No. 2

Donner Party Bulletin


Issue No. 2

1879: Virginia Reed Tells It Like It Was

In July 1891 the Century Illustrated Magazine published a memoir by Virginia Reed Murphy recounting her eventful journey to California 45 years previously. Across the Plains in the Donner Party is a famous and favorite account of the Donner Party. It is not learned but lively, full of human interest and personal details. It also glosses over the most gruesome aspect of the Donner disaster, since the Reeds were not forced to the last extremity, and even has a happy ending, with the Reed family reunited and Virginia wafting kisses to the beautiful spring day.

Because it is such a charming account and written by a survivor, it is easy to overlook the fact that it is not as reliable as it appears: it was written long after the fact, shows the influence of other writers, and was heavily edited, so much so that historian Dale L. Morgan described it as ghostwritten. An examination of an early version of the memoir, however, demonstrates that the 1891 article was Mrs. Murphy’s own work, although it received considerable assistance from an editor.

In 1878 newspaper editor C. F. McGlashan began publishing the story of the Donner Party in the Truckee Republican. His first articles were filled with inaccuracies, but this had a desirable effect: not only did survivors write in to correct the errors, but they put him in contact with other survivors and rescuers.

One of McGlashan’s earliest informants was W. C. Graves, who sent him a copy of his own memoir that had been published in 1877. McGlashan relied on Graves for most of his account of the journey of the Donner Party to Fort Bridger, although the Graves family had not actually been with the Donner Party at the time. After publishing his articles and receiving corrections, McGlashan set about working his material into book form.

During his correspondence with survivors, old animosities had resurfaced, particularly between the Reed and Graves factions. On June 8, 1879, Virginia Reed Murphy sent a cover letter and a 14-page document describing the Reed family’s journey from Springfield across the plains to Fort Bridger, ending it

Nov../Dec. 1997

with, "As you are well aquainted with the rest of the trip, I will say no more." In addition to giving a description of the Donner Party’s journey, as opposed to the Graves family’s, her memoir also served to counter Graves’ negative remarks about her stepfather, James F. Reed. She took considerable pains with the letter, for the handwriting is neat and compact, compared to her usual dashing sprawl. Unfortunately, McGlashan had completed his book by the time he received the letter and it was too late for him to incorporate the material Virginia sent him.

Separated from the cover letter and itself undated, the memoir eventually wound up in a miscellaneous folder in the Charles Fayette McGlashan Letters and Papers (Bancroft MS C-B 570, folder 100) at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. It has gone unnoticed all these years, dismissed, perhaps, because it is so much rougher and less complete than the 1891 version. While there are many similarities between them, there are also many differences. Comparing the two versions helps understand how Virginia Reed Murphy came to write her popular Century Magazine article.

In general, the 1891 version is much more polished, as one would expect in a published piece, with many changes of phrasing and organization. A more striking difference is the degree of exaggeration in the later version. For instance, in 1879 Virginia wrote, "My father started with a small library of select Books, knowing such things were scarce in a new country," which in 1891 was rendered, "Knowing that books were always scarce in a new country, we also took a good library of standard works." In 1879 Virginia wrote that the Reed family wagon "was aranged in regard to Grandmas comfort. It was larger than the others...," but in 1891 she wrote, "I can say without fear of contradiction that nothing like our family wagon ever started across the plains."

While the incidents related in the two accounts are very similar, they are not identical and some passages were omitted from the 1891 version. Perhaps the most significant (to people who are interested in such things) is the information that the Springfielders crossed the Mississippi at Hannibal and the Missouri at Lexington, a detail about their route which has been uncertain until now.

Issue No.2

The 1891 article also omits a charming passage about the clothes the emigrants wore:

Our clothing was made suitable for travling, dresses of plaid linsy, aprons of Scotch gingam, high in the neck, with long sleeves, belt waists and little collars. No more use for low necked, short sleeved, pretty little white dresses, with blue and pink sashes, and cute little slippers. All those things were givin away. I remember when I first dressed up in my uniform for the planes, as we called it, How strangely I felt. The very clothing seemed to indicate that we were expected to endure something.

After sending McGlashan her memoir, Virginia followed up with several letters recalling details which had come back to her, many of which she later incorporated into the Century Magazine article. The 1891 piece shows the influence of McGlashan’s work; for example, Virginia places the Reed-Snyder fight at Gravelly Ford, an error that originated with McGlashan, and has the Donner Party celebrating the Fourth of July at Fort Laramie, instead of on Beaver Creek, a weeks’ travel further on, as she herself had described in her letter of July 12, 1846.

At some point Virginia resorted to James Reed’s journal, the Miller-Reed diary. She had not done so in 1879, but twelve years later she reported details which are found in no other source: that the emigrants left Fort Bridger on July 31, that it took seven days to reach the Weber River, and that Reed was away seeking Hastings for four days. Why she did not consult it for the rest of her article is not known, but the hard-to-read diary is little more than a logbook, lacking the anecdotes that Virginia enjoyed relating. Presumably she attempted to use it, found the task not to her liking or irrelevant to her goal, and set it aside.

While her 1891 account is more complete, more readily accessible, and more literate, Virginia Reed Murphy’s early memoir is arguably superior in that it is entirely her own work, more honest and more personal. In addition, it gives us a fascinating insight into the process by which historical narratives are created.

Nov./Dec. 1997

Website Update

I’m pleased to report that, although it will always be a work in progress, "New Light on the Donner Party" is nearing a semblance of completion. I need to add information to several of the Breens’ entries and do some general editing and tidying up, but I’m no longer slaving away at it all night long. There are several features I’m thinking of adding, but I’ll be taking a bit of a vacation from the website for a while to work on other projects.

Additions to the site include many new links to other Donner Party homepages, full text documents, genealogical sites, and historic landmarks; a page listing recent updates; and a page listing recent books on the DP.

Of particular interest has been the feedback from readers who post comments to the guestbook or write me e-mail. There have been many requests for information from descendants, people who think they might be descendants, Donner Party buffs, students working on research papers, and so on. I’ve received some fan mail (most gratifying), one crank message ("The Donner Party was a bunch of freaks!") and some very provocative and insightful correspondence. It’s surprising how many people out there are interested in the story.

If you get a chance, please visit the website at:

About the Bulletin

The trial issue of the Donner Party Bulletin met with a favorable response, so I’m continuing the experiment. For the sake of variety, I’ve asked others to contribute copy, so in future issues readers can look forward to a variety of material – a review of Frank Mullen’s new book, information about other books in the works, and reports on genealogical research – instead of just my pompous prose. Readers can contact me through the website.

Kristin Johnson
Salt Lake City, UT


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