Excerpts from Important Events in the History of the James McDonald Family, 1841-1850 in Biographical information relating to Mormon pioneer overland travel database, 2003-2017, 10-12.
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The following material is prepared to make the history of some of the important events in the lives of James McDonald and Sarah Ferguson McDonald available to their descendants. Statements from existing histories, which concern each event, are quoted in order to give all of the information available about each event.
Sources of information:
#1 – James McDonald – Sarah Ferguson, Their Progenitors and Their Posterity by Ila Fisher Maughan (A complete, research history of this family)
#2 – McDonald-Clyde Reunion, held March 17 1908. Talks by John and William McDonald
#3 – History of Sarah Ferguson McDonald by Mary L. Smart
#4 – Autobiography of William McDonald
These sources are referred to throughout the following pages by number. . . .
In his autobiography, William tells at length of the month he spent with his father and brother John working in Missouri. He tells of how his father joined one night in singing and dancing. William said, “Father was a good step dancer and the Negroes had him dance every night. He sang some comic Irish songs.” The owners of the plantation heard about his singing and dancing and invited James and his two boys to spend an evening with them to sing and dance for them. It was a pleasant evening for James and his sons as well as their host and hostess. At the end of the month, they loaded their wagon with provisions which they took as pay for their work.
William said: (Source #4)
We took most of our pay in provisions: flour, bacon, corn, dried apples, sugar and after making up our pay in such things he took us into his smoke house and gave us a lot of fine smoked hams and side meat, in fact finished loading our wagon with good things . . . We parted with him as good friends and Father thanked him for his kindness to us. That load of provisions lasted us across the plains and the winter after we got into the valley.
James, William and John returned to the family to find that all was well with them. Sarah, who had been ill for two years, had improved.
William said of her illness: (Source #4)
Mother had been sick in Bonaparte for two years and seemed to improve with camping out. The doctor said it was nervous prostration and said medicine would do her no good but she had to have some and to please her he had to prescribe something for her to take, so he told Jane, my sister, to get some oak bark and make some weak tea and tell her that was what I told you to give her. Jane waited on Mother and tended her like a helpless child for two years. In fact, Jane was a mother to all of us children.
The McDonald family left with the Aaron Johnson Company to come west in the spring of 1850. The beginning of their journey is described by Ila Maughan (Source #1).
The McDonald’s six oxen had been yoked and driven for weeks in training for the long haul, and their two sturdy wagons were loaded with clothing, bedding and food supplies along with seed for planting. Their chickens would be crated, but their sheep and cattle would be driven.
The t[r]ail was hot and dry and dusty, but without murmuring, without discord, with songs of Zion resounding from wagon to wagon, the Aaron Johnson Company moved out toward the west. Their train of 100 wagons had been reported as being at Council Grove which was twelve miles beyond Bethlehem, east of the Missouri River on 12 June 1850.
William speaks of the journey from the view point of a teenage boy: (Source #4)
Us boys enjoyed the wild country and the wild game which were abundant on the plains. The buffalo were so thick and went in such large herds we had to stop the train and corrall the wagons until some of the large herds passed. In traveling we were strung out on the trail half a mile long. I was 16 years old when we crossed the plains and was numbered with the guard and took my turn with the older men. I remember we had to call out “all is well” every hour. When it came to that part of it I think there never was a young rooster learning to crow felt prouder than I did.
The Death of James
The Company was making good time when cholera struck them. Many died, among them the husband and father of the McDonald family. James McDonald died on the plains and was buried there. His children told of this sad time. John said: (Source #2)
We got out—I don’t know how far—but after we got started the cholera was very bad, some dying nearly every night with the cholera. When we got to the Platte River, my father took the cramp. He had just buried a man who had died with it and he got the cramp and died.
This was just after we crossed the Platte River. I remember wading across the Platte. The water was right up to my neck. When we got to the other side, he died. We buried him there on the banks of the Platte River, without a coffin. We broke up a large chest that we had and made a kind of vault in the bottom of the grave and laid this over the vault. We had to go on.
Family tradition tells that the man whom James buried the morning before he died was his close friend. James had sat up with him all night. He died toward morning. James helped to dig his grave and preached the funeral service that was given at his graveside. William wrote of the death of his father as follows: (Source #4)
My father helped to bury a man one morning and took sick after the train started and died that night. We came to the Platte River that day in the afternoon and part of the train had crossed the river. Father being very bad, we asked him if we should cross the river with him. He said “yes”, so he died that night on this side of the Platte River. That was the greatest trial we ever had in our family—so sudden on the dreary plains of America and buried without a coffin. But we had some large boxes along which we broke up and dug a deep grave, with a vault at the bottom large enough for the body and covered it securely with the lumber of those boxes which we thought would prevent wolves from digging up the body for we had passed some graves that had been buried in haste that the wolves had dug up.
Sarah’s granddaughter, Mary McDonald Young, recalled that when she was a young girl she had heard her grandmother tell many times of this sad time on the plains.
Sarah had spoke of how sad and shocked she had felt at the sudden passing of her husband. It was nighttime when he died. After the family had been settled down, her feet hurt and so she went and sat on the banks of the Platte River and took of[f] her shoes and stockings and put her feet into the cool water. She said that she could feel the strong current of the river and the thought came to her, in her grief, of how easy it would be to slide into the water and be engulfed in this current and be with her beloved husband in death. But as she sat there she heard one of the younger children call out to her and knew that she must carry on. Her family needed her. She must new [now] be father and mother and lead the family on to Zion and fulfill the dream that she and James had dreamed so long ago in Ireland-to have their children and grandchildren grow up a[s] members of the main body of the Church. She pulled her feet from the water and went back to the wagons that held her grieving children.
The following morning, after James had been buried, the family continued their journey. They little realized that sad morning as they left their father’s grave and turned toward the west that they were to become part of one of the great miracles of history—that their hard work would help to make the barren desert blossom as the rose. The[y] could not have known how numerous their posterity would become and how they would prosper in the new land they would find in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.