James F. Reed

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James Frazier Reed
James F. Reed with wife, Margret
Born (1800-11-14)November 14, 1800
County Armagh, Ireland
Died July 24, 1874(1874-07-24) (aged 73)
San Jose, California

James Frazier Reed (November 14, 1800–July 24, 1874) was a businessman, soldier and, most notably, an organizing member of the ill-fated 1846 Donner Party emigration to California.

Early life[edit]

Reed was born in County Armagh in Ireland, reputedly of noble Polish stock. After the death of his father, Reed emigrated with his mother to the United States. Once there his mother sent him to live with a family member in Virginia where he worked as a clerk in the family store. In about 1825 Reed moved to Illinois where he took an interest in mining. While living in Illinois Reed ran several businesses and took part in the Black Hawk War[1] of 1832, serving with Abraham Lincoln. He married Margret Keyes Backenstoe, a widow with a baby daughter, in 1835. The couple had four more children in Springfield: Martha Jane (called Patty), James F. Reed, Jr., Thomas Keyes, and Gershom Francis, who died as an infant. Reed never formally adopted Margret Reed's eldest daughter, Virginia Elizabeth Backenstoe, but she went by the name Virginia Reed.[2]

The Donner Party[edit]

In 1845 Reed decided to head west to California and organized a small group which left the Springfield area in the spring of 1846. The other members were George Donner and his brother Jacob, along with their families and hired hands. Each head of household had three wagons. In addition to two supply wagons, Reed had a particularly comfortable one made for his family to ride in, which has since become legendary.[3] The Reeds and Donners left Springfield on April 14, 1846, and on May 19 joined a large wagon train led by William H. Russell.

While camped in Wyoming the Reeds, Donners, and several other families decided to take a new route, Hastings Cutoff, and elected George Donner captain, creating the Donner Party. They separated from the other emigrants on July 20. While crossing the desert west of the Great Salt Lake Reed was forced to abandon two of his wagons after losing nearly all his oxen. The Donner Party re-joined the California Trail near Elko, Nevada, on September 26, having taken three weeks longer than the traditional route.

On October 6, while traveling along the Humboldt River, Reed became embroiled in a quarrel between two teamsters and in the ensuing fight stabbed John Snyder to death.[4] The other emigrants decided to banish Reed; initially he refused to accept their decision, but finally agreed to go ahead to Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley for supplies. After a difficult journey, during which he nearly starved, Reed reached the fort on October 28. After two days' rest, he attempted to take provisions back to the wagon train, but deep snow blocked the way. The early onset of winter had trapped the Donner Party in the Sierra Nevada. They contrived shelter, hoping to resume their journey, but were forced to spend the winter in the mountains. They were already low on supplies and had to slaughter their oxen for food. As the winter wore on, many of the emigrants starved to death; some resorted to cannibalism.

In the meanwhile, Reed, now stuck in California, tried to organize another relief expedition but turmoil from the Mexican-American War not only disrupted his efforts but forced him to take up arms. On January 2, 1847, Reed participated in the Battle of Santa Clara.[5] While in the area, Reed took steps to secure land for himself in Santa Clara, where he would eventually bring his family.

In early February 1847 the citizens and naval officers of San Francisco funded a rescue party. Its leader was Selim E. Woodworth, a naval officer, with Reed as his second-in-command. Reed rounded up men and supplies in the Sonoma and Napa valleys north of San Francisco Bay, then headed up into the mountains. Reed met his wife Margret, his stepdaughter Virginia, and son James Jr. coming out of the mountains. After an emotional reunion Reed and his men continued on to the camp where his remaining children, Patty and Thomas, were still stranded. Reed brought a party of emigrants from the camps, but a severe blizzard trapped them at the top of Donner Pass for two days, during which the party ran out of food. When the storm ceased, most of the refugees were too weak to continue. Reed departed with his children, but was forced to leave the others behind; a few days later, however, another rescue party arrived and brought them out.

Later life[edit]

Reunited, the Reed family recuperated in the Napa valley for many weeks, where Reed served briefly as sheriff of Sonoma. In 1847, Reed took his family to revive the neglected orchards of Mission San José. He leased the orchards and in that summer gathered and dried pears, apples, figs and quince. These he shipped to Hawaii - trading for sugar, cocoa, coffee and rice.

In the spring of 1848, Reed joined the Gold Rush, finding rich diggings in the Placerville area.[6] Returning to San Jose in the fall of that year, he began an active community life. The family settled on a 500-acre ranch between First Street and Coyote Creek, in what is now downtown San Jose.

Reed became a real estate developer and also speculated in various mining enterprises. Subdivision of the Reed land in 1849 resulted in the naming of Reed, Margaret, Virginia, Martha, Carrie, Patterson, Lewis, and Keyes Streets in honor of Reed family members. The present day Reed School was named after Frazier O. Reed, a grandson of James Reed.[7] During the California statehood process, Reed was a leading proponent of a plan to make San Jose the capital of California, going so far as to donate four city blocks to the cause.

In 1856, gold was discovered in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains and Reed once again set out to do some prospecting. Taking two of his sons, Reed leased a mining claim from Rancho Zayante owner Isaac Graham, on a tributary creek of the San Lorenzo River. The area never produced much gold, but the area near present-day Felton still became known as "Gold Gulch".[8]

James Frazier Reed died in San Jose on July 24, 1874, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.


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