The Wild West of Yester-Year

Virginia Reed

By Rachel Kovaciny

Twelve-year-old Virginia Reed loved to ride her pony beside her stepfather, James Reed, at the head of the long line of twenty-three wagons on the way to California. She was proud of her stepfather, one of the group’s two leaders. The other leader? A man by the name of George Donner. Although originally called the Donner-Reed Party, we remember that group of pioneers better today as simply the Donner Party.

At first, the trip must have seemed like a grand adventure for Virginia. Heading west with her mother, stepfather, grandmother, and three younger step-siblings, she was eager to start their new lives in the fabled land of California. The Reed family joined up with other families to make their journey, trusting to the safety of numbers for the trip across a scantily mapped continent filled with unknown numbers of American Indians, some of whom were bound to be unfriendly. Eighty-seven men, women, and children set out from Illinois in April 1846, all dreaming of a happy new life at the end of the trail.

The Reeds set off on the journey in grand style—no simple farm wagon with a canvas cover for them! James Reed was a successful entrepreneur who managed a sawmill, a factory, and a store. He purchased a special two-level wagon for this trip that included such conveniences as a built-in stove for cooking. Their elegant wagon boasted comfortable seats, bedrooms with actual beds, and even a large mirror. The Reeds hired two servants to help drive their other two wagons filled with supplies of every kind, from food to bandages to a sizable collection of books.

Virginia’s grandmother, Sarah Keyes, was in her seventies and bedridden. She refused to be left behind by her only daughter, Margret Reed, so the family brought her along and did their best to keep her comfortable in their wagon. Grandmother Keyes died of tuberculosis while the wagon train was passing through what is now Kansas. Given what was in store for the rest of the group, they must have later seen her peaceful death as a blessing in disguise.
James Reed and George Donner made a disastrous decision when choosing what route to take to cross the mountains and reach California. Rather than follow the usual California Trail, which branched off from the Oregon Trail and meandered along rivers and valleys, Reed and Donner chose the “Hastings Cutoff.” This “shortcut” promised to get them through the mountains before winter set in. Even though a friend had warned James Reed against taking that route, Reed and Donner led their party along the cutoff, anyway.

On their map, the Hastings Cutoff looked shorter and more direct, but it was over a hundred miles longer than the usual route. Unlike the California Trail, which had ample water and grass for the oxen pulling their wagons, the Hastings Cutoff took them through the Great Salt Lake Desert. The group lost many oxen there and had to abandon several wagons. 

They reached the main California Trail in September. The Donner-Reed party was running out of time, even as they tried to find a speedy way through the mountains before winter could strike. It wasn’t long before the group got trapped in the Sierra Nevada, snowed in beside a frozen lake.

To make things even worse for Virginia’s family, James Reed got banished from the group after an altercation with another member of the wagon train, John Snyder. Following the fight, Snyder’s death led to James being charged with murder and expelled from camp. He made his way alone to a place called Sutter’s Fort, where he gathered supplies and helpers, and then made two trips through the snowy mountains to rescue his family and the other survivors.
Meanwhile, Virginia, her step-siblings, and her mother slowly starved, as did everyone else in the little camp they built near Donner Lake. Although the Reed family survived, many others did not. The trapped pioneers ate every team of oxen, horse, and dog they had brought with them. Most of the party eventually resorted to cannibalism to stay alive, consuming the remains of their companions, who had died of hunger. Only forty-eight of the original eighty-seven pioneers survived.

Later in life, Virginia Reed wrote a short memoir about her experience travelling west with the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party. She stated that her family and a few others did not partake in the cannibalism, instead subsisting on soup made from tree bark and the leather from shoes and harnesses.

As an adult, Virginia became a prizewinning equestrian, celebrated for her expert horsemanship. She married entrepreneur John Murphy in California, and the couple settled in San Jose and had nine children. Virginia assisted her husband in his fire insurance business, then took over the business when he died. That made her the first woman on the West Coast of the United States to run an insurance business. They named Virginia Street in San Jose after her.

Although the Donner Party has become synonymous with tragedy, its surviving members should also be remembered for their eventual triumph over one of the grimmest situations ever faced by American pioneers. ♦