C.F. McGlashan was born Aug. 12, 1847, at Janesville, Wis., and came to California with his family when he was 2 years old.
He began his career as a school teacher at 17 and later attended Williston Seminary in Massachusetts to further his education.
Upon return to California, he became principal of Placerville High School. He was principal of the Truckee Public Schools for two years before turning to journalism.
In 1874, McGlashan was a correspondent in Utah for the Sacramento Record-Union under the editor W.H. Mills, who may have taught him his sharp and candid style of writing.
In 1875, at Truckee, McGlashan began the practice of law, which he continued successfully for four years. But he soon returned to newspaper work, first editing the Truckee Republican and later becoming its owner.
McGlashan became interested in the story of the Donner Party, which in 1846-47 was imprisoned by Sierra snows at Donner Lake. This interest led to a thorough two-year investigation of the Donner tragedy, culminating in the book “History of the Donner Party.” The story was first run in serial form in the Truckee Republican and is McGlashan’s main claim to fame.
Leaving Truckee for a few years, McGlashan plunged into state politics as publisher of the Santa Barbara Press. Santa Barbara journalism in those days was fiery and violent. Bitterness and name-calling marked the editorials.
McGlashan’s paper contrasted these practices by its uniform courtesy in editorials and respect for divergent political views. He demonstrated that a clean, respectable newspaper was appreciated, since the Santa Barbara Press prospered.
In the early 1880s, McGlashan was a member of the California Assembly. When through with his stint as a politician, he returned to Truckee to devote his life to editing the Truckee Republican.
One personality trait that helped make McGlashan a good journalist was his insatiable curiosity and wide interests. This led him to strange hobbies such as publishing a series of practical planetary maps, discovering a rare butterfly and building a museum around Truckee’s geological curiosity, the Rocking Stone.
He also perfected minor inventions, the most important of which was a method of sending telegrams to and from moving trains.
The knowledge obtained through his curiosity, plus his fine insight into human nature, gave McGlashan a natural and deeply sympathetic understanding of the dire circumstances of the characters in his story of the Donner Party.
As his chief biographers have written, “The secret of his narrative is its complete subjectivity.”
As described by biographers, McGlashan was kind and considerate in his relations with others, but he disciplined himself and at times would work 18 hours a day when he considered this necessary. He had great self-confidence, was daring and courageous, but at the same time polite, tender-hearted and sentimental.
He was an outdoors type of man who greatly admired nature’s wonders. He was social, had many friends and always had a pleasant word for them.
McGlashan’s story of the Donner Party came about because he wanted to tell what had really happened to this group of people in their fateful attempt to reach California. The adventures of the group had been told and retold by so many settlers that the story had become legend, full of untruths.
As a good journalist, McGlashan was eager to get the real story. He felt a particular sympathy for the people because he was so familiar with the territory where they had struggled and died that awful winter. McGlashan’s writing style tended to be flowery and over-sentimental in the mode of the 19th Century. In fact, his style is somewhat similar to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne. His research of published works and manuscript sources was remarkably thorough, for as has been noted, he seems to have anticipated much of the labor and research of writers on the subject who came after him. He died Jan. 6, 1931.