Huddled with her children in a snow pit, Margaret Breen summoned all of her physical and spiritual fortitude to muffle the death knell carried by the frigid mountain air. It was March 1847, and the Irish-born Catholic was determined to keep her family alive against an unrelenting blizzard that threatened to entomb it. The harrowing ordeal and the events that preceded it remained frozen in Breen’s thoughts until her death in 1874. In the years that followed, the void left by her reticence was filled by others, who either spoke in hyperbole or understated the role Breen played in her family’s survival.
On Sunday, Oct. 23, the public will have a rare opportunity to listen to Breen’s life story, as told from her perspective. Wearing a period dress, speaking in brogue, and, at times, clutching a rosary, retired professor of history and humanities, Doris Dwyer, will portray Margaret Breen in a chautauqua performance at Mission San Juan Bautista. Hosted by The San Juan Mission Preservation Fund, the event will begin at 3:30 p.m. A reception and silent auction will follow at the Casa Maria.
The SJB Mission Preservation Fund was founded last year in order "to strengthen, preserve and conserve the architectural and structural integrity of the historical property and the artifacts of the" mission, according to the organization's website.
As reported by BenitoLink last October, the Fund set-out to raise $14 million to repair and retrofit the mission. In an recent email to BenitoLink, the Fund's president, Tami Adam of San Juan, stated that "to date, the Fund has raised over $600,000," nearing its year-end goal of $1 million. She noted that the non-profit has partnered with the Community Foundation of San Benito County, the Native Daughters of the Golden West, and the Farrington Historical Foundation.
In a telephone interview with BenitoLink, Dwyer explained that she has delivered the chautauqua (pronounced, shuh-taw-kwuh) of Margaret Breen more than 200 times, the first occurring in 1996 at the 150th Anniversary of the Donner Party held at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee.
A chautauqua involves the portrayal of a historical figure, typically alone on stage where his or her thoughts and actions are shared with an audience. While in character, the performer takes questions in an exchange that gives attendees a more nuanced understanding of the figure. The chautauquan then breaks out of character, taking additional questions.
Dwyer’s involvement in chautauqua began with a series sponsored by the Nevada Humanities, in which she has portrayed “contraceptive pioneer Margaret Sanger, Puritan dissenter Anne Hutchinson, and environmentalist Rachel Carson,” according to the organizations’s website.
Margaret (Bulger) Breen’s story begins in County Carlow, Ireland, an agricultural region in southeast Ireland. There she met her future husband, Patrick Sr.
Their families were farmers, whose physical prowess was matched only by their devotion to Catholicism, according to Dwyer.
In the 1830s, the two families immigrated to Canada, where the Margaret and Patrick wed and started a family before heading to the Iowa Territory.
Lured by land and opportunity, the Breens—with their seven children in tow—became one of several families that joined the Donner Party as it traveled West from Missouri in 1846 following ruts left by previous wagon trains.
Social interaction between individuals was often limited by necessity. Differences in class and perhaps religion affiliation prevented bonds of true friendship. Among English-speaking Protestants, Margaret, Dwyer believes, may have “felt a like an outsider” and was probably “aware of being a little different” than her traveling companions.
Hoping to shorten their journey, the group of nearly 100 emigrants left the worn trail for a road less traveled—a fateful decision that trapped the Donner Party in the Sierras for months.
Arriving near a mountain lake on Oct. 31, 1846, the Breens sheltered in an abandoned cabin. Others constructed lean-tos or homes with thatched roofs. The plan was to wait for the spring thaw that would pave the party’s descent into present-day California.
Unprepared for their respite, the expedition’s members became emaciated, ill, and forlorn.
Owing to Margaret’s maternal instincts and her unquestionable faith, the hopelessness that pervaded the temporary settlement was kept at bay from the Breen household, explained Dwyer.
Margaret staved off her family’s hunger by ordering her teenage sons to return to the locations where their dead cattle were buried and preserved by the snow. The boys removed the hides, as instructed by their mother, who boiled the pieces to produce a leather-tasting soup.
Defying her husband, Margaret offered food to others. She convalesced the sick, too. Virginia Reed, a Donner Party survivor, credited Breen with saving her life as a child.
“She [Margaret] gave Virginia little pieces of beef stored above the front door,” stated Dwyer, adding that Breen nursed the young girl back to health.
In February of 1847, the first of four rescue parties finally reached the lakeside encampment. The Breens left with the second team of rescuers, but their progress was soon halted by a snowstorm.
For a week, the Breens survived in a 25-foot-deep snow pit—a crucible that became a defining moment for Margaret.
“She wouldn’t let her children die,” Dwyer said, adding that because of Margaret’s courage, the Breens were only one of two families that remained intact, suffering no loss of life.
The Breen clan eventually settled in San Juan Bautista, the idyllic town providing the family with the opportunity it sought and another addition to its brood.
And the Mission church became Margaret’s daily refuge.
On Sunday, Dwyer will stand in the same spiritual space that Margaret knelt and prayed. A practicing Catholic herself, the professor was “absolutely delighted” when she discovered that her chautauqua was occurring in the church. The rosary she will be holding is the third she has purchased from the Mission Gift Shop since her first Breen chautauqua performed 20 years ago.
The Castro-Breen Adobe—a two-story building that is part of the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park (SJBSHP)—was the Breens’ home for decades. Interpretative panels now decorate the interior, including one that reads, “The Elusive Margaret Breen.”
The panel begins by asking, “How do we know who Margaret Breen really was?” It then quotes a 19th-Century journalist who described Breen as a “cannibal,” a reference to those of the Donner Party who resorted to such acts of survival. The panel concludes with examples of Breen’s humanitarian efforts.
SJBSHP Interpreter Marcos Vizcaino noted in his telephone interview with BenitoLink that “because of Margaret, her family didn’t resort to cannibalism.” He stated that, “the Breen family survived because of Margaret’s instincts,” adding that park visitors are often surprise to learn this.
Over the years, Dwyer has approached her chautauqua as an academic, culling university stacks, interviewing Breens' descendants, and, most recently, combing the internet, where she found Margaret's will on Ancestry.com.
Dwyer hopes that her work and the 90 minute presentation will make Breen’s story less elusive and more accessible to the public.
“The literature hasn’t been kind to Margaret,” she said, adding, “I want attendees to walk away with a better understanding of who Margaret was and the important role that she and her family played in the Donner Party.”
Most importantly, Dwyer wants to “give Margaret her due by providing an accurate, historical portrayal” of the woman whose heroism saved her family from ruin 170 years ago.
Dwyer's chautauqua begins at 3:30 p.m. at Mission San Juan Bautista (doors open at 3 p.m.)
Tickets can be purchased from the Mission San Juan Bautista Gift Shop or from Peggy Neubauer at Mission Village Realty in San Juan Bautista.
Tickets for the performance and reception are $25 for adults. Tickets for the performance only are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12 years old.
*All proceeds benefit the San Juan Mission Preservation Fund
San Juan Mission Preservation Fund
PO Box 222
San Juan Bautista, CA 95045
Mission San Juan Bautista Gift Shop
Hours: Monday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Mission Village Realty
408 Fourth St.
San Juan Bautista