Survivors of the Donner Party

Essay by abigailhUniversity, Master's August 2014

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Abigail Hall



In the winter of 1846 to 1847 a small party of emigrants found themselves trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just a few days away from their destination of California. Of the 81 people who became stranded, only 45 survived. James Reed , Virginia Reed and Eliza Donner were among the survivors. Their stories of tragedy and survival would help the story of the Donner Party to live on.

James Reed was born in Northern Ireland of Polish decent. When he was a child his widowed mother brought him the United States. As a young man he moved to Illinois. He served during the Black Hawk War under Abraham Lincoln, and later settled in Springfield, Illinois.

When Reed decided to go west, he was in mid-forties. He and his wife Margaret, and their four children, intended to leave for California in the spring of 1846. Heading west was an unusual decision for James Reed. He ran a successful mill and furniture making business and was considered to be a man of means. The journey would be hard on his family, especially his wife Margaret, who suffered from "sick headaches", (Calabro 21) probably migraines, and yet he never doubted his decision to head west. He was adventurous and competitive and saw California as a place of opportunity. He had done well for himself and his family in Illinois, but knew he could do even better in California.

James Reed had money and had no difficulty in spending it. Before trains existed or roads were paved, wagons were the way to go west. Reed made sure his wagon was the most luxurious for the time. He had a wagon specially built, that his daughter Virginia nicknamed the Pioneer Palace Car. Unlike other wagons, it had a door...