No. 12

Donner Party Bulletin


Virginia Reed Elopes!

     On January 26, 1850, Chester S. Lyman, a young clergyman, was in San Jose visiting California’s first governor. Lyman recorded in his diary:

While at Govr [Peter H.] Burnetts was called out by Mr Senator Douglass and John Murphy & requested to go immediately & marry Murphy & Miss Virginia Reed. Knowing the violent opposition of the parents, declined. They went for the Lieut Gov. McDougall, & married themselves before witnesses at Cooks. An exciting time. Reed had threatened to shoot Murphy. They rode to the Mission and spent the night.1

     A more detailed and romanticized version of the event was published in Springfield, Illinois, the bride’s home town:

Marriage in High Life

     Last week there occurred at our seat of Government2 one of those interesting instances of romance in real life the recital of which always meets with ready attention.
     It seems that a Miss Virginia Reed and Mr. John Murphy were two of the celebrated Donner party.
3 This party it will be remembered lost their way while endeavoring to reach California in 1846.

1  Lyman, Chester S. Around the Horn to the Sandwich Islands and California, 1845-1850. Ed. Frederick J. Teggart. (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971), p. 305
2  San Jose’s brief stint as the capital of California was enthusiastically promoted by James F. Reed, who spent thousands of dollars and donated land for the state capitol.
3  This statement is false. John Murphy had been a member of the Townsend-Stephens-Murphy Party of 1844 and was not a member of the Donner Party.

     Their sufferings were too severe for recital – Murphy was a bold noble hearted mountaineer, and Miss Reed has subsequently become the belle of San Jose. An attachment sprang up between the parties while on their journey. This attachment was at first encouraged on the part of the parents; but subsequently was disapproved of, and Murphy was prohibited the house.4 As is very natural this procedure only increased the attachment, which has been going on strengthening for the last three years.
     As the months passed on the impatience of the parties to have the marriage concluded increased. Finally, on Friday of last week Murphy met Reed in the street, and as a gentleman should, informed Reed of the determination of Miss Reed and himself to become married, and requested his full consent. Reed responded that he should not give his consent, and, moreover, that he would shoot Murphy if he dared attempt a marriage. Murphy responded – "Sir, you may shoot me; I shall not shoot you, but I shall marry your daughter – I give you fair warning." Of course the Reeds were on the alert.
     On the next evening, Miss Reed got up to go out of the house, telling her mother, on inquiry, that she was only going across the street to call on Mrs. J– , who was at that moment slightly unwell. Her mother requested her not to be gone long, and she promised to return in a few moments.
     On arriving at Mrs. J– ’s she informed that lady of her desire to be married at that time. – Murphy was immediately sent for. But unfortunately no clergyman could be found who would perform the ceremony. Time was rapidly flying. The mother was awaiting Miss Reed’s return, and delay would arouse suspicions. Should Reed appear, what would ensue. The bride was like an aspen leaf, for fear that the affair would be stopped. Murphy stood armed – cool and courageous. A few of his friends, also armed, were watching around the house lest Reed should gain admission before the ceremony

4  The reason for the Reeds’ opposition to the match is unclear; Virginia’s youth and the fact that Murphy was a Roman Catholic may have been factors.

Donner Party Bulletin No. 12
could be pe[r]formed. The whole affair, at this critical juncture, is described to us as having been most intensely exciting. Finding no other alternative, it was at last agreed upon that in the absence of the proper authorities, the parties should solemnize the marriage themselves formally before witnesses, by declaring, each to the other, their fixed determination to become at that time, and to remain forever, man and wife.
     The interest became thrilling. The point of time had at last arrived. The advent of Reed would have snatched the prize they were both just ready and so eager to grasp.
     There was a dead silence. The bridegroom commence the ceremony, promising "to love, honor and keep." Still Reed delayed his coming. The beauty and anxiety of the bride – the calmness and noble bearing of the bridegroom – the pain of suspense, al contributed to heighten the intense interest of the scene. The witnesses were breathless. The bridegroom’s low, determined, slowly and carefully spoken words ceased. Still Reed delayed his coming.
     There was a slight pause. The bride was agitated. At last she commence[d]. Her words were tremblingly and hurriedly enunciated, and she stopped in the middle of her part. It was a silent as death, outside the house. Still Reed delayed his coming. The bride was prompted, resumed, and, at last, the ceremony was completed. That which they had long and ardently desired, – that which they had looked forward to with scarce a hope of success, was now consummated. They were man and wife.
     Horses were ready at the door. They stopped for a few hurried congratulations, mounted and were off.
     Not three minutes from that time, Reed heard that the thing was done. Horses were procured, and they pushed off in full chase; not the victors but the vanquished. They headed for Murphy’s ranch, about eighteen miles distant. But they found they were out-generaled from beginning to end. The bird was not there. Murphy, instead of going to his ranch, drove only three miles out of the city in an opposite direction, and there rested in security.

Illinois Journal (Springfield, Ill.), April 16, 1850.

Edward Pyle Murdered

The murder of Mary Graves’ first husband caused quite a stir in San Jose and was long remembered. The following contemporary account is undoubtedly the most accurate:

Astounding Disclosure.—A man named Antonio Valencia was recently arrested and taken before his honor, Judge Kimball H. Dimmick, at the Pueblo de San Jose, charged with the murder of a man named Edward Piles [sic], who has been missing since May, 1848. On examination, Valencia confessed that he had murdered Piles, by dragging him a hundred yards with a lasso, and then cutting his throat; after which, he buried him. When our informant left, a party had started in search of the remains of the murdered man. Valencia was to be tried on the 9th last.
     Since writing the above, we have learned that the bones of the murdered man have been found, and Valencia has been tried, found guilty and was executed on the 10th inst.
     The reason given by Valencia, for having murdered Piles, is because he was told to do so by one Anistacio Chobollo [Anastasio Chabolla]. This Chobollo, it appears, was present at the murder, and shot the body of the murdered man full of arrows, to lead to the impression, should the body be found, that Piles was murdered by Indians. A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Chobollo, who is said to be somewhere in the mines.
     Great praise is due to the citizens of the Pueblo de San Jose, for this second proof of their fidelity to the cause of justice and order, and too much cannot be said in favor of the decision and firmness of the first alcalde and his assistants. Large bribes are said to have been offered to the officers having the prisoner in charge, to procure his escape, but they were spurned by the intelligent and high minded men who performed that duty—an incident creditable alike to the integrity of the officers and the community for which they acted.

Alta California (San Francisco), May 10, 1849.

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


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