As stated above, the train had reached Gravelly Ford. Already the
members of the company were beginning to scan eagerly the western plain
in hopes of discovering the relief which it was believed Stanton and
McCutchen would bring from Sutter’s Fort. Of course there were the usual
accidents and incidents peculiar to a journey across the plains.
Occasionally a wagon would need repairing. Occasionally there would be a
brief halt to rest and recruit the jaded cattle. The Indians had stolen
two of Mr. Graves’ oxen, and a couple of days later had stolen one of
In traveling, the Donner Party observed this rule: If a wagon drove in
the lead one day, it should pass back to the rear on the succeeding day.
This system of alternating allowed each his turn in leading the train.
On this fifth of October, 1846, F. W. Graves was ahead, Jay Fosdick
second, John Snyder third, and the team of J. F. Reed fourth. Milton
Elliott was driving Reed’s team. Arriving at the foot of a steep, sandy
hill, the party was obliged to “double teams,” that is, to hitch five or
six yoke of oxen to one wagon. Elliott and Snyder interchanged hot words
over some difficulty about the oxen. Fosdick had attached his team to
Graves’ and had drawn Graves’ wagon up the hill. Snyder, being nettled
at something Elliott had said, declared that his team could pull up
alone. During the excitement Snyder made use of very bad language, and
was beating his cattle over the head with his whip-stock. One account
says that Reed’s team and Snyder’s became tangled. At all events, Snyder
was very much enraged. Reed had been off hunting on horseback, and
arriving at this moment, remonstrated with Snyder for beating the
cattle, and at the same time offered him the assistance of his team.
Snyder refused the proffered aid, and used abusive language toward both
Reed and Elliott. Reed attempted to calm the enraged man. Both men were
of fiery, passionate dispositions, and words began to multiply rapidly.
When Reed saw that trouble was likely to occur, he said something about
waiting until they got up the hill and settling this matter afterwards.
Snyder evidently construed this to be a threat, and with an oath
replied, “We will settle it now.” As Snyder uttered these words, he
struck Reed a blow on the head with the butt-end of his heavy
whip-stock. This blow was followed in rapid succession by a second, and
a third. As the third stroke descended, Mrs. Reed ran between her
husband and the furious man, hoping to prevent the blow. Each time the
whip-stock descended on Reed’s head it cut deep gashes. He was blinded
with the blood which streamed from his wounds, and dazed and stunned by
the terrific force of the blows. He saw the cruel whip-stock uplifted,
and knew that his wife was in danger, but had only time to cry “John!
John!” when down came the stroke full upon Mrs. Reed’s head and
shoulders. The next instant John Snyder was staggering, speechless and
death-stricken. Reed’s hunting-knife had pierced his left breast,
severing the first and second ribs and entering the left lung.
No other portion of the History of the Donner Party, as contributed by
the survivors, has been so variously stated as this Reed-Snyder affair.
Five members of the party, now living, claim to have been eyewitnesses.
The version of two of these, Mrs. J. M. Murphy and Mrs. Frank Lewis, is
the one here published. In the theory of self-defense they are
corroborated by all the early published accounts. This theory was first
advanced in Judge J. Quinn Thornton’s work in 1849, and has never been
disputed publicly until within the last two or three years. Due
deference to the valuable assistance rendered by Wm. G. Murphy, of
Marysville, and W. C. Graves, of Calistoga, demands mention of the fact
that their accounts differ in important respects from the one given
above. This is not surprising in view of the thirty-three years which
have elapsed since the occurrence. The history of criminal jurisprudence
justifies the assertion that eye-witnesses of any fatal difficulty
differ materially in regard to important particulars, even when their
testimony is taken immediately after the difficulty. It is not strange,
therefore, that after the lapse of an ordinary life-time a dozen
different versions should have been contributed by the survivors
concerning this unfortunate tragedy. James F. Reed, after nearly a
quarter of a century of active public life in California, died honored
and respected. During his life-time this incident appeared several times
in print, and was always substantially as given in this chapter. With
the single exception of a series of articles contributed to the
Healdsburg Flag by W. C. Graves, two or three years ago, no different
account has ever been published. This explanatory digression from the
narrative is deemed necessary out of respect to the two gentlemen who
conscientiously disagree with Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Lewis. On all other
important subjects the survivors are harmonious or reconcilable.
W. C. Graves, now of Calistoga, caught the dying man in his arms, and in
a few minutes he was carried a little way up the hill and laid upon the
ground. Reed immediately regretted the act and threw the knife from him.
His wife and daughters gathered about him and began to stanch the blood
that flowed from the gashes on his head. He gently pushed them aside and
went to the assistance of the dying man. He and Snyder had always been
firm friends, and Snyder had been most active in securing a team for
Reed after the latter had lost his cattle in the desert. Snyder expired
in about fifteen minutes, and Reed remained by his side until the last.
Patrick Breen came up, and Snyder said, “Uncle Patrick, I am dead.” It
is not certain that he spoke again, though Reed’s friends claim that he
said to Reed, “I am to blame.”
Snyder’s death fell like a thunderbolt upon the Donner Party. Camp was
immediately pitched, the Reed family being a little removed down the
hill from the main body of emigrants. Reed felt that he had only acted
in defense of his own life and in defense of the wife he adored.
Nevertheless, it was evident that trouble was brewing in the main camp
where Snyder’s body was lying.
The Reed family were in a sad situation. They commenced the journey with
a more costly and complete outfit than the other emigrants, and thereby
had incurred the envy of some of their less fortunate companions. They
had a fine race horse and good stock, and Virginia had a beautiful pony
of her own, and was fond of accompanying her father on his horseback
excursions. From these and other circumstances the Reeds had acquired
the name of being “aristocratic.” Ordinarily, this is a term which would
excite a smile, but on this dreadful day it had its weight in inflaming
the minds of the excited emigrants. On the desert Reed had cached many
valuable articles, but all his provisions had been distributed among his
companions. This, however, was forgotten in the turbulent camp, and the
destitute, desolate family could plainly catch the sound of voices
clamoring for Reed’s death.
Meantime, Virginia Reed was dressing the wounds on her father’s head.
Mrs. Reed was overwhelmed with grief and apprehension, and the father
came to Virginia for assistance. This brave little woman was only twelve
years old, yet in this and all other acts of which there is a record she
displayed a nerve and skillfulness which would have done credit to a
mature woman. The cuts in Reed’s scalp were wide and deep. Indeed, the
scars remained to his dying day. In San Jose, long years afterwards, as
James F. Reed lay dead, the gentle breeze from an open window softly
lifted and caressed his gray hair, disclosing plainly the scars left by
these ugly wounds.
Reed entertained none but the friendliest sentiments toward Snyder.
Anxious to do what he could for the dead, he offered the boards of his
wagon-bed from which to make a coffin for Snyder. This offer, made with
the kindliest, most delicate feeling, was rejected by the emigrants. At
the funeral, Reed stood sorrowfully by the grave until the last clod was
placed above the man who had been one of his best friends. A council was
held by the members of the company. A council to decide upon Reed’s
fate. It was in the nature of a court, all-powerful, from whose decision
there was no appeal. Breathlessly the fond wife and affectionate
children awaited the verdict. The father was idolized by the mother and
the little ones, and was their only stay and support.
The friendship of the Donner Party for John Snyder, the conflicting and
distorted accounts of the tragedy, and the personal enmity of certain
members of the company toward Reed, resulted in a decree that he should
be banished from the train. The feeling ran so high that at one time the
end of a wagon-tongue was propped up with an ox-yoke by some of the
emigrants with the intention of hanging Reed thereon, but calmer counsel
When the announcement was communicated to Reed that he was to be
banished, he refused to comply with the decree. Conscious that he had
only obeyed the sacred law of self-defense, he refused to accede to an
unjust punishment. Then came the wife’s pleadings! Long and earnestly
Mrs. Reed reasoned and begged and prayed with her husband. All was of no
avail until she urged him to remember the want and destitution in which
they and the entire company were already participants. If he remained
and escaped violence at the hands of his enemies, he might nevertheless
see his children starve before his eyes, and be helpless to aid them.
But if he would go forward, if he would reach California, he could
return with provisions, and meet them on the mountains at that point on
the route where they would be in greatest need. It was a fearful
struggle, but finally the mother’s counsels prevailed. Prior to setting
out upon his gloomy journey, Mr. Reed made the company promise to care
for his family.
At the time of the Snyder tragedy, George and Jacob Donner, with their
wagons and families, were two days in advance of the main train. Walter
Herron was with them, and, when Reed came up, Herron concluded to
accompany him to California.
It was contemplated that Reed should go out into the wilderness alone,
and with neither food nor ammunition. Happily this part of the programme
was thwarted. The faithful Virginia, in company with Milton Elliott,
followed Mr. Reed after he had started, and carried him his gun and
ammunition. The affectionate girl also managed to carry some crackers to
him, although she and all the company were even then on short allowance.
The sad parting between Reed and his family, and the second parting with
the devoted Virginia, we pass over in silence. James F. Reed, Jr., only
five years old, declared that he would go with his father, and assist
him in obtaining food during the long journey. Even the baby, only two
and a half years old, would fret and worry every time the family sat
down to their meals, lest father should find nothing to eat on his
difficult way. Every day the mother and daughters would eagerly search
for the letter Mr. Reed was sure to leave in the top of some bush, or in
a split stick by the wayside. When he succeeded in killing geese or
ducks, as he frequently did along the Humboldt and Truckee, he would
scatter the feathers about his camping-ground, that his family might see
that he was supplied with food. It is hardly necessary to mention that
Mrs. Reed and the children regarded the father’s camping-places as
hallowed ground, and as often as possible kindled their evening fires in
the same spot where his had been kindled.
But a day came when they found no more letters, no further traces of the
father. Was he dead? Had the Indians killed him? Had he starved by the
way? No one could answer, and the mother’s cheek grew paler and her dear
eyes grew sadder and more hopeless, until Virginia and Patty both feared
that she, too, was going to leave them. Anxious, grief-stricken, filled
with the belief that her husband was dead, poor Mrs. Reed was fast dying
of a broken heart. But suddenly all her life, and energy, and
determination were again aroused into being by a danger that would have
crushed a nature less noble. A danger that is the most terrible,
horrible, that ever tortured human breast; a danger – that her children,
her babes, must starve to death!
The Sink of the Humboldt
Indians Stealing Cattle
An Entire Company Compelled to Walk
Abandoned to Die
Arrival of C. T. Stanton
A Temporary Relief
A Fatal Accident
The Sierra Nevada Mountains
Imprisoned in Snow
Struggles for Freedom
A Hopeless Situation
Digging for Cattle in Snow
How the Breen Cabin Happened to be Built
A Thrilling Sketch of a Solitary Winter
Putting up Shelters
The Donners have Nothing but Tents
Fishing for Trout.
Starvation now stared the emigrants in the face. The shortest allowance
capable of supporting life was all that was portioned to any member of
the company. At times, some were forced to do without food for a day or
more, until game was procured. The poor cattle were also in a pitiable
condition. Owing to the lateness of the season, the grass was
exceedingly scanty and of a poor quality. Frequently the water was bad,
and filled with alkali and other poisonous deposits. George Donner,
Jacob Donner, Wolfinger, and others, lost cattle at various points along
the Humboldt. Mr. Breen lost a fine mare. The Indians were constantly
hovering around the doomed train, ready to steal cattle, but too
cowardly to make any open hostile attack. Arrows were shot into several
of the oxen by Indians who slipped up near them during the night-time.
At midnight, on the twelfth of October, the party reached the sink of
the Humboldt. The cattle, closely guarded, were turned out to graze and
recruit their wasted strength. About dawn on the morning of the
thirteenth the guard came into camp to breakfast. During the night
nothing had occurred to cause the least apprehension, and no indications
of Indians had been observed. Imagine the consternation in camp when it
was discovered that during the temporary absence of the guard twenty-one
head of cattle had been stolen by the redskins. This left the company in
terribly destitute circumstances. All had to walk who were able. Men,
women, and children were forced to travel on foot all day long, and in
many cases were compelled to carry heavy burdens in order to lessen the
loads drawn by the weary cattle. Wm. G. Murphy remembers distinctly
seeing his brother carrying a copper camp-kettle upon his head. The
Graves family, the Breens, the Donners, the Murphys, the Reeds, all
walked beside the wagons until overpowered with fatigue. The men became
exhausted much sooner, as a rule, than the women. Only the sick, the
little children, and the utterly exhausted, were ever allowed to ride.
Eddy and his wife had lost all their cattle, and each carried one of
their children and such personal effects as they were able. Many in the
train were without shoes, and had to travel barefooted over the weary
sands, and flinty, sharp-edged stones.
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