Collection Scope and Content Summary
Title: Martha J. Lewis collection
Bulk Dates: 1846-1926
Collection number: Consult repository
Lewis, Martha Jayne
Collection Size: 4 cubic feet
California. Department of Parks and Recreation
Abstract: On April 15, 1846 the families of James Fraser
Reed and George and Jacob Donner, comprising 31 people in 9 wagons, left
Springfield, Illinois for California. On May 19 the party joined a larger wagon
train captained by William Russell about 100 miles west of Independence,
Missouri. Other families and individuals joined the wagon train as the party
traveled westward and by the time the party departed Fort Bridger in
southwestern Wyoming the total number of people had grown to 74 and the total
number of wagons to 20. By early August, as the party entered Utah, 87 people
and 23 wagons were bound for California. Following inaccurate advice they
received en route, the ill-fated party, now captained by George Donner, opted
to take an untried cut-off to the west. This “shortcut” put them weeks behind
schedule, and by the time they had crossed Nevada and began their ascent of the
Sierra Nevada it was too late in the fall season. Heavy snowfall stranded them
in the mountains and for five months the group was trapped on the eastern side
of the Sierra. Of the 87 men, women and children in the Donner Party, only 46
In 1946 the descendents of Martha J. Lewis, a survivor of the
tragedy, donated her collection of memorabilia, manuscripts, and archival
material to Sutter’s Fort. The great majority of her collection concerns the
affairs of her father, James Frazier Reed, who she clearly admired and
respected immensely. Many of her original writings are either laudatory
accolades to her father or energetic defenses of his character. The material in
this collection was gathered from various storage locations at Sutter’s Fort in
the early 1990s by student interns, given an initial arrangement by volunteer
archivist H. Alan Sims and registrar Marylou Lentz, and transferred first to
the California State Parks Archives in Sacramento and then to the Historic
Sites Sector Office in West Sacramento for final processing. It is hoped that
this guide will provide research functionality to this historic collection that
documents the struggles of the Donner Party, the efforts to rescue them, and
the cultural and historic impact their tragic tale has had on western lore.
This archival finding guide is one element in the
to the Sutter’s Fort Collection of Donner Party Material.
Sutter's Fort State Historic Park for more information on this
Physical location: Sutters Fort State Historical Park,
represented in the collection:
The collection is open for research.
Property rights reside with the California State Parks. Literary rights
are retained by the creators of the records and their heirs. For permission to
reproduce or to publish, please contact California State Parks.
[item], Martha J. Lewis Collection, Sutter's Fort State Historic Park,
The collection described in this finding
aid represents those materials that are archival in nature and specifically
assembled to create this collection. Artifacts that have also been identified
as belonging to the Martha J. Lewis Collection are not included in this guide.
For information on these items contact California State Parks. Consult
Guide to Sutter’s Fort's Collections of Donner Party Material.
details of related collections at the Fort.
The Charles E. Davis Overland Trail Project
Collection at the archives in Sutter’s Fort documents the efforts in 1927 to
re-trace the Donner route from Independence Missouri to Sacramento by Charles
E. Davis, an amateur historian and explorer. He recorded his expedition in a
journal and through regular correspondence with Harry C. Peterson, the curator
at the Fort. This collection’s photographs, which number more than a thousand,
may be of particular interest to researchers interested in the Interstate
Highway system and the development of modern roadways in the western states.
Davis’ photos show much of the western trails as they appeared before the
highways and the resulting communities covered them over. The finding guide for
this collection is another element in
Guide to Sutter’s Fort's Collections of Donner Party
Other items at the Fort include the Marriage Register
of Justice John Sinclair, which contains the names of several Donner survivors
who where married at the Fort in the year 1847 and John Bidwell’s Ledger of
November – December 1846, which contains the names of several members of the
relief parties that bravely climbed into the Sierras to rescue the stranded
For many years the archives at Sutter’s Fort has maintained a
collection of historic material in its General Files. Donner-related material
in these files include biographical information on members of the ill-fated
party and the various rescue parties and their descendants, the trails they
followed, and the places designated to memorialize the events. Also in these
files are photographs of people and landmarks, news clippings, artwork and
Guide to Sutter’s Fort's Collections of Donner Party Material.
listing of these files and their locations.
Carroll D. Hall, the curator
at the Fort from 1944 to 1964, took a special interest in one of the items
included in the Lewis Collection, the Miller-Reed diary of April to October,
1846. The diary, originally assumed to be that of Hiram O. Miller, contained
variations in handwriting that puzzled Hall to such an extent that he enlisted
the aid of a handwriting analyst of the State Department of Justice. The
analyst confirmed what Hall had assumed; most of the diary was in fact written
by James Frazier Reed. Hall then transcribed the entire diary, along with other
documents from the collection, added his own analysis and commentary and
published the work as
Donner Miscellany: 41 Diaries and
Documents, Edited by Carroll D. Hall
through the Book Club Of California
in 1947. Only 350 copies were printed, but the Fort’s archives has a photocopy
of the entire volume for use by researchers. A copy of the original publication
is available at the California State Library in Sacramento,
Also at the California State Library is The James Frazier
Reed Collection 1843-1851, containing selected correspondence and business
papers transferred from the Fort’s Reed-Lewis collection to the State Library
in 1967. Consult the Library’s catalog for information on and access to this
manuscript collection. The Martha J. (Patty) Reed Lewis Collection herein
contains a 1910 reprint of Patrick Breen’s diary of November 20, 1846 - March
1, 1847. The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, has
the original Breen Diary and has published digitized images of the entire work
on the Online Archive of California available at
Library also houses the C.F. McGlashan Papers 1847-1931, which include
correspondence and research materials he used for his book,
The History of the Donner Party first published in
1879. McGlashan was a friend of Patty Lewis and besides this book he wrote many
articles on the subject, and was instrumental in the creation of the Donner
Memorial near Truckee, California.
The Huntington Library in San Marino,
California holds the Eliza Poor Donner Houghton Papers, 1820-1978, the majority
of which deals with the Donner Party. Eliza and nine other Donner Party
surviving members are represented in this collection, both in correspondence
and photographs. Contact the Huntington Library at (626) 405-2191 or online at
created by Fort curators Peterson and Hall contain many news clippings relating
to the Donner Party, efforts to re-construct the tragedy and memorialize it,
the discovery of artifacts and their acquisition by the Fort, and biographies
and obituaries of Donner survivors and rescuers and their descendants. These
clippings from various newspapers and magazines span the period from c.1900 to
the 1960s. A listing of the specific pages in each of the 21 scrapbooks that
have Donner-related clippings is available in
Guide to Sutter’s Fort's Collections of Donner Party Material.
In 1946 the estate of Martha Jayne Lewis, daughter of Martha J. (Patty)
Reed Lewis donated her mother’s collection of memorabilia, manuscripts, and
archival material to Sutter’s Fort. Unfortunately,
ensuing years other Donner-related donations may have been subsequently
intermixed with no concerted effort to maintain the provenance of the Lewis
collection and some items donated by the Lewis estate have been transferred to
or scattered among other park units and state agencies.
In 1947 Carroll
D. Hall, curator of Sutter’s Fort, noted that other donors may have included
Stanley Houghton, grandson of George Donner, Virginia Eddy, granddaughter of
Donner Party survivor W.H. Eddy, and Emelie Williamson, grand-niece of William
Graves, another survivor. The collection, as it exists today, has been
artificially assembled to best reflect what is believed to have been material
collected by Patty Reed Lewis before her death in 1923 and donated to Sutter’s
Fort following the death of her daughter in 1946, as well as documents and
items created or received after these dates that were relevant to the
This collection was processed by Michelle
Atkinson and Larry Bishop, with assistance from Megan Landreth and Kirk Nelson,
June 2005. The finding aid was written by and encoded by Larry Bishop.
James Frazier Reed was born in County Annagh,
Ireland November 14, 1800. He was of Polish descent; the last name originally
being Reedowsky or Reednoskia and subsequently anglicized. While still a small
child he traveled with his Scotch-born mother to the United States after his
father’s death, where they settled in Philadelphia. At the age of eight or nine
he went to live with his maternal uncle in Virginia. By age twenty he had moved
to Illinois, and found work as a miner. By 1831 he had established himself as a
furniture maker in Springfield, Illinois. In 1832 he joined the Illinois
Militia with Jacob Earby’s Mounted Volunteers to fight in the Black Hawk War.
Black Hawk was a Sauk Indian chief who led 300 to 500 warriors and 500 to 700
women and children into northern Illinois to reclaim land he believed had been
illegally appropriated by the U.S. Government. Black Hawk and his people were
pursued, massacred, and driven from Illinois by the combined force of the
Illinois Militia and U.S. Army troops. Reed and Abraham Lincoln served together
in Earby’s Volunteers.
After his service in the war Reed returned to Springfield to engage in
mercantile pursuits and farming. In 1834 he married Margaret W. Keyes
Backenstoe, a widow with a daughter from her previous marriage, Virginia
Backenstoe. The couple eventually had six children together, one dying in
infancy. The other five were Martha (also known as Patty) born in 1938, James
Jr., born in 1841, Thomas, born in 1843, Charles, born in 1848, and
Willianoski, born in 1850. In 1845 he was appointed to be Illinois’ agent for
U.S. pensions, though he served in this capacity for less than a year.
By the time Reed connected his new family to those of George and Jacob
Donner for the trip to California on April 14, 1846, he had amassed
considerable wealth as the owner of several businesses including a general
store, a starch factory, a sawmill, and a cabinet making company that employed
a large number of men. Reed may have spent a full year preparing for the
journey. He built a larger than usual wagon for the comfort of his family and
especially for the convenience of his ailing mother-in-law, Sarah Keyes, 70. In
addition to this wagon, Reed loaded two others with supplies and provisions.
Along with the oxen teams for the wagons they took extra cattle and horses and
Reed hired three teamsters and two servants to help. The Reed family wagon
train was generally described by others in the party as the most affluent.
On May 19 the Donners and Reeds joined a much larger wagon train
captained by William H. Russell. In mid-June Russell resigned as captain and
another member of his original train, William Boggs, assumed the position.
About the middle of July, while camping at the Little Sandy River in
present-day Wyoming a group of the emigrants decided to take a promising, but
as yet untried shortcut known as the Hastings Cut-Off. George Donner became the
captain of this new group, which included the Reeds and several other families
that had joined them en route, and which became what is now generally known as
the Donner Party. The Boggs company elected to take a more customary route
northward. The Hastings Cut-off proved difficult and demanding and the Donner
party lost not only precious time but cattle, oxen and wagons while crossing
through Utah. By the time they had passed the Great Salt Desert Reed had lost
almost all of his cattle and was forced to abandon two of his three wagons.
In early September, recognizing the implications of their costly delays,
the party sent Charles Stanton and William McCutchen ahead to Sutter’s Fort to
fetch supplies. In late September the bedraggled train reached the end of the
Hastings route and rejoined the California Trail at what is today the city of
Elko, Nevada. Then they began traveling along the Humboldt River. It was there
on October 5 that Reed became involved in a dispute between one of his
teamsters and John Snyder, a teamster for another family. In the scuffle Reed
stabbed and killed Snyder, whether in self-defense or out of malice is still a
matter of dispute, but his actions resulted in his departure from the party.
Reed traveled ahead to Sutter’s Fort to bring back supplies.
On October 28 Reed reached the Fort and found McCutchen still there,
recovering from an illness. Stanton had since made his return to the mountains
with supplies, having reached the emigrants, now stranded by heavy snow on the
east side of the summit with little or no food left, about a week earlier. In
November Reed and McCutchen made an attempt to return to their families but
were driven back by heavy snow. They returned to Sutter’s Fort where Sutter
advised them to go to Yerba Buena, modern-day San Francisco, to make his needs
known to the U.S. naval officer in command, J.B. Hull. He reached San Jose, and
as an able-bodied American, he joined a group of volunteers to clear the way
from there to Yerba Buena. On January 2, 1847, he was involved in a small
skirmish known as the Battle of Santa Clara, the only campaign in the Northern
District of California between the Californios and the United States forces
during the Mexican-American war. When he reached Yerba Buena he was able to
secure $1300 in donations from residents and sailors at the port. In all Reed
spent a few weeks in the area, where he eventually secured land for himself and
his family around San Jose.
The supplies purchased in Yerba Buena were sent by schooner to the mouth
of the Feather River, where Reed spent the next two weeks securing men and
horses to aid him in an expedition to rescue the stranded emigrants in the
mountains. On the way up the western slope Reed was met by an earlier relief
party coming down the slope with women and children. He was reunited with his
wife, his stepdaughter Virginia, and James Jr. His daughter Martha and son
Thomas were unable to make the trip and still remained, in terrible physical
condition, at one of the campsites above. On March 1 Reed arrived to rescue his
two remaining family members and lead them and fifteen others back to safety.
Within a week this group was trapped by a severe storm and Reed and his friend
Hiram Miller carried Martha and Tommy while the rest stayed at what has become
known as “Starved Camp.” This group was rescued four days later by the next
relief party heading for the summit. This party brought several more of the
starving exhausted emigrants out of the mountains. A fourth relief party
reached the summit camps in mid April but only one man was left alive. He was
safely returned to Sutter’s Fort on April 29, the last survivor brought out to
Reed settled his family in San Jose, and although he was virtually
penniless when he arrived, he eventually established himself as a community
leader, a wealthy landholder and a successful businessman. He also served as
Sheriff in the Sonoma District and Chief of the police force in the city of San
Jose. In the mid 1850s squatters occupied much of Reed’s land in San Jose and
he moved his family to the Santa Cruz area until his rightful claim to the
property was declared legal in 1860. The following year his wife Margaret
passed away. He tried unsuccessfully to establish quartz mining companies in
Idaho and Nevada in the early to mid 1860s, even returning to the East Coast to
secure investors during this time, but gave up and returned to San Jose where
he spent the rest of his life surrounded by family and friends. Reed died on
his Farm in San Jose on July 24, 1874 of complications resulting from a head
injury that occurred when he was tossed from the back of one of his favorite
mules. He left a substantial amount of wealth to his children and
Martha Jayne (Patty) Reed Lewis was born February 26, 1838 in
Springfield, Illinois; the oldest child born to James Frazier Reed and Margaret
Wilson Reed. She was only eight years old when her family joined those of
George and Jacob Donner’s on the ill-fated trip to California. She was
sometimes called “Mattie” but throughout her life was most commonly called
In early November, 1846 with her mother, older sister and two
younger brothers, Patty was trapped in the snow at the east end of Truckee (now
Donner) Lake after her father had departed the company for Sutter’s Fort. When
the first relief party arrived in the third week of February she and her
youngest brother Thomas were too weak from starvation to travel. Her mother
left with her sister Virginia and her other brother James Jr, reluctantly
leaving the two weaker children at the lake in the care of the Graves family.
As they separated Patty calmly and bravely told her mother "Well, Ma, if you
never see me again, do the best you can." In a little more than a week her
father arrived with the second party of rescuers and she and Thomas along with
fifteen others were then led back away from the dilapidated, abandoned cabins
that had been their desperate homes during the frigid winter. Along the way
this group was again trapped in blinding snow. James Reed with help from his
friend Hiram Miller carried Patty and Thomas to safety while the rest, unable
to proceed, made a makeshift camp. More than half of the emigrants at this camp
perished before another relief party arrived.
Patty Reed married Frank
Lewis in Santa Cruz, California on Christmas day in1856 at the age of eighteen.
The couple had eight children together; Kate, Margaret, Frank Reed, Martha
Jane, James Frazier, Carrie E., Susan Augusta, and one other child who died as
a baby. They settled in San Jose and Patty remained there until Frank’s death
in 1876. Her youngest child was only three years old at the time and Patty
began supporting herself as a proprietor of boarding houses and hotels in Santa
Cruz and Capitola. Throughout her life Patty was involved with the Donner Party
story; she preserved her father’s letters and family artifacts, advised authors
and scholars of her time who were chronicling the tragedy, corresponded with
other survivors, and along with Eliza Donner was a star at the opening of the
Donner Memorial in 1918. Having survived the grueling passage across the
western plains and that horrific winter of 1846 as a mere girl she symbolized
the indomitable spirit of those remarkable pioneer women who helped settle
California. Patty Reed Lewis died July 4, 1923 in Santa Cruz, leaving her
collection of Donner Party material to her daughter Margaret with instructions
that it be donated to Sutter’s Fort on the centennial of the tragedy. Margaret
did not live to carry out the request, but her son faithfully donated the
material to the Fort in 1946.
||The families of James F. Reed and George and Jacob Donner, 31
people in nine wagons, leave Springfield, Illinois.
||The party joins a large wagon train captained by Col. William H.
||William Russell resigns as captain of the wagon train, which is
now led by William M. Boggs.
||The Boggs Party arrives at Fort Laramie, Wyoming and meet James
Clyman, an acquaintance of Reed’s. They discuss a new route, the Hastings
||The Boggs Party and several others camp at the Little Sandy
River in present-day Wyoming. A group of emigrants decides to take Hastings
Cutoff. They elect George Donner as their captain. The other emigrants take the
established northerly route by way of Fort Hall.
||The Donner Party reaches Fort Bridger. Jim Bridger assures the
Donner Party that the Hastings Cutoff is a good route.
||They leave Fort Bridger. The group now numbers 74 people in
||The emigrants begin the dry drive across the Great Salt Lake
||After a torturous crossing of the desert, Reed has lost almost
all of his cattle and he abandons two of his wagons. George Donner and Louis
Keseberg abandon one wagon each. Food is getting low and the party sends
Charles Stanton and William McCutchen ahead to Sutter’s Fort to bring back
||The party reaches the junction with the California Trail about 7
miles west of modern Elko, Nevada. They travel along Humboldt River for the
next two weeks.
||Reed kills John Snyder, a teamster for one of the other
families, in a dispute and is banished from the train; he goes ahead to
Sutter’s Fort to bring back supplies.
||The party reaches the Truckee River. After a rest at Truckee
Meadows (present-day Reno), they begin their ascent of the Sierras. Charles
Stanton returns from Sutter’s Fort with seven mules packed with supplies and
two Indian vaqueros who worked for Sutter. Snow begins to fall. The Donners are
held up in the Alder Creek Valley by a broken axle. The other emigrants go on
ahead to Truckee Lake. Reed meets McCutchen at Sutter’s Fort and the two men
begin preparations to go back for their families.
||The larger group of emigrants reach Truckee (now Donner) Lake.
Snow thwarts their efforts and they retreat to the eastern end of the lake,
where there is an existing cabin. They quickly build two more makeshift cabins.
Fifty-nine people huddle in the three cabins.
|| Reed and McCutchen attempt to reach their stranded companions
but are forced back by the snow.
||Charles Stanton and Williamm Eddy set out with fifteen men,
women, and children to cross the mountains on snowshoes. They are weak from
hunger and have few provisions. The group is later called the “Forlorn
||Jacob Donner, and three others die at the Alder Creek camp.
||A blizzard catches the Forlorn Hope in the open. Four of their
number die, and with nothing left to eat the survivors tearfully resort to
||Seven survivors of the Forlorn Hope reach safety at Johnson's
Ranch in Wheatland, California.
||The first relief party, led by R.P. Tucker and Aquila Glover,
reaches the lake. Eleven emigrants have died, and the others are in bad shape
physically and emotionally. They evacuate those strong enough to travel,
including Reed’s wife Margaret and two of their four children.
||The second relief party led by James Reed arrives at the lake
camp. The rescuers find evidence of cannibalism.
||Reed leaves the camps with 17 emigrants including his children
Patty and Tommy Reed.
||A blizzard traps Reed’s party in Summit Valley. Reed and his
friend Hiram Miller carry Patty and Tommy Reed, but the rest of the refugees
are too weak to travel and stay at what is later called "Starved Camp."
||The third relief party, led by William Eddy and William Foster,
reach Starved Camp. Mrs. Graves and her son Franklin have died. They and Isaac
Donner have been cannibalized. One of the rescuers, John Stark, stays to help
the Breens and others out of the mountains while the others continue up to the
||Eddy and Foster’s party arrive at the lake camp. They find their
sons are dead.
||At the Alder Creek camp, George Donner has died from infection
an injury he suffered months before. The Third Relief departs with Frances,
Georgia, and Eliza Donner and Simon Murphy. Elizabeth and Lewis Donner have
died. Samuel Donner, Levinah Murphy, and Louis Keseberg are too weak to
||William Fallon and the Fourth Relief party reach the camps,
finding only Louis Keseberg alive among the mutilated remains of his former
||The last member of the Donner Party, Louis Keseberg, arrives at
New Light on the Donner Party, by Kristin
Johnson, copyright 2005, http://www.utahcrossroads.org/DonnerParty/
Collection Scope and Content Summary
The largest portion of
the material in this collection was collected by Martha J. “Patty” Reed Lewis
(1838-1923), a survivor of the Donner Party tragedy, and was donated to
Sutter’s Fort by her daughter’s estate in 1946. Most of the material collected
by Reed-Lewis concerns the business affairs and personal experiences of her
father, James Frazier Reed (1800-1874) and the events of the Donner Party
tragedy. The Patty Reed Lewis Material, as described in this guide, contains
material related to her, her family, and the other members of the Donner Party,
but may not have been contained within the material
originally donated to the Fort by her daughter’s estate. Other pieces from her
collection have likely been scattered or lost.
This collection contains
additional accruals of Reed or Donner-related material collected by Sutter’s
Fort staff over a period of about fifty years for which clear provenance has
not been established.
This material in this collection spans the period
from 1826 to 1951. Types of material in this collection include correspondence;
business records such as ledgers, receipts, invoices, stock certificates,
requests for goods or services, agreements and promissory notes; legal
documents such as petitions, deeds, titles, depositions, and summons;
certificates, announcements and minutes pertaining to James Reed’s membership
in the Masonic Order; and correspondence, ledgers and lists relating to his
role as the agent for U.S. Pensions for the State of Illinois prior to his
departure for California. Also included in this collection are recollections,
notes, journals, scrapbooks, printed material, ephemera, artwork, publications,
photographs, tintypes, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, news clippings, maps, and
The material in this collection has been arranged into the
- Series 1. Correspondence
- Series 2. Legal Documents
- Series 3. Financial Documents
- Series 4. Masonic Documents
- Series 5. Pension Agent’s Documents
- Series 6. Recollections, Notes, Journals and Scrapbooks
- Series 7. Ephemera and News Clippings
- Series 8. Books and Booklets
- Series 9. Photographic Material
- Series 10. Separated Items
- Breen, Patrick
- Donner, Eliza
- Donner, George
- Donner, Jacob
- Eddy, William H.
- Hull. K.B.
- Kern, E. M.
- Keseburg, Lewis
- Lewis, Martha J.
- McCutchen, William
- McGlashan, C.F.
- Miller, Hiram
- Reed, James Frazier
- Reed, Margaret
- Reed, Martha J.
- Reed, Patty
- Stanton, Charles
- Stocton, R.F.
- Sutter, John Augustus
- Donner Party
- Historic sites--California