Denton composed these lines while waiting in the snow for death to come, an idea that has had a strong emotional appeal, from J. Quinn Thorntons' time to the present. Thornton revised the poem ... etc."

The History of Sangamon (IL) county has a lot about the Donner Party and some of the members.