Age: [30]
Third and Fourth Relief

Parents: William Stark, (b. abt 1780 in VA?, d. 1816) m. 11 May 1802 in Bourbon Co., KY to Leah Shortridge (b. abt 1783 in VA)

b. abt 1817 in Wayne Co., IN
m. 26 Mar 1840 to Mary Jane Ritchie (b. 16 Sept 1824 in IN, d. 3 Nov 1910 in Colfax, WA)
d. 28 Jul 1874 Coyote Valley, Lake Co., CA (57)

Regarding this brave man, Dr. J. C. Leonard has contributed much valuable information, from which is selected the following:

“John Stark was born in 1817, in Wayne County, Indiana. His father, William Stark, came from Virginia, and was one of the first settlers of Kentucky, arriving there about the same time as Daniel Boone. He married a cousin of Daniel Boone, and they had a family of eight children. T. J. Stark, the oldest son, now lives at French Corral, Nevada County, California. John Stark, the younger brother, started from Monmouth County, Illinois, in the spring of 1846, but taking the Fort Hall road, reached California in safety. He was a powerfully built man, weighing two hundred and twenty pounds. He was sheriff of Napa County for six years, and in 1852 represented that county in the State Legislature. He died near Calistoga, in 1875, of heart disease. His death was instantaneous, and occurred while pitching hay from a wagon. He was the father of eleven children, six of whom, with his wife, are now living.”

Each one of the persons who were taken from Starved Camp by this man and his two companions, reached Sutter’s Fort in safety. James F. Breen had his feet badly frozen, and afterwards burned while at the camp. No one had any hope that they could be saved, and when the party reached the fort, a doctor was sought to amputate them. None could be found, and kind nature effected a cure which a physician would have pronounced impossible.

In concluding this chapter, it is quite appropriate to quote the following, written by J. F. Breen: “No one can attach blame to those who voted to leave part of the emigrants. It was a desperate case. Their idea was to save as many as possible, and they honestly believed that by attempting to save all, all would be lost. But this consideration – and the further one that Stark was an entire stranger to every one in the camps, not bound to them by any tie of blood or kindred, nor having any hope of reward, except the grand consciousness of doing a noble act – makes his conduct shine more lustrously in the eyes of every person who admires nature’s true and only nobility.”

Other men were paid $50 for the relief efforts. Meanwhile, Stark was the only one who volunteered.

“I will go without any reward beyond that derived from the consciousness of doing a good act,” he said.

 A son-in-law of Matthew D. Ritchie, Stark single-handedly rescued members of the Breen, Graves, and Jacob Donner families from Starved Camp. He was a large, strong man who weighed 220 pounds. John Breen wrote,

To his great bodily strength, and unexcelled courage, myself and others owe our lives. There was probably no other man in California at that time, who had the intelligence, determination, and what was absolutely necessary in that emergency, the immense physical powers of John Stark. He was as strong as two ordinary men. On his broad shoulders, he carried the provisions, most of the blankets, and most of the time some of the weaker children. In regard to this, he would laughingly say that he could carry them all, if there was room on his back, because they were so light from starvation.

He first settled in Knight’s Valley, then a portion of Napa County. He was County Judge of Napa in 1850-51, an office he resigned in the fall of the latter year to run for the Legislature, serving one term. After this he moved down the valley below Calistoga to a place that still bears his name.

According to the book, Napa County Police, Todd L. Schulman and Napa Police Historical Society, 2007, Arcadia Publishing, Stark served as Napa’s fifth sheriff from 1855-1861.

According to H. H. Bancroft, Stark was county judge of Napa Co. 1850-51; a member of the legislature in 1851 and 1855-56; 1851-68 lived near Calistoga; lived in or near Guenoc, Lake Co., from 1868 till his death.

Judge John S Stark, of Guenoc, died suddenly of heart disease, while working in a hay field. He was well and favorable known in Lake and Napa counties, being one of the early pioneers. The Napa Register says he crossed the Plains reaching California with the party of which his father-in-law Col. Ritchie, was Captain, the same year.

 McGlashan adds that Stark was sheriff of Napa Co. for six years and that he died instantaneously of a heart attack while pitching hay from a wagon. John and Mary Jane Stark had 11 children, six of whom were alive in 1879.

He left a wife and eight children to mourn his decease. Two of his daughters were married; one was the wife of E. Irwin, of Guenoc, and the other the wife of L. Reed, of Petaluma.


New Light on the Donner Party, Kristin Johnson

Ordeal By Hunger, George Stewart

Donner Summit Historical Society

Find a Grave

The Storm King



Mary Jane Stark (wife)