No. 5

Donner Party Bulletin


Issue No. 5

The Miller-Reed Diary

(To see the full text of this document, click here.)

In 1946 a descendant of Patty Reed Lewis donated a trove of family documents and memorabilia to Sutter’s Fort. Among them was a leather-bound journal containing entries from May to October 1846. The expert who examined the documents determined that, apart from a few notations in other hands at the beginning and end of the diary, the entries from May 15 to July 2 had been written by Hiram O. Miller and those from July 3 to October 4 by James F. Reed. The division of the diary into these sections coincides with what is known from other sources, that on July 2 Hiram Miller left the Donners and Reeds to join the Bryant-Russell mule-packing party.

In 1947 Carroll D. Hall, the curator of Sutter’s Fort, published the Miller-Reed diary along with other papers from the Reed collection as Donner Miscellany: 41 Diaries and Documents. In his introduction to the diary Hall addressed the difficulties it posed and asked,

Did Reed write his entries in after years? Why did he write in the third person? Can his dates be trusted? Why has the diary remained seemingly unknown? Here is something for the avid historian to mull over.

Donner Miscellany was published well after George R. Stewart’s Ordeal by Hunger came out, but Stewart was still interested enough in the Donner Party to consider the implications of the Miller-Reed diary. On August 29, 1949, Stewart sent Hall a five-page memorandum commenting on it. Stewart concluded that Reed used the third person because he did not see the diary as a personal record, probably anticipating that others might use it as a guide; that the repetition of some entries

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indicates that Reed did not always make regular daily entries but sometimes caught up on more than one day’s events at a time; and that despite a few problems, Reed’s dates appeared to be accurate. Stewart also found no reason to think that Reed had made the entries in later years. As to Hall’s last question, Stewart wrote simply that he couldn’t say why the diary had been unknown for so long. His comments on the diary went unpublished, although he did address some of the issues in the "Notes" of the second (1960) edition of Ordeal by Hunger.

In 1951 an exhaustive analysis of the diary appeared in print. Two years earlier, on May 22, 1949, Dale L. Morgan had written Charles Kelly and J. Roderic Korns about "the most staggering historical find in years" and sent them a transcription of the Miller-Reed diary as published by Hall. Morgan received a photostatic copy of the manuscript on June 20 and began an intense scrutiny of it. He and his friends had been thrashing out the problems of the opening of Hastings Cutoff for several years. Until then, the only itinerary of the Donner Party’s journey on Hastings Cutoff available was the extremely problematic one in J. Quinn Thornton’s Oregon and California in 1848. The discovery of the Miller-Reed diary revolutionized their thinking.

Rod Korns, who had been ailing when Morgan discovered the diary, died in July 1949, but Morgan went ahead with their long-standing dream of publishing the primary documents of Hastings Cutoff, in which the "Reed" portion of the diary now played an important role. West from Fort Bridger appeared in 1951 as Volume 19 of the Utah Historical Quarterly. Although Morgan had compiled the documents and written the copious annotations, he ascribed primary authorship to his late friend, who had contributed so much to the book. On February 5, 1951, as "Rod’s book" was being prepared for publication, Morgan wrote Kelly regarding Miller-Reed,

Issue No. 5

The more I have worked with that diary, the more collateral evidence I have piled up, the more its absolute genuineness has become apparent, as also the fact that Reed was its author. It was a conclusion I came to very reluctantly, for on first reading it I could not be persuaded of this. But finally it cannot be doubted.

Dale Morgan’s imprimatur is not to be taken lightly. He was and is a highly regarded historian whose prodigious research gave him a wide knowledge of the American West, a scrupulous scholar intimately familiar with the topography and history of Hastings Cutoff. In addition to establishing the diary’s reliability, Morgan reached the same conclusions as Stewart about Reed’s use of the third person and erratic record-keeping. In 1963 Morgan again published and annotated Miller-Reed in Overland in 1846, but this time included the complete text of the diary.

The challenge to Miller-Reed’s authenticity did not come until 1992, when, in response to Hall’s questions in Donner Miscellany, the late Joseph A. King suggested that Reed had forged the diary at a later date. King had not read West from Fort Bridger or Overland in 1846, nor did he discuss the matter with an experienced trail historian before arriving at this opinion. He did consult a handwriting expert, whose conclusions were essentially the same as those of the expert who had examined the diary decades earlier.

In establishing a document’s authenticity there are many factors to consider. Stewart and Morgan had considered the diary’s content, but King’s attack was based almost entirely on its provenance. King claimed, first, that the diary was too pristine to be authentic; and second, that its sudden appearance in 1946 indicated that it must had been suppressed by Reed’s daughters Virginia and Patty, who knew that it was a fraud. King suggested that the diary was faked in 1871, when Reed and McCutchen were attacked by F. H. McDougall in the Pacific Rural Press. Reed needed to come up with

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a plausible itinerary so he, Miller, and McCutchen got together and faked the diary. One of the few issues of content that King addressed a marginal notation in the diary which states that it took the Donner Party 18 days to travel 30 miles while building the road through the Wasatch, when other sources give a longer time. King cites these figures as evidence that Reed deliberately falsified the length of time in order to downplay the delay resulting from taking the new route, a route which Reed had advocated and a delay which was a major factor in the deaths of forty-two people.

In considering his case against Miller- Reed, one must remember that King was not a documents expert nor did he offer any support for his opinion that the diary is "too pristine" to be genuine. Mary Lou Lentz, a curator of manuscripts at Sutter’s Fort, agrees that the diary is in "great shape," but reports that its condition is by no means unusual and does not see it as a reason to question the document’s authenticity.

A basic flaw in King’s conspiracy theory is the simple fact that Hiram Miller died in 1867. In addition, King tells us that Reed’s handwriting had become shaky by 1871, yet the writing in "Reed" is not. Obviously the diary could not have been faked in 1871. King abandoned this scenario in the second (1994) edition of his book. This time he suggested that the "Miller" part of the diary was genuine and that only the "Reed" section had been faked at some unspecified later date. He hypothesized that Miller kept the diary until July 2, took it with him when he left the wagon train, and that Reed had falsified the second portion later in California. King wrote,

the almost pristine, unworn condition of the document and the fact that [Reed’s] entries were in pen and ink should suggest strongly the fact that the entries were not made on the dusty trail over a period of months.

By adopting this new theory, however, King destroyed his

Issue No. 5

own argument. First he said that the entire diary was too pristine to be genuine and the entire diary was a fraud; then he said that "Miller" is genuine and only "Reed" is forged. But if "Miller" is pristine and genuine, why can’t "Reed" be?

Second, the notion that Reed’s use of ink somehow suggests forgery can be charitably described as naive. If using pen rather than pencil is evidence of forgery, scores of trail diaries would have to be dismissed as fakes. Once again, if Hiram Miller could keep a pristine trail diary in ink, why not Reed?

Another striking inconsistency King created by changing his interpretation is this: he lists entries made in unknown hands dated November 20, 1846 and January 30, 1847, recording events that took place in the mountains. Several paragraphs later he suggests that Miller took the diary with him to California. But if the diary was in California with Miller, how did those notations come to be written in it? Naturally one could argue that these entries, too, were made at a later date, but Reed would have had to ask two other people whose handwriting has not been identified to make the notations; was he really that devious? Moreover, Hall’s handwriting expert opined that the November entries may been made by Charles Stanton. If true, the diary must have been in the mountains, for Stanton died on the Forlorn Hope in December.

The question of what happened to the diary after 1847 is problematic, but there is some evidence for its existence prior to 1946. In December 1847 a Springfield newspaper, the Illinois Journal, published an article about the Donner Party prepared by J. H. Merryman from an "abstract of the journal of Mr. James F. Reed." The article says little about the first part of the journey, and some of the details do not agree with the diary, but it does report that during the road-building the company took 18 days to travel 30 miles— precisely the figures in the Miller-Reed diary that King cites as evidence of forgery at a later date. In 1871 Reed referred to a diary containing "the particulars pertaining to the party

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in the mountains," but this probably refers to his Second Relief diary.

In 1880 Patty Reed Lewis excitedly wrote C. F. McGlashan that she had discovered some old papers of her father’s in a camphor chest. She sent several of the documents to the historian, who incorporated part of the material into the second edition of his History of the Donner Party. Since they made no mention of Miller- Reed, King alleged that Reed’s daughters must have known it was a fake and deliberately suppressed it. This charge is defective on several counts.

First, King assumed that the diary must have been in the chest where Patty found the other papers, but this may not have been the case. Second, even if the diary had been there, it is entirely possible that Patty did not recognize it as her father’s, since the first part was not in his writing; she may not even have remembered that he had kept a diary, for she had been only eight years old in 1846. And third, it’s possible that she recognized it but did not consider it very interesting. The diary is little more than a logbook, contains few personal details, and is also difficult to read; McGlashan was primarily interested in the Donner Party’s dramatic travails in the Sierra, not in the journey across the plains, and "Reed" ended before the emigrants reached the mountains.

Nor can Virginia Reed Murphy be said to have denied the diary’s authenticity. In 1891 the Century Illustrated Magazine published her memoir, in which she wrote that the emigrants left Fort Bridger on July 31, that it took them seven days to reach the Weber River, and that her father was absent for four days seeking Hastings. The only source that gives these details is the Miller-Reed diary. Although we don’t know where the diary was previously, it certainly appears that Mrs. Murphy resorted to it in 1891. If she knew it was fake and suppressed it in 1880, why did she use it eleven years later?

In addition, other papers were found in the back pocket of the Miller-Reed diary. Hall’s expert identified the handwriting of several different individuals. Was Reed a

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master forger? Did he fake all these notes? Of course not— the notes are genuine. Since these authentic documents survived the mountains, why not the diary as well?

This brings us to another question: How were the documents saved? We don’t know for certain, but a series of articles which appeared in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in 1919 suggests an intriguing possibility. Mrs. Lewis told the author, Evelyn Wells, that when the Reeds had to abandon their last wagon in the Nevada desert, Margret Reed rescued several items which she carried in a carpet bag. Among them was a muster roll from the Black Hawk War listing the names A. Lincoln and James F. Reed, reportedly written by Lincoln himself. This document is preserved among the Reed papers at Sutter’s Fort. It is at least possible that Mrs. Reed brought the Miller-Reed diary from the camp in her carpet bag along with the roll; alternatively, Reed may have retrieved it himself when he arrived at the camp with the Second Relief.

Despite the question of provenance, there are several points which argue in favor of the authenticity of the diary. First and foremost, it is topographically and chronologically accurate, as George Stewart stated and Dale Morgan demonstrated decades ago. Those who have traced the Donner trail have discovered the same thing: "Miller-Reed works. Thornton doesn’t," as Frank Mullen puts it. It is simply not credible that Reed could have remembered so much detail so accurately years after the event. Although his mileages are often wrong, Reed gets all the landmarks in the right order, the days of travel between them are reasonable, his cardinal directions are right, and his topographical descriptions are accurate. The itinerary William Eddy gave to J. Q. Thornton in 1847 is not reliable; if Eddy’s memory was so inaccurate after only one year, could Reed have been more accurate many years later?

Then there’s the style of writing, whose freshness and immediacy suggest contemporary composition. The wording is unique and shows no influence of Thornton. Errors of

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spelling and grammar and the occasional duplication of entries suggest that it was composed on the spot. If Reed were going to fake the document, wouldn’t he have worked out the itinerary on a separate sheet, then transcribed the result into the diary?

The plausibility of King’s argument depends largely upon how one views James F. Reed. If one is favorably disposed towards him or neutral, one can find explanations for the problems with the diary or simply accept them. If one dislikes Reed, however, the diary looks suspicious, and if it’s fake, it’s a work of diabolical genius—reliable enough to inspire confidence, problematic enough that it’s not suspiciously perfect, brilliantly worded to make it look contemporary. Is it really credible that Reed would go to so much effort to concoct a magnificent fake and then never use it?

King implies strongly that Reed falsified the diary as a deliberate attempt to deceive, but his prejudice blinded him to another possibility, namely, that Reed may have reconstructed the journey for a non-nefarious purpose. If Reed wrote his section of the diary after the fact, the most likely time would have been the spring of 1847, when he was preparing the information used in the Merryman article. This would help explain some of the problems with the diary, makes its accuracy less astonishing, and accounts for the identical phrase (18 days to go 30 miles) appearing in both accounts. Nevertheless, while 1847 is a more likely composition date than 1871, by far the most likely answer is that Miller-Reed is exactly what it purports to be: a trail diary dating from 1846. Trail historians have accepted the authenticity of the Miller-Reed diary and will continue to disregard King’s allegations regarding its composition until a much more convincing case can be presented.

Donner Party Bulletin is edited by
Kristin Johnson
Salt Lake City, UT
Kristin Johnson


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