The 175th Anniversary of the Donner Party Adventure, George Donner & James Reed

James Frazier Reed. | Courtesy Sutter’s Fort Archives

Author’s Note: To acknowledge the historical significance of the Donner Party and its window into an important era in the West, over the next 10 months I will occasionally write a column chronicling the progress and challenges of this cursed wagon train as it made its way to California. The columns will be available in future editions of Tahoe Weekly and at Click on Donner Party under the Explore Tahoe menu.

It has been 175 years since the first major overland migration to California when intrepid pioneers searched for a better life. Among the migrants on the trail in 1846 was a group that came to be known as the Donner Party.

Read Mark McLaughlin’s account of Tamsen Donner

Three families from Springfield, Ill., with many children, as well as single men hired as teamsters to maintain wagons and livestock, joined an estimated 1,500 emigrants heading west that year toward what they hoped would be a successful venture in the Mexican province of California. Their reasons for leaving the fertile farmland of the Midwest were many, including health, finances, adventure, climate, religion and the cultural belief of Manifest Destiny, which propelled people to move west to tame the wilderness and spread democracy and capitalism.

During the winter of 1845-46, the two Donner families put their farms up for sale, purchased wagons, livestock, quantities of food staples, farming implements, seeds, books and furniture as they prepared for the epic journey.

Two of the three households originating from Springfield were led by brothers George and Jacob “Jake” Donner. There was a total of 14 family members among them.

The Donner brothers
For nearly a century, farming had been the meal ticket for the Donner clan; cultivating land meant money and security. They had done well for themselves in Illinois and were well established with productive homesteads. In the mid-1840s, however, newspaper stories and published letters extolling California’s salubrious climate and vast open landscape became a powerful draw for George and Jake, even though both men (ages 60 and 56, respectively) were considered senior citizens at the time.

In 1845, George was happily married to his third wife Tamsen, a well-educated schoolteacher, with whom he had three children. “Uncle George,” as he was affectionately called, was nearly 30 years older than Tamsen, but in good health and an admired and respected man in the community. George was also the father of eight other children from previous marriages, most of whom were now adults. George moved several times in his long life, but he told Tamsen that his roving days were over. He probably believed it, too, until he was seduced by the irresistible lure of the Pacific frontier. George’s California fever influenced Jake who resolved to join his older brother in one last great leap westward.

During the winter of 1845-46, the two Donner families put their farms up for sale, purchased wagons, livestock, quantities of food staples, farming implements, seeds, books and furniture as they prepared for the epic journey. They also hired bullwhackers to drive and care for the wagon-pulling oxen. Despite his excitement, George sweated the last few months because no one made a cash offer on his 240-acre farm until March 1846, less than a month before their planned departure date. In addition to money to pay for expenses and incidentals along the way, George had Tamsen sew $10,000 inside a quilt. Before they left, George deeded shares of land to his grown children (none of whom wanted to go) and reserved 110 acres for his five young girls in case they decided to leave California and return to Illinois when they were older. They were the only offspring from George’s extended brood to make the trip.

James Frazier Reed
Across town, a local businessman also decided to head for California that year, but for different reasons than George Donner. James Frazier Reed, a 46-year-old entrepreneur, told his friends that the climate in the West would benefit his ailing wife, Margret. For years she had been sickly. Margret was so infirm during their 1835 wedding ceremony that she laid in bed while James held her hand.

All evidence indicates that Reed was a loving husband and father, so an arduous move to a land believed free of diseases like cholera and malaria was a sensible decision. Reed, however, had much more on his mind than the health of his wife and family of four young children and 70-year-old mother-in-law. He was financially broke and in serious debt.

In 1831, Reed had moved to New Salem, Ill., about 20 miles northwest of Springfield. He arrived with a grubstake he earned over several years working in the lead mining industry at Galena, Ill. In the spring and early summer of 1932, he served a short stint in the Black Hawk War with an outfit that saw no fighting. But among the fellow volunteers he mustered with were legendary mountain man James Clyman, future Illinois politician Stephen A. Douglas and a 23-year-old storekeeper named Abraham Lincoln. Fifteen years later, Reed’s relationship with the self-taught lawyer Lincoln would serve him well as he tried to leave town without paying his monetary obligations.

In Sangamon County, Reed owned a general-merchandise store, invested in real estate and operated a starch factory located near German Prairie where George and Jacob Donner lived on their farms. It is likely that the Donners and Reed conducted business transactions during those years and were on friendly terms.

In 1837, the Illinois legislature approved funding a railroad across the state. Timber was needed to supply the ties for the rail line. Reed secured the lucrative government contract and he built a large water-powered mill on the Sangamon River. Even with all this going on he was also speculating in real estate as a new settlement had been platted along the future railroad, just a few miles from Springfield near his timber mill. The name chosen for the new burg was Jamestown, after the man who provided the jobs. Soon the Reed family moved there.

Reed was in hog heaven, but headwinds appeared during the financial Panic of 1837, which caused a national economic collapse and eviscerated the credit of the Illinois state government. Construction of the Northern Cross railroad barely staggered along, not reaching Springfield until February 1842. Operational problems plagued the state railway and farmers complained of inefficiencies. By 1845 the project had collapsed and Reed’s overextended portfolio of investments was unraveling. He mortgaged the mill and sold land, but he still faced financial ruin. During the winter of 1846 he took his remaining money and fully outfitted three wagons, including a large custom-built, two-story model. Despite his predicament, Reed also managed to squirrel away cash, fine wines and brandy and kept his well-bred horse.

In March 1846, one month before his family’s departure from Springfield, Reed was declared insolvent. His lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, arranged for all of Reed’s remaining assets be sold at public auction later that summer. On April 13, 1846, Reed smuggled 300 pounds of bacon and two barrels of pickled pork into a wagon and signed the bankruptcy papers, one day before he rolled west to California leaving his creditors behind.