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Martha J. Lewis Collection
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Collection Details
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  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Chronolgy
  • Collection Scope and Content Summary
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Martha J. Lewis collection
    Dates: 1826-1951
    Bulk Dates: 1846-1926
    Collection number: Consult repository
    Creator: Lewis, Martha Jayne
    Collection Size: 4 cubic feet
    Repository: California. Department of Parks and Recreation
    Sacramento, CA 95814
    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 survived.

    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 Guide to the Sutter’s Fort Collection of Donner Party Material. Contact Sutter's Fort State Historic Park for more information on this guide.
    Physical location: Sutters Fort State Historical Park, Sacramento, California
    Languages: Languages represented in the collection:


    Administrative Information


    The collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    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.

    Preferred citation

    [item], Martha J. Lewis Collection, Sutter's Fort State Historic Park, Sacramento, California.

    Related materials

    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 The Researcher's Guide to Sutter’s Fort's Collections of Donner Party Material.   for 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 The Researcher's Guide to Sutter’s Fort's Collections of Donner Party Material.  
    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 emigrants.
    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 correspondence. Consult The Researcher's Guide to Sutter’s Fort's Collections of Donner Party Material.   for a 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, California.
    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 http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/ebind2html/2/breen?cap.
    The Bancroft 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 http://catalog.huntington.org/screens/libinfo_02.html.
    Lastly, scrapbooks 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 The Researcher's Guide to Sutter’s Fort's Collections of Donner Party Material.  

    Acquisition Information

    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, in the 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 collection.

    Processing History

    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 safety.
    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 grandchildren.
    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 “Patty.”
    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.


    April 14 The families of James F. Reed and George and Jacob Donner, 31 people in nine wagons, leave Springfield, Illinois.
    May 19 The party joins a large wagon train captained by Col. William H. Russell.
    June 18 William Russell resigns as captain of the wagon train, which is now led by William M. Boggs.
    June 27 The Boggs Party arrives at Fort Laramie, Wyoming and meet James Clyman, an acquaintance of Reed’s. They discuss a new route, the Hastings Cutoff.
    July 19 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.
    July 28 The Donner Party reaches Fort Bridger. Jim Bridger assures the Donner Party that the Hastings Cutoff is a good route.
    July 31 They leave Fort Bridger. The group now numbers 74 people in twenty wagons.
    Aug. 28 The emigrants begin the dry drive across the Great Salt Lake Desert.
    Sept. 4-9 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 supplies.
    Sept. 26 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.
    Oct. 5 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.
    Oct. 15-30 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.
    Oct. 30-Nov.4 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.
    Nov. 5-Dec.5 Reed and McCutchen attempt to reach their stranded companions but are forced back by the snow.
    Dec. 16 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 Hope.”
    Dec. 21 Jacob Donner, and three others die at the Alder Creek camp.
    Dec. 25-29 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 cannibalism.
    Jan. 18-20 Seven survivors of the Forlorn Hope reach safety at Johnson's Ranch in Wheatland, California.
    Feb. 18 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.
    Mar. 1 The second relief party led by James Reed arrives at the lake camp. The rescuers find evidence of cannibalism.
    Mar. 3 Reed leaves the camps with 17 emigrants including his children Patty and Tommy Reed.
    Mar. 5-7 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."
    Mar. 12 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 camps.
    Mar. 13 Eddy and Foster’s party arrive at the lake camp. They find their sons are dead.
    Mar. 14 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 travel
    April 17 William Fallon and the Fourth Relief party reach the camps, finding only Louis Keseberg alive among the mutilated remains of his former companions.
    April 29 The last member of the Donner Party, Louis Keseberg, arrives at Sutter's Fort.
    Source: 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 drawings.
    The material in this collection has been arranged into the following series:
    • 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

    Indexing Terms

    Personal Names
    • 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
    • California--History--1846-1850
    • California--Pioneers
    • Donner Party
    • Historic sites--California