A party was organized in the vicinity of Springfield (Clear Lake Township), Sangamon County, Illinois for the journey westward to California, after almost a year of planning. They departed from Springfield, April 14, 1846 for California and the Pacific coast for the beginning of this fateful journey. It has always been referred to as "The Reed and Donner Immigrant Party" or "The Donner Party".

When the party left Springfield, there were thirty four persons who joined the wagon train. Abstracted from "History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois - Centennial Record" by John Carroll Power - 1876, (see Donner Party, for the complete article) we derive the following names of some of those persons:

James F. and Margaret Reed, with their four children: Virginia E. B., Martha J., James F., Jr., and Thomas K.
Mrs. Sarah Keyes, mother of Mrs. Reed.

George and Tamsen Donner, with their five children: Elitha C., Leanna C., Francis E., Georgiana and Eliza P.

Jacob and Elizabeth Donner with their five children: Lewis, Samuel, George and Mary; and William and Solomon Hook, children of Mrs. Donner by a former marriage;

Milford Elliot, sometimes referred to as Milton; James Smith; John Denton; Eliza and Bayless Williams; Walter Herron and Hiram O. Miller, plus others not named.

After this party left Springfield, their destination was Independence, MO where final preparations were made for their journey across the Plains. They were joined along the way by persons from Lacon and Belleville, IL; from IA; from St. Louis, MO; from TN; from Germany and from Springfield, OH. We will only mention those from Sangamon County in this narrative.

This is the well known story of those people who left by wagon train for California, from a narrative derived from the diary of James Reed.

The The State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL has graciously given us permission to use this article on our Web page. A special thanks to Barry Locher, Managing Editor.

The State Journal-Register
10 November 1981
Sesquicentennial Edition
Page A-22

A reprint of the article that was in the
Illinois State Register
19 & 26 November 1847


Scenes and Sufferings in California

We give in today's paper a narrative of the sufferings of the California emigrants, who left this county nearly two years ago....

The narrative was prepared for us by Mr. James H. Merryman from letters written by James Reed, esq. to James W. Keyes, esq., of this city. Mr. Reed emigrated from this city, where he had resided for many years, and he is known to our citizens as a man of intelligence and probity. Mr. Merryman has omitted many incidents which he deemed to revolting for publication. He has, however, compiled enough to show that the sufferings of the emigrants were without a parallel in the history of human endurance. The scenes depicted chill the blood and sicken the heart.

Adventures in California

Narrative of J. F. Reed - Life in the Wilderness - Sufferings of the emigrants

Through the kindness of James W. Keyes, esq., we are enabled to lay before our readers an abstract of the Journal of Mr. James F. Reed, who emigrated from this place, some two years since, to California.

He says that his misfortunes commenced on leaving Fort Bridger, which he left on the 31st of August 1846, in company with eighty-one others. Nothing of note occurred until the 6th of September, when they had reached within a few miles of Weaver Canyon, where they found a note from Mr. Hastings, who was twenty miles in advance of them, with sixty wagons, saying that if they would send for him he would put them upon a new route, which would avoid the Canyon, and lessen the distance to the great Salt Lake several miles....

Mr. Hastings gave them directions concerning this road, and they immediately recommenced their journey. After traveling eighteen days they accomplished the distance of thirty miles, with great labor and exertion, being obliged to cut the whole road through a forest of pine and aspen. They halted upon the south end of the great Salt Lake, where they remained several days. Mr. Reed describes the water of this lake, to use his own expression, as "strong enough to brine beef". Leaving this place on the 30th September, they proceeded on their way, crossing a large desert, devoid of water, on account of which they lost several of their finest cattle. When within nine hundred miles to the California settlements they discovered that their stock of provisions was insufficient to last them until they had traveled that distance; therefore, they appointed two persons, Messrs. C. F. Stanton, of Chicago, and William McCluthem of Clay County, Missouri, who should proceed with all possible haste to Fort Sacramento, owned by Capt. Sutter; procure supplies, and return as soon as possible...... the company then proceeded and after traveling three hundred miles, giving ample time, as they supposed, for the return of Messrs. Stanton and McClutchem, and fearing that some accident had befallen them, they determined to send another messenger. Mr. Reed was at once chosen as the most proper person for this service, and providing himself with seven day's provision, he commenced his lonesome march. Before him lay a journey of six hundred miles, which he must accomplish on foot, for although he had a horse, it was so weak that it could only carry his saddle bags and blanket....On the second day's march....he found the Donners subsisting on the carcasses of some of their cattle, which had been killed by the Indians in a night attack two days previous. In company with Herron he pursued his way; the scanty supply of provisions soon gave out....For seven days they journeyed through that wilderness, during which time they ate but two meals and they were made of wild onions. Fortunately at the end of the time they reached Bear river valley, where they found a small party of emigrants....and to their infinite delight they also met Mr. Stanton on his return to the company. He did not recognize Mr. Reed, who had suffered much from his toilsome journey -- During the seven days of starvation he has travelled successively 38, 35, 25, 30, 26, 20 and 17 miles each day.....

Mr. Reed, not deeming the supplies sufficient for the support of the company to Bear River, determined to push on to Fort Sacramento, obtain additional aid and meet the company at Bear River Valley.....After traveling one hundred miles, he reached the Fort, and was received at the gate by the generous hearted Sutter, who furnished him with large quantities of flour and meat, twenty-six horses, and a number of Indians....Two days after leaving the Fort, it commenced raining and the third day, the tops of the great California Mountains were covered with snow. For four days they travelled in the rain, and at the end of that time reached the head of Bear River, where they found snow eighteen inches deep. The next day's march brought them to snow thirty inches in depth. Here the Indians deserted them.....As they advanced the snow became deeper; they reached the depth of four feet, when the horses sank completely exhausted, and it was found impossible to proceed with them.....They then attempted to pursue their journey on foot, but for the want of snow shoes, were obliged to abandon all hope of passing that huge barrier of snow, which separated them from their families; and gathering their horses together, they returned to the valley......

They proceed to Fort Sacramento, throwing themselves upon the generosity of the ever kind Sutter. Here he was told that it would be vain for him to attempt to reach his friends until the lst of February, when the storms of winter would cease. But Mr. Reed was not satisfied with this, he determined to go to the Lower California's, and seek for aid from that quarter...

(Native Californians had rebelled against the U. S. and Reed joined in quelling the revolt, knowing he had no hope of obtaining help until it was over.)

Now the citizens turned their attention towards their suffering countrymen, who while these events were transpiring, had reached the mountains, where they found that snow had formed an insurmountable barrier to their further progress; they therefore, halted and built such cabins as they could. Their provisions being exhausted, they had recourse to their cattle, rendered miserable by rough usage and famine; when the meat failed, the hides were resorted to, and when they too had been devoured, then human flesh was seized by the unfortunates to preserver their lives.

A meeting was called in San Francisco, contributions were made, and the sum of $1,000 was raised in the city......Messrs. Smith and Ward then kindly offered the use of their fine launch to convey the supplies to the mouth of Feather River; for the plan of operations was, to send all the supplies to that place, in charge of a party under Passed Midshipman Woodworth, while Mr. Reed should enlist a sufficient number of men, purchase horses, and proceed by land to the same point, there pack his horses with the supplies and then go forward to the mountains. just as they were preparing to start, a small launch, belonging to Sutter, came in from Sacramento, bringing the intelligence that two men and five women had arrived at Mr. Johnson's from the mountains, the survivors of a part of fifteen persons, who had started from the cabins on the east of the chain. This party had left their companions for the purpose of lessening the consumption of the provisions, and that they might send aid to them. The sufferings of this party were truly awful. A synopsis of the journal of Wm. H. Eddy, of Belleville, will give the reader a better idea of the hardships endured by them. He commenced with:

Dec. 16, 1846 -- Started from the cabins, in all fifteen persons....on snow shoes, for the California settlements, travelled four miles, and arrived at the head of Truckey's lake....
18th - Descended Juba creek about six miles; commenced snowing; wind blowing cold and furiously.
19th - Storm continued, feet commenced freezing...
21st - Went down the mountain in a southerly direction; provision exhausted; Stanton snow blind; he did not reach camp at night....
25th - Antonio and Mr. Graves died; remain in camp.
26th - Could not proceed, almost frozen; no fire;
27th - Still in camp; no fire; Patrick Dolin died.
28th - Storm abated; succeeded in making fire; Lemuel Murphy died.
29th - No food for five days; a portion of the company eat human flesh.
30th - Stripped all the flesh from 3 of the bodies; travelled four miles.
(Jan.) 5th - Mr. Fausdick gave out entirely; commenced eating the strings of our snow shoes.
14th - Arrived at an Indian village; procured some acorns.

And on the 17th, Mr. Eddy arrived at Mr. Johnson's, leaving the rest of the party at an Indian village......

(Reed and others pushed on, but weather, animal raids on their food caches, and the cowardice of some in the rescue party, hampered the rescue attempt. Eventually, the rescuers met another group of the immigrants who had decided to try to walk out of their trap; among them were Reed's wife and two of their four children).

Mr. Reed, seeing his wife and children somewhat invigorated by the food they had received, pushed on with his party for the cabins, in the most dreadful state of anxiety in regard to the situation of his two children......

Two days after this, they saw the top of a cabin, just peering above the silvery surface of the snow. As they approached it, Mr. Reed beheld his youngest daughter, sitting upon the corner of the roof, her feet resting upon the snow. Nothing could exceed the joy of each, and Mr. Reed was in raptures, when on going into the cabin he found his son alive....His party immediately commenced distributing their provision among the sufferers, all of whom they found in the most deplorable condition. Among the cabins lay the fleshless bones and half eaten bodies of the victims of famine. There lay the limbs, the skulls, and the hair of the poor beings, who had died from want, and whose flesh had preserved the lives of their surviving comrades, who, shivering in their filthy rags, and surrounded by the remains of their unholy feast looked more like demons than human beings. They had fallen from their high estate; though compelled by the fell hand of dire necessity like messengers of Heaven, did Mr. Reed and party appear in the eyes of the unfortunates. They moved about dispensing their supplies, frequently arriving in time to push from the lips of sufferers the unnatural food, which they were subsisting upon. At one cabin they found children devouring the heart and liver of their father; they were even then tearing the raw flesh with their teeth, not having patience to cook it, and their chins and bosoms were deluged with the blood. Another family had sent to borrow a leg from the body. This strange loan was made, but with strict injunctions not to send for more, for it could not be spared.

To Mr. Reed this was a horrid sight. Among the bones and skulls that filled the camp kettles, he saw the remains of many an old well-tried friend......

(Reed's party took some of the starving emigrants back to the rescue expedition's base camp, but could not persuade its leader, Midshipman Woodworth, to return for the rest.)

Mr.Woodworth and party, when gazing upon the pale and emaciated forms of emigrants and saw depicted, upon their countenances evidences of the most intense suffering and pictures of privation and danger that must be surmounted in order to reach and alleviate the sufferings of the poor emigrants, they quailed before the prospect and refused to move one step without a pilot.....Two days they remained in camp, when driven to desperation by the utter carelessness of Mr. Woodworth in regard to the relief of the poor people, a large majority of Mr. Reed's party stepped forth and volunteered to guide Mr. Woodworth and his men to the mountains.....They went, and on arriving at the head of Juba valley they found the party that Mr. Reed had left. Three persons were dead, and the survivors were subsisting upon the dead bodies. Making necessary arrangements for this party to proceed to Bear river, the company proceeded to the cabins, where they found six more had died since Mr. Reed's departure. Gathering the survivors together, they cached all the effects of the company, and returned to Bear valley. And now, after three months of starvation, amoung the snow capped mountains, the survivors of this unfortunate company are filling the soil, beneath the perpetual summers of the valleys of California.....

Those who perished, are: George Donner, Jacob Donner, Mrs. Jacob Donner, Mrs. George Donner, Wm. Donner, Isaac Donner, Lewis Donner, Samuel Donner, Bailis Williams, Milford Elliott ; James Smith and John Denton, of Sangamon Co., Ill; Mr. Graves, Mrs. Graves, Francis Graves and Jay Fausdick of Lacon, Ill.; C. F. Stanton, Chicago,Ill.; Patrick Dolin, Iowa; Lemuel Murphy, Mrs. Murphy, Landren Murphy and Catherine Pike of Tennessee; Antonia, New Mexico; Mrs. Eddy, J. P. Eddy and M. Eddy of Belleville, Ill.; George Foster, St. Louis, Mo.; B. Kiesburg, L. S. Kiesburg, Mr. Reneheart, G. Berger, and Mr. Spitzer of Germany; Samuel Shoemaker, Springfield, Ohio; Harriet McCutchem, Mo.; Lewis and Salvador, two Indians boys belonging to Capt. Sutter.....

Click here for an in-depth study of The Donner Party.


CopyrightęSangamon County ILGenWeb - State Journal-Register, 27 Sep 1999