The Donner-Reed Party is mainly known for two things: having a mountain pass named after them and resorting to cannibalism to survive. However, there is so much more to tell regarding each family’s story, including that of the Reeds. We invite you to learn more about this little-mentioned, yet vastly important family in the history of settling the American West.
The Reed Family were members of the Donner Party, one of the most tragic stories on the California Trail. They experienced difficulties on the trail including, following a cutoff, which took much longer than they expected, murder, lack of leadership, and bad packing, forcing them to become stranded in the winter.
A little less than half of the group died before reaching California. Read some of their journals here.
The Story You May Know
The Donner-Reed party attempted to pass through Hasting’s Cutoff to save time on their way to California. Tragically, this “shortcut” turned out to be longer and much more dangerous than their original route, so they lost precious time. On top of this, an early blizzard trapped them in cabins along Truckee Lake.
The desperate travelers first killed and ate their oxen, their dogs, and, finally, a glue-like soup made of animal hides, tree bark, and even shoes. When nothing remained, some members of the party resorted to cannibalism.
The Reed Family Tree
The Reed family includes many strong leaders and unique characters. From small children to the elderly, let’s get to know a little more about this group of pioneers.
- James Frazier Reed – James was the family’s father and one of the leaders of the Donner Party.
- Margret W. Reed – Margret was James’s wife and the mother of four children at the time of the passage. She suffered from chronic migraines but did her best to care for her children while trapped in the Graves-Reed cabin.
- Sarah Keyes – Sarah was Margret’s mother. She was 70 years old and in the advanced stages of tuberculosis, but she couldn’t bear to be separated from her only daughter. So, she decided to accompany her. Sarah tragically passed away in Kansas and was buried along the trail.
- Virginia Backenstoe Reed – Virginia was Margret’s daughter and James’s 13-year-old stepdaughter. She was an avid horse rider and had a beloved pony named Billy, whom she rode while on the trail. Sadly, Billy could not endure the harsh journey.
- Martha “Patty” Reed – Patty was 8 when her family made the arduous journey. Despite the children being forced to abandon all of their belongings along the way, she managed to hide her beloved doll in her dress. This gift from her grandmother comforted her while she was trapped in the cabin.
- James Reed Jr. – James Jr. was only 5 at the time of the journey. According to Virginia’s memoir, he was the youngest child to walk over the Sierra Nevada mountains.
- Thomas Reed – Thomas, the youngest member of the family, was only 3 when these horrible events took place! He was very close to Patty and even saw her as a mother figure while they waited for a rescue party.
5 Fascinating Facts About The Reed Family
Now that we have a better picture of this brave and determined family, what makes them stand out in history? We’ve put together five memorable facts to bring the Reeds to life and help you connect with them during these modern days.
1. James Reed Was Banished For Murder
Members of the party banished James for stabbing John Snyder during a fight, although many believe he did so in self-defense. James was able to safely make it to Sutter’s Fort ahead of the group, where he obtained vital survival supplies and help.
2. James Came Back To Rescue People
Despite his banishment, James heroically made two rescue attempts. He first tried to rescue the party with supplies he obtained at Sutter’s Fort, but the impenetrable snow blocked his way. After briefly fighting in the Battle of Santa Clara, he returned as second-in-command of another rescue team.
3. Patty & Thomas Were Abandoned—And Later Rescued
Margret Reed had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave two of her own children behind. They were too weak to leave with the first rescue party. (Poor little Thomas was only 3 years old when this happened!) Thankfully, James returned with the second rescue group shortly after and escorted both children to safety.
4. Virginia Reed Published A Letter
Virginia wrote a detailed letter documenting the hardships they faced while on the trail. The Illinois Journal published her firsthand account in December 1847, when she was only 14.
5. They Survived Without Eating People
Only two nuclear families in the entire party—the Reeds and the Breens—made it through the horrible winter without a single death. According to a letter by Patty Reed, her family was the only one that refused to eat human flesh despite facing starvation.
Learn More About California Trail History
If you’re interested in learning more about the ordeals of the Donner Party and other settlers, we invite you to visit us at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV. Contact us today to find out about our current exhibits and events.