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The Reed Family
[Donner Party Roster] [Rescuers and Others]

The story of the Donner Party is very much the story of the Reed family, not simply because the Reeds were prominent members, but because they left much of the documentary evidence: diaries, letters written en route and shortly after the disaster, correspondence and interviews with C. F. McGlashan and other writers, and memoirs.

For genealogical and family history research, try the Sangamon Co., Ill. and Santa Clara Co., Calif. GenWeb sites.

There has been some confusion about the years of birth of the Reed children. The dates given here are taken from letters by Patty Reed Lewis and Virginia Reed Murphy to historian C. F. McGlashan.

James Frazier Reed

Businessman from Springfield, Illinois.
Age: 45

Parents: —— Reed and Martha Frazier

b. 14 Nov 1800, Co. Armagh, Ireland
m. 14 Oct 1835 Springfield, Sangamon Co., IL to
Margret Wilson Keyes
Martha Jane, James Frazier Jr., Thomas Keyes, Dallas (?) Gershom Francis, Charles Cadden, Willianoski Yount.
d. 24 Jun 1874 San Jose, Santa Clara Co., CA

     James F. Reed dominates the story of the Donner Party. He was a man of strong personality, described as intelligent and energetic but also as aristocratic and overbearing.
     Reed was born in Northern Ireland, but he was reportedly of noble Polish extraction and the name was originally "Reednoski." After his father’s death, Reed and his mother emigrated to the United States; when he was old enough "to be of some service to himself," his mother sent him to live with a relative in Virginia, who employed Reed as a clerk in his store. In about 1825 Reed went to the lead district of Illinois, where he began his lifelong interest in mining, and moved on to Springfield in 1831. During the Black Hawk War (1831) he joined a local volunteer militia company led by Jacob M. Early, serving with Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and James Clyman. After his return to Springfield Reed ran several businesses over the years: a general store, a starch factory, a sawmill, and a furniture factory. He also speculated in railroad contracts and real estate, and served as the U. S. pension agent for Springfield.
     According to his stepdaughter Virginia, it was James Reed who conceived the idea of going west and organized the group from Springfield. He had first thought of going to Oregon, but decided on California instead, and spent nearly a year preparing for the journey.
     One of his preparations was to have a comfortable wagon built for his ailing wife and mother-in-law to ride in. Much has been made of this vehicle, the so-called
"Pioneer palace car." Although it was larger than his other wagons, there is no reason to accept George R. Stewart’s description of it as "huge" and "looming" over all the others in the wagon train. In addition to the family wagon, the Reeds had two others to carry provisions and other supplies. They took extra cattle, horses, and several dogs. With them traveled three teamsters, Milt Elliott, Walter Herron, and James Smith, and two servants, Baylis Williams and his sister Eliza.
     Along the Humboldt, on October 5, 1846, Reed became involved in a dispute between two teamsters and in the ensuing fight stabbed John Snyder to death. He was banished from the train and went ahead to Sutter’s Fort for supplies, but snow blocked the pass when he and William McCutchen tried to return to the wagon train at the beginning of November.
     Reed’s attempts to organize another relief party met with temporary failure. Most of the able-bodied American settlers had enlisted to fight in the Mexican War, and horses and provisions were also scarce. Reed participated briefly in the war, and on January 2, 1847, was involved in a skirmish known as the
Battle of Santa Clara. The Americans prevailed and five days later a treaty was signed. In all Reed spent a few weeks in the area where he would later settle, and took steps to secure land for himself and his dependents.
     In February Reed led the Second Relief to the camps. He met his wife, Virginia, and James, Jr. coming out of the mountains with the First Relief in an emotional reunion. Learning that Patty and Tommy were still at the lake, and knowing that the rest of his family would soon be safe, he hurried over the mountains. As he was leading the refugees down to the California settlements, however, a blizzard set in. When the storm eased two days later, most of the emigrants had become too weak to continue. Reed took three with him, but had to leave the rest behind at what was to become known as Starved Camp. They were rescued four days later by John Stark.
     After recuperating in the Napa Valley at the ranch of
George C. Yount the Reeds continued on to Santa Clara County. They settled in San Jose, where Reed was an active member of the community. Although he arrived almost destitute, Reed did well in real estate and mining ventures and the family prospered. Reed died at the age of 73 and was laid to rest beside his beloved Margret at San Jose's Oak Hill Cemetery.
The day after the Donners and Reeds joined the wagon train captained by William Russell, Reed wrote a letter to his brother-in-law; see Reed Joins the Russell Train: Letter to James W. Keyes, May 20, 1846. Reed wrote and preserved numerous other documents dealing with the Donner Party, including the Miller-Reed Diary, a diary of the Second Relief, letters, and a memoir.

Margret Wilson Keyes

Wife of James Frazier Reed
Age: 32

Parents: Humphrey Keyes (b. 13 Nov 1764, Keyes Ferry, Jefferson Co., WV, d. 11 Oct 1833, Springfield, Sangamon Co., IL) m. 24 Apr 1803 to Sarah Handley (b. abt 1776, Monroe Co., WV, d. 29 May 1846, Alcove Spring, Marshall Co., KS)

b. 31 Mar 1814 Union, Monroe Co., WV
m1. 13 Sep 1832 Springfield, Sangamon Co., IL, to Lloyd Carter Backenstoe (b. 20 Jun 1811 in Augusta Co., GA, d. 9 Sep 1834 in Springfield, Sangamon Co., IL)
Virginia Elizabeth Backenstoe
m2. 14 Oct 1835 Springfield, Sangamon Co., IL, to James Frazier Reed
     Ch: Martha Jane, James Frazier Jr., Thomas Keyes, Dallas (?) Gershom Francis, Charles Cadden, Willianoski Yount.
d. 25 Nov 1861 San Jose, Santa Clara, CA

     The spelling "Margret" is Mrs. Reed’s own.
     When Margret was born, Monroe County was in Virginia; it became part of West Virginia when that state was created in 1863.

     Margret Keyes’ first husband, Lloyd Backenstoe, was a tailor who worked in her brother James’ shop. Backenstoe died of cholera at the age of 23 in September 1834, leaving his widow with a baby daughter, Virginia.
     James F. Reed and Margret’s brother James Keyes were close friends. Reed had been engaged to their sister Elizabeth, but she died in the same cholera epidemic as Lloyd Backenstoe. A year later Reed married Margret. She was ill, but was married as she lay in bed, with Reed standing beside her holding her hand.
     The Reeds had four children before they left Springfield. Patty, James, Jr., and Tommy accompanied their parents to California, but the fourth, a little boy, died as a baby. There is conflicting information about this child—Patty gave his name as Dallas—but a tombstone inscription published in 1896 probably contains the most accurate version. "—— Gershom Francis Reed" had been born on 29 Dec 1844 and died 10 Dec 1845. The baby was buried beside his grandfather Keyes. The knowledge that she would have to leave him behind must have added to Margret’s grief, for the gravestone read, "Touch not my little grave, Mama is far away."
     Margret Reed’s frail health was one of the reasons her husband wanted to move to California. She was particularly troubled by sick headaches. When disaster struck, however, she rallied and became, as Virginia said, "the bravest of the brave." All her children survived the ordeal in the mountains.
     On February 6, 1848, less than a year after her escape from the snow, Margret bore her next child, Charles Cadden Reed. Willianoski Yount, called Willie, followed in 1850 but lived only nine years. Margret's sick headaches never returned, but her health was not robust and she died at age 47, a comparatively young woman. On her deathbed she spoke of a bright light that the curtains could not shut out, and named departed loved ones she saw about her: her mother, Willie, Lloyd Backenstoe, Mary Donner, and others. She lies beside her husband in Oak Hill Cemetery.

Virginia Elizabeth Backenstoe

Daughter of Lloyd Carter Backenstoe and Margret Wilson Keyes ; stepdaughter of James Frazier Reed
Age: 13

b. 28 Jun 1833 Springfield, Sangamon Co., IL
m. 26 Jan 1850 San Jose, Santa Clara Co., CA to John Marion Murphy (b. 08 Jan 1824 in Canada, d. 19 Feb 1892, San Jose, Santa Clara Co., CA)
     Ch: Mary M., Lloyd M., Mattie H., John Marion Jr., Virginia B., Julia Ada, Daniel James, Annie Mabel, Thaddeus Stanley
d. 14 Feb 1921 Los Angeles, CA

     Virginia was only a baby when her mother married James F. Reed, who was appointed her legal guardian on 10 September 1836. Although he did not formally adopt her, Virginia went by his surname. There was a strong bond between them and Reed did not treat her any differently than he did his natural children.
     Virginia was a noted equestrian who won prizes for horsemanship in her later years. She considered a horse her "pet of pets" and could not remember being unable ride. She had a cream-colored pony, Billy, to ride across the plains and enjoyed going out with her stepfather every day, until Billy gave out and had to be left behind.
     Virginia wrote letters to her cousin, Mary Catherine Keyes, on July 12, 1846 and May 16, 1847. These two documents, her letters to historian C.F. McGlashan, and her memoir, "Across the Plains in the Donner Party," are important contributions to our knowledge of the Donner Party. Her writing is sprightly, informal, and full of human interest. (Click
here for an article about her memoir.)
     At Donner Lake, impressed with piety of the Breen family, Virginia vowed that if God would spare her family’s lives, she would become a Catholic. All the Reeds survived, and Virginia kept her promise.
     On her way down from the mountains, one of the young men helping with the relief efforts proposed to her, young and half-starved as she was. The idea was incomprehensible to her, and she refused him. (See
Perry McCoon and Virginia Reed on the Myths page.)
     When Virginia was sixteen she ran off to marry
John Marion Murphy, a pioneer who had arrived in California with the Townsend-Stephens-Murphy Party of 1844. (See Donner Party Bulletin No. 12 for the story of her elopement.) Murphy was involved in local politics and engaged in a number of business enterprises, including real estate and insurance. After he became ill, Virginia assisted him and continued his business after his death in 1892. She became the first woman on the Pacific Coast to engage in the fire insurance business. The Murphys had nine children, three of whom died young. Virginia Reed Murphy died in 1921 at the age of eighty-seven.

Martha Jane "Patty" Reed

Daughter of James Frazier Reed and Margret Wilson Keyes
Age: 8

b. 26 Feb 1838 Sangamon Co., IL
m. 25 Dec 1856 Santa Cruz Co., CA to Frank Lewis (b. 15 Dec 1828 in Lancaster, Worcester Co., MA; d. 18 Jun 1876 San Jose, Santa Clara Co., CA)
     Ch: Kate, Margaret, Frank Reed, Martha Jane, James Frazier, Carrie E., Susan Augusta; another child who died as a baby
d. 4 Jul 1923 East Twin Lakes, Santa Cruz Co., CA

     Patty Reed was only a child of eight when her family left Springfield, but she too retained many memories which she shared with various writers, including C. F. McGlashan, Evelyn Wells, and Katherine Wakeman Cooper. She also preserved a wealth of family documents and artifacts, later donated to Sutter’s Fort in 1946.
     The most famous of these is "Dolly," a little wooden figure under four inches high. According to Patty, when her family was caching their goods along the trail, the children were told they had to leave everything behind. Among other items, Patty rescued "Dolly" from the sand, and slipped them into her dress. Safely at the settlements, Patty took "Dolly" out and Margret Reed began to cry—not because Patty had disobeyed her, as Patty thought, but because she was glad that her daughter had had some comfort during her trials at the lake.
     Patty grew into a small woman, with dark brown eyes. She married Frank Lewis on Christmas Day, 1856. Lewis died in 1876, leaving Patty with several children to support. She did this by keeping a boarding house, first in Santa Cruz, then in Capitola. Like her parents, she is buried in San Jose’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
     Patty was the special pet of her grandmother, Sarah Handley Keyes, who died in Kansas not six weeks after the journey beg
an. To read about that distressing event and Pattys later efforts to locate her grandmothers grave, see Patty Reed Remembers.

James Frazier Reed, Jr.

Son of James Frazier Reed and Margret Wilson Keyes
Age: 5

b. 26 Mar 1841 Sangamon Co., IL
m. 16 Mar 1879 San Jose, Santa Clara Co., CA to Sarah Adams
d. 17 Sep 1901 Capitola, Santa Cruz Co., CA

     Margret, Virginia, and James F. Reed, Jr. were rescued by the First Relief. Five-year-old Jimmy found it hard to struggle through the snow. His mother enticed him to continue with promises that when he reached California he would have his own horse and would never have to walk anymore. McGlashan wrote, "This promise was literally fulfilled. James F. Reed, Jr., since reaching California, has always had a horse of his own. No matter what vicissitudes of fortune have overtaken him, he has always kept a saddle horse." When John Denton gave out, he looked so comfortable resting by the fire that Jimmy wanted to stay with him.
     His big sister Virginia recounted, "we went over great hye mountain as steap as stair steps in snow up to our knees litle James walk the hole way over all the mountain in snow up to his waist, he said every step he took he was a gitting nigher Pa and somthing to eat." Years later she wrote, "He was the youngest child that walked over the Sierra Nevada."
     James Jr. joined his father and brother in mining and real estate ventures and spent most of his life in San Jose, California. He died at the home of his sister Patty in Capitola and was buried in San Jose's Oak Hill Cemetery.

Thomas Keyes Reed

Son of James Frazier Reed and Margret Wilson Keyes
Age: 3

b. 02 Apr 1843 Sangamon Co., IL
d. 24 Jul 1915 Santa Cruz Co., CA

     Tommy Reed seems to have been particularly close to his sister Patty. On May 25, 1846, J. Quinn Thornton recorded an incident in which Patty’s enthusiastic affection nearly bowled Tommy over.
     The Reed family left the lake camp in February 1847 with the First Relief, but Patty and Tommy were too weak to continue and had to be taken back to the Breen cabin to wait for the next rescue party. Patty took care of her little brother. When James Reed arrived with the Second Relief, Tommy didn’t recognize him and asked Patty, whom he had come to regard as his mother, if that were really his father.
     After their rescue, the survivors put on a lot of weight. Patty later wrote that Tommy became "as stout as a little alderman."
     Thomas Reed never married. He lived in San Jose most of his life, and in his later years he made his home with Patty. When he died in 1915, Thomas was the last surviving male of the Donner Party. He, too, is buried in the Reed-Lewis plot at Oak Hill Cemetery in San Jose.

Sarah Handley

Mother of Margret Wilson Keyes, mother-in-law of James Frazier Reed
Age: [70]

Parents: John Handley (b. 1746, d. 13 Jan 1811) and Mary Harrison (b. 1745, d. 4 Dec 1829)

b. Abt 1776 Monroe Co., WV
m 24 Apr 1803 Humphrey Keyes (b. 13 Nov 1764, Keyes Ferry, Jefferson Co., WV; d. 11 Oct 1833, Sangamon Co., IL)
     Ch: Gershom, James Washington, Alexander,
Margret Wilson, Elizabeth, Robert Cadden
d. 29 May 1846 Alcove Spring, Marshall Co., KS

(For more genealogical information about Sarah Keyes, see John & Mary (Harrison) Handley genealogy page.)

     Surname also given as Hanley in some sources.
     Jefferson and Monroe counties were originally in Virginia; they became part of West Virginia when that state was created in 1863.
     In 1879 Virginia Reed Murphy gave her grandmother
s age as 70, as do all sources from 1846, but in her 1891 memoir, she reported that her grandmother had been 75. The younger age is more likely to be correct.
     Two reasons have been given as to why the ailing Mrs. Keyes decided to emigrate to California. According to diarists Edwin Bryant and George McKinstry, Mrs. Keyes was hoping to meet her youngest son, Robert Cadden, on the trail. Years later, however, Virginia Reed Murphy reported that her grandmother could not bear to be parted from her only daughter. For either or both of these reasons, Grandma Keyes rode in a bed in the comfortable wagon that Reed had built for his family. On May 20, Reed wrote his brother-in-law:

I am affraid Your mother will not stand it many week[s] or indeed days, if there is not a quick change... I have been talking this moment with Your Mother[.] She says she feels very much like she was going to die one of her eyes pains her much and She is so blind that she cannot take her coffee or plate if it is set near her this morning[.] She cannot eat anything I am of [the] opinion a few days will end her mortal carear

Nine days later, while the company was stopped at the Big Blue River, Sarah Keyes died. Her death was a blow to Margret Reed. The funeral was conducted with as much ceremony as circumstances allowed. Thornton recorded:

Mrs. Keyes, the mother of Mrs. Reed, who had been for some time ill, died on the morning of this day. John Denton, an Englishman from Sheffield, busied himself in preparing a decent slab of stone to put at her head, and in carving upon it a suitable inscription. A humble grave was dug under the spreading boughs of a venerable oak, about sixty or seventy yards from the wayside, and thither her remains were followed by a silent, thoughtful, and solemn company of emigrants, who were thus admonished that they were indeed pilgrims, hastening to a land "from whose bourne no traveler returns." After obtaining permission from Mrs. Reed, I requested the Rev. J. A. Cornwall to preach upon the occasion...
I had no acquaintance with the deceased. She had been, indeed, confined to her bed, when her son-in-law, Mr. Reed, was making his arrangements for the journey. She could not, however, bear the thought of remaining behind. A wagon had been arranged with reference to her comfort. She had been carried to it in her bed, and had there remained until her spirit returned to God who gave it, and her body was laid in its silent grave in the wilderness. I was informed that her departure was peaceful and full of hope. The inscription upon the grave-stone, and upon the tree above it, is as follows: "Mrs. Sarah Keyes, died May 29, 1846: Aged 70."

The grave was noted by several passing emigrants in later years, but the exact location is now unknown. Grandma Keyes was not buried near Manhattan, Kansas, as Virginia Reed Murphy mistakenly reported in 1891, but at Alcove Spring near Marysville; for an explanation of how the confusion arose, see That Old Grave. A purported gravestone was found in 1994, but its authenticity has not been established.

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