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Donner Party Women - A Tribute

Phyllis realizes the importance of portraying women in history who made a difference in the world.

Donner Party Memorial ~

Donner Party Memorial at Donner Lake Memorial Park

Donner Party Memorial at Donner Lake Memorial Park

Winter of tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, 1846 - 1847 ~

The Donner Party women were a tough breed who did what they had to do to keep their families alive during an unforgiving winter of tragedy.

I stood at the foot of the Pioneer Monument, looking up to the top of the pedestal which the pioneer family of bronze stands on. The height of the pedestal, twenty-two feet, indicates how deep the snow was in the winter of 1846 - 1847. It was a winter of horrific tragedy for the Donner Party. I looked up above the pedestal to the image of the woman up there and saw that her face symbolizes the determination and courage of the women of the Donner Party.

The plaque on the front of the Pioneer Statue reads:


I could not help but feel the deep sorrow that always touches me when I walk through the Donner Memorial State Park on I-80 in the California - Nevada Sierra mountain range. The emigrants who suffered here left behind the imprint of sorrow and tragedy which can be felt if one is quiet long enough to listen to the past. They also left a legacy of their determination to survive at all costs.

As I walked through the Emigrant Trail Museum I saw replicas of many of the tools, utensils and other artifacts the people in the Donner Party used. When I saw a replica of Patty Reed's little doll (Dolly) I felt such joy to remember that little Patty and Dolly had survived that abnormally severe winter. As I walked over to a wagon that is like the ones the pioneers traveled in, there stood before me a mannequin dressed like a pioneer woman. She had on the old worn out clothes representing what Margaret Reed, Tamsen Donner, and the other women of the group of pioneers would have worn on that fateful trip. It was heart-breaking to see the look of hope mixed with fear of the unknown on that woman's face -- yet a feeling of pride came over me for the courage of those courageous people who faced unknown dangers.

Death by starvation ~

The delirium preceding death by starvation is full of strange phantasies. Visions of plenty, of comfort, of elegance, flit ever before the fast-dimming eyes. The final twilight of death is a brief semi-consciousness in which the dying one frequently repeats his weird dreams.

- From History of the Donner Party, A Tragedy of the Sierra

by C. F. McGlashan, June 30, 1879

— Charles Fayette McGlashan

The wrong trail ~

The hoped for destination was Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, California. Because they followed the Hastings trail, the "short cut", they were weeks behind schedule. When they reached the Sierra Nevada it was late in the season.

Hastings Cutoff ~

The Hastings Cutoff  added 150 miles to the journey.

The Hastings Cutoff added 150 miles to the journey.

Sutter's Fort ~

illustration of Sutter's Fort, , c. 1840

illustration of Sutter's Fort, , c. 1840

Independence, Missouri, 1846 ~

In the spring of 1846 a large group of pioneers came together with one common purpose. They wanted to reach California, the land of plenty that held great promise, where fortunes could be made and dreams realized. The excitement and hopes of these families must have been overwhelming. Almost five-hundred wagons of people left Independence, Missouri and headed west. Nine of these wagons held thirty-two members of the Reed and Donner families and their employees. They left Independence on May 12, 1846.

Among these pioneers were many women, some with children, who followed their husbands west. Each woman joined the wagon train for her own reasons. They made the choice to go because they were duty-bound to their husbands, or shared the same hopes, or were just as adventurous. Some were single and hired on as help-mates, or any number of reasons drove these women -- but they all had one thing in common, courage.

One of these women was Margaret Reed. Margaret had married James F. Reed, a wealthy Irish immigrant who had settled in Illinois in 1831. James and Margaret had two daughters, Patty and Virginia, and two sons, James and Thomas. They had Margaret's mother, Sarah Keyes, with them. Sarah suffered from advanced stages of tuberculosis and died May 29, 1846, at Alcove Springs, near present day Marysville, Kansas.

Margaret had also been of poor health and they had hopes that the climate out west would help her. James had built a custom designed wagon for the family. He wanted his ailing wife and mother-in-law to be as comfortable as possible while traveling. The wagon was unusually large and very ornate. He had many oxen to pull the wagon. Reed hired several young men to drive the oxen and a girl to help Margaret with the children and cooking. Reed also had two other wagons for his family and their possessions.

George Donner, 62, a farmer from Springfield, Illinois, and his wife Tamsen, 44, traveled with the Reed family. The Donners had five daughters ranging in age from three to thirteen. Donner's older brother Jacob also joined the party, along with his wife, two teenage stepsons, and five children, the eldest of whom was nine.

As they traveled, several other families joined up with the wagon train. Levinah Murphy, a widow, had a family of thirteen, five children, two married daughters and their families. The Breen family also joined the group. Patrick Breen and his wife Peggy had seven children, six boys and the youngest, a daughter. Several other families also joined up with the group along the way.

Wasatch Range, Utah ~

View of the Wasatch from Salt Lake City.

View of the Wasatch from Salt Lake City.

Weak and saddened ~

They already had become weak, hungry and saddened from their treacherous journey across the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. And now the Great Salt Lake lay just ahead f them.

The Great Salt Lake Desert ~

Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah - 80 miles of white salt, blistering hot days, freezing nights

Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah - 80 miles of white salt, blistering hot days, freezing nights

The Great Salt Lake Desert ~

On September 3 or 4, 1846, the group camped near the great Salt Lake. The summer was gone and the colors of autumn now showed on the Wasatch range. Luke Halloran, a young Irishman, lay dying in the Donner wagon. Luke had no kin of his own. He joined the Donner party in hopes of reaching California, thinking the weather there would be better for the tuberculosis he suffered from. In respect for this well-liked young man, the entire wagon train pulled near and stopped.

Mrs. Tamsen Donner sat in the wagon with Luke, his head in her lap. Although not his own mother, she gave him the love of a mother when he most needed it. As he looked up to her face, he said, "I die happy". Luke was buried in the dry salt lake. One can imagine the love and gratitude he felt for Tamsen Donner for the kindness she gave him during the trip and in his last few moments of life.

The eighty miles of Salt Lake Desert they had crossed was torturous. They had been told by Jim Bridger, the trading post owner who would profit by emigrants coming his way, that it was only thirty miles. He also told them it would take two days to cross -- it took them five grueling days.

Margaret Reed stayed with her children as her husband, James, rode ahead in search of water. He found water just twenty miles away. On his way back he met his hired teamsters who were driving the eighteen oxen Reed owned. The oxen were too weak and thirsty to pull the wagons any longer. The men did the right thing by driving them ahead, unhindered, to water. However, possibly because the oxen sensed water, they wandered off during the night.

The Reeds were now left destitute, eight-hundred miles from California and not yet out of the Salt Lake Desert. As the Reeds waited for their hired men and oxen to return, the rest of the wagon train left with Reed's directions to the much needed water. During the night the situation was desperate for the Reeds. They were running out of the little water they had and the teamsters and oxen had not returned.

Their only chance of surviving was to head out on foot towards the water Reed had found, twenty miles away. Margaret Reed, already in poor health, did not hesitate to follow her husband and lead her children to safety. The love this family shared is what held them together.

Faith and determination led them to Jacob Donner's wagon after a grueling trip on foot. The Donner's welcomed them and took them to where the rest of the group was camped. They all remained near the water for about eight days. Many of the men helped Reed in search of his oxen, but Reed's oxen were never found. All the livestock he had left was one cow and one oxen. Burying all but what possessions the Reed's would need the most, the party left for the Sierra's.

Seeing that the group would not have enough provisions to last through the mountains, two more men volunteered to go ahead for help. William McCutchen and C. T. Stanton left as each member of the party watched them till out of sight.

Emigrant camp on the Humboldt River ~

An emigrant encampment  on the Humboldt River in Nevada, 1859

An emigrant encampment on the Humboldt River in Nevada, 1859

James Reed banished ~

One of the horrors for Margaret Reed was the day her beloved husband was banished from the group. There are differing stories as to what really happened to lead to this difficult decision.

After the hardships the party had already been through, tempers were near the surface and supportive team work was breaking down. After a disagreement between James Reed and John Snyder, who had been good friends during the journey, a fight broke out. Snyder kept hitting Reed on the head with the butt of a bull whip. When Margaret ran between the two to stop the fight, Snyder hit her on the head. Infuriated and fearful for his wife whom Snyder was ready to strike again, Reed pulled his knife and fatally stabbed Snyder.

Even though there were eye-witnesses to the incident, and the fact that they said Reed was fighting in self-defense and for his wife's safety, the party voted to ban Reed from the wagon train. His exemplary military records, his association with honorable men such as Abraham Lincoln, was not taken into consideration.

Margaret was overwhelmed with grief and apprehension as to the fate of her husband. Would they vote to hang him? As Patty, her twelve year old daughter, dressed the wounds on her father's head, Margaret was distraught.

Finally, the word came back to the Reeds who were camped a ways from the rest of the group. James Reed was to be banished rather than hanged. When Reed refused to comply, Margaret pleaded and prayed with him. She would rather see her husband leave than watch him die by hanging. There was always the hope that they would one day be together again if he left.

Giving in to Margaret's pleas, Reed agreed to leave. He might be able to reach California and return with food and help. He asked the group to promise to care for his family. Reed was sent off with no weapons or food and on foot. A sympathetic friend of Reed's had rode ahead secretly and left a horse, rifle, and what little food he could for Reed.

Frail and weak, Margaret now had to carry on alone with her four children. She would face the most hazardous part of the journey without the strength, wisdom, protection and loving comfort of her husband. Every day Margaret and her daughters anxiously looked for signs ahead of James. For awhile they did find places where he had camped. Eventually any trace of him was not to be seen.

James and Margaret Reed ~

James and Margaret Reed kept hearts and family together.

James and Margaret Reed kept hearts and family together.

Ordeal ahead in the Sierra's ~

The group pressed on with dread to they knew not what --they had no other choice. Each hour's delay rendered death in the Sierra Nevada Mountains more imminent. Spirits were lifted a little on October 19, when C.T. Stanton returned with some provisions for the group. Captain Sutter had been generous and sent what he could with Stanton.

Even as the group rejoiced, they all knew more provisions and help would be needed before they could cross the mountains. Two brothers-in-law, William Foster and William Pike, volunteered to go across the summit and get more help. They were then camped near present day Reno, Nevada. As the two men were preparing to leave for help, there was an accident. A gun went off and William Pike was killed. The gun was an old-fashioned "pepper-box", a very unpredictable weapon. The accident left Mrs. Pike alone with her two small children, a baby just a few months old and a three year old girl.

Due to the unusually heavy snowfall and the many delays from hardship, the party was stranded for five months on the eastern side of the mountain range. (When I look up to the Sierra's from Reno during a winter storm, I cannot imagine how horrible and miserable it was for the people of the Donner party. It is a forbidding and unforgiving place to be in heavy snows and storms. One severe winter it took me eleven hours by car to get across the summit, which is normally less than a two hour drive.)

On Christmas day, Margaret Reed surprised her children with a pot of soup. She had managed to hide away little bits of food here and there. The children were delighted -- it was the best Christmas present a starving child could receive. By January, however, they were starving again. The children were eating bits and pieces of the oxhides that served as the roof of the cabin they had built. At one point, Margaret, Patty, and their hired help, Milt and Eliza, tried to go out in search of food. They were gone four days before they realized their effort was hopeless. They returned to the cabin. Eventually Margaret and her children moved in with the Breen family.

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Patrick Breen's diary ~

Diary of Patrick Breen

Diary of Patrick Breen

From the diary of Patrick Breen ~

"Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that she thought she would commence on Milton and eat him. I do not think she has done so yet; it is distressing."

— Patrick Breen

Relief comes to the starved ~

Only two members of the Donner family survived, their two youngest daughters. Tamsen Donner refused to go with the relief party. She bid a tearful goodbye to her daughters and stayed with her husband who was dying. Her love for him was one of selfless devotion. Tamsen did not survive long enough to be rescued.

There were three relief parties that came into the Sierra's to rescue the remaining survivors. When Margaret Reed weakly walked out of the mountains with the first relief party, the first voice she heard was that of her husband, James Reed. She collapsed with overwhelming emotion. James Reed returned with the second relief party to rescue his two youngest children, Patty and Tommy. The two had been too weak to make the trip and there had not been enough people strong enough to carry them. Margaret had to make the agonizing choice of leaving with her older children or staying with the two youngest. The Breens promised to care for Patty and Tommy and urged Margaret to go.

On their journey out of the mountains, Patty Reed went into delirium and almost died. They had no food left. The party stopped and James Reed kept chafing her hands and face to revive her. When she was coming back from a dream of Angels, bright lights and stars, Reed took off one of his gloves and from the thumb extracted some crumbs of food he had hid for emergency. He warmed the crumbs between his lips and placed them in his daughter's mouth. She was revived enough but still could not walk. The men took turns carrying her on their backs the rest of the way.

The trip from Reno, NV across the Sierras normally takes about one hour by car. One winter it took us eleven hours to get over the pass. I knew from experience.

Life goes on ~

Patty grew up, married and had children of her own. Until Patty died, many many years later, she kept a box of treasures that she and her family would look into with tears of remembrance. In the box was a lock of hair from her grandmother, a small salt cellar, the four inch beautiful Dolly, and an old woolen glove that still retained a few crumbs of food.

Elizabeth Donner, wife of Jacob whom had already died, refused to leave her two little boys who were too little to walk through the snow and she was too weak and ill to carry them. She died a few days after the second relief left camp.

Many stories, real or not, of gruesome cannibalism and claimed murder, over the years have over-shadowed the reality of the women who fought to hold their families together. Fate dealt them all a cruel and relentless blow. It is a heart-wrenching tale of fear and sacrifice. The men did what they could to protect their families. The women did what they had to do to keep their children and themselves alive. It had become a situation of the natural human instinct to survive.

Of the 87 people who made it as far as the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, only 46 survived that terrible winter of tragedy -- and only two families came out of it intact, the Reeds and the Breens. Others also survived, but had lost family members and friends. A few who survived were never able to emotionally overcome the terror and horror of the ordeal and lived the rest of their lives in torment.

The Breen's youngest daughter Isabella, who was one year old during the winter of 1846–1847, was the last survivor of the Donner Party. She died in 1935.

In the midst of the media and the public clamoring to hear about the gruesome details, the story of each individual person was largely overlooked. For the ones who perished and for the ones who survived, they each have their own story. Underneath it all is a story of overpowering faith and love.

What noble mothers and women they were. They gave unselfishly of themselves and cared for their loved ones as best they could.. Even as some lay dying their thoughts were of their family.

~ ~ ~ ~

Patrick Breen's diary, 1846 ~

Dec. 31. Last of the year. May we, with the help of God, spend the coming year better than we have the past, which we propose to do if it is the will of the Almighty to deliver us from our present dreadful situation. Amen.

— Patrick Breen

Note from author ~

Thank you for reading my article. Your opinions are important to me and let me know your interests. This helps me to offer more of your favorite subjects to read about. Your time and interest are very much appreciated. I hope to hear from you in the comments section below.

I write on several different subjects, all evergreen articles. You can read more about me and see more articles I wrote by clicking on my name by the small picture of me at the top right of this page.

Blessings and may you always walk in peace and harmony, softly upon Mother Earth.

Phyllis Doyle Burns - Lantern Carrier, Spiritual Mentor
~ ~ ~ ~

© 2010 Phyllis Doyle Burns


Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on October 15, 2019:

Hi Gladys. Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate it very much.

Gladys Disibbio on October 14, 2019:

Liked your story. I too felt "pangs" when visiting the Memorial. Sorrow wasn't the word I would personally use but heartfelt all the same. THANK YOU for sharing!

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on June 17, 2011:

Thank you, ruffridyer. Pioneer women were strong and worked so hard. They suffered so much.

ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on June 17, 2011:

It is impossible for us today to appreciate what the pioneers went through. a well written hub.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on October 05, 2010:

Ken, you always have such beautiful words and thoughts to share. What a compassionate person you are.

Thank you so much for the kind compliments. I live so near to where the Donner party camped before leaving for the Sierra's. When wandering around this county and visiting Donner Memorial State Park and Museum I can get a good sense of the people of the group and their suffering. It really took a lot out of me emotionally to write this hub -- but I felt the need to, even though so much has been written about the Donner Party over the years. I started the article quite some time ago and often hesitated to finish it, yet something compelled me to go with it.

I am glad that it has touched the hearts of others. Thank you.

saddlerider1 on October 05, 2010:

What an amazing tale of woe, sacrifice, determination and sorrow. I could not stop reading this. You wrote this account so well you kept my interest at a very high level. I am so sad for those people, there are so many accounts of pioneers who did similar trips and died along the way from starvation and the elements and disease.

All hoping to find the American dream of prosperity, adventure and new challenges in other parts of the country. They risked so much in doing so, yet never doubting for a minute that they couldn't fulfill their missions.

I thank you for this wonderful hub, you give tribute to the determination and fortitude of the American pioneering spirit. May they all be RIP with their creator. God bless each and every one of them.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on October 04, 2010:

I have read many books about the Donner Party. The one I thought was the most accurate and heartfelt was "History of the Donner Party, A Tragedy of the Sierra"

by C. F. McGlashan, June 30, 1879

In his book, McGlashan presents facts then gives an observation in defense of the person or persons involved. I can tell that McGlashan had a heart of compassion for he presents the love, faith and courage of each person he writes about with deep emotion. Excellent account, amazing stories of love.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on October 03, 2010:

Thank you so much, bayoulady. There is so much written about this subject that I have spent almost two weeks researching and pulling information relevant to a tribute to the women. It was very heart-wrenching for me to do this, to read all their stories. I live just over the hill from where the Donner Party camped just prior to heading up to the Sierra's.

bayoulady from Northern Louisiana,USA on October 03, 2010:

The Donner party has always been a heart-gripping story. I must say well done to this excellenly written tribute to the women of the donner party.

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