George Dunnavan – A Family History

There is no known picture of George Dunnavan

Dayton Cemetery Association holds its annual meeting on Memorial Day weekend and there is always a historical program following the meeting. On May 27, 1973, Ruth Brown Baker presented the following information on the Dunnavan family.

            As broad as the United States is wide, so the Family Tree of Samuel Dunnavan spreads its branches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, covering the quick and the dead, the old and the young who have struggled or are striving to survive in an ever changing world.

            Colonel (or Captain, there seems to be some discrepancy in the records) Samuel Dunnavan was born in the year 1780, probably in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. No definite information has yet been found regarding his parents.

            On December 22, 1807, he was married to Elizabeth Lair, daughter of Persis and Joseph Lair. This marriage was solemnized in the Parish and County of Rockingham, Virginia. It is supposed that they moved to Licking County, Ohio, the following year and there they resided on a farm which they owned in Newton Township. Elizabeth and Samuel were parents of three sons, – Joseph Albert, William, and George Milton.

            Samuel served in Williamson’s Ohio Militia during the Was of 1812 and returned home in a poor state of health. He died on June 22, 1816 at the age of 36 and is buried in the Evans Cemetery near St Louisville, Ohio. In the research notes of the late David Dunnavan he remarked that “To have attained a Colonelcy at such an early age bespeaks unusual qualities of leadership which might have carried him far had he been permitted to live.”

            Some time later Elizabeth Dunnavan married David Letts, a widower with one daughter, Rhoda Ann. In 1830 they and their family joined the westward trek of pioneers to Illinois. Theirs may have been a rather sizable group by that time since it included some of all of the five children born to their marriage as well as her three sons and his daughter.

            Their first years in La Salle County were spent in Eden Township near Cedar Point. Living conditions were primitive in those days with furniture consisting of three and four legged stools and tables all made of split timber. Records tell us the winter of 1830-31 was “remarkable for its severity, snow fell to a depth of three feet, drifting to stop all travel. Potatoes, hominy and wild honey were the rations of the settlers.”

            David Letts became a very prominent citizen of La Salle County. He was the School Commissioner, a Judge, the first Road Commissioner authorizing the building of the first road from Ottawa east to the State line and the first Precinct election was held at his house. He kept store in Dayton and Ottawa. His fine character, no doubt, had a lasting influence on the lives of his family. He died in Lettsville, Louisa County, Iowa, in 1852.

            Since I am mainly interested in George Milton Dunnavan, my great grandfather, I will leave the stories of the rest of the family for someone else to write.

            George’s mother died in 1835 and is buried in the Dayton cemetery. In that year he settled on a farm which eventually encompassed over five hundred acres on Buck Creek Timber in Dayton Township. Following his brothers’ examples, George, too, married a daughter of John and Barbara Grove Green. He and Katherine Green were married on June 15, 1837. Their first child, Milton, was born June 24, 1838 but he lived less than three years. The mortality rate for small children was so high it is probably remarkable that they raised ten of their fourteen children.

            Early in the year 1849, when Lucien, their sixth child, was about a year old, the “Gold Fever” hit George. This quotation I read recently in a Reader’s Digest book seems to describe it best. “The most important contribution to the opening up of the West was the discovery of gold in California. The rumor and the fact of gold had the effect of almost literally lifting men up out of their chairs, out of their homes, to leave their farms, their jobs, and families behind for the dangers and hardships of the Gold Rush.”

            We are fortunate to have some of the letters written by George Dunnavan to his wife Katherine while enroute and after arriving in California. While we do not know exactly when the trip took place or with whom he traveled, one La Salle County History book describes the trip of A. F. Dunnavan, a nephew, as “being of six months on the road, going with eight teams and six yoke of oxen and cows and working in the gold mine in a place called Volcano.” They must have left home in the spring of 1849 since they arrived there before Christmas.

            Although George left when the excitement caught him up along with the rest, he may have had second thoughts about it after he was on the road. With sickness, death, rainy weather and drought to contend with, the glamour of the adventure wore off quickly. He was concerned about his wife and family and good to write to them. His second letter written enroute ended with the admonition to “write to the boy.” Do you suppose he was getting a little homesick even before he crossed the Missouri?

            In December of that year, news, written on July 6th, reached George in California. He was about to become a father again. In reply he wrote “I shall now wait with no little anxiety for the letter that will bring me the happy news of your good health after December. I shall be glad to see the little prize. I am sorry I can not be with you in such times but we are a great distance apart I hope the kind providence will protect you. Had I known the situation you were in the gold fever mite have raged for all me I should not have left.” He had the desire to send her some money but there was no way. Since George had heard from Esp. Pitzer that the baby had red hair he wrote “If the baby had red hair don’t name him George.” I guess she did anyway. He only lived about two years but I think that was long enough for his father to get home to see him.

            George planned to return home in September of 1850because he was getting tired of the hard way of living and provisions were so high that he had to make money fast to save any. In October he still had not started because the cholera was so bad en route and he thought it advisable to stay in the mountains a few months more. He had opened a little store i Volcano and was hauling goods up there from Sacramento City. His Feb. 1851 letter set a departure date of the first of March. They had been making too much money lately to leave any sooner and he was hoping to hear how the Greens got along on their way home before he started. This might determine the route they would take.

            We really don’t know whether he came back a wealthy man or not. He did have some of the gold he mined made into plain gold bands for his daughters and he is known to have sported a gold headed cane. Any wealth he may have had was later lost in the grain market, I have heard. However he did leave a heritage in his family of children.

            Silas, born in 1840, was the oldest one left behind when his father went west. He must have inherited some of his father’s pioneering spirit. He is known to have traveled to Alaska and South America as well as mined in Butte, Montana. Frank, Charles, Silas, Ella Belle and Cora all went to the Butte-Walkerville area where they are listed in the city directories of the 1890’s. The men worked in the Alice copper mine and Cora taught school. She was married at one time to James Mc Fadyen and had one daughter who married and moved to Ashland, Oregon. Frank and Belle later moved out there to live with her. Katherine Dunnavan, after she was widowed, also lived in Butte during part of that decade.

            Daughter Louisa married David, son of Isaac, and they had four sons. Their home was in Colorado.

            Daughter Emma, my grandmother, married Andrew J. Brown. They had two daughter and three sons of which my father was the youngest. He (Walter Dunnavan Brown) now has 27 descendants as represented by my family and those of my sisters, Ethel Holmes and Helen Pottenger.

            Mary E. Dunnavan married Rev. John Edmonson. They had four daughters, two of them married and each had four daughters. The Davenport girls are from one of these families.

            Lucien and Edwin Dunnavan were the only sons to marry and have sons to carry on the family name. Lucien lived in Central City, Colorado.

            Edwin Dunnavan had two daughters and one son and raised his family in Seattle, Washington.

            George and Katherine Dunnavan were buried in un-marked graves in the Dayton Cemetery, he at the age of 79 and she at the age of 77. They were from sturdy American stock and while their way of living seemed rugged and full of danger, they lived in an era of many changes. One Judge, speaking at an Old Settler’s Picnic in 1869 remarked that “these past thirty or forty years will forever remain more memorable in the history of the whole world than will any equal period that has ever preceded it. Our progress during these forty years which would have been an incredible miracle a hundred years ago is only an illustrious and magnificent fact today.” Strangely enough, we can make the same remark today, a hundred years later, with just as much feeling.

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