One of the companies I work with is located in Truckee, CA, at the opposite end of Donner Lake from the monument to the Donner Party. It's a major historic site for 4th and 5th grade student fieldtrips from California and Nevada. Most students west of the Mississippi know the details of the Donner Party through the story of Patty Reed's doll.
I've been able to visit the monument (which was pictured in the FIOF) and modest museum during all four seasons. The winter is beautiful, but brutal; the snow can become so deep that it covers the bottom windows of the office for a couple of months. I could readily understand the plight of the stranded members of the party.
Since I'm from the East Coast, the Donner Party was perhaps a paragraph or footnote in our school texts. Today, the Donner Party is the butt of many jokes. But after standing knee deep near one of the reconstructed cabins and imagining their plight, this was no joking matter.
The purpose of this Figure It Out Friday is not the story of the Donner Party, but to point out the connection between Abraham Lincoln and James Reed.
Where were these people from and when did they leave their safe homes?
The answer is , Springfield, Illinois in 1846.
That certainly rang a bell since I've been working on Lincoln Bicentennial student trips for 2009.
Springfield was founded in 1819 and made the county seat of Sangamon County in 1823. Springfield received its city charter in 1840 and made the capital of Illinois in 1837. The Legislature convened here for the first time in 1839.
Did Lincoln know any of the members of the Donner Party?
Yes, he certainly knew James Reed and his family.
Abraham Lincoln and James Reed had both served together during the American Blackhawk War of 1832, when Lincoln served as a Captain in Jacob Early's militia. Other members of the militia were Stephen Douglas and James Clyman. (Clyman figures into the Donner tale as he had warned James Reed to stay the course and not deviate.)
In 1846, Abraham Lincoln was a successful lawyer. Mary Todd Lincoln gave birth to a son, Eddie, who was to live only four years. Lincoln entered into a parnership with a former law clerk named Herndon, and won election as a member of the Whig Party to the U.S. House of Representatives. He then departed for Washington, DC. He served only one term, but was present in the chamber during John Quincy Adam's fatal stroke. Altogether the Lincolns lived in Springfield in the only house he ever owned, for 17 years.
In 1846, James Reed was a prominent businessman in Springfield. It is probable that the wealthy owner of a furniture manufacturing company, who was active in civic and political affairs, crossed paths with Abraham Lincoln many times.
James Reed was born in County Armagh, Ireland on November 14, 1800. After his father, who was descended from Polish royalty, died, he and his mother immigrated to the United States. When he was old enough to support himself, his mother sent him to a relative in Virginia, who employed Reed as a clerk in his store. Around 1825, Reed was attracted to the lead mining district of Illinois and mining was to become a lifelong passion. He moved to Springfield in 1831 and married a widow, Margaret Keyes Backenstoe, in 1835 and became a stepfather to Virginia Backenstoe. He and Margaret had three children together. Before running the furniture company he also had owned and run a general store, a starch factory, and a sawmill. He also was a speculator in real estate and railroad contracts and served as the pension agent for Springfield. .
Reed has been described as having a strong personality, intelligence, energy, as well as being aristocratic and overbearing. He had amassed a fortune, but the lure of new opportunities and riches in the west beckoned him two years before the Gold Rush which prompted him to advertise for people to accompany him, at first to Oregon, then California.
The Donners were farmers who knew of James Reed by reputation and in April 0f 1846, after preparing for over a year, they set off to California.
As for James Reed:
All but one of his family survived the ordeal; his mother-in-law, who was in frail health, died before they reached the Sierra Nevada.
He was an extraordinarily lucky and resourceful man; He made a fortune during the Gold Rush in Placerville (the advantage of already being there) and became a founding father and philanthropist of San Jose, California. He died a happy and wealthy man in 1874.
An excerpt from a letter by Virginia Reed: ''Oh, Mary. I have not wrote you half of the trouble we've had, but I have wrote you enough to let you know what trouble is. But thank God, we are the only family that did not eat human flesh. We have left everything, but I don't care for that. We have got through with our lives. Don't let this letter dishearten anybody. Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.''
Click on the following links to view the pages.
Black Hawk War
Donner History Sites:
Donner Memorial State Park & Emigrant Trail Museum, 12593 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee, CA 95734. (916) 582-7892. Donner Memorial State Park, near the eastern shore of Donner Lake, commemorates the disaster; the area where the Donner families camped at Alder Creek has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, 1726 Washington Street, Oregon City, OR 97045 (503)657-9336.
Fort Bridger Historic Site, PO Box 35, Fort Bridger, WY 82933. (307) 782-3842.
Fort Laramie Historical Association, HC 72, Box 389, Fort Laramie, WY 82212. (307) 837-2221.
National Frontier Trails Center, 318 W. Pacific St., Independence, MO. 64050. (816)325-7575.
Oregon-California Trail Association, 524 South Osage St., PO Box 1019, Independence, MO 64051-0519. (816) 252-2276.
The Oregon Trail. This website was put together by the creators of the PBS documentary about the trail.
Scotts Bluff National Monument, PO Box 27, Gering, Nebraska 69341. (308) 436-4340.
Sutter’s Fort, 2701 L Street, Sacramento, CA 95816. (916) 323-7626.
Donner Memorial State Park, near the eastern shore of Donner Lake, commemorates the disaster; the area where the Donner families camped at Alder Creek has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Suggested reading for elementary school:
This book is Patty's story, as told by Dolly, the tiny wooden doll she keeps hidden in her dress. Dolly vividly remembers days on the prairies, nights in camp, and the tiresome trek through the dry desert. During the bleak snowbound months, Dolly is Patty's only comfort.
Pieced together from letters, journals, and memoirs, this heartwarming tale shows how a little girl's love for her doll can transcend all danger.
Paper, 5 1/2" x 8 1/2", 144 pp. ISBN 0-9617357-2-4 $9.95