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Martha J. Lewis Collection
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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.
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.Source: New Light on the Donner Party, by Kristin Johnson, copyright 2005, http://www.utahcrossroads.org/DonnerParty/
4 cubic feet
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.
The collection is open for research.